Chaos to zen

It happened organically, one of the epiphanies of my life, an alchemy perhaps, and a shift in perspective I hope becomes a movement in messy, under-used or avoided kitchens.  My daughter said she would make dinner, and proceeded to tune me out. She set up her BeoPlay speaker, turned on some easy listening music, efficiently moved item by item off the island and returned it to its home, put dishes into the dishwasher, wiped the island clean, and effectively made the place prepped and ready.


She pulled out the wooden cutting board, opened the fridge drawer, found some cheese and salami; put some on the board, and hummed quietly to herself and she snacked away, studiously ignoring me. Her mountain of architecture assignments set aside, the muted cacaphony of conversation alerts ignored, she fully immersed herself in the moment, the food, and followed an effective ritual.  She made more than a delicious, free-style meal that day. More profoundly, she modeled what I can only call a zen kitchen, on a weeknight after a long day of lectures and commuting, in the season of high-stress as a student. She was calm, the kitchen was calm, (as long as I wasn’t in it!), she cleaned up as she went, wiped the counter when she was done, and we sat down to a colourful, delicious meal and ate stress-free and happy. It was an epiphany for me.

Picture me in the same scenario - frantically looking at my watch, distractedly rehearsing all I had yet to do, taking a swipe at part of the island, grabbing a pot, turning the burner on, yanking open the fridge door, rummaging around, and yelling at the kids to set the table. My behaviour was not one I could ever honestly call a ritual.  My meal prep was distracted panic, half-hearted preparation and perhaps talent, but not calm, and certainly not zen. I‘m sure my panic pushed everyone else’s buttons and set us up for stress at the table.

Fast forward to one of my now-favourite TED Talks, “What really matters at the end of life” by BJ Miller where he talks about perspective – “that kind of alchemy we humans get to play with, turning anguish into a flower.” He goes on to describe a little ritual that helps with this shift in perspective where he works at the Zen Hospice Project. As I watched his TED Talk over again, admiring a little ritual that shifts perspective in such a moving and profound way, I better understand the gift my daughter gave me. Her actions which I recognize as a possible ritual, shift my perspective that rather than meal prep being drudgery, it becomes a zen moment of releasing the day, feeling gratitude, and shifting into giving love through preparing food.

On that topic, and why this became so vital to me, I will share with you one experience that stands out as one of the most painful days of my life as a parent – the evening one of my children candidly admitted that he didn’t feel I loved him. If there are ever words a parent never wants to hear.. I heard them that evening. In my stunned disbelief racing thoughts of self-justification, and compulsion to earnestly explain, I instead let my child’s feelings wash over me, touch my heart and I listened and cried. I learned about love language from Gary Chapman after that day, and I learned my child was looking for “acts of service”. I now recognize a simple homemade meal that feels welcoming and stress-free is an act of service and an expression of love. 

If I could re-do some years, perhaps those would be the years – when my children were navigating their high-school years, and yet I admit they were the years that changed me most as a person, and taught me some of the most precious lessons in my life. And why I’m writing this to you, with the hope that you can learn from my pain and avoid some yourself. 

So here is my alchemy; my shift in perspective: Kitchens are often messy places. For some, they’re un-used rooms, for some, they’re reluctant places to be avoided. How about they become zen places.. zen kitchens? Think of the sensuousness of the kitchen; seeing vibrant colours of food, feeling varied textures as we handle crisp vegetables or the grit of earth on tubers and root veggies, smelling heady aromas as we handle ripe fruits, caramelize onions, hearing the sizzle of frying foods, the gentle burble of a boiling pot, tasting that umami, that deeply satisfying flavour that silences us as we eat? As BJ Miller says “we love our time by way of the senses – by way of the body – the very thing doing the living and the dying.” And “As long as we have our senses [even just one] we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human; connected.” I wonder also (and this is a topic for another day) but is this not being mindful, and present? Is this not an antidote for anxiety, right under my nose, literally and metaphorically? By a seemingly seismic shift in my own mind, can I quickly go from harried and pressured, to tactile, mindful and grateful? And how about this ready, daily gift of love that we can give to another - a simple, homemade meal enjoyed stress-free which makes space for our children to open up and share their days, and themselves with us.

I consciously breathe, handle each item that is out of place, and gently return it to its home. I make room to be present, feel gratitude that I inhabit a body that can feel, see, smell, taste and hear. I realize that I have food in my fridge; that I have children who are hungry. I silently acknowledge that others may have neither. By making a conscious choice to relegate the cares of the day to the past, suspend any nagging cares for this moment of becoming fully present, I create for us all a haven, a zen kitchen. I release thoughts of why-did-it-take-me-until-now, and choose to feel grateful to learn this lesson, no matter it was learned after my children are all adults. Perhaps that’s part of the beauty – my children teaching me.

To create this, here is the ritual I now embrace, and I invite you to adopt.

  1. Breathe out and in and let my shoulders relax. Smile. Make peace with imperfection. Perhaps I didn’t meal plan, forgot an ingredient or have no foggy clue what to cook. I tell nagging thoughts – “It’s all good. We will enjoy what we do have. We will let go of what we don’t have, and any expectations.”

  2. See beyond any mess to the vision of my “zen” kitchen. I carry to its proper home what gravitated to my island & dining table that doesn’t belong there. I empty the dishwasher and reload, wash the sink and the island. I create my prep station – hone my favourite knife, wipe the blade clean, set up my beautiful wooden cutting board, pull out my apron, select my music and turn it on. In these few golden moments that I once rejected believing I didn’t have time, I become fully present as I handle the dishes. By not passing along my frantic stress to others, we all relax in the ensuing calm.

  3. Stave off any tummy grumbles. Set out some nuts, cheese, or other whole snacks to soften the inevitable “when’s dinner?”

  4. Take stock of what I have, decide what I’ll make, assemble, wash, measure, chop and fully prep. I’m glad for my sharp knife, the sight of beautiful wood grain on my cutting board, the ready prep bowls and compost container. My tools from inside my cupboards are my friends.

  5. Cook what needs to be cooked, starting with the longest cook time until each piece of the meal is ready to be savoured and enjoyed together. Frustration doesn't exist as my pots, skillets and knives perform effortlessly. The kitchen cleans up in minutes as we often dish our plates at the stove to save on time and dishes. I love that our family agreement is “him what cooks doesn’t clean”.

  6. Invite a child to set the table whenever possible. They seem to love the recognition, and have such fun and original ideas. And the more a meal can be collaborative, the more memorable it becomes for us all.

  7. Call and/or text them all and when everyone is present we dish up our plates and take them to the dining table, give thanks, listen and linger whenever possible.

I quote BJ Miller who finished that TED Talk with this: “Consider every compulsory effort it takes to be human – the need for food has birthed cuisine; the need for shelter has given rise to architecture; the need for cover: fashion; the need for being subjected to the clock: music. If we love such moments ferociously, then maybe we can learn to live well.”