Students mix a dough, knead the shit out of it, bake it, and then burn all the thoughts that cropped up in a ceremonial act of letting go.
The sanitised surrounds of a college food tech classroom in North East London isn't an obvious place to hold a meditation class. It's a large, white, orderly kitchen.
But then I'm not here to meditate, so much as to breaditate. Alison Skeat is about to lead a small group of us through a simple breadmaking class, but with an added bonus: we're going to dispose of a load of our stress as we do it.
There will be no sitting still, emptying our minds of everything while muttering an ohm-mani-padme-ohm under our breaths. We will not have to sit on the floor, cross-legged like a kindergarten class and desperately trying not to shuffle to get the blood to flow back into our bottoms because we've been still for too long. We will not lie on the floor and accidentally fall asleep while someone plays a gong (look, I was tired that time).
No, today we will be engaging with the meditative nature of baking itself. It's a method Skeat stumbled upon a couple of years ago. She had started her own cottage industry making loaves of bread at home to sell to work colleagues after learning how to bake six years ago from Virtuous Bread.
"I was making a load of bread at home and had bowls of yeast sitting around everywhere, when my friend Mish called me asking if she could come round," Skeat remembers. "She was having a really dreadful time, so because I'm a really good friend I said, 'Yes.' But I told her she needed to help me make the bread before we could sit down and talk."
Mish Rodriguez is sitting with us at the table and nods as Skeat tells the story. Skeat set her friend to kneading the dough and told her to take all her stress and anger out on it.
"I left the room at one point and all I could hear was slamming and crashing and I thought, 'Wow! She's really going for it,'" says Skeat.
The two friends chatted everything over while the bread proved. Once it was in the oven, Skeat had Rodriguez write down the feelings that had come up while she'd been kneading. Twelve pieces of A4 paper later, they cut the whole lot into strips and ceremonially burnt it in the metal bowl she'd used to make the bread with.
"I had so much tension," says Rodriguez. "I didn't know what to do with it. Making bread gave me something physical to do with it. At the end of it all, something nice came from it."
"She phoned me the next day and said, 'What the bloody hell did you do to me yesterday? I feel like a huge weight has been taken off,'" Skeat recalls. "I didn't know either but it was fantastic. I'm not a trained therapist but I realised I was sitting on skills that might help people."
The scene set, it's our turn. We are going to repeat the actions of that afternoon between the two friends: mix up a dough, beat the shit out of it with all of our anger and stress, bake it, and then burn the thoughts that cropped up in a ceremonial act of letting go.
Skeat instructs the class to make a yeast starter that bubbles up after a few minutes, then to add flour and mix. There's a hushed anticipation in the room as we prepare our dough and ourselves for the kneading out of our rage.
"It's a way of de-stressing," says Skeat. "You don't have to be going through anything massive, but I don't know anyone who doesn't have some stress."
Once we have our mix made, the unworked dough is turned out and we begin 20 minutes of silent kneading. We all have our backs to one another so we can't see what's going on, but it sounds like there's some punching and throwing going on.
The bread comes together easily and the silky stretch of it is a lovely feeling. Rather than thinking about what's stressing me out at the moment, I kind of slip into a state of flow, appreciating the rhythm of the moment and occasionally wondering if I look like one of the Bake Off contestants with my kneading skills.
It actually feels quite meditative and I realise that what I'm really doing is making the bread mindfully. I'm fully present to the dough and the feel of it and the way I'm moving with it. My mind does not empty, neither does it drift to my other pre-occupations, good or bad. I and the dough are—temporarily—as one.
I have no idea if this means I was doing it properly or not, but once our kneading time's up and we congregate for a drink while the bread rises, I realise that on the surface of my mind are some things I'm angry about. Which is a relief because I wasn't sure what I was going to write on my strips of paper to burn.
"My belief is that when you've finished kneading, you need to have all that negative energy taken away," says Skeat. "I don't want you to go home with an angry loaf of bread."
So, we write our negative thoughts out and cut them into strips ready to burn just like she and Rodriguez had done a few years ago, internally letting them go or offering forgiveness to the person as we do.
"The thing about forgiveness is it's really hard, but even if you don't mean it, say it in your head," Skeat urges. "I find that when I do when I revisit that thought it's not as heavy as it used to be."
Rodriguez agrees: "It's like the Dalai Lama says, not forgiving someone is like swallowing a hot coal and wishing it burn the other person."
I don't think I'm an angry person, but nevertheless I have a small pile of papers to burn, which Skeat gathers up. The college won't let us start a fire on the premises so she takes them home to burn for us.
Out of the oven comes my loaf of adversity, and when smeared in butter and jam while still warm, it's delicious.
I'm not sure whether this is therapy, a bread class, meditation, mindfulness, or just two wise women sharing what they've learned from a positive experience, but I do now know three things: making bread isn't all that hard, it's definitely a good way to chill out, and the results taste better than anything else, bad energy or not.