Power of smells
Roni Beth Tower :
I boarded the express train, settled into the window position of the three-seater on the side of the car that follows the Hudson River, and prepared to enjoy my trip into Manhattan. Sometimes I read or write in transit, but on this day I wanted to meditate. A woman sat down on the aisle seat to my left.
As she arranged herself and her belongings, the smells of her hot lunch assaulted me - pungent, complex, definitely a proclamation of her passion for strong and spicy flavors. My eyes remained closed as I began focusing on my breathing and the importance of compassion. Just like smelling the fumes from the Akron rubber factories when I was a child, I practiced focusing on the smells that were distracting me and allowing the meaning of them to shift. A slow breath in, a pause, and a slower breath out. I remembered how I grew to embrace the odors of melting rubber when I was able to think of the families whose work the factories supported. What had initially been repellent had become valuable.
My first area of both scholarship and clinical training was mental imagery. I wrote about my affection for the power of imagery in some of my 2017 posts describing 52 ways of showing love. Smell is such a powerful route to memory and emotion; a better understanding of its impact can be a tool for insight, joy, and comfort.
Close your eyes for a moment and take a few deep breaths. Allow a smell to float into your consciousness. What are you smelling? What feelings or impulses arise? What associations do you have?
As you sink more deeply into the experience, are you carried back to a fond memory, like Proust and his madeleines? To an aversion related to a painful or unnerving experience? To a piece of unfinished business that reminds you that you will need to make dinner when you return home or buy more cologne because you are running out?
Smells can be the most powerful of all sensory imagery. Their messages bypass thalamic relay in the brain and evoke strong emotions with little censorship or interpretation. But that does not mean that their impact is inevitable or necessarily permanent. Learning is possible. Although I have not yet mastered ways to completely temper my instinctual reaction to the skunk's spray when my car threatens its peace on a dark winter night, I have learned to cheerfully scrub my dog with tomato juice to neutralize the impact and to then move on, appreciating the creature's gift for protecting itself from what it sensed as potential danger.