Lately friends at Parabola and in my local sitting group have been discussing qualities that might not seem at first glance all that powerful or important—qualities like determination and kindness and equanimity. We’ve been talking about the way these qualities, this way of being appears naturally when we have a sincere intention to wake up and be fully present in this world. Everybody talks about mindfulness these days– very few people want to explore qualities like intention. But when the time and conditions are right, a trap can open in the midst of a seemingly simple act of being determined or noticing intention–dropping us into surprising depths and beauty.
Years ago, when I went to interview Ram Dass, I opened with a kind of apology, telling him I felt like I was already friends with him during my impressionable teen years made me feel as if I was with him in India, and on his whole long search. Only I wasn’t. I was in Watertown, New York, in the attic room of a sweet friend who like to call himself “Shiva Gonzo.” The room was illuminated by black light and big dripping candles (one was skull shaped). It was full of smoke and talk of life and death and what it meant to Be Here Now. Sitting there smoking and listening to Ten Years After and Blue Oyster Cult and bands like that, it was as if we were sitting around the fire with Ram Dass, fellow seekers on the path inner transformation.
Ram Dass laughed and banged his hand on the arm of his wheelchair and basically said if he had a nickel for every time someone told him a version of that same story he would have a mountain of nickels. A few weeks ago, I went to my first ever high school reunion and learned that poor, sweet Shiva Gonzo died while shooting drugs in the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, back in the eighties. I felt all kinds of things hearing this sad news, including the piercing sense of all Tommy (Shiva’s birth name) missed—not big events but very small events, micro awakenings–those moments when seemingly soft or simple qualities like kindness or determination open up and reveal their true scale.
Long after I last saw Shiva Gonzo, while I was working for a magazine in “main stream media,” I reached a point where I decided to stop interviewing spiritual teachers and intellectuals. I asked to interview chefs and people who wrote books about doing very basic, practical things. I thought they might be able to give me hints about “the inside story” (or at least the food would be very good). One warm spring evening, I was sent to meet the great chef Patrick O’Connell at Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. I munched on pizza with wild mushrooms and other deeply savory snacks, all prepared by chef Daniel Baloud personally (yum). Later, I talked with O’Connell about his work and what guided him. I learned an indelible lesson about the power of determination, sincerity, intention:
“I think the discipline or approach you need to take to learn to cook is the same for anything you might want to pursue. You have to give yourself to it with your whole body and your whole soul. You have to give it everything that you have. I’ve given cooking demonstrations to young chefs where I’ve brought a broom. I demonstrate how to use it. The point is that when I learn how to become one with the broom, when I learn to engage completely in what I am doing, I will sweep the floor perfectly. It is the same with cooking. I have to learn to become one with the food, to engage with what is in front of me with my whole being.”
I asked him about the source of his confidence. He is a self taught cook working in a restaurant and inn deep in the countryside who has come to be considered one of the greatest chefs in the world. How did that happen? Young chefs from all over the world make a pilgrimage to his restaurant—the world comes to him.
“For me the key was putting myself in the right environment. In The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Casteneda, the shaman teaches Casteneda the importance of finding your place in the universe, the place where are you at home. When I came to this area in my 20s (the country around Washington, Virginia) I knew it was my place. Nothing ever felt so right. In a city, I am constantly distracted. Here, all my priorities shift to very basic things, to the goodness and importance of staying warm and dry and having something to eat. Here in the country, you realize that you want to share what you have with other people so you have a sense of connection with others. “
It’s fascinating to think that the preparation and sharing of food can lead us to a sense of finding our place in the universe, to a place of connection. But can the food itself communicate this? Can eating dishes that are prepared with awareness, that oneness lead eater to greater awareness or a greater sense of connection?
“If you make it that way, it will be received that way. People will sense it no matter how dense they are. All kinds of people come to the Inn At Little Washington. We have old people celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary who would never ordinarily go to a fancy restaurant. Jaded young chefs who want to analyze the food. If you have purity of intention, it gets through. It reaches them all.”
Food for Thought