What the #Zen Kitchen Taught Me.


As the sun poured itself in squares and oblongs on the floor mirroring windows which wrapped around the rock and wood kitchen I stood washing great pots and pans. Two huge metal sinks full of cooking devices used to feed one hundred hungry people who came to the Zen Center at the end of the world expecting enlightenment and great food.

Seeking is hungry work.

Some days I stood at the sink for hours washing giant metal spoons and wooden bowls and super hot ten gallon pots as fast as I could move them except for the moments when I had to dump the water in ten pound water buckets from a pan in the garden. The walk balancing these buckets down steps, through a series of doors and out to a winter patch of frozen dirt never got easy.  But no water could go down the sink. Wasting is not the business of Zen.

I thought working in the kitchen would be romantic service. I could smell the food, stir the pots of soups, clean up the long rustic wood tables and stock the spices. But it was not romantic. The chef was an ego maniac and her minions matched her lust for praise. As they met to ponder the menu I was told to stay in silence, my ideas were not welcome. When the time for preparations came I was sent to the huge freezer to schlep in items which half the time I schlepped back out without them ever being used, but the worst of it was the silence which applied only to me. I was not to speak, nor sing nor smile. Dishes found their way to the sink by being tossed so that they splashed in waves up my arms and in my face. I was not trusted nor appreciated. Not spoken to or even of. When the kitchen staff lined up to greet the guests I was told to keep cleaning, the same when after the meal the staff received a round of applause.

I wondered for weeks if I had earned this in some way, had said something I shouldn’t have or made some error I could not calculate. I wondered if it was part of my Zen training to release my ego and let go of expectations or the need for notice. I mediated, I cried and I tried to stick with it. My back aching, my hands stiffening up so that grabbing my tooth brush in the morning was painful, I thought, this is destroying my peace of mind and ability to be in my practice. During meditation my mind raced with thoughts of how or why I deserved this brand of suffering. Staying in the moment even on the walks which kept me grounded became harder and harder. I could not wrap it into my practice. I needed to speak with an elder, someone to guide me.

In going to my “work leader” I explained everything and began crying. He put out his hand to me, “You don’t have to do it. If house keeping makes you happy then that’s the best place for you. It is okay to have a place. It’s okay to say something does not work. We just must be honest with ourselves when we do this. If you are making up a story about how no one likes you, or how you are not adequate or that the kitchen staff is bad then you must work through that, but if you simply do not want to do it and you know that’s true, then don’t do it. Environment can be stronger than will.”

That simple. He moved me back to house keeping and by the next day my joy returned.

Often times we make things hard. The truth is often simple. I did not get along with the kitchen staff. They had a clique and a way of doing things and they didn’t feel like opening up the circle to me. Even Zen centers have people with ego and ladders with rungs. Where there are people there are these things. When I left the kitchen another woman who had years of kitchen work experience stepped in and had a great time. She had been in house keeping and hated it because it is solitary work and no one sees you..the precise reasons I loved it. So we traded and everyone was happy again.

We can’t always have such clean and quick answers but we don’t have to make up reasons when the truth is so much simpler–we will not fit everywhere. Some relationships which we want to work will not, some jobs will not interest us even if we try and some people will not be our friends. To spare ourselves agony it may be best to accept this and move on without a story about how we are not enough. When I was in the kitchen I felt certain had I been smarter, faster or better it would have worked out. I doubt it now. It’s hard to say why. It’s a lot like this blog. I write it and never know if anyone, anywhere will read it. It’s like yelling into a cave, I cannot see who may be there. I don’t know what will click . People spend time and money opening businesses only to close a short while later. They don’t often really know why it didn’t work.

So what are we to do? Given that we don’t know what will make us “successful”, whatever that is, perhaps it’s best to do what makes us happy then at least one person is getting something out of it. Happy can be defined as knowing why you are doing something–having purpose–and feeling rewarded in the doing. It’s the sensation of being in the zone where time passes and you can’t believe how long its been, where you could do what you’re doing all day without being asked.

My zone is direct mentoring. I will stop whatever I am doing to guide someone to what they want to do and help them figure out how. When the people I’ve worked with are successful I feel successful too. I also love the spoken and written word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I believe words create.

So create your peace and purpose, not your story about how something didn’t work because you are not enough. If it doesn’t work, fail faster, dump it and go to what can work. Once you find your zone and give yourself to it you will feel the difference in you. You will be successful.

If you need help doing that–then contact me–because that will make us both happy!



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