Welcome to week four of “Using the Senses for Contemplative Practice”. If you’ve already read the previous weeks’ lessons, jump ahead four paragraphs to “Consider smell.” If not, please allow me to briefly introduce this series of teachings.
Our bodies are made for contemplation. Every time we feel a breeze blow across our skin, see a cloud in the sky, taste the sweet honey in our tea, smell the clean laundry coming out of the dryer, hear the sound of a train whistle in the distance, or even recognize the sound of our own voice, we’re given an opportunity to engage in contemplative practice.
Many of us think we need to step away from life in order to polish our contemplative practices. Indeed, an occasional retreat can be highly beneficial, but everything we need to engage in contemplative practice— and hence heighten our awareness, we’re already doing all day, every day. If you’d like to learn how to tap into this sublime gift, please read on.
I present six practices for you to experiment with. Each will require about five days of your attention, so you can probably cover each lesson in about a week. If you’d like to develop a new, powerful awareness through these practices, I encourage you to engage with them just a little every day for the next six weeks. You may never be the same!
You may choose to begin with this week’s lesson on the sense of smell, or you may choose to read the full introduction and go back and begin with the first lesson on speech. It’s up to you.
As we continue the series, keep in mind that everything we experience with our senses provides an opening into the recognition that every particle of existence holds something valuable for us to know and experience. All it takes is a little discipline and a little steady effort to learn to pay attention to the wonders hidden in all of existence. We can learn to pay attention by cultivating the gift of smell.
Many people consider our sense of smell the most evocative sense. We may hear music we’ve enjoyed, taste a savory dish we remember, or recall a beautiful image. But the scent of something long forgotten transports us instantly to the time and place of our first encounter—bringing with it other remembered sights, sounds, or tastes.
We respond to scents in ways of which we are often unaware. Aromas have the power to shift our mood quietly and effectively. Because we take odors in with our breath and they disperse rapidly throughout our body through our lungs and circulatory system, scents infuse us with their qualities.
We also give off odors. The health of our bodies as well as our states of mind is reflected in the odors our bodies exude. We can smell fear and we respond to pheromones even when we are not conscious of this.
In the West we are accustomed to thinking that the more blatant something is, the more powerful it is. We say, for example, “Actions speak louder than words.” But Eastern philosophy reverses that understanding. The more subtle something is, the more power it has. That something may escape our notice because it is subtle does not make it any less powerful. Thus, thoughts are more powerful than words, and words more powerful than actions. For without a thought, no words or actions would ensue. The greatest power lies in the cause of subsequent thought or action.
Scent, like sound, is powerful precisely because its form is so subtle. It cannot be seen, it cannot be heard, and is rarely felt. Scent and sound penetrate our bodies dispersing in all directions. Malodorous scents can cause gagging or retching, while pleasant scents create well-being and ease in our bodies and minds. This is subtle power.
Cultivating the gift of smell is one of the most powerful ways to practice. This is in part because we carry scents on our breath, and our breath is very intimate, and in part because our ability to taste is also affected by our sense of smell. Once our sense of smell is refined, we become increasingly aware of the subtlest scent, the source of the myriad aromas which fill us with their wondrous being. Our sense of smell, like our sense of taste, to which it is closely related, allows us to pay close attention to the process of perception itself. When we do this, we capture the fullness of perception which usually eludes us.
We are active participants in the outpouring of Divine Being into everything that exists. Every act of perception is an act of wonder if we are paying attention. In every act of perception there are two instants. The first is when we perceive things just as they are. There is a non-discursive, non-conceptual instant of pure perception in which our organs of perception act and receive information. In the next instant we attach thought and meaning to the pure perception. We ground that perception in memory, experience, predisposition, and will. This grounding results in active responses and concepts, discursive thoughts which create an “outlook” or an idea about what we have perceived.
In the instant of pure perception we can sometimes catch the sweetness or the “Rasa” [the flavor] of that Supreme Reality which is the Essence of that which we perceive. Sometimes it shines into the second instant. When you experience something as Beautiful, for an instant the discursive, conceptual part of perception has been delayed or set aside and we rest in that first non-conceptual instant of pure perception, of pre-conceptual consciousness which allows us to see things as they are: filled with the flavor whose source is Love and whose experience is blissful or sweet. In this instant we are profoundly immersed in Divine Consciousness.
It is with the sense of smell that it is perhaps easiest to try to capture and then sustain the instant of pure perception.
Practice #4: Smell
Practicing with our sense of smell might begin with a simple cleansing. Unlike working with some of our other senses, with smell we have an opportunity to cleanse the organ of perception, our nose, in ways we cannot cleanse our eyes or ears. Most of us do not breathe easily through our noses. There is so much in the air, between pollens and man-made pollutants, that our sinuses often become stuffy. This inhibits our sense of smell. There is a way to cleanse our sinuses. This is only a suggested practice as some people may not be interested in trying it all all, which is fine. But I include it here in case you’re interested in giving it a try. We can cleanse our sinuses by using a neti pot or nasal irrigator according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If you decide to use a neti pot or a nasal irrigator, make sure you use a saline solution or salt that is prepared, buffered and pre-measured. There are several different brands to choose from, which you may find in any pharmacy. These are buffered so that the salt dissolves evenly and will not sting your nostrils. Also use distilled water for your solution. Although most tap water is treated, it may still contain fungus or bacteria that will irritate your olfactory system. If you are willing to try this practice, then use your neti pot once a day morning or early evening—not right before you go to bed. See if this makes any difference to the amount of mucus or sinusitis you may have.
Another simple practice that cultivates the gift of smell is to breathe. Seat yourself comfortably so that your spine is as long and straight as possible—but don’t hold yourself up; let a chair, couch, or pillows support you. Without changing anything, bring your attention to your breath. Breathe through your nose. Notice which nostril your breath flows most easily through. Notice the quality of your breath and its length—without changing anything, simply observe your breath as it moves through and beyond your nostrils. Do this for five minutes. Practice the attentive observation of your breath as it moves through your nostrils for five days. Then make notes in your journal what you are aware of. Describe what you notice about your nostrils and your breath. In what ways does this awareness shift or expand as you practice over the five days? In what ways does this brief, attentive practice shift what you notice as you breathe throughout your day?
After you have practiced attentiveness to breathing for five days,now practice with some lovely scents. Begin with one spice whose scent you enjoy. Place a dish of the spice or the spice jar, with the lid off, three feet from you. Are you able to catch the scent at that distance? If not, bring it closer, as close as you need to in order to grasp the scent. Now, with the spice before you, breathe as above. What do you notice when you add a spice to this practice? In what way is the practice the same? In what way does it differ? What do you notice in your body and mind when you add the spice? Practice with the same spice for three days at the same distance. Then change to a different spice and repeat the practice.
After practicing with the second spice for three days, note in your journal the differences and similarities of your practice with different spices. Note what you are aware of each day as well as what your cumulative experience is at the end of the three days. After practicing for six days with two different spices, return to the first spice, only move the dish of spice further away from you.
Add at least a foot of distance between you and the spice. Repeat the process with the spice at a greater distance from you. Are you able to catch the scent at that distance? If not, bring it closer, as close as you need to in order to grasp the scent. Now, with the spice before you, breathe as you did before. What do you notice when you move the spice to a greater distance from you? In what way is the practice the same? In what way does it differ? What do you notice in your body and mind when the spice is farther from you?
Practice with the same spice for three days at the same distance. You can repeat the practice with the second spice, and increasingly longer distances from you for as long as you like. Be sure to make notes about what you notice in your journal as your practice evolves with different spices at different distances.
1. Consider using a neti pot
2. Practice breath awareness
3. Introduce scent #1
4. Add distance
5. Introduce scent #2
6. Add distance
(Remember to make brief notes or journal on each step of the practice.)
May the subtle scents of Consciousness pervade your awareness.