Attention in the Kitchen
Here's the thing: I hate to cook.
I know what you're thinking. Haven't you heard of takeout?
Yes, yes, of course. But I learned early on that if I wanted consistently healthy, vegetarian, and -- importantly, given my Indian background -- flavorful food for my family (particularly while living in the suburban Midwest), I'd have to make that food myself, at least on the majority of days.
But the drudgery of it gets to me — the chopping of vegetables, the balancing of spices, the scrubbing of dishes. Guilt gets to me as well — how can I feel so wretched about providing sustenance to my family? Shouldn't such an act be done joyfully, gratefully?
Does Attention Equal Love?
The phrase Attention is Love seems to pop up continually these days as I read books or watch movies, as I sit in yoga class or listen to the discussions around me.
If Indian cooking requires one thing, it is attention. Multiple pans sit on the stove, at varying stages of completion, with five aspects of taste needing to be balanced, then tasted and re-balanced. Open jars of spices and pastes and seeds populate the countertop and sometimes seem to multiply before my eyes. Amid such chaos, a lack of attention can obliterate hours of work. (Trust me, I've been there.)
Does that attention equal love?
To find the answer, I've begun to "pay attention to my attention," watching as mustard seeds inevitably escape the pour from their tin and then bounce across the floor like crazed toddlers, as cumin seeds separate into a grid of almost-hexagons as they sizzle in oil. I examine the variety of lentils in their respective containers, let them pour over my fingers, note how they differ in fragrance, smoothness, and the flavor they offer. I contemplate the combinations and the choices.
I am taking my time to taste — to let salt and sweet and tang and spice and bitterness activate on their respective clusters on my taste buds, and to wonder at this gift of sensation and subtlety particular to human beings. As I layer ingredients in a pan of root vegetables, I pause to experience the scent of turmeric -- unlike anything else on earth -- and to think about its ancient history and healthful properties. And I notice how that same turmeric travels across my kitchen — inking my fingertips and the countertops and even the walls, no matter how carefully I chase it down.
Grace and Gratitude
All over the world, people say grace over meals, taking a moment for gratitude and recognition of good fortune and abundance. In India, one of the blessings spoken over food is
Brahmaarpanam Brahma Havir
Brahmaagnau Brahmanaa Hutam
Brahmaiva Tena Gantavyam
Brahma Karma Samaadhinaha
As I've been rethinking the act of cooking, I've also re-examined these words and their meaning. Roughly translated, the blessing says that God (or Source or Creation or whatever word speaks to you) is the food itself . . .
. . . and God is the very act of offering the food in gratitude.
. . . and God is the interaction of the food with the body.
. . . and God is the miraculous transformation of the earth's material into a human body, brain, and sinew.
It strikes me that the words are not only about gratitude, but also about attention to all aspects of life, most of which we don't take time to notice, and some of which we can't fully comprehend.
The words open up a space for us to look at every bit of the life process, to stretch our minds to remember the ones who tend the earth, the ones who grow the food, and indeed, the ones who cook it, transforming earth's bounty into the morsels we lift to our mouths.
The words also make me think of the care and raising — and feeding, of course — of a family. They make me consider the multiple, miniscule acts, words, and exchanges that grow and sustain it.
Interspersed within a family's "highlight reels" are these million acts of attention by which we nourish and support one another, in our own particular ways. What is this steady and sustained attention but love?