By: Susan Plummer
Over the years I have tried to meditate many times using various techniques, including listening to tapes and soothing music, looking at a flickering candle, using alternate nostril breathing and many more. I always found that I felt more anxious and stressed once I’d finished than I had when I started! I found it difficult to keep my mind quiet and remain the non-judgemental observer. I would usually get frustrated with myself for not being able to quiet (read: control) my monkey mind.
Lately though, I have found something for me that does bring about mindfulness: CHOCOLATE. Not to eat, but to use, manipulate and explore. As a food scientist, I find chocolate a fascinating ingredient with unique characteristics and properties. My mindfulness activity of choice is chocolate tempering.
Tempering is the process by which stable cocoa butter crystals are induced in melted chocolate, using a combination of temperature, time and movement, so that it sets properly upon cooling. The control and manipulation of cocoa butter crystallization is critical in developing the desired structure in chocolate. There is an intricate, delicate and invisible crystalline lattice that provides the stability, gloss and all important melt-in-your-mouth quality to chocolate that we all enjoy, and the process of developing this cannot be rushed.
I have recently been thinking about chocolate and its relevance to Self-Reg. Over the years I have taken many chocolate classes and earned my Professional Chocolatier’s Certificate from George Brown College. In the first class of my final certificate course, the instructor said that we always needed to approach our chocolate with an open mind and open heart (non-judgement and compassion). They reminded us that it is important to be present with your chocolate. If you were having a bad day, the chocolate would know. I laughed at the time, but not anymore. It turns out that she was absolutely correct, the chocolate does know, and the same applies to children.
I had been looking forward to that first class, since my life was busy and there were events happening over which I had no control – in short, I was dysregulated. I was hoping to get lost with my chocolate and be transported from my worries and concerns for a few hours. During my previous classes, I had come to be quite adept at tempering. Tempering involves the melting and cooling of chocolate with movement to specific temperatures and is what gives chocolate its fabulous qualities and textures. In the first class, I melted my first batch of chocolate and tempered it successfully. I was pleased and began to make knife-dipped chocolate petals (the product of the day’s demonstration), quickly filling up my first sheet of acetate. I placed that first strip in a baguette pan to induce a curled shape and allow them to harden.
Now for the Self-Reg analysis: As I worked, the chocolate in the bowl continued to cool (stress) and was beginning to thicken (stress behaviour), so I needed to rewarm it (remove the stress). This is where it can get tricky because if you heat it too much (stress), the chocolate will come out of temper and will not set properly (stress behaviour). It will be soft and develop a greyish cast called bloom (stress behaviour). That is exactly what happened. My chocolate lost its temper and so did I: we were dysregulated! The next set of petals refused to harden (stress behaviour), so I tried to retemper my chocolate (process to remove stress). After hours of struggling, with both myself and the chocolate feeling ill-tempered (dysregulated), I decided that I was not in the right frame of mind to be dealing with the chocolate that evening and the chocolate knew it (recognize stressors). We were both caught in a stress cycle (reflect). I poured my ill-tempered chocolate into a puddle and put it in the fridge to harden. I took it home along with some extra acetate sheets in hopes of mastering the petals before the next class (respond).
On a quiet evening later that week (respond), in the safety of my own kitchen (safe & secure environment), I retempered my chocolate mindfully (co-regulation). Over the next several hours, I made my petals – over a hundred of various shapes and sizes – and was able to keep my chocolate in temper the entire time (reducing stressors). Finally, I was one with my chocolate and it knew it too! We had established an interbrain connection through co-regulation.
Chocolate has taught me so much about mindfulness and about life. Chocolate (and life) has to be approached with an open mind and open heart. It is critical to eliminate, minimize, or reduce the impact of stressors so that a stable form can emerge, expressing all its best qualities. It is also critical to create and maintain a safe, secure and stable environment in which the chocolate lives. Even if your chocolate is properly tempered, stressors or abuse from the environment can cause its structure to change and even collapse. We, and the children in our care, are a lot like chocolate: we require patience, compassion, attention to detail & intention. We require safe, secure and stable environments so that we can express our best qualities.
It is important to explore the various tools of mindfulness until you find one that works for you. The practice of working with chocolate has allowed me to lead a more even-tempered life.
Susan Plummer is a lifelong learner with over twenty years experience in the food, culinary and education fields. Her passion for creating beautiful and functional learning environments for young children has led to her current position teaching in a Montessori toddler classroom in Toronto. This is where she was introduced to the books of Dr. Shanker and self-regulation. Although relatively new to Self-Reg, she has found that its practice marries beautifully with Montessori philosophy. She is witnessing daily the positive impact of its application in her toddler community and the greater school community.