A freshly peeled orange, sun-warmed pines, newly washed laundry: What fragrances do you find most memorable and appealing? Here's a day to appreciate your sense of smell. It's celebrated each year on the last Saturday in April; many children's centers and museums offer experiments and hands-on experiences as part of the festivities.
Within the last couple of centuries, scientists and philosophers created a hierarchy of senses that promotes vision as superior and smell as lowest in the chain. But think what it allows you to do that other senses cannot! You walk into the kitchen, smell a faint whiff of toast, and know that a family member has been there before you, making breakfast. A car passes you and you smell the brakes burning: Now you know that it came down the steep hill behind you rather than up from the town below, even though you neither saw nor heard it.
Kate Fox, Director of the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford, England, put together a remarkable report on this typically undervalued sense. She explains that two small odor-detecting patches high up in our nasal passages allow us to smell. They are made up of about five or six million olfactory cells, compared with a rabbit's 100 million and a dog's astonishing 220 million receptors. "Humans are nonetheless capable of detecting certain substances in dilutions of less than one part in several billion parts of air. We may not be able to match the olfactory feats of bloodhounds, but we can, for example, ‘track’ a trail of invisible human footprints across clean blotting paper."
She also reminds us of the essential tie between taste and smell. "The so-called taste-buds on our tongues can only distinguish four qualities — sweet, sour, bitter and salt — all other ‘tastes’ are detected by the olfactory receptors high up in our nasal passages."
Read these quotes and try these practices to discover even more reasons to be grateful that you have a sense of smell.
"Incense gives that special whiff to worship; it is the smell of prayer and adoration. We are told that we have stored within our brain a catalog of fifty thousand different smells. The smell of incense awakens the primitive memories of sacrifices and holocausts. . . . In the religions of the Western industrialized world, incense is an antique or an alien visitor from some exotic, Oriental religion. But we don't have to be a Zen disciple or a 'super-orthodox traditionalist' to enjoy the pungent smell of incense or to use it as part of our prayer.
— Edward Hays in Pray All Ways
Tibetan temples smell like popcorn. Actually, they smell like the hot buttery goop that's pumped onto popcorn in the lobbies of movie theatres: as I walk from my car on a clear spring New Jersey evening, past the bank and the vacuum cleaner store, I can smell it a block away. What I smelled in Tibet were butter lamps, simple cups of yak butter with lighted wicks, carried by wide-eyed peasants as they walked in silence from one shrine room to the next, or glowing where the resident monks had set them at the feet of gold-painted buddhas.
— Dean Sluyter in Cinema Nirvana
"Have love for everybody — the incompetent,
The quarrelsome, and the unscrupulous.
The good qualities of the noble, though hidden,
Are apparent to everyone in the world.
Even when the jasmine flower is well covered
Its fragrance permeates everywhere."
— Maitreya in Ordinary Wisdom by Sakya Pandita, John T. Davenport, translator
- Offer this Blessing of the Senses
In my eyes blessing
In my hearing blessing
In my lips blessing
In my touch blessing
In my smelling blessing
In my mind blessing
May my life bring blessing to the Earth.
To anoint oneself for the above blessing: Both hands together touch the eyes, the ears, the lips, come together palm to palm for touch, touch the nose, touch the head, palms to the top of the head; then for life the arms cross the chest and for bringing blessing to the Earth the arms open wide. To anoint another, change the pronoun to "your" as you recite. (Daniel McGill in Forty Nights: Creation Centered Night Prayer)
- Smell the aroma of life. Passing by heliotrope or jasmine. Your perfume or aftershave. Someone else's. Walking into a very old house. A fragrance that reminds you of something long ago and far away. Especially when you want to remember something, pay attention to smell. (David Kundtz in Quiet Mind)
- Just noticing various things as you walk down your street can be more powerful than it might seem. The noticing — paying attention to what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell — brings you into the present time and place and takes you out of worry, planning, and anxiety. (David Kundtz in Quiet Mind)