I wake at 2:00 a.m. with a bad taste in my mouth, and I think I know what it is: it’s me. That slightly metallic taste of ego. It mingles with last night’s eggplant curry, which was a culinary disaster. I have been cooking too quickly, eating too quickly, I have been much too quick to speak my mind. Why such haste? It’s as if we’re shrews or blind moles, daydreaming about slowness and enlightenment in between our frantic gropes and gulps. Fortunately, I have a very forgiving digestive system – but perhaps it would be better if I didn’t. It might force me to slow the hell down.
I remember as a child how I pictured my insides: a great, dark cavern below the heart and the gracefully flapping lungs. The throat ends in a sort of chute, out of which food and drink drizzle or plop into the swamp below. I don’t know when or how this image originally took shape in my imagination, but I remember clinging to it in a half-unconscious sort of way well into my teenage years. The fact that it was incompatible with what I had learned about human anatomy in school was not in itself enough to banish it; I had to bring it to the surface of my consciousness and reason it away, just as I had driven out ghosts and under-the-bed monsters years before.
Now I wonder if we don’t dishonor and diminish the imagination to enslave it to our daytime egos in such a manner. In a conversation last night before bed, my linguist brother reminded me that the root meaning of “tantra” is “trick.” The idea that there might be educational value in training our minds in conscious self-deception, though fundamental to vernacular religious traditions the world over, seems almost incomprehensible to those of us accustomed to thinking of the mind as an innocent mirror. The religions of the powerful – the traditions whose central focus has become the perpetuation of power – school us in reduction, in the wonder-sucking necromancy of algebra. Something either is or it isn’t, Parmenides intones. Do good and eschew evil, the sacred texts say, making stern necessity out of virtue.
In my freshman year of college, I plowed through a lengthy tome on Daoist cosmology that simultaneously attracted and repelled me. It devoted many chapters to detailing the Daoist microcosm of the body circa the first millenium A.D., and I remember being fascinated by the notion of such an elaborate system of visualizations based on nothing but idealistic desire. I mean, it’s not as if the ancient Chinese didn’t have good models for the way the body worked. The relative effectiveness of technologies such as Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, taiqi and martial arts – all ultimately derived from the same stream of popular religion that spawned Daoist microcosmology – surely testify to the power of the trained imagination, I thought. But I found the focus on physical immortality very off-putting, perhaps because it clashed with my own, Western tendency to devalue the concrete in favor of the abstract.
In any case, it was hard not to be charmed by the culinary route to immortality advocated by popular Daoism: one first eliminates meat, then grains, then vegetables, then finally even liquids until one learns to subsist on nothing but air. Though this might sound like a recipe for anorexia, it’s hard to see how it could lead to that in practice, given the Daoist emphasis on corporeality. Isn’t anorexia nervosa pretty much a Western disease, deriving from our endemic devaluation of the body and the earth? Daoism simply promotes the endearingly goofy idea that the air itself has nutritive value, if only we were sensitive enough to appreciate it. I suspect that the real effect of a Daoist diet would be to train one in greater attention to the sensual qualities of everything one ingests, and in learning to distinguish what the body really wants from what the grasping ego thinks it wants. And lately I’ve been hearing about new research by Western nutritionists suggesting that regular fasts might indeed form a vital part of a healthy diet.
It seemed to me then and still seems to me now a kind of blasphemy against life to try and prolong it indefinitely, but isn’t that what all the world religions are about – abolishing death? Or am I being unfairly reductionist to issue such a sweeping indictment? I do like the teachings about purifying or spiritualizing consumption that are near the center of so many traditions: the Christian communion, the Jewish Pesach, the North American rituals of inhalation – smoke of tobacco, cedar, sage.
I sleep late, break my nightly fast with coffee as usual. Sitting in the sun on my front porch, I think of Vicente Aleixandre’s poem about the old man slowly nibbled away by sunlight. My maternal grandfather attained that level of sweetness in his old age, I believe, though through some cruel trick of fate his death was preceded by several days of agony. I remember last night’s news about the death of my friend Tom’s indomitable mother-in-law: she died peacefully at home, he said, ending her life with a sigh.
I shut my notebook and walk around the house, figuring on putting off eating for a couple more hours at least, but then I spot a ripe cherry tomato on one of the volunteer vines twining through the butterfly bush. To me, a cherry or grape tomato has the perfect proportion of firm flesh to juice. This one’s skin is encased in a thin film of dew, and for the fraction of a second before my teeth close around it, my mouth fills with the pungent, feral redolence common to all the Solanaceae, from jimsonweed to belladonna. Then its blood-colored mucilage mingles with my saliva: such acid sweetness! Grace isn’t something you say, I think, it’s just what happens. And here’s another one. Oh taste and see.