Welcome to the final installment of, “Using our Senses for Contemplative Practices”. If you’ve already read the previous weeks’ lessons, jump ahead four paragraphs to “Consider taste.” If not, please allow me to briefly introduce this series of teachings.
Our bodies are made for contemplation. Every time we feel a breeze blow across our skin, see a cloud in the sky, taste the sweet honey in our tea, smell the clean laundry coming out of the dryer, hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance, or even recognize the sound of our own voice, we’re given an opportunity to engage in contemplative practice.
Many of us think we need to step away from life in order to polish our contemplative practices. Indeed, an occasional retreat can be highly beneficial, but everything we need to engage in contemplative practice— and hence heighten our awareness, we’re already doing all day, every day. If you’d like to learn how to tap into this sublime gift, please read on.
I present six practices for you to experiment with. Each will require about five days of your attention, so you can probably cover each lesson in about a week. If you’d like to develop a new, powerful awareness through these practices, I encourage you to engage with them just a little every day for the next six weeks. You may never be the same!
You may choose to begin with this week’s lesson on the sense of taste, or you may choose to read the full introduction and go back and begin with the first lesson on speech. It’s up to you.
In this final and culminating article in the series we practice with our sense of taste. Our sense of taste is, in some ways, the fullest sense to practice with because tasting is part of the act of eating, which involves all of our other senses—seeing, smelling, touching, and even hearing the sound of the food as it is cooked and chewed.
Tasting is also part of an activity that doesn’t end with tasting, but is the beginning of absorbing, then digesting—taking something into our bodies in the most literal sense.
It’s easier for us to notice that we are taking things in through our mouths than it is for us to realize that sights, sounds, and textures also penetrate our bodies when we are engaged in other sensory activity. Just as with food, the objects we take in with our other sense organs can either be poisonous or beneficial to our bodies, and can become poison or nourishment to our minds and souls.
Taste is a gift within a gift. By practicing with our sense of taste we, upon reflection and contemplation, are most easily filled with wonder at the amazing process by which we are kept alive—and wonder is the ground of gratitude.To cultivate the gift of taste is to cultivate the gift of gratitude, for taste cannot be separated from nourishment—the taking in of food that sustains our lives. As we taste, as we savor and ingest our food, we re-establish ourselves in the Great Chain of Being—that exuberant and beautiful order of existence that springs from Divine Being itself.
As we learn to savor the gift of taste, we learn to pause, and to seat ourselves more fully within the pause while it shifts, varies, and expands as a host of flavors arise, reveal themselves, and are transformed within our mouths—whether by chewing or by the action of digestive enzymes. Each flavor is at once distinctive and co-mingled with others, just as we, as individual human creations, arise, reveal ourselves, and are transformed by changes that occur by dint of our activity or by things acting upon us.
Consider this glorious reality: that which you need to stay alive presents itself to you in a multiplicity of forms, with a myriad of flavors and textures, some subtle, some pungent, which may be eaten singly or in combination, and which promise delight in addition to sustenance.
Eating, which begins with tasting, is one of the most intimate acts that we as human beings perform. Its intimacy rests in its inwardness and in the subtlety of the act of transformation. What we eat quite literally becomes us, physically as well as energetically. What we ingest and digest is transformed into the living tissue and cells of our physical being.
The Great Chain of Being begins with the soil in which the seeds are placed. Nourished by sun and rain, the seeds become plants that are tended and kept healthy by farmers. The farmers harvest them and bring them to market where they are provided to us. Someone then chooses them and combines them with other things, preparing a meal with care to provide us with nourishment and savor. In a very literal way, with each bite, we incorporate soil, sun, and rain. We become a part of the cultivation of the farm fields and labor of those who brought the food to market for us. We partake of the thoughtfulness of the person who prepared the meal for us. It’s a chain full of the miracles of nature and the loving respect of human beings for nature and for one another.
When we’re paying attention, we discern the greater meaning of our food. As we become more fully and faithfully aware, life itself becomes more succulent, more savory. With every bite we take, the bitter or astringent in combination with the sweet, acknowledging that together they form a single whole, a single taste, enlivened by the fullness of Flavor itself.
Cultivating the gift of taste is a practice in re-directing our attention from the outwardly directed desire for food that contains specific flavors, to the source of the flavors themselves. Taste and flavor become paths we may follow to deepen our experience of Divine Presence in and as all that exists. We may follow that path from the tastes we enjoy to the source of that enjoyment itself.
Practice #6: Taste
A simple practice for cultivating the gift of taste is to place the food you will eat on the table before you so that it is interesting or beautiful to look upon. Have all of your utensils already set by your plate so that everything is ready for you to eat once you are seated. Once you are seated at your table, pause. Look at the food and take in the tableau of the setting of your table. Then close your eyes and take an easy, unforced inhale followed by a gentle exhale. Settle more fully into your seat. Sit back into your seat and let your seat support you.
Now open your eyes and place a morsel of food upon your utensil. Slowly, slowly lift it toward your mouth. Just before you place the food in your mouth, pause. Hold the food just outside your mouth, and breathe easily. What do you notice as you hold the food just outside of your mouth? Pause with your food poised for entry into your mouth for twelve to thirty seconds, simply being aware of what you notice as you do. Then place the food in your mouth. Pause again and breathe before you begin chewing. What do you notice as you place the food inside of your mouth and pause for a breath? In what way do these two pauses change your experience of the food itself or of the act of eating?
Note in your journal each day what you are aware of when practicing with the pauses. Make notes about your experience at each meal, as well as notes about how this experience changes and shifts as you continue to practice through the week. In what ways has your experience of the pause changed or evolved over your days of practice?
Another practice is to settle into your seat at table, pausing once you are seated. Allow your body to soften more and more into your seat. Give yourself thirty seconds to settle in fully. Now close your eyes and take a long easy unforced in breath, and a gentle, easy out breath. Be aware of what you notice in yourself and in your surroundings as you breathe. Now take four more long, easy, slow in breaths, with easy, slow exhales.
After you have breathed this way five times, pause, then open your eyes and let your eyes rest on your food for a few seconds before you raise your utensil and begin eating. Move slowly as you eat.
Practice this for five days. Make notes in your journal about what you notice when you do this practice at your meal. Also note in what ways your experience of the food and your taste shift or alter as you continue this practice over several days. Will you continue this practice? If so, why? If not, why not?
A third practice is the simple act of slowing down. After setting your table and placing your meal before you, be seated. Take a breath or two to settle in. Then, move slowly and with awareness as you take up your utensil, convey the food to your mouth, and place the food in your mouth.
Now chew slowly and longer than you normally would. Chew your food for thirty seconds. Take a small bite, and chew each bite for thirty seconds. Slowly eat your meal in this way. Practice this for five days. Then make notes in your journal about your experience of the food, what you taste, and your experience of eating when you chew slowly and with awareness. In what ways do moving slowly and chewing thoroughly shift or change your experience of your food, what you taste, and the act of eating? How does your experience shift or evolve over the days of practice? Would you continue to do this practice? If so, why? If not, why not?
1. Pause before you begin eating, after the food is set before you.
2. Pause as you raise the food to your lips, before you place it in your mouth.
3. Pause as you place the food in your mouth, before you begin to chew.
4. Add breathing to the pauses.
5. Slow the whole process down.
6. Chew slowly and with attention.
Be sure to journal or make brief notes after each practice session so that you may recall and reflect upon your experiences of the practice and its aftermath.
May you savor the sweetness of Gratitude as you engage in the Practice of Taste.
Cultivating the Gifts of our Senses takes diligence and a willingness to keep practicing because the practices do not create huge changes quickly. We are working with subtle senses—the fruit ripens slowly, and the discernment comes in stages.
These practices are ones we can all engage in, allowing it as much time as we can reasonably make each day or every few days. It is easily available to us. It requires no special equipment, we need not go to any special place to practice. We need only our bodies, our minds, and a small notebook. We can practice anytime, anywhere, any day—for brief minutes or longer periods of time.
Through refining our sense perceptions we cultivate the awareness that everything that exists is a form of Divine Essence and that we can know this Essence within all things through our sense perceptions.
happens when our sense organs and sense perceptions are refined. So we practice from the outside in, using our bodies and our minds to achieve a greater awareness of what is actually happening in this wondrous chain of events of perceiving.
We are given life in our bodies and minds so that we may learn to direct our attention and activities toward the knowledge of our own sacredness, our own Being as full participants in a Divine continuum, an outpouring of Divine Infinite existence into the finite world of created forms.
May these practices bring you increased awareness of and joy in the Gift of Existence.