Monday, May 16, 2011

Combatting Stress with Saucy Spaghetti Q’s and More-Than-Meatballs

I should be studying for my final exam tomorrow. I should be studying for my final(s) next week. I should be packing up my things and slowly moving back home. I should be doing a lot of things, but am I doing them? 

Sadly, no.

Instead, I’m downing a steaming cup of espresso with steamed whole milk and thinking of what to write for today’s post, trying to keep my eyes open while I await the arrival of my late dinner guests. Today was the first day in such a long time that all was quiet and peaceful (save for waking up two hours earlier than I wanted to, in tears, from a nightmare). I got to extend my morning routine past noon, wearing my bloodthirsty bunny slippers with pride. I got to run five miles without having to be elsewhere immediately afterward. Sure, I was productive; I ran five miles after all, and I did a load of laundry while putting away dishes.

This week has been stressful, and most of it had little to do with academics. I said goodbye to old friends, of whom it may be quite some time until I see them again. The boyfriend is leaving on Saturday for his annual summer internship (this time in Texas), and I am trying to be strong about that. I’ve taken a break from “grains” for a bit, and have been trying out different types of breakfasts in the morning. And after the semester ends, when I’m officially moved out of campus housing and back into the parental units’ abode, I’m cleansing my system for a week.

I’m doing all I can to take care of myself, but sometimes I feel it isn’t enough.

Just for the record, I am compensating my lack of grain intake with other food and I’m sleeping a good number of hours a night. But when I look at the study guides and the take-home exam for my four classes, my eyes glaze over and I look for other things to do.

Also, tomorrow’s exam is probably the one I’m going to do the best on (besides the take-home final), simply because it’s my favorite class this semester taught by one of my favorite professors in S/CAR. But when you get right down the things you have to do in a day/week/month like I do, life tends to overwhelm you. No matter how well you hide it, the stress builds up and all you want to do is laze on a hammock and listen to music that comforts you (Carlos Santana, Tori Amos, Chris Botti, and the Indigo Girls come to mind). 

I think I have a hammock around here… somewhere.

On Monday I told Cheryl all the things that were simultaneously going on in my life, how the calorie counting and poor body image had returned, how simply being seemed simply impossible, how the future seemed hazy, how isolated I felt from the people that mattered most to me, how I wanted to try grain-free living for a week or so, then a cleanse after school let out.

She answered my frustrations, questions, and fears with a story:

Mara Comes for Tea - Retold from Thich Nhat Hanh's Heart of Understanding

One day the Buddha was sitting in meditation in his cave while his most trusted disciple, Ananda, was outside collecting food for their next mealtime. Ananda looked up from his chores when he saw, coming toward the cave, the Buddha's nemesis, Mara. Mara was a demon king who sought to prevent the Buddha from reaching enlightenment beneath the bodhi tree. Since then he had continued to be a perpetual thorn in the Buddha's side, so to speak, cultivating greed, desire and hatred in men. Ananda new this and was immediately enraged by his appearance at the Buddha's cave.

Ananda approached Mara: "Get out of here! The Buddha does not wish to have his cave invaded by demons!"

Mara replied: "Go and ask him for yourself. I simply wish to speak with your master."

Reluctantly and nervously Ananda did as the demon king asked and entered the Buddha's cave. "World Honored One, the demon king, Mara approaches your cave and seeks an audience with you. I have already instructed him to leave but he insisted I ask you myself."

The Buddha's eyes opened from his meditation and he smiled, widely. "Mara is here? Really? It has been so long since we have spoken. Yes, yes, ready some tea and invite him in and we'll talk."

Dumbfounded, Ananda did as the Buddha asked, putting a pot on the fire to boil and then going outside to tell Mara that he was welcome in the Buddha's cave. "As I knew I would be, little Ananda," said the demon king arrogantly, brushing past the Buddha's humble disciple.

When Mara entered the cave the Buddha rose to his feet, nearly leaping into the air with excitement. "Mara, my good friend, it has been so long since we have seen each other. Please sit, have some tea and tell me why you have come to visit."

Ananda was very nervous now and listened to the conversation between his master and the demon. Mara sipped his tea slowly and then spoke. "Buddha, things are not going well. I wish to be something else. Something other than Mara."

"But, Mara, you are so good at being Mara. Remember when you sent images of sense pleasures and warnings of how difficult it would be for me to fully reach enlightenment when I sat beneath the bodhi tree? That was a fantastic job of being Mara. I really had to struggle to get where I am now. I truly owe you a debt of gratitude."

Now Ananda was getting very fearful. He did not like the idea of Buddha having a debt of gratitude to Mara. This was very upsetting but he listened further.

"Well, I suppose you are right," said Mara, "but being Mara I always have to be sneaking around in the shadows, talking in riddles and half-truths. It is such hard work always trying to think of the best things to say and do. I just...I think it would be easier to be something else. And the worst part: my disciples are now talking of non-duality, peace, social justice, is so frustrating being Mara. I think it would be much better if you took my disciples. Maybe we could switch for a while? You could be Mara and I could try being Buddha?"

At this request Ananda's heart really began to pound. He knew that his master had just said he owed Mara a debt and he also knew how profound his master's compassion truly was. He had seen him give to others when he had almost nothing. He was terrified that he would now become the disciple of Mara and the Buddha would become a demon king. No worse thought was imaginable.

The Buddha thought. He sipped his tea. And then he spoke: "Mara, do you think it is just frustrating being Mara? Being the Buddha is, doubly frustrating, I guarantee. You think you have trouble with your disciples? Mine put words in my mouth and write them into "sutras" that I have never said. I teach them about non-attachment to material things and what do they do? They build stupas and erect shrines in my name! They even build enormous statues of me out of gold just to pray to even though I have told them time and time again that I am not a god. And they sell trinkets in temples with my words blazed upon them. It is an absolute pain. But I do not give up being Buddha because that is what I am."

Mara sighed and vanished into the shadows. Ananda felt slightly relieved but continued to worry that one day Mara would get what he ultimately wanted.

Mara is Sanskrit for delusion, for the things we fear most and things that block our way to personal enlightenment. Mara is the demons that keep us from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the monsters in the labyrinth, the fears that drive us to insomnia.

It is human nature to avert our minds from the things that frighten us or, in my case, stresses us out. For me, inviting Mara to tea is a frequent affair, but it is one I like to keep short. As a conflict resolution major, we are taught to know ourselves, what our triggers are, what we are feeling and why.

Does that mean that the men and women of this discipline are calm and collected every hour of the day? No, it doesn’t. Mara is just as scary and intimidating, but I believe we can name our personal Mara much easier. 

So, if I invited Mara to tea (and maybe offer it this recipe as well), what would it reflect back to me across the table? Mara would reflect doubt in my abilities, uncertainty in my future, isolation from friends and family, loneliness from busy life I lead, lack of motivation, the frustrations of my health, my hunger, the stress of being in college… I could go on.

Naming Mara is half the battle, but it is a crucial step to getting to where you want to be. Mara will come and go, but you are the constant variable in the equation. As long as I remember that, all the current fears, stresses, and frustrations will pass.

In the mean time, as I’m all about comfort these days, this recipe took me back to those days when I was home sick and Campbell’s canned SpaghettiO’s were always in the pantry where I could reach.

So for those dealing with finals and graduation and other stressful things, I wish you all the luck in the world. Just take it one step at a time and, before you know it, it will be one less thing to fret about. And as for this recipe, anything with meatballs is the quintessence of comfort in my book.

Saucy Spaghetti Q’s and More-Than-Meatballs

For the meatballs
1 lb. Ground beef
1 c. Frozen petite peas, thawed
1/2 White onion, finely diced
1 Large egg
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp. Crushed garlic

1 tbsp. Olive oil, for the skillet
1/3 – 1/2 c. water, for the skillet

For the Sauce
1 15 oz can Tomato sauce
1/2 Red onion, coarsely chopped
7 Baby Bella mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 Zucchini, quartered and thinly slices
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red pepper flakes, optional

For the Spaghetti Q’s
1 c. or more of Quinoa, cooked in your method of choice (typically the water-quinoa ratio is 2:1, but check the box for instructions anyway)

Combine the ingredients for the More-Than-Meatballs (excluding the oil and water) in a large bowl until thoroughly combined.
Add the oil and water in a large pot or deep skillet over medium heat.
Make the meatballs into whatever size you wish (I wanted particularly small ones, so I used the 1/4 c. measuring cup and split that into two meatballs), and place them into the pot or skillet.
Let the meatballs cook for about five minutes, then add the ingredients for the sauce.
Cover and cook on medium to low heat for thirty minutes. (During this time, you can cook the quinoa if you haven’t done so already.)
Once all of the parts of the meal are ready, place in the desired helping of quinoa at the bottom of each bowl and top with meatballs and sauce.
Garnish with your choice of cheese and/or sour cream (I used ricotta and it was delicious!).

Serves 4.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Morri,

    So sorry you're having a difficult time - sounds like the story about Mara and the Buddha helped though. It is so difficult to be young! Do you know of Jon Kabat-Zinn? He has several wonderful books, my favorite is 'Wherever You Go, There You Are', which has short chapters on trust, generosity, concentration and many different kinds of simple practices around mindfulness. I often dip into this book when I feel down, challedged by life, or just need some inspiration.

    Love your recipe, especially over quinoa.

    Hang in there girl...