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Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: A Conversation with Dana Velden

Dharma Kitchen


Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: A Conversation with Dana Velden

Carrie H

When I stumbled across this book, which was just released a few weeks ago, I felt like I'd found a kindred spirit, a real soul sister. Dana Velden operates in the world of cooking and spirituality, and I am so grateful that her book has come into my life. The book is an outgrowth of her popular column on the Kitchn, Weekend Meditation, and is full of real-world ways to bring mindfulness to the life of the kitchen. This isn't necessarily about stopping what you're doing to meditate at the kitchen counter—although it might be—but instead, seeing the kitchen and all its attendant activities as a metaphor for life, as a way to engage our curiosity, awaken our sense of joy and gratitude and stay open and receptive. Velden's fine attention to focusing on one thing and graceful turns of phrase—plus the smattering of simple recipes—reminded me of M.F.K. Fisher, an icon in food writing. I asked Velden so many questions and could have talked to her all afternoon—her thoughts on how food and hospitality can change our relationships with each other is simple without being Pollyanna-ish but extremely powerful. And there are aBut I want to save some surprises for you, dear readers. Here are some highlights. (Thanks to her publisher, Rodale, for seeing this up.)

I asked Velden, who resides in Oakland, California, when she began to feel the connection between mindfulness and the world of the kitchen. It wasn't one of those stereotypical moments you hear about, where you "plunge into" enlightenment, as she puts it. (Those certainly do happen.) "I always loved cooking and cooking for other people, and its results," she says; it was long part of her DNA. She also lived and studied for 15 years at the San Francisco Zen Center and spent time in silence and meditation. "You settle. The frantic hum of daily life subsides, and mindfulness rises as a natural expression," she says. Whether that means the task is cleaning or cooking meals or administrative office work at the Zen Center, you are focused solely on that one responsibility. It automatically becomes a more centering activity, if you are bringing your whole self to it. Besides, for Velden (who is a Zen priest) the type she practices is Soto Zen. "It's quieter, like walking on a foggy night and then suddenly noticing your clothes are damp. Some people need the fog; others need to plunge in." 

Velden's book is full of small but deeply revealing insights, such as the idea that when you step into the kitchen to prepare a meal, "you cook as much with the circumstances of your life as you do with every other ingredient." Whether that means bringing the worries and anxieties of tomorrow, or elation of something wonderful that happened to you that day, it's all there. "Just pay attention to it, and work with the circumstances. For example, if you are having a quiet day, have a quiet meal," she says. It's so simple and obvious that many of us forget to pay attention to the moods we bring to the table. Or the stove. 

As for incorporating meditative activities into kitchen life, Velden is full of ideas. Early in her book she suggests the idea of a ten-minute tea meditation. Wake up in the morning, make a cup of tea, and sit and notice. Look out the window. Listen to birds. Observe. Let your thoughts surface and pass without judgment. It's a brilliant, approachable way to bring mindfulness into your life, especially if this sort of activity is an alien concept. It's a manageable ten-minute window. "One of the biggest challenges of taking on a practice is that you have to stay with it. The effects are subtle but powerful. You are engaged in a process. Just set your intention, and do your best to follow it. If you fall off, just hop back on as soon as you can, without judgment," she suggests. These sorts of activities—meditation, yoga, any kind of spiritual practice—can rewire you without you even realizing it's happening. (Tea is already part of my life; I have been trying to take this approach, with mixed results.)

That's a more active engagement with meditation, but these sorts of opportunities permeate kitchen life. I asked if she had a favorite grounding activity in the kitchen because she writes about the simple pleasure of chopping vegetables for a soup or a stew. "The prep work brings you there, standing in once place; the ingredients make you more present. But it's no more meditative than making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Mindfulness is remembering to pay attention. You're not off the hook if you're just making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," she says, laughing. 

Still, we are all human, right? We have our off moments and issues; no one escapes the challenges of what to cook for dinner, what to do with a disorganized pantry and other compromises and challenges. And in the kitchen, there are lots of opportunities for all sorts of emotions to come up that may potentially throw us off our game. She writes, "What do we do with our feelings when we are caught in the middle of feeling them?" It may be challenging to have unpleasant emotions such as anger arise while cooking; it may or may not be an appropriate time to express it. The kitchen is a good place to practice how you work with the "tricky" emotions.  

Her biggest challenge isn't one of the mind but a much more mundane issue. "I have such a hard time keeping my floors clean. My kitchen has an old linoleum floor," she says, laughing. She remarks that kitchens we see in the media are stylized for photo shoots. Real life involves piles and crumbs and dirty dishes. "Messes mean someone is working," she says. You just have to get in there.  "Once you get in there, let the kitchen work its magic on you," she says. I can feel her smile through the phone.