Becoming a Mindful Chef

The Magnolia Grove Meditation Practice Center near Batesville, Mississippi held a cooking retreat on March 10-12 entitled Happy Kitchen, Happy Me. The beloved community of Buddhist monks and nuns at the monastery often hosts lay guests and Buddhists wishing to enhance their practice in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Living mindfully in the practice includes cooking and eating.

The ringing of bells punctuates every transition in the schedule at Magnolia Grove to create moments for mindfulness.

I arrived to Magnolia Grove with a thirst for knowledge and persistent anxiety from the horrors happening in national government and recent stressors at work. The weekend retreat offered me a chance to learn more about vegan cooking and eating from the monastics and to take a break from the world with frequent guided meditation while sitting, resting, walking, eating and cooking. The monastics’ mindfulness training includes a reverence for life in awareness of the suffering caused by the destruction of life. They commit to cultivating the insight of intervening and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals.  They are determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in their thinking, or in their way of life.

In 1967, the year before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for a Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to peace and nonviolence.

Mindfulness practice emphasizes conscious breathing and self-awareness through meditation. Eating in mindfulness reminds us we are fortunate to eat food and to eat with a community of practice.  At every meal at Magnolia Grove, the community waits for all to be served before a bell rings three times inviting everyone to eat. Diners eat in silence for the first 20 minutes. During that silence, all are encouraged to chew their food with all their being, to be aware of the food they chew, and to not let their minds be occupied by anything else. Chewing every mouthful of food at least thirty times allows saliva to aid the digestive process and the stomach to tell the brain that it’s full. Constant attention and awareness of  every bite shows gratitude for the brothers and sisters eating with you and supports the practice of mindfulness. When a bell strikes twice at the end of 20 minutes, everyone may talk, stand, or take more food.

Seating on the floor of the meditation hall is prepared for a dharma sharing circle.

While the guided meditation greatly benefited my sense of well-being during the weekend, I found some forms of meditation more difficult than others. Seated meditation sessions often lasted up to 45 minutes. Sitting in a lotus position or other cross-legged style on a pad may sound comfortable, but keeping one’s body in a rigid position for that long actually requires a lot of strength. My legs and back began to cramp after about 25 minutes of focused breathing. Sitting in silence while eating meals with a large group of people feels awkward, but doing so keeps the focus on the present moment. The monastics also believe that one can cook mindfully by taking the time to be present in every moment of the task. The monastics promised:

You will not only learn how to cook, but also to eat and enjoy it in a way that nourishes your body and mind fully. When we know how to nourish ourselves, we will be able to cultivate joy and happiness.

As I grow older, finding ways that food can connect us to each other becomes more important to me. Sister True Practice shared a personal story with us in the closing dharma sharing circle on Sunday. She recently took some time away from the monastery to visit with her brother’s family.  She took great pleasure in preparing vegan dishes for her family – particularly her young nieces. She noted that her teenaged nieces had not learned the art of cooking from their family. She uneasily observed their habit of pulling a pizza or other prepared food item from the freezer to pop into an oven rather than take the time to actually cook a meal from scratch.  Sister True Practice feared that her nieces were losing an opportunity to be present in the moment with their family. Lovingly preparing meals with and for her nieces was Sister True Practice’s way of strengthening relationships within her family. Mindful cooking isn’t hard. It just takes time.

Sunlight reflection in the floor projected from the rose window of the meditation hall.

I learned many lessons about mindfulness, breathing in, breathing out, and living in the now last weekend, but I also learned how to make delicious vegan food from the monastics’ live demonstrations. Watch the blog for many flavorful plant-based recipes in the coming days. I give thanks to the sisters and brothers of Magnolia Grove and other new friends for their love, care and teaching.

Recipes from the retreat on the blog:

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