“He who tastes not knows not”
Do you like to feel good? Do you want to avoid what doesn’t feel good, dumb questions right?
Have you ever considered how the drive to not suffer is a key part of everyone’s learning process? I even wonder if it is, in part, a desire to avoid the suffering of hunger that helps a baby learn to walk…, maybe that isn’t true, but surely each step we walk, as we grow, we get better at surviving, and that also entails satisfying needs that when unsatisfied lead to varying degrees of suffering. So, what I’m about to say may seem counterintuitive at first, but I think it will make excellent sense by the time I’m done.
Suffering, in the right measure, is a good thing, or maybe it would be better to say that it is a necessary thing, regardless it is unavoidable, natural, and useful. Whether or not it’s good, well, maybe, that is a matter of personal taste.
Every time you experience suffering you could, maybe, at the very least think of it as something that:
Reminds you’re alive and aware...
Signals to you, that you have something that needs to be tended to...
Perhaps the most counter-intuitive of them all, adds some potentially desirable flavor.
Maybe we could relate it to spice; or what a chef, foodie, or connoisseur might call pungency and or bitter flavor to your experience. That flavor that suffering adds, can if we take the time and care to savor our experiences, be quite enjoyable in the right balance.
The right balance is not just a matter of quantity and/or intensity of the stimuli, but also a matter of your state of mind;
how open you are to your experience in general, not resisting the moment,
how mindful you can be in that moment,
and your capacity to find good in something you might originally have believed was bad, i.e. acquired taste.
We all know that some people like spicy or hot foods, some like at least a hint of bitterness to coffee, and chocolate, and then there is the delicate science of just the right amount of smoky flavor for certain foods. Of course, too much of any flavor (even sweetness) can drown out all the other flavors, and then why have the other flavors if you can’t taste them?
That last sentence was a question, not a judgment, when I used the word connoisseur in the title, I didn’t mean it in the pretentious, judgmental sense of someone who looks down on your preferences as if they were inferior. Instead, I mean connoisseur in the sense of someone who takes the time to hone their ability to really appreciate flavor, and art to the fullest of their ability.
Here for the purpose of this article, I’d like to suggest that everything in existence be considered art. If you believe in a deity, then that deity might be the artist of creation, if you believe in evolution, then nature itself is the artist; perhaps applying a somewhat free form technique as some surrealists do. Art mirrors existence and experience, existence and experience are altered by art. Every moment of your life could be viewed as a story you’ve written and acted out. The connoisseur of life is a person who’s developed the requisite skills to turn their life into their own personal masterpiece, and the skills to truly appreciate what they’ve created, and all of the art that is the world around them. This masterpiece they create can only be judged as good, by the eye of its creator, as it is an intrinsic part of them.
This kind of connoisseur cares deeply about making the most of their life, so they take the time to really pay close attention. Stopping and smelling the roses is not a cliche for this person. Instead, it’s an opportunity to slow down, tune in to something of value, get to know that something perhaps a little bit more, or just to be with that valued aspect of life. At this moment the connoisseur’s attention is like the sunlight, and whatever it rests upon, is the rose that blooms under its light, revealing its inner life. In this way, the connoisseur is an excellent friend. This is the person who will listen intently to every word, to every feeling you express, finding the sweetness in you. The connoisseur wants you, not only to know you’ve been heard but to know how beautiful what you’ve said is and/or how wonderful you are. The connoisseur is a lover of life, our enjoyment of love only increases when we share it. It would be a waste for you to possess such goodness in you, yet not be able to enjoy it, so the connoisseur does their best to help you see the good they see. Together we bloom under this light of loving attention.
How easy it is to not notice the good right in front of our noses. As such this person doesn’t take their life for granted, instead they question what they really like and perhaps more importantly what might it be possible for them to like? After all, why not expand the horizons of your possibility for enjoyment, by acquiring new tastes?
It’s easy to assume you know your likes and dislikes, and to a point, I’m sure you know them better than anyone else. Only you are privy to your own inner experience, so no one else can be an expert on you. Some experts are better or worse at their area of expertise than others, and everyone has room for improvement. The connoisseur seeks such improvement, without looking down on their current state or the state of anyone else. To insult the tastes of another is to project the idea that there is some universal standard of goodness, and how dull would that be?! Instead, there is much more fun in learning why someone else likes what they do. It also makes you more appreciative of other people. And leaves you so much more room to grow.
When I was young, salty and sweet were my favorite flavors. I don’t look back at my tastes as if they were bad, those experiences were beautiful, because that is what I liked and understood back then. That’s what I built off of to learn what I know now, and I still love sweetness… isn’t the love of any flavor, the love of the equivalent within ourselves?
As Peer Support specialists we can help our peers enrich their experience of life by, at least taking a few key points from what I’ve said, and applying them to our relationships. For example, I have to maintain my wellness, because everything is much more delicious when I’m well, though I don’t reject the flavor of my experience when I’m not well, instead I sit with it, like a good friend and listen to the taste of all its flavors, and they bare their hidden meaning like the rose. Though perhaps with my well-tuned understanding of flavor pairing I know just the right flavors to help bring the dish back to its most desirable taste when I just can’t bear the flavor of unwellness. I have these flavors listed in the wellness tools section of my WRAP. I find depression to be a dull dish that needs some spice; some excitement. Perhaps this is why I get anxious when I’m depressed, the anxiety is the only thing keeping me awake. What are the flavors telling me I need, what is this dish missing? Anxiety is ok in the right dose, but even better is a good run. I love the blissful flavor of my heart pounding in my chest, my legs getting sore near the end, and me pushing myself just a tad further; how sweet is victory? Especially how it wakes my senses up, makes me stand a bit straighter and prepares me to enjoy the flavors of the rest of my day.
This isn’t always about adjusting the flavors or colors of our experience, it is about adjusting our relationship with that experience. Sometimes it’s about noticing what is
already there but forgotten, maybe in our immersion in suffering, we forgot to appreciate those brief moments of enjoyment. Or maybe what is forgotten is the simple awareness of being aware? Sometimes I need to step back a bit or look at a painting from a different angle to really appreciate it. One way I do this, is I lay down on the grass and gaze out at the vast sky, letting the expanse of it open me to a willingness to experience, this is also what I do when I’m very afraid…it can sometimes help put all the flavors of my life back in their right relationships…and isn’t that one possible way of framing the recovery journey?
What if the recovery journey and the steps along the way were framed as cultivating a loving relationship with our experience? What if we help our peers by inspiring them to be adventurous, wonder about, and savor life? How might they grow if the process of building a WRAP was framed as a way for them to enjoy life more deeply instead of just a way to avoid crisis, and handle stress… ugh doesn’t that sound like so much work? There is a whole universe of delicious beauty in what each person enjoys, and in that, is reflected what makes them uniquely special, what makes them beautiful. That process of savoring and refining what you love and your experience of it is the beginning of the journey back to the real you.
Along this journey of the heart are many pitfalls, one of which is that as we come to savor the good in our life, we get better, and better at rejecting what we “interpret” as bad. The child who couldn’t drink coffee, because it was too bitter, or who smelled a glass of beer with disgust, grows up to enjoy both of these delicious tonics. In the same way, we can come to acquire a taste for all life’s experiences, even some of the “bad”. Like salt, we want just the right amount to bring out the other flavors, not so much that we taste the salt. In some situations, like with pretzels we might actually aim to taste the salt a bit more, but there is still always that limit. Knowing your limits, and your healthy boundaries are so important to creating the experiences you most desire. Yet we seek out salt, right? Who is crazy enough to seek out pain or suffering? Chili hurts the tongue but tastes so good. Though some insist they feel no pain from tattoos, others seek out tattoos for a healthy context within which to enjoy pain. Professional fighters don’t so much want to be hurt, but if the risk of being hurt wasn’t there it wouldn’t be as much of a thrill. With those trying to develop a skill there is often a willingness to endure suffering on the road to the reward of success, but then on looking back at the journey we often realize the challenge of suffering made it all the more worth it. It wouldn’t have been as rewarding if it wasn’t so damn hard. Harder still is viewing my own childhood experience of abuse as a part of what makes my life taste so damn good today, but it is. Without that pain, would I be here today, helping others, cultivating relationships that make my life all that much more worth living? Is it wrong for me to say that my pain helps make me beautiful and that those that love me should love all of me, that I should love all of me?
There is a lot to unpack in what I just wrote that I’ll have to save for future installments. I plan to share more techniques for how to put this all into practice, and a more thorough breakdown. For now, what I’d like to linger on the palate of your mind is to consider how, though in the past avoiding suffering, and other aspects of your experience may have benefited you to some degree, now perhaps the mature mind is capable of embracing a more expansive and inclusive view, that is ultimately capable of making your future experience of suffering at the very least less undesirable. That the tolerance for any given flavor of life is a matter of personal taste. In other words, it matters how you perceive your suffering, how you frame it, whether or not you’re immersed and identified with it, or able to step back a bit to see it as one flavor amongst many others that help to make life worth living.
In the little-known Asian tradition of Cha Dao, or the Way of Tea, they don’t sweeten their tea, they want the bitterness to remain. What some don’t realize is that with unsweetened tea first, we might taste only bitter, then upon closer inspection, after some mindful sips, we can notice the hidden sweet after taste which is even more delicious in contrast to that bitterness. It is in this way of drinking tea that we cultivate our ability to notice the sweet aftertaste of life’s bitterest moments. We sit with those moments of suffering, and we attend to them closely, carefully listen to our experience, as only a good friend can, and we savor the sweetness inherent, but often hidden, in every moment of simply being alive.