Is Taste the Seat of the Soul?

July 6, 2012 at 1:42 am (By Amba)

Is there a “true self”?  Buddhists say that everything we take for “ourselves,” our “soul,” is just the effect of some past cause, in this life or others, and that to peel away those reactions-to-actions is like unwinding the translucent layers of an onion: at the core is nothing. In Western psychology we seek the true self in therapy, but it mostly comes down to the truth of emotions shaped in the vessel of childhood longings and hurts—reactions, again.  Can reaction be essence?  And aren’t childhood emotions generic, though biographical particulars—stories—are unique?  Are we only our stories, or is there a someone they happen to?

You’d ask these questions if you were, say, Patty Hearst: someone who fashioned another identity under duress, was stuffed in a closet and forced to reconsider whether her identity as a newspaper heiress was of the essence or merely an accident; who, to survive, found the raw materials for machine gun–toting “Tania” within herself; who, when she returned to her former life, must have wondered whether the shattered, sheltered girl she could never be again was her “real self.”

Something a little like that happened to me.  Though I wasn’t coerced, falling in with Jacques was not unlike being kidnapped out of the world of my birth (strange, seeing as just that had really, literally happened to him).  Over time, I had to sink or swim so far from the shore of who I’d thought I was that I began to see how much of who I’d thought I was—opinions, emotions, interests—was the product of class, culture, and generation.  It didn’t seem like the essence of me at all, after all—if there even was such a thing.  When the innocence of your relationship to your origins is relativized, you sort of lose the only origin, or origin myth, you had.  It makes you feel like anything goes.  I’m making this sound scary, and it is disorienting, but sometimes in a wonderful way.  The original me would never in a million years have dreamed of learning karate.  Once I had broken that barrier, I could imagine myself in all kinds of different lives.

That kind of experience makes you wonder if there’s such a thing as a true self.

But now I think I might have located it.

Lately I’ve been very aware how untransferable taste is.  How impossible it is to get someone to hear what you hear, to love the same constellation of music you love, to be struck at the same angle by the same books; how hard to buy someone else an item of clothing—how often have you been given something that really suited the giver?  How members of the same family all want to eat different things . . .

Tastes crop up early and inexplicably.  They choose from what’s at hand, of course, but from that generational and cultural pool they always choose uniquely. Maybe they have something to do with the individual composition of our senses—the way you and only you hear and see.  Or maybe the array of things that please us are like iron filings that outline the shape of our soul.

Don’t you feel that no matter where you had been born, what language you had spoken, what stories had befallen you—the same flavors and colors would have pierced you, the same sounds and stories haunted you? Precisely because these things can’t be explained—they and only they might be of the essence.


  1. Jason (the commenter) said,

    People who claim they don’t believe in a true self sure spend a lot of time talking about it and trying to free themselves from it. Only the people who don’t mention it at all are the ones who seem free.

    In my opinion, all the New Age/Buddhism stuff does is turn people into self-centered demons. Or perhaps it simple attracts self-centered demons. Either way, it’s a good marker for people you can just ignore because they’re too busy masturbating over themselves.

  2. mockturtle said,

    I’ll avoid any theological rantings except to say that our lives do have purpose [and inherent identity] but we have to look outside ourselves to find it. And we may have to wander in the desert for a while first.

    Always having felt rather amorphous, my tastes are eclectic and probably a product of both nature and nurture. And they don’t define me. I understood Patty Hearst.

  3. amba12 said,

    In my opinion, all the New Age/Buddhism stuff does is turn people into self-centered demons.

    Obvious as it may not seem, I agree.

  4. Charlie Martin said,

    People who claim they don’t believe in a true self sure spend a lot of time talking about it and trying to free themselves from it.

    Last Wednesday we celebrated a bunch of people who didn’t believe in monarchy and spent a lot of time and effort freeing themselves from it.

    Annie, this has been on my mind a lot recently, for various reasons going with the whole Buddhism thing. (I’m finally writing my Buddha book.) When I sit, and when I write, I’m very aware that I don’t seem to have one self, just a conversation that, given time and attention, finally goes away.

    With tastes, well, when I was 9 brussels sprouts made me gag — now I actively look for new ways to prepare them, they’re a favorite vegetable. Which of those is my “true self”?

  5. Maxwell James said,

    In my opinion, all the New Age/Buddhism stuff does is turn people into self-centered demons.

    I wouldn’t confuse the symptom with the treatment (note: I’m not saying “the cure”). It may be that just as Christianity is an attractive religion for people struggling with excess of id, Buddhism speaks to people with excess of ego.

  6. amba12 said,

    It’s certainly true that it winds up furnishing them with a whole new kind of ego, though, often.

  7. amba12 said,

    Good point about Christianity.

  8. wj said,

    all the New Age/Buddhism stuff does is turn people into self-centered demons.

    I have to disagree. I doubt that it turns much of anybody into self-centered demons. Like Maxwell, I think what it does is offer some validation to those who are already massively self-centered. Instead of a religion which preaches (even if it rarely practices) humility and concern for others, they now have one which validates their existing approach to life.

  9. mockturtle said,

    Annie, I can certainly relate to your experience marrying Jacques. As you may recall, early in my adult life I crossed the racial/cultural/socioeconomic barriers in marriage before it was widely accepted. It was very much like a different world. Differing values, to be sure. Not worse, just different.

    I didn’t feel at all daring and often wondered what all the fuss was about but, for a year or so, I had to choose between my ‘old’ world and my new one. Eventually, it became a hybridized world in which I felt very comfortable. I can’t say that my identity changed but the relationship certainly affected my world-view. IMO, we are shaped by our life experiences but our inner selves are genetically formed.

    The fact that our marriage unraveled after eight years had little to do with any of the differences cited above. Mostly just a case of growing in different directions. Not an excuse, just a reason. Since Derek and I have been together 38+ years [36 married] I have to conclude that we were probably better suited. Now that he has a crippling dementia, it’s a whole ‘nother world to adjust to, as you well know. ;-)

  10. amba12 said,

    IMO, we are shaped by our life experiences but our inner selves are genetically formed.

    That’s akin to what I’m getting at here. I think that inner identity is what our “tastes” bring to light — they “stain” it and make it visible. (Yes, Charlie, tastes can change. The whole question of “acquired tastes” is an interesting one. My love for jazz is profound, but it’s an acquired taste, acquired from J. It needed some “translation” into my soul, if that makes any sense.)

    Yes, mockturtle, I know very well what you are saying: alas.

  11. Emilie Babcox said,

    I’ve often had the feeling that “I’m the latest in a long line of impersonators of myself,” as neurobiologist Sunny Biswas wrote in an article that made an impression on me.

  12. Emilie Babcox said,

    Oops – I intended to include a link to the article, “You Won’t Be the Same Person When You Wake Up Next Year”:

  13. amba12 said,

    Thanks, that’s a cool article. I am in a training for the Feldenkrais Method, which is all about accessing neuroplasticity through movement. Our sense of ourself is largely tied up (in both senses) in habitual patterns of moving and holding ourselves in gravity, muscle tensions and “work” some of which are unnecessary or unproductive or just too unaware and unvarying; change those, or even shake them up, and you open up all kinds of possibilities.

    I was in an earlier training (which I had to drop out of because J couldn’t be left alone anymore) and in the middle of a weekend session, I got up for lunch from doing a morning of these gentle movement lessons, and I had somebody else’s body. I literally did not recognize the body I was in. A kind of kinesthetic jamais vu experience. It could have been frightening, but I was bored with myself so I found it thrilling. Described it later as “like being reincarnated without having to die first.”

  14. amba12 said,

    A related childhood fear: when I was 2 or 3 they had to cover the mirrors in my room with newspaper. I was afraid that my reflection would look at me when I wasn’t looking at it.

  15. mockturtle said,

    It’s what Jeffrey Schwartz’s book, The Mind and the Brain was about [neuroplasticity]. Fascinating concept. When I was in school it was only just beginning to be considered by a few mavericks and was treated with contempt by the prevailing behaviorists.

  16. kngfish said,

    well, today not only would your reflection look at you it would probably tweet about your snoring! (true or not! Bastard Mirror You!)

    Can I get enough feldenkrais to put me in Astaire (non-dead Astaire!) for awhile? I have videoes to make…and a Ginger to find!

  17. amba12 said,

    I don’t know, but it would certainly help.

  18. karen said,

    What a beautiful, thoughtful and provoking post, amba.
    Of course, i have many tangled thoughts– please to bear w/me?

    Running as a kid was so much fun– running on a horse, exhilarating. J was your vehicle to a different, faster and new kind of exhilaration. It could never have happened if you had been different from who you were @ the time- and if you had not trusted him very much. You sound like you think of him as the tide- he may have been– and a life preserver, both.

    As for the soul– as for nothing being at our center- an empty sham lined by layers… i call bull.shit. on that. It’s beyond my willingness(so, i’m willful, yes)to comprehend that concept of emptiness. May i illustrate(elaborate?):
    my youngest is a dramatic, verbal soul. When she’s upset w/me, she throws a fit w/-“Why did you ever have a 4th child?!””You hate me, you HATE me- why was i ever born?!” That kind of stuff. I always tell her that God gave her to me- she is a gift from Him and how dare she question Him about this. That kind of thing.

    You’ve heard of the Chinese woman photographed w/her daughter of 7 uterine months– aborted by the gov’t of China. Kidnapped and given a shot in the stomach to induce labour because she went against gov’t law and had the audacity to ~get pregnant~ w/a 2nd child– regardless of the dynamics of the demographics resulting in such an asinine, coercive concept.

    Well, Maeve heard it and asked me to explain it– and her thought expressed was-“Thank God you aren’t a Chinese woman or i wouldn’t be here. The next time i talk about your 4th child, say ~Chinese~.”

    Plus- i read an article about the biochemistry of birth control-hormonal, esp- and maybe who we think we are isn’t what others perceive us to be, anyway. Oh well, i always say i’m a work in progress, so i hope i’m really not who i am now, anyway- i have so much potential to be so much more- lol;0).

    ps– my sense of smell is way more sensitive than my taste buds. I can smell something and am taken back decades to what that smell meant then. It’s a comfort that works best if i close my eyes.

  19. Charlie Martin said,

    (Sorry for the slow followup, it’s been a busy week.)

    Yeah, tastes do change. That’s why I wonder if they’re a good place to look for an essential self. Of course, I may be impaired because I dno’t actually believe in the existence of an unchanging self — like my favorite sutra says, when I consider the five classes of skandas — sense perception, our immediate reaction to them, our conceptions of them, our connections to them, and the thoughts that arise from them — they *do* seem to me to be “empty” in that Buddhist sense of not being independent things in themselves. I’m just getting over pneumonia; for the first week or so after I was “cured” I basically didn’t notice any tastes (flavors, food tastes) except sweet and salt and sour — garlic and herbs and such were kind of lost on me. This week I’m enjoying souvlaki and tzadziki. Sometimes Dave Brubek appears to me; sometimes I like Dylan.

    Now, maybe you’re not really talking about something “permanent” too, and I’m confused.

  20. amba12 said,

    Charlie, I guess what I’m saying is that tastes—and I should probably refine that concept to mean the ones we love most, the inner circle of taste as it were—don’t seem to me “conditioned” in the same obvious way that thoughts, beliefs, and even emotions do. Now you could postulate that they arise from something in former lives, but not having memories of former lives (as some advanced bodhisattvas are said to), I can only regard that as a hypothesis to explain the inexplicable (like why some innocent people have rotten luck). To me those affinities that have an element of recognition, or “I was made for that” or “that’s for me,” seem like clues to something essential and individual—or at least that’s the notion I am entertaining.

    You sound like you think of him as the tide- he may have been– and a life preserver, both.

    Karen, that’s the most beautiful and true description of how I felt about Jacques that I have ever seen.

  21. mockturtle said,

    Karen, there you go again, using that well-developed right brain of yours!! :-) Beautifully said [from an envious left-brainer].

  22. kngfish said,

    I’m enamored over the idea that we are aesthetic creations. Some of the more complex aspects of this…I’m not even sure we can ask questions like that without Bowling in the Alleys of Madness. Rather, we take the paints we’ve got and take on the canvas of life….

    I also love that things are ephemeral; It almost seems to define what’s “alive” by it’s ability to “go away.”

    Constant sculpting, drawing, honing….just to make the constant living thing that is us.

  23. Donna B. said,

    One of my favorite books is “The Nothing That Is: A History of Zero”. Before “we” invented zero, the other numbers just weren’t as useful as they are now.

    When Amba said that tastes “stain” that “nothing that is” so that it’s visible… that felt right to me. Tastes don’t define the nothing, they merely outline it in a way comprehensible to us. Tastes that change are textures and details added to the outline, sometimes seeming to obscure what is already there… the layers of living.

  24. karen said,

    :0)– my right-brain thanks you- didn’t know it was beautiful, only how i see your relationship w/J.

    I haven’t been on an adventure since i was 18- the reality of life not included. My family is taking a vaca:0)– headed to Maine tomorrow for 5 chores(how we measure time on the farm)- Old Orchard. I’m not ready, not packed- house is a continuous mess, but we are going to build memories– add another layer- to our lives and our kids. 6 of us in the 4door truck. 6 of us in the room the lady reluctantly said she’d rent to us all.

    I’m scared silly and excited enough to pee:0).

    Smell- though- smell is in our development as a humanity. We can smell fear, smell sex, smell money-lol. And, pheromones.

    Charlie– THAT’S why i will buy your book. Definitions vary, and i am very lacking in Buddha. No disrespect, but i called my dog that as a nickname- it fit him well.

  25. mockturtle said,

    Have a great time, Karen! :-)

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