The Role of Odor in Guided Meditations

In 1982, Arthur Diekman noted that meditation was “the best known technique of mystical science”. Very broadly speaking, there are two types of meditation – and these are concentration and mindfulness. The concentration technique is derived from Yoga, and there are many examples of how we can use this. We can focus our visual attention on an object such as a candle flame, or we might focus on sound, words or mantras. Alternatively we could make physical activity and sensation our focus, maybe breathing or walking. Mindfulness (or insight) meditation is a Buddhist practice, and in contrast is allowing an unbroken, detached attentiveness to any thoughts and sensations that arise. However, both types of meditation allow us to detach ourselves from the transient realm of the mind and emotions. Then we can leave behind any analytical thoughts, or problem solving activity, or the need for emotional and sensory stimulus, and enter a mode of awareness and allowing, or receptivity. The ultimate goal of meditative practice is to reach a state of pure awareness that is known as Nirvana, enlightenment or truth.

However, very few of us begin to practice meditation with these goals, partly because of the well-publicised secondary effects of meditation. These include an improvement in physical, mental and emotional health. So, for many, meditation is used as a psychotherapeutic technique, or a means of achieving a therapeutic trance or an altered state of consciousness (ASC). Diekman cautions that if the purpose of meditation is for these secondary benefits, we can lose sight of and never achieve its primary goal. This might be worth bearing in mind – what are your thoughts?

Guided meditation (or imagery), where written or spoken words are used to describe a place, a journey, and/or a way of being can stimulate a state of creative awareness. This is a very accessible therapeutic tool and is used by many of us for relaxation, and anxiety or stress relief. Guided meditations may be enhanced by the use of congruent sounds and smells. Congruency is very important – the sounds and smells must be completely appropriate – and we can return to this later. If visual and other sensory stimuli are added, we enter the realm of virtual reality (VR), which allows an individual to be so immersed in an alternative reality that they exist in two places at once, but it is the VR that is being directly experienced.

Even if we don’t think, for whatever reasons, that we can meditate our way to Nirvana, we do have the innate capacity to shift our mode of consciousness to that of awareness and allowing. Perhaps the best example of this is the ‘peak experience’ – where we cease to be self-absorbed and exist completely in the moment; and experience a sense of awe, wonder, profound gratitude, and an enhanced state of wellbeing. It is well known that most ‘peak experiences’ occur in the natural world. These are the times when any boundaries between you, the observer, and the environment, or what you are observing, become blurred or disappear altogether. For these moments we are perhaps experiencing a glimpse of supreme bliss, or, as described in the Upanishads of Vedic literature, ‘undifferentiated reality’.  Maybe this happens in wild places where we can witness outstanding natural beauty, or in gardens, woods or meadows, where the flora and fauna are an integral part of the environment. The weather, the skies, the sun, moon and stars can also be part of this enriching and healing experience.

I would like to explore with you the settings of guided meditations, and look at the ways in which how scent could contribute to the experience, perhaps allowing a more complete immersion in each moment. I have a lot of ideas but would love to know what you think, and hear about the types of places in the natural world where you have experienced a sense of wellbeing.

Reference

Deikman, A.J. (1982) The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy. Boston: Beacon Press

Written by Jennifer Rhind

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4 thoughts on “The Role of Odor in Guided Meditations

  1. I believe in the value of the right aroma in the background while meditating. It seems to me that using the same scent can help you get settled more quickly.

    • Hi Austin,

      I would agree with your observation completely, and thank you for commenting. Scent can help us achieve our desired state of mind in many circumstances and situations, meditation being one example. If we repeatedly use a specific scent when meditating, that scent will become inextricably linked with our meditative experience, so exposure to it will very quickly take us to that internal space. Our perception of, and reaction to odours is affected by ‘hedonics’ – we respond in a way that is influenced by our personal and cultural experiences. Classical conditioning relates the pairing of a neutral object with an emotional and/or physiological reaction. Aromas can be paired with a positive emotional state, using unconscious conditioning, and future exposure to the odour can produce the same emotion. It is also possible to pair an odour with a negative emotional state, and the same emotion could be evoked at a later stage in response to the odour. Odours quickly (and irreversibly) become linked with emotional meanings, which can be personal and unique to the individual. There is also a strong link between hedonics and autonomic nervous system responses, and thus emotion. The individual’s expectations can also influence reactions to specific odours, although environmental factors may also play a part in this. Therefore, using odour as an evocative agent has potential therapeutic applications, and the ‘right’ scent will almost certainly enhance meditation practice. Our ancestors instinctively understood this, always using incense or perfume in ceremony, ritual and spiritual practices. Recent research has even indicated that some scented smokes, including frankincense, have mild psychoactive potential, and enhance awareness and sensitivity. I also believe that it is important to use a scent that works for you – otherwise it can become a distraction. Using scent as the actual focus of meditation, rather than an adjunct, can also be very therapeutic. Here is a link to a blog post on this topic – http://www.singingdragon.com/blog/2012/07/article-jennifer-peace-rhind-essential-oils-meditation-on-scent/

      All the best,
      Jennifer Rhind

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