Talking with fragrances©
Aromatherapists seem to have a predilection to novelty and new ideas. Like a stamp or medal collector, something new hits the market and an instant success story is built around the product (for that is what it is in marketing terms). Australia has contributed its fair share of useful novelties. Indeed, I had my own role to play in the ubiquitous Tea Tree rise to fame and my favourite Kunzea. Like Lavender, the former rose to be the cure all and panacea for hair care to medicine whereas the latter has faltered until recent times.
Judged by chemistry, backed by one or two doctors, and encouraged by a commercial world greedy for new outlets fame touches only a relative few essential oils. More modern production concentrates on clonal solutions to chemical reproducibility such as the infamous terpinen4ol type of Tea Tree. European Aromatherapists have long enjoyed the delights of new essential oils. Not so long ago a common joke was that this year we launch E.smithii to save the world next year the galaxy.
Like many therapists, I have a thirst for newness and love all the new materials. No cynicism will stop me from sniffing and buying the latest offer. However, at Fragrant Earth we learned long ago to put quality ahead of speculative advantage. Sure, we promoted the widest range available but we tended to follow the therapy rather than promote the novelty.
The reason for this had to do with the concept of quality. Never one for chemical analysis as I know only too well how this is affected by climate, soil, harvest, process and age of product. I have always promoted the rather supposedly unscientific idea that the dynamics of fragrance detected by humans and animals as a reaction to fragrance as most important. I am not talking about the smell of oxidation or other off odours but rather the effect. For example, menthol smells but, via a non-olfactory route it also provides sensation. Could it be that, just as is only very recently proposed in humans, Jacobson’s organ is an emotion detector, could we yet have a response system as yet undetermined.
If we accept overtones of Eastern medicine into a Western medical context then this is nothing unusual i.e. meridians. It could further suggest that essential oils have wavelength and vibration and that odour detection is more than stereo chemistry. This is often termed subtle energy.
Following this path then the means of growth of the plant and the way it is handled has an effect upon performance. The species of a plant has more natural energy than a clone, the latter inevitably degrading over time. Likewise a hybrid may show vigour as with a mule but lacks the capacity to regenerate. A suitable question would be what is the focus or message of the species? It has a form, a field into which it grows and is therefore more than blind chemistry. It has a way of being directed by an energy. Atoms form the basis of plant life as in everything else and an atom is described as a ‘disturbance in a field of events’.
We might now ask what form does odour enjoy; a cloud, a vertical shaft or a spiral. How do volatile molecules of different weights group themselves when released into space to form a constant odour that permeates an area far beyond the actual space it seems to occupy?
Essential oils when used energetically have individual action or reaction to the terrain or sphere of action required. We can be open to them or not, receive or resist. This makes statistical research as well as replicable results difficult. It does not mean that results are not obtained but rather we can only assess on an individual basis.
At the beginning plants have the means to convert light energy into material form and from this energy all other life follows.
If a molecule is smaller than the proteins etc that make up our skin then it has the capacity to enter the system. Size partly determines then the activity of the molecule and its capacity to either be transformed or to communicate at a cellular level.
The idea of cellular communication flows through our being. We may call it the immune system or identify certain cells at the interface with our environment as skin watchers but they are all communicators. We may delve into our brain and wherever we go we find cellular communication. In our brain an electrical charge follows a dendrite then at the gap, the synapse, a chemical conveys the message. In other words we move from blind chemistry into a world whereby chemicals communicate or think and interact with intelligent cells.
Those who study the chemistry of the brain put forward the idea that neuropeptides, which are rich in the limbic area, the realm of imagination and dream, are true molecules of emotion or feeling. They are communicant chemicals. However such chemicals are found throughout our body not just the brain and especially the skin. The skin rich in receptors and nerve endings is sometimes called our second brain. This clearly has implications for what is applied to the skin and to massage.
How do we then define energy as applied to essential oils? Perhaps we should not try but rather re evaluate what an essential oil is. Let us go beyond the idea that a bunch of chemicals is active because it either kills bugs or stimulates guinea pig muscle. There is a relationship between the expression of the plant (which may be either colour, form or odour) and the recipient of the information (human, animal or insect) via the senses or sensors. The interpretation of the information is individual. Vitality or life force is conveyed by the plant.
Jan Smuts supplied the dictum ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. This is the right definition of holism and if applied to essential oils means we have to look beyond the chemical analysis as an arbiter of quality. If we do that then we are only left with the impact of the odour and this then defines good quality.
If this is hard to grasp then examine the way we buy flowers. Confront in your imagination a choice of flowers in a store. Which bunch do we buy? We look at the aspect of the plant what looks freshest, has good form and vibrant colour. All these choices are visual and when broken down are just photons that vibrate at different wavelengths, which we determine. Somehow we define that x or y flower has a certain life or vitality that makes it better (in our eyes) and so with the nose and essential oils.
The dynamics of a fragrance give a lift almost a light that can be quite stunning. Such essential oils are quite different to the rather nondescript but chemically correct soups that are served up as pure essential oils by most commercial companies caught up in a world of price conscious buying.
Aromatherapy at its best is a world of healing and well being using dynamic, vibrant essential oils. At worst, it is a disinfectant using chemical soup. Certainly essential oil literature often promote essential oils in the same way as orthodox drug therapy i.e. x cures y. Perhaps this way of using what is no more than a green magic bullet to displace a symptom has its origins in the French approach to the use of Aromatics.
A more enlightened view has been taken by some other countries notably the UK. Massage disparaged by some of those associated with so-called scientific aromatherapy has a traditional place alongside aromatic materials. Avicenna in the nursery of aromatic medicine, central Asia, was well familiar with the value of massage and the external use of essential oils. Essential oils taken by mouth traditionally tended to be in their original wrapping , that is as herbs and spices rather than in their concentrated distilled form.
Orthodox medicine is excellent for dealing with traumatic and dramatic events. By its nature and structure it does not do so well at healing or perhaps at preventative medicine. Aromatherapy by its emphasis on touch, care and simple pleasure induces well being which in effect is preventative medicine as much as palliative care.
Care should be taken by the therapist to use materials that express or coincide with their practice. There is a place for a reconstructed material that in effect masquerades as an essential oil if that place is limited to perhaps a stated purpose of bug killing. There is also a place and an increasing one for the authentic yet more difficult to source true essential oil.
The physics of aroma has yet to be explored let alone understood. Popular aromatherapy has spawned a great deal of academic interest in the biology of fragrance and has begun to change our understanding of how we interact with this expression of a plant we call an essential oil which is only a part of the plants fragrant language. Vibration, dynamism, vitality are words that should be applied to the activity of essential oils that have many biological pathways into our system but it is our changed perception or even changed will that forges our health and well being.
Jan Kusmirek October 2006