A personal and inspiring guide to finding sacramental magic in everyday life and attaining a sense of spiritual empowerment in the modern world.
- Da Capo Press
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- 5.75(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.77(d)
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Interstate Highway 80 is a scary road when you have never before been on it, it's your first time west of the Mississippi, and you are only twenty years old, with your thumb out trying to get a ride somewhere south of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Your hair is long, you are wearing a wool poncho with Aztec designs; your arm is in a sling because you separated your shoulder playing football a few days before; it is 1970, and you have just heard a story about how local cowboys love to cut off the hair of hippies. Interstate 80 may even have the look of a river that leads to General Kurtz, as it disappears in an endless arc over the horizon, shimmering like a desert mirage infected with that unique prairie hybrid of hot dry air and auto exhaust fumes. Meanwhile, four hours have passed and no cars have even hinted at stopping. I was starting to worry.
It was my first on-the-road pilgrimage of self-discovery, though at the time I feared it had become a journey into my own heart of darkness. My imagination was on the verge of going out of control, so I had to decide very quickly whether I was going to be Dean Moriarty, Siddhartha, or a newly created someone in-between. Scanning the possibilities amidst the thumping and clacking but rhythmically repeating sounds of the here-they-come and there-they-go cars and trucks echoing off the highway, I latched onto the mantric notes evoked by that sound and involuntarily began chanting, "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare...." I continued this chant for two hours, singing at the top of my lungs since I had no fearof being heard, until a car finally stopped and offered me a ride all the way to San Francisco. I arrived two days later with real flowers in my hair and completed a summer of love and healing in both northern and southern California before returning, a changed person, to my home near Philadelphia.
I had never gotten too involved with the Hare Krishnas, though I twice went to what they called a "love feast" in Boston, where I was a hungry college student looking in my scattergun way for both nutritious food and truth. Believing that the Hare Krishna diet of mainly white rice and white sugar would do me in, and not too fond of the haircuts either, I decided that the way of Krishna the blue avatar was not for me. I did, however, have a hard time getting that song out of my head; it became a tape loop that turned itself on at unexpected times.
When my crosscountry summer adventure ended, returning me to college, I frequently thought back to that time on the highway, chanting my head off while imagining that the words themselves created a cage of protection, projecting a tractor beam to cars still miles away from me and my tired thumb. I thanked God for Krishna and all those bald, pasty-faced Krishnites who infused their song into my heart, replacing my highway fear with highway hope. I have never been quite as chauvinistic about Christianity as I think my Orthodox brethren would like me to be, and I believe those two hours of highway chanting had something to do with it.
What I came to believe is that on Highway 80 my impulsive burst of free-flowing chanting, surrendering to the magic of the road, and abandoning myself to Divine providence was initiatory for me, a crucial step in the unfolding of my soul that eventually, gradually, led me through unanticipated arcs and loops to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It was a decisive experience, a defining freeze-frame moment, and began a process that was life changing, which is probably as good a definition of initiation as there is. It was the first time that I realized my own life could be, and perhaps would be, as interesting as the lives of my heroes and role models. I can only say this in retrospect, for there was no way to see things in those terms then. It was just one in a series of seemingly random acts I did, only now I don't think of them as random so much as a youthful, unconscious, and serendipity-filled effort to do my part in the ancient synergistic dance between Creator and Creature. I put out the effort and God met me halfway and a process, a long unending process, ensued. In that highway moment I had been given a glimpse, a brief intuitive taste of what I later learned is called in the Judeo-Christian tradition theosis, the awareness and experiential knowledge of being created in the image and likeness of God. The glimpse was but an appetizer, a teasing moment of God realization. I had, as I now see it, awakened.
I used to think that initiations happen only in a certain chronological order. While it may be true that the soul unfolds in a temporally linear fashion, I have learned that it also unfolds in all sorts of nonlinear ways as well. I can pinpoint the defining moments in my life and string them together into an A to Z story, but as my life continues along in its linear reality I find myself also undergoing various permutations, in and out of order, of the ten initiations I'm about to describe. In every moment, it seems, the potential for any one of these or other initiations to occur is ripe, so you may discover what appear to be recurrences and déjà vu as my story unfolds. Please know that it is okay, for instance, to awaken time and again, to be reborn time and again, and so on, as we become who we are going to be. However, there are some moments that are so definitively defining, so clearly a breakthrough in our soul's unfolding, that we can point to them as truly significant initiations. As they recur in subsequent life situations, appearing now as minor rather than major initiations, a sense of here we go again may set in, but this is a good thing. It's valuable when we can identify the patterns of our lives and know that we are on the right course. That's the whole point of initiations, passing for the first time through gates both broad and narrow, sometimes revisiting them to deepen the learning.
For me the learning began in earnest when I was eighteen and made a very conscious decision to go beyond reading about interesting people and to try to become one. I then fell in love for the first time and shortly thereafter, like so many before me, suffered my first broken heart. I also got a job cleaning stables at one of the top harness racing horse farms in America because I thought I might make a good sulky driver. Within three days I got carried out on a stretcher and nearly died, unable to breathe because I was allergic to horsehair and straw. Then, while working a summer job in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, I met a guy who thought he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. He asked me to be one of his disciples, which I, along with a few other people, pretended to do. A few months later when we all returned either to college or our regular lives, leaving him with no disciples, he killed himself. That sent me, deeply remorseful and depressed, into a search for a meaningful and real spirituality. My friend's suicide had a martyr's effect upon me, eliciting in me a sense of moral obligation for some kind of atonement. Soon, alone and not certain why, I found myself hitchhiking across America. I did not, despite these formative events, believe I was becoming an interesting person. That belief dawned on me later, on Highway 80, as my mise en place of collected experiences was beginning to fall into line as I sensed what I was going to make of this life.
Mise en place is a French culinary term that means "everything in its place." It is the primary organizational principle in cooking. Before anyone can bake a loaf of bread, for instance, it is necessary to gather the ingredients, properly weigh them, and only then prepare to start. Once the water meets the flour, a process is initiated that does not end until the bread comes out of the oven and is, if it is a worthy loaf, consumed. In culinary academies we teach that the ultimate success of one's dish, whether it be bread, pastry, or hot entrée, is determined during the mise en place phase. Some of our instructors chant it again and again like Zen priests with their favorite koan: "Mise en place is your friend." Mise en place is both the simplest of concepts and the most difficult to teach. Some students never get it: everything in its place before you cook; and make sure you have gathered the right ingredients. To do this you have to know what you want to make.
Prior to Highway 80, and well before I ever learned to cook, I lived and gathered my life experiences without knowing what I planned to make of them. I was a film major in college and dropped out because, while discovering I may have had the talent to write and make films, I did not know what I had to say. I wanted to be a film director but had no direction. I even turned down a job working with Otto Preminger, because I was sure that, if I embarked on my film career then, I would be dead or destroyed within a few years.
Like everyone, I had passed through the requisite natural initiations that come simply by growing up, all the standard childhood passages: losing teeth, first kiss, heartache, hobbies, friendships, embarrassments, betrayals, and identity crises. The ingredients were gathered, my mise en place was coming together, but I hadn't decided just what kind of loaf I wanted to bake.
Something changed for me when I burst out in chant on Highway 80. I understood myself for the first time as a pilgrim, a spiritual pilgrim, and realized that in being such a pilgrim my life had acquired direction and purpose. Yet even this took a few years to fully digest, My awakening was both an event and an unfolding over time. It was the beginning of a journey that would have many beginnings.
For the past twenty-nine years I have been searching for a deepening of that awakening, the unwinding of the starchy threads of my soul to release their sugary essence. In religious terminology, a moment of awakening or realization is called an epiphany, which means manifestation, or the descent of God into the present moment. Others call it an Aha! What I experienced convinced me that I'd had a glimpse into the meaning of life, at least of my life, and I did not want to ever be separated from it. I have, since then, often been separated, left only with a memory that fades dream-like into an image, and finally a longing that needs to be constantly renewed lest it fade away altogether.
No single word or group of words can properly describe an epiphany; after all, thousands of books have attempted this impossible task and English is far from the best language in which to attempt describing the indescribable. Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek are all more precise yet even in these ancient languages the task is still impossible. The phrase in English that comes closest, while falling woefully short, is unconditional love. In Greek and Latin, however, there are at least four words for such love: filios (brotherly), eros (attractive, romantic), caritas (charitable), and agape (dispassionate, Godly, transcendent). The words define love from all sorts of levels and angles, each one capturing only a portion of the experience that Aha'd me so many years ago. Since then I have, inevitably, slipped in and out of that awakened state of unconditional love a few times, in and out of that elusive eureka.
A famous mystic, Saint Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Christian desert monasticism, said he experienced the unconditional love of God only five times in his life, spending nearly one hundred years in the wilderness in the attempt to recapture it, each taste feeding his hunger for the next. My goal, ever since Highway 80, in the great and cocky American tradition of which I am proud to be a part, is to experience it constantly. That quest is my mantrait has given me a sense of mission; it gives thrust and meaning to my life.
In pursuit of that unconditional love, I subsequently have sat at the feet of more than a few eastern gurus, read hundreds of religious and philosophical books, lived in monasteries, placed myself under the direction of spiritual elders, visited the holy land of Eretz Y'Israel, stood at the foot of the hill of Golgotha, and spent thousands of hours in prayer and meditation. My adult life has been an ongoing pilgrimage in search of samadhi, nirvana, illumination, self-realization, theosis, and union with God. Call it what you will, and I have, at times, called it all of these names and discovered that they are not exactly the same. But the one constant in my life is that I have measured every experience against that singular moment of abandonment to Divine providence on Highway 80.
It has not been a fruitless quest. Once, a number of years ago, I reclaimed my aha! for a few brief moments while praying in a chapel after a serious bout of despondency. It fortified and carried me, in the spirit of Saint Anthony, into the next phase of my search, back into the desert. At times my toes have touched the brink of that elusive river, and other times despair caused me to forget what force was driving me, or dashed any hope that it was reattainable, or that it had ever been attained at all. I have, in other words, been alive and fully humanbut not always consciously, not always vibrantly, despite my best efforts to maintain the pilgrim's edge and the magic of the road.
In the course of this quest I have made many notes and have had my share of major and minor insights, discovering that part of the process of my personal journey is communicating with others. Every adventure that I pursue always seems to include this aspect, even in the simple baking and writing about a loaf of bread. If my vocation is spiritual pilgrim, then my avocation is not baker, but rather, communicator.
I learned that the best way to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life is allegorically, metaphorically, and analogously; the images I have to reflect upon are the ones that appeared in my life, most notably bread, which has become my sled dog. I am not anyone's guru or spiritual father but offer the thoughts that follow as much for my own sake as for others. I am convinced that in every moment, as I work out my own destiny, communicating and effectively touching lives is essential to that process. I am still searching for those five epiphanies of Saint Anthony, seeking the great, eternal, ongoing, immortal epiphany and, again, in the great American tradition, expect to find it. Once I stepped off Highway 80 and onto the spiritual path the question that then confronted me was, if ultimate meaning is attainable am I willing to pay the price for its acquisition, to follow the breadcrumb trail wherever it leads? That question, like a little lemon shark attached to the back of a blue whale, is always hanging around. I ask it of myself every day, and as I reflect upon it and write about it, am surprised at what I discover.
One of the things I discovered in my own journey is that the psychological answers I sought in my quest for meaningfulness already existed in the traditions that spawned me. My expectation, then, is that if you are a Christian the quest for meaningfulness should make you a more radical one. I expect the same for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, not because I follow an egalitarian ecumenism in which all paths are equal (I don't, though I once did), but because it takes a radical plunge into a religion's depths to attain the answers we seek to the serious questions of meaningfulness. If you happen to be one of those seekers who is technically unchurched but nevertheless feels an intuitive spirituality, perhaps this book will help you to organize your mise en place and discover your next step.
One of my spiritual teachers, recognizing in me a chronic tendency towards comparativeness, encouraged me to "Go deeper, not broader." This has become, as previously mentioned, the guiding principle not only in my life but also in my bread classes. Another man, one of the most brilliant and devout religious scholars I have ever met, is a Sufi (a mystical Muslim). He told me that the only real common ground among religions was to be found by penetrating one's own religion to its most mystical, traditional core, the one leading to union with God. "Perhaps there we might meet. But I only say perhaps."
Shortly before he died, the great martial artist, Bruce Lee, developed his own technique of fighting called Jeet Koon Do, based on formless, spontaneous intuitive movements. The few people who had the opportunity to study with him claim that it was the most brilliant form of martial arts ever devised. Lee refused to teach it to anyone unless he had already achieved a black belt or its equivalent in a traditional school of karate, kung fu, tae kwon do, aikido, judo, or jujitso. He said, "I cannot teach you to go beyond form until you have mastered form."
I later discovered that there is a place beyond form in religion as well. It is called spiritual freedom. At some point on our journey, we inevitably encounter those who seem to have found this state of freedom. It is quite inspiring and exhilarating but also very threatening, for an encounter of this nature calls us to dig deeper and get more disciplined. In search of spiritual freedom I quickly learned that without form and structure, in other words without organization, self-discipline, and lots of practice, it cannot be maintained. Spiritual freedom very quickly becomes spiritual self-deception, known to the holy elders of mystical Christianity as prelest. That is why mise en place is so important as a first step. But there are also necessary intermediate stages of growth that we pass through to connect the moment of spiritual awakening to a mature and integrated realization of our inherent Godliness.
On my personal journey I learned that there existed for me, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, both the tools and a path to God and Self-realization, and a sacred psychology for effective, meaningful living, consistent with my deepest values. The terminology and articulation of this sacred psychology has changed throughout the ages and has taken on sectarian and denominational nuances, but the essence has remained the same.
Some modern psychologists and psychiatrists, such as M. Scott Peck, James Hillman, and Thomas Moore (who lived as a monk for twelve years), are beginning to help the public accept the existence of and need for a recovered psychology of the soul. Yet the maps they are drawing, though quite useful, focus primarily on their creative adaptations of Freudian or Jungian models of psychotherapy.
An alternative, in fact a more traditional premise, is based on the root meaning of religion, in Latin religio, which means to be connected to. We now live in an age where religio is an endangered species, made evident by the dichotomies between psychology and religion, religion and everyday life, and everyday life and meaningfulness, playing itself out in our own sense of fragmentation and powerlessness. I still, despite years of training, fight daily against this dichotomy, but now from a new perspective.
We live, I believe, in a critical historical period, during a worldwide spiritual crisis, in which the possibility of religio is again upon us. The tools of self-discovery, such as meditation and affirmative prayer, have never been more available and the interest is vast. The soul, if it exists at all, and I am convinced it does, yearns for union, reunion, and communion with its Source, all of which are goals of religio, i.e., connectedness. But there is a question of will.
As I became aware of the tools at my disposal in search of a sacred psychology, I also became excruciatingly aware of the many options and choices that needed to be reconciled within me in order to choose wisely. The recovery of sacred psychology, then, became for me also a journey about choosing wisely, and on this journey I learned how the wisdom to choose well, a transmission of knowledge, is passed from generation to generation.
My journey in search of religio stemmed from a desire for a sacred psychology that could explain to me and properly frame my yearning for meaningfulness. I was also looking for a greater context, a worldview in which both my psychological as well as spiritual and salvational needs would be met. What I discovered and continue to discover in my striving for connectedness, meaningfulness, and unconditional love came to me only after I mixed the ingredients of my mise en place into what I at last came to accept as the unfolding of an interesting, maybe even a very interesting, life. I call it my theostic quest. But one thing I have learned from others who have followed their quest: We are all interesting; we are all the star of our own story. There comes a time when we awaken to a deeper reality and realize that life has greater meaning in light of that reality. We can choose to pursue it or we can put it off, but, once awakened, we will always know deep in our gut that this greater reality exists. If we get organized, step out, and commit ourselves to the pursuit of truth, to the attainment of our vision, life gets really interesting, and so do we.
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Mise en Place for Bread Baking
Mise en place means everything in its place, so before making bread, secure these pieces of equipment and tools and ingredients, organize them, and have them standing by, ready to use:
Equipment and Tools
Bread pans or sheet pans
Extra sheet pan or cast-iron skillet to use to create steam for hearth breads
Pizza stone or quarry tilescalled baking stone (optionalyou can also bake directly on sheet pans)
Sturdy, easy-to-clean counter or work surface for kneading
Electric mixer (optional)
Kitchen scale (optional)
Plastic and metal scrapers
Spatulas (for getting every last drop of liquid ingredients)
Measuring spoons and cups
Sharp bread knife
Sharp razor or razor knife (for scoring or slashing tops of loaves)
Spray bottle for water (for misting the oven to create steam)
Pizza or bread peel (optional, for sliding breads in and out of the oven)
Cooking thermometer (probe style, optional but helpful)
Pan spray (optional, but it makes the process easier)
Bread flour (unbleached if possible, high-gluten if available)
All-purpose flour (unbleached, if possible, for better flavor)
Instant, active dry, or fresh yeast (they all work, though in different amounts)
Salt (any type will work, though in different amounts depending upon the coarseness)
Other grains (polenta, wheat bran, rolled oats or oat flakes, rye meal, brown rice, any others that you like as they can often be substituted for one another)
Cornmeal or semolina flour (for dusting under hearth bread loaves)
Milk, buttermilk, or plain yogurt (buttermilk and yogurt give better flavor than regular milk)
Vegetable or olive oil
Specialty ingredients (herbs, spices, seeds such as poppy seeds and sesame seeds and so on)
Sugar (both white and brown)
Eggs (for Challah and for glazing.)
Before beginning the mixing process measure out all the ingredients to the desired amount. It is much easier to proceed when everything is scaled and ready to go. This is the secret to any success: Get organized, and get everything in its place.
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