Babaji once wrote, “The main aim of life is to attain peace. On the land, we are doing various things, but underneath it, that is our main aim.”
The generosity and wisdom of this statement has been feeding me for the past many months as I have lived out my role as kitchen coordinator here at the centre. I return to that quotation again and again. I have a laminated copy of it posted on the fridge.
Attaining peace… Babaji doesn’t let us off the hook. Attaining peace is more than what we think it is. In the midst of this life with it’s demands and challenges, the ego’s projected version of peace is generally one of pleasure… sitting in a deck chair on “paradise island” sipping something fruity – far removed from “the things that bother ME.” Babaji make’s it clear that the peace of which he speaks includes both pleasure AND pain. That it is found when we stand up bravely in the context of our country, society, family and personal struggles, and choose to develop positive qualities regardless of our circumstances.
He says that the best way to attain this peace is through Karma Yoga. “It serves two purposes,” he says, “First it takes care of the world and second it creates non-attachment to the world.”
So what is Karma Yoga? For people who are called to a life of great meaning, it’s a way of attaining that. A way of emptying our life of its negativity by doing the things that we do – the daily tasks, obligations, opportunities, encounters, moments, distractions – without advancing a sense of self importance. It’s about caring for the world without personal attachment to that process.
At the centre, we have abundant opportunities to take care of the world. Providing a place for people to study, practice, be clean, warm and fed is an arena which takes great care… great practice.
For me, these days, that has meant working to uphold and celebrate the beautiful legacy of kitchen work which has been brought forward by hundreds of compassionate hands over the decades.
Through it all, I feel a yearning. I can’t let go of Babaji’s invitation. I’ve got to pick up on this opportunity to live the teachings. I’ve got to find out what that means to attain peace in the context of my daily tasks.
The days begin early. I like to check in with the kitchen first thing. It is clean and quiet as I begin to prepare for practice and Arati… melting the ghee on the stove. Placing the wicks in the lamp. Already, I’m working to connect with the presence… the quality of Selfless service that changes seemingly mundane tasks into the ultimate spiritual practice. I like Babaji’s suggestion (paraphrased): “Take your actions as though they were a duty.” I place the wicks in the lamp. I notice the sensations and smells of the hot ghee – the gold shimmer of the lamp.
Once morning practice is over, the daily meal practice begins to unfold. Looking at the clock, when should I start the oatmeal? I want to chop some fruit… how should I coordinate the timing? Who’s coming in to help me today and when? A subtle flurry of planning takes place, all in the context of this work as a duty. When I take it like that, there is ample interest and ability to make the food as naturally tasty and beautiful as it can be, but my sense of ownership drains away from the proceedings. My sense that “I’m gonna be somebody special by making this meal” doesn’t figure in to the arrangements. I find fairly quickly that it doesn’t need to – things are just happening, and the beauty of the process is allowed to show itself. If I’m worrying about life, I miss the smell of the oatmeal, the shine of the berries, and the golden hue of the granola. Once I put the food out, beyond getting a sense that the meal is meeting people’s expectations and needs, I don’t need to have any connection with it. I don’t need to see myself as “a chef”, or a “good cook.” The realization comes naturally that I don’t need to see myself as any-”thing”. There’s just this moment, unfolding.
I think some might hear the notion of “duty” and think that it means “cold and sterile.” On the contrary, I find that releasing experience from having to feed my ideas about myself frees it up! All the sights, smells and experiences of cooking are experienced fully. When I’m chopping cucumber that David has brought in right out of the garden, I’m delighted and amazed that we are to be nourished by local water, soil, weather, and hard work. I love their smoothness, and the way they separate into fresh, crisp chunks. Flaking the rice out of the pot after cooking, the steam carries a sweetness, and I’m entranced by its seemingly endless weather … sometimes it’s more moist than other days. Sometimes it’s drier. Sometimes it’s fluffier.
After a certain period of time preparing food, some dishes need to be cleaned. I collect them, placing them by the sink. I do so with as much care as I can muster. When I agreed to take on this role, there was a book in the Centre library that seemed to be calling out for me to read it. I was amazed to find that it was a translation of a five hundred year old text written by the principle cook of a Buddhist monastery. One of the key messages was to cultivate mindfulness and care in regards to kitchen equipment and ingredients. It says, (perhaps losing a little in the translation) “handle the equipment as though handling one’s own eyeballs.” “When you bang the pots around, don’t you hear them shouting in pain?” Bringing care to the movements of daily life in the kitchen is said to be very auspicious, crucial to creating a climate from which good food – and a good life – can emerge.
Being in the kitchen is like stretching out into an asana… there’s always something to learn, something to strive for, something to be present for. Indeed, also like asana, the task is to come to it regularly, and with the attitude: “This is my duty.” Then the learning, the witnessing, the breathing, the space is all abundantly available… there’s no energy going into the vitality-sapping vortex of “me and my story,” and the fullness of experience – the vitality of this moment – can express itself.
– Contributed by Raven