Cooking with love
In this article, LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE ignites our sense of wonder with his personal experiences of a deepening relationship with food over the course of his life. He also offers us some valuable tips in “The Practice of Cooking with Love.”
Let dharma be the same as food,
and let food be the same as dharma …
This food is the fulfillment
that is the joy of dharma and
the delight of meditation.
When I was in my teens and began to practice meditation, I also learned to cook. I have an instinctual belief that to prepare and cook one’s food with attention is an essential part of spiritual life that provides a necessary ingredient for the journey. When Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school, went to China to rediscover the roots of Zen, his most instructive meeting was with an old monk who was the chief cook of the monastery, who rebuked him for not understanding that cooking was a spiritual practice.
Maybe it was this ancient tradition that returned when, along with meditation, I learned to chop vegetables and bake stoneground bread. I had been brought up without any consciousness of food, in the English style of cooking, in which cabbage is boiled for twenty minutes until all the goodness has long gone. With my chopping board, knives and wok, I learned to bring attention to cooking and eating. It was also an excellent silent rebellion against my middle class family background. While everyone was eating their Sunday lunch of roast beef and roast potatoes, I was sitting at the same table eating a bowl of rice and vegetables with chopsticks!
I learned to cook with awareness, with a sense that food is not just something we eat but also part of a spiritual practice, a sense that cooking and meditation go together, bringing outer and inner purity. Through being attentive to the preparation of our food, we bring an awareness into a basic substance and sustenance of life. Just as being aware of the breath is central to spiritual life, reconnecting us with life’s essence, so is the simple art of cooking. What is more satisfying than a bowl of rice and vegetables that you have prepared and cooked with attention – what is a greater gift to a visitor and friend?
Then one day in my late twenties, I discovered something very different about cooking. My teacher invited me to a meal she had cooked, simple Indian fritters with rice and chutney. And I tasted love. I had never known that one can taste love, but after that meal my understanding of cooking changed completely. Yes, attention as one chops the vegetables, as one stirs the pot, is vital, but there is another ingredient that adds a totally different dimension to a meal – love.
If in my childhood there was little consciousness about food, there was no awareness of love. And to be given a plate of fritters and rice in which love was the central ingredient and the main taste was revolutionary. Even the idea that one can taste love was something altogether new. Other people may have known this all their lives, known the sweetness of a cake that comes not just from the sugar, but it opened worlds to me.
Is there a technique for cooking with love? I do not know, except that it happens. Maybe it happens when, as with the old cook who taught Dogen, cooking becomes one’s “practice of the Way.” My teacher had studied with a Sufi master in India and learned the secrets of love, and how to work with love. Her cooking was an expression of her training and practice. But from this one meal I learned something so simple and wonderful: that one can put love into food that then nourishes both the body and the soul. This new ingredient now became central to my cooking.
There are wonderful spiritual practices for cooking. One can cook with mindfulness and attention, as in the Zen tradition. One can say a mantra or dhikr when one prepares a meal, so that the food is infused with remembrance of God. But love is a simple expression of the heart. It does not require special training, only an awareness and offering of the love in one’s heart. And the food responds. The food knows that it is loved and it passes on this gift to the one who enjoys the food. A deep sharing then takes place, as if an ancient magic is part of the meal.
So now, when I cook, I remember that meal of rice and fritters, I remember love. Of course sometimes I just make and eat an omelet, grill a piece of fish, and maybe I am not even consciously attentive. But if I am present in my heart as well as my fingers, then love can be present, love can be the secret ingredient of a meal. This is one of the reasons I rarely eat at restaurants. The food may taste good, but this central ingredient is hardly ever present; something essential is missing. And love is what speaks to us, both on a cellular level and in the soul. It nourishes our body on all levels.
How to cook with love is for each of us to discover, because our heart is unique to each of us, just as the song of our soul is unique to each of us. And yet love is also the primary substance of life; it connects us with the divine Source of all that exists. And for me, one meal cooked with love was an experience of a lifetime. Forty years later I can still taste it.
THE PRACTICE of COOKING with LOVE
Food and love are two of the most vital forms of human nourishment. Combining them is a simple but essential practice.
Love is alive. It is so much more than just the feeling we call love; it is the animating force of life, working according to principles far vaster than our own lives. When we feel it moving, most of us try to grab on to it or chase after it, make it our own. But it is the very nature of love to move and flow. The more it flows, the more it serves. It grows as it is given.
Cooking with love is natural, because through cooking we give. Cooking and serving food are two of the most ancient and basic human gifts. We serve those who eat the food with the Earth’s sustenance – Its gift – as well as with our time, effort, care, and attention. Through this gift we are in turn given the opportunity to consciously reconnect with the foundation of life.
To practice cooking with love, begin with the trust and confidence that love is accessible and can be worked with. Without this fundamental understanding, love will not be drawn in, cannot season, or nourish. Cultivate the trust that love is always available to an open heart, and that through our loving attention we can create ways for love to flow.
As you prepare to cook, let your heart open to love. Let yourself feel – love comes in on feeling. A simple way to begin to access love in the kitchen is to cook for people you love – your friends, your family, your partner, the person you’re in love with – allowing your feeling for them to infuse the process. We experience love most familiarly in the love we feel for others and from others, the feelings of affinity and affection or passion that bind human beings together. Even if you are cooking just for yourself, you can bring love in, drawing on the same kindness and compassion of love that you would bring to others. This love is not self-regard, but a real, needed nourishment for the body and soul.
As love animates all of life, it is not limited to our love for one another and ourselves. It can be found everywhere, in everything. It is abundantly present in the ingredients we use in our cooking, and we can access it simply through bringing our open attention to them as we work. Begin by slowing down – don’t rush. Give yourself time and space to cook. Look closely at the ingredients you are using. Consciously touch and smell them. Recognize the bright beauty of the carrot; the symmetry of a cauliflower; the mysterious, universal swirl of a fiddlehead; the simple wonder of an egg. Breathe in the scent of the herbs and be conscious of their unique properties – how one can revive your liver and another soothe your stomach. Imagine the cow, buffalo, or chicken in the meat, milk, cheese, or eggs you are cooking, acknowledging the living animal whose life has become part of your food. Feel the love from the Earth that has made all this bounty available to you.
The love that gives life to all things also comes alive through your hands. It is accessible through the simple awareness and care you bring to chopping the vegetables, stirring the pot. As you work, bring the feeling from your heart into your hands, from your hands into the food. Love is alive; it wants to flow, and through your attention you can participate in directing its flow.
Be attentive to the offering that this act of cooking is. As you pepper the stew to refine the taste, be aware that you are creating something to give, to feed, and share. Reaffirm the fundamental generosity of the Earth – how it not only keeps us alive but gives us pleasure and enjoyment through our senses of smell and taste, and how through cooking you are participating in that generosity.
In our modern world we have almost entirely lost this direct relationship with food. But food links us together and to the Earth, and cooking can help us become more conscious of this essential gift of love. Everything that is part of cooking – from the fire of the stove and the herbs we season with, to the water or wine we pour – invites us to consciously participate in this circle of life that both gives and receives. The more we recognize that we are part of this wholeness, not separate from it, the more love can flow with and through us.
The world needs love. It needs love to flow like water, to be breathed like oxygen. Love can be savored, as it nourishes us in hidden ways. Love is like a key ingredient in a recipe that only the grandmothers remember. And yet it is here with us, waiting to be used, simple – like salt on the shelf. It is the most fundamental ingredient of all of life.
Reprinted with permission from Spiritual Ecology: 10 Practices to Reawaken the Sacred in Everyday Life. www.spiritualecology.org © 2017 The Golden Sufi Center, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee & Hilary Hart.
Article by LLEWELLYN VAUGHAN-LEE
Main illustrations by JASMEE RATHOD
June 29, 2020
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