When I was a child growing up in Montreal, we had strawberries for only a few short weeks every summer, when Mom brought them home in small wooden baskets from the farmer’s market. She always made a bit of a fuss over them, washing them carefully and then slicing them up with a little sugar to marinate in the fridge for an hour or so before dinner. Sometimes she’d add poof of whipped cream which came in a magical container filled with air. When she pressed the little red button, a wonderful spiral of whipped cream came surging out and we three sisters would always beg her for the biggest swirl on our dish of berries. We didn’t actually pay much attention to the strawberries, which in our opinion were merely background for that delicious whipped cream.
After I left home, I don’t remember ever buying stawberries. I bought cakes and occasionally bananas, but fruit wasn’t high on my grocery list. And when I moved to India, any fresh produce was a health hazard. Everything had to be soaked in pinky pani or “pink water” … which was a diluted wash of potassium permanganate. If you didn’t peel or soak your fruits and vegetables, the consequences were far more dire than a simple belly ache. You could die of cholera or typhoid.
But it was in India where I truly ate my first strawberry. It wasn’t a big juicy red berry such as the ones we’ve hybridized and bred to the size of plums here in America. It was a smallish berry, not uniformly red and in no way visually spectacular. It was presented to me on a small white chipped plate. And there was not a lick of sugar and certainly no whipped cream as garnish.
I was sitting on the floor of an ashram in Pune, a small city some 100 miles south of Mumbai. I had been at the ashram taking various courses in meditation, awareness and yoga for almost a week. The diet was deliberately sparse and bland and the comfort level was minimal. We slept on thin mats and the morning shower was brief and cold.
This particular morning, we arrived in the main hall for breakfast and as usual took our places on the tiled floor. One of the senior chelas clapped his hands for attention and told us we would have a breakfast meditation as soon as everyone received their fruit. Two other chelas ran around the room, one putting a small plate in front of each of us and the other dipping into a large basket from which he produced strawberries one by one. He carefully dropped a single berry exactly in the middle of each plate.
When everyone was served, our Swami appeared. He gave a short bow and raised his hands over his head in an exaggerated “namaste” before settling down smoothly onto the only cushion in the room. A chela placed one of the little white plates on the floor in front of him and offered him the basket of berries. Swami-ji took one and held it up by its stem, swinging it slightly to and fro.
“Now today we will eat a strawberry. We will truly eat a berry in such a way you have never experienced before, ” he intoned. “Please take your berries like I am doing … by the stem and let it move like a pendulum. Yes … like that …” he encouraged as we all picked up our berries. We held them up and swung them around for a while as Swami-ji eyed us with a sparkle in his eyes. He began to swing his berry a little faster and then held it steady with his eyes fixed on it as the momentum eased and it finally dangled perfectly still from his fingers.
“And now we will describe the color of the berry. Yes … each of you tell your neighbor what color the berry is. See, it is not all the same color. Describe the colors …”
I lifted my berry and looked at it. It wasn’t exactly red, not the color we always thought of as being a “strawberry” red. It was maroon on one side and the color sequed into a pale coral near the top. And there were hundreds of tiny specks on the surface, little specks which I became suddenly aware were seeds. I suppose my Mother must have mentioned this at one time or another … or perhaps my science teacher I knew they were seeds* but had never been so aware of them before. Little gold beads aligned perfectly to make what looked like fine tapestry.
“The seeds are on the outside,” I murmured to the man sitting next to me.
He held up his berry and stared at it.
Swami-ji coughed lightly to get our attention before continuing. “Now look at the calyx … those little leaves at the top around the stem. Pretty leaves. Describe their color and shape…”
Twenty students began to examine the calyx leaves, spreading them out with their fingers to decide what their shapes were. And the tiny leaves, which had seemed a plain green as the berry lay on the white plate, now revealed tones of beige and brown and even a light tan underneath some of them where they met the stem.
“Now you will remove the calyx carefully from your berry and look inside to see its heart,” Swami-ji instructed as he gently pulled the bunch of leaves and stem away from his berry.
We followed his instructions and then peered inside the hole revealed under the calyx. It looked like a miniature geode, filled with tiny topaz crystals. So beautiful that I caught my breath. A slight fragrance drifted up to my nostrils just as Swami-ji lifted his own berry to his nose and said , “Now smell the perfume from the soul of the berry”.
We inhaled. And the beauty of that smell, the sweetness of it seemed indescribable. A room full of students sat with each of their noses buried in a single berry. You could almost feel the room itself breathing with us.
Then Swami-ji announced that we would finally eat our berry. ” Look at it carefully and take a tiny bite from the bottom. Just a small bite and hold it on your tongue. Feel the moisture of the juice and the texture of the fruit. Concentrate on the sweetness and tartness … Feel your berry … Experience your berry! “
We nibbled at our berries. It seemed incredible that such a small bite could contain so much juice and so much flavor. It was as if the entire berry, maybe even the whole basket full of berries was concentrated in that tiny morsel on my tongue.
I had tasted a strawberry. Really tasted it.
We sat there quietly nibbling at our strawberries. Taking tiny bites, making the piece of fruit last as long as possible, like children do with their ice-cream cones. We licked our fingers and gave each other little embarrassed glances as we did. Laughing when we caught each other.
And Swami-ji sat there with us, smiling and nodding at us, waiting for us all to finish our feast.
“Now you have eaten a strawberry. Now I think you will not forget the miracle of the berry, the miracle of your eyes to see its beauty, your nose to smell its fragrance and your tongue to savor its sweetness. Yes … yes … you will not forget.”
Swami-ji was indeed correct. While I certainly didn’t dissect each subsequent strawberry with such exacting precision, I do to this day look at their amazing colors and peer into their crystaline hearts. I stop and catch myself before popping the whole berry into my mouth. And this awareness extends to other delicacies as well. A chilled chocolate is allowed to melt on my tongue, the first sip of cold water on a hot day is savored as something infinitely more precious than ordinary tap water would seem to warrant.
It is a way of being aware. And awareness is one of the greatest secrets to living life on this physical plane in the way our souls intended. We are physical beings. What a shame not to experience this physicality to the fullest. And celebrating the miracle of our senses experiencing the miracles of this world is in itself a form of prayer.
The Gleeful Guru
* Strawberry “seeds” are actually not seeds at all. They are achenes or the actual fruits of the strawberry, rather like sunflower seeds in combination with their shells. The berry part is actually the receptacle, which is the part of the plant which produces those tiny fruits. Mercifully Swami-ji was either unaware of these botanical oddities or chose not to burden us with them. Had he done so, we might all still be there at the ashram analyzing those wonderful strawberries.