Trudy Goodman

From Trudy

Cancer, Covid and Instructions to the Zen Cook

From my dear friend and colleague Susan Pollak, author, clinician, and 10-year president of our Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy in Boston. Susan’s full story is in Rick Hansen’s newsletter:

On a dark and frigid day in February 2020, we found out that my husband had a rare and deadly blood cancer. It could be treated but not cured… As I tried to navigate this mind-boggling and dangerous maze of high-tech chemotherapy, skyscraper hospitals, and the medical complexity of a stem cell transplant, I discovered the classic Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions for the Zen Cook.” Being skeptical, I doubted how an instruction manual written in 1237 for male monastics was going to help a woman with two children and a seriously ill husband. But as I read with an open and desperate mind, I became intrigued by how practical and grounded Dogen’s instructions were.

Because of Covid, I’d been cooking every meal from scratch: no restaurants, no take-out, no shopping or kitchen help. I was numb and exhausted. Without realizing it, I’d stopped really seeing the food, tasting it, or appreciating it. Just getting through the day was an accomplishment. Everything felt like a burden. A line in the text spoke gently to me: “Handle even a single leaf or green [with mindfulness] so that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf,” (p. 7).

That evening, as I juiced a lime, I marveled at the exquisite green of the skin and the sharp fragrance of the fruit. As I followed the instructions in a recipe for chopping lemongrass, there seemed to be deeper meaning: “Peel off the layers until smooth and tender. Cut off the tough, thick base.” I interpreted this as guidance on how to work skillfully with the hard, brittle defenses I had constructed to muscle through this fraught and anxious time. Maybe I could uncover the soft and vulnerable parts of my being that needed to be seen, heard and nourished. The tender ivory lemongrass glowed in the autumn light as I chopped. I paused. I breathed…At least for that night, Dogen’s “Joyful Mind” permeated the previously tedious task of making dinner.

InsightLA is offering “Essentials of Mindfulness” to help you cultivate loving awareness of your body, your thoughts and emotions. You, like Susan, can find more peace of mind/heart when you most need it to sustain yourself, your relationships and your community.