It was just one meal, but it changed my life. I was in my late twenties, a freelance photojournalist living in Hong Kong, and had accepted an assignment to photograph one of the first tour groups from the U.S. to enter the People’s Republic of China. I had requested vegetarian food prior to the trip, without knowing it was going to be a problem for the government tourist bureau. In every hotel, I was given the same meal. It consisted of a plate of cabbage, a dish of peanuts, and a bowl of white rice. I didn’t mind.
Each day I walked alone at dawn. One day I sat on a bench with a woman with bound feet, together watching a playful martial arts class in a park in Guangdong. Another day I photographed a lonely street cleaner in the silent mist that hung over a lake in Hangzhou. We both turned to listen to the sweet sound of a stringed instrument from a nearby music conservatory. During my two weeks in China, my camera became my eye. I took rolls of film and covered many miles. What I ate was of little interest.
Towards the end of the trip, we came to a small rural inn. It was similar to other inns we visited, clean and spare. The diningroom had bare wood floors and a shiny brass spittoon in the corner. I went upstairs to my room, and like the other inns, it was sparsely furnished with a single narrow bed, a stand with a pitcher of water and a bowl for washing one’s hands. A small window looked out onto a thicket of bamboo. I loved the simplicity of these inns.
At dinner time, I walked downstairs to meet the others. I didn’t expect anything other than the usual fare. The group was promptly served dishes of meat and rice. I waited for mine. It didn’t come. As the others were finishing, and I was about to fill up on their leftover rice, a cook came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of dishes towards my table.
A stunned silence filled the room. The food looked like a temple offering, with brilliant red, green and golden vegetables exquisitely arranged. There were now almost a dozen dishes glistening in front of me on the table. The cook, wearing a white apron over a faded t-shirt, bowed deeply before me. I nodded my head in gratitude, not knowing what to say. I was overwhelmed. I listened as he explained that the mushrooms came from the forest, and the greens were from a local farm. It was an honor, he said, to cook a vegetarian meal for me. He used to work in a Buddhist monastery, many years ago. He bowed again, and left. I shared the food with the others at my table and ate in silence. The food was saturated with love, and it was almost too much to bear.
That night, I slept fitfully. When I closed my eyes, I saw the cook bowing before me, over and over again. I shook my head to get rid of the image, but it kept returning, each bow like a wave of love, breaking open my heart. The next morning, I woke up bewildered. I had no place to put what had just happened, no context for this experience, and so I pushed it away. I told no one, not even my husband when I returned to Hong Kong.
A few years later, when I was pregnant with our first child, I interviewed the food and beverage manager of a four-star hotel in Hong Kong for a catering magazine. She was an elegant woman, a mother of two. After the interview, she gave me a tour. I saw the first of the many Buddhist altars I would later see inside hotel kitchens. There, near the kitchen door, was a niche with a Buddha, incense, and a bowl of oranges, only feet away from the chopping block and pots and pans. It startled me. How could the kitchen possibly be a holy place?
She instructed the chef to make me fresh almond milk which was, she told me, a traditional drink for pregnant mothers. She returned to her office, and I sat alone in the empty dining room. A few minutes later, the cook brought me a bowl of steaming, frothy, white milk. While I sipped the soothing milk, I pondered the kitchen altar. Its presence disturbed the careful boundaries I had constructed between sacred and mundane, between inner and outer worlds. The fact that food preparation, the slicing, chopping, and stirring, which had always seemed separate from the rest of life, was now in the same room as the sacred, threw my mind into a state of confusion. Remembering the Buddhist cook in China, I felt a sudden urgency to understand what was being shown to me. I finally grasped that the sacred and the ordinary are not separate. It was I who kept the two worlds apart. I didn’t know that nourishment is a mystery. In order to be nourished, by food, by life, we must claim our real nature.
Many years later I would hear from a friend in a workshop that I led, a dream that speaks of this mystery.
There are two fields of blue flax flowers, one on the right and one on the left. I am walking on the left, and one of the flowers speaks to me. “Every flower has a pattern, and every food has a pattern, just as every hunger has a pattern. If you know the pattern of the hunger, then you will know what food it needs, and this will give the hunger complete fulfillment.” And then I experienced the hunger pressing against the flower, with nothing left out. It was so full, so complete, a taste of the link between the hunger and the fulfillment of that hunger.
This dream cannot be understood by the rational mind. Like a Zen koan, it takes the dreamer into a deeper reality, free of the limitations of the conditioned mind. It is a glorious dream that sings of the deepest nourishment of the soul. Experiencing the completeness of nourishment opened the dreamer to a place within herself that could now nourish her outer life.
The blue flax flower speaks the language of the soul. To the dreamer, flax was an ancient, feminine plant, both sacred and practical. The oil of flaxseed was used for healing, its seed for food, its fibers for textiles. My friend explained that food had always been a struggle for her, not knowing how to nourish herself, finding it difficult to cook for her family. This dream changed her relationship to nourishment. Just as the flax flower honored the value of hunger, so could my friend now acknowledge her inner hunger. By accepting her own mystical nature, she would be nourished. This nourishment could now infuse her everyday life, allowing her to care for her family without cutting off a part of herself.
The longing for nourishment makes us vulnerable. It is much easier to be self-sufficient, and push away our hunger for meaning. I know from my own experience.
When my family grew, and there were two young children to feed with many hours in the kitchen, there was a time when I would cook quickly, without being attentive to anything else but the need to get a meal on the table. My life was too busy to think about being spiritual in the kitchen. It was my own way of avoiding the call of my own heart.
My inner hunger grew insistently stronger. Each morning, as I walked into the kitchen to make breakfast for the family, it would appear as a discontent, a loneliness, a fleeting sorrow for no reason. But day after day, I continued to do what I always did, which was to operate in the kitchen with efficiency and at high speed. I did this until I could no longer bear the intensity of feelings that rose up inside of me. One dark winter morning, I walked into the kitchen and knew it was over. I gave up. I could no longer make breakfast. Leaning against the stove, looking out my kitchen window at the shadowy presence of the redwoods in the distance, the tears began to flow. Life had lost its meaning and I could no longer push my way through its emptiness.
It was the first time I prayed in the kitchen. I realized that I wanted to know how to love, even in difficult circumstances. I had failed to do so. And so I asked, silently, to be shown how to love, even in the kitchen.
This was the beginning of a life practice of weaving the two worlds together. For me, this started right where I was, in the arena of the kitchen. I became attentive to my thoughts as I cooked. I couldn’t change them, but they became an offering, just like those Buddhist offerings in the kitchens in Hong Kong. Instead of judging what I felt, I gave space for the feelings I had for so long shoved away. The more I included, the easier it was to cook, the easier it was to love. Love entered where I least expected it. It was available, accessible, and I knew it was to be given freely to my family at a time when it was much needed.
I invite you to stand for a moment in your own kitchen, without distraction. Be aware of your breath, of your heart, of your hands that will do the chopping, and your feet that touch the earth. No matter what comes up, just make it the offering you have today. It is just you, as you are. It is enough. There is an old Sufi prayer:
“I offer Thee the only thing I have, my capacity to be filled by Thee.”
It is a prayer of emptiness, of surrender. We don’t have to be anything special, or do anything interesting. Just be ourselves. This is how we open to nourishment. It is the hidden stream inside of our daily lives. It is present in the care that we take as we prepare food for ourselves or others, or as we take time to eat without rushing.
I met a man recently who told me that he had five hundred cookbooks. Astounded, I asked him if he uses them all. He said that he has opened each book at least once, but no, mostly he doesn’t use them. He is not alone. Cookbooks are the best selling books in the country, and apparently, people are more likely to read from them rather than cook for themselves. This is fine, for some. But for those whose hearts long for a nourishment so intimate, so deep, to be a part of everyday life, then another way is offered. It is to accept the hunger of the soul, which for many people is intertwined with food and cooking. This is a seldom understood secret of nourishment. Sufis have always known that longing is a magnet that draws down the grace, or the fulfillment of our hunger. A thirteenth century Sufi, Ibn ‘Arabi, wrote:
“O Lord, nourish me not with love but with the desire for love.”
This way of being – outwardly cooking, while inwardly attending to the ways of the heart – is a recipe for real nourishment and shows how we can nourish ourselves and others, each meal, each day. And this way of being radiates far beyond the kitchen.