Why is it that you can’t smell what you can’t smell? Consider:
In the mid-90’s Procter & Gamble began a secret project to create a product that would eliminate bad odors. They spent millions developing a colorless liquid that could be sprayed on anything malodorous—and it worked. The product was called Febreze.
After making this magical mist, P&G exerted its marketing magic with a carefully developed ad campaign. The first commercial showed a woman in the smoking section of a restaurant, fuming about her ruined jacket. A friend pipes up, “With just a spray of Febreze, the odor is gone—gone!” The next commercial featured a woman worrying about her dog Sophie, who parks herself all day on the sofa. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” They tested the commercials in major markets, then saturated the airwaves.
They waited for Febreze to blow off the shelves. But the miracle spray was a flop.
The marketing team was incredulous. They went to work interviewing consumers to find out why the message had failed. They got their first clue when they visited the home of a woman in Phoenix. The house was tidy, in fact the woman confessed to being something of a neat freak. But when the researchers entered her home—which nine cats also called home—they nearly gagged at the smell. A researcher asked, “What do you do about the cat smell?”
“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.
“Do you smell it now?”
“No,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”
The team of experts knocked on dozens of doors and found various versions of the same noxious story. People couldn’t smell the worst odors in their own homes. If you have nine cats, you become desensitized to the smell. If you smoke, you grow accustomed to the smell. Even the most intense odors eventually fade into the background.
My brother John read about the Febreze debacle (New York Times 2.16.12), emailed me the link and said, “Makes me wonder of course what stinks in my life that I can’t smell.”
It’s true. We can’t see what we can’t see. We can’t smell what we can’t smell. We can be living with things that are hurting us or oppressing others—or both—and not have a clue. What can we do?
There are two paths to self-knowledge. One is the cultivation of greater awareness of your own self—and the contemplative tradition offers various meditative practices which help in this department. But as the sages say, “Can the eye see itself? Can the tooth bite itself? Can the I know itself?” That’s why you must also walk the second path to self-knowledge, and that means trusting someone else to tell you about yourself. Traditionally, they’re called “spiritual friends.” Most “friends” won’t tell you what you can’t smell. Most therapists are paid to take your side and “support” you in your struggles. Unless you insist, they won’t tell you what smells.
Several months ago a woman called me in the midst of a family crisis. She said, “At work, I say to my senior people, ‘What am I not seeing?’ So, David—tell me, what am I not seeing in my family?” I was mightily impressed. Very few people say that to me.
Imagine sitting with your spiritual friend and saying,
In this problem I keep having at my office—what am I not smelling here?
I’ve run out of options in my marriage—what am I not seeing?
In the struggle with my daughter—what is obvious to everyone but me?