A Warrior Relates to Onions

Katie Bainbridge is a long-time student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche . In this piece, Katie considers her own painfully real experiences with two things that more often come up as symbols or metaphors: kitchen knives and the common onion, and how they  became a path of warriorship in everyday life for her. 

For a very long time I had a phobia of knives. Sharp, big ones in particular. In my early 20ʼs an Analyst had suggested that perhaps I was afraid of my own aggression? Maybe…. I just knew that I was afraid of knives. My irrational phobia would build on itself. I had images that ranged from the mundane to the horrible.

The mundane was, of course, cutting or slicing my finger or accidentally chopping it off while I was cutting something, blood squirting and flowing everywhere until I just dropped dead… all the way to accidentally leaving a knife on a countertop and having someone else, who wasnʼt afraid of their aggression, just decide to up and stab me to death.

One time I was actually afraid that it might “leap” off the countertop and accidentally fall and kill my dog.

The most obvious problem with this irrational phobia was that I was afraid to cook. ALL cooking seemed to require chopping of some sort. Carrots seemed to not be too much of a problem as long as I left a large part of the end untouched by the sharp blade. Small things like garlic? Forget about it! Onions? Hell to the no!

I just accepted that I would be eternally doomed to order in food, eat out for the rest of my life or just eat a lot of eggs.

When a practitioner goes on a long retreat we have times of the day of being of service to others. ROTA it is called. I must tell you that it was one of my GREAT fortunes to be given a shift in the kitchen, and I donʼt mean to wash dishes. My ROTA seemed to always land in the “prep” area of things. Short explanation… I had to use knives. Gargantuan ones. Enormous, shiny, silver, sharp, hanging on the wall kind of knives.

I walked into the kitchen seeing all of these blades hanging on the wall in a row with the music from Psycho playing in my head! I would see my thumb flying across the room landing on the floor, someoneʼs hand lopped off by accident due to a cantaloupe chopping error.

I was horrified when the head chef said, with complete calm and disinterest in me, “pick up a knife and get to work on the enormous basket of onions.” “What!!” I said, indignantly. “I donʼt USE knives!! Can I wash the yams in the sink instead?” Well, as a Dharma practitioner I should have known better than to ask if I could do the sissy job of washing the yams in the sink! Nope, dharma ainʼt for sissies. If you are afraid of it, you can best bet that it will be staring you right in the face at some point in your practice life. For me, in this moment, I had to face the onion AND the knife.

The onion is often used as an analogy for our “psychic stuff” our “mental debris” our “layers upon layers of stuff.” The thing about onions is that no matter how you cut it, it is always an onion and it makes you cry.

Back to the kitchen. My very stoic head of the kitchen is not swayed by my tears and hysterics. Instead he calmly walked me over to a cutting board and held the knife to the onion. He then very, very calmly placed his large hand over mine. “Here”, he said, “always cut this way….” his hand gestures cutting the onion were a man who had cut thousands of onions in his day. There was no hesitation. “Here, cut downward… place the tip of the blade here and just use your hand to bring the blade downward, like a stroke on the onion….”

He was patient to stay with me and have me try many onions on my own. Finally he smiled and said, “Girl, I think that you have got it….” and he walked away leaving me in a trail of onion tears and slivers of onion flesh.

It occurred to me recently that no matter where you are in your practice, no matter how many years that you have been practicing, there are ALWAYS things that scare us. There seem to be endless layers to this “onion.” We, habitually would like to avoid that which scares us. The powerful thing about warriorship is that the very thing that scares you is the very thing that can liberate you, if you do not run away.

Onions make me cry. Often issues come up either on the cushion or off that also make me cry. Things about myself sting my eyes when I begin to see old, outworn habits. Layers of the onion. It burns and stings to see ways that I can treat myself, others and the world. On the other hand, the gentle practice of coming back again and again to the cushion, to my breath and to my own basic goodness reveals something new, something fresh, some kind of possibility underneath those sticky layers of that onion.

One thing I know about onions, since I ended up cutting up so many of them, is that in the center there is a little green part. The fresh, little bit of green. No matter how much we cry and feel the sting of change as we peel that onion of our mind, basic goodness is always present. Sometimes we have to face our fears and just take one good cut to allow the freshness of our minds to spring awake!

I admit that I have successfully conquered my fear of knives. After almost 20 years of Dharma practice, I admit that I have learned to appreciate when the onion of my mind needs cutting into, which these days, seem to be every single day with no time off. In those rough moments I donʼt run, but instead I practice gentleness with myself and see my courage to look. I appreciate that I have developed the willingness to just be with whatever is “stinging” or the tears that are produced in the process opening up. This is how I practice warriorship.


Katie BainbridgeKatie Bainbridge is a long time Shambhala Buddhist practitioner and student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. She is a Jungian Analyst and a psychotherapist in private practice in Encino. She specializes in dream work and feminine development issues. Katie made Salmon for dinner tonight and had to chop up red onion, cilantro, limes and nectarines.  She reports that it was delicious!

One thought on “A Warrior Relates to Onions

  1. I recall reading years ago that onions only make us cry because our knives usually aren’t sharp enough. Which fits with this piece nicely….