The Meditative Act of Baking Bread

"If you want to know about your life, simply watch your hands.”
When I was traveling in India ten years ago, I learned a lot about meditation. More than could inform a lifetime, I had thought. But while so many of those lessons, lectures, and hours I spent in contemplative pursuits have slipped away, something that English meditation teacher Christopher Titmuss said has stuck, coloring, even, my days on the faraway coast of Maine. “If you want to know about your life,” he told a crowd of seekers gathered in a Buddhist temple in Bodh Gaya, “simply watch your hands.” What you value, how you spend your time, your habits, your kindness, creativity, or agitation are so easily—and almost unnervingly so—revealed through what your hands do all day. Do they help or hurt? Do they bring happiness into your life?

Over the years, I’ve used his technique as a diagnostic tool whenever things have felt out of balance, asking myself, “Well, to start with, what are my hands doing?” Training my mindfulness on this physical expression of my life, for the most part, I’ve seen that the issue at hand is a matter of too much texting, typing, or driving, and not enough of the good stuff.

At my most happy and serene, however, my hands knead bread. Baking at home is one of the pleasures I’ve found in choosing a quieter life in Maine, one outside of my old city job as a fashion editor and its high-intensity lifestyle. Baking from scratch is a slow process that sets aside the clock and calendar in favor of feeding the sourdough starter, the rise, and the bake. It’s magical—producing the perfect golden-hued boule never fails to amaze me, even after years. And it’s a time when I can see my best self, my deepest ambitions of simplicity, creativity, and communion, reflected through the work of my hands.

Baking from scratch is a slow process that sets aside the clock and calendar in favor of feeding the sourdough starter, the rise, and the bake.

On a baking day, the dough sets the pace, insisting on patience. There’s no workaround, and the beauty is that the anticipated inconvenience of overseeing the rise can bring a hard reset to a hectic week. When I bake, the dough rearranges my work hours in the home office in a way that makes me keenly conscious of how I spend my time, and how my hands facilitate my choices.

Even before I’ve had my morning coffee, I activate the sourdough starter, plunging my fingers into the soggy mess, adding in warm water and fresh flour until the dough is uniform and ragged. The successive kneading and waiting stipulated by my favorite recipe dictates the rest of the day. I still type, and text, and drive while the bread comes to life, but my hands also mix, knead, stretch, and shape the loaves. It’s then that I remember my grandmother teaching me to knead on her kitchen table when I was small. There’s an ancient feel to the process of feeding my family in this way, pushing and pulling the warm ball of dough across a wooden board.

This past summer, we moved, and I diligently dried out a bit of my carefully tended sourdough starter until all that remained was a grayish powder in a tiny jar. Most bakers are romantic about the origins of their starter culture. Mine had come from dear friends. I’d kept it alive and strong for a long stretch, and that felt right. Somewhere along the way, however, I lost the whole jar. I looked everywhere. But maybe it was meant to be. On our family’s first day—actually our first minute—in our new apartment, I met one of the best bakers in the state, Barak Olin, of Zu Bakery, who lives next door. As we stepped through the doorway into our new apartment, we heard his kids, 10 and 13, calling to us happily through an open window, “Welcome neighbors!” The kids—the same age as our daughters—all ran to the park together, and Barak and his wife Mimi made us dinner, a beautiful Niçoise salad, which, of course, was served with his magnificently delicious and elegantly rustic bread.

“A starter becomes whatever its environment is,” he said, “the air that it’s in and the hands that touch it.”

With the weather cooling here in Maine, and after some especially full months, it’s time to bring my hands back to what they love best. I asked Barak for pinch of his sourdough starter one afternoon recently, and we talked technique. “When I knead bread, and I’m making 400 loaves, it’s all about efficiency, using three strokes instead of seven. But even so,” he said, “when you touch dough, it feels good, like touching something alive.” Dough makes you pay attention, he went on. Is it hot and sticky in the summertime, or cold and sluggish in winter? Is there a draft coming through a window that could jeopardize the rise?

Barak’s starter first bloomed 20 years ago, when he blended rye and water with a few organic raisins and let the wild yeasts emerge. He conceded that the sourdough he shared with me both was, and wasn’t, the same culture that he’d begun all those years ago. “A starter becomes whatever its environment is,” he said, “the air that it’s in and the hands that touch it.”

Yet, while that’s true, and wondrous, I’ve learned through my baking that the experience is mutual. The sourdough transforms over time, through touch and contact with the atmosphere, but at the same time, the dough and its process have worked so subtly to transform me, showing me every time I bake what I can become when I slow down and live through my hands.

Looking for a new bread recipe? Try this gluten-free Paleo loaf:

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