I have a cousin who’s a brilliant dog trainer. Years ago he used to train dogs to sniff out drugs and weapons, and he’s shared stories of some of his ride-alongs with cops. A recurring theme was pulling people over who were trying to hide something by wrapping it up in something scented – for instance, marijuana wrapped in coffee. The dogs were never fooled.
“What these people don’t understand,” he told me, “is that one smell doesn’t block another smell for a dog. Their sense of smell is like seeing a whole landscape. Adding something else to the picture – like a balloon – doesn’t change the rest of the landscape. With people, if the coffee smell is stronger than the pot smell, that’s the one we notice. But with dogs it’s like those two smells are side by side.”
I love dogs and I find it fascinating to imagine what it would be like to smell in so many dimensions. Beyond crime applications, research has shown that dogs can be trained to accurately detect certain forms of cancer and even whether or not someone has COVID.
The coffee and cannabis phenomenon popped into my head recently while some negative thoughts and feelings were dominating my awareness. I marveled at how these stressful feelings could effectively eclipse everything else, like the mostly awesome circumstances of my life, the power to choose my perspective, the beautiful world I live in, the gift of being alive and healthy, etc. It was as if the incredible truth were wrapped up with something smelly, and all I could notice was the smelly part.
Becoming free of the pain and limitations of a narrow mind is a lot like learning to smell like a dog. Rather than giving ourselves over to the stink that stands out, we have to stretch our consciousness to perceive the broader landscape of our total experience.
Besides the things that seem to be going wrong, this landscape is full of things that are going right. Beauty. Grace. Kindness. Peace. Friendship. If we include the spiritual dimension in this landscape, it’s a vastly expanded state in which the stinky parts are much less significant. And it becomes clear that, just as coffee doesn’t negate the smell of marijuana, neither do our unpleasant thoughts and feelings negate the truth of being a boundless spirit in the material world.
Meanwhile, dog-like perception can also help us observe the resisted aspects of life with greater depth and detail. When we “widen the aperture” in this way, what we perceive and resist as simply bad can be sensed more holistically. It’s like leaning in to a bad feeling for a better sniff. A variety of olfactory notes are revealed and we learn more. We experience that attraction and repulsion are two sides of the same coin. The intensity dissipates. And the feeling ceases to dominate our awareness.
The two most powerful exercises for developing this landscape-view of life are meditation and mindfulness. In meditation we practice not engaging with the thoughts and feelings that arise. As we watch them come and go, we learn how our attachment and resistance to them is what gives them power. We develop a broader, less reactive awareness. Initially it may feel hard to continuously choose to be the space rather than following our thoughts, but it soon becomes a deliciously restful break from the habit of incessant mentalizing.
In mindfulness practice, much like my description of widening the aperture above, we choose to be with whatever is happening in the present moment. We don’t try to change it, judge it, hold onto it, or get rid of it. Nor do we depart from the here and now into thoughts about anything else. It takes work but yields an incredible return: true peace. The “strong smells” (negative thoughts and feelings) cease to overwhelm us as they take their proper place in the broader landscape of reality.
I encourage you to give it a try for this coming week.