Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More

Zen Of Peeling Potatoes

The Table, First Presbyterian Church, Napa, California, USA

February 16, 2017

"Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes." ... Alan Watts

"Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes while one is peeling the potatoes." ... Laurence Platt offering Alan Werner Erhard's rigor
This essay, Zen Of Peeling Potatoes, is the companion piece to There But For The Grace.

It is also the ninth in an open group on Zen: I am indebted to Francois Mourad and to Michel Mourad who inspired this conversation.

Russet potatoes
Bells are tolling 11:00am. We are expecting almost one hundred and fifty homeless people to arrive for lunch in about four hours. Historic First Presbyterian Church in downtown Napa makes its kitchen and dining room available to various charitable groups in the local area who rotate taking on donating and preparing sit-down meals for them. The group I'm assisting with today comes around on the third Thursday of every month. If you think of assisting as a way of (quote unquote) helping  people, don't. Why? It's arrogant, and inauthentic. You are no different than the people you're assisting. To be sure, the hungry and the homeless will benefit from what you're doing. But the key to making assisting work is to get more out of doing it, than you put in. That's the real gift. Although someone who has not eaten in a while may not be focused on it, it's there for them to get from what you do. And what you get from them is the opportunity to assist, to serve.

I have eight large bags of potatoes. I intend to wash them before I peel them. They're covered with traces of mud and dirt. Peeling unwashed potatoes transfers mud and dirt to the exposed flesh. So: wash dirty peeled potatoes later? Or wash dirty potatoes now, then peel them clean? It's a no-brainer. I fill one of two big sinks with cool (not cold) water, then I empty the potatoes into it, allowing the water to rise until they're all covered. Using a clean green Scotch Brite  scouring pad, I scrub each one clean, rubbing off any sprouted eyes in the process. Each potato is different, unique. Each has its own personality  if you will. When they're clean, I drop them into the second sink, also filled with cool, clean water. I notice my tendency to rush ie to try to get the job done faster - which I can do, but only if each potato isn't 100% clean. So I revert to a slower, thorough pace. It takes longer. No, it's more than that: it seems like with so many potatoes, it will take forever. I've settled into a regular rhythm, going after each speck of dirt and unwanted blemish. I wouldn't want to bite into my lunch and get a taste of residual mud. I don't want our guests to either.

For peeling potatoes, you must have a stout knife with a sharp blade and a short handle. Gripping each potato in my left hand, I cut a half inch circle off the narrowest point. Guiding the blade around the circle in an ever expanding spiral, I remove as continuous a strip of skin as I can, intending to remove all of it as one entire piece. If washing potatoes seemed like it would take forever, then peeling potatoes seems like it will take even longer. Quickly I realize such thoughts have no bearing on the task at hand. They only get in the way. They disrupt the Zen. So I peel and peel, one potato at a time, fully engaged in each. The blade of the knife is sharp. The skin of the potato is soft. It's no match for it. But neither is the skin of my left hand. My concentration lapses ever so briefly ... and the blade jabs me. The trickle of bright red blood runs down my middle finger waking me up. I apply pressure. The flow stops. I wash and band-aid my finger, peeling on with no more concentration lapses.

Sumi-e circle
For the final preparation, I quarter each potato. Then I arrange all the pieces on large, flat baking trays, first drizzling each of them with a generous drop of vegetable oil before placing them in the industrial size oven until they're golden brown. While they bake, I clean both sinks until they shine.

"Bon Appétit!" I say to the man with the matted hair. I can tell he has various facial skin problems which are all likely due to not having any regular access to bathing facilities. "Thank You" he says, "I love the potatoes.". "You do?" I reply, "I made them myself" I tell him proudly. "Very nice!" he smiles, "Thank you!". "You're very welcome" I reply, "Please come back anytime.". He nods and continues eating, sitting alone at an empty space at the spartan table on a spartan metal chair, his partitioned tray piled high with food along with three full drinking cups of water and milk and  coffee.

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