Onions are one of those ingredients that seem to make everything taste just a little bit better. I love how if prepared correctly their flavor morphs to the food around it, encouraging its fellow veggies to come out of hiding and take their place on the plate. And yet, I have a sordid history with the onion. That relationship started off adversarial, blew up, and culminated in blood and tears before it finally settled into a civil, if not harmonious union. Calling my battles with the dear onion a relationship might seem strange. But it isn’t if you shift the lens of relationship just a teensy bit.
See this battle has never been about the onion at all. It’s only ever been about how I related to the onion. The onion itself has always been just that: a pungent ‘lil bulb of explosive smell, taste, and texture. My mind on the other hand, well that’s always been an inundation of endless activity that convinced me I need to beat this smelly little goliath into submission. Crazy, I know.
Facing the truth that my mind had been whipping me around fiercely for as long as I could remember, finally drove me to seek a different way. In my forties, life delivered a series of massive sucker punches to the gut, and all of my time-worn tricks to try to muscle through them had failed. I turned to my dear friend who happened to be co-founder of Brooklyn Zen Center, and she invited me to come to a brief meditation instruction. I was so desperate to free my mind from its shackles, I skeptically agreed. I had an image of Zen folks as solemn, shaved-headed monks who always did the holiest things and were never annoyed by bad drivers. A.K.A, who were not ME, but my struggle was so deep and so intractable, I surrendered.
I showed up and sat down on a perfectly puffed black cushion inside a silent, white-walled temple in Brooklyn. The truth was that in the beginning, my seated meditation practice was excruciating both mentally and physically. I was dismayed. How could sitting on a cushion staring at a blank wall bring me so much misery? I expected the mind-lashings, but I did not expect to feel like my entire body was on fire. Just breathing made my body spasm and shake. But I sat and I sat, determined to “get it fucking right.” Months went by and I was starting to feel really, really defeated. It got to the point where I would envision my cushion and immediately have a Pavlovian response of physical pain. I was stuck. Yucky-mud stuck.
I had the good sense to combine my introductory meditation practice with consistent weekly meetings with the head teacher at Brooklyn Zen. In one of our meetings, I confessed that I was growing to hate this body. It was a body that always had a current of electricity vibrating through it; it was a body that could rarely be still. I admitted I was starting to believe that I just couldn’t cut it as a Zen student. If my body could not physically handle SITTING for meditation, how in God’s name could I meditate? I was exasperated.
My teacher, however, didn’t entertain such defeat, not even for a small moment. Instead, she smiled and said softly, “how about you try kitchen practice?” I had been watching the kitchen crew for a while as they silently moved around one another in a seemingly choreographed dance of culinary creation. I had a secret wish to join them, but at the time, I could barely step into my own kitchen without being overcome with sadness since my ex-husband had been the cook in our family. I told my teacher this too, but she was undeterred. “Even more of a reason to practice there.”
My first few times in the kitchen, I provided support for those preparing the meal. I washed dishes, measured spices, rinsed rice, cleaned cabinets. Soon, the Tenzo (head of the kitchen practice) asked me to help chop vegetables. I was nervous. On the rare occasion that I did chop onions I’d usually massacre one super-fast, cursing like a drunken sailor as my eyes burned and teared. But there would be no cursing here. Zen kitchen practice is done in total silence. Sounds pretty peaceful. It is……and it most certainly isn’t. The surrounding sounds are a lovely symphony of knives on cutting boards, wooden spoons stirring the bottom of heavy-bottomed metal pots, sizzling, popping, crackling of vegetables at various stages of transformation. But the sounds INSIDE the head...those are a cacophonous racket.
As I prepared to take the onion down, I decided the best plan was simply to get it over with as quickly as possible. I began chopping erratically, the knife sliding all over the chopping board in wanton madness. Look at me, man…I was BORN for this! And then, “WHOMP.” Just like that, knife meets finger, and all my puffed up glory was dashed as blood poured down my finger onto my pile of massacred onion pieces. “Don’t scream, don’t scream!” I begged myself. “It’s a SILENT kitchen, for Christ’s sake!” I headed to the bathroom and fell into a lump on the cold tile floor.
Then the mind noise really started to fly. I berated myself for not knowing better. I lashed myself for thinking I could try something new. I derided my efforts and I vowed never to set foot in a kitchen ever again because, see, I AM a failure. When I opened the door and went back to the kitchen, the Tenzo simply smiled at me, “You ok? Hurts doesn’t it?” And just like that, she directed me to a smaller, simpler task without so much as a whisper of criticism or judgement. I was left to just start again. New task. New moment. The sliced, bloodied finger, the mind-whippings…all simply GONE.
Where did they go? Where they came from, I am told. And where is that? That’s a Zen riddle I’ve been pondering ever since.
I kept showing up. Over and over again. I learned to chop. Properly. I learned to watch as my mind tried to hijack me away from the simple task in front of me and then gently but firmly brought it back to the activity of the moment. Just chop. Just wash. Just stir. Just breathe. To my utter shock, I learned how to slow down that electric wave of energy in my body that plagued me so on my cushion. By giving my body permission to move in the activity of the kitchen practice, I allowed it to be just as it is, a little jittery, a little twitchy. By allowing all of that, something began to ease toward calm. Back home on the cushion, well that eased too. I still twitch, and shudder, and even shake sometimes, but I watch and it passes. Sometimes with less struggle, sometimes with loads. But it always passes.
So my tale here is one not of redemption, because there was never any sin to be forgiven for. It is one of perseverance, dedication, devotion, and practice any damned way you can manage it. There is not an ounce of doubt within me about the value of meditation or mindful activity. It has steadied me, centered me, saved me, because it has provided me with the tools to meet myself exactly as I am without judgement.
I still fail, a lot. But it doesn’t matter anymore because the failures are opportunities now. Opportunities to watch how I relate to myself at each moment, without running away from myself and without creating a story about what arises as I witness failure. Sometimes my meals at the Zen Center are delicious. Sometimes the potatoes are not cooked enough. But the onions. Oh, the onions. Well they’re always there beckoning me to engage. One chop at a time. The onion just is and doesn’t have a shred of attitude about it. Wise little veggie.
Originally published in NY Yoga+Life Magazine, 2016