Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Sweet Truth

The ecstatic experience of eating something sweet is a metaphor for exploring the deeper mysteries of existence.

By Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg

Why is the taste of something sweet so alluringly pleasurable? You bite into a chocolate truffle and you are filled with bliss. You long for the feeling to last forever. But eventually you must swallow, the sensation fades, and you're left longing for your next encounter with such happiness.

Sweets and the ecstatic feeling they provide are metaphors that frequently occur in ancient Indian philosophical texts. Food metaphors are used by the poets of the Vedas and Upanishads (the most ancient of Hindu philosophical texts) to describe the indescribable mystical experience, which, by definition, is beyond all thought, language, and concrete reference—a merging into pure consciousness. But these ancient Indian poets masterfully used language to evoke the mystical experience, pointing the way for those seekers who followed.

The Deeper Meaning of Food

Food metaphors are powerful for evoking the mystical experience: Food is the "staff of life" that sustains the universe, and food is the tangible foundation of every being's existence.

Because all people can viscerally experience the connection between food and

life, it serves as a potent metaphor for exploring the deeper mysteries of existence—it's a familiar door, opening onto the path of spiritual understanding. In efforts to address the more elusive questions such as "Who am I?", "Why am I alive?", and "What does it mean to be alive?", food as a metaphor became a common denominator that could speak to all people. Nectar (amrita) is one of the most frequently repeated food references in mystical texts. The meaning of the word is comparable to our modern definition of ambrosia: that which is sweet. But it also conveys a deeper meaning in Indian philosophy, as the nectar which confers immortality and final emancipation.

Nectar: The Payoff

The Vedas and Upanishads make explicitly clear that no matter how alluring the taste of nectar, it can only be gained by hard work and right intention. These texts strongly emphasize the relationship between sacrifice and the reward of amrita. Sacrifice can be both an actual ritual offering made by the Brahman priests, and a more figurative sacrifice that can take place on an internal level.

This figurative sacrifice must be made with an intention of utter devotion, with no thought to personal gain. Nectar as the reward for this type of sincere effort is yet another definition of amrita: "the residue of the sacrifice."

This notion of sacrifice and nectar differs from what many think of as sacrifice—a calculated self-denial: "If you give this up, you'll get something better in return." From the Vedic point of view, sacrifice is considered something that is offered, not lost. It is given without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This is a fourth definition of the multifaceted concept of nectar, as "wisdom that is gained without begging."

The Chandogya Upanishad is especially rich with food metaphors. We are told in the Chandogya that one who can learn the deepest mystical meaning of the chants, "becomes rich in food, an eater of food."

Similarly, we are told that "the hidden teachings are the honey producers. Brahman is the flower." When you make a great effort to penetrate the mystery of the highest goal, Brahman, by meditating upon its meaning, this effort is the sacrifice.

A Taste of Yoga

You can experience this understanding of sacrifice and nectar in your daily yoga practice. Whether it's a "good" yoga practice or a "bad" one, whether or not you are able to sustain your focus, you offer up the practice as your sacrifice. But when your actions aren't offered with a sense of sacrifice, but rather are motivated by a desire for personal gain, then you look to the actions themselves as the key to your reward. You start desiring a body that can be toned by asanas, or you want to develop increased flexibility as the nectar of your practice, missing out on the true amrita: the inner balance that the practice may offer.

In much the same way, people want the foods that they eat to do something for them. You want to be tantalized, entertained, or soothed. The result is searching for ever more intense sensations: You adore the saltiest olive spread, or turn to hotter and hotter salsas. You look for the perfect diet to maintain your body—one year it's the carbohydrate diet, and the next year it's protein. But eating food can also be performed as a sacrifice. A good way to start is by saying grace. By beginning your meal with a moment of introspection, you can drop your preconceptions about how the food will serve you. Instead you can set your intention to stay present and open to the tastes you encounter and the act of eating itself. This is an opportunity to connect to your role within the universe—life eating life to sustain life. Staying present in this way is hard work. This work, and your intention, constitute a sacrifice.

When you eat food without any expectation of the reward that a particular food will provide, you may win the great nectar of experiencing the deep connection to the mysteries of life itself. And once you start acquiring a taste for the sweetness of true nectar, you develop a hunger for truth that's hard to resist.

Mary Taylor has studied yoga and meditation since 1981 and has written three cookbooks. Lynn Ginsburg has studied yoga, vipassana, and Sanskrit since 1983. Her articles appear in Travel and Leisure and the Los Angeles Times. They are writing a book on women, food, and spirituality.


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