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The Pain of Eating Peppers

My parents cultivate a variety of herbs and vegetables in their garden, among them several pots of Thai chili peppers. Every morning my dad waters them, every week he fertilizes them, and every year the plants produce hundreds of beautiful, red, hot peppers.

If I ever visit them in the late summer, when the peppers are at their ripest, I would help harvest them. Typically, this involves squatting for an hour beside the plants with a large bowl and pair of scissors; thoroughly inspecting each one for ripe peppers; and taking care to snip off only the ones which have grown bright red. Each time, I look at hundreds upon hundreds of peppers, and yet no two peppers are ever the same given their variations in color, size, and shape. I am further mesmerized when taking in the additional beauty of the leaves, thin and tapered just like the chili peppers, as well as the tiny flowers, whose petals foreshadow the shape of the fruit which will come in their wake.

Spice is a pillar of Vietnamese cuisine, so after harvesting the peppers, I would save a few to spice up our next meal and freeze the rest in large batches to be enjoyed for the rest of the year. As a child, I often watched in amazement as my parents coolly took whole bites from these peppers, going through two, sometimes even three, in one meal. I could not fathom their enjoyment because the slightest touch of spice would leave my younger self in immediate tears. Yet, all things change, and the day did come when I found myself eating chili peppers all the same. Given my years of aversion, I would have expected for this occasion to be more memorable, but it proceeded so naturally, so effortlessly, that it simply did not register as a big deal. This is not unlike my experience of having my first period. Despite the hype and anxiety that came beforehand, once my body began to menstruate, I felt suddenly calm when the inevitable event finally did arrive. And so, on one unremarkable day, after sitting down to eat with my parents, it occurred to me that I wanted to take out a frozen pepper and bite down on the tip of it. The sensation was the same—my tongue burned, and my eyes teared up—but this time, it was delicious. I have since been building up my spice tolerance, ingesting a little more pepper each time. When I reached that benchmark where I was able to eat a whole pepper in one sitting, I felt like I had truly become an adult. Reflecting back, I see that it wasn’t turning eighteen, graduating from college, working a full time job, or signing up for my own dental insurance that initiated me into adulthood; it was being able to eat chili peppers just like my parents that marked my rite of passage.

Due to our generational and cultural differences, I have often felt that my parents and I live such disparate lives. They have gone through innumerable and unimaginable traumas that simply don’t register in my frame of the world, and the anxieties and qualms that I grapple with in this modern American life don’t translate well into their paradigm. I feel so undeniably connected to them now that I can the table and place a single, shining red pepper next to each bowl of rice, knowing that we can enjoy the same sensation of spiciness together.

From time to time, I have wondered how I could so suddenly find the hot slap of spice so inviting. Perhaps it is because life gets harder, and spice merely reflects that. This strikes me as not too far from the truth, especially considering that pain is the mechanism through which spice works in the body.

Spice is not a flavor but a sensation. The tongue, skin, and lips all have sensors called VR1 receptors specifically designed to detect heat. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in any hot pepper, coincidentally binds to those receptors, resulting in a hot sensation. This is precisely why we reach for something cold after having eaten spicy foods, because it feels like we are burning. Spice, then, is essentially pain.

I had begun to eat peppers during a very rough time of my life—having had my fair taste of difficult times, failures, stresses, and setbacks, I believe that I gravitated towards the chili peppers because eating them nodded to my own hardships. While the amount of heat from eating the peppers was the same as it was when I was a child, the experience of it felt different once I was older and had learned that pain can be an opportunity for growth. Neuroscience research in contemplative science also shows this, albeit in less personal terms, when participants with more mindfulness training perceived the same degree of discomfort to be less painful.

It is here that I will highlight the difference between pain and suffering: that pain is the sensation that comes when certain receptors are triggered in the body, whereas suffering is the perceived misery of a situation. Pain does not have to lead to suffering if we can stay with the feeling of pain, knowing that it will eventually change, and in that period of time when we sit with our pain, there may be some opportunity to see what it has to tell us. In my case, the pain of eating peppers showed me of some deeper and unspoken connection that I share with my parents and ancestry, and it reminded me of my potential to learn and grow from challenges that come my way.

This is something I think about every time I see Thai chili peppers, be it at my parents home, the grocery store, or in restaurants, and I am grateful for this constant teacher in my life.


Some questions for reflection:

  • What are the chili peppers in your life, and what have they taught you?

  • What sorts of pain have you developed a tolerance to?

Feel free to comment below or send me a message! May all beings be happy.

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