The Practice of Aromatic Alchemy
by David Crow
When we approach an essential oil with concentration and mindfulness it begins to reveal hidden dimensions of beauty, power and intelligence that are not ordinarily noticed. As we integrate these new perceptions into a greater awareness of our own physiological reactions to the plant’s essence, we begin to understand how we are deeply connected to all of life, specifically to the photosynthetic beings that give us nourishment and medicines. By exploring this biological unity through our own senses, we come to realize directly that the processes of life occurring in and around us are truly the expressions and manifestations of an underlying miraculous and profound consciousness, as so eloquently described by the language of Ayurveda. For that reason, we call this practice "Aromatic Alchemy".
There are two basic ways to use essential oils with meditation practice. The first is to use the oils to enhance meditative states, and the second is to use meditation to study the oils. In this program we use both these approaches, both separately and together.All of our senses can be used to support meditation, contemplation, and concentration. Music and mantra are used to relax and focus the mind and uplift consciousness through the sense of hearing. Inner visualization and concentration on external symbols use our visual sense. Massage, acupuncture, yoga and other physical therapies utilizing the sense of touch have always played an important role in supporting spiritual practice. Diet, herbs and the sense of taste play crucial roles in helping nourish our meditation practice.
The use of fragrance in meditation, contemplation and devotional practices is widespread in the form of incense and altar offerings. Many of the "sacred scents" such as frankincense, sandalwood, palo santo and agarwood that are used routinely in ceremonies and rituals now have documented research confirming their psychoactive properties as antidepressants, anxiolytics (anti-anxiety) and general mood enhancers.
However, the use of specific fragrances to enhance meditation and concentration is, in my opinion, underutilized. Because of the links among olfaction, the limbic system and awareness, when botanical aromatics are used consciously and deliberately to support meditation practice their effects become more powerful than when used superficially as a background fragrance. Likewise, a contemplative approach that reveals the inner dimensions of the plant consciousness responsible for creating the aromatic compounds is also lacking in most aromatherapy programs. Therefore, a meditation retreat that encourages us to become focused and attentive allows the mind to concentrate more deeply and thereby learn about the hidden dimensions within sensory phenomenon more effectively. This is how we use meditation to study botanical aromatic medicines.
The basic philosophy of this system of meditations and teachings is that there exists a biological unity and interrelatedness between the influences of sun and moon and the pranic intelligence of plants; the pranic intelligence of plants and their metabolism of environmental elements; the elements of the environment and the production of aromatic molecules within the plants; aromatic molecules and the human respiratory system; the respiratory system and the olfactory pathways; and the olfactory pathways and perception of fragrance within consciousness.
In other words, when we smell a botanical fragrance with deep concentration we are able to gradually perceive all these levels, because they are all present in the oil, both as molecular compounds and the cosmological energies they convey. In this way we can study not only the fragrance and its therapeutic effects but also the underlying elemental influences that were metabolized by the intelligence of the plant; ultimately, we can come face to face with the botanical intelligence itself. Through this practice of contemplative aromatherapy we can develop an understanding of how human consciousness is inseparable from the processes of life within the biosphere and the greater cosmos.