You know someone, don’t you, who can be counted on to go “blech!” when they try to eat anything new to them. Whether it’s kohlrabi or Brazil nuts or hummus, the “ick!” is out of their mouth almost before the food has gone in. It’s the sort of reaction we might expect from children, but I bet we’ve all known plenty of adults whose first reaction to any unfamiliar sense experience is a reactive “No! Not that. I don’t like it!”
People surely have a right to their likes and dislikes. That is not the issue. It is the knee-jerk reactive nature of these judgments of taste that intrigues and troubles me. And if it is true, as I suspect it is, that “how we do anything is how we do everything,” paying close attention to our judgements about new perfumes can help us explore our own tendencies toward judgment and criticism in general. In fact, one of the reason that perfume is such a rife area for inspecting our habits of judgment is that it’s typically regarded as a sort of trivial luxury area, one in which we are repeatedly instructed that “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” I am entitled to something? Well, then, yes, please, I’ll take two dozen!
When it comes to perfume, then, we may even be largely in the habit of feeling like we should have strong opinions, and even worry that not having them is a sign of our ignorance or weak character. When I used to shove my perfumed wrist into my partner’s face (rude, I know, but I was enthusiastic), I was troubled by how frequently she expressed immediate praise or disgust. It was surprising too, because she is some sort of super-taster (and sniffer), easily able to discern subtle flavors and odors that are indistinguishable to me. She is far from being a philistine, then. Finally, I requested: “Would you mind first describing what you smell, and what it evokes, instead of fast forwarding to whether or not you like it?”
Partly because she has practiced Buddhist mindfulness techniques for years, this has not been especially difficult for her. It also helps that I now confirm that she actually wants to sniff my wrist before flapping my hand in front of her face. It’s a reminder that once we have been primed to open the gap between our sense experience of the scent and any judgment we may (or may not) ultimately decide to form and express, everything is possible. Rather than focus on what the scent means TO ME, or can do FOR ME, we can simply experience it, to follow its development, listen to it. We can sit with it and let it be what it is, rather than summarily imposing our verdict on it.
Sure, maybe we will ultimately conclude that it’s just one more riff on Dior Homme or, conversely, that it simply must join our shelf of favorites alongside Jubilation 25, Rien, and Carnal Flower. It’s not that judgment is bad and we are somehow required to infinitely suspend it. But if our aim is to really experience perfume, rather than, say, merely to embark on a consumer sorting experience to figure out what to buy, we must commit to occupying the gap between sensation and judgment for a little longer than may, at first, be comfortable.
And, obviously, this isn’t solely, or even mainly, about perfume. My failure to notice and occupy the open space before the fall of judgement’s axe is what permits me to reactively, nearly unconsciously, scan my world and decide which people, places and projects are worth my time. I may not say “blech!” when I meet someone with a look, vocal quality, or way of being that catches me off guard, but that may be what I’m feeling. In short, I love perfume for its own sake, but I think I love it just as much for helping me experience the world more fully, for being a doorway into greater awareness, mindfulness and compassion.