winter trees

Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

A friend remarked recently on the idea of Buddhist, changing your mind which got me thinking about meditation in general. Years ago I learnt to do Transcendental Meditation. I have lapsed in its use and don’t use it regularly but I do find it useful every so often to calm my mind and help with creative thinking.
I had always been interested in the techniques of Meditation and remember learning from a book how to use a mantra. The book suggested using an object that was close to hand like a tea cup. You would think about the object and then think about your breathing and the moment you were in. The mantra helped the mind to let go of all the extraneous thoughts that would crowd out the brain. It worked up to a point but I found the training with TM helped me to really get to grips with the ideas of meditation. Just sitting with a group of people all meditating made the experience ten times better. The rigourous training and checking helped me on my way.
With TM you were supposed to sit calmly for a set amount of time per day and it wasn’t until I read up about Buddhist meditation that I had the revelation that freed me up. You could really meditate wherever you were and whilst walking. The idea is to increase mindfulness, tranquility and concentration. Walking along on a country walk you would try to be in the moment, to be aware of all the things around you , the step on the ground, the crunch of leaves, the feel of the wind on your face. The breath of air into your lungs. In this way, it gives rise to a way of enjoying the walk whatever the weather. Funnily enough I was trying this out last week on my winter walk without realising it. I just wanted to enjoy the walk on a most wintery raining day. The temptation was to stay indoors but somehow I got the energy to go out and experience the landscape with all its elements. It turned out to be most enjoyable. I let go of any negative feelings and looked for the positive. I was using photography to help give me a sense of place and the photographs that I took felt most satisfying. I made a feature of the bare branches and the rolling clouds. The sun even came out towards the end.
I am going to try to practice the ideas of Buddhist meditation on my walks in the future and to see if I can develop the practice and to truly make them my own.


Zen and the art of tea drinking

Camping kettle
Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Tea is simple yet complex. On the one hand a cup of flavoured hot water and on the other hand something that caused wars and world trade. For me though it is a way of life. The start of every day has to begin with the mighty brew of life just isn’t worth living. I am writing this with a mug of the steaming variety at my elbow. Even when I travel I take an electric element and mug so that I can brew up in the hotel room or a gas burner when camping. I have a special insulated mug with a lid when I am travelling so I can sip along without it getting cold.
My life changed in Botswana when I discovered red bush tea and I am so happy that there are major imports now to the UK, largely the result of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Ma Romotswa likes her red bush tea and it was this literary influence that causes the people of Britain to sit up and take notice. They put the lids on their Earl Grey and Yorkshire tea and started to try out the red bush variety. I like it black and the good thing when you camping is that you drink it cold. At home, I keep a pot going most of the day and just top it up with hot water. It’s good for you as there is no caffeine and its good for the mind because it helps you to think. My current favourite is Dragonfly tea and they do several varieties.
Sometimes, in the afternoon I like something a little stronger and my current favourite is Darjeeling. We also have some black china which is good in the morning – it really wakes me up .
My favourite tea shop for a posh tea is Fortnum & Mason although I also like the little cafe at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Not so much for their tea and cakes but for the sketching opportunities.
My favourite country to travel to for tea apart from Botswana, obviously, is Turkey where they dish out free tea in little glasses wherever you go. It is sweet but refreshing.

Zen and the art of bread making.


Originally uploaded by Mr_Chips

Baking bread is not just a chore it’s a philosophy. The Tao of Bread if you don’t mind me mixing my philosophies. Something that is simple yet complex. It is part of many cultural histories. The bedouin of the Sinai desert have it right. When you are resting under the shade of the tree watching the bedioun brew fresh tea and bake marvelous bread in front of you on a fire you realise that bread is part of life itself. When you bake bread you are connecting with the soul. The soul of the kitchen and through your hands you breathe life into a ball of flour. It is magical. Every loaf is an individual and each one turns out slightly different. To master bread baking is an art not a chore. Do not give this task to a machine.
Make your own bread and don’t buy a bread maker. Baking your own bread is a far more efficient. You can bake three loaves at a time and freeze a couple and you get the enjoyment and exercise of kneading your dough. Buy a mixer with a dough hook but do not buy a bread making machine!

Kneading dough is a way of connecting with the routes of the earth. Man has been baking bread for centuries and it is one of the most satisfying things to do in the kitchen. The recipe below was given to me by my mother and I have used it ever since with my own decorations and bread designs.
As you knead the dough, practice the art of meditation. Just think about the task in hand, forget about all the other things that you need to do. Pull the dough and roll it under your hands. Think about your breathing as you do this, let the mind and body come together as one and enjoy the inner peace that it brings.
(Do also read my latest bread posting here.)

Ingredients –
3lb of flour to make 3 loaves. Use a mixture of strong white flour and brown or wholemeal flour.
dried yeast – follow instructions on packet. Fresh yeast is better if you can get it.
pinch of salt
mixture of pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds to mix
1 tbsp olive oil
water to mix 1 1/2 pints of lukewarm water.
Topping: sesame seeds, sunflower, poppy seeds and a little milk or beaten egg.

I use a mixer and dough hook to mix up the flour with yeast, salt and seeds.
If you use fresh yeast – mix up in a jug with some a tablespoon of honey and some lukewarm water. Cover and leave for ten minutes until it froths up and then add to the flour mixture and add more water as below. Use about a teaspoonful of fresh yeast per 1lb of flour.
Then add the water at lukewarm temperture – feeling just warm on the hand. I add a pint fairly quickly at first and then slower as it binds together to get a nice not too sticky dough.
Turn this out on a board – you can flour the board to stop it sticking. Divide into three lumps and then this is the best part.
Knead the dough by pulling it apart and then folding over. Do this for ten times or so on one lump and then move on to the next one. The dough should get springy as it gets to the right consistency.
Leave covered in a bowl for half an hour to expand in size. Then bash it down a bit to expel the air, re- knead for a little and put the dough balls into the bread tins. Leave to rise – they should double in size.

The topping of the loaves is very important – it adds such a lot to the final satisfaction. i used to wait until the loaves had risen and then brush with milk or an egg(for an extra crusty top) then scatter the topping on top – sesame seeds are a favourite because if you toast the bread you get delicious toasty sesame seeds.
Pat, my mother now has a better idea that I have adopted because the problem with the above method is that the most of the seeds drop off before you get to the toast stage. Now we put the topping before you put the dough into the tins. Spread out the topping on a surface and roll the dough over it. This way the topping embeds into the dough and doesn’t fall off. I now use more sunflower seeds and some fllour mixed in for a real chunky topping.