My friend and I sat on a patio at a restaurant in Tel-Aviv, enjoying the soft September breeze and the sweet Mediterranean sea scent it brought with it.
I found myself sniffing the air, wanting more of the exhilarating scent while Guy and I exchanged our Yom Kippur stories.
Yom Kippur is a Jewish fasting day of self-examination. Most Jewish holidays revolve around feasting rather than fasting—our holiday dinners present a ridiculous abundance of food.
I was once invited to a Thanksgiving dinner in Cape Code, MA, and was shocked to find only four dishes on the table—a huge dead turkey turned on its back, mashed potatoes, devilled eggs and the local pride—cranberry sauce. I judged it as something inappropriate, like I used to deem anything that was different from how things were back home.
Most Tel Avivians are extravagantly secular and deliberately spend Yom Kippur indulging in food and intoxicants. Guy was no different. He told me that while I was busy being boring—fasting and meditating—he enjoyed seafood, weed and the beach. Then he added: “On my way back home, I ran into some friends of yours. Now I know you won’t like me saying this, but they really stink.”
“My friends” were African refugees.
My first thought was—I can’t believe I have such a racist friend! My second thought was: you must embrace Guy’s differing opinion. I reminded myself that “Reconciliation is a continued state of consciousness.”*
Guy has a pure heart and a strong desire to help others—he even joined me a few times to help “my friends” in a soup kitchen downtown. But he honestly thinks that the refugees stink and does not have any problem saying that. Politeness and politically-correctness were never issued an Israeli visa—they reside only outside of our borders.
I calmly stated that unlike us, the refugees have no home, no shower and no washing machine. I remarked that if we lived in the same conditions, we would have stunk too. Guy insisted that the refugees’ smell was something inherited that had nothing to do with their poor circumstances.
The next day I met my friend Mark. After recanting the accounts of last night’s argument, which still bothered me, Mark told me a story that shed a whole new light on the matter.
When he lived in Thailand years ago, and started understanding a little bit of Thai, he realized that the locals kept complaining that he stank.
They said he smelled like a foreigner, like cheese, and asked their mutual boss to force Mark to shower more often. I can guarantee that Mark’s natural body scent is as good as it gets, even under the harsh conditions of the sweaty mysore room where we practice together.
Mark’s story made me think that maybe when Guy walked by the African people and thought they stank, they thought the exact same thing about him.
Mindfulness is all about acknowledging what really is. By being politically correct we sometimes sweep the facts under the carpet rather than face them—yes! Africans do smell different from Americans, who smell different from Thais.
The problem is not the actual smell, but our judgment of it. We tend to label unfamiliar things as bad out of fear, the same as we categorize foreign scents as smelly.
Our judgment of smell is based on our history, culture and DNA. In “reality” there is no bad smell or good smell, there is just a sensation. (Perhaps with a few exceptions—I believe no one on earth likes the smell of a strong fart in a stuffy yoga room.)
If we manage to just perceive things as they are without fear, without judgment, without attraction or rejection – we won’t need politically-correctness to diminish racism—we would genuinely accept the differences and embrace them.
With that in mind, I went to the beach for some last dosages of Mediterranean aroma, before I move to a far away land with new exciting smells.
*From How Can I Help by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman
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Ed: Bryonie Wise