I should be honest with you all. This week I have not been out there treading the path to self-betterment I committed to in writing this column. Nope, I’ve been stuck in a kitchen overseeing amateur cooks whisk and flambé their way down the homestretch to become MasterChef, a term only months ago was confused with a make of crudely desiccated oregano. It’s finale week of the country’s most successful reality TV series. Six start it, one finishes it. And, oh, the tears!
Reality TV’s a trip. Much artifice goes into “enabling” the reality. The judges and I are strapped in with cords and mic packs, our ruffles and cravats propped up with layers of Hollywood Tape. More than 150 crew steer the unfolding realness from behind eight cameras and a dozen editing suites. We film 12 hours a day; Tuesday night’s show is shot on a Saturday; and in the heat of it all we’ve forgotten what season it is. It’s unreal. But not entirely not-real, if you get my double-negative drift.
So, as many a monk apprentice has asked though the ages, where’s the self-betterment lesson in this crazy fulcrum of reality? Said the chief monk to his underling, right in front of you my child. In the everyday.
My lesson this week has been about everyday mindfulness. I’m not sure if you pick up on this at home. Sometimes the contestants cook mind-bogglingly great food. Sometimes they cook, in the words of contestant Chris (hat, tatts), utter crap. And what determines which way the croquembouche crumbles is the contestant’s mindfulness.
Mindfulness does my head in. I’ve pursued it for about ten years, but it’s mostly eluded me. Mostly because I pursue it. Mindfulness, originally an Eastern spiritual concept, is effortlessly putting your mind wholly to what you’re doing right now, in turn escaping the tortured clutches of your mind. Which I’ve always found a bit like not thinking of pink elephants.
Thich Nhat Hanh, author of The Miracle of Mindfulness, instructs: when you wash the dishes, aim to only wash the dishes, as opposed to rushing through it to get back to the telly, while planning tomorrow’s outfit. You be the inescapable truth of what is (you’re currently washing the dishes), which makes everything feel…in place. I know it works, because when I am mindful I’m instantly drenched in peace and this-all-makes-sense-ness. Thinking’s suddenly a silly appendage.
Over lunch on Friday I got the contestants’ take. Julie (mum, curly hair, lots of tears) describes a “happy cooking space”. “When, say, I fold batter with a spatula, everything slows down,” she says. “All I’m doing is folding. The noise stops. And then a love for everyone I cook for fills me.”
Poh (Malaysian, animated expressions) says when she cooks she accesses a peaceful, but precise, zone and the dish just unfurls. Exactly as it needs to, without effort. “And if I don’t get in the zone, it falls to sh*t,” she says. The same can be said of all the contestants. Good cooking is mindfulness in action. And cooking without mindfulness is utter crap.
I haven’t been mindful lately. I’ve been cooking like I want to move to the next thing, turning the burners too high and defrosting the chicken on 100% wattage so it comes out like a shrunken albino swamp-thing. I do my tax while I eat and forget to absorb the flavour, so I’m left unsatiated and looking for chocolate. I spoke to mum and didn’t hear the bit about my brother feeling lonely and could I call him. I was thinking about the hand-washing I had to do in the next 45 minutes. The next 45 minutes doesn’t exist, in this moment. And lurching for it is as empty and anxiety-riddled as plunging off a cliff.
But tonight I cooked salmon on braised fennel and did so mindfully. I smiled at the flesh as it sizzled. I sliced the bulb slowly and enjoyed the sound of Globe on board. I calmly stacked the dishes neatly, gently and didn’t wash as I go.
Allow me to report back on the results. The fish emerged perfectly, and I perfectly calm. The process of cooking was satisfying in itself. So I was left full in my being, which meant when I sat to eat I wasn’t eating to fill an emotional emptiness. And so I ate just enough instead of to explosion point. And the calm carried on, moment to moment. My mindless rut was broken.
For this lesson I thank all the everyday people who’ve been stuck with me in a kitchen for five months being as real as one can be in front of eight cameras.