Photographs by Meadow Linn

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Being Present

Recently I was a presenter at a seminar-at-sea on an Alaska cruise. While our ship traveled along the Inside Passage, past evergreen cliffs and snow-covered peaks, I spent a lot of time pondering the natural world and the importance of solitude. In my class I taught about taking time to be still and spending time in nature on a personal retreat. This type of retreat is often called a “quest” or “solo.”

Although a cruise ship with its casino, multiple bars, and jewelry stores doesn’t necessarily lend itself naturally to being a venue for a traditional quest, by taking time to breathe in the sea spray and allowing my heart and mind to relax, I feel as though I experienced a quest of sorts. While on the ship, I spent as much time as possible looking out to sea, walking the decks, and allowing the ocean breeze to tousle my hair, which opened my mind to new awareness and soothed the creases in my soul.

My mom photographing an eagle
One sunny afternoon, while standing on one of the lower decks, I calmed my mind to the point that the only thing I was thinking about was the vast expanse of water that filled my vision. Right then, a pod of dolphins appeared. Although they were likely chasing some fish, to me it appeared as though they were dancing. As I turned to see if others were also taking in this beautiful sight, I was surprised to discover that the man to the right of me, taking a deep drag on his cigarette, was caught up in his thoughts and didn’t seem to notice the dolphins. To the left of me, a couple emerged from inside the ship with a camera in hand. I assumed they’d seen the dolphins and had come out to take a photo; however, they proceeded to take a selfie with the ship’s deck as their background.

What I found remarkable wasn’t that the others didn’t seem to see the dolphins. Instead, what was noteworthy was that it made me realize how much magic surrounds us daily that we do not see because we’re focused on other things. It’s only when we’re fully present that our eyes soften, our heart opens, and we take in our surroundings. Seeing the frolicking dolphins reminded me of one of my favorite lines in St. Exupéry’s Little Prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

A calving glacier
In that moment, my heart was open and my mind was free to have this experience. It wasn’t that the dolphins were only there for me to see, or that I have a special ability to see what others do not. It was simply that in that moment, I was taking the time to look. It made me wonder how much majesty I’ve missed out on in my life when I’ve been myopically focused on a project or when my brain is too full to be fully present.

Have you ever gone for a walk with a toddler and taken the time to see the world through their eyes? Life goes at a much slower pace (a single block could take an hour). But, what did you see during that walk? What did you smell? Taste? Touch? Feel?

Life is so delicious. But, unfortunately, often in our frenetic modern world, we forget to take time to quiet our mind enough to savor our lives. It need not take a lot of time. Sometimes just a few minutes in nature doing absolutely nothing is all you need to quiet your mind, release stress, and maybe even see something you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It’s not necessary to go on a quest or be on a cruise ship in Alaska to have meaningful experiences. All it takes is being present. Magic is everywhere.

Juneau at sunset

Decadent Dark Chocolate Cake with Chocolate “Buttercream” Frosting
Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Grain-Free, and Honey-Sweetened

Spending time alone in nature can help quiet the mind and soothe the soul. However, taking time to be fully present when you eat can be another powerful way to practice mindfulness. And, when you savor your food, you begin to savor your life even more fully. Have you ever reached for a second handful of M&Ms, for example, because you were so distracted when you ate the first handful that you didn’t really taste them? So often we down our food while thinking about a million other things. But when you take time to engage all your senses and relish each bite, you’ll actually enjoy your food more and, believe it or not, you’ll likely end up eating less. This chocolate cake is a perfect food for practicing being present. Take deep breathes. Notice how it smells, how it feels on your tongue, and how the different flavors intermingle.

Although I try not to have favorite recipes (they’re all my babies!), this cake is currently my newest favorite. I love how easy it is since everything gets thrown into the blender. I love how rich and decadent it is. And, I love that it uses cashews instead of flour! I’m really proud of this creation. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Store the frosted cake on the counter. If refrigerated it will become a little less moist.

Serves 10

10 oz. high-quality dark chocolate (I use 72%), melted and cooled slightly
¼ cup strong brewed coffee, room temperature*
5 large eggs
¾ cup mild honey
½ cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening (also called palm shortening)**
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup raw cashews
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda

*If the coffee is hot, you’ll end up with scrambled eggs.
** I use Spectrum Organic. Make sure you get a brand that has an “orangutan-friendly” label. Most palm oil comes from Asia where orangutan habitat is rapidly being destroyed. Spectrum Organic, however, gets theirs from Colombia from small, sustainable farms.

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Prepare a 9-inch springform pan. Place the pan on a piece of parchment paper and trace around the circumference with a pencil. Cut the parchment paper to the size of the pan. Grease the pan with vegetable shortening, both the bottom and the sides. Line the bottom of the pan with the parchment paper and then grease the top of the parchment paper.

Chop the chocolate and place it in a double boiler or in a heatproof bowl over barely simmering water, stirring occasionally. Once the chocolate is melted. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly.

Place all the remaining ingredients into a high-power blender in the order listed. Start on low power and slowly work up to high. Process on high until the mixture is smooth and well-aerated, about two minutes. Add the melted chocolate and process for another minute or so, until completely mixed. You may need to scrape down the sides of the blender a couple times if your blender doesn’t have a tamper.

Pour into the prepared pan and bake on the middle rack until an inserted toothpick comes out clean, about 25 minutes. If the outside appears to be cooking faster than the inside, reduce the heat to 325ºF. Cool on a rack until the pan is cool enough to touch. Remove the cake from the pan and cool completely before frosting.

Chocolate “Buttercream” Frosting

¾ cup non-hydrogenated vegetable shortening (also called palm shortening)*
2 tsp. vanilla
½ cup + 1 Tbsp. mild honey
1 Tbsp. strong brewed coffee
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

Whisk the vegetable shortening in a standing mixer on medium-high until soft (either the paddle or whisk attachment will work). Add the vanilla, honey, and coffee and mix on medium-low until fully combined. Add the cocoa powder and whisk on medium-low (or whatever speed will keep the cocoa from flying out of the bowl and all over you) until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.


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