There’s a common misconception that mindfulness is an attempt to clear the mind of all thoughts. That by sitting in the lotus position and gazing out over a picturesque seascape we will somehow find peace and enlightenment, and our problems will magically fade away. That’s really not how it works.
Mindfulness has evolved from its origins as a Buddhist meditation into a secular technique of becoming fully present, and not reacting or becoming overwhelmed by rumination and the modern world. This mental state is achieved by deliberately focusing the awareness on the current moment, and accepting and observing our thoughts and sensations without judgement or prejudice.
I began studying and practising mindfulness a little over a year ago. A lot of exercises begin by concentrating on your breathing. We notice the cold air being inhaled, the feeling as it enters our body, our chest rising as our lungs fill, and then the warm air and sigh as we exhale. We could then focus on any of the sensations we are experiencing. The seagulls we hear squawking in the distance. The light and shadows we see falling upon us. The pressure of our feet on the floor, and the feel of our backs against the chair on which we are sitting. The temperature and taste of the wine we are drinking (I practise that one a LOT), and the texture and shape of the food we are eating. The one sensation for which there seems to be very few exercises, however, is our sense of smell.
Our olfactory ability is considered to be our most powerful sense. Without it we couldn’t taste. It protects us by warning of smoke, gas, or rotting food. It brings us pleasure, and is the greatest trigger of memory. Studies have shown that people can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after a year. Visual memories, in comparison, are only recalled 50% of the time after just a few months. So why are not more aware of the scents around us? The short answer is that we are; we just don’t know it. When a smell enters the nose, the brain reacts by instantly trying to identify it. If the scent offers no threat, or is one to which we are accustomed, then it decides not to waste any further energy exploring it.
We can, however, train ourselves to override our automatic responses. Neural plasticity is the ability the brain has to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections. It’s how we learn to drive, or play the guitar. There’s no short cut to this and it is only done through repetitive exercises, as anyone who has made their fingers bleed trying to learn a C chord will attest. When we apply this to mindfulness, practitioners suggest that we pick a routine task that we do every day, and teach ourselves to focus on the sensory experiences associated with that act. I chose my morning shower, and noticing the heat and pressure of the water, the sound it makes as it splashes on the shower floor, and the smell of the Versace Dylan Blue shower gel is something that I now do without having to give it any particular thought.
In preparation for writing this, I decided to try to notice every smell I could when I entered the office for a week. Some were pleasurable, like the water being sprayed on the garden flowers, the toast being prepared for someone’s breakfast, the gorgeous Nejma number 7 that always reminds me of my friend Andrea. A few were mundane and one was particularly unpleasant, but it was a lovely way of focusing the attention, and one that I do recommend you try.
Before you go back to work, why not give yourself some space and finish with a quick sensory exercise? Make yourself a coffee or a green tea. Pick some basil, my favourite scent, from the garden. Find an old book. Maybe go outside and shift your attention to the grass and the air. Just find and focus on a smell that grabs your attention. How does it make you feel? What sensations are you experiencing? Does it evoke memories of anything, or anyone?
Try this on a few occasions and notice how you react. Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.
If you would like to find out how essential oils can improve your well-being, read our previous post here.