“Existence without juice is dry and tasteless” – Robert Svobodha
Like many sanskrit words, Rasa has multiple layers of meaning, each which contribute to a more complete understanding of its subtler dimensions. In its simplest, most mundane definition, Rasa means “juice”. It is also associated with the sense of taste. In order to taste anything – it becomes a juice before we can sense taste properly – the salivary glands produce saliva which emulsify food into a liquid. If the tongue were to be thoroughly dried off and then you put a piece of food on its surface, it will be difficult to sense its taste. Rasa is also referred to in Ayurvedic medicine as the stage of digestion when food has mixed with digestive fluids and becomes a “juice” which will then be absorbed into the bloodstream – or in Ayurvedic terms converted into “Rakta”. However, this isn’t the definition that we are most interested in. Rasa refers to not only the physical “juice” which gives us the sensation of taste – but that inner essence in all types of experiences that give us the feeling of “sweetness” or “sourness”, bitterness etc..
There have been times when I have gone camping, and even though the only ingredients available were a few vegetables, water and salt – the food was incredibly delicious. At other times, food prepared with perhaps a greater variety of ingredients, but by a bored, apathetic cook – left me feeling ravenously unsatisfied – as if I had not gained any sustenance from it, even if I ate a huge quantity. The food lacked in that subtle “Rasa” energy which can be communicated by a cook that wants to nourish you or to please you with the tastiness.
What good taste!
In fact, Rasa is also used to refer to the cultivation of this finer aesthetic quality – when we perceive something to be “in good taste” – what do we really mean by that? Now we are entering into the psychic perception of Rasa. An ayurvedic physician, Robert Svoboda said”Existence without juice is dry and tasteless.” In fact, just as food is impossible to swallow or digest without becoming “Rasa” or juice- so it is difficult to swallow or digest life’s experiences without “Rasa” – it is meant to be “juicy” and otherwise it becomes dry and tasteless… This leads to a sense of hollowness, dissatisfaction, depression and meaninglessness.
Rocking the boat
Another meaning of Rasa is harmony. On the mundane level this can translate to our human need to be in harmony with our environment and those around us. Pleasure and pain are relative experiences, according to our own vibration. When we experience vibrational waves that are similar to our own, there is a sense of harmony and comfort – and when these waves are out of synch with our own – we experience dissonance, irritation and discomfort. Even subtle, sweet, harmonious waves can cause this dissonance if the mind is very restless and speedy. For example, when I was working as an LFT, I worked in a coffeeshop for a period and when I was on shift, I would play meditative kiirtan CDs while working. However, I had a colleague whose vibration was always amped up on caffeine and just hated the kiirtan – she found its repetitiveness to grate on her nerves. Most of you will have had similar experiences with friends or relatives that cannot stand kiirtan. And conversely- the speedy punk music that I had loved as a teenager became intolerable as my own vibration became more peaceful and I could barely listen to more than a few seconds from my old CDs. A gangster will feel in harmony with his gang, but may feel extremely uncomfortable or bored in a fine-arts museum.
This leads to another expression of Rasa as harmonious flow. Many times this will lead people to not want to “rock the boat” in order to preserve this sense of being in harmony with those around them. At times they may not say what they really think or feel in fear of being ridiculed. This is the psychology behind passive collusion with various forms of injustice such as racism. I recently watched a television program in which they wanted to test what shoppers would do if a minority woman was treated in an overtly racist way and turned away from a shop because “people like you steal”. Though the shopkeeper actress was overtly racist, aggressive and rude towards the minority woman, and despite the fact that the victim-actress tried to involve the other shoppers in intervening in her dilemma – the vast majority of them simply kept their heads down and tried to concentrate even harder on the piece of clothing that they were looking at, even though clearly disturbed and aware of the interaction going on in the middle of the store.
However, though they were afraid to “rock the boat” and intervene for fear of the confrontation or conflict that may ensue and get directed towards them – did they truly feel at peace with themselves? One of the shoppers was in tears and completely distraught from the experience, and needed to be consoled and reassured by the film crew that the whole thing was just a staged drama.
Listening to the still small voice within
The true Rasa or harmony, is to be in harmony with the voice of our own conscience, and deeper still, with our own soul. This may or may not coincide with what others around us think, say or do and may invite a number of obstacles. But there is great satisfaction in the integrity that remaining true to our deeper self brings. All of you are sadhakas – and have stories of your own about the obstacles that you faced or are still facing as relatives, friends and colleagues may have tried to pull you away from your spiritual path – perhaps due to the discomfort they felt as your vibration changed.
When I was a little girl, I loved Mary Poppins. When Mary Poppins went to tidy up the nursery – she snapped her fingers and while brightly singing “A spoonful of sugar” all of the bedcovers obediently danced in unison to her song and smoothed themselves perfectly into position. I was fascinated with this, and I was excited to make my bed the next day in order to practice this new techique. And yet, I snapped my fingers, and snapped them again and again…And I sang brightly the whole time – but the bedcovers needed considerably more physical assistance than I had been hoping for…
As a child, magic just seems so right, so natural, all children know this. And yet, as I grew older – something was missing. The world seemed dry and tasteless…where was the magic? I was to find the answer later – when I began spiritual practice. Hearing the experiences of the Dadas and Didis – stories of how magical truck-loads of bananas were delivered just in time for a food distribution to orphanages – so many moments when through surrender and trust – they lept and a the net appeared…I saw that magic does exist and is meant to exist – we are indeed meant to have magical lives.
In the meantime, my next step in experiencing the magic of Rasa was in artistic expression…
One of my favorite picture book stories as a small child was “Frederick” by Leo Lionii. I read and re-read this story and memorized the artistic illustrations made from a collage of cut-out colored paper, so much so that as an adult, running kindergartens in Bucharest – I was drawn to search through the children’s books section in a bookstore to see if I could find the book that had remained in my memory so many years. I was delighted to find the book was still in print, and just as fresh as I remembered it.
The story is of a mouse – who while all of the other pragmatic mice are busy collecting grains, and nuts and storing them for the winter – apparently seems to be sitting and doing nothing. But when questioned by the other exasperated mice – he said “I am collecting sunbeams, and colors, sounds and smells for the long, gray winter.…” And in the cold, long, gray winter, when the little mice had eaten their food stores and sat huddled together with nothing to do but wait for spring to return – then they asked to see what Frederick had collected. And he stood up and began describing the colors of flowers and painting bright pictures in their minds – warming them with the sunbeams he had saved and letting their minds fly towards the blue sky…And the other mice exclaim – “Why Frederick, you are a poet!” And Frederick blushed…
Frederick had discovered the Rasa contained in aesthetic experiences – and he brought juicy bright colors into the dull gray cold world of the mice waiting out the winter. The Arts bring Rasa and lead us towards greater sublimity. Food alone is not enough to nourish our beings. In fact, as Calvin in Hobbes shows in this cartoon – creativity is often experienced as a flow – another meaning of the word Rasa.
I also had difficulty getting past the blank canvas when I was in university, studying painting. Once I received an assignment to simply paint a 2m x 2 m canvas by the end of the semester. It was the only assigment we had that semester, and our whole grade depended on that one painting. I would go to the studio, take out my brushes and dab a few colors onto the canvas, but I was immediately discouraged, and didn’t like what I had done. It just wasn’t right. So much resistance and procrastination built up. Yet when finally, a few nights before it was due, after forcing myself to just put paint on the canvas, a flow came – it just took over, and the painting seemed to spring to life of its own accord. Many have written of the fickleness of inspiration, muses, moods – but when the flow does comes it has a mysterious awe-inspiring magic…
Rasa – the inner essence of the universe itself
Not only artists experience this creative flow, in which one becomes an instrument for a far greater intelligence and beauty than that which comes from our limited intellect. Also many of those who practice sports, dance, musicians, have entered into this zone of “flow” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it. During my university years, I used to take long distance bicycle rides. At the beginning of each ride I would quickly reach what we called “the Wall”, where I needed to exert a great amount of exhausting effort to move forward. Yet, when I persisted beyond that point, my breathing became more rhythmic and my movements entered into a flowing, serene, pattern and my mind became enlivened in its hyper-oxygenated state and I felt a beautiful sense of freedom, clarity and energy that seemed endless. I was no longer tired and felt I could continue indefinitely. My mind became relaxed and even mystical, feeling perfectly united with breath, bicycle and the gentle hills and trees around me. Surfers often speak of this sense of union with the sea as they wait to find that perfect wave, and there are countless other examples. These are moments when the surface layers of our mind become harmonized with deeper layers, allowing an experience of Rasa – or flow – that originates in Atimanasa kosa or perhaps even deeper.
“Rasa means “flow”. Parama Puruśa has created an endless network of waves from the Cosmic Nucleus according to His own sweet will. Each of these waves is either an animate or inanimate expression. Suppose you throw a stone into a pond. Ripple upon ripple flows over the surface of the water – not only one wave, but countless waves, flow in countless directions. Each of these waves is a deva, but the fundament upon which these waves have been created is called rasa.”
(Shrii Shrii Anandamurtii)
So Rasa is actually the fundament – the matrix, the essence of all other waves – the inner “juice” of the universe. As our own vibration enters into parallelism with this inner essence our life begins to flow – it becomes magical. When we tune in to this deeper form of Rasa we experience spiritual flow, bliss and enlightenment.