There is a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition of drawing circles. Using a calligraphy brush, the Zen circle is drawn with one quick stroke. It exemplifies directness, simplicity, presence. A dubious ripple indicates an unsteady mind; an unfortunate ovoid betrays overthinking.
Once, I stumbled upon a video of Thich Nhat Hanh drawing perfect Zen circle after circle, while photographers clicked their cameras with appreciation and onlookers cooed and awed. At the time – which I am ashamed to now admit – I thought it rather overrated, but then again, I hadn’t yet tried the circle drawing practice myself, and later my strange amoebic sprawls would knock me down a few deserved notches.
While I’m sure it’s useful to some to fill pages of notebooks with Zen circles, I lean towards more practical arts, usually of gastronomic circumstance. We’ve had the good fortune to eat some delicious, beautifully presented food in respected establishments – and since my inner food scientist lives on in the creases of my heart, I feed her with minute analytics of the hows, whys, and with which’s that a dish was constructed.
For those with particularly keen eyes, it probably comes at no surprise that, for a while now, chefs seem to be really into smearing a smig of sauce on a plate, with the back of a large spoon, and then artfully tumbling the solids on top. It certainly is more chic than globs of sauce dribbled over hunks of food, which would hide the perfectly cooked chunks of this and that. Inspired by such edible artistry, I myself have attempted some self-conscious smears at home, and even with the warbles and false starts, I have to say it is a very satisfying somatic experience.
In fact, it reminds me of Zen circles.
While I haven’t yet attempted (or seen others attempt) a full-circle-smear of sauce, even a partial circle – or streak – of whatever proportion, does require some modicum of the same precision and focus required when handling brush, ink, and paper. In a way I have a deeper admiration for the edible version, because it requires several steps of work: first, to assemble the ingredients; next, to make the food; finally, to plate in a visibly pleasant way. It speaks of discipline, hard work, and perseverance.
My admiration of discipline, and my personal goals to establish it within myself, have been long standing. I recall in grades 3 through 6, that I had a self-imposed bedtime of 9:30 pm, and if for some reason I wasn’t under the covers by then, mental self-flagellation would ensue, which would ensure that I couldn’t fall asleep until 11:00 pm. In high school I would turn down invitations to birthday parties, because going to one social event that month (the school dance, from which I asked to be picked up from at 10:00 pm) was “more than enough fun for me.”
Since then, I’ve relaxed somewhat (I go to bed at 11:00 pm, at best), and while it might initially appear as a straitjacket existence, the truth of the Stockholm matter is that I have known somewhere deep down that discipline was a necessary part of living a gratifying life. That is, discipline that I chose to partake in. The privilege of getting to choose my problems was something that I felt was important, even if my nine-year-old self couldn’t articulate why, and if that beat my parents to the punch, then even better.
I’d like to indulge myself with thinking that my idea of discipline has matured over the years, has become less punitive, and encompasses more meaning than, “Only one bar of chocolate a week” and “Move my body so I can save myself from complaining about how tubby I feel.”
Instead of a brand of discipline that narrows and insulates, I am striving to establish a sense of discipline that is the springboard for enrichment.
For instance: apparently one of the life-hacking skills that highly successful people (read: financially rich) employ is to eat the same breakfast everyday. By automating their breakfast choice, they do not lose energy through the decision-making required for such an apparently mundane task as shoving calories into your body. While I often do eat the same breakfast every day, it is because it is my homemade granola, with a strong dose of chia and flax seeds, in order to keep my bowels regular, upon which my sanity depends. Less worrying about the state of my bowels frees up mental space for me to focus on other important issues.
In a desperate attempt to make my life mean something more than its economic productivity, most of my adult life has consisted of centring my efforts at cultivating discipline according to the Bodhisattva vows.
A Bodhisattva is a person who sees that their liberation from suffering is inextricably intertwined with the liberation of everyone else, so through compassion and dedication, they work tirelessly to promote a path to freedom for themselves and others.
In other words: being at peace doesn’t work if no one else is.
The tricky thing though, is that the work is never done.
The tragedy of life, but also from which one can derive meaning, is that the pain never stops. In fact, striving to be free of pain often produces more pain. And, while acknowledging this, the Bodhisattva way is to keep on keeping on. All the turmeric, green juices, and coconut oil won’t keep a life-threatening disease away forever. All the yoga classes, cleanses, and retreats can be mighty helpful, but the dull malaise will return.
A Bodhisattva understands that none of us will never be fully healed. But the work is still worth it.
Which brings me back to the Zen circles: I plan to continue making amateur swipes of sauce across the plate. I don’t expect practice to make perfect; I just expect more practice. And I hope for the resilience to keep at it, wholeheartedly.
Here are the Bodhisattva vows, translated by Michael Stone:
Beings are numberless, I vow to serve them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The awakened way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.
Tahini sauce to swipe around
Thus far, a tahini-based sauce has been my favourite medium for swiping (using the back of a large spoon), but I plan to venture into other viscous forays as time marches on. It is incredibly versatile, and goes well with roasted vegetables, rice, etc. This recipe makes about 2 cups.
2/3 cup tahini
2/3 cup plain Greek yoghurt and/or sour cream
1/4-1/3 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp sea salt
Water, to adjust consistency
As you might tell, this recipe is really about ratios: a one-to-one-ish ratio of tahini and yoghurt/sour cream, with a squidge of lemon juice added, plus water to make it as thick or runny as you prefer. Considering the fact that each of these ingredients is pretty delicious on their own, you can keep adding a bit of this and that until you land upon something you like. This recipe also lends will to variations and permutations: sour cream will make a richer flavour than yoghurt, you might switch the lemon for lime, or add something spicy like grated ginger to make it interesting. What I do find important though is to keep the smooth consistency, so when considering how you might modify, consider maintaining a frictionless experience.