Bake off, Meditation and Me

This week we have a fantastic blog from our co-founder Steph, which will give you steph-200x300some real food for thought about mindfulness, meditation… and bread! 😉 So sit down with your favourite cup of tea / coffee and enjoy this great read!

“When I first tell parents or parents-to-be in one of our classes that we are going to be practicing meditation, I quite often get a worried look and a comment along the lines of ‘I find it really hard to switch off’.

It is not surprising that more and more of us feel this way, as the fact that we now live in an increasing ‘convenience’ society has meant that many of the daily opportunities for informal meditation which our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents (you get the idea!) used to experience, we are less likely to. So it’s become a practice which might feel quite alien and leaves us feeling pretty uncertain and unconfident about how to do it.

In today’s world, our daily experiences and expectations are largely centered around instant gratification – social media and email means that people expect instant replies, rather than the patience, effort and cost required in writing a letter. I remember having pen pals around the world when I was a teenager and waiting for weeks at a time for a letter to arrive!

Or, take a loaf of bread. Gone are the days where it is the norm to bake our own fresh loaves. Our mindfulness is usually confined to a few seconds at the supermarket in browsing the selection with an odd squeeze here and there to decide which one! And of course, if we have our food delivered, the loaf has been chosen by someone else, so we are also missing out on those few seconds… Baking that loaf (or baking nearly anything in fact!) a few times a week has always been a really rich, informal daily meditative opportunity.

Compounding this, there is a strange kind of perception in society now attached in claiming to be ‘busy’. It has become almost a status symbol for achievement and worth – meaning that we are constantly on the search for ways to be more ‘efficient’ with time, to squeeze even more in, thus just becoming busier and busier! On the contrary, taking time out to ‘relax’, meditate, or deliberately choosing to do something a less time-effective way, is often regarded as a luxury or extravagance.

One key thing to remember in the discussion about ‘being too busy’, is that meditation is not ‘doing nothing’ but actually about taking time to tune in as you do something! Meditation is not about trying to ‘empty the mind’ but more about recognising the thoughts you are having and consciously choosing whether or not to engage with them, or act on them. Meditation is about learning to pause, to respond rather than react, and to realise that not everything we think is of equal value – indeed, some of our thoughts are complete nonsense. Meditation is not even about ‘zoning out’ – when done mindfully it is about focusing – really tasting and smelling that coffee you are drinking, really paying attention to the sensations we feel in our bodies as we breathe, we sit, we walk. Meditation is not about control, but more about consciously choosing how we experience the journey.

So, something I suggest when mentoring people beginning to practice meditation, or supporting them in their desire to ‘improve’ their experience, is to look for opportunities where they can enjoy a daily meditation practice. Like with any life skill, the more we practice something, the easier it gets. When we repeat any task over and over, we literally build new pathways in our brain, which makes that task a little easier each time we do it. It’s a bit like trail blazing a path – over time, that pathway just becomes easier to walk! Meditation works with those pathways in the brain in the same way. There are lots of ways we can find a daily practice – even a tea break or just taking a five-minute walk both give brilliant opportunities.

Homemade Maneesh (a type of flatbread)

Homemade Maneesh (a type of flatbread)

The one I use is baking. For me it is the perfect opportunity for meditation. It is also a good example of how there are often associated benefits with meditation too; for example, meditation might leave us feeling relaxed, but that is not the aim or purpose – it is just a nice by product. Similarly, the bonus of my ‘baking meditation’ is that we (usually, not always!) get something nice to eat at the end, but this is not the point in itself of why I do it.

What is the point?  It is to achieve focus. It is to use the opportunity to be truly aware of what is happening right now. It is to practice mindfulness – patience, observation, awareness of the senses, conscious decision making…

So, when making bread, we start by kneading the dough, working it to build up gluten (Mr Hollywood and Great British Bake Off has taught me well!), which provides the bread with the structure and strength to enable it to rise. There is no set time when the gluten will have adequately developed – it will vary from dough to dough, from day to day. The act of kneading in itself is a great exercise in mindful meditation, in paying attention to the dough, observing the changes it goes through as it is worked – changes in how it looks and feels, waiting for when it has reached that stretchy-yet-soft texture, ready for proving.

When we prove the loaf, timing is important. Over-proving the bread, or under-proving it will affect the final loaf. Again, we continue to observe, to pay attention, mindfully watching for when the prove is complete.

It is possible to attempt to speed up the preparation of the bread at this stage, by putting it somewhere warm to prove, but being aware that augmenting the proving process in this way can impact on the flavour of the final loaf. Sometimes this might be the decision which is more suitable for your circumstances. Part of mindfully meditating here is letting go of judgment – there is no bad or good choice, just choices with different possible outcomes. Do we need it to prove more quickly, or can we practise some more patience?

The ultimate test has to be when the bread comes out of the oven. Is there any more amazing smell than that?! There is a real patience in not diving right in and eating it right away! But the cool down is an important part of the bake, as the loaf loses moisture and the final structure of the bread sets. So again, we can make the choice on whether we wait, or we eat.

And finally, while we might follow a recipe, we can only ever treat it as a guide. Ultimately when we bake, we are working with what is here and now, and it doesn’t get much more mindfully meditative than that! The temperature of the room, the ingredients, the oven – slight differences in these can affect every stage of the bake. How hard we knead, our judgement of when to take the loaf out of the oven, how long we rest and cool the bread – all affect the final loaf. Having an awareness of how each of these steps has an impact, and focusing on what we can see, feel, smell and yes, even hear from our bread, is the ultimate practice of meditation.

It is all these reasons that I find time to bake. I don’t see it as a luxury – I see it as an essential part of my week. Prioritising my own mediation practice is part of my own self-care and safeguarding my own mental well-being. Meditation helps me stay focused and calm – if a week goes by, and I haven’t baked, my stress levels are notably increased. This is not just anecdotal or unique to me – numerous studies highlight the positive impact of meditation practice on perceived well-being.

But, I am a human being, and like anyone, I do notice nagging thoughts which keep popping up when I’m ‘in the zone’ – work which I need to do, emails I need to send, or thoughts about other things which are happening in my life. I don’t ignore them – that isn’t the point of meditation; instead, I note them down, giving them recognition, but I then consciously choose to not engage with the thought/s any further while I am baking – I return my focus to the bake. THAT is what mediation is about.

This is especially important over things which are more emotionally charged, or have the ability to cause worry, as spending the next hour worrying about them will not change anything other than my state of my mind! Focusing on the bake at hand, and coming back to those things later means that when I do tackle them, I am doing so from a calmer and more balanced point of view. Finishing my bake gives me an opportunity to pause, which naturally ensures I am responding rather than reacting.

But baking is just MY way of meditating – there are lots of other ways you can introduce a daily meditation practice into your life if you wish to. This morning I chose to focus on writing this blog rather than baking, which means my practice for today is going to be mindfully enjoying a cup of freshly ground coffee instead.

So, what can you choose to do today for your daily mediation?”