Lessons from the Devil’s Brew

Years ago, I went to an acupuncturist who perscribed me what was the singularly most heinous concoction of herbs to boil into a tea. The brew tasted like a mixture of old mushrooms, sweat socks and human injustice! 🙂 Getting even half a cup of this devil’s brew down was a herculean effort. My body would tense and I would find myself repeating how awful it was; my own personal negative mantra. Then, all of a sudden, I had an epiphany — I realized that I was directing “citta” (consciousness) into the concept of “bad” and I was lumping this noxious concoction with all of the other things that I thought were also “bad” — clubbing baby seals, eating meat (I was strictly vegan at the time) etc. There was no real distinction between these things, they were just all lumped into the notion of “bad”.

Once I saw this, I was able to stop and ask myself “Is this tea really awful?  Or am I just taking a short-cut to avoid experiencing the tea as it is?”  As an experiment, I decided that I would consciously avoid labeling the tea and just experience it. When I did that, the tea just became experience and the drinking of it just became sensation. My body relaxed and I was able to drink the full amount for the rest of the week, letting the concoction do what it was intended to do, which was to aid in healing. I even began to savor it….not the herbs perse, but the experience.

I had a similar experience when I was tattooed for the first time at the beginning of the year. Past the fear of the unknown, the idea of pain or “not-pain” ceased to be the reference point. When I allowed myself to just experience, each touch of the needle became pure sensation. Not only that, but each line of ink was a totally different sensation and, as such, the entire experience became endlessly fascinating, a “sensation meditation”.

Another experience I had highlighted the opposite:

Several years ago, four of us had a birthday celebration for a loved one at a wonderful Japanese restaurant. To celebrate, I bought an outrageous bottle of sake from San Francisco’s premier shop, True Sake. It was utterly mindblowing — tasting like essence of strawberry, melon and cotton candy, feather-light though not sweet.  Like the purest water once swallowed, the taste disappeared as if by magic. Anyway, the synergy of food, sake and conversation made the evening truly memorable.

Fast-forward several months — one of the friends who was at the celebration (remember there were only four of us) had a birthday coming up. When I asked him what he wanted to do to celebrate, he said “I want to go back to the same restaurant and drink the same sake.” As soon as he said it, my first thought was “uh oh…trouble.” I could tell that he wanted to recreate the experience as before. I went to the sake shop, explained the situation to the owner and…bless his heart, he refused to sell me the same sake that I bought before! He knew that it would never live up to the demand that my friend was putting on it, which was basically to recreate the past. So, I bought another great bottle instead, made a reservation at the same restaurant, and invited the same friends. The evening of his birthday, my friend came over before dinner and had such a bad stomach ache that he had to go home! Birthday celebration cancelled. The demand to recreate the beautiful experience from the past returned as anxiety and suffering.

Of course, to prevent the evening from being a total loss, after he went home, we drank the sake. Tasty, tasty karma yoga….!

When we automatically attach our identity to our experience, seeing ourselves AS the experience rather than as the one who is witnessing the experience, we create attachment and suffering. We place the timeless, immortality of Self within the everchanging realm of impermanence, and demand for what is impermanent to be immortal. When that does not happen, our sense of self is shaken. We become anxious, and from that state of anxiety, motivated to repeat pleasurable experiences and avoid painful ones. However, both actions are rooted in avidyā (ignorance). Every experience is unique and unrepeatable. We demand that experience be the same, and thus try to preserve continuity because we falsely believe that we ARE these things. By seeking to avoid painful experience out of fear, we keep past painful experiences alive. We “feed” them through our awareness. Both of these actions, chasing pleasure and avoiding pain, are “flip sides” of the same coin, and both obscure the deeper sense of Self that resides beyond this duality.

In my last post, I mentioned two essential, dymanic practices and principles of yoga. The first is Abhyāsa, the effort and practice of placing one’s attention fully at a chosen point of focus. Abhyāsa creates the power of harnessing and directing the mind and its thoughts. But, just like wings on a bird or a plane, there needs to be a counterbalance. One is not enough. With just effort, there can come attachment to the fruits of that effort and the lure of defining self through past experiences. In the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gītā, the counterbalance is Vairāgya.

more on Vairāgya in the next post…

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