As an aromatherapy practitioner, I am always drawn to the why and how of this ancient practice. History reveals a story of civilizations holding aromatic oils as precious substances to be used for the special and sacred occasions in life both as a means to celebrate the event and honor the bigger, holistic picture of the moment. Prayer, rites of passage, sacred ceremony, holy rites, for love, for the sweet passage to the beyond and to comfort the bereaved. This is the history of aromatherapy. Before the oils we know today were put drop by drop under the microscope to prove their efficacy in addressing a wide range of psycho/emotional complaints, the ancients took note of how the smoke and oil of aromatic substances altered their emotional and sometimes physical world. Much of this was noticed during moments in prayer, meditation, and quiet contemplation – in conversation with the self and Divine.
Veteran aromatherapist and author Valerie Ann Worwood writes in Aromatherapy for the Soul, “When, in the Bible, Aaron burned incense every morning and evening, it was not to create two little pockets of “spiritual experience” within the day. Aaron felt the spirit all day long. He burned incense to concentrate his mind on the subject….” (1999)
Spiritual experience. Connection with insight and the greater truths of ourselves, of the collective, of Heaven. The maps and how-to manuals have certainly become a commodity in today’s New Age world. Many of us at one time or another have desired step-by-step instructions on how to achieve enlightenment at best or numbing escape from challenging life situations, at worst. Reading lists, the right oils, the right stones and candles, the right classes, programs, and instructors or perhaps even addiction to substances or other self-destructive behavior. There is a desire to know, to find the doors of Heaven in our mind, but maybe we have “too much Heaven on our minds.”* Why the rush? The craze? It may be safe to say the why and how elude us here, if we are in a hurry. Or are understood, as perhaps Aaron understood them, holistically.
As I wrap up the Aromatherapy for The Chakra series with focus on the third eye and crown chakras, I invited my friend, Portland-based Psychotherapist, author, and poet, Philip Kenney for a brief conversation on the topic, in a roundabout way. As usual, I have included my aromatherapy suggestions at the end. I hope you enjoy what’s here.
Erin: Mathematician and philosopher René Descartes is credited with attributing the pineal gland, which is primarily associated with our energetic third eye, or 6th chakra, as the “seat of the soul.” From a psychological perspective, what does this mean to you?
Phil: I think it represents the efforts of 17th and 18th century religious and scientific communities to locate and prove a place, a home for the soul. They sought to make soul subject to the spacial and temporal laws of the material world. To my way of thinking, this limits the wild and mysterious nature of soulfulness.
The problem, I think, like a lot of problems we get into, is trying to assign the soul to the body: to the material world. It certainly needs the body to manifest particular qualities, but it is not of the body. In that light, the chakras and the location of each chakra in the body, are relevant as receptors and transformers of energy into the uniquely personal world of an individual, but they do not define the boundaries of soul. The psychological analogy would be the relationship between the unconscious mind and the brain. Unconscious material circulates continuously, but it only becomes known intermittently. And that is the beauty of it. That is what humbles us to surrender our misguided sense of ownership and prepare to get out of the way and listen. Another way of saying this is that the soul, like everything, is not a discreet entity, but a dynamic relational system. If we have to name something as the “seat of the soul”, I much prefer this vision of soul from the 18th century German poet and mystic, Novalis.
The seat of the soul is where the inner world
and the outer world meet. Where they overlap,
it is in every point of the overlap.
This representation of soul as a meeting appeals to me. It is relational, dynamic and not fixed to any one point. A blending of inner and outer elements. We are coming upon new imaginings of self and soul. What Novalis said reminds me of what many in psychology, philosophy and neurology are coming to when they speak of an “environmental self.” Thinking environmentally helps to see the notion of soul as a meeting: a merging and emerging of any number of elements of inner life and outer life. A grand collaboration, an overlap. I think this is especially true of creative work, where the muse, an artist’s unconscious receptors and the human brain unite to make something new that reflects the beauty and complexity that is soulfulness.
I’m wondering, Erin, is what I’ve said relevant to how you make olfactory art?
Erin: Beautifully expressed, Phil. Your thoughts make me pause and wonder about our holistic relationship with ourselves and the combination of inherited or personally cultivated daily practices that come as a result of this relationship.
As it relates to my practice of creating aromatherapy, or as you put it, “olfactory art,” yes, your points resonate. I suppose I’m in two places simultaneously when I’m working with essential oils to create an experience for someone: first, in the mind of a practitioner rooted in the scientific study of aromatherapy; and in the heart of an artist whose medium is natural fragrance. A deep desire for truth and grace connects me to both places in my cognizant, subconscious, and unconscious selves at once, and it’s in this overlap where I am led to insight I feel we are most comfortable calling intuition. And it’s here in this place where my world in that moment comes into focus. Which leads me to my next question.
Intuition and the third eye. A cursory Google search on the third eye leads us to all kinds of material from the traditional yogic to the New Age fringe as it relates to intuition and how to develop it by cultivating balance and an openness in this energy center through diet, yoga, meditation, essential oils, herbs, and other products and practices. It’s a hot topic with a lot of answers in the New Age market. I’m reminded of a passage in your book, The Writer’s Crucible, “Nothing attracts the interest of the not-good-enough-self like answers and solutions.”
What’s at work here?
Phil: James Baldwin and Ernest Becker and many others have noted over the years, we don’t want to face ourselves. We are afraid. And for good reason: life, the universe and everything can be, to say the least, overwhelming. There is much we the people have not faced, collectively and individually, and many popular forms of spiritual practices suggest we don’t have to. But we do, because otherwise the way is cluttered with unprocessed emotional debris. We find lots of leap-frogging and spiritual by-passing of these traumatic states. Lots of crafting ancient wisdom into intoxicating abstractions that actually interfere with the reception of flow that is the mystery of life and creativity.
Genuine intuition and vision are not the stuff of our making. They emerge from the relational space your first question addressed, not from our clever minds. Joanna Macy, the Buddhist scholar, calls that phenomenon, “dependent co-arising,” which suggests the reciprocal nature of our relationship with life, creativity and soul. Whether we are talking creative inspiration or scientific insight, openings of intuition and inspiration feel spontaneous, but more often than not, they arrive unexpected after much hard work, struggle and, yes, failure. They can occur stepping up into a bus, or simply standing in the shower. The description you gave us of your process working with essential oils is beautiful. It highlights the work that went into the study of aromatherapy and the willingness/desire to sit with the many elements under consideration. This is not a simple process, is it?
The not-good-enough-self can’t tolerate this. It is too busy hurrying to secure its own validation. It’s like the birds in my garden flocking to the suet, hurriedly feeding and then taking off for the next snack. The “hungry ghost,” as some have named the not-good-enough-self, finds this intolerable because it believes it can only find worth by claiming success for itself. Therefore, painful constrictions must be circumvented, and spiritual truths abstracted so that they can be easily adopted and available to fortify the self. This the psycho-spiritual dilemma of our time. An old Zen saying says that satori can be had a in a flash, but enlightenment takes thirty years. In other words, a long time. Struggle, failure and surrender are essential elements in this work because it seems then, and only then, the mind will get out of the way. And getting out of the way is the necessary aspect of the work that allows intuition and the wisdom of the chakras to enter our inner world and begin the process of alchemy and transformation.
Aromatherapy for the Third Eye and Crown Chakras
(Boswellia sacra or Boswellia carterri)
“Whenever we have allowed ourselves to become oppressed by the mundane and tied to the past – indeed, restricted or weighed down by any form of over-attachment, frankincense can help us to break free,” Peter Holmes writes of this most sacred and holy botanicals in Aromatica: A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics (2019). But note, there is a difference between bored and oppressed. Truly, many an insightful and intuitive moment has been coaxed out by the steady hum and rhythm of seemingly mundane routine.
Frankincense is noted by Holmes to possibly help increase prefrontal cortex functioning, assisting in sharpening focus, while encouraging forethought, impulse control, organization, judgement, and other functions governed by this area of the brain.
Breathing in the vapors of frankincense, one might feel the weight of a gentle, reassuring anchor tethering them to earth while the mind grows clear and unencumbered by the clutter of so much unnecessary mental chatter and distractions. It’s in this steady, supported state when maybe we gain a better understanding and appreciation of wisdom born from the greater lessons of our personal histories.
Wisdom. A vision that honors and integrates kaleidoscopic truths about the self and the collective of humanity, just as it is. Holmes writes of jasmine, “Creating a temporary cocoon around the wounded self, jasmine will help the process of resolving an acute negative experience in all safety and security. In the healing process, emotions will begin to stabilize, and aspects of the self will become more integrated.”
The trick is, we can’t run away from what we don’t wish to know, accept, and integrate. We can’t bypass these less than truths on our way to bliss. Bliss is acceptance of all. This is the work of the crown chakra.
Jasmine’s therapeutic terrain is mostly emotional. Holmes notes the sweet, full-bodied, scent of this delicate white bloom may help to reduce deep limbic and cingulate gyrus hyperfunctioning, helping to promote a sense of emotional security, a sense of safety in exploring and integrating all aspects of the self without judgement, and a sense of euphoria when one might naturally gravitate toward more shame-based and pessimistic thinking. Jasmine may also help create a sense of gentle but powerful support during times of shock or trauma.
My heartfelt thanks to Phil Kenney for contributing to the Aroma Journal. Please consider his book, The Writer’s Crucible: Meditations of Emotion, Being, and Creativity.
Other resources, Aromatica: A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics, vol 2, by Peter Holmes
Aromatherapy for the Soul, by Valerie Ann Worwood
As always, writing on this blog is for inspirational or educational purposes only and is not FDA approved nor is it intended to diagnose, treat, or mitigate physical or mental health illness. Please see your physician and/or qualified mental health practitioner for chronic concerns.
*Heaven on Their Minds, song by Andrew Lloyd Weber