Monday, November 21, 2011

Giving Thanks Through the Practice of Cooking and Eating

Ah, Thanksgiving.  The one time of year I allow myself to comment on diet.

But I’m not going to belabor what you should or shouldn’t eat—truthfully, no matter what side of the fence you are on, there is always going to be someone on the exact opposite side (and even deeper into the field) than you are who will argue against you to no end.  Sorry folks, this argument is a waste of good air.

I do want you to think of how you are serving and eating.

“A kitchen is the best training ground or school for developing tolerance, endurance, forbearance, mercy, sympathy, love, adaptability, and the spirit of real service for purifying one’s heart and for realizing the oneness of life.  Every aspirant should know how to cook well.” ( Sivananda. The Practice of Karma Yoga.p.2)

Page 2.  Not buried half-way through.  Right up front.
[Full disclosure: Sivananda himself is very vehement about a vegetarian diet.] 

The Zen Master Dogen, who codified the rules for Zen monasteries, lists the Tenzo (the Cook) as one of the 6 high offices within the Monastery.  Only very highly practiced monks are allowed to occupy the position of Tenzo, as they are responsible for providing the sustenance which gives others strength and health to continue their practices.  And they give up their meditation time in order to provide this service to others.

The act of cooking is an act of service.  You are creating an offering to someone else.  As a cook, it is our duty to create what the guest wants, to the highest level of perfection we can.  This means you may very well have to compromise your personal beliefs so that you can best act in the service of another. 

This, my friends, is Karma Yoga.

If you do not eat meat, but your guests do, and they are expecting a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings, then the highest act of service you can render is to cook a tasty turkey.  You will have to taste it, because it needs to be seasoned well. Cultivate an attitude of friendliness and joy as you cook it. Remember that acts done in service, that is without attachments to the fruits of actions, does not result in negative karma.  This is directly from Krishna. 

On the other side, if your guests do not eat meat, do not force the issue.  Pick up a magazine or go on the inter web to find meatless alternatives.  You will also have to taste what you cook.  Tofu and saitan may be different and scary to you.  Get over it.  You don’t have to like it, but you need to make it taste good so those that do like it will enjoy it.

It has been my experience that trying your best to offer your guests what they expect is trumps the actual taste of the finished dish.  The act itself is the most meaningful.

Cultivating an attitude of service and gratitude for our guests is very difficult practice.  I cooked professionally for a very long time.  Stress, heat, yelling, and the attitude of “if it is not perfect you are worthless” is something I still struggle to control every time I walk into a kitchen, some eight years after I sent my last dish out from behind the line.  Quitting smoking was easier (at times) than finding peace while cooking.  It is a practice I consciously work on.  When I find myself getting annoyed or stressed in the kitchen, I do mental japa, or try to focus on those I am cooking for.  The key is to train yourself to identify that you are stressed, because you can’t do anything to change your mental state until you first can identify the state you are in.  Your asana practice gives you the physical strength to cook and regular meditation gives you the mental strength to cook.

Selfless service also means accepting all offerings which come to you. The Vedas state that gifts from superiors are always to be accepted.  Paramahansa Yogananda mentions in his Autobiography that he grew portly because he could not refuse all the offerings of food his disciples graciously bestowed upon him.  Krishna states: “Whoever offers Me with devotion and a pure mind (heart), a leaf, a flower, a fruit or a little water—I accept (this offering).” (Bhagavad Gita IX.26). Meat or no meat, cooked to our liking or not, if we are claiming to practice the science of yoga, then we have a responsibility to equally and graciously accept all offerings which are given to us.  We “serve the servant” with our acceptance.

Holiday gatherings are supposed to be about the company, the family, the gathering.  Bring your guests together through the act of cooking.  Raise your fork and glass with love and you will raise your spirits.

Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

And yes, we will spend some time in Mayurasana this week and next to help digest the gluttony.  I am not ashamed to say I will be taking seconds (read: thirds) on the pie, too!

Yatkaroshi yadashnaasi yajjuhoshi dadaasi yat;
Yattapasyasi kaunteya tatkurushva madarpanam.

“Whatever thou doest, whatever thou eatest, whatever thou offerest in sacrifice, whatever thou givest, whatever thou practiseth as austerity, O Arjuna, do it as an offering unto Me!”
 ~Bhagavad Gita IX.27 (Sivananda, tr.)

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