A yen for zen

a yen for zen
Chandelier in the Château de Versailles

Perfume is a wealth of metaphors. String enough of them together and you might get a philosophy.


How well do you know your favorite perfume?

It sits, in its bottle, just the way it is. It perches, on your skin, just the way it is.

The essence of it, and all of its secrets, are contained in itself—and not hidden. The ingredients are what they are; they won’t change into different ingredients when you’re not looking. It has no power to present itself any differently.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you and I will understand it the same way. You may pick up 10 notes while I can name only 2, thus complexity becomes relative. Just because I failed to perceive an ingredient, doesn’t mean it’s not in there.

We may recognize the same note and associate them with unrelated sources. Several times have I caught a joyful whiff of shiso in the air, only to learn that it was cumin. Shiso brings me back to my childhood, conjuring memories of aged plum infused with the herb or hard candy made with the flavor. My significant other, on the other hand, grew up smelling the very similar scent of cumin from savory dishes, and finds it foreign to associate that scent with sweet foods.

What of people experiencing anosmia, or parosmia? How does that bode for the perfume?


Now I pivot. What about for us, as people? We may have the power to present ourselves differently—by getting louder in certain aspects. Among our qualities and the things that are important to us, we are forced to select a few to emphasize at any given time to get the kind of attention needed to achieve a goal.

The essence of us does not change at that moment, though.

We have no control over what part of that essence is perceived by others, how it is interpreted, or what associations they make. That is all in their neurochemistry. It doesn’t change the facts about us at all.

We could make a part of ourselves louder, to maximize the chances of others getting that part right about us. However, the other parts, which add up to make us who we are, would still have to be content sitting quietly on the sidelines, waiting for the more perceptive to notice.


(Maybe they’re just details. Close enough is good enough, right? Which syllable of your name would you like me to mispronounce? Which stereotype would you like me to assume you fit? Which characteristic would you like me to project onto you based on other people I know?

Oh… maybe your identity is built on a sum of details, too.

Maybe by listening from a blank slate, you get a more balanced perspective of a person. Otherwise, you’ll only ever get the loud parts. That could get one-dimensional really quick.)


Like a perfume, you have to spend time and pay attention to get to know someone.


And while it may sting to be on the receiving end of careless misperception, there’s nothing we could have done differently to change the moment it was formed. We can only reintroduce the right detail—as a “mono ingredient” in that conversation—so it will be remembered next time.






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