6 Leadership Lessons from the Meditation Kitchen 🍲👨‍🍳🧘‍♀️

6 Leadership Lessons from the Meditation Kitchen 🍲👨‍🍳🧘‍♀️

One of the best things a meditator can do to deepen their practice and progress on the spiritual path is through selfless service to others. Luckily, Vipassana meditation centers around the world provide a lot of volunteer opportunities to students who have sat at least one 10-day silent meditation course.

Volunteering at the California Vipassana meditation center in Yosemite was an unexpected mindfulness retreat in itself. Sure, the meditators were there to practice stillness and go deep, but the kitchen became a different kind of practice ground.

Day after day, our motley crew of twelve kitchen servers – a successful startup founder from Colombia peacefully washing mountains of dishes; an American news outlet editor chopping veggies, the sweetest Mongolian skincare pro as a chef amongst us – transcended language and cultural differences to become a well-oiled machine, preparing and serving delicious vegetarian meals for 120 meditators.

Vipassana servers


It wasn't always easy, but there was a calmness and interconnectedness to the way we worked together, a focus on the task at hand. Just like meditation helps us observe our thoughts, this experience highlighted the importance of clear communication and adapting on the fly.

Maybe that's why the saying goes, "You don't have to meditate to experience mindfulness."

We also had about 4-5 hours to meditate each day and had an evening talk with Vipassana teachers, which really helped to reinvigorate my practice. 

So, what was the secret to making it work? Here's what I discovered:

🍎 Adapting to change: the key principle of the Insight meditation practice is learning to adapt to change without losing mental balance (equanimity), which allowed us to respond to situations non-judgmentally and take the best course of action.

🥑 Awareness and emotional intelligence: The practice of meditation itself served as an attunement tool, fostering better communication and flow within the team.

🥬 Shared purpose: We approached our work with a willingness to be of service, recognizing our direct contribution to creating the best meditative environment for others. Doing humble work became an empowering experience. 

🍅 True leadership emerges when a manager willingly takes on the most humbling tasks, stepping in for others who needed a break. It's all about supporting the team and creating a culture of camaraderie and collaboration.

🍊 Good documentation and knowledge sharing: Daily tasks were organized on a whiteboard, and every recipe or routine task had step-by-step instructions accompanied by videos on using commercial-grade equipment (ever used a Robot Coupe? It can be intimidating!). Timely tips from experienced servers also helped avoid a couple of kitchen disasters.

🍋 Selfless environment: By setting aside our egos and prioritizing collective goals, we had a greater sense of unity, trust and support. That feeling of knowing your team has your back, even after just a few days of being together.

🍞 All of the above sparked creativity and a bit of "kitchen innovation" into our service as we were thinking what else we could do to make the meditation experience even better.

Surprisingly, despite the long days from 4 am to 10 pm, I felt energized and brimming with ideas. 

Server room at California Vipassana Center

🍫 I had an idea to dedicate 10% of our volunteer time to create artisanal chocolate for sale at wellness-minded grocery chains like Sprouts Market and Whole Foods. I envisioned marketing it as chocolate made in a meditative environment, infused with the tranquility, awareness, and serenity of the meditators who made it.

Interestingly, Whole Foods partnered with meditation platform Headspace to help consumers improve their well-being through "Food for Mood," tapping into positive moods associated with certain foods. It feels like we might be onto something here as mindfulness expands into the retail world!

All proceeds from the chocolate sales would support non-profit meditation centers and make meditation courses more accessible to people. Everyone seemed to love the idea, and we collaborated on a pilot batch, creating varieties like "Zen & Zest," "Raisins & Seeds," and "Prunes & Walnuts." 

While it's uncertain if it will ever hit the stores, we had a blast co-creating and supporting each other's mindfulness practice at the Vipassana course. 

Bottom line, I don't know which I liked better: sitting or serving a course as each offers a deeply rewarding experience in its own way. One thing you should know if you are considering serving a course, this is going to be a fantastic way to deepen your meditation practice and benefit from giving back.

Photos taken by Maud, one of our Dhamma workers I had the pleasure serving with.

Vipassana Pagoda at night in North Fork
Vipassana Center Pagoda at North Fork Center

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