Over the last couple days, I’ve noticed myself getting a bit stressed. First, I’m in the midst of a job search. If you’ve ever been there, you know exactly what I’m dealing with. If you haven’t, just know that it’s, as Jerry Maguire might say, “…a pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about.” Additionally, I have day-to-day stressors like laundry, dishes, traffic, deadlines, bills, doctor appointments, dentist appointments, my way-too-soft mattress making my joints ache, and the invariable childrearing messes to clean up. Then, top all that off with a healthy dose of, “Uh oh, the holidays are coming,” and I’m like Jerry Seinfeld after switching rooms with Kramer when the Kenny Rogers Roasters sign is too bright. “Oh, I’m stressed!”
So, today, after being stuck in traffic for about 45 minutes longer than my hour-and-a-half trip home necessitated, my head aching, and my eyes weary, my wife asked, “Do you want me to cook dinner tonight?” I looked at her without pause, and said, “No, I’m cooking.” See, in our house, I’m responsible for the meals, and that’s the way I like it. No, I’m not crazy or a control freak. I know plenty of folks out there would have jumped at the chance to get out of cooking duties for the evening. I’m just not one of them. For me, cooking is a way to re-center and relax. It’s a way for me to take all the stressors and push them aside. For me, cooking is meditation.
When I was a little kid, I distinctly remember being outside in our backyard shooting hoops when our neighbor Bob came by. I had a rough day at school and apparently it showed. Bob asked me what was wrong and I told him that I was kind of stressed out. He asked me, “Is that why you’re out here taking jumpers?” I replied, “Yeah, I think so.” He said, “Good. Everyone needs something. You know how I’m always riding or blading, sometimes for miles and miles?” I nodded my head. He continued, “I don’t do that just to stay fit. I do that because that’s what keeps me centered. It’s what I do when I have too much on my mind and need to refocus. It’s how I re-calibrate and refresh. Everyone needs that. Everyone needs their thing.” Obviously, I’ve always remembered that advice from Bob. And while shooting hoops has always been helpful, I no longer have easy access to a court. Luckily, I’ve found another “thing” in cooking. Since it’s something that most people do at least once a day, I’d like to offer some perspective on how it helps me unwind, relax, and refocus. Who knows, maybe it can help you do the same. Similar to my views on food, if you can take a chore and turn it into a treat, you’ve just improved your day!
You know what causes me a lot of stress? Me! That’s right, I cause a lot of my own stress. Here’s how: Instead of being occupied with what I’m doing right now, I’m thinking about the past, or I’m thinking about the future. I’m thinking of “already over” or “never were” scenarios. I’m thinking of possibilities. I’m consumed by “what ifs.” I’m not in the present. A state of being can often be interrupted by a state of thinking; a state of thinking that goes unchecked can morph into a state of rumination; and a state of rumination can translate into an anxiety state. I’m causing my own stress by not staying in the moment; by not being present. Therefore, to reduce anxiety, I need to find a way to take one thing at a time, and just be.
After doing some research, there’s a term in modern meditative practice that refers to being present. It’s called mindfulness. According to mindful.org, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” In order to de-stress, this is my goal. I need to be in the moment, completely. I need to focus on being, not on thinking. I need to be mindful. This is exactly what cooking provides me.
When I cook, I am singularly focused on the task at hand. This starts with a precise goal: Make a restaurant quality meal for my family. This might sound nuts, but that’s my pursuit whenever I put on my apron and sling some hash. To be clear, just because I chase excellence or chase perfection doesn’t mean I always achieve it. However, I find having a goal is helpful in keeping me present. With it, the task has meaning and importance. Without the goal, it would be too easy to get lackadaisical, go through the motions, and wander off. Food is important. If I mess it up, someone is either going to be hungry, or they’re going to have a lesser experience than they could have. Does this put pressure on? Yes, I suppose it does. But for me, it’s not the same as stress or anxiety. It’s focus. This focus blooms further when I get into the act of cooking. Cooking is a practice. It’s something that one does. It’s not a consideration of an action. It’s not a thought about a result. It’s doing in the here and now.
Cooking requires my full attention. Take my meal tonight, for instance: pork chops, baked potato, and asparagus. Everything was perfectly timed, perfectly cooked, and well appreciated by my wife (my 17 month-old son ate PB&J and apples). The key: I had no time to think about anything but cooking. If I wanted to make sure this meal was done right and well, and for everything to be ready at the same time, I needed to be focused and present. There was too much going on for me to be worried about anything else. From searing, to flipping, to rinsing, to steaming, to setting the table, to plating, there was no down time. Thinking about the past: not an option. Ruminating about the future: not an option. Staying in the moment was the only play. Cooking forces me to be mindful.
Once I realized this about cooking, I started to really enjoy my time in the kitchen. I stopped viewing it as another chore, and viewed it as a mental break from all the other stuff that piles up in my mind. It’s one of the few things that fully engages my attention when I’m doing it. It keeps me square in the moment. Because of this, my worries and cares disappear, and I’m at ease. This holiday season, I encourage you to take advantage of the power of cooking to help you ease some of your tension. Instead of sliding some cranberry sauce out of a can, or making your stuffing from a box, or ordering in your turkey (all because you think it will be easier), take the time to make some from scratch and pay attention to being present throughout the process. Focus on the consistency, the heat, the flavor, the aroma, the taste, the coloring, and the timing. Focus on making that cranberry sauce, that stuffing, that turkey the best it can be. Do that and you won’t be able to worry about anything else. And for that brief time, you will have pressed pause on your stress, achieved some semblance of mindfulness, and recharged. Cooking does that for me, and I believe it can do that for you. It’s not a chore, it’s a gift. We just have to pay attention to receive it.
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