Engaging the Senses: The Sense of Smell

Image: Artist: Mirte Driessen 

This five-part posting will take a closer look at each of the senses that are part of our greater learning and growing experience. Each of the five senses plays a significant role in how we process the information of our human experience and these lessons serve as the foundations of our use of sensation in ephemeral and spiritual experience. Each contributes a specific energy and working collaboratively they offer the keys to memory, expansion of consciousness, engagement in the physical world and doorways to the inner planes of wisdom.

Note: There will be collaborative posts speaking to the Spiritual overlays of each of the senses in the Sacred Vessel Blog beginning next week.

Part 1 of 5

The Sense of Smell

The sense of smell is what draws us to our mother’s breast as newborns to feed. Before the other senses jump into gear, the instinctual drive for sustenance is accomplished through recognizing and bonding to the smell of our mother. As we grow and develop, our sense of smell forms a complex and vast library of connections and triggers that help to stimulate and engage the other senses.

Your sense of smell can transport you to another place and time. Memories of cookies baking in your mother’s kitchen and the loving care with which they were made. The smell of a baby having been freshly bathed and the joy in caring for this new life. The smell of the concert hall and stage area where you made your musical debut. Or the smell of flower beds in the backyard. The fragrance of damp earth and sweet aroma mingling in your nostrils takes you from the physical location of your workplace and you find yourself once again in the process of planting or walking on a forest path just after a Spring shower.

Foods are often eaten or abandoned simply by virtue of their smell even before we have a desire to taste. Similarly the sense of smell can bring immense satisfaction as you enjoy a carefully prepared and fragrant meal. This is one of the reasons for inclusion of spices when cooking. The aromatic enticements they offer in addition to the taste factor- which, as we know rely one on the other- can be the stuff of lasting memories and a satisfied belly.

We are literally bombarded by thousands of smells daily; with most going unnoticed as we tone down one sense in deference to another. Working to be fully present in what smells are surrounding you brings a deeper level of engagement in whatever the activity, place or person is. We have only to look to the creatures of the wild to see the impact of scent on their survival and the continuation of the species. The markings of urine left ward off predators, distinguish territory and in the right season beginning the mating cycles.

As humans, our sexual attraction is largely influenced by smell as well. We know our partner by the smell of his/her body. These are often enhanced by perfumes or colognes or minimized by deodorant and personal hygiene products, but the underlying scent that one human has is always present despite its masking. Associations are made through these smells and what was attractive and pleasantly associated in positive light can soon become distasteful and noxious if the attitude and emotional connection is lost.

The association of smell with emotional response is not a new one. We hear the adage- “you could smell the fear”. The chemistry of the body does indeed change with stress, fear, anger, joy, etc. The endocrine system secretes the appropriate hormones in response to these emotions and the body responds by producing odors that seep from porous skin. Anyone who consumes large amounts of garlic knows this to be true. The skin takes on the odor of the garlic, not just by way of breath but also creating its own culinary perfume. Fish oil often has the same effect as do many other foods that are ingested. We are continually sending the message of what we have consumed, our emotional state and the levels of our desire and readiness to procreate by how we smell.

Because of the huge impact of smell on our health and well-being scent is used in many ways to restore balance or to amp up a particular physiologic and emotional response by way of aromatherapy.

 The Healing Arts and Aromatherapy


“Aromatherapy is the practice of using volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being.”

The practice of aromatherapy has been around for centuries (although not designated in this way). Lavender has long been known for its calming qualities, just as peppermint excites and stimulates. Frankincense historically was used in churches as a disinfectant at times when plagues, disease and hygiene was less than sufficient and the routine death toll was high. Rose oil and the fragrance of the rose proper was a powerful aphrodisiac and vanilla wafted visions of opulence and luxury.

Fragranced oils have been used for centuries in the making of candles. Some were simple beeswax candles that were rubbed with precious oils as part of the ritual process and others had the oils added directly to the candle making process to provide a specific scent that would be released as the candle slowly burned.

I routinely use fragranced oils to stimulate the action of memory. The Tunisian Frankincense and Myrrh oil is one I use for ritual work. When I apply it in a mundane use, my first response is one that something sacred is going to occur. This is a particularly useful attitude to cultivate as I move through my daily tasks and interactions. Being able to recall the anticipation of a positive experience with reverence and care often buffers what would be a reaction rather than response to a situation. I must confess that more often I use the oils simply because I love the way they smell and the rich and opulent feeling they invoke!

In modern times and with the advent of costly perfumes and secret recipes around production of these fragrances, man’s sense of smell has become a virtual goldmine for retailers. And more recent times, Aromatherapy has broadened into a vital component of the holistic movement. The quest for finding balance between mind, body and spirit found a natural ally in the use of plant material and oils to bring about this state of well-being. We now see the basic principles of aromatherapy and the seduction of the sense of smell in a full line of commercial products – Febreze, Glade, etc. and Yankee Candles is one of the forerunners in combining the principles of aroma and tapping into memories filled with scent.

“Aromatherapy is essentially an interaction between the therapist, client and essential oils, working together to bring forth the healing energy which will help the client regain their sense of well being and vitality.” Jade Shutes

The modes of application of aromatherapy include:

  • Aerial diffusion: to disinfection or to produce a specific ambiance within the environment.
  • Direct inhalation: for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, expectoration as well as psychological effects.
  • Topical applications: for general massage, baths, compresses, therapeutic skin care. In most cases, the oils used are diluted with a carrier oil. If used full strength they can be toxic at worse, or produce irritation, allergies and rash at best.

To find out more: The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy

Pollen, Pepper and Other Irritants

One of the recommendations for nasal health is using a Neti pot. This is particularly useful if you have allergies, sinus problems or are prone to colds. Those who use it regularly report a lessening of allergies/colds or none at all. They used to be specialty item available only at health food stores, but are now widely used and can be found very reasonably in pharmacies and some super markets.


In Ayurvedic practice, olive oil is also rubbed into the nostrils as a form of lubricant and cleansing. For more information: Oiling Rituals

And, finally, a trick my husband uses when having sneezing fits at home. Cup your hands under the faucet. Pool some water and then “snort” it up into your nostrils. And, blow it back out. He usually does this a couple of times, and it works like a charm!

Scent-sational Practice:

The goal is to become more sensitive to the smells that surround. Not just those that are pleasurable and aromatic, but also those that are less than appealing. These are all part of the experience of being fully present in your body and the gifts of its senses.

Select a variety of locations to turn your focus of attention on what you are smelling. Begin with those places that you frequent such as your workplace, a special park (or other natural setting), your car or public transportation and the various rooms in your home. Breathe them all in making note of your emotional and physical responses to these different smells.

Some questions to consider:

  • What memories do some of them invoke?
  • How does this smell stimulate you? Mentally, physically, emotionally or other?
  • What responses are brought to the surface?
  • Which would you enhance and which would you minimize?
  • Which of these aromas have you intentionally selected? (ie. candles, room fresheners, perfumes, etc.)? And, why?

You may be quite surprised at what your responses will be!


Companion Post: Next Week

The Sacred Vessel
Sensing the Subtleties


A very interesting excerpt from:

SMELL:The Secret Seducer By Piet Vroon with Anton van Amerongen and Hans de Vries. Translated by Paul Vincent.
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Aroma Web
(articles, supplies, etc..)

The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy

Next Post: “Engaging the Senses”
Part 2: The Sense of Sight




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