Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Taste & Smell


“Don’t argue regarding taste and smell” - a Jewish adage

One evening, while I was patronizing a Starbuck’s café, the help behind the counter suggested that I try a newly featured coffee. When I explained that I already tasted it and found it too bitter, she expressed surprise that I did not enjoy a brew in such popular demand. I asked her to please not worry about it, in Hebrew we have a saying, “Al ta’am v’al rey’ach al m’fah’kay’ach” which means, “Don’t argue regarding taste and smell”. (I know … in Hebrew the phrase comes out more poetic.) I was trying the phrase on her, to convey, “Please don’t take it personally if I am uninterested in what you are recommending. Taste and smell are very subjective and can vary widely from person to person.”

Even though I was employing the adage to convey a simple message, truthfully, the saying is very ripe with mystical meaning. Different creature’s experience the universe so radically differently that many of them perceive themselves are living in different universes. An angel and a human would probably not consider each other to be inhabitants of the same universe. The human thinks of himself as dwelling in physical time/space; whereas, the angel considers himself a dweller of spiritual time/space. From the perspective of the human and the angel, their realms don’t meet. Yet, strangely they share the same universe. They just experience it very differently.

“Taste and smell” are in this poetic phrase representative of all perception. Chassidic mysticism teaches that “taste” refers to what Kabbalah calls “inner light” – light which streams into a vessel, filling it with life. The containing entity becomes alive; just like a body when the soul's lights pours in.  “Smell” refers to what Kabbalah calls “surrounding light” – light which is too pure to be taken into a vessel and only exerts a vague influence, behaving as if it’s outside the containing entity. An example of this are soul levels too pure to enter into the human body. Yet, these higher soul levels often interact with the soul lights entering the body.

Examples of inner and surrounding light abound abundantly throughout reality. The reason why taste is “inner light” is because it’s a sensation that occurs while taking something in – like food. Smell is a sensation which occurs even before food is taken in. It’s a vague foreshadowing of the taste to come.

There's often a broad consensus on what tastes and smells people enjoy. However, this overlap in human preference does not mean that a particular taste or smell feels exactly the same to everyone. The fact that some like a dish and even a few don’t, teaches us that even our most physical of senses are subjective and literally wired to pick up differently. I remember when I was introduced to using of cilantro as a condiment I was warned, “People either strongly love it or strongly dislike it. There’s no such a thing as a person who’s neutral about cilantro.”

From the phenomena of taste and smell we can appreciate the subjectivity of the rest of our sensory perceptions. If humans, who are of the same species and in general share a common biology, exhibit such variety in their sensory experiences, then certainly between species there are vast varieties of sensory perceptions, altering their experience of the universe. Their experiences of the universe can be so radically different that some creatures would not consider themselves as inhabiting the same universe as other creatures at all. It’s all in what powers of perception particular creatures were designed with.

What’s so interesting is how what we experience as a “universe” is probably not really even a universe at all. Rather, it’s more like the very best a dream character can do to experience his Dreamer. If he really experienced the Dreamer, he’d disappear into the Dreamer’s consciousness. So really from the character’s perspective, the surrounding dreamscape is the extent of his experience of the Dreamer. Only it’s constrained by what his powers of perception can handle. Anything more and his identity deftly vanishes into the Dreamer’s consciousness, seamlessly dissolving into the Dreamer's identity. This is what happens when the Dreamer awakes – the lesser self becomes absorbed by the Greater Self.

Just as the dreamscape is all of the Dreamer the dreamed can handle, so too, the universe we see in front of us is all of the Creator our five senses can handle. The vast array of potent spiritual lights an angel perceives is all of the Creator an angel can handle. Anything more, is much too overwhelming. The angel will disappear in the act of being absorbed into his Higher Source. 

So really in the ultimate sense, there’s only the Creator!  The vastly varied perceptions of the universe are really a range of varied limited perceptions of the Creator.


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