created fragrances

nose_sinuses_smellOLD NOTEBOOKS: Switzerland: Industrial Zone: Waiting for the bus home. There’s that slightly odd fragrant smell in the air again. Somebody told me about it; there’s a laboratory here that creates commercial smells: odorants, aromas. The air is always full of fragrances. It’s the smell of fruity jam today. Another day, it’ll be a different smell, a more subtle thing you can’t identify, a component of a popular smell – not unpleasant, just odd. The fragrance of fruity jam, which strikes the nose when I open a new jar, is  a ‘replacement aroma’ created under laboratory conditions by chemists.

The manufactured smell is a chemical compound designed to trigger an olfactory experience. I’ll react in the same way even though the smell/aroma/fragrance is completely artificial. I fall into the ready-to-purchase mode – mind is saying, yes, yes, yes, get it, own it, have it… the familiarity of the smell is all that it takes. A perfect example of the Buddha’s Paticcasamuppada, the chain reaction of consciousness (dependent origination). The wonderful smell of bread from the bakery section in the supermarket. I’m drawn to it because of the aroma even though there’s no baker’s oven in a supermarket. I know it’s an illusion, but still respond to it as if it were real.

The artificial smell starts a sequence of mini events in the mind instantly when it makes contact (phassa) with the memory/ recognition/ acceptance, and there’s feeling (vedana). As soon that point is reached there’s the craving for it (tanha). I experience a state of wanting, a kind of greed, (upadana) and it’s very likely that I’ll go into the ‘bakery’ just to take a look, caught by the nose… it’s not real, it’s a chemical compound pumped into the air or sprayed somehow inside the bakery section.

Airline food served at 600 mph, and an altitude 38,000 feet; an exotic olfactory experience of roast potatoes, beef, onions, cheeses, French cognac, a hint of cigar smoke, ground coffee, crème caramel, port, liqueur. And we are served sad-looking pre-heated food… a bit disappointing. Do they really expect us to not see through this? But I think that’s part of it; somehow we’re satisfied with the illusion, a puff or a spray that releases the manufactured odorant in the air we inhale. There’s a knowing acceptance of it: “well isn’t it interesting how they can create artificial fragrances these days?” It’s okay to do this. Not only food, there’s the smell of leather upholstery in a new car, that distinctive odor created by chemical processes sneaks into our consciousness and we allow it to happen. All kinds of products, the smell of a new carpet triggers something in the brain, a physiological change and in the mind there’s recognition and the familiarity about it. An acknowledgment of the illusion being part of the whole panorama of illusion we create in our world of perception. The characteristics of the illusion lock into place and it becomes as real as anything or everything else. Does it really matter if it’s artificial… the whole world of perception is artificial.

The bus arrives at the stop and we all get on. It rumbles off down the road into town and the smell of fruity jam is still in the atmosphere, I can smell slight traces, then I get distracted and soon after that I’ve forgotten all about it.

‘Though my view is as spacious as the sky, my actions and respect for cause and effect are as fine as grains of flour.’ [Sogyal Rinpoche]


Summarized from an earlier post titled Fragrant Illusion, written during my time as a teacher of English in banks and offices and small industries in a small town in Switzerland.
Source for header image. Please visit the original page for the interactive version of the image.


14 thoughts on “created fragrances

  1. Interesting. Amazon would do well if they put smell excreters on laptops.
    “Does it really matter if it’s artificial… the whole world of perception is artificial.” That’s all well and good until you put one of those airplane potatoes in your mouth 😉

    • Yes, I know what you mean. I once sat next to someone who works in airline catering and I said it was just reheated food, and she said it was the best they can do (defensively). It got me thinking that if they were to not give us these menu cards with all the 5 star descriptions of what you think you’re going to get, it would be more honest but the whole thing is an illusion after all…

  2. Yeah, smells are amazing things, no?

    They reckon smell was the first of the senses to evolve. The neurons that process it reside largely in the ‘primitive’ parts of the mid-brain and trigger responses in the ’emotional’ sections of the brain stem before the fore-brain develops a conscious awareness of them at all. Well, that’s what neurologists say at least.

    They sure are good at triggering memories. For years after I was in a bad car crash the unexpected smell of petrol could completely do my head in.

    Does it really matter if it’s artificial… the whole world of perception is artificial.

    Yeah, it does matter.

    Even if you’re OK with the fact that it’s another deliberately calculated deception by marketers aimed at bypassing your critical faculties in order to manipulate your behaviour there’s the fact that the majority of artificial odours are products of the petrochemical industry.

    Our responses to smells have evolved over millennia to attract us to things that will likely benefit us and repel us from things that may harm us. Artificial odours not only seek to confound that survival response (and are probably a big part of the reason so many of us eat unhealthily these days) but are themselves often novel chemicals which the human body is poorly adapted to. How many artificial colours, flavours and odours have been found to be carcinogenic, teratogenic or neurotoxic only after decades of exposure to millions of people?

    I don’t subscribe to the simplistic notion that natural = good. But I do think that anything humans haven’t spent many generations adapting to should be treated with suspicion.

    • Yes smells are amazing, sometimes when I’m mixing with the population here and the packed density of human beings that you get which they don’t seem to mind but anyway there’s all kinds of things happening to the mind because of sensory ‘contact’, but I’ll get a sniff of something maybe I’ve never smelt before and the mind is dashing through its memory files for the nearest match and all I get is a kind of familiarity… but no identification. It’s really compelling and I’ve been really mesmerised by it. Another one is bad smells like the disinfectant they use in some restaurants, it smells postively volcanic! There’s a panic and you want to get out of there but Indian friends insist you stay. Wow getting used to that one or allowing it to pass is a pretty scary experience. Maybe something like what you are saying about the petrol smells.

      And this was a kind of throwaway line: ‘Does it really matter if it’s artificial… the whole world of perception is artificial.’ I was trying to illustrate how artificial sensory perception of the world was/is and didn’t allow for more detailed experience and harmful physiological stuff, when I should have done, because yeah, it does matter. I tend to not get into the deliberately calculated deception by marketeers’ strings and arrows of outrageous fortune. We eat veg from the market carefully selected etc but we’re still targetted I know. All there is is skilfull avoidance where possible. Jiab wears a mask when we are out in the public area. I don’t but I should. She uses these Dettol hand wipes in a thick packet when we are back in the car and always hands me one to use. But I’m speaking of North India here and all kinds things you inhale are to be treated with suspicion.

      • But I’m speaking of North India here and all kinds things you inhale are to be treated with suspicion.

        Yeah, but a lot of those smells will trigger an appropriate response. There’s good reason to be put off your dinner by the smell of rotting food or open sewers.

        Indian cuisine offers a good example of how even natural odours and flavours can bypass your evolved defences. I’ve heard it claimed that some of the yummiest curries were originally developed to cover the smell and taste of less than fresh ingredients. A lot of people don’t realise that chilli was only introduced from the Americas a few centuries ago. I wonder if Native Americans are any better at detecting bad food camouflaged with strong chilli than the rest of us.

      • It’s true, I’m naturally suspicious of overspiced curried food. I’ve heard it said also, that it masks the taste etc., I heard something about there being qualities that preserve the food in hot weather but of course that’s just another way of saying the same thing. Your example of Native Americans suggests there are physiological characteristics to do with race, genes whatever that makes them either impervious or susceptible to infection or their olifactory ability is aware or unaware of harmful qualities. Jiab gets sick with food sometimes and I don’t, sometimes the other way round…

  3. Nice post!

    This post has sparked a question in me that I would redirect to you, if you don’t mind. Where is freedom in all of this? Is it in realising the fragrance is unreal? Is it in resisting following the stream of consciousness generated by the fragrance? Is it in in watching all of this from a space of equanimity?

    Your views would be highly appreciated!


    • I think if the discovery of neutrality takes place, a sense of freedom arises because we know we’re not bound by the automatice sensory processes. It becomes possible to investigate situations which might have been impossible before the discovery, and it’s here that the practice begins to form. We have freedom to choose and continue to make the right choice – in advanced practitioners it leads to enlightenment…

      • I have just read the next two posts of yours and they are equally worthy of the same comment. As I have fallen behind I still have five more to enjoy. A good moment that prolongs itself. 🙂

      • A little like reading Max Barry’s “Lexicon” (recommended if you have the time and interest) or watching Doctor Who, so not feeling too out of my depth. 🙂 What I did notice is the quite different of writing style from various periods.

      • I’m at the beach using my phone to write this so I’ll go for Dr Who right now and check in google for Max Barry later:) interesting you notice a difference in writing style. The original post was one of the first, I’ve become more minimalist recently

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