A Buddhist Perspective
Despite growing up with parents who were devoted members of Chögyam Trungpa’s Buddhist community in Boulder, I was never pressured to follow or even explore Buddhist teachers or leaders, and never found the call within myself to seek out a more formal relationship to the tradition. Sure, I was exposed to ceremonies, incense, colorful shrine rooms, and stories of Siddhartha, but I wasn’t instructed to pray, or made to think there was some ever-present higher power I had to locate outside myself. I’ll always consider that freedom from pressure a gift my parents gave me. We would do a chant most evenings before dinner, but I didn’t really understand what it was about and didn’t pursue it. It was explained to me a few times but not in a way that made me feel like it was something I had to understand or believe in. Of course, when I was still too young to attend and my brother Ethan, being five years older, would go to special events for kids with Chögyam Rinpoche, I felt left out. I imagined that they did cool art with maybe a little meditation instruction thrown in, but I didn’t really ask, wasn’t that curious, and mainly just wanted to go because I couldn’t!
As I entered my teenage years and could have attended similar events myself, all I wanted was to hang with my friends, smoke weed, and go skateboarding. The Shambhala Day celebrations, tea ceremonies, and other community events became even less important to me. I had friends who had grown up in Christian churches and the whole organized religion thing just looked less and less attractive although one ever told me that if I didn’t meditate I would go to hell. Fortunately, mention of hell was completely absent from my life and from the Buddhist tradition. But I still wasn’t drawn to the public aspect of it. In fact, thinking it over now, I realize I never really viewed Buddhism as a religion, but simply as a way of being. “Peaceful abiding” is a term that I always related to, and still do. If I could pay attention to my breath and let my thoughts arise and then let them go, I always knew it would help me find a greater sense of peace in my life. And so that’s what I took away from my Buddhist upbringing. The rest all just seemed like another attempt at organized religion and I wanted no part of it.
Years later, finding myself in rehab, I stared at the cover of the book my mom had sent me, When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. I remember seeing her around Dorje Dzong, the main community center in Boulder, when I was growing up, and the title of this book certainly seemed to describe my current situation. I was looking for answers and deeply appreciated my mom’s gesture, but somehow knew that for me, it didn’t work that way. I wasn’t going to find “answers” in a book. All I could do was be honest with myself about the things I’d done, and get back to a place where abiding was possible. I had to embark on my own personal journey to peace.
While dedicating myself to this, I started noticing again the similarities between most religions and spiritual practices. As the traditional words of AA rang in my ears those first few meetings, I realized that what I needed, simply enough, was more inner serenity, and I decided that if that meant praying, then that’s what I would do. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. At first I cringed when saying this. I often wondered, why do we need to bring the word “God” into it? But I said “God” anyway. Slowly I began to rest more easily with the word, mostly because I realized it was unique to everyone. God could mean whatever I wanted God to mean. To me, the word and concept represented peace, breath, and letting go. I didn’t have to associate it with some abstract all-knowing figure. Prayer could just be another way to slow down and find my breath.
It’s true that as I embarked on the quest to find more peace in my life, I opened up to lots of alternative paths. I found a connection with other men within men’s circles. It was a powerful, safe space where I could just be. I used exercise as a form of spiritual outlet. I even explored Christianity, which I now see was really just a way of my further seeking peace while participating in a community where people actively helped one another to find it. Ultimately, Christianity wasn’t for me. Everyone has their own unique path to follow to find wholeness and I don’t begrudge anyone their devotion to a formal religion of any kind; it has certainly helped many, although I think it has destroyed many as well.
I have sometimes asked myself (as have others) why I didn’t turn back to Buddhism when focusing on my breath, and my own personal forms of meditation, have helped me so much? I think it’s because, growing up in a loving and compassionate Buddhist home, these things have always been available to me; they come as naturally as, well, breathing! It’s all so simple at that level. In a way, the focused mindfulness that is the essence of meditation is completely natural to a chef. We have an endless need and desire to nourish others directly, with our own hands. There is powerful mindfulness to the discipline of coming back to the sharp knife cutting through the onion in perfect slices without even looking, because you know how to hold a knife and an onion properly and will never cut yourself. Meditation is about a deep, loving, joyful appreciation of your own human heart, and when I return to the center of who I am as a man, a father, a chef, I always find that. After all, Chögyam Rinpoche himself said: “enlightenment begins at the kitchen sink.” That’s the essence, and the rest, for me, would be superfluous.