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The bittersaltsweetsour of life: mindfulness, dissociation and tastebuds

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

This is a reboot of a blog I wrote back in 2012 (which seems like another world) after a weekend retreat at the Abbey in Sutton Courtenay. But it still seems - excuse the pun - salient.

Another weekend at the coal face of mindfulness.

That makes it sound like hard, dirty work, which it wasn’t. Kim and Dylan showered us with culinary plenty (Sri Lankan Butternut Squash curry anyone?) and the water-meadow-flooding rain made everything in the Abbey gardens intensely green. We did have windows of sunshine too, which allowed us to wander/wonder at those incredible trees they have there: the most beautiful London Plane, cascading down those jig-jag branches heavy with doe-skin brown leaves and that massive beech with its bolus-bulging trunk and copper-green buds.

It was, however, a fruitful weekend in my thinking about mindfulness – which is ever-evolving.

I mentioned in another blog post here how my studies at school have made me intensely aware of the power of dissociation and it crystallised more this weekend which was ostensibly about ‘savouring’ but in fact, turned out to be more about how we stop dissociating from reality quite so much and allow our conscious systems to stay open to the moment.

It seems to me that any meditation work – especially mindfulness – is about opening rather than closing. Opening to the juice that lies in the real moment as it happens, opening to the life-force that can only be found in the present, in the tangible fleshiness of what is, rather than cardboard elusiveness of ‘what we’d prefer it to be’.

There is the experience of Being but most of the time we’re miles away from it, ‘lost in thought’

There is the experience of Being but most of the time we’re miles away from it, ‘lost in thought’ as Eckhardt Tolle names it. Sometimes that’s just half-conscious drift but often it’s a dissociative pattern where the conscious mind does not see what is uncomfortable. And it’s not that it sees it and chooses to ignore it. Dissociation is much more tricksy: the conscious mind simply does not see.

Dissociation arises as a defensive response to anxiety. When we were fragile babies, completely dependent on our caregivers, the anxiety of being left to starve was an all-body nuclear bomb blast. It was not tolerable. And if that happened the most effective defence to hand was dissociation: powerfully excising the cause and the response from conscious knowing. That part of our experience is shut off. Shaved off from the picture.

So if crying and complaining got no response from our caregivers except anger, then the frustration and the crying response are dissociated and we grow up into babies that don’t get upset and don’t complain CONSCIOUSLY. The truth is that all living organisms get upset and complain – but one that dissociated does those things under the radar of consciousness. That is, the system complains even if the conscious person doesn’t. We express the complaint by acting out, by somatic expression, or by psychological distortion.

This is where mindfulness classically can come a cropper. If a personality has developed that has dissociated, let’s say, anger then that conscious personality will not feel anger. It’s not like we get angry and then pretend it’s not there…. The conscious ‘us’ really doesn’t feel anger – but the system does. So it can be there, no matter how mindful the conscious mind is.

So how do we get at the dissociative pattern that mindfulness might miss?

Only when the energy and chemistry of the body is giving the brain a green light can we open up to the possibility of doing things differently

It’s a two-fold process.

On the one hand, we allow the system to relax enough that it can recognise the anxiety that triggers dissociation. The body and energy system have powerful systems of chemistry and nerve-wiring to relax and signal to the organism: “You are safe, it’s OK to consider things more spaciously.”

The vagus nerve that runs from top to toe, from the brain down through the heart, lungs and all the vital organs is an important conduit for this signal. This seems to be the reason why Yogic breathing works. “Pranayama” really does seem to relax the system: physically, energetically, and chemically.

When the system is under attack, then reflection is impossible. The danger requires an automatic reaction. Only when the energy and chemistry of the body are giving the brain a green light can we open up to the possibility of doing things differently: tolerating what, under stress, is intolerable.

So the first part of non-dissociative mindfulness is breathwork. Using breath to relax the system, we spent the first day of the retreat looking at four beautiful practices that my colleague Kathy Osbourne taught me this year.

Once the system is calmer and no longer triggering dissociation we have a much better chance of staying present.

The second part of the practice is then about ‘savouring’ what we are experiencing in the here-and-now.

We develop a grown-up palate for the experience of life

I remember reading Charlotte Joko Beck when I first started in meditation and she said. “The one thing we can be sure of is that things are the way they are.”

Now, that might strike you as an annoyingly opaque Zen quibble. But there is an interesting truth there. What is, is. Even if we don’t like it, want to change it or want to hold on to it forever: it is what it is. Our lives are the way they are right now. Period. Whether we choose to be conscious of what is happening is quite another matter.

When we’re little our taste buds are very immature. We like the sweetness of breast milk and that’s it. However, as we get older our palates get more sophisticated and more mature. Even the most regressed adult probably wouldn’t like a non-stop diet of condensed milk – we like salt, we like bitter, we like sour. We like the mix, their ambiguity arising together in the same dish. Like in a Sri Lankan Butternut Squash curry.

Similarly, with mindfulness, we develop a grown-up palate for the experience of life. We acknowledge that happy things have a hint of sadness to them (they are going to end…). Feel a twinge of anxiety in excitement. We might sense sweetness in grief; fierce energy in anger. And we become gastronauts for life.

The tool that the Buddha gives for dealing with the bittersaltsweetsour of life is the four Brahma Viharas

The tool that the Buddha gives for dealing with the bittersaltsweetsour of life is the four Brahma Viharas (or the divine abidings). When we taste the unpleasant in life then we can call on compassion and loving-kindness. When we taste the pleasant then we bring on joy and equanimity. They allow us to meet most things in life with openness rather than the close-down that anxious dissociation brings.

Getting and losing, being full and being empty. These are the states we’re always in and they all have the seed of anxiety in them. Will I be able to keep it? Will I ever get it? Meeting these inevitable states with kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity allows us to keep our tastebuds open to experience. Mindfully.

I’d love to know your thoughts about bittersaltsweetsour. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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