The Compassionate Kitchen: Book Review

Disclosure: I was asked to review the book by its publicist.

The Compassionate Kitchen: Buddhist practices for eating with mindfulness and gratitude by Thubten Chodron (Shambhala Publications) is a gentle, paced exploration of how to approach a very central aspect of our lives. It’s not the typical book on mindful eating, crammed with cheery ways of looking at food and upbeat approaches to savouring every morsel. I was relieved.

The truth about food is that it can be a tormenting dance at least six times a day with a lover we can’t be rid of or negotiate piece treaties. Having been on a few – many – a lot! – of diets and deprivations, I can absolutely attest to the reality that food and I cannot live with or without each other. 

Reading Thubten Chodron’s very disciplined yet gentle approach to exploring the intricacies of nourishing ourselves, I think I’ve had it all wrong. It’s not about the food. Well, it’s not ONLY about the food. It’s about the intimacy with which we approach the whole relationship of being with each other. While she opens with a generous portion of life at Sravasti Abbey and the title of the first chapter can seem daunting (Eating as Spiritual Practice), the theme is clear. See and know the net that gathers for you what you need to live. And that’s not just food.

 The motivation we bring to each action impacts its results, and eating is no exception.

Attachment makes our mind very narrow and self-centered: a mind filled with craving has no room for generosity.

Chapter 2: The Taste of Altruism: Our motivation for eating

Throughout the book, Thubten Chodron offers this refrain, which I have always held as the core of practice. In this age of quick-fix mindfulness, it’s an important foundation for practice. Our intention sets the tone for our path, yet it is a fragile vow given to being swept off in the torrent of negative emotions. The value of the teachings in this book is the constant reminders to return and refresh our motivations of awareness and kindness.

Most cultures treasure eating not only for its sensual pleasure but also because people bond by sharing food together. By nourishing each other with food and human connection, life continues.

Chapter 5: Mindful Eating

 The chants offered in the book are an interesting part of practice. In every Zen center I’ve practiced, it was my favourite time – perhaps only because it meant good stuff was about to happen! The chants in this book are more elaborate and expansive, yet they have a soothing quality that opens the heart and relaxes the craving mind. I admit, after trying a few chants, it seemed to require more dedication than I have at the moment. Still, I do believe that recitation together at a meal can have a positive impact. The sharing of our lives is more than happenstance and we quickly forget why we came together. Communal recitations of any kind can remind and refresh our intention for being together.

Chapter 10 is likely the most powerful and I sense a wisdom in walking us through the principles and practices of food as a relational process before bringing it home in this poignant and powerful way. In the chapter,  community members write about their relationship to food and their words are both painful and reassuring. 

Overall, I enjoyed having the chance to shift my vision of food and the roots of my relationship to it. What came as a surprise though was the realization of the “kitchen” as this flesh body, this world, these relationships we have with each other. For that I am most grateful.

on the selfie of self-compassion – part 2

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Here’s your ear worm: You’re no bunny ’til somebunny loves you!

And you may have to lose you head before you can apprehend it.

Strangely though all this is quite pertinent to our question of the self in self-compassion that I posted last week. If you scroll back to the post, the comments are well worth the read as they touch on the illusory self, the suffering self, and its need for compassion. There’s a pointer to the “True Self” and that is very interesting because we get into that tricky semantic process of “self” versus “Self.” All very worthy responses and, in particular, the suggestion that the Buddha actually never said there was no self.

So, at the retreat, my response to the question was the executive summary of all these comments. (I don’t remember exactly what I said but this is close enough.) We hold this belief that there is an absolute self, an agent in our lives that directs and orchestrates. When we look closely, we might be able to see that this self is really a construction of expectations, concepts, ideas, reactions, schema (as in Cognitive Therapy) and protections. The form experiences a contact and the  mind grabs it with an interpretation. Oh, I’m being abandoned. Oh, I’m being judged. Oh, I’m losing something precious. The practice of cultivating mindfulness of each of these arising, these “I-makings” (see this post on Evan Thompson’s book Mind and Life), results in awareness of our agitation and anxiety from holding to the constructed self of the moment. So what is the “self” in “self-compassion”? I think as we practice acknowledging the unhelpful constructions and the way it causes our suffering, we begin to chip away at the build-up of crap that covers what Jack Kornfield calls our “Original Goodness“, that true, luminous self that is worthy of care and love.

Now, that latter piece is where I took a wrong turn. Not that there isn’t Original Goodness or  Buddha Nature because Dogen certainly covers that in Genjokoan. It’s just a huge leap from creating our suffering to that awe-filled moment of seeing the gold under the dross. So, let’s back up this little vehicle!

The self is a performance and therefore not substantial.  It emerges out of conditions but is not reducible to them.

Life is a process of “I-making”.

Notes from Evan Thompson’s talk at Zen Brain retreat Upaya Zen Center

I was lucky that the online course given by Robert Wright on Buddhism and Modern Psychology hit the topic of non-self the day after the retreat. Wright (author of the Moral Animal) interviewed Bhikkhu Bodhi who sets the groundwork. You know, all of understanding Buddhism rests on understanding the Buddha’s intention and pedagogy and, not the least, on realizing the Buddha might have been more an epistemologist than a psychologist. (Ooo… Frank just re-stated this: The Buddha was more interested in the human experience rather than what it took to be human. No wonder I keep him around!) Back to Bhikkhu Bodhi: he pointed out in the video interview that the Buddha used different modes of discourse depending on context.

If the context was one of cultivating insight and aspiration for liberation, then we needed to dive into the primary obstacles of the five aggregates and the three poisons. To do that it was necessary to apprehend all objects of clinging as “not self.” If the context was to cultivate ethical action and the consideration of karma and the fruits of karma, then he used the language of self-hood and responsibility. The tricky part – and it’s not just semantics – is that this can be named a self, which may be capitalized to differentiate it, but it’s in the service of acknowledging one has responsibility for one’s actions and intentions.

Wright also introduced Peter Harvey’s book The Selfless Mind which is a terrific analysis of the meaning of non-self in the Pali Canon. Harvey explains that Edward Conze cautioned against the trivial interpretation that because the Buddha is believed to have said that the Self cannot be apprehended, therefore there is no self that exists. Conze’s reasons, according to Harvey, are that “the Buddha taught ‘self’ to coarse materialists, ‘nonexistence of self’ to egoists, and to those near nibbana and free from all love of self, he taught ‘that there is neither self nor not self.’ p. 18” Furthermore, “(h)aving ‘self as master’, then means being in charge of oneself, preserving one’s integrity by not doing anything that one would be ashamed of. No underlying ‘Great Self’ is implied. p.28”

And, our Pali scholar in virtual residence, Justin Whitaker, wrote this great post on week four’s lecture.

(Wright) interviews Dr. Robert Kurzban, author of the dazzlingly titled, “Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind.” Kurzban tells him that the ‘self’ he thinks he has is really more of a ‘press secretary’ than an executive officer. A lot of the decision making that is going on is actually not known to that ‘press secretary’ of a self. 

Study in Buddhism long enough and you begin to catch on early in a discussion that context determines the teachings. And we can’t forget that the Buddha exhorted his monks to indeed go in search of the self (Vinaya I.23 in the Selfless Mind). This is not that far from each of us seeking to find who we are even as we become someone else.  What really stands out here is the subtlety of language. Self as an emergent property of clinging to, rejection of, and confusion about our experiences, inner and outer. Self as ghost writer of our experiences in the genre of shame and blame. Self as agent in discernment of wholesome from unwholesome actions. Self as upaya, process, verb not noun. Harvey summarizes it well:

Harvey

 

The press secretary self is a compelling personna and pertinent to the self in self-compassion. Scanning through the Majjhima Nikaya 138, I was really caught by the nuance of the way clinging, rejection, and confusion keep us stuck. In v.20, Maha Kaccana (summarizing the Buddha’s teaching) works through the process and showed that obsession with form, feeling, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness renders us agitated and preoccupied with their changes. This preoccupation gives rise to anxiety, distress, and concern. This is our nub of suffering, these press releases of dire consequences for being who we were in a nanomoment. This is suffering, the self who suffers.

Now the problem with the word “self” is that if we want to use it to point to a materialistic phenomena (these symptoms of anxiety and distress) or if we want to lay claim to a changing cluster of experiences, we’d have to honor Conze’s explanation of the Buddha’s rationale for his teaching style and get stuck with being called a coarse materialist or egoist¹. Neither actually fit the intention of the practice of self-compassion.

But the Buddha taught more than just about non-self so there is a way out of this (thanks to Harvey’s detailed analysis).

Self is protector of oneself,
for what other protector would there be?
For with a well-controlled self
one gains a protector hard to gain.

Dhammapada 160

As well, in the Rajan Sutta, following on King Mallika’s proclamation that there is no one dearer to him than himself, the Buddha says:

Searching all directions
with your awareness,
you find no one dearer
than yourself.
In the same way, others
are thickly dear to themselves.
So you shouldn’t hurt others
if you love yourself.

So, there you have it. Because we know, we are aware of how dear we are to ourselves, we have the opportunity to then be compassionate to others who feel the same about themselves. Compassion for others is contingent on our capacity to see our own value.

But that value often is shrouded in our shame, our sense of unworthiness, our fears of being abandoned, being cast out, being judged as lacking.

The self referenced in self-compassion is a complete self. It is the press secretary, the one velcro-ed to form, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness. And. And it is the self who relishes the joy, competence, thrill, connection, ease, and resonance with others. I’ve quoted Kaz Tanahashi before: the enso contains both perfect and imperfect; that is why it is complete.

When I can be fully with that completeness, meet it with kindness, and know that others feel the same way², I am free of my head, that thinking brain. Being free of that thinking brain, I am also free of that constructed, constricting self (if ever so briefly). And the self in self-compassion is thus rendered neither self nor no-self.

It is just another place marker of where my practice gains traction.

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¹I do have to note that in MN 148, the Buddha does teach that the aggregates are “not self” but it is a device to demonstrate the falsifiability of the clinging self through reductio ad absurdum. And it’s antidote “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self” is less a denial of selfhood than of gaining clarity of the experience. Don’t take my word; I’m waiting on my Pali scholar pal to get back to me on this one.

² The three components of self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. See Christopher Germer & Kristin Neff