Staying Open

I recently attended a workshop at an ayurvedic school. I got there early (yes, without the kids in tow I’m quite punctual) and offered to help prepare. I ended up in a beautiful kitchen with a third-year student. As I was chopping vegetables, I noticed the giant pot of chai on the stove.

 As the smells of the spices filled the room, I went into my natural Indian-mother mode and almost reached out to turn off the chai. I didn’t want to take over her kitchen, so I asked “do you need help straining the tea?” Her reply was, “Yes, after it boils.” As I peeked over, I could see that there was a ring of small bubbles around the top where the liquid met the pot. A few small bubbles were surfacing in the middle. To myself, I thought, “it is coming to a boil.” I kept quiet to allow time for her to be comfortable with her version of boil. Ten minutes later, the pot was continuing to boil but the heat was on low, so it was a slow boil. Five more minutes go by and I felt the chai was going to be ruined. By then my pitta was on a slow-boil. So then I venture out a sweet, “Dear, if you let this go any longer, it may get too tannic and bitter.”

Her response was a curt, “That’s the way our teacher taught us to make it and so that’s the way I’m doing it. It has to boil.” Awkward silence filled the kitchen as the others all tuned into what now had become a confrontation. I smiled and apologized for stepping on any toes and acknowledged the importance of her doing what her teacher had asked of her.

After I left the kitchen, I had several thoughts surrounding the interaction. Indivual interpretation is inevitable. How do we define the boil we are looking for to signal the chai is ready? “Allow to come to a boil” can be ambiguous directions. I’ve described a recipe for chai in this way before. Here, her interpretation was the pot needing to come to a vigorous boil. Had her teacher discussed how to adjust chai process when making a large pot, and over different levels of heat? I’m not sure, and it didn’t matter.

What was at the core of this interaction was being closed.  I decided to come to peace with how closed she was to my suggestion, and how closed I was to the possibility that this chai would taste good. We can only learn if we are open. I created space in my mind for yummy chai; maybe I would learn a better way.

The chai was bitter and the milk was overcooked. I learned an important lesson (which was, of course, facilitated by “being the observer”):

At some point, we grow beyond following directions, and develop an intuitive sense of how to do something.

I’m no authority on chai, but I’ve been making chai since I was about 6 years old. I can tell when it’s ready because of the smell and look. There are subtle differences in the various nuances of preparation, such as putting the tea in the pot while the water is too cold, or waiting too long to add the milk—I’ve made all of these mistakes. One of the most potent forms of learning is direct experience; especially, making errors to learn consequences and thereby formulate solutions. It is direct experience that allows us to develop an intuitive feel. This is why “practice makes perfect.”

Take home lessons:

  • Stay open if you really want to learn. This is especially poignant for us Pitta-predominant folks. We tend to find the greatest authority and loyally stand behind that research/opinion.
  • Respect authority, but give just as much respect to direct experience. Read the books and try things out for yourself.
  • If you really want to be good at anything, immerse yourself in the experience until you build an intuitive feel.
  •  If you are learning something that comes from a foreign culture, know that someone from that culture is likely going to have some insights from their personal experience that are going to round out your education.

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