by Anthony Pranger, Dining Manager and Program Coordinator
My view of abundance as a child was basically materialistic. Abundance meant having all the stuff I needed or wanted, and there were many times growing up where that was not my reality. As a young adult, I came to understand that the more common view of abundance was the means to obtain those resources and amenities. In both of these views, financial security and accumulation are the desirable end result, and I have struggled with these sets of conditions. It wasn’t until 2020 that I actually began to see abundance in a less material or strictly positive way.
When we cancelled our residential programs indefinitely because of the global coronavirus threat, I had already purchased food for our first couple of retreats. My work during the days that followed was to prepare and store the ingredients as best I could, in order to stretch their longevity and minimize food spoilage and waste. You could probably see this potential downside of abundance as ‘quite the pickle’, although that’s not the correlation I was going for. Sure, we have a couple of freezers and both a commercial and residential refrigerator, but enough food to feed 35 people for a week or two can become a challenge to disperse amongst 4 or 5 people, especially when it’s mostly fresh produce. With the additional question of the kitchen manager’s job being essential or not, suddenly an abundance of food was a potential problem. On top of that, other things became more and more abundant as well, like confusion, misinformation, and uncertainty.
All of my relational challenges - both personal and professional - were suddenly in abundance, and despite what appeared to me as a clear invitation to slow down, my proximate world seemed to do the opposite. I remember a retreat I sat a few years ago, and most of that retreat experience was colored by extreme physical, mental, and emotional agitation and discomfort. I had a lot of difficulty staying with the instructions for mindfulness of breathing, concentration, and stabilizing the mind, and I remember in one of my interviews with the teacher, he recommended that I just do loving-kindness meditation for myself and/or someone for whom offering metta was relatively easy. I also knew from experience that physical activity could soothe a restless mind. I dislike wasting food, and I love both making and eating kimchi, so I set out to process my unexpected abundance.
Kimchi (click for Southern Dharma recipe) is a vegetable ferment traditionally made by cultivating the lactobacillus naturally occurring on the leaves and other edible parts of cruciferous (cabbage family) vegetables. Kimchi is also usually made with salted shrimp paste and fish sauce, but I make a vegan version with miso and tamari. The basic idea is to submerge the cabbage in a brine for a few days, allowing no oxygen in, then move the container to the refrigerator for another few days to slow the fermentation process down. The container and the process are far more important than the initial quality of the produce, so while you don’t want any mold or rot to go into your ferment, the vegetables, fruits, and herb ingredients can be less perfect in their look and how you chop or slice them.
To me, this fermenting process seems a lot like what happened to me on that retreat. There was an abundance of things in my daily life that accumulated unprocessed, until I went on retreat and surrendered into a structure and a container that were designed for that processing to occur. I still struggled for most of the 9 or 10 days of that retreat, but when I settled into the reality of my difficult thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, the remainder of the retreat revealed some of myself to myself. When I left that retreat, there was still plenty of evidence of how I was before, but the invisible changes had also melded into a me that could withstand the next long while. I wouldn’t exactly say that I soured; maybe more accurately, I united some seemingly divided and dissident parts of myself and integrated them into my being. The coarse became crisp and inseparable from the fine, and I took on a character that included the pieces, but I was also irreversibly more.
The themes of adaptability and resilience came up again and again throughout the 2020 at home retreat season. Our teachers were bringing much needed offerings in the forms of group practice instructions, one-on-one guidance, and applicable wisdom teachings. Meanwhile, as I navigated my ever-changing role at the center, many more accumulated conditions bubbled to the surface. I was asked to greatly scale back my kitchen activity in favor of focus on at home retreats, and I learned how much of my work satisfaction was attached to my choosing the kitchen as my livelihood. My full-time status came into question numerous times throughout the season, as I tried to reconcile what I was able and willing to do, and what would bring my family and I joy and ease in life. And after venting unskillfully a few times, I remembered my previous retreat experiences, where I learned that it was okay for my experience to be uncomfortable and for me to be challenged by it.
I can certainly understand the day-to-day challenge of spending time processing fresh produce. It’s not even because it’s particularly difficult in and of itself, but it is time consuming, requires concentration and timing, and it is difficult to multitask while brushing, rinsing, chopping, and slicing. Over this past year, I was triggered many times at the suggestion that these activities were less important and less valuable than so many other activities in our organization. It is similar, in fact, to the suggestion that spending time in meditation or heart practice is less important and less valuable than productivity or other activities in our daily lives. I will admit that my strong inclination for more than half of the year was to spend more time processing food, emotions, thought patterns, and all of my other personal karma, and less on other organizational needs. Some of my mental and emotional traumas in fact demanded that I give more attention to myself, and there is a limit to the amount of time and energy that one can spend in a day.
Then I reached a new (for me) practice edge: it’s not just okay for me to experience challenge and discomfort, but also that those are regular contents of moment-to-moment experience, and that they are also not the whole experience, even when they dominate some portion of it. They’re kind of like chili peppers in that way: they add an intensity and complexity that in the right amount can skillfully balance the other flavors in my kimchi! Challenge and discomfort can support and develop habits of caution and also push my awareness out of some of my older and less skillful habits. I still find it very challenging when my feelings are strong, even overwhelming, to skillfully do other things, and I find my emotions less overwhelming when I dedicate some regular time to observing and learning about them.
And, when we started inviting people to do onsite volunteer work, with meals, I found my well processed and aged kimchi to be a delightful go-to, where I had already done the work and the whole community got to enjoy the finished product. Of course my abundance of kimchi (I made a batch big enough to fill a gallon-sized jar) didn’t last forever. I’ve even made another batch since then, which has also been consumed. But the process is still alive, ready to be applied to more produce when needed. And, thanks to our efforts this year and the help of our whole community, there is abundance in our ability to continue offering quality dharma programs. There is abundance in the spirit of our community to continue to adapt and support each other as the abundance of challenges and other things continues to roll into and out of our lives. It may not always be the best to begin with, but we can always do our best with it, and trust that processing an abundance of whatever comes our way, will also keep us fed for the next while.
Southern Dharma Kimchi Recipe from our forthcoming cookbook
Anthony is a native Oklahoman who has lived with his family-of-choice in Western North Carolina for nearly eight years. Anthony's service at Southern Dharma has been primarily kitchen related, and he has served non-consecutively for a little over five years in that capacity. A student of Soto Zen, and other Buddhist and tribal wisdom traditions, Anthony enjoys writing, gardening, cooking, and playing games with his family. Contact Anthony at firstname.lastname@example.org.