For the first 27 years of my life, I didn't step into the kitchen until the food was on the dining table. Mom took care of all the cooking. The kitchen was a complete and total mystery for me. The only thing I felt comfortable doing in the kitchen was making toast, putting my cereal together and boiling water. My first cooking experiences took place when, at the age of 27, I moved into a monastery and was put on a weekly cooking rotation. It was on-the-job training ... learn as you go. It's quite ironic then, that for the last 10 years one of my main activities has been teaching vegetarian cooking classes.
I had always thought that cooking was something you did to feed yourself and your family. However, monastic life has continued to teach me that cooking, if done with the right consciousness, can be a kind of yoga practice. I'm not referring to the yoga practice where you try to turn yourself into a pretzel. I am sticking to the original meaning of the term, which arises from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to harness or bind back. Yoga means you are trying to reconnect with the divine.
Whether or not that reconnect actually takes place depends on one's consciousness. During my vegetarian cooking demonstrations at Columbia University, I tell my students that our consciousness during our cooking should be that we are "cooking for the pleasure of God and that we want to share our food with others."
Knowing that we're cooking for someone else can help remove some of the selfishness we harbor in our hearts and can increase the quality of selflessness. Since the process of yoga is meant to purify the heart and mind of negative tendencies, cooking with the right consciousness can be transformed into a yoga practice.
This entails that the cook isn't allowed to taste the food while the cooking is taking place. As soon as one hears this, the immediate response is that of complete surprise. How is it possible to cook without tasting what we are doing? It takes practice and a recipe should be followed. Since the food is being cooked for the pleasure of God, God should be the first individual to taste it. It gets even more difficult, as the cook isn't even supposed to be thinking of eating or enjoying the food while cooking.
As bizarre as all this might be sounding, this is the method of cooking adopted by those who adhere to the Bhakti or devotional path within Hinduism. One way to express our love for people we care for is to cook for them. So a similar way to cultivate our love for God is to cook delicious preparations with a mood of love and devotion for God.
I think most people will agree that the best meals are often prepared by a loving mother. Every time I visit my folks in Jersey City, my mom cooks for me. Perhaps because I'm so thick-headed, it took me a really long time to figure out why my mom enjoys cooking for me. She gets pleasure from watching me eat what she's cooked.
The food she's prepared is imbued with her feelings of motherly love and care. Her consciousness has entered the food and is being transferred to me. That transference of consciousness creates a powerful bond. So, even though she may or may not use the perfect amount of turmeric, hing or cumin, the most important ingredient is bhakti, or love.
Consciousness affecting material things may seem a bit farfetched, but we witness this effect taking place with works of art and music, and how they're embedded with the consciousness of the particular artists. When we listen to or examine a work of art or music, the artist's mood also becomes apparent and many times we can be emotionally impacted by that mood. Similarly, cooked food is no less a work of art than traditional art or music and is invested with the emotions and consciousness of the cook.
When we eat, we're not only eating the food and it's ingredients, but we're also eating the consciousness of the cook. A very important question we can ask ourselves before our next meal is, "Whose consciousness am I eating?"
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main spiritual texts of India, Krishna, or God, offers a very salient point: "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it." The point being made here is that God isn't looking for elaborate and complicated offerings from the devotees. Instead, Krishna is looking for the love and devotion, or the bhakti, behind the offering.
The other very important facet of the offering is that it can't be a product of cruelty. It is a well known fact that animals undergo tremendous emotional and physical suffering when killed. In the classic Hindu text Manusmriti, it is stated, "Having well considered the origin of flesh-foods, and the cruelty of fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let man entirely abstain from eating flesh." Such food items are not only unhealthy for the our bodies, but also unhealthy for our consciousness.
When food is offered to the Divine or God, it becomes sanctified. In the bhakti tradition, food is offered through devotional mantras that focus our intention. It is understood that God then accepts the offering of food and partakes of it. Because the food came in contact with the divine, it also adopts divine qualities. In this way, matter is transformed into spirit.
When an individual consumes this offered or "karma-free" food, one's mind, senses and consciousness get purified of such tendencies as greed, anger, envy and selfishness. One comes simultaneously closer to the divine. This is known as the yoga of eating.
Advancing spiritually and elevating one's consciousness can often involve rigorous practices. However, it's nice to know that just by engaging in simple and creative endeavors, such as cooking and eating, one can move closer to that ultimate spiritual goal.