Creating An Eye in the Storm- Meditation for the Culinary Professional

The more busy and chaotic daily life is, the more we crave moments of stillness and quiet. However brief they are, in whatever way they come, and no matter how adrenaline-addicted you think you are, everyone needs space to breathe. In the last few posts, I’ve often explained how I craved those moments. With the combination of a toxic workplace and my own anxiety, not feeling like I ever had space to stop and get my bearings took a serious toll on my mental health and made a bad situation worse.

Fortunately, it’s possible to create those moments for ourselves and it’s worth the effort to try. After all, the more stillness and composure you can create for yourself, the more you exude it for other people. Even with my anxiety, learning to meditate has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. If other people I work with ever told me they appreciate my competence, patience, and ability to keep my cool in a crisis, it’s because I learned to slow myself down. You can too.

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What Does Meditation Do?

I have been meditating daily for over two years now. It’s never very long- just 15 to 20 minutes in the morning right after breakfast, and lately a shorter meditation before exercising to help me focus and get more from my workouts. Those 20 minutes daily have had benefits that extend into the rest of my life.

Not only does meditation put me in a better mood for the rest of the day (“At least I have this much time to myself each day”) but it’s helped make me aware of how my mind works, and puts me in touch with how my body feels before pain becomes a factor. This mindfulness and metacognition allow me to objectively identify when my mind is going into anxious/depressive patterns, and thus start going through my other mental tools to mitigate or distract myself from them before they get worse.

On top of that, the grounding and mindfulness techniques I learned as part of meditation can be done quickly to help me refocus and stay present after anxiety attacks or through difficult situations. They allow me to “embrace the suck” more effectively and stay on top of what I’m doing. It’s not hard to see why that kind of skill set- the abilities to keep focus, regain composure, and understand one’s own mind- would be useful for a chef or cook, especially if a lifetime of attempting to “multitask” has ruined your ability to focus on any one thing for long.

What Meditation Is (and Isn’t)

Meditation isn’t “emptying your mind” of thoughts so much as stepping back from your thoughts and letting them move through your mind without getting involved in them.
What does that mean? Think of it like this:

Minds think. They create thoughts. It’s what they are built to do. You, however, are not your thoughts- but rather the consciousness witnessing your thoughts. Imagine then that your mind is big empty field under a blue sky on a windy day.

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Your thoughts are clouds moving across the blue sky. For so much of our lives, we spend our time and energy running across that field trying to chase the clouds. We get lost in our thoughts, or ruminate on bad ones, or follow long trains of thought. Often, we think the same kind of thoughts over and over again each day.

Meditation encourages you to lie down on the grass and just watch the clouds go by. We don’t need to chase them or try to avoid them. Meditation is about letting them come and go. In time, we start to notice familiar patterns in that sky and what they mean (metacognition.) When we crave quiet and stillness, meditation teaches us to see past the clouds and gaze into that infinite, unchanging blue sky behind them.

You don’t have to sit in rigid or complex postures to meditate. That idea came from the practices of Buddhism, where the postures and rigidity are important for discipline and deep focus without “zoning out” or dozing off. The truth is you don’t even have to sit still to meditate. As long as you are in a place and situation where you can be mindful of your body and thoughts, meditation can be done while walking, running, exercising, even repetitive tasks and chores.

Mantras and chanting aren’t required either. They are certainly important for religious meditation, and mantras are useful if your mind tends to wander easily or you want to bring yourself to a specific state of mind, but focusing your mind can be done with something as easy as counting your breaths. The point is to give your consciousness a job so it doesn’t go wandering off chasing those clouds.

Lastly, while I can’t speak for everyone, I find that substance use does NOT always assist in meditation. Again, the goal of meditation isn’t to “empty your mind.” You want it to chill out, focus up, and calm down- NOT go to sleep or go numb. At most, I find that tea, incense, music, or certain clothes will help get me in the mood to meditate, but that’s about it.

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Meditation for Chefs and Cooks

If a man can’t manage himself, how can he hope to manage those around him- whether they are people or events?

It’s no secret that I have a frankly low opinion of the screaming, ranting chef of yesteryear. More and more successful chefs- Eric Ripert and Roy Choi for example- have learned that losing their cool on a regular basis may make them seem exacting and passionate, but it also presents them as mercurial, out of control, and unhinged in the eyes of the staff.

The ability to center and ground oneself is useful for any cook, but for a chef- the leader, the person their staff looks to for direction and guidance- being able to calmly and firmly give direction and instruction conveys every inch of that exactness and passion, but it also exudes serenity, poise, control, and unflappability. It commands faith and respect through being a reliable and enduring, leading their team with wisdom and patience- all hard-won but far more durable motivators than fear from being trapped in a room with a lunatic.

I’ve described plenty of tasks as “meditative” in the past- rolling pie crust, kneading bread, chopping veg, washing dishes, etc. It may come off as sounding like anything repetitive or mindless, but the truth is they are soothing- they put me in a place where I can watch my own mind work, or mull over problems. Meditation is not “zoning out”- I definitely wouldn’t want to do that with a knife in my hand.

The next chance you get, find a quiet(er) place at work on your break and just count your breaths for one minute. Pay attention to how it feels to breath, and slowly ask yourself:

  • What can you smell? Don’t try to identify or place judgment on anything- just recognize the experience of smelling.
  • How many different sounds can you hear?
  • Can you feel the fabric of your clothing on your skin? How about your weight pressing down in to the seat or floor, and pressing up against you?

This is a basic “grounding” exercise. It’s meant to distract racing thoughts and soothe anxiety- in fact, it’s frequently used to calm people down when they are dealing with panic attacks. Just by grounding yourself and focusing on the present moment through your breath, you’ll find yourself considerably more focused when you get back to the kitchen.

Summing Up on Winding Down

Earlier this morning, I had a quick chat with my older sister. We’ve both been pursuing our own flavor of mindfulness. While I’ve been navigating the waters of being a chef and kitchen manager, my sister has lately taken the plunge into being a full-time entrepreneur. My lifestyle of the last several years has led me to pursue a much more mellow existence- years in the kitchen have left me craving moments of peace. My sister, on the other hand, finds herself running for her metaphorical life every day and uses grounding exercises to “come down” when the work day is done.

Meditation isn’t just sitting for hours and breathing. It can be soothing, energizing, mellow, or a difficult experience, and it’s easy to get frustrated after sessions when you just can’t seem to focus or “get in the mood.”

Regardless, the ability to generate (and exude) your own sense of calm and composure is an incredible tool for all walks of life. It doesn’t mean you passively float through life, but it DOES give you a raft for when storms come out of that blue sky.

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One of many classy ways to say “F*** around and find out.”

Stay Classy,

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