I had my first experience of the power of smell when driving a patient to my college for treatment in the college clinic. This was early on in my training and with the arrogance of all beginners I was sure that this patient was Fire. I gradually became aware of a strong smell coming from my patient next to me in the car. Almost without my thinking too much it set off all sorts of confusing question marks off in my mind, which I tried to dismiss in all the stress of getting my patient to the college in time and preparing myself to treat her. We had to present our patients to the rest of the class, and after confidently saying that I thought she was Fire, I was very surprised to hear most of the class saying that from the way I described her I seemed to be pointing towards Metal. The tutor confirmed this and I realised with a shock that almost unconsciously I had been rejecting the patient’s smell as being the scorched of Fire which I thought it was, and had started to smell instead the Metal smell which became increasingly strong as her nervousness increased. This was a very big lesson for me in really allowing my senses to tell me something which my mind, so fixed on another element, was trying to reject.
As a student, too, I was also made aware of the power of smells, and their ability to point me straight towards one element, when I was standing next to a fellow student as we lined up for an anatomy viva. I did not know who was standing behind me until my nose was assaulted, and this is not too fanciful a description, by a sudden overpowering smell coming from behind me which reminded me strongly of the sharp smell of urine, which we were told was that of the Water element. Without turning round I suddenly realised who must be behind me, because there was only one Water person amongst my fellow students. This was another time in my early training that a smell had so strongly pointed me towards a particular element. I realised that one of the reasons why it was so overpowering a smell was because my fellow student was obviously very nervous, and the strength of the smell coming from him reflected his high state of anxiety.
I have since learnt to recognize Water’s smell in other ways. Sometimes I am suddenly made aware that I sense a source of water in the practice room, and have caught myself looking around to see whether there is a basin of water somewhere or water running from a tap. It is as though the patient from which this watery smell is coming seems almost to be floating in a bath.
A Fire smell, which we call appropriately scorched, is the one with which I am most familiar, because it is my own smell, and we were always encouraged to use our own bodies to familiarize ourselves with our element’s smell. We were told not to use deodorants, and feel under our armpits after some exercise. The familiarity of this smell is what often helps me confirm the diagnosis of the Fire element in a patient. The smell definitely makes me think of something hot.
I have learnt, too, to associate the Wood smell we call rancid with my mother, and in particular with one episode in my early life when she and I had a cabin together as we made our way on a boat to the States (those were the days when boat travel was more frequent than flying!). I remember being very conscious of her smell then, and to my surprise must have retained that memory for all the years since, until a Wood patient reminded me of it again, and for a few moments transported me back to my childhood, so strong are the sensory messages the elements leave with us.
Smells move around us in different ways. A Wood smell rises up towards me quite actively, as though it has an energy within it. On the other hand an Earth smell, which we call fragrant, has a very different effect upon me, making me feel nostalgic, as though returning me to a much earlier time in my life. Its smell is very sweet, like sweetened milk I like to think, and I have always wondered whether there is in me a long-forgotten memory of a time when I was at my mother’s breast drawing milk from her. It is a smell I have often noticed around nursing mothers.
That leaves Metal, the element most concerned about personal hygiene and least likely to relish the unhappy name of rotten which its smell has been given. Metal is always a conundrum. It seeks the highest and the purest, and yet its yang meridian, the
The important thing with learning to develop our senses is that doesn’t just happen by itself but requires practice. We have to train our sense of smell to a greater degree of sensitivity, and the only way to do this is consciously to set out to smell as many things as we can. That means smelling anything and everything, but above all training ourselves deliberately to smell the people we come into contact with, which is not something which is usually considered socially acceptable. When we lean forward to kiss somebody, as more and more people do automatically now, I think we tend deliberately to hold ourselves back from smelling them, as though to do that is to invade their personal space. Of course most people now wear deodorants, as well as often adding to these a distinct perfume. The deodorants are presumably intended to hide a person’s actual smell, and perfumes are meant in some way to complement this smell. I have always assumed that the reason we like certain perfumes is because they unconsciously have a special relationship to our own natural smell, however hidden this relationship may be.
-We were told as students to ask our patients not to use deodorants or perfume before coming for treatment, as this would help us in our diagnosis, but even if our patients are reluctant to do this, a person’s natural smell comes through, particularly when released from under a blanket. This is one of the reasons why it is always good to ask our patients to remove their outer clothing, and I always encourage students to go back into the practice room after a patient has left, crumple up the paper sheet on which the patient lay and then smell it carefully. It is amazing how strongly a person’s smell will adhere to the paper long after the patient has left. This would be good practice for every practitioner to do, and would definitely help keep our sensory organs finely tuned.
A walk in the garden or the country also provides so much opportunity to hone our sense of smell, particularly if you walk round a rose-garden in which strong-smelling roses have just come into bloom. And since the changing seasons are so marked in nature, there is nothing like the smell of rotten leaves and humus underfoot on an autumn day to remind us of the Metal element’s so similar smell.