Dear Fellow Philosopher,
Please join me for dinner. Gather a few friends, old and new, perhaps a neighbor, maybe family members or colleagues. We’re starting a philosophy supper group and making plans for a yearlong trip around the world.
Here’s a peek at the menu for twelve monthly evenings: lively conversation about universally intriguing issues, more knowledge of cultures near and far, genre-spanning music, and a feast of home cooking from Japan to France, Kentucky to Brazil. For years I’ve pulled up a chair at festive philosophers’ tables just like the ones set for you in this book. Wherever I go, I find people thriving on hearty discussions. While telling stories, laughing, pondering, and questioning, diners develop a sense of belonging as they break bread, pass carafes, and wash dishes. Philosophy, music, and traditional cuisine spring from a particular culture while serving to define that culture, as well. Coming together in your homes, listening to the voices of your dinner partners, as well as those you’ll meet from other times and places, you’ll taste the hearts of Kenya and Greece, China and Iraq.
This book was an invigorating, joyful project for me to think about and to write. I chose the dinner topics after much thought, settling on the ones that continuously light conversational sparks. Yes, give me some persistence and grace. Hurry up with that mental clarity. Help wanted for decision making and adapting to change.
I worked with a head chef in creating and modifying dishes to match food and chapter themes in appealing combinations, and recipe testers and tweakers around the country prepared your meals and added their own just-right touches. The evenings you are about to share have been enjoyed in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, California, Washington, Virginia, Massachusetts, Georgia, Vermont, and in my kitchen. Music lovers joined me in narrowing my picks, the decisions hotly contested after wonderfully long work. All the philosophers I looked to as representatives of their cultures are perennial favorites. When sorting through the suggestions given at the beginning and end of each chapter for your further exploration of that culture, I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to learn more about a city, rain forest, museum, humanitarian, and an athlete.
As I wrote this book, I imagined countless, always-changing faces talking and eating around philosophy tables. Quite a treat to know that people speak face-to-face now, enjoying an exceptional kind of evening, feeding mind and body in comfortable companionship.
Some Key Points to Get You Started
Whatever time of year your group is ready, whether August or December, start right there.
- All recipes serve eight. Proportions and appetites will find each other.
- Allow plenty of time for this once-a-month happening. Though active preparation times are included for each dish, variations in pot and bowl sizes, stoves, knives, kitchen experience, etc., inevitably result in some deviation. (Do not worry—about anything!)
- Borrow whatever equipment you don’t have on hand. Someone has that big pot, skillet, sieve, or large bowl. If not, improvise with confidence.
- Experiment with regional-ingredient substitutions, if you like. For example, root vegetables with similar densities are usually interchangeable.
- The chapters alternate between those offering recipes for two small-plate dishes and others serving up three-recipe meals that always include dessert. We begin in January with small plates of good-luck New Year’s noodles and chicken Yakitori, and conclude with December’s three-course celebration, featuring Salmon Cooked on a Bed of Salt, Pot-au-Feu, and Clementine Soufflé.
- Tips are given for food and beverages that guests can contribute, and the person serving as host should delegate assignments freely and welcome surprises. All groups with which I’m familiar rotate hosting duties.
- Add individual touches: photographs of the release of Burmese political prisoners, the sights of Chicago, or your own travels to the night’s featured location. Perhaps use that certain tablecloth and Grandmother’s platters along with candles at a winter’s table, or pull out those brightly colored quilts for the August picnic.
- Each chapter opens with my presentation of the topic and its importance. As you’ll see, these topics sit on the tips of tongues, younger and older. Next, I introduce a philosopher whose work explores the issue in ways that have captivated my companions in thought over the years. The philosopher’s section comes in two parts, each described in one word, for good clarity and focus—first we look at the problem and then we find the solutions. For example, stale thinking about education is followed by fresh approaches.
- If you think you are a newcomer to philosophy, I doubt it. Whether we speak about these issues or not, they linger in our minds.
- Reward your group and yourself by reading that month’s chapter in advance.
- I offer one topic for dinner conversation so that you can experience the satisfaction of a fully explored subject. Oh, yes, there will be times when everyone talks at once, the topic forgotten and memorable tangents enjoyed, and someone will call the group to attention again. And again. But don’t worry about that. It’s your night, after all.
- Collaborate on what works best for your group given the month’s selections. Perhaps download the suggestions, maybe play your worn CDs of Dave Brubeck’s jazz or Koko Taylor’s blues, or raise another glass for vinyl recordings of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass or compositions by Bach and Mozart.
- Of course feel free to bring your own irresistible tunes.
- Don’t let the music interfere with conversation. Talk over it or turn it down. Many diners remember the evening as they enjoy the playlist afterward. (On the other hand, maybe consider letting the music take over for a while!)
The Joy of Single Tasking
January in Japan
We all know people who glide through life as if sailing with the wind at their backs. An effortless style buoyed by humor, life gets lived with gusto. Meet my physician friend Marty, a hospital legend with good reason. No one can deny his enormous responsibilities to a horde of patients. I’ve watched him at work and play for years. Marty on the go treats each patient as an individual, stroking cheeks and answering questions as if hearing these worried queries for the first time. His steady presence and natural empathy spread down long hospital hallways, room by room, just as they lend calm at the nurse’s station and on elevators. He deals swiftly and directly with incompetence and leaves the problem behind. Marty’s consistently composed manner extends to his office staff and to the kiosk barista. He walks with no movement wasted, his step an unhurried giddy-up. This laser focus is not limited to his professional life— favorite sports teams and leisure activities also win his riveted attention.
In all of my years of teaching and philosophy circling, no concept delights my companions more than what I call “single tasking.” How alluring, the prospect of focusing on one thing at a time, doing that one thing well, and walking on. Our talk, however, soon turns to the surprising difficulty of putting this smart approach into practice. But Marty, along with many others in varying circumstances, proves that it can be done. Single tasking works—it increases efficiency, decreases stress, and maximizes our satisfaction in all of life’s activities. What if Marty thought about all that lay before him, the known and possible unexpected twists, at the dawn of day? What would happen to his quick-stepping stride? Single tasking earns its place as the first topic in our book. If we are to progress to the second chapter, relish our conversations, remember to crank up the music and turn off the oven, then focusing on one thing at a time will make it all possible.
Listening intently at a philosophizing luncheon, Cliff, a participant, chose his words carefully. “I’m guessing that your emphasis on simply doing one thing at a time will be met with shouts of ‘You’re kidding!’ It’s the way I try to live, but most people brush the very notion off as unrealistic, maybe even lazy.” My computer and I agree with Cliff’s hunch. While multitasking passes the spell-check test, single tasking fails to qualify as one word. Yes, we make endless lists of things to do, unwittingly condition ourselves to take on too much, and succumb to the prevailing chaos of busyness. Saddled with anxiety, we can’t catch our breath or catch up.
One example jostles itself to the forefront. Picture this. Teachers, parents, and volunteers sit around a table on the first day of a workshop devoted to sharing philosophy with children. A nice man, the last participant to arrive, pulls up a chair where his philosophy journal and pencil await. As introductions commence, he carefully positions his other supplies just so, at the ready: a cell phone, a small computer for Internet access, and his keys. He multitasks all morning . . . hasty conversation with now-distracted participants, clicked returns of messages, quick completion of his art and poetry assignments, and the occasional departure for a phone call or to move his car to another two-hour parking spot. It never occurred to him that his behavior was rude or that he was shortchanging his experience. After we talked privately at lunch and only the journal and pencil remained as his place setting, his attention and relaxation energized the room. He gave one hundred percent and everyone benefited from his eager, intelligent participation. Did he notice the change? Four days later, he looked ten years younger. As memory of the workshop dimmed, did he remember? I know that for me it was yet another lesson in the ease of the single task.
A fourth grader confided in me that she so wanted to become a writer but had no idea how to start. “How does anybody ever finish a book?” she wondered. I suggested that she take one very small thing to write about and focus only on that: every single thing about her birthday cake, or a tree on the playground, or her friend’s face. I assured her that you can write only one word at a time and then a sentence appears . . . and one word at a time and then . . . a page! The process of writing a book models perfectly a single-tasked life. The exhilarating days given to the writing craft are for me the ones in which I am present only to that one exact spot where I am—searching for this one elusive word or massaging that one paragraph until its tension releases. If naughty thoughts lurch uninvited into my consciousness of the book in its entirety, writing stops and friends beware.
Fortunately, just as an author finds those words, we can jump off the chaos track. Abiding satisfaction comes to many new philosophers who commit to the process of gradually strengthening their mental discipline. We can build inner fortitude just as we train ourselves in other ways: practicing a musical instrument, hitting ball after ball with that bedeviling backhand, slowly exercising a weak knee back to healthy function. Savoring our lives, even though they are chock-full of responsibility and beset by some difficulty, strikes us as the wisest option. Having lots to do need not devolve into swirling busyness. Though the pace quickens, we can become more skilled at staying in the moment. As the child, the cashier, and the customer demand our attention in the grocery store, we stay right there with it all, poised and cash in hand. How? We practice concentration. Fully investing in our lives, being present now in this moment, proves the answer. Life is not a series of things to get done. Life is for living.
Our twelve evenings serve as the perfect manual for single tasking, offering the chance to soak up life’s richness, moment by moment, with no goal beyond the time spent together. Paying attention to each ingredient as the whole dish bubbles to fruition requires the cook’s undivided concentration—tasting the resulting flavors and picking up distinctive textures magnifies the diner’s pleasure. Listening to music trains us to take special note of our lives, too. Hearing one instrument as well as the whole piece, picking up the resonance of both voice and guitar, and recognizing the sound of quiet spaces, all hone awareness. The repeated process of reading beforehand and absorbing the night’s philosophical topic, then stepping back and allowing the ideas to take hold—this routine enhances alertness. Taking notice of the speaker’s tone of voice, body movement, emotions, pauses, and breaths restores the disappearing art of conversation. Sucked in as undistracted listeners, we are present.
A joyous Zen Master from Japan tempts us with a timeless guarantee. Concentrating, doing one thing at a time, gives you a steely mind of your own. Your own steady mind returns. Shunryu Suzuki (shun-REEoo suh-ZOO-kee) patiently reinforces our profound realization that we are here right now. Let’s stay right here with him.
Prepping for Japan
Count poetic syllables with Basho and Izumi Shikibu. . . . Watch Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance?, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu. . . . Round the bases with Sadahuru Oh, rooting for his Yomiuri Giants, and congratulate 2011 World Cup winning soccer stars Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama along with their coach Norio Sasaki. . . . Uncover the simple, calming rituals of the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) as you take three and a half sips of tea in the style of Zen Tea Master Sen Rikyu. . . . Try your hand at the art of flower arranging (ikebana) and imagine Japanese ancient horseback archers (yabusame). . . . Discover the pioneering work of alternative farmer/ philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution and enter medieval court life through Sei Shonagon’s observations in The Pillow Book. . . . Listen closely to pianist and composer Joe Hisaishi’s “View of Silence” and the tender piano tribute to Japan offered by Thelonious Monk in his “Kojo No Tsuki” (“Japanese Folk Song”). . . .
You must read each sentence with a fresh mind.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
Revved-up college students and car engines, plus the weight of nagging discontent and material possessions, greeted Suzuki upon his arrival in the sixties from Japan. Giving informal lectures at his Soto Zen monastery, on the outskirts of San Francisco, he sent many grateful pupils on their single-minded paths. Though reading one sentence, and then another, with a fresh mind poses a stiff challenge, we join our easygoing guru for a basic refresher course in his singularly focused technique. Concentrating and comprehending one sentence at one time—that’s the goal. Game on.
“I lost my train of thought.” How many times have you uttered this lament? How much simpler would life be if “one railway track thousands of miles long” (Zen Mind) described the mind’s unswerving movement? Rookies join professional tennis players in their struggle to master the key to this game—keeping the eye on the ball. Help! Where is that one-track mind that can capture the smooth meeting of ball and strings? After some lessons with Suzuki, however, fewer balls ricochet off the racquet frame and bullet trains of thought glide uninterrupted along the track.
The same worry worn on the faces of his students still knits brows and freezes jaws today. Suzuki applauds that big first step taken by each of his students, the sincere acknowledgment that something isn’t quite right . . . about me. No improvement can come to any life without the realization that there’s life—and then there’s me, somehow going against the grain. Honoring this off-kilter awareness that nips at my heels signals the beginnings of my effort to regain my touch.
Recently I was startled by a friend’s bruised face and doubly swollen wrist. She had turned too sharply onto a road she’d driven countless times and careened into a ditch. Shaking her head in dismay, she swore, “I say it every day. I need to slow down and quit rushing through my life. Maybe now I will.” Her sigh of “maybe now” speaks for all hopeful but stalling single taskers. How many times must Suzuki have thought about his students’ recurring excuse of unavoidable busyness with an insightful sigh, that “If they say so, it is a sure sign they are spending their time in vain” (Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness)? Indeed, my frustrated friend listed all sorts of activities that she could drop that would free her to “do things that need to be done” (Branching Streams). Set in our ways, however, we fritter time away, flailing at our lives.
Doesn’t this very basic predicament, one which we all share to some extent, ring true? While hands peel a banana, mind festers over a perceived slight. Words tumble out in conversation as mind wanders toward bike repair. Riding a steep mountain trail, the biker’s helmet lies forgotten on the porch. The long anticipated evening disappoints, ruined by gnawing regret at its inevitable end, both parties guilty of “sacrificing this moment for the future” (Branching Streams). Body and mind divorce. Thinking and doing are separated. Is it as simple as the Master suggests? “Just make it clear where you are” (To Shine One Corner of the World) and things will get done more easily and more pleasantly. He quickly grew accustomed to outbursts of denial from his American students. They lived in the midst of a hectic world, while he enjoyed the retiring life of a Zen Buddhist monk. “Whatever you do, just do it” (Not Always So) was easy for him to say but completely unrealistic for them. Yet his advice to be where you are can work nicely for anyone determined to live more easily and fully. If we master time, our focus returns here and now, repairing this mind/body rift.
Let’s slide next to Suzuki and, sitting on a wooden bench, listen closely to our tutorial. As children we existed in the present moment. With an attentive “beginner’s mind” we listened to the story, followed the dandelion’s fluff, observed the cat’s sunlit shadow, and kicked the ball. Unfortunately and inevitably, the bustle of modern life rattles our minds and we lose this natural marriage of action and mind. We spin in an unreal loop, one foot cemented in worry about things neglected and the other foot hopping from item to item in a future to-do list. Frantic, we can’t remember what was
forgotten and we try to control what might happen. We want to finish everything at once yet nothing gets done. With too much going on, we pick up speed. “But the future is the future and the past is the past. This is our attitude and how we should live in this world. . . . If we do not forget this point, everything will be carried on beautifully” (Zen Mind). Since we do forget that only the present moment is real, though, we never stand or sit or act with purpose. Ironically, we waste time because we aren’t present to spend it wisely. Too much zigzagging and too little composure!
The Zen Master’s message sinks in. The noise of my fragmented mind bombards me with its jumble of fleeting ideas. As I play a losing game of mental hopscotch, the letter goes unwritten, the assignment remains incomplete, unwashed clothes pile high— conversations put off, promises broken, and kindness unnoticed. My stale, tired mind no longer distinguishes between what deserves my consideration and the much bigger “all” that does not belong to me. I take everything on and wear the load poorly. Like the pieces of an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, my mind is a mess.
But I get it. “Thinking which is divided is not true thinking. Concentration should be present . . .” (Zen Mind). Life is alive and I have a life to live. Now is the time.
I accept the challenge of cultivating a steady state of mind and reclaiming my childlike “beginner’s mind.” I expect my attention to come and go, to be sharper some days more than others, and that’s all right. I trust that stable focus will supplant more instinctively my customary waywardness.
Where to start? Where to end? How to settle myself? Suzuki’s answer never changes. We must learn to sit. Five or ten (or more) minutes of sitting quietly, two or three times a day, can change lives dramatically. This simple act, requiring daily commitment, serves as the heart of a training regimen for increasing the power of concentration. The vitality resulting from sitting cannot be overstated. Sit where and as you are, nothing fancy, just sit. That’s all? When I introduce my college students to Suzuki, I take them from the classroom to a campus garden. Awkward and uncertain at first, they leave books, phones, and backpacks behind. For some, the experience of sitting in silence on a hillside proves unnerving because the habit of multitasking goes unquestioned for so many of us. More than a few new philosophers admit initial panicky responses to the stillness: “Did I replace the gas cap on my truck? Why am I sitting here when I have so much to do?” I can imagine more: “Did she lock the door to keep our belongings safe? What is she thinking? Who hired her?” Yet, how often these same students share their appreciation at semester’s end that it was during these days of garden serenity that they learned the most about the course, about themselves, about life.
The better concentrated sitter expects the coming and welcomes the going of restlessness and aggravation. Trusting the rewards of practiced focus, our discipline improves. Single-minded seeds take secure root and flourish with time. If we ignore the prevailing penchant for the quick fix and give ourselves a chance, this soothing repetition of sitting and breathing, inhaling and exhaling, seeps into our lives as we tend to animals at the emergency clinic, parent an angry child, or participate in a meeting marred by discord. My philosophical partners of all ages marvel at the ease granted by single mindedness once they taste it. I watch children eager to close their eyes and sit silently at the beginning of class. “It makes me smarter.” “I forget why I was mad.” When I join dinner groups assembling at the end of the work day, the outstretched-legged leisure of a few minutes of silence disperses cares.
Ah. Stepping back and taking stock of my life, I freely set limits now. With time to think, I let some things go and give others their deserved priority. Contented and perhaps a bit surprised, I discover that with fewer things competing for my attention, I beam direct focus on the task at hand. Missions accomplished. As time lets loose its stranglehold, I delight that more time appears for my efficient use. What a relief to make time work for me. Each activity I do, question I ask, scene I contemplate, or commitment I make gathers me in, totally involved. An everyday sincerity marks my moves and my stillness. New “sitters” offer examples of the joys of single tasking. “When I prepare a meal, it’s as if I’m serving my heart on a platter.” “Running without headphones relaxes me.” “I’m an alert driver now.” My favorite: “Trust me. I’m a much better kisser.”
“Just continue in your calm, ordinary practice and your character will be built up” (Zen Mind). Here are a few suggestions, popular with my students, for your daily practice in fully concentrated living: Find a one-word description that best fits an emotion, a situation, or a relationship. Watch nothing but the ball at a sporting event, now focus on just one player, and finally, fasten your gaze only on the referee. Rake leaves. Clean the house with no electronic accompaniment. Consciously feel the keys of the laptop, smell the scent of rain, distinguish between shades of gray, tune in to the pitch of the catbird’s cry. Reel in the wandering mind, best done with a smile.
More and more, you are living your one life, at last experiencing the breath-giving union between activity and mind. “You understand; you have full understanding within yourself. There is no problem” (Zen Mind).
Runners take your mark. . . . Get set. . . .
And Your Topic for Dinner Conversation Is
“If you’re alert, you can hear the tide turn” (To Shine One Corner). When have you experienced this intensity of focus? Describe the feeling of single tasking. Do you want to bring such attentiveness to your daily life? If you find this an attractive proposition, how can you slowly build good concentration, moment by moment, doing one thing at a time? Be practical and one-pointedly specific about your life.
The Doorbell Rings
Guests will want to contribute their own favorite Japanese small plates to the evening’s menu. Purchasing sushi, seaweed salad, or miso soup provides an easy way to sample the clean flavors of Suzuki’s country. Grocery versions of flavored rice crackers (senbei), traditionally baked over a wood fi re, can be served with a topping of your choice. Invite diners to bring precut “ribbons” of their favorite root vegetables to include in tonight’s soba noodle recipe. Sake, warm or slightly chilled, and traditional Japanese beer provide refreshing liquid accompaniments. The slow, painstaking art of sake brewing in Japan yields complex flavors— some of the finest sake produced in Japan today originates from one-hundred-year-old water that began as rain or snow at the mountaintop and made its determined, slow descent. Traditional desserts usually consist of fresh seasonal fruits, such as apples from the Fuji region, fresh or dried persimmons, and green tea (matcha) ice cream. All make fine pickups for evening’s end.
Travel in the sixties with the Dave Brubeck Quartet and listen to American Jazz Impressions of Japan, especially the lovely “Koto Song.” As you gather in the kitchen, swing your hips with Akiko Tsuruga and “Take It Easy” as you taste her “Frim Fram Sauce.” Move your feet to Takuya Kuroda’s soulful trumpet tribute to a surprising appetizer, the “Blue Tomato.” As you settle in for your discussion of single tasking, let Midori’s violin guide you with her Encore!
Mitsuko Uchida’s legendary interpretations of western classical music serve as a model of single tasking. Imagine the concentration required to enter the soul of a piano concerto by Mozart and make the piece belong both to him and to her. Listen to Uchida play and direct the Cleveland Orchestra in Mozart’s concertos nos. 20 and
27. Play and direct! She sets the perfect pitch for good conversation. Conductor Seiji Ozawa and his very own Saito Kinen Orchestra walk you down composer Toru Takemitsu’s November Steps. Hear the timbre and almost touch the texture of the lute (biwa) and the bamboo flute (shakuhachi). Switching the tempo, the piano and vibraphone duo of Makoto Ozone and Gary Burton gently merges genres with jazz improvisations of classical Virtuosi.
As you finish your group discussion, linger over thoughts of “The Good Life” hinted at by the bouncy organ played by Atsuko Hashimoto. Serve your guests green tea in humble vessels that honor the simplicity of the Japanese tea ceremony. Say farewell with Hiromi Uehara’s “Love and Laughter” and bounce into the night with her piano Spiral at your back.
In the Kitchen
Bring your beginner’s mind into the kitchen as you assemble the building blocks for this meal of traditional Japanese favorites. The ingredient lineup in these dishes yields simple tastes of culinary focus and clarity. Each of the following recipes combines dashi, an easily produced Japanese stock made with dried seaweed and bonito flakes, with familiar Japanese flavorings such as soy sauce and mirin. Inhale the aromas and enjoy the pared-down textures of food that goes down well with Suzuki’s teachings.
PREPARATION: 30 minutes (5 minutes active) YIELD: approximately 2½ quarts (enough for both noodle and yakitori recipes)
2 pieces of dried kombu (seaweed), 4 inches long
2½ quarts cold water
1½ cups shaved, dried bonito flakes (made from smoked bonito fish)
- In a large pot, soak the kombu in 2½ quarts of cold water for 5–10 minutes. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Once boiling, immediately turn off the heat and discard the kombu. Stir in the bonito flakes and let steep for 3–4 minutes (increase this time if you prefer a smokier, fishier flavor).
- Strain through a fine sieve.