Last week, I ate ice cream two days in a row. It's not that it's unusual for me to over-indulge in sweets, especially ice cream in the summer. In fact, my sweet tooth is the source of too much internal strife and sugar hangovers. But the other afternoon, the inner critic took a break when the kids screamed for ice cream and we stopped at a stand selling Mövenpick. After a day of errands and chores about town, I didn't hesitate to join the kids in ordering two scoops: pistachio and coffee. As we sat in the shade, enjoying a reprieve from the scorching sun, the Mövenpick tasted pretty good. It satisfied a momentary craving, kept the kids happy, and meant I didn't need to prepare an afternoon snack.
Then the next night, when we were downtown and seeking a sweet treat, we headed to a favorite local gelateria, -9 and, without really thinking about it, I ordered again two scoops: pistachio and coffee. It's been awhile since I had their gelato, and from the first taste, I remembered: THIS is what ice cream should taste like! Savoring every lick, I vowed to abstain from anything other than the real thing and wondered about my tendency to settle for something less. Over the next few days, I noticed all the little ways that I settle for what's easy and available, for what scratches the itch, what momentarily calms the craving. I didn't eat any ice cream. In fact, the more curious I got about this tendency to eat Mövenpick instead of -9, the less I actually wanted either.
Last night, after recounting this story to a friend, it hit me: the point isn't that I need to seek only the finest frozen treats, but to focus on the craving itself. To experience that the most satisfying thing is not, as Michael Stone often taught, the fulfillment of a craving, but the satisfaction of letting go of the thing you most want.
It's a practice that has been on my radar for some years now, this observation of desire and relinquishment of its fulfillment and the fact that I'm still applying it to ice cream is pretty telling about my progress. What's more, even with the awareness of this pattern to settle, and while writing this, I had a bowl of grocery-store, quick-fix vegan ice cream. It's not even ironic; actually, it's pretty infuriating that I can be at once aware while acting against my own insights and deeper interests. In Ayurveda this kind of self-betrayal is called prajna paradha, and is sometimes translated as "crimes against wisdom." It's when we willfully ignore what we know in order to avoid the discomfort of doing something different. And it is one of the main causes of dis-ease--doing something you know will have adverse effects.
In this, I am sure I am not alone. How many times have you settled for something, knowing that it wasn't really what you need, but would at least temporarily fulfill the feeling of missing, turn down the volume on your wanting, dull the ache of desire for a time, until the next craving comes, likely bigger, louder, and sharper than the last? Maybe if you pay attention to it, like me you'll start to see it in the little things like ice cream and eventually, to confront the larger ways that you betray yourself. But let's be clear: seeing it is only the start. Like me, you may find yourself eating a lot of mediocre ice cream before you accept that the sweetness that you're searching for isn't going to be found in a double-scoop of anything; it is, of course, already and always within you.
To be clear, this is not some crazy suggestion that we swear off of ice cream (especially the locally-made, highly-delicious kind). It's more of an invitation to start recognizing that, like everything we do, eating ice cream can be an act of consciousness. What if we brought the kind of attention and intention that we bring to the mat or cushion to the our ice cream eating, our dish washing, our interactions with others? How might our days be infused with the kind of sweetness that truly satiates? As a beginner, again and again, I'll not pretend that I've got a clue. The more that I pursue this path of presence, the more that questions arise and answers fall away. And for now during these hot summer days, the subject of my inquiry is ice cream. You are, as ever, welcome to join too.