A Delicious Life

My beloved student phoned me with breathless melancholy from a charming cottage rental while gazing out the window at a breathtaking view of nature: a pulsating green meadow of a thousand wildflowers framed by distant snow-covered mountain peaks. She is situated in paradise because she was invited to showcase her passion-project at an exclusive, niche art exhibit. She is forlorn because the prize she worked so hard to achieve -- a successful, creative side-project that enlivens her soul and takes her to remote, wild places --- cannot be fully enjoyed. Hoping to feast on nature —oak, aspen, willow — she is too full to partake. As she sits exhausted at her desk peering through the glass that separates her from the meadow, her essential-self longs to, as Mary Oliver says, “let the soft animal of her body love what it loves,” and get lost in nature, but her social-self has quarantined her to the computer completing contract work.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

Listening to her, I can hear the cognitive dissonance - the psychological discomfort caused by two opposing choices. She is stuck: she cannot say no to work or play opportunities for fear she will miss out. If she says no to work, she might not get the contract when times are lean. If she says no to play, she must exile her heart and wistfully look out the window at the prize she never collected. She has abandoned herself, and is consulting me for a solution that will assuage her suffering, longing and divine discontent.

Just as the white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere - in the same way the pilgrim abandons herself to the breath of the greater life that… leads her beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within her, though yet hidden from her sight.
— Lama Govinda, The Way Of The White Clouds

My lovely, dear student is suffering from a chronic case of FOMO: fear of missing out. She is in the present predicament, she sincerely confides, because she is terrified of income shortage (despite the enormous savings account she has tucked away, and her husband’s stable salary) after a foreseeable multi-level layoff at work. Tossed into the wilderness, she approached the unknown in a frenzied state of panic. Her fear-driven decision to starve joy and silence creativity then single-mindedly focus all energy and ambition towards securing a new job (plus contract work in between) felt safe, felt right… felt responsible, she forlornly summarizes. Today, five weeks post lay off, she has steady contract work, a new job offer, art accolades... and FOMO.

When we say yes to fear, what do we say no to?

This is at the bottom of the only courage that is demanded of us:
to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter… all those things that are so closely akin to us,
have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them have atrophied.
— Rilke

Fear had crowded out her life, and FOMO had numbed her senses. Because she could not say no, my student aggressively, voraciously gorged on life while dismissing her body’s signal that she was too full. Her solution was to multiply. I wish there are three of me, she thoughtfully brooded: one of me who is the artist, one who is the income generator, and one who is the homesteader. In effect, with the ‘dream of three’ in motion she could do what she loves while storing away the resources she needs to feel safe. Life would be perfect, she could feast on the bounty of life to her heart’s content without fatiguing.

I invited her to imagine that she was seated at a celebratory feast. Laid out before her was a sumptuous array of delicious food that enticed her senses, each dish was mouthwatering. Seated in the company of loved ones, she began to slowly eat, savoring each sumptuous mouthful with delicious joy and delight. In time, her pallet began to signal a saturation point -- with each bite was a diminished return of satisfaction. The food was tasty but no longer tantalizing, and the spread before her was no longer beguiling. She ignored these cues and continued to feast, filling herself past full, until her body ached from the gluttony and her pallet was completely muted.

Thomas Keller, award winning chef of the famed French Laundry, calls this law of diminishing return “pallet fatigue.” His philosophy is that once we’ve reached a point where our palate is satiated, then the flavors, no matter how impactful they were in the beginning, are going to peak. Life shares the same law of diminishing return -- we don’t feel more bliss or satisfaction when we pile more into our agenda, instead, we feel trapped by the demands of the choices before us. Each event blurs into the next, and we no longer have the capacity to experience the nuanced textures, tonality and flavors of the activity we’re presently engaged in.

You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.

Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.

As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.

How can I enter this question the clay has asked?
— Jane Hirshfield, Given Sugar Given Salt

Rather than the dream of three, what magic and mystery might happen if my student portioned her passions to feast on life like Keller portions each course at the French Laundry? His obsessive mission is to give guests a sensual taste explosion then move to the next course before their pallet fatigues. When successful, their last bite will leave them longing for more.

This is a recipe for a delicious life. We can avoid FOMO fatigue by approaching the art of living as master curators and master creators: we assiduously, sensually, artistically design our day so when the next course presents itself we leave longing for more.

My student would portion her days of unemployment (or her weekend in the foothills) like a three course meal: one part job search, one part gardening and one part photography. As she engages in the first course, aware of the law of diminishing return, she would tune into her body’s signals and notice subtle shifts in awareness, vitality, interest or alertness. After a two-hour course on her computer, she would leave the work behind, and with a burning fire still in her, take her camera in hand and walk directly to the meadow where course two would open before her, teasing and tantalizing her senses. And like the fluidity poet Pablo Neruda wrote of when he was divinely directed in his craft, each course would ignite her soul, and with a fever she would go on her way deciphering only what burns within her.

And something ignited in my soul,
Fever or unremembered wings,
And I went on my way,
That burning fire,
And I wrote the first bare line,
Bare, without substance, pure,
Pure wisdom,
Of one who knows nothing,
And suddenly I saw,
The heavens,
And open.
— Pablo Neruda