Mindfulness as salt

30 Mar 2021

There's a phenomenon, that people who read fiction for fun will be familiar with, that you might slow down reading a really good book, particularly towards the end, so that you can have more days with that world, those characters in the back of your mind while you go through your day.

Contemplation practices, including sitting meditation and deliberate mindfulness throughout the day, can sometimes be similar to this. Something that excited or delighted you yesterday might bubble up during sitting meditation, or it might come up while you are going for a walk, and your habit of deliberately paying attention to these things sortof stretches the excitement or delight, prolonging it and adding more depth and color to the experience.

Salt does this to food: salt has a flavor, but adding salt to things also amplifies their flavor, making things taste more like themselves, and therefore more delicious.

Phrasing it like this, the amplification of excitement and delight in particular, is truthful but it also avoids the negative emotions - things like pain, fear, sadness, and conflict. I don't want to avoid the negative emotions. The flavor analogy continues here. Young children, if asked, might say that they like sweet things and dislike other flavors such as sour/acidic or bitter. However, chefs are more sophisticated about "what tastes good" than naive palates. They will look to include sour/acid elements in their dishes, and will salt things that are sour in order to bring out the sourness.

Deliberately paying attention to a negative emotion that bubbles up, bringing curiosity to it, asking what qualities does this phenomenon have, how does it arise, how does it transform through time, whether during seated meditation or some other time, decreases the aversive qualities of the phenomenon, and makes it more like a piquancy, a yearning, or dissonance, something that adds to the texture of life.

It is possible to take an attitude towards the negative emotions that embraces them in context, just like a chef who embraces sour as a flavor in context, or an author who throws rocks at their characters, or a composer that puts dissonance into their music, and the mindfulness practices, all the usual recommendations from the usual sorts of people like "soft focus" and "nonjudgemental acceptance" and "spaciousness" can help getting that attitude.