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My Practice: Listening to the Basil

A zen priestess shares how she brings mindfulness into her kitchen

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Photo Credit: marrakeshh/Thinkstock

Dana Velden is a zen priest who lived and studied for 15 years at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she was Tenzo (head cook). She has been writing for The Kitchn since 2008 and her new book Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook explores how to practice mindfulness to discover a more deeply experienced life. Here, she shares a simple practice that awakens all her senses in the kitchen:

“I brought home a huge bunch of basil from the farmers' market the other day. Even in that open-air, cacophonous market atmosphere, the intense smell of this basil hit me from 6 feet away and stopped me in my tracks. Vigorous and spicy, its leaves were thick and hearty, almost leatherlike. This was field basil, grown in the intense heat of California's Capay Valley where it was pulled up by its roots, bound into large messy bunches, and stuffed into pails of water for market day. I wanted to bring home an armload but I stopped myself at just one bunch. It now sits in a vase in the middle of my kitchen table, its feisty presence a reminder of the intense, fleeting nature of life. Pay attention! it demands. And I do.

We can spend a lot of time on autopilot in the kitchen. This is especially true if we're somewhat experienced cooks and are chopping our thousandth onion or reaching for a pot that has hung in that same place on the wall for 14 years. Our muscle memory automatically takes over, and we can move freely, almost unthinkingly, in a space that's familiar. This can be a pleasant, in-the-zone feeling but it's easy to cross over into a kind of fog where the simultaneously sensuous and dangerous nature of the kitchen is dulled. We're buzzing around the kitchen, our minds somewhere else, and then suddenly we slip and cut ourselves, or forget to add the garlic, or miss the opportunity to add that inspirational handful of chopped basil.

So it helps to have something around to remind us to be awake, aware, and engaged with our surroundings. This is where my bunch of basil comes in. It reminds me to pay closer attention to the senses that are usually more in the background, such as smell or sound. Once it has woken me up with its own wild perfume, I start paying attention to other kitchen aromas: What do those sauteing onions smell like--are they still sweet? Does their scent change when I add salt? And when a slightly bitter, acrid note arises (damn!), I know that I've let them burn.

Remembering to open up my senses also opens my imagination and I start exploring new territory. How interesting and full of possibility it is to smell peaches ripening on the table next to a bunch of basil. Can I combine the two for dinner tonight? A salad, maybe, or peach ice cream garnished with candied basil? Or perhaps a peach and basil salsa? Or compote?

I suggest looking for your own equivalent of a bunch of fragrant field basil. Bring it home and plunk it smack in the middle of your kitchen where you can't help but stumble over it. Allow it to remind you to engage all of your senses and to reap the rewards of a body and mind fully present to the perils and magic of life, both in and out of the kitchen.”

Excerpted from Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook by Dana Velden. Reprinted with permission.


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