Stopping to smell the roses

There are few experiences which connect us as powerfully with our past as our sense of smell. It could be a dish your grandmother cooked, the scent of a forest where you played as a child, the perfume your mother wore, or the smell of sand and ocean. The way we respond to smells is also highly individual. Most people like the smell of roses, and dislike the smell of rotten eggs or meat. In between the extremes of pleasant and disgusting smells, however, how we respond to smells is uniquely individual to us. Perhaps you had a beloved grandfather who smoked cigars, and the scent of cigars will always make you feel loved and protected even though you’re a strict non-smoker. As a child, you might have spent summer holidays in a musty holiday shack, and years later you walk into a house which is damp and hasn’t been cleaned properly for a while, and you immediately feel relaxed and at ease. One day you wake up in a positive mood, catch the train to work, and by the time you get off the train a great sadness has come over you. You have no idea why, but someone near you was wearing the same aftershave as a close friend who has recently passed away.

Many animals, of course, rely mostly on their sense of smell to help them survive, and smells are also perceived and remembered by us in the mammalian part of our brain, the limbic region. The limbic brain holds our long term memories, learnt associations, and emotional responses, and we can sometimes react to a stimulus from the limbic brain below the level of our conscious awareness. Our sense of smell can evoke emotional memories, scenes from the past, but it can also ground us very much in the present moment, into the here and now.

We’re no doubt too self-conscious to go around sniffing the air like animals do, to get important information about our surroundings, and yet we’re constantly picking up signals through our sense of smell. It’s very common for people to report an increased sensibility to smell when they go on a retreat or start regular meditation. ‘Stopping to smell the roses’ – it’s a cliche, but a very powerful one. If you stand in a park or garden and allow yourself to notice the sounds around you, the breeze against your skin, and you then lean down to smell a rose, crush a little lavender between your fingers, walk up to a tree and smell its leaves – in those moments, you are completely mindful, present, absorbed in the rich awareness of your different senses.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, make a time to stop and smell a rose. Depending on where you are in the world, this could be a literal rose, or something similar. Notice how it feels to be absorbed in that moment through your sense of smell.

Anja Tanhane

 

The traffic light meditation

Welcome to the third in our summer series of the most popular mindfulness reflections – this post was first published on 14th May 2013:

How often do we say – I’d like to have time to stop and smell the roses? Yet when we do get some rare time to ourselves, we may hardly know what to do with it. Even worse is being stopped in our tracks against our will. Traffic jams, computer problems, queues at the bank, being on hold to our telephone company for forty minutes, waiting at the doctor’s. Finally, an opportunity to stop, but do we enjoy it? Once we’ve finished arguing with the telephone company, do we turn to our nearest and dearest and say, ‘gee, I needed that, forty minutes of muzak and being told my call is important, I feel quite rejuvenated now, having had that unexpected time out in the middle of the day’?

Probably not. Many of us complain about being too busy, but being forced to slow down can really annoy us, even bring us to the brink of rage. A few years ago, the health organisation I was working for had frequent problems with their computer system. There would be days and weeks where the computers worked at half their speed, if at all. I was teaching mindfulness, but did I enjoy being slowed down like this? Not one bit!

Yet a simple shift in attitude can transform the way we experience these unexpected frustrations. A great example is traffic lights, but if you’re fortunate enough to live in an area with few traffic lights, you can choose any other circumstance where you’re being forced to slow down against your will – perhaps being stuck behind a slow-moving horse float up a curvy road, or trying to get your children going in the morning. Now, imagine you’re running late to something important, and you’ve just come across your fifth red traffic light (or slow-moving truck) in a row. What do you feel? When I ask this question at workshops, the answers range from ‘frustrated’, ‘annoyed’, to ‘furious’ and ‘enraged’. So you have a choice. You can either get yourself more and more worked up, until your arrive at your destination red in the face and with anger pouring out of your pores, snapping at the first unfortunate person who greets you with a friendly good morning (‘Good morning?! It hasn’t been a very good morning for me so far, let me tell you!!’). Or you can use the opportunity for some quiet mindfulness practice. Relax back into your car seat. Become aware your breath. Allow the shoulders to drop. Notice the environment, the sounds, the weather. If you have music playing, listen to it. And then, once the light has turned green, or the truck pulled over, you can proceed with your journey feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. You’ll arrive glowing with serenity, and people will say to you, good morning, you’re looking well today!

A colleague of mine recently came to her second mindfulness workshop with me, and told us a wonderful story of her traffic light meditation. She has to turn right into the car park at work, and the lights can take forever to change. Before the first workshop, she used to get really annoyed, and sometimes she even drove through a red light in sheer frustration. After hearing about the traffic light meditation, she decided to use her waiting time to send loving energy towards the traffic light, surrounding it with love. She says she arrives at work feeling great, having spent those few minutes generating loving energy. As she told her story, I had a vision of traffic lights all over the city being bathed in a loving glow by waiting commuters!

Weekly practice idea:

The traffic light meditation (or whatever frustrating circumstance you come across). With any luck, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practise this!

Anja Tanhane