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.