Spiritual traditions around the world have developed the notion of a life force--a vital energy that is not only present in plants and animals but animates the universe as a whole. In India, the life force is called prana. In China, it is known as chi. The Jewish notion of the shekinah, the holy spirit of God, is a closely related idea. In all these traditions, the presence or absence of the life forceis closely identified with he state of our physical and psychic health.

So the traditional concept of a life force and its influence on our health is closely linked to the food we eat, to how it's prepared, and even to the benevolence and vitality of the cook. The art of cooking includes bringing out the life force in the ingredients and projecting one's own spiritual qualities into the meal. Thus, a Zen treatise on the preparation of rice instructs us to "see the pot as your own head, and see the water as your life blood."

One need not be a confirmed mystic to see the basic truth in this observation. If you're preoccupied or unhappy when you enter the kitchen, it's unlikely your cooking will be either tasty or nourishing in the true sense of the word. You'll do things in a hurry, you'll omit ingredients, and your meals will be either too hot or two cold--not just in temperature but in the emotions that are mysteriously but unmistakably transferred to the food. How, then, can we bring out the best of ourselves as cooks? Here are some ideas that will help point the way:
We enter the kitchen with positive thoughts and loving emotions, aware that these will be expressed in our cooking.
We create an ambiance in the kitchen--and to all aspects of cooking--that is both relaxed and attentive.
We cook from basic ingredients, locally produced whenever possible.
We devote the same attention to simple cooking tasks as to more complex ones, aware that we express ourselves in every detail.
We show respect for the blessings of nature that make up our ingredients. We waste little or nothing, aware of the scarcities that afflict much of the world and of the abundance that has been given to us.
In serving the meal, we demonstrate a quiet generosity of spirit. We minimize personal authorship in order to include everyone in the process of creation and enjoyment.
Above all, we realize that cooking is a self-rewarding process. No dish or meal, no matter how masterly or how awful, is an end unto itself. The spiritual cook understands that cooking--like breathing--continues as long as life.

Recently I made dinner for friends after a difficult day filled with unexpected setbacks. I was harried and disorganized as I cooked. More important, one of my friends who had eaten my cooking a number of times told me after the meal that the food tasted different, less satisfying, less vital, less intense.

In contrast, most us can remember cooking for a sick friend or relative, perhaps nothing more than the proverbial bowl of chicken soup. The act itself has a focus based on its healing intent. Contrast that medicinal cooking event with the one in which you were distracted. There are many ways you can help yourself to focus your intentions in the kitchen. Here are three:

  1. Devote some time to making your kitchen a pleasant place to be in. Take an inventory of what is missing, what can be changed, what you no longer use that is taking up space. Make yourself feel comfortable.
  2. Spend twice as long cooking one of your favorite menus as would be your normal habit. Take the extra time to relax while you appreciate everything involved in the preparation and presentation.
  3. Select one of the old standby recipes you make from memory. Visualize yourself preparing it and, at the same time, write down the recipe in a way that would be clear to another cook. Give the recipe to a friend and see if she or he can follow it well enough to make the dish. Eat the dish with your friend.

Isaac Cronin was one of the original participants in the California-based New American food movement. He has worked as a commercial fisherman, a specialty produce farmer, a cookbook writer, and marketing director for a cookbook publisher. His weekly column appeared in the Los Angeles Times and other California dailies for a number of years. He lives in New York City.

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