Cooking Up a Life

I have never been good at strictly following a recipe. Unless I am trying a new and exotic dish calling for the flavors and techniques outside my experience, a Brazilian stew for instance or a Vietnamese appetizer, I tend to improvise. Even then, once I get familiar with the new technique or ingredients through practice, research or sampling flavors, then I will likely stray from exact measurements or find interesting substitutions. I have learned that rigidly following a recipe can lead to disappointing results. When the carrots are not sweet, the onion flavor too strong, or the flame of the grill is too hot will lead to an over cooked fish, a tasteless soup, and a casserole where most of the ingredients are masked. Failure to recognize “what is” makes for a bad stew.

The basic principle underlying the creation of a good meal or a harmonious life is the same: first, recognize the reality of what is and taking or not taking action accordingly. This requires knowing methods and techniques and acquiring skills through practice, experimentation …and making mistakes.  Then when we are presented with the ingredients before us, we know how to incorporate them into something that “works” whether culinarily or in meeting the practicalities of daily living. We trust the process of discovery, the unfolding and not just a static blueprint.

Our most basic tool is mindfulness- paying attention to what is present.  We rummage through the vegetable bin. We taste the carrot for texture and flavor. We check the pantry or freezer for stock and we pull the leftover morsels from the carcass of last night’s roast chicken. We snip herbs from the garden or find the first spring peas sweet and tender, a precious handful.  And what shall we make? What dish will hold and honor these treasures, coaxing them into a fine meal? We flip through a cookbook from the shelf or the old standbys etched into our brains and the circuitry of our hands.  We form a mental road map of where we are headed, but we watch for the interesting detours – an idea for a contrasting sauce or garnish that spikes the flavors and brings them to life.

The best foods are those that don’t use ingredients to cover up the essence of the other ingredients. The best foods achieve some harmony – either within themselves or in concert with other dishes. Slow mindful cooking enhances that possibility.

And can we cook up our life this way? Can we see what we have within us and around us and coax the best from all into harmonious existence?  Do we have the clarity and patience with ourselves to recognize what will makes the best life for us. Do we spend our time covering up those parts that are sour or flat or inflammatory by overdoing or over using one ingredient? 

Many of us, driven to achieve the outward forms of success- money, position, power, and appearance find that the recipe we are using to find satisfaction leaves us feeling empty and insatiable. The formulas prescribed by the media and popular culture for making a good life often need more than a little tweaking. Some of them are recipes for disaster. We go through the motions, but are disappointed because we have failed to attend to our internal perceptions, our intuitive knowing of what is best for us within the framework.  We put together a bunch of inferior ingredients and wonder why we don’t get the results we are looking for. We are too busy following the road to "success" to notice the surprise gifts that will cross our paths or are growing like wild flowers alongside us.

Our addictions such as work, exercise, rampant consumerism, alcohol, or even food can mask the reality of the ingredients of our present, "what is". As our vision and perceptions blur, we find ourselves making further decisions without a grounded understanding.  We move away from the vague but not fully experienced fear or sadness or fatigue that is the background chatter in our minds and bodies. What we will cook up will ultimately disappoint, even after an initial moment of anticipatory excitement or satisfaction.  The actions we take will fail to bring a lasting sense of satisfaction or purpose. We do the whole cycle again as long as we are not attending to all the pieces of ourselves and our world in a compassionate way.

Rigidity does not harbor or produce life. It is in some way the opposite of life. Change, flexibility and movement are the essence, the expression of vibrant life.  Recipes are guidelines and roadmaps. Pay attention to your surroundings and internal landscape and you will find the surprising ingredients, the curves of the road that compose the journey of a lifetime.

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