Meditation and Caramel Slices

A couple of weeks ago, I got a craving for a caramel slice. This is my favorite dessert when I am in New Zealand: a shortbread base, a thick layer of gooey caramel, and a topping of chocolate. What’s not to love?

If I had been in New Zealand when this craving struck, I could have gone into just about any bakery or coffee shop to get a caramel slice. But I was in San Diego, and so my only option was to make some myself.

I did a little research and found a recipe to use. I made the base, and set it aside to cool. Then I started in on the caramel. The recipe said to stir the caramel mixture “over a low to medium heat for 8 minutes, until mixture boils, thickens and changes to a slightly darker colour.” Of course, 8 minutes in, my mixture had neither boiled nor thickened, and was the same color it had been at the start. So I stood at the stove and stirred some more. I probably stood there and stirred for at least 15 minutes.

I flashed back to a couple of months ago, when I made a coconut creme pie for my sister’s birthday. The trick to making a good creme pie is just patience: You have to stand at the stove and stir and stir and stir. You have to have faith that your creme filling will indeed thicken, and you have to have the discipline to stir constantly to keep lumps from forming and the bottom layer from scorching.

So I summoned the patience to stir and stir and stir. Eventually, my caramel mixture sort of boiled and definitely thickened, and it was a shade or two darker than it was at the start, so I decided to call it good and proceeded. When we cut into the slices later that evening, I was delighted to see that the caramel had turned out great. Craving satisfied!

Me with my caramel slice.

At the time, I made an off hand joke about how many of my favorite desserts involve standing at the stove and stirring for a long time. But maybe there is a benefit beyond delicious creamy desserts. Standing and stirring is almost meditative.

By chance, several of my favorite podcasts have had recent episodes about mindfulness, meditation, buddhist teaching, or similar topics. I’ve tried meditation in the past, and found it beneficial. But I have a hard time maintaining a true meditation practice. For a long time, I had a yoga practice that served a similar purpose (and also kept my back feeling good!) but that fell by the wayside when I had kids. I miss it, and have tried to bring it back, but have never succeeded. I am not the type of person who does well trying to keep a yoga practice up at home, and I haven’t found a class that fits my current schedule. I’ve always assumed I’ll pick it up again when my kids are older and it is easier for me to disappear for an hour or two in the evening.

Making caramel or a coconut creme pie isn’t the same as meditation or yoga… but it did satisfy a similar need. I need activities that give my mind time to wander freely. My lunchtime walks serve that purpose, as do my Friday afternoon rollerblading outings. I also need activities that encourage my mind to let go of all the various strands of thought that have been occupying it. I call this “getting outside my head.” Meditation does this, once you’ve practiced it for a bit and have learned how to redirect your thoughts. Yoga did this for me, because I could focus on the stretch. Making music does it for me, too, and so did kickboxing. And now I know that so does standing at the stove, patiently stirring a custard or similar dessert, keeping a watchful eye out for signs of scorching or clumping.

I always feel better after a period of time “outside my head.” I have an easier time focusing on work, and I feel less stressed. I’m not going to turn this space into a blog about meditation (or cooking), but I would like to write about why it is so hard to make room in our lives for the practices that improve our well-being in the broadest sense. I have an interest in how we can remake our work lives to make our whole lives better. My hope is that writing about these topics will help me think more deeply about them. And of course, I hope some of my readers will have comments that expand my understanding. If you have recommendations for articles, books, podcasts, or anything else you think would be relevant, please leave them in the comments!

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