practice pages: meditation by dr. Lorin Roche
delight in the delicious
sutra 49 from The Radiance Sutras, a new version of the vijnana bhairava tantra
Chocolate. A perfectly ripe peach. Wine. A warm cinnamon roll. Cold lemonade on a hot day. Hallelujah, there is a meditation technique for savoring your favorite treat. Wow, a chocolate meditation. If you can meditate on OM, then you can meditate on mmmmmmm.
Meditation techniques use the senses to go beyond the senses. Mantra yoga engages the sense of hearing: when we find a mantra we love, we can let it carry us beyond sound into a vibrant silence. Pranayama employs the kinesthetic senses of touch, temperature, and motion to follow the rhythm of breath and awaken into the life force. Yantra uses the sense of vision – the capacity to see light, colors and shapes – and invites us to bathe in the luminosity of the inner dimensions.
Hearing, kinesthesia, and vision seem like proper, respectable avenues to take into meditation. But taste? Can taste really be considered part of yoga?
Yes, every sense is relevant to yoga. Each sensory pathway is a doorway onto the universe and has its own unique set of gifts and teachings to give. The root of the word yoga is yuj, to join together. Yoga practices invite us to join together all the senses, and link together body, heart, and mind, to contemplate the divine.
The Vijnana Bhairava Tantra is a treasury of 112 classic yoga practices. The first 48 practices given by Shiva include ways of focusing on breath, mantra, the chakras, and energy flows in the body. In this technique Shiva says, “Well, now that you are all tuned in, why not go ahead and meditate with your favorite taste and see what happens?”
This is Sutra 49 of The Radiance Sutras, a dharana on rasa:
When sipping some ambrosia,
Raise your glass, close your eyes,
Receive the nectar on your tongue
As the kiss of the goddess.
Toast the universe,
For the Sun and Moon danced together
To bring you this wine.
Tasting chocolate, a ripe apricot, your favorite treat,
Savor the expanding joy in your body.
How astonishing, to realize the worl can taste so good
And please you so deeply.
Rising pleasure, overwhelming jubilation.
Be here for this celebration
As the world offers her substance to you.
bhāvayed bharitāvasthāṃ mahānandas tato bhavet ||
Look at that first line – all one word. The scribe who long ago joined all those words into one long compound got 118 Scrabble points. Way to conjoin!
We see a lot of juicy, inviting words folded in here:
jagdhi - eating; pana – drinking (especially spirituous liquors), drinking the saliva or kissing; kritah-ullasa – the happiness, merriment, joy, light, and splendor created by that; rasa – juice, essence, water, drink, elixir, taste, aesthetic delight; ananda – happiness, joy, sensual pleasure, “pure happiness” as an attribute of atman or Brahman; vijrimbhanat – focus on the enjoyment arising; bhavayed – meditate; bharita-avastham - state of fullness; maha ananda - great joy, supreme bliss; tatah – then; bhavet – becomes.
The practice is straightforward: focus on the supreme delight of tasting your favorite treat. As the joy arises in you, that bliss of tasting, rasa-ananda, meditate on the bliss and dissolve into maha-ananda, supreme bliss. The text can also be read as simply, enjoy your food and meditate on that enjoyment.
What could be more irresistible?
There are a couple of challenges here. The first is to explore the world and find out what, to you, constitutes a worthy treat. What food or drink evokes the bliss of tasting? It’s different for everyone. Another challenge is to acquire the treat and then arrange for circumstances in which to relish it – to really enjoy cold lemonade you may first have to walk a couple of miles and get hot and thirsty. The flavor of that particular wine may only come out when you sip it with people you love. Getting the most pleasure out of a bowl of soup may involve waiting for it to be ready, smelling it, getting really hungry, then finally sitting down to consume it. To enter into rasa ananda, you have to give yourself permission to be in shameless delight, close your eyes and give over to the bliss. Mmmmmmmmm. This often feels more sinful than virtuous – yet the sutra says this is a “high spiritual condition!”
When you bring the full power of your attention to taste, you may be surprised to find out that you don’t actually like what you thought you like. I crave chocolate, and used to find myself walking to the store in the afternoons to get a chocolate chip cookie. One day I was tasting a deluxe cookie, focusing on it, and realized I did not in fact like it. I didn’t know why. Then I found I don’t like chocolate cake either – not chocolate enough! Exploring further, I found that I only like dark chocolate, and what I really crave is to let it melt on my tongue. When I do that, I am totally satisfied by a small amount, and one bar lasts me several weeks.
Most of taste is actually smell. Physiologists like to say, astoundingly, that about 75% to 90% of taste is smell. I find this hard to believe, but they claim to have done studies. They have people eat perfectly good chocolate, block their noses so they can’t smell, and the chocolate tastes like chalk. What a waste!
To fully taste food, therefore, involves subtle breathing awareness, which we could call rasa pranayama. If you have a taste on your tongue and breathe out a little with your mouth closed, the air flows over the tongue, and up into the nose and you can savor a bouquet. Odor molecules are very sensitive to temperature, and the warmth of your mouth releases the fragrance of that apricot or chardonnay. As the senses of smell and taste become more educated, they in turn contribute to a greater appreciation of what it is to breathe, even ordinary air.
In our tantric practice, the simple moments of daily life are sacred and the senses with which we perceive are divine. When we take in the sustaining gift of food and drink, this is an occasion for celebration: the sacred is meeting itself. Life is providing the nourishment – what we can bring to the party is our delight. This is our offering –intense gratitude. In this sense, gourmets are natural yogis of taste, because they know how to take small amounts of things and extract the maximum rasa.
I first experienced the power of rasa was while eating a bowl of green beans with sliced almonds and a little bit of butter. I was a teenager and I’d been doing yoga and meditating for a few months, just long enough to tune my senses. I took a bite of the green beans, and my tongue, then mouth, then my whole body lit up with joy. It was as if I had never really tasted anything before in my life. Of course, it was the 60’s, so my friends and I immediately forgot about actually tasting food. That was too simple. We became suspicious of food, and got involved in a multi-year food fight – vegetarianism, fruitarianism, breathairinism (spelling?), macrobiotics, and the yoga principle the three gunas – tamasic, rajaistic, and sattvic foods. It took years to de-hypnotize ourselves from these clashing theories and recover the simple ability to enjoy food again!