Its been a few weeks since I’ve been home from Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Coming back to a familiar thick Florida air has made my transition somewhat easier. But there is something that stays with you after being nestled in a valley for almost 5 months, 14 miles from cell phones, computers and living life indoors. What stayed is what some call stillness. Its a feeling that comes and goes, but I will forever be touched by the waves of green mountains and the wisdom they shared with me.
My original plan for living at Tassajara was to learn and work in their well known Northern California kitchen. Theres a joke about the place actually being a food cult, not a Zen monastery. True or not, I have been inspired by the food and the preparation being a spiritual practice. During my time in the kitchen, I helped prepare food for the community of students and summer guests. As much as Tassajara is about delicious food, it was for our kitchen crew, about working in harmony together. “Harmony first,” the Tenzo, or head of the kitchen would say. Keeping this in mind allowed even dish duty to become another chance to step into the rhythmic dance of the kitchen.
The warm yellow walls, old wooden counter tops and exposed ceiling beams created the sacred space to prepare food for the community. Some days the dance was spent tearing gallons of lettuce for lunch, cracking 320 eggs (my personal record) for the next morning’s breakfast, making 10 trays of chocolate chip cookies or delicately chopping matchstick carrots for dinner. If you do anything enough times it can turn into a spiritual practice or test your patience beyond edges you never knew you had.
Living in a Zen community doesn’t allow for much alone time or privacy. Along with working and meditating together each day, all meals were shared together. The first 15 minutes of breakfast and lunch are taken in silence. Being allowed to just sit with my food, to observe it, take in its aroma, and to savor it fully became a healing ritual for me. Just taking moments to be with whats in front of me, especially food that is nourishing me, I found to be a simple act of kindness I could give myself each day.
After the 15 minutes, the sound of wooden clackers broke the silence and swell of voices and laughter wove through the screened dining hall. Meal time was also a special time for the community to eat and relax a bit together before heading back to work or evening meditation. At first, eating with 50 or more people brought up a lot of anxiety for me, it felt strange to sit down to food with people I didn’t even know. But soon I began to slowly release those anxieties and to be present with the miracle of sharing food with the community
This is a rarity in our society today. Many of us eat alone, in the drive through, at a restaurant served by strangers, or sitting in front of the glow of the television. So getting to sit down with nothing to do but just be with each other and our food was an intense heart opening experience for me. There is something we lose as humans when the ritual of making food and sharing food becomes something else we don’t have time for. What we lose is our connection not just to where our food comes from or who prepares it for us, but our intimate connection to others we share this life with.
This brought up the question, “what is real nourishment?” Does it entirely come from the food we eat? Does eating organic, local, free range and non-GMO alone or on-the-go nourish the deepest parts of our beings? Maybe the missing piece is taking the time to share food with others. More often than not, the simplest acts end up being the most profound.
Part of me felt like after I left a Zen monastery, people would expect me to of have some sort of “enlightening” experience. Or that I would be all like totally “Zen-ed out.” But, I am realizing this practice led me to where I started from. I’ve spent all of my adult life seeking nourishment in food and learning where is comes from and how to grow my own. I have learned to grow plants for medicine and share the teachings of the plants with many others. My time at Tassajara, only deepened my internal knowing that, for me, true nourishment comes from the act of sharing food with others. Sitting down to enjoy what our hands have created and to sustain our life with its nourishment.
To many great meals, enjoyed with great folks,