The Taste of Liberation

“The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to preferences” Hsin-Hsin Ming By Seng-ts’an, Third Chinese Patriarch, trans. Richard B. Clarke

Preferences are something we very much take for granted, we like some things, we dislike others, it seems like a very natural part of human experience. We can assume like and dislike are driven by the nature of how an object makes us feel, it seems to have an element of immutability to it. When we practice with things we dislike we often take the tack of simply learning to tolerate the unpleasant experience, safe in the knowledge that everything that arises will eventually cease.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach, patient endurance is one of the most useful qualities we can cultivate to help us along the path. In fact the Buddha points out that there are some experiences that are simply to be endured:

“What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by enduring? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, bears cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, the sun, and creeping things; he endures ill-spoken, unwelcome words and arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, distressing, and menacing to life. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not endure such things, there are no taints, vexation, or fever in one who endures them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by enduring.” trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi

But in our practice we can quite quickly find that we can entirely change our perspective on something by working with it. We find there are times when we can change our response to something from being one of strong displeasure, to one where we don’t even feel like we need to tolerate it, it no longer bothers us, such as my experience with the builders’ radio that I wrote about last week. So the area of preferences and what is underneath them is a very interesting area to investigate.

The Buddhist understanding of feeling is that there are just three – pleasant, unpleasant, and neither pleasant nor unpleasant. This is not to be confused with feelings, because obviously there are lots of different feelings we can have, sad, happy, angry, anxious, confused, etc. It can be useful to think of these three categories of feeling as very basic reactions to a stimulus. From very simple structures atoms or amoebae, and all through the entire animal world, we all share characteristic of moving towards some things (pleasant), moving away from some things (unpleasant), and not reacting to some things (neither pleasant nor unpleasant). It is particularly useful to think of feeling in terms of reaction, because that allows the possibility that the thing itself doesn’t necessarily have any pleasant or unpleasant properties, pleasant feeling or unpleasant feeling could just be our reaction to it. Is there anything unpleasant about an electron that causes it to move away from another electron, or does it just react that way?

From these basic reactions at a subconscious level we develop our preferences. Every moment we are awake we are exposed to a constant stream of sensory stimuli, both physical and mental. We are reacting all the time, and acting on preferences all the time. It happens so often that it is easy for us to forget that we are having any reactions at all or that we choose to do certain things because of our preferences. But when we start meditating we are able to uncover these processes going on and the preferences that we create out of them.

As part of my practice I rather enjoy examining the seemingly mundane aspects of life, I often find them to be rich seams for discovery. The taste of food turned out to be a very interesting and fruitful (no pun intended) area to examine. I had always taken for granted that some things tasted nice and some things didn’t, I assumed that personal taste was because it tasted different on someone else’s taste buds.

I had been investigating the feelings that come up when we encounter the perception that we like or dislike something, and that had brought me to the taste of food. I had noticed that when I was able to let go of the perception that something tasted good or bad that different foods didn’t actually taste that different. I could taste that they had different ingredients in them, but the experience of eating them was extremely similar. Once the layers of concept have been stripped away everything was pretty much the same.

This came as a real surprise to me, I had no idea that so much of our experience of the taste of something comes from our mind. When you allow all your concepts and ideas about food to be present, such as ‘I love this, it’s my favourite’ or you allow the initial taste of something to be added to and enhanced by the mind, everything tastes more exciting. It certainly explains why food tastes so good when you are on retreat, despite it being very plain fare. With nothing to do all day except meditate, everything else that you can do becomes much more of an event than it would under normal circumstances. The mind dives onto any flavour it can find and brings it right up to the fore, even the merest hint of a herb or spice gets magnified.

But the role of the mind in how we experience taste suggested to me that something was therefore possible – our preferences aren’t fixed or limited by the way we experience the world on a physical level, they are created. Our different tastes aren’t because our tastebuds are different, but because our minds are different. Food just tastes like food, it’s all quite samey. Not to be gross but haven’t you noticed it all comes out the other end looking the same? It can’t be that different going in the front end either really. It is our mind that highlights flavours and tells us that this thing tastes completely different to that thing, and from that we build preferences, I like this thing more than that thing.

If the mind focusses on the nice tasting parts of the flavour when we eat it, it tastes delicious to us. If the mind focusses on the horrible tasting parts of the flavour, when we eat it it tastes hideous. So when we are able to eat food without any concepts added, then we get to find out what it really tastes like, and actually most food tastes pretty dull.

There is nothing in the taste of food that is bad or good, it is just our perception of it that makes it that way. Our likes and dislikes are actually just perceptions. Like all perceptions they are entirely created, they are manufactured by the mind. The creation of like and dislike doesn’t even correlate to whether something creates a pleasant or unpleasant feeling.

When you dig into the subject you can find numerous examples of something that creates an unpleasant feeling getting conceptualised into something that we like. Some people love going on rollercoasters, although they find the whole experience very scary. Some people love getting tattoos even though it is painful. Some people can take delight in things that others find uncomfortable or unpleasant, like doing surgery, or working in a sewer. So feeling, the initial response to move towards, move away from, or to do nothing, isn’t necessarily the driver of our preferences. An awful lot of it is the work of our mind.

Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral experiences are just as they are, and actually they are generally neither that bad nor that good. Without any extra layers of concept on top of these three types of feeling, they are not that hard to tolerate. This isn’t something that requires advanced practice to uncover though, we do this every time we meditate. Every time we just sit and allow that uncomfortable feeling to be there, we are letting the concepts drop and we are experiencing the sensation just as it is. And most of the time when we do this we find that the sensation at the heart of it all isn’t as bad as it first seems.

When we start paying attention to what our minds say about the sensation, that’s when we see where all the trouble comes from. The sensation itself might be quite small, but the story our mind tells about it just gets bigger and bigger, until we become certain that we might die if we don’t scratch our left eyebrow.

I was intrigued by what I had found out about the taste of food, so I decided to do an experiment to test my theory. If taste preferences really were just created perceptions then if I could see through the perception that the food tasted horrible then I should be able to eat food that I didn’t like, and without it being arduous.

There are several practices around food in the Theravadin tradition, although it is mostly the monastics that focus on them. Vīkalabhojanā, the practice of not eating after noon, is undertaken by most monastics and retreatants in the Forest Sangha tradition. The monastics are not allowed to ask for food, they simply accept whatever they are given. In countries like Thailand where the monastics go out on almsrounds this could mean they end up with anything.

Most monasteries have volunteers cooking food for them these days, but still the monastics aren’t allowed to make requests, they eat whatever is cooked for them or donated that day. Ajahn Chah was apparently very pleased with his monastery’s reputation as having the worst food in Thailand, even going to the extent of telling the cooks off if they made the food taste better. So there is obviously something useful to be learned from practicing with your preferences for food.

You might wonder just how far I was prepared to go with this experiment, and admittedly it wasn’t challenging by most people’s standards. I was working with food I really didn’t like though. I started out with the fairly easy target of cottage cheese with pineapple in it. I know some people really love this combination but I have always disliked the meeting of savoury cheese and sweet pineapple. To give you an idea of how much I dislike cottage cheese and pineapple my instant reaction to it usually is a sneer.

With the cheese spread thickly onto a tasteless crispbread I suppressed my urge to sneer, and gathered my mind to make sure I was in a place that I could intercept any concepts that came up, then I took a bite. What I experienced was just the flavours, salt, cheese, sweet, tangy, pineapple. Without my mind getting involved it was just a collection of different flavours, none of which were particularly bad on their own. I could see that my mind had woven a story about the combination of the flavours and decided that I didn’t like it. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with it, it tasted alright. But I still don’t ‘like’ it, I wouldn’t pick it given the choice but I could tolerate it if that was all that there was.

This did make me wonder, is it possible that if I tasted any foods that I didn’t like without the concepts coming in to play that I would find out that they tasted alright? Another experiment was in order, this time something much more challenging, for me anyway.

I have never been able to even put blue cheese in my mouth never mind to eat it, I have always had such a strong disgust response to the sight of the mould on it and the strange spongy quality it has. A part of my mind tells me that blue cheese isn’t even food, so I shouldn’t be even trying to eat it. My instant reaction to blue cheese, for comparison with the cottage cheese, is immediate repulsion; I really, really hate it.

Even popping it into my online shopping basket invoked a very strong disgust response, so I knew this was going to be a real test of my powers of letting go of perceptions, and also an excellent test of my theory.

I got my courage up and got my experiment under way. I looked the packet of cheese, took note of my instinctive reaction of shuddering at the sight of the mould, then set about letting go of any perceptions my mind was creating.

I steadied my mind, braced myself for the flavour I was just about to experience and put some in my mouth. My first thought was that it tasted like leather, and second-hand books. I continued to eat it thinking that perhaps my experience of the taste might change but it didn’t. Eventually I settled on it as being the taste of a heavily salted library. But I recognised that even though the taste wasn’t what I would class as pleasant, I wasn’t suffering in any way while I was eating it. I was able to just observe the taste and how my mind was describing it. There was no disgust reaction, just curiosity that something edible could taste like a used book shop.

Without adding any thoughts about liking or disliking, I could experience just the taste in the taste, which in this case was tangy, salty, old books. I could see very clearly why my mind would develop a preference around disliking the taste, because it is so strange. It’s only a small step from strange to disgusting, so I could see exactly why I would dislike it. But experiencing it with my own preferences taken away I could at least understand why some people might find it delicious instead, it’s only a small step from strange to intriguing after all.

What I found especially interesting was that I was able to see that I did dislike the taste, but I was still able to eat it without any suffering or retching. After eating the cottage cheese I thought perhaps with a change of perception I would find out that I liked anything I ate, but I saw that this didn’t happen. On some level this showed me that while the taste of the blue cheese provoked an unpleasant feeling for me, I was able to not allow that to become a source of suffering.

I have had the same experience with bitter gourd too, the knobbly green vegetable on the right of the header photo, which if you have never eaten it before is probably the most bitter thing in the universe. But millions of people love it, in fact I know one person who says it is their favourite. The taste provokes the unpleasant feeling in me, but I can still eat it without making a big fuss about it, and I can just about understand why some people might really like it.

This experiment suggested to me that pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feeling have little to do with our ability to tolerate something. It seems more like our preferences, our perception of whether we like something or not, are what creates the problem.

When we try to get rid of something unpleasant that is just our preference for not being in discomfort, when we cling to something pleasant that is just our preference for feeling good. Preferences are everywhere, I prefer this taste to that taste, I prefer the builders to be quiet, I prefer my foot to be not hurting, I prefer the weather to be cooler, I prefer to not be tired. We don’t always break down our experience like this, but on some level everything we want from the world is just our preference. We can often end up expressing these things as opinions – it shouldn’t be like this, or it should be like that – but really all we are saying is that we have a preference for something to be a particular way.

This can have a very direct impact on how we carry out our practice too. When we say it is too noisy to meditate what we are really saying is that we prefer it to be quiet. When we say our mind is too busy to sit what we are really saying is that we prefer it when our mind is settled. When we say we have had a ‘bad sit’ what we really mean is that we prefer peaceful sits. If we aren’t careful we can persuade ourselves that it is perfectly reasonable to skip meditation, when often the discomfort we are trying to avoid is the very thing we should be working on.

If you can separate out the element of preference from your experiences, you can see where you create negative conditions where in fact there are only preferences. Likewise we create positive conditions where there were only preferences – I had a great sit, it’s so peaceful here, it’s lovely and quiet, etc.

When we do see through preference, we find out that we have the potential to encounter both the pleasant and unpleasant in the same way, and opens the door for us to undo so much of the suffering we experience. We can ask ourselves, is there anything wrong with this situation, or is it just my preference? Once you know that your preferences aren’t real, then it is easier to let them go. Once you know that pleasant or unpleasant feel can both be experienced in the same way, then it is easy to not make a preference out of anything.

Over and over again the Buddha said that we need to see through our concepts and learn to experience the world on just the level of basic sensation. And when we can do that we see that even basic sensation doesn’t have to create a problem for us either, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

The more we look, the more examples we can find instances of what feel like real, unchangeable experiences, but in fact they are actually just concepts; and on top of that, they are re-workable too. The Great Way is indeed easy for those not attached to preferences, because when we examine our experience we find there are preferences hiding everywhere; once we learn to let go of them, then we can let go of one cause of suffering after another.

Photo by Lothar Bodingbauer on Unsplash

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