A few years ago I read “A Fighter’s Heart” by Sam Sheridan, a compilation of the author’s forays into various fighting traditions and camps. The book is a mixed bag of really great insight and unfulfilled messing around. One of the truly anti-climactic chapters involved his weeks-long stay at a remote Buddhist monastery in Thailand, hoping to unlock the secret of higher-level meditation. Sheridan spends most of the chapter hot, itchy, and frustrated with his inability to clear his mind, like he has been told to by relaxing, focusing on breathing, and so on (like so many of us have heard).
While it didn’t make for very captivating reading, I completely sympathized with him. Knowing everything I’ve read about the physical and psychological benefits of meditation, as a health-conscious person (and, as corny as it sounds, a seeker of truth) I’ve made the attempt at meditation several times, and been frustrated each time, until I’ve gotten up with a stiff body and sore tailbone to pour myself a beer. Far from clearing my mind, I simply couldn’t stop thinking. I dwelt on past and current problems, relationships with loved ones, my work, and things I had to do. Maybe meditation just isn’t for me, I thought.
I got the first whiff of something different when I was talking with my buddy Sam awhile back. He mentioned reading the remarks of William McRaven, the former leader of Joint Special Operations Command, on the importance of ritual. Specifically, he referred to making his bed every morning. McRaven making his bed is an automatic, precise undertaking at the beginning of every single day. It is a “small” thing, but essential as a part of getting his mind set for a day filled with deliberate action. The idea clicked for me.
I didn’t completely connect the thought to my life, however, until I was reading Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and his relation of preparing a braise to Zen. Many people avoid cooking because of the imagined chore of all the chopping and dicing, especially of onions, which bring on tears. Pollan reflected that in the cooking he had done as part of the book’s premise (loads of braising practice), he came to realize that chopping onions became an automatic, meditative experience. I could relate. As a maker of uncountable pots of chili over the years, I’ve chopped thousands of pounds of onions and minced hundreds of cloves of garlic. Over time, the chopping became rewarding all by itself. As my hands moved without my having to think about them, I became absorbed completely in the motion and the experience, with a little bit of the atmosphere, too.
I love music for rocking, singing along, or powerful identification with something intense in life, and I have many favorite songs from different genres, but if you were to look at my itunes top 25 played, you’d see a lot that looks a bit odd. It’s mostly stuff I associate specifically with “chili mode” and rarely listen to in any other context: compositions for the “Dead Man” film soundtrack and pieces by the mostly instrumental drone rock group Earth. It’s hard to describe the sound as anything but “Old West Doom”—conveying the feel of open spaces, blowing dust, surreal landscapes, and the slight menace of sundowns on soon-to-be ghost towns. “Chili mode” and that music are apart from my normal life and all of the thoughts that fill it. It’s a place to which I go, but not an escape. When I’m done with the process of a chili, I not only have a pot full of delicious stuff that will feed me all week; I feel centered and rejuvenated. I’ve heard of breathing meditation, walking meditation, sitting meditation: is cooking meditation possible?
Or, to combine McRaven, Pollan, and my life all in one: my making of a coffee pot every morning. I know there are millions of Americans that begin their day with cups or pots of coffee. I do it in a very particular way: hand pour-over. Go ahead and start the eye-rolling. It’s the way it’s done in every god damned hipster coffee shop that’s ever gotten under your skin. Don’t worry, I get it. Unnecessarily complicating the shit out of simple things like burgers, clothes, and coffee is an annoying side effect of American hipsterism. I appreciated the taste, for sure. But the taste alone did not draw me into ordering the pour-over setup from Japan at what I considered to be a hideous price.
When my good buddy Ben noticed my appreciation for good coffee, he sent me a link of a video presentation entitled “The Nerdy Intricacies of Brewing Good Coffee,” which takes the viewer through the pour-over method from start to finish. Apart from the nauseatingly smug intro in subtitles, I found this stupid little video captivating. There is no music, the camera never moves from its focus on the pot, and there is no sound other than the coffee being brewed. Instructions are given through subtitles, and the entire thing takes less than five minutes. I was drawn to that silence, the sounds, and the smells I could imagine from the freshly ground beans. I was drawn to the process.
After all, while I can vouch for the superior taste of pour-over coffee, I’m not a fussy person when it comes to coffee taste. While on many long road trips, I have consumed McDonalds Mccafe black without complaint, enjoyed Folgers off a shitty old drip machine in rural Kansas, and swilled many post-hangover cups of whatever origin. Morning + coffee=better than morning – coffee. Taste alone would not drive me to do what I now do every morning: carefully brew an excellent pot of pour-over coffee. I do love picking out beans from a particular roaster and a certain region: my geeky appreciation for good stories. But the process of the making itself has become one of my favorite things, even (or especially) on weekends, when I’m not required to “wake up” and do anything in particular.
One of my favorite things about the whole week is rolling out of bed in the total stillness of a Saturday morning before sunrise, enduring the brief blare of the grinder, and then sinking into everything else: the smell of the freshly ground beans, the sound of the gathering steam in the kettle, the feel of the careful, gentle circular motion in the pour, the sight of the coffee “bloom” at the first touch of the water, after counting off seconds from the boil to the slightly less hot (and ideal) temperature. And at the end, the taste of that coffee. When I last read of the “no mind” referred to in Buddhism, this seemed remarkably close. Without even thinking about it, I had adopted a ritual that began every day with total clarity and a feeling of accomplishment I could take with me.
Does it work that way every morning? No. Sometimes the session is shot because I’m on autopilot, thinking about something else. No joke, the coffee is less good when that happens. But I think I was definitely wrong in reading Sheridan and thinking meditation wasn’t for me. Aside from any benefits of a caffeinated mind, my day is simply better and more deliberately lived when it begins with my pour-over coffee pot, just like no weekend is complete without a large, simmering pot of chili. Enlightenment? Nah. But I’ll bet if they could hear of my experience, McRaven and some of those Buddhist monks would understand.