This article shares instructions I received from my teacher, Hokai Sobol, during a recent 100-Day Practice Vow. One thing I noticed strongly over the last year and more intimately in this 100-day vow is that, not only does my relationship and experience of elements of a practice change over time, so does my relationship to practice as a whole. How and why do I sit today? What is the flavor? Hokai articulated this using the metaphor of flavor and taste, noting three main ways, or flavors, of continuing in practice.

The Bitter Taste of Your Own Effort

The first flavor is that of our own effort, this being more masculine energetically. A conscious pushing, get-it-done flavor. Now, ‘bitter’ often has a negative connotation in Western culture. In fact one of the definitions of the word ‘bitter’ includes ‘unpleasant or harsh’, but that is certainly not what is meant here. Many of us enjoy bitter foods, even more than sweet foods. Bitter in practice is what I feel is a more biting quality, something imposed when necessary, an antidote to a certain type of laziness. Heroic effort is sometimes exactly what I need in my practice, the right flavor for continuing in my practice. Hokai mentioned that there is always a part of us that would rather not practice, that wants to be doing something else. This bitter flavor is the effort that says “do it anyways”.

The Sweet Taste of Surrender

For me, I discovered the effort, as defined above, could only get me so far. Over the last year, surrender naturally became the predominant flavor of my practice, a feminine energetic embrace, or rather the experience of being embraced and consumed. Paradoxically, to move forward, I had to stop moving or controlling the movement. When I sat, I would sit with an intention of no intention, to let whatever happen happen. This transition wasn’t necessarily pleasant all the time, but after a certain point it was/is most definitely sweet. The feeling of not needing to “do” anything, that I no longer needed to be in my own driver’s seat, and that to go deeper, I had to go into free-fall. With respect to the practice I was going during the 100 days, and described in more vajrayana flavors:

  • My body is being touched by the mudra
  • My being is resonated by the utterance of the mantra, rather than focusing I being the producer of the mantra through effort
  • The mind is being stirred by creatively engaging with lights, colors, and points in space

In my experience, what is happening here is experiencing a different quality of one thing, the flip side of one coin. A mantra can be looked at and experienced from the side of effort and it can be experienced from the side of the receiver, which might seem strange to consider when it is you who is sounding the mantra, but it is indeed different and brings about a totally different quality of experience and understanding. And, this is not about applying effort, but simply talking about it differently. It is pure receiving, surrender. Hokai had a way of talking about this that I quite struck me:

“Surrender means you forget to maintain self-consciousness.”

Yeah. Stick that in your contemplative pipe and smoke it.

A few other points Hokai shared about the sweet taste of practice:

  • being open and receptive
  • hearing experience will become more melodious
  • visually and mentally you become more appreciative of things that arise
  • experience of flow coming from the other direction, the other, second person
  • practice is doing itself, instead of being done by you
  • purification is experienced

Now, as for the order of these first two, they are not linear. Someone might experience surrender first and later move to applying the bitter taste of effort, and we can cycle back and forth, slowly, quickly, etc.

Bitter Sweetness. True Devotion.

The third flavor could be called bitter sweetness. Most of us have tasted dishes that combine two flavors that seem opposing but when combined are delicioso (sweet and sour, etc). Now, as for my own practice, I have only begun to have the smallest taste of it. It’s very new to me and to be honest, a bit strange, but in a good way I think. The struggle with paradox in practice is starting to seem a bit silly, or amusing, besides the point, is the best way I could describe my own understanding. Beyond that, I will simply summarize a few points Hokai has made about this bitter sweetness:

  • The word ‘sadhana’ refers to practice and also means accomplishment. However, in bitter sweetness, practice, or sadhana, is itself accomplishment, not something that is done to accomplish something else.
  • The means of realization and the realized mind are not separate.
  • Two fears are relaxed. Feminine fear of isolation, masculine fear of engulfment.
  • You don’t react to position yourself.
  • The initial experience of spaciousness isn’t what we expect. it demands and requires trust without attachment to the outcome for the time being. Yet, the practitioner does somehow have a sense of touching a very authentic quality that can serve as the basis for a new relationship to life.

I have found it helpful to have an awareness and understanding of these flavors. And not in a way that limits all of my experience in practice to only these three, but to recognize that much of my practice embodies one of these three flavors. One on hand, it is helpful to understand which might be more beneficial at any given moment, perhaps more effort or surrender, or neither. On the other hand, the flavors themselves reveal insight and aspects of reality to me when I become them and taste them in practice.