Loaf of Bread

How Do You Handle “Sour” Life Situations?


What do you do when life gives you an experience that you don’t like?

My teacher taught me: “If you want to improve yourself, start where you are, with whatever is coming up for you.  You don’t have to learn secret codes or ancient mantras!   Life itself is the best workshop.”  (The Power of Love, p. 298).

That sounds easy enough, but often we are so focused on looking for an “enlightened teacher” or some other “spiritual” goal, that we skip right over the axiom of every authentic teacher:  “Life itself is your greatest teacher”!

What do we do when we find ourselves in the throes of a major crisis? It can be hard to remember, “Oh yeah, this is a great opportunity for my inner evolution!”  When faced with a situation that we don’t like, it’s very easy to complain, blame, and spiral into pain, at least for a while.  “It’s not fair,” “Poor me,” etc.

Sourdough bread-making is my symbol for turning the “sour” of life into nourishment.  Here’s how it happened.

Last year, a beloved friend died at a young age.  She seemed very healthy.  Shockingly, when she went to the doctor for back pain, he diagnosed her with late-stage cancer.  There followed many rounds of tests, treatments, specialized eating regimens, expensive medicines, and prayer rituals.  She died within the year.  Somehow I was able to hold it together long enough to companion her and her family as they made their journey through the dying process.  After her death, I had to confront my grief and anger.

One evening, in midst of an especially “sour” moment, I went to a trusted friend’s house to talk it over.  He loved the friend who had died just as much as I did.  When I arrived, he was in his kitchen, making sourdough bread, so we stood and talked it through while he stretched the dough and placed it into a bowl to rise.  As I watched his bare hands stretch the dough, it struck me:  What a perfect symbol for how to work with the difficulties of life!   You use the “sour starter” to make nourishing bread out of it!   He noticed the light go on in my eyes, so he offered me a jar of his “sourdough starter” and taught me how to make the bread.

I knew the starter that my friend gave me was precious.  It takes weeks to cultivate an “active” sourdough starter that is well-fermented enough to use for bread-making.  He had worked patiently to create this starter, and he was generous to share some of it with me.  I have felt the same gratitude in my spiritual life when I had the grace to receive well-fermented energy from a teacher, mentor, or group.  Without the “active” energy from a verified spiritual path, spiritual progress is impossible.

The sourdough starter from my friend represented something very significant to me:  the power to create communal nourishment out of something sour.   Great spiritual teachings have the same power.  When I got home, I held the jar of starter to my heart.  It was living!  I was delighted to have something that could keep growing and that I could share with others one day.  Who doesn’t like a fresh-baked, warm loaf of bread?

I put the jar in a cozy place on the kitchen counter, and I followed my friend’s instructions on how to “feed” it.  The process is so simple.  Just a bit of flour and water is all it needs.  If I don’t feed the starter, if I neglect it for a few weeks, then it decays and dies.

The same is true in our spiritual life, isn’t it?  If we forget to “feed” our spiritual life, it decays and dies.  But if we remember to care for it, our spiritual life grows.  Even a few minutes of remembrance during the day can improve the quality of our entire day.  For example, I have a friend who goes through her day with the loving kindness “metta” practice in her heart.  Whomever she meets, she wishes them well in her heart.  This is a simple way of feeding her spiritual “starter.”   Another friend prays for people at the end of each day.  These are simple ways to keep our spiritual “starter” from dying due to our neglect!

When I am ready to make a loaf of bread for someone, I feed the starter extra water and flour.  I set it aside for 12 hours, so that it has time to incorporate the addition.  Then I make the bread dough by mixing that expanded starter with water and 540 grams of bread flour and a bit of salt.  After the mixing, the dough goes through two rounds of “stretching and folding,” and then it rests for 12 hours in a warm place, so that it may “rise.”  There is another round of “stretching and folding” before it is placed in the bowl for its final “cold rise,” and then it goes into a hot oven at 500 degrees to be cooked through and through, until there is that mouth-watering golden crust and soft interior.  Through this simple process, the “sour starter” has transformed into a savory, wholesome loaf of bread right in front of my eyes!

Very easy steps:  1) welcome the gift of the “starter” – whatever life is bringing to you; 2) remember to feed it with your attention and practice; 3) keep it in a warm place – your love and care;  4) stretch and fold it – work with it; 5) give time for rest in a warm place; 6) put it into the heat.

More and more, as I walk the Path, I see how vital it is to be “cooked.”  If we are not willing to be “cooked” by the heat of the Path and the spiritual group, then we have nothing truly nourishing to offer.  When I was younger, I thought it was enough to study and to practice.  I became very knowledgeable and disciplined.  But it’s the “heat” of life’s difficulties that have “cooked” me more than anything else.

I am floating in nectar
because of the hardships
I did not escape.

—Rūmī, Sufi poet

I think that’s what my teacher meant when he said, “Life itself is the best workshop.”  If I do not welcome everything that life is bringing me, I miss the whole point of living.

Fran Grace, author of The Power of Love: A Transformed Heart Changes the World.

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