New Year’s Resolutions and Perfect BiscuitsPillsbury Biscuits

New Year’s Resolutions and Perfect Biscuits

Discussion date: Thu, Jan 05, 2017 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

So often our resolutions, especially our New Year’s resolutions, have to do with fixing or improving ourselves. We are not yet the “right” version of ourselves. We have to keep working on it.

Ed Brown, a Zen teacher and chef, reflecting on Making the Perfect Biscuit, asks the essential question: “Compared to what.” He finally realizes that his image of the Perfect Biscuit is keeping him from actually tasting the actual here-and-now biscuit.

Then the exquisite moment of finally tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some (previously hidden) standard: wheaty, buttery, flaky, earthy, sunny, here. Inconceivably delicious, incomparably alive, present, vibrant. In fact, much more satisfying than any memory, much more delicious than any concept.

Those moments—when you realize your life as it is, is just fine thank you—can be so stunning and liberating.  Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product make it seem insufficient. The effort to produce life without any dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger is bound to fail—and be endlessly frustrating.

Ed Brown’s story aligns with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching on the perils of having “an idea of happiness.”

The notions we entertain about what will bring us happiness are just a trap. We forget that they are only ideas. Our idea of happiness can prevent us from being happy. When we believe that happiness should take a particular form, we fail to see the opportunities for joy that are right in front of us. (From the 2015 Tricycle article, Cultivating Compassion)

It all rings true for me. As a child I so often wanted to be transformed into someone different. Someone who would have the athletic abilities of W, the looks of X, the intelligence of Y, and the charm of Z. It is a hard habit to kick and sometimes it still creeps in: wanting to give a Dharma talk like A, do Tai-Chi like B, write like C.

However, these days I’m often able to say to myself as it is happening, “There you go again. The seed of comparison has arisen.” Just naming it for what it is usually takes most of its power away. I remember that when I’m in the present moment, as Ed Brown put it, my “life as it is, is just fine thank you.”

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will read Ed Brown’s story (a copy is below) and focus our Dharma sharing on New Year’s resolutions and Perfect Biscuits.

You are invited to join us.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


Making the Perfect Biscuit
By Ed Brown, from The Complete Tassajara Cookbook

When I first started cooking at Tassajara, I had a problem: I couldn’t get my biscuits to come out right. I’d follow the recipe and try variations: milk or water, eggs or no eggs, but nothing worked. I had in mind the “perfect” biscuit and these just didn’t measure up. After several failures, I finally got to thinking, “Right compared to what?”

Growing up I had “made” two kinds of biscuits: one was from Bisquik and the other was from Pillsbury. For the Bisquik biscuits, you added milk to the mix and then blobbed spoonfuls onto the pan—you didn’t even need to roll them out. The biscuits from Pillsbury came in a kind of cardboard can. You rapped the can on the corner of the counter, and it popped open. Then you twisted the can open more, put the premade biscuits on the pan and baked them. I really liked those Pillsbury biscuits. Isn’t that what biscuits should taste like? Mine just weren’t coming out the way they were supposed to.

It’s wonderful and amazing the ideas we get about what biscuits should taste like, or what a life should look like. Compared to what? Canned biscuits from Pillsbury? Leave It To Beaver? And then we often forget where that idea came from or that we even had an idea. Those (perfectly good) biscuits just aren’t “right.”

People who ate my biscuits could be extolling their virtues and eating one after the other, but for me they were not “right.” Finally one day that shifting-into-place occurred. Not “right” compared to what? Oh, no! I’ve been trying to make canned Pillsbury biscuits. Then the exquisite moment of finally tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some (previously hidden) standard: wheaty, buttery, flaky, earthy, sunny, here. Inconceivably delicious, incomparably alive, present, vibrant. In fact, much more satisfying than any memory, much more delicious than any concept.

Those moments—when you realize your life as it is, is just fine thank you—can be so stunning and liberating.  Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged product make it seem insufficient. The effort to produce life without any dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger is bound to fail—and be endlessly frustrating.

Sometimes when I was cooking my former partner, Patricia would ask if she could help. My response was not pretty, neat, or presentable. The lid comes right off and I would explode: “No!” How could an offer of assistance be so traumatic and irritating. Neither of us could understand why my response was so out of scale, so emotionally reactive. But I suppose it depends on which biscuits you’re trying to bake.

I couldn’t get it for the longest time. Finally I realized I was trying to make myself into Mr Perfect Grown-up Man, competent, capable and superbly skilled, performing tasks without needing any help.

Someone asking, “Anything I can do?” implied that I need help, that somehow I am not competent, independent and grown-up enough to handle the cooking myself. Ironically the desperate attachment to being the perfect grown-up meant being a moody, emotional infant with strange prickliness. “How could you think such a thing?” I would rage. “You’ve ruined my perfect biscuits, now leave me alone.”

As a Zen student one can spend years trying to make it look right, trying to cover the faults, conceal the messes. Everyone knew what the Bisquik Zen student looked like: calm, buoyant, cheerful, energetic, deep, profound. Our motto as one of my friends says was, “Looking good.”

We’ve all done it: tried to look good as a husband, wife, or parent. “Yes I have it all together. I’m not greedy or angry or jealous. You’re the one who does those things, and if you didn’t do it first, I wouldn’t do them either. You started it”

“Don’t peek behind my cover,” we say, and if you do, keep it to yourself. Well to heck with it I say, wake up and smell the coffee—and how about savoring some good old home-cooking, the biscuits of the day?

in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Jan 05, 2017


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