Travelling with my sense of smell

An inquisitive look at smell

I took a train up to London today, and once in my seat did that thing that so many commuters do: I closed my eyes.  I practiced a few breathing exercises for relaxation. Then I realised that while I was taking these deep breaths, I was picking up smell information about what was around me. The very fact that I was noticing these smell messages was interesting to me. So, I thought, I'll quietly observe any little shreds of smell, and let them come and go, like clouds across the sky.

I have suffered total smell loss, and now have regained something like 30-40% of my smell function. I live in a strange world of smell vagueness, a world where you are never quite getting all the information. As a parosmic, my smellscape is distorted. Nothing smells as it should. It is like being in a country where you cannot understand the language, and the conversation you overhear might be noisy or barely audible. Still, you get to pick up a bit, and can infer a lot from context. But on this rainy morning on my way to London, what kind of messages could I pick up while doing a simple breathing exercise?

I started with a background smell. There was something but I couldn't say what.  Breathe in...maybe warm and stuffy, people smell?...breathe out. Breathe that really people smell? Never mind...breathe out. And so on. We stopped at a station, and people got on. I did not open my eyes, but listened intently to what was going on. I could feel that people were moving onto the train, and were seating themselves around me. Breathe I smell perfume? I continued this for another five minutes or so, just observing, not letting my mind get in the way and create some sort of narrative ("Do I smell someone eating a sandwich? Do I hear them crunching on a baguette?" "I wonder what perfume that is, or if I am smelling shampoo"). Mindfulness meditations require that you bring your focus onto physical sensation. Your feet in your shoes, touching the floor. Your hands on your lap. Instead, I was focussing on smell sensations.

And if you are going to try this yourself, letting the mind wander off onto a possibly anxiety-inducing jaunt is something that I need to be alert to. You don't want to start a tetchy conversation with yourself along the lines of "this smells like nothing I recognise, this is horrible, how long will it be like this, I can't bear the thought this might last forever, etc etc.”  With mindfulness, one of the first principles is "Minds wander. It's what they do."* So by all means say hello to those thoughts momentarily, usher them into the front door of your mind, and then usher them straight out of the back. And then close the door. Go back to simple, objective observation of your experience, without judgement.

My train ride ended, and I made my way up to UCLH hospital, one of London's largest and busiest.   I was out of relaxation mode, as you can imagine, having just come up from the Northern Line on the tube. And yet, as I made my way through the large main reception area, and sat down for a coffee (I was miles too early for my appointment), I continued to think about a more low-level smell mindfulness. As I walked through the hospital, I noticed that nearly everything, however faintly and indistinctly, had a smell signature. I walked slowly, and followed my nose, thinking. A sort of two legged bloodhound. An older gentleman in a black overcoat gave me a fairy dusting of aftershave. The coffee station had it's own smell of coffee of course, but also...toasting sandwiches, wet paper cups? I am guessing on that, because that is what I imagine it must smell like.  Telling myself “this smell? Next time remember: it’s a coffee shop”. A woman in a wheelchair and her carer left behind a wisp of something sweetie-like. Maybe pear drops. Maybe not. For me, the exercise of thinking about smell during my walk through the hospital was not so much about recognising smells, but about reassigning meaning to new smells. And just, well, noticing.

* I have this from my mindfulness instructor, Gail Loudon