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The Space Between — Dream Experiments with Scent

AN INTERVIEW OF MICHAELA COSTELLO BY PATRICK KELLY

PART ONE —

WHERE SHOULD WE GO?

“Have you ever been to India? No? Well, we should go there. Like, right now.”

Michaela Costello says this with confident ease, nestled cross-legged on a blue mid-century modern sofa. I’m sitting next to her, sipping herbal tea and trying not to broadcast my skepticism: India? Now? Like, right now?

She adds, “Would you like to go there in the present? We can journey back in time, if that’s what you want.”

I choose the present. It feels more familiar, more comfortable, within reach.

“Okay,” she says. “Then that’s it. We’re going to travel to India. Let’s just do this.” 

She makes it sound so simple—and I’d soon find out, it can be.

Michaela’s practical “waking dream” exercises help people re-establish dream sharing as a common social practice. Her discipline is rooted in ancient shamanic traditions, quantum physics, and contemporary science. We met for an afternoon to share wisdom, to sniff potent, precious oils, and to try an experiment. If we combined the power of scent with her practical dream rituals, what would happen? 

After spending four fascinating hours with Michaela, I’m now convinced I can travel anywhere in dreams. Even while awake.

With a trilogy of oils as our allies—rose, jasmine, and neroli—we went there. To India, and beyond.

PART TWO —

HOW DO WE SMELL AND WHY DO WE DREAM?

Before taking our journey to India with jasmine as our guide, let’s set the stage. 

The broad question set forth in our experiments was this: where do smell and dreams intersect? To learn more about the nuances of these overlapping sensory experiences, we need to take a closer look at the science and magic of both smelling and dreaming.

We know for certain that scent is connected to memory. The experience of a supple rose in full bloom fires synapses to a part of our brain—the limbic system, where both memory and emotions live. One whiff of a fragrance can evoke feelings of comfort, nostalgia, or even disgust. And this varies from person to person. It’s subjective. It’s interior. Yet despite scent’s elusive ephemerality, it is also scientific in its interactions with our brain. It is chemical, even if unpredictably so. But if scent lives or is processed in the limbic system of the brain, is this also where dreams reside? Perhaps—in part.

Michaela teaches us that dreams and our thoughtful experience of them can be more interesting than the contemporary, interpretive undertaking we are used to hearing or reading about. Dreams are much more than a coping mechanism for our waking traumas; more than a “materialistic amalgamation of information that might tell you something about your dark secrets or repressions.” Instead, Michaela offers an active, participatory method by which we can experience deeper layers of reality through our awareness of and ownership of dreaming. Dreaming is not just a system of organizing the subconscious pitter patter of our lived anxieties. There are a million other kinds of dreaming.

“Some dreams are meant to be analyzed,” she says. “But then, what else do you do? Even if we analyze them, if we don’t do anything about it, what’s the point? Without an action plan to draw the energy of the dream into our waking world, we can’t work with them to keep growing and evolving.” To move toward this action-oriented way of dreaming, Michaela says we need to learn to dream while we’re awake.

The real magic in dreaming comes from honoring the dreams we experience by drawing them into this world so we can continue to work with them where we have tangible tools available to us. For example, we can talk about them with our peers and loved ones. We can glean insights and offer a sense of serendipitous play with them. Suppose last night I dreamt of a red bird. Today I might choose to wear all red, and to notice every instance of red that pops into my consciousness. We can follow these “red paths” and see where they lead us. Notice what happens, where we are drawn, and how the magic of the dream creeps into our waking world. It’s an “induction of synchronicity,” according to Michaela.

Which brings us back to scent. Could the similarly elusive, inner magic of perfume be a tool to help bridge the gap between waking and dreaming? If we use a tool like scent mindfully before or during sleep, could this be a cue to move through dreaming more consciously, and through to the waking world thereafter?

With practice, using the methods Michaela teaches, a bridge begins to form between the two worlds of being awake and dreaming. Eventually, our waking consciousness learns a way to transfer into dreaming, whenever we want. The difference between dreaming while awake and being awake while dreaming starts to feel like a more unified experience of consciousness.

“Life doesn’t just start when you’re born and end when you die. It’s a more continuous thing that you can start tapping into both ends of—start really remembering why you’re here and what you’re supposed to be doing.”

As an aside, I found this conversation to be particularly relevant for the period of deep transition I’m experiencing in this season of life. Less than three months ago as of this writing, I wound down my perfume and beauty brand, Sigil. Closing a business after seven years of proverbial blood, sweat, and tears has brought about an ongoing experience of ego death. I’m learning more about my needs and true self in the margins of experiencing such a great loss. Garnering these nuggets of insight with Michaela through our conversation and later experiments felt like timely reminders—to strive daily to tap into a more essential being with consciousness. But even without major life changes to navigate, the fast and easy, actionable concept of dreaming while awake can help elicit increased self-awareness, a feeling of grounded meditation, and a simple appreciation for the joy of being alive—feeling and seeing and smelling in a more acute, embodied way.

Now, back to the experiment.

PART THREE —

INDIAN JASMINE AND A DROP OF GOLD

“Pick a place on or in your body that feels good right now. Even if it’s just one finger, or your ear. Focus on that part of your body and that feeling. With each inhale, you can grow that feeling. You can feel it spreading out, radiating out. You can even visualize it as a light—growing, stretching throughout and outside of your body, growing to surround you. And with each breath, you can grow this light around your body to be bigger and bigger. You smile a little, and even more positive energy flows throughout your body.”

By now I really am glowing. These sensations are not unlike to ones I’ve felt during any other meditative practice. Still, it feels good. But what happens next—as Michaela gets into the more substantive part of the experiment—is much more unusual.

“Okay, now try this. Put your feet on the ground, and with your eyes closed, we’ll do this a couple of times. Stand up, and then sit down.”
I do so.

“Now stand up again, a little bit slower, and just become more aware of all the muscles you are using to stand up, how everything feels different when you stand up versus when you are sitting down.”

I do notice this. The sensations are different. The muscles engage. The body moves through my experience of the world around me, through physical space. But it’s about to get trippy.

“Now that you’re sitting again, I want you to stand back up. But with your mind. You can stand up in your energy body, and notice that it feels very distinctly like standing up in your waking body. Notice how your feet feel on the carpet. And then walk off of the carpet and notice the difference in the texture of the wood floor. The difference in temperature. You might even reach down and touch the floor with a finger. You can walk to any room of the house you are familiar with. You might even run your hands against the walls and feel the texture. Compare the texture of the glass window and the blinds.”

I feel all these things. They are identical to how I remember them in my physical body.

“Notice how available this energy body is for you to use right now. Notice how you see your toes when you ask them to wiggle. Rub your eyes. Feel them. And notice the sound of the birds taking us into the other world, because these birds could be anywhere, and in any time.”

Next comes the drum. A deer skin drum, beautiful and sparse and primal.She plays the drum for three, maybe four minutes. A slow hum, a deep vibration you can feel across your whole body.

“Let whatever image surfaces come into your mind. Just let it come. You don’t have to judge it and you don’t have to try to change it. You can move around in it. You can explore it. You can induce movement with it or walk over there to do this, or touch that. Just let whatever comes, come. You can leave the inner critic at the door.”

The dream happens. And it feels like just that—a whole dream, but within my grasp to encounter fully and interpret, or to just experience for its own sake, or even to steer.  

Michaela wafts rich, jasmine absolute under my nostrils while I’m dreaming. The intensity of the drum combined with the heady, rich scent of the white blossoms lulls me to a narcotic state of near ecstasy. But still, I am aware.
Additional prompts follow. We are boarding a plane. We are going to India. We are in India. We’re really there. I feel it, I see it. I (especially) smell it. And the rest is left to me to experience on my own.

Straight off the plane, I appear in—I don't know—a factory of some kind, a facility where jasmine is being processed, just thousands of rows of raw blossoms, sitting out, wafting their assault of smell, suffusing every bit of the air with their essence. It feels chaotic, energetically. The scent is frenzied and intense, slapping you in the face with an exquisite, pungent, indolic aroma.

I wander, I touch, I hear the tumult around me. And then, just before I come back—right as the deer skin drum is winding down its soothing drone—I hold my hand under a single forming drop of golden oil, letting it fall from the still and into my palm. And then, I am back.

PART FOUR —

THE SPACE BETWEEN

We journeyed to other places besides India—some too personal to describe here. One was a verdant bitter orange grove in Tunisia, overwhelmingly green, with a wild horse as my guide and a violently gushing river as the soundtrack, wind blowing, feeling free and yet afraid—an energy not dissimilar to the season of quiet chaos I’m steering through in my waking life.

I wondered how it was possible to feel, so frantically, the energy and sensations of these dreams as though they were real, while awake. The phenomenon of the “false reality” of dreaming is usually only experienced once awakening from a dream—sometimes with a gasp, clutching at our throats, or wondering if the snake bite we felt so acutely in our sleep was real or imagined.

The line between the lived and the dreamed was beginning to blur.

“In my experience, the senses are heightened in dreams,” Michaela says. “A lot. Specifically our experiences of pleasure and pain. These sensations are basic. They’re obviously connected to the body—in our experience of our body—but they’re not necessarily reliant on the body, in their fundamental form.”

Basically, as demonstrated by these experiences and experiments, Michaela was demonstrating that emotions—those little firings in the limbic system of our brain, which can be triggered also by scent—exist as vibrations, as a code in the ether.

A “sixth element,” Michaela calls it. This etheric element, according to Michaela, permeates all things, and allows all things to be connected. This is the reason our energetic being can tap into the substance of those seemingly real sensations: visuals, touch, even scent. Like water can move between ice, liquid, and vapor states, the dreaming and waking sensations are interconnected. 

“You can think of any memory, any sensation, as a barcode. It’s unique. It’s like a vibrational wave that exists not physically, and yet does exist. It’s stored in all things everywhere.” 

So then, if we can access this mesmeric, etheric dream state more fluidly, we can tap into any number of those barcodes at any time, and whenever we want. No, this isn’t the metaverse. This is me, sitting in my apartment with a new friend, smelling things and traveling to places I’ve never been. Without drugs.

We can taste exotic flavors across our dreaming and waking life, feel sensations we’ve only imagined. We can walk across the street from our home and notice a wild shoot of soft white poppies that wasn’t there before. It’s a sleight of mind. It’s an access to all things. It’s a waking dream, a being awake while dreaming.

As we wrapped up our experience and time together, I wasn’t totally certain we’d captured any definitive theses through our discussions and undertakings—and that’s okay. Instead, I felt called back into my own being, with a sense of knowing my self at least a bit more than I had that morning.

Michaela left me with a compelling memory. She described an intentional dream journey she engaged in just prior to our meeting, with a thread of the prompt of our experiment: “What is scent?” 

The answer she received was “scent is what gets caught between.” These words were accompanied by an image of dewdrops—of water caught on blades of grass. Her interpretation of the message was this: “It’s about as precise and accurate as it could be in a single sentence.” 

To paraphrase, we know that scent is a chemical sense—it works by allowing molecules from the outside world to interact with a part of the body and bind with it. The olfactory nerve consists of neurons with one end in direct contact with our external world and the other end in direct contact with our being, our brain—specifically the limbic system, as we discussed. This is the only point where our body and our central nervous system are directly exposed to our external environment. This is the space between.

So then, is our experience of scent a bridge between these two worlds of consciousness—waking and dreaming? Could it be a great mediator, used to help more people achieve a state of expanded consciousness, of seamless integration between waking and dreaming? In my experience developing fragrances for over ten years, I have certainly experienced it as a phenomenon that does exist—and that helps facilitate connection—between our inner and outer worlds, concurrently. Scent can create a mood. Just as it inspires one person, it can cause revulsion in another. It can connect us to people and places, to times of struggle and memories of great joy. But does it transcend our etheric and waking being?

“[Scent] is really another vibrational frequency,” Michaela says. “It’s a code that is tied to you, and your memories—including a dream memory. Both the memory and the scent can be broken down into the same form. They’re tied together. When we know this, we can combine and interpret and receive them freely. What you’re smelling is not only the shape of a molecule. It’s also a vibrational frequency. Like a plug, or a puzzle piece. Both the shape and the frequency play a role in detecting the scent. But there are way more shapes than there are available receiver shapes.”

I’m still not sure these esoteric revelations answer any of our questions, or that they reveal a definitive and intrinsic link between scent and dreaming. But, I am interested in exploring more—in discovering these etheric shapes, and in savoring them. Without conclusion. And without posturing or assuming I’ll find any answers. That’s the beauty of dreaming, which we can strive to bring into our waking lives: to notice the absurdity and magic of living; to thoughtfully and actively participate in our experience of this impermanent, beautiful life.

I invite you to try it, too. Take one sniff of your favorite scent, eyes closed. Picture and feel the glimmering spark of a waxy jasmine bloom, or the dance of a poppy’s petal in the summer breeze. Soon you may discover—pleasurably—that these sensations are ones we can conjure at will, while being awake in dreaming, or in dreaming while awake.

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