On Breadmaking and Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment: Lessons from a Reluctant Baker
Originally published in the Mindfulness Bell Magazine, Issue 81, Summer 2019.
Posted with permission. Click here for subscriptions to the Mindfulness Bell Magazine.
When I began a daily meditation practice several years ago, I also started making bread. At the time, I was surprised to find myself making bread several times a week. I am a cook and love to cook for family and friends. I have never been a baker and still do not consider myself one. However, I eventually realized that making bread was a meditative experience that taught me an important lesson about dwelling happily in the present moment and connecting with the flow of life.
In the past, baking has challenged my compulsion to have clean and orderly working places. Baking and mess were synonymous—too many mixing bowls, precise measurements, right temperature, sticky hands, and the plumes of flour that landed everywhere, no matter how hard I negotiated the journey from the bag of flour to the mixing bowl. In the end, all I could hope for was a delicious baked good—if I meticulously followed all the steps—and a lot of cleaning up to do. I thought that the effort was not worth the price. I now realize that by focusing on the end product, I was missing the joys of the present moment. There is no effort in simply being.
Meditation has transformed my relationship with baking into a joyful and life-affirming experience. The process is not an effort to avoid but a journey to explore. Kneading dough is a delicious, sensory-filled experience! I invite you to try it if you have never done so. In the past, placing my hands into a bowl of flour, liquids (water or milk), oil—and let’s not forget the elusive but essential egg—was simply an act of courage. A gooey soup swirled between my fingers and clumped in my hands like a malignant formation. My goal was to complete the task as quickly as possible. Now, I relish how my hands help bring together all these ingredients into a comforting ball of dough.
The process of kneading reminds me of the advice one of my teachers gave: incorporate everything into the fold of awareness. When kneading, that is precisely what I am doing. I incorporate all the ingredients, folding, pressing, and feeling the different textures as the dough changes consistency. Kneading helps the dough become more elastic and flexible. Kneading is the prelude signaling that something unique is arising, something different than its individual elements. A loaf of bread is an elusive mystery that I relish every time I open the oven.
When I began making bread, my husband, Steve, asked me many times to write down the precise quantities I used; then he could also make bread when I was not available. I resisted doing so. I later realized that I unconsciously wanted bread making to be a more organic process—no rules, just learning by feeling, seeing, and smelling. Without an exact recipe, I invite surprise to accompany me in this journey. Without an exact recipe, I can dwell in the present moment; I can avoid the trappings of hoping that this new loaf will be as good as, or better than, the last one.
Every time I cut into a freshly made loaf of bread, I am unsure of what I am getting. I love this! There is no past or future. I approach breadmaking with a beginner’s mind. I allow myself to experiment, and in so doing, I practice staying connected to the present moment. Sometimes the bread is crunchy and light; sometimes, it is dense and chewy. In the end (with a few noteworthy exceptions when I’ve forgotten to add yeast), no matter how the bread comes out, sunflower seed butter and honey always help make my morning breakfast a tantalizing experience. The entire universe is manifested in a loaf of bread. This awareness brings great joy as I savor the textures and flavors of this magical creation.
The process of making bread has been parallel to my meditation. Meditation has helped me become aware of how similar I am to an uncooked ball of dough. Like kneading, the more I meditate, the more elastic and flexible I become. I do not live in the chaos of separation or in the illusion of fusion. Everything is separate but blended together. Meditation is to my emotional well-being as kneading is to making good bread. It allows me to be more flexible and resilient, like a piece of delicious bread. I want to believe it makes me more enjoyable to myself and others.
Making bread has helped me realize, in a concrete way, an important idea: how shifting my attitude can bring joy and peace into an activity that I once found stressful. The shift in mindset has been challenging. Old habits—like perfectionism, control, compulsion for orderliness, and impatience—require careful attention, self-compassion, and coming back to the present moment.
Gratitude comes alive in me every time I remember to stop, breathe, and go slowly. It only takes a few breaths to evoke feelings of gratitude that help me dwell happily in the present moment. Throughout the day, I stop and invite myself to take a moment to bring awareness to all of my senses and check in with my heart. These brief mindful moments always evoke deep gratitude for my capacity to see, hear, touch, smell, think, breathe, and love. In turn, gratitude brings a sense of well-being and openness. Gratitude helps me compost suffering and water seeds of joy.
You may already enjoy the pleasures of making bread, or you may be inspired to try it out. May gratitude accompany every activity and bring ongoing awareness to the beauty of the present moment.