Home All Butterflies, Cherries and Figs: Lessons in Savoring

Butterflies, Cherries and Figs: Lessons in Savoring

written by Kathryn Britton 7 August 2009

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

When I think of savoring, the first thing that comes to mind is playing close attention. Savoring a glass of fine wine means taking time to look at the color and the way the liquid rolls around the side of the glass, to sniff, to feel the texture, to taste on various parts of the tongue, to breathe through it, and above all to think about it. I like the term Nico Frijda (Amsterdam University) uses for acts of intentional savoring – ‘acceptance wriggles’ – movements of the tongue, eyes, nostrils and fingers to increase the experience of pleasure.

“[Savoring is] holding my everyday jewels up to the light,” one of the elderly widows interviewed in Eileen Porter’s study.

The Butterfly Garden

Great Spangled Fritillary

Great Spangled Fritillary

In my experience, savoring is not just about experiencing the pleasant. It is also about experiencing it in the context of scarcity, evanescence, memory of past loss, and imagination of future possibility.

My husband planted a butterfly garden. Right now, the buddleia is blooming for a few short weeks. Butterflies are here briefly and then gone. Sometimes if we are lucky, they are here long enough for my husband to snap photographs for remembered savoring. This Great Spangled Fritillary was so tawny and large that I put a teleconference on hold long enough to call my husband to look at it.

Cherries and Short-Lived Sweetness
I love eating cherries. I only eat them in season. That the sweetness is so short-lived is part of its intensity. It is like experiencing the beauty in the context of loss of beauty, an exquisite harmony.

Eating cherries also brings back memories of the summer I spent picking fruit on a German farm. Herr Müller said a farmer needs enough trees that the birds get their share and there are some left over for humans. Cherries remind me of a letter that my grandfather wrote home. He was an officer on the Western Front during World War I. One afternoon he came across cherry trees full of fruit beside the road. I savor my grandfather’s savoring of both cherries and the first bath he had had in weeks. I have the complete letter posted on my blog. An excerpt:

Ai Sugg 1918

Ai Sugg 1918

So I just selected one … with branches low enough to conceal me when up in the tree and up I went, no one being along that spot of the road. Several wagons and autos and two or three groups of pedestrians passed without seeing me, then a woman with a basket on her arm and a hay rake on her shoulder was induced to stop by the cherries I had shook (or shaken?) off, discovered me. But it is no disgrace to be seen up a cherry tree by a woman who cannot speak your language enough to tell you what she thinks of it.

After “filling up” I continued my journey, saw the people I wished to see, found a nice secluded pool where I got my ice bath, and started back, but by this time my cherries had settled so that those in the trees began to look good again, and I climbed another tree.

Figs and Savoring Sorrow
According to Louise Sundararajan at the Rochester Psychiatric Center, Western notions of positive psychology are limited at least in part because they consider savoring only in the context of what is pleasant. Chinese discourse on savoring recognizes that articulate attention can also be devoted to pain, sorrow, and loss.

Fig Leaf and Figs

Fig Leaf and Figs

Outside my window is a fig tree full of huge leaves and ripening fruit. When I look at it, I remember the sorrow we felt in 1985 when a deep frost killed it to the ground and my husband sawed off the dead limbs. The sorrow was followed by joy when the roots started putting up shoots again. Now the tree is higher than the house. Squirrels jump on and off our roof from its upper branches. As I enjoy its huge green leaves and ripening fruit, I remember that early loss and therefore my savoring is intensified by a sense of vulnerability to future loss.

Right now, the fig tree is an enormous bird feeder, attracting birds like scarlet tanagers that don’t usually come to the clearing that is our backyard. Deer come to nibble on the fruit. We’ve seen a doe on her back legs going for higher fruit to leave the low fruit for her fawn. In addition to her own pleasure, I presume she was taking pleasure in giving pleasure. We do the same – we pick figs to take to friends who love them. In her study of elderly widows savoring satisfactions, Eileen Porter observed that they were “taking pleasure in giving pleasure.”

But the wonderful fruitfulness is fleeting. It will last just a few weeks, and then the figs will be gone for another year.

So savoring carries present pleasure, both my own and the pleasure I can give others. It carries a sense of incipient loss that intensifies the pleasure. It carries memories of past pleasures and past losses. It carries daydreams of the future. The fig tree forms green caves under branches that reach the ground and then root there. The tree was not big enough when my children were small, but maybe someday their children will enjoy hiding there.

Spike buck checking figs

Spike buck checking figs

Savoring: Two Soft Kissing Kites

Let me close with a poem that I first encountered in my high school senior English class and have savored many times since then along with my continuing friendship with my high school senior English teacher who gave it to us.

White Bird Tile

White Bird From the Forbidden CIty

White Heron

What lifts the heron leaning on the air
I praise without a name. A crouch, a flare,
a long stroke through the cumulus of trees;
a shaped thought at the sky – then gone. O rare!
St. Francis, being happiest on his knees,
Would have cried Father! Cry anything you please.

But praise. By any name or none. But praise
the white original burst that lights
the heron on his two soft kissing kites.
When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,
I sit by pond scums till the air recites
Its heron back. And doubt all else. But praise.

– John Ciardi, I Marry You: A Sheaf of Love Poems, Rutgers University Press, 1958



I love to write about savoring in my blog, at least partly because it gives me a chance to use my husband’s lovely photographs. I’ve written in my blog articles about savoring spring, summer, and fall, about savoring rain after drought, and about using objects as cues to savor memories.

Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ciardi, J. (1958). I Marry You: A Sheaf of Love Poems. Rutgers University Press.

Frijda, N. & Sundararajan, L. (2007). Emotion refinement: A theory inspired by Chinese poetics. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2(3), 227-241.

This is where I encountered the definition of harmony as “a dynamic equilibrium of difference and diversity,” when feelings have been stirred and act in due degree, where, “The ‘due degree’ comes from a paradoxical combination of perturbations and balance, which includes contradiction and its resolution.”

Porter, E. (2005). A Phenomenological Perspective on Older Widows’ Satisfactions With Their Lives. Research on Aging, 27(1), 80-115.

From the abstract: The main aim of this descriptive phenomenological study was to describe the structures of experience (phenomena) that older widows associated with perceptions of gratification, pleasure, or contentment. A secondary analysis was done of 44 interviews conducted with 16 older widows. The phenomenon of interest was savoring satisfactions.

Sundararajan, L. (2008). Towards a Reflexive Positive Psychology: Insights from the Chinese Buddhist Notion of Emptiness. Theory & Psychology, 18(5), 655-674.

This paper claims that the missing value dimension in positive psychology’s model of the good life is attributable to its focus on the unreflective first-order desires, as exemplified by hope theory, and its misguided claim of scientific neutrality that renders invisible the moral maps of human experiences. … moral maps are rendered visible and transformative in second-order desires, as exemplified by the Chinese Buddhist notions of savoring and ‘emptiness.’

Image credits:
All images courtesy of Edward Britton, except the white bird tile.

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Val 16 November 2009 - 1:59 am

Ms. Britton,
Do you think savoring the simpler things in life is more pleasurable or beneficial than savoring bigger things or events? For example, would someone receive more joy from savoring the taste of an apple than a promotion at work?

Kathryn Britton 16 November 2009 - 6:31 pm

I don’t have an answer for that question. I wonder if anyone has studied it? I took a very quick look in Bryant and Veroff’s book on savoring. I didn’t find it, but then I didn’t dig very deep.

Do you have an opinion?


Val 17 November 2009 - 1:37 am

Ms. Britton,
I think that savoring the simple things in life brings more pleasure. Following the example from my previous post, an apple is something that you can have as often as you want, so you have more opportunities for savoring. A promotion is not predictable or even certain and there are so many other things to consider (change in work tasks, more responsibility, etc.) that may take away from the joy of the promotion.


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