On a sunny morning in downtown Singapore, we take a seat in half-shade outside a local farmer’s market hall. A moment before, we payed visit to the crowded neighbouring Buddhist temple, both to resort from the heat and to ease our mind for a moment. I close my eyes and realize how the sacred fragrance of incense sticks mingle with the mundane flavors of everyday life blowing across the vegetable stalls. A woman bowed down by age crosses the scene, carrying a small bag with today’s groceries. She pauses for a moment, carefully re-arranging her greens, when our eyes meet for a moment. She gives me a little smile and continues her walk down the narrow pedestrian’s road, presumably to cook her meal. And something in her cheerfully modest, yet versed attitude tells me that she might do so every single day.
About the concept of mindful awareness
When I first started to think about cooking as a mindful experience, I realized that we practice it already at times. We are mindfully aware when we carefully choose the crops for our family dinner – or our dinner for one. We feel present when the flavor of freshly picked apricots from the garden reaches our nostrils. And full of joy, we witness the magic of Now when the cheesecake we want to share with our loved ones comes out of the oven just perfectly in time. Our experience might not be „pure“ since many thoughts and emotions come along with it and catch our attention. Yet, our daily routines are a threshold to this very moment. I regard them as an ongoing invitation to look at things for what they are, not for what they should be instead. So, if the cheesecake isn’t just that perfect, that’s fine, too.
Eating & cooking are our daily routines, however humble or glorious. And we all have experienced moments of full attention without thinking of it as a mindful experience. Which it is nevertheless. The concept originally derives from Buddhism and found its way to Western psychology and medical science from the late 1970ies on. You might have heard of it in terms of MBSR (Mindfulness-based stress reduction), and today we find it as an attribute to many subjects. Which sometimes comes with a misunderstanding, because being mindfully aware is not about „improving“ or becoming „a better me“. It is a way of practicing non-doing and non-judging rather than a set of tools to finally reach those goals on our bucket list. If it is about bucket lists at all, it might be about questioning our longings and beliefs that might have lead to it.
The tricky thing is: We just can’t do or think or want nothing. Our thougts and feelings are always with us, and so are our attachments and rejections. I love to think about new recipes, and I have gone through whole sittings on my cussion, fantasizing about just that. The harder I try to reject those thoughts, the more happily they stay with me, building a whole realm of future recipes while I eagerly try to think of nothing at all (especially not about cheesecake). Which is ok in some regard. Because once we become aware of our mind’s always-busy nature, and once we are fine with that, we can start to not follow our thoughts and feelings. Watching them come and go, we can dive deeper into the experience of the moment to profit from the many healing capacities of being present.
Which is much easier with a little help. In spiritual traditions, mantras, mandalas and prayers are such means of focussing, to name but a few. In Buddhist philosophy, everyday life itself can turn into a way of practicing mindful awareness. The secular path also makes use of this idea by encouring practitioners to be fully aware while doing very basic and simple things, like breathing, walking, or eating. So we’re finally in kitchen – let’s stay here for a while.
The roots of mindful cooking
Mindful cooking is an attitude rather than a label. Like the concept of mindful awareness, it also has its roots in monastic traditions of different origin and is known by many names, the most popular of which are Buddhist temple cuisine and Zen cuisine.* While in some Buddhist traditions, non-vegetarian food is allowed, temple cuisine is widely known for being vegetarian or vegan. Dishes vary from humble to exquisit, depending on region, cooking traditions and not the least on the social context. Obviously, cooking mindfully means something else in a remote hermitage than in a huge monastery that welcomes guests on a regular basis or might be known for its culinary exquisiteness.
What they have in common is a dedication to cooking & eating as an act of loving kindness. It involves all sentient beings, from insects pollinating blossoms to the hands who grow and harvest the crops, to those that prepare the meal and share it at table. Preparing food is a cycle deeply rooted in nature, and thus it comes with many sustainability aspects like seasonal food, making use of the whole plants root to leaf, and many more. Also the transformative aspect of time is an important ingredient of temple cuisine – be it the contemplational effect of time spent with kitchen routines, or be it the wonders of fermentation, a sometimes yearslong process.
Many of these aspects have become a trend around the world. Reasons might be a beautiful mixture of cultural openness, culinary curiosity and environmental needs, as well as a new appreciation of our grandparent’s habits from gardening to foraging to home-fermenting. All of which might show that even in our late-modern world, we are not so far away from an ancient-old tradition, with also new interpretations and adaptations coming along with it.
Life is a recipe
It might deepen our experience if we know about the origins of mindful cooking – at least this is how I see it as a meditation practitioner. This being said, mindful cooking can of course also be experienced in a mundane fashion – it will have an effect on us either way. It starts here and now, at any given place, with any given cultural and personal background, and with any culinary preferences. We don’t need much kitchen equipment, no fancy ingredients, not even special cooking skills. Which doesn’t mean that pursuing virtuosity, using high-end cookery tools or learning new techniques will actually stand in our way. Let’s say it is a matter of motivation – the difference between the desire to impress and the wish to enjoy. Which is easier said than done if we want to strike a pose 😉 .
Yet, all we really need is attention. Word! However, if you are a bit like me, attention is all over the place more often than not, with so many things going on in daily business. In that likely event, a humble carrot (or whatever you have on the fridge) can make our day. Becoming aware of any given food’s look, smell, haptic and mouthfeel may change the game, if we do so intentionally and non-judgemental. For a moment, there’s nothing more to experience than just this carrot. And us.
Indeed, cooking mindfully is much about us. Looking at myself in kitchen, or at my sweetheart, my friends or my family preparing food, I sense some kind of synchronicity – we cook like we life. And vice-versa, like a friend mentioned lately on the occasion of a lovely walk in the park: we cook the life we want to live, be it colorful, adventureous, or cozy. Indeed, mindful cooking can be a means to take a closer look at our habits and our mindsets: Are we nervous or curious about the outcome of our curry? Do we pursue perfection in that set of staples handed down by our family for decades, or do we love to tongue-travel to unknown realms? Are we impatiently waiting for that kimchi to finally be fermented, or do we get thrills of happy anticipation? Maybe we experience all of this, each at a time, in different situations and in different moods. And if we take a fesh look at our kitchen-me, it might tell us one or two things about the lifes we actually live. Which is not about perfection (if I just could get rid of that idea of perfect vegan cheesecake…). It is much about imperfection and about the beauty in it. In Japan, the aesthetic concept of Wabi-sabi captures this philosophy in a wonderfully sensual way.
Apart from philosophy and psychology, mindful cooking has much to do with the cycle of nature and seasons that we are a part of. To me, this is even true all in the middle of the city: from wild herbs and edible blossoms in spring to late berries and nuts in autumn, the treasures of urban greens are my way to connect with nature. And there is more to it than just a little foraging: being mindfully aware of our food habits may lead us to the sustainability aspects of nutrition. Be it fairness in global trade, local consumption, ecological agriculture, plant-forward eatings, no-waste habits, food sharing and many more. Mindful cooking embraces the idea that climate protections starts with our choices as consumers, and that carrot we have been marveling at tells the whole story.
Life is a recipe, with a time to seed and to harvest its ingredients, a time to cook all that magic, and a time to enjoy and to share. Like in every good recipe, we always change a little thing here and adopt something new there, sometimes everything falls into place beautifully, and another day, some things go wrong. It is all part of the beautiful journey. Happy if you join mine for a recipe or two.
* As an ethnologist, I am well aware that also many other spiritual traditions all around our beautifully manifold world know ways of cooking as a transcendental practice. Like special treats for the “Festival of Breaking the Fast” in Islam, the traditions of Lanten fare in Christian monasteries, or Sabatt delicacies in Jewish cuisines. I hope to find out & write more about these and many more someday. However, as a homecook and as a meditation practitioner as well, I am personally more familiar with the Buddhist and Zen context, which is why I stick to their mentioning here for the moment being.