I prefer to believe that I am quite efficient at cooking. For last seven years or so I have been preparing my meal. Washing the vegetables, chopping them finely, frying at right temperature, knowing things like exactly how many pinches of spices would make the dish taste perfect or how many minutes of boiling would be optimum usually do not require great degree of human excellence. A mere seven days internship in kitchen seems to be sufficient for that. So seven years with two hours daily practice and occasional creative inputs have certainly made me a decent cook and feedback from the ‘audience’ has certified this assumption, too.
But there lies a technical problem. Nowadays while slicing the onion with an almost surgical precision even with closed eyes, I can’t help thinking of my initial episodes of struggle with knife and this slippery, round tuberish object. Those days I had to keep my focus intact so that my fingers are not hurt, I had to ignore my hyper reactive tear ducts, I had to remain alert so that the onion did not fling off the chopping board while facing the hostile impact of a naive knife and overall with a devoted involvement I had to manage slicing the object into as many pieces as possible. Looking at the delicate and fine white pieces of onion on the board I feel a certain kind of guilt provoking satisfaction for mastering the art of chopping onion unconsciously.
Now it does not need the earlier alertness, dedication and involvement. The process has become so known, so familiar that it hardly needs ‘me’ to do the work. I can think of any other subject apart from onion while working with the knife and still the work gets done. The process has become so mechanical that the end product has attained a robotic perfection. It is bit strange. If I am accomplishing something so accurately without being conscious about the process then technically I have not done the job. Rather it is just a chanced juxtaposition of a chain of blind physical movements which eventually results in a heap of sliced vegetable.
A story comes to my mind. This is the story of a famous archer of east, celebrated for his precision in targeting the goal, who became disciple of a recluse zen master. The master knew little of archery and used to miss the target while teaching his disciple, the archer. People used to wonder about this odd pair. One day a guy asked the student “what do you get to learn about archery from this old man whose arrow never reaches the target?” The student answered “The only thing my master teaches me is that to be present right there when I unleash my arrow”.
For me the daily practice of two hours, when I sit still and silent in order to withdraw myself from all the mental and physical ‘acts’, is the old zen master who teaches me patiently how to make the whole of ‘me’ available right there while performing the actual action, an action which, instead of the arrow and bow, might involve an experienced knife and a benign onion.