The stillest point of a seesaw is at its pivoting center.
Meditation is the act of returning consciousness to the stillness at the centre of being.
Meditation techniques are the vessel of focus and attention, like the cup that draws water from the depths of the well; water, in this sense, is conscious experience of being in the moment.
The techniques applied to bring awareness to the moment, the here and now, perhaps following the rhythm of breathing, listening to a sound, focusing on a visual object, even a taste, draw attention to presentness. In truth, life unfolds one moment at time; the past is memory, the future, imagination – ‘now’ is seamless, rich and full of possibility, the fruit and the seed.
Parables and metaphors, images, music, art in its many forms, are employed to express, from the depths of the inner well of holistic experience and awareness, a wordless sense of all that is.
Nature also exists at a meeting point between material and ethereal. Plants, their chemical constituents and their essential oils, demonstrate physical, practical, sensual, and ethereal qualities. They provide nutrients that sustain our physical function, minerals and chemicals that repair and rebuild tissues, and perfumes that attract, repel, protect and aid propagation and survival.
Essential oils alone share with us numerous qualities, from stimulating our sense of taste and smell, to staving infection, aiding digestion, healing tissues and instilling or inspiring feelings that range from earthed to euphoric.
We share a symbiotic and mutualistic relationship with plants, other creatures and microorganisms. Edible plants, at one and the same time, provide food and medicine, so are nourishing and healing. Their chemistry supports our chemistry. We breathe together.
Not all plants are safe to consume; some are toxic and fatally poisonous to us. Yet, in minute amounts, some of the toxic substances found within plants exhibit medicinal and/or psychotropic properties. Although potentially lethal, when applied appropriately some toxic plants induce altered states of consciousness or ‘insight’. Historically, these plants were prescribed and administered by a medicine man or woman, Shaman or physician.
Thus, plants and their derivatives are categorised in terms of their actions as follows:
Plants historically employed for their healing properties include, among many others, aniseed, dill, fennel, frankincense, ginger, peppermint and other herbs, rose, and sandalwood. Healing in this context includes soothing digestive aliments, improving and supporting organ function, circulation, and skin conditions.
Euphoric inducing plants include, among others, (from strong to mild, and used in moderate dose), cannabis, coca, kava, poppy seed, sage (Salvia divinorum), benzoin, clary sage, frankincense, nutmeg, and thyme linolool.
Psychoactive inducing plants, and fungi, include, among others, belladonna, deadly nightshade, henbane, mandrake, and fly agaric mushrooms, and high doses of cannabis, coca, kava, poppy seed, nutmeg, sage (Salvia divinorum), and valerian.
You will notice some essential oil bearing plants among these; for example, benzoin, clary sage, frankincense, nutmeg, thyme linolool, and valarian. The chemical composition of essential oils, however, alters in composition when separated from the whole plant; the process of extraction changes the chemical mixture and qualities of some molecules, and leaves behind non-volatile components – extracted essential oils, thus, comprise only of volatile organic compounds.
Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young confirm, in their book Essential Oils Safety (2014), there are virtually no psychoactive essential oils. Nutmeg essential oil, even when consumed internally in high dose, they assure us, is not psychoactive. They do, however, remind us that nutmeg essential oil, when consumed in high quantity, may procure a euphoric effect, with potential unpleasant side effects, such as, headaches, feelings of nausea and a sense of ‘distance’ and unreality. Clary sage essential oil, another example of a euphoric essential oil, may be unpleasantly potentiated when mixed with alcohol.
What are essential oils?
Once extracted from its mother plant, an essential oil becomes an entity unto itself, comprising of a concentrated mixture of volatile hydrophobic terpene and terpenoid phyto-chemicals.
Some components, due to their high of low boiling point, are lost during the extraction process (for example, steam distillation or solvent extraction). Some components alter during distillation. For example, matricin degrades to form a new molecule, blue-green coloured Chamazulene, which is not present within the plant (chamazulene is found in German Chamomile and Yarrow essential oil) – C02 extracted chamomile German does not create chamazulene and is non-coloured.
To place the concentration of essential oils into perspective:
2,500 to 4,000 kg (5,511 to 8,818 pounds) of rose petals will yield 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of essential oil.
1.4 kg (3lbs) of fresh lavender will yield 15ml (or approximately 300 drops) of lavender essential oil.
One drop of essential oil is equivalent to 15-40 cups of medicinal tea, or up to 10 teaspoons of tincture (Krumbeck 2014).
One drop of peppermint essential oil is equivalent to 26 cups of peppermint tea.
By comparison, the quantity of essential oil found in individual plants is minute; the amount of essential oil consumed when eating herbs or making herb tea is thus very small.
So, a 10ml bottle of essential oil is highly concentrated, very potent and applied very differently than the plant or herb from which it derives.
NB: Essential oils prescribed for internal ingestion by a medically trained healthcare professional, pharmacist, or herbalist (and this is the only context in which oral or rectal ingestion of essential oils should be administered), are always interfused with a fixed vegetable oil and suspended in plant-based (hypromellose) or gelatin (collagen from animal skin or bones) capsules (the former being preferable), and are only administered following a thorough consultation ‘work up’; thus, dose is controlled, safe, and appropriate.
Historical application of essential oils, plants and resins
Herbs, and other essential oil bearing plants, have been applied as medicinal remedies throughout the ages, in the form of skin healing and antiseptic ointments and balms, environmental sanitisers, and as perfumes, mainly:
Essential oils were mainly extracted by soaking plant material in water, animal fat or oil (such as olive oil).
When plant material is macerated in boiling water to create teas, tinctures and tonics, or when it is soaked in animal fat, vegetable oil, or distilled water, the volatile essential oils (along with other volatile and non-volatile phytochemical compounds, for example, flavonoids, chlorophyll, and carotene) are coaxed from their cells and cavities through osmosis, through breakdown of oil-containing cell walls, or simply by being flushed or washed out of cavities. Essential oil molecules thus disperse into and permeate the steeping medium.
Macerated oils, due to the presence of flavonoids and chlorophyll, are often richly coloured (orange, yellow, red, green) ; for example, arnica, carrot, and marigold (calendula).
Mary Magdalene famously anointed Jesus’s feet with perfumed oil of spikenard (or nard) – likely created by steeping the crushed roots of this plant in warm olive oil. Spikenard oil was imported from Asia (India) and was highly prized amongst the wealthy.
Incense derived from resins, such as frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, and from woods and bark, such as cedarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon and cassia, were, and still are, employed in social and religious ceremonies, rites of passage, and rituals.
Dried herbs, among them sage, rosemary, and thyme, were and still are ‘smoked’ or ‘smudged’ into the atmosphere to fumigate, stave the spread of disease, and dispel negative ‘spirits’ (or energies).
In deed, there are numerous references made in historical scriptures and medicinal canons citing the use of essences of woods, resins, herbs, and spices for their hedonistic, medicinal, and spiritual qualities to aid meditation and prayer, relaxation and a sense of feeling grounded and uplifted, to promote a sense of peace, tranquility and spiritual connection, among many other qualities. For example, in the Bible, we find:
The dried resinous exudes of:
Balm of Gilead – a balsam tree, or shrub found historically in Jordon (original biblical origin is uncertain – contenders include: Mastic, Terebinth, Pine, among others). Produces a rare perfume and medicine applied to reduce inflammation, soothe the skin, protect the immune system, eliminate pain, speed healing, soothe the stomach, and detoxify the body.
Frankincense (Boswellia) – a small tree, or shrub found historically in Oman, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, including Somalia and Ethiopia. Regulates and calms breathing, and supports meditation and finding inner tranquility.
Myrrh (Comiphora) – a small thorny tree, or shrub found historically in North Africa and the Middle East. Very difficult to grow. Calming, revitalizing, regulates and calms breathing, supports meditation, and warms emotional coldness.
Benzoin styrax (dried white resin) – large shrubs or small trees found historically found in Sumatra, Indonesia. Nervous tension, sedative, and warming.
Galbanum (white resin, drying to yellow to brown) – hollow stemmed plant found historically in Iran (Persia). Balancing, both sedative and stimulant, calming, eases anxiety, depression and low mood, restorative (nerves), uplifting.
Labdanum (Cistus) – raw resin obtained from boiling leaves and twigs (historically collected from goats beards and sheeps wool – resin attached to fir during grazing from the cistus shrubs) obtained from small Cistus creticus and species of rockrose shrubs found historically in Mediterranean regions. Aids meditation, grounds and centres.
The roots of:
Calamus (Sweet Flag) – tall wetland (grows at edges of ponds, small lakes, rivers, marshes, swamps and wetlands) flowering plant historically found in India, Asia, Southern Russia, and Central Europe. Used historically as an anointing oil. Stimulates and improves brain function, alleviates feelings of fear, bracing and grounding.
Spikenard (Nard) – flowering plant belonging to the valerian family historically found growing in wood in Nepal (Himalayas), China, and India – obtained as a luxury in ancient Egypt, Western Asia and Turkey. Balances sympathetic nervous system with parasympathetic nervous system (tonic to the sympathetic nervous system, regulates the parasympathetic nervous system); calms restlessness; eases anxiety, grounding, inspires a sense of peace and spirituality.
The bark of:
Cassia – an evergreen tree found historically in China, but cultivated in India and other southern and eastern Asian countries. Uplifting and calming.
Cinnamon – an evergreen ‘thick-barked’ tree historically found in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Highly prized by the ancient, and imported to Egypt over 2,000 years ago. Uplifting and calming.
The needles, leaves, roots, wood and bark of:
Cedarwood – a coniferous tree historically found in the northern and western mountains of the Middle East and known as Cedar of Lebanon. Species are diverse, ranging across various botanical families, including Pinaceae, Cupressaceae, and Meliaceae. Aids meditation, calming, instils feeling of peace and sense of connection.
The heart-wood (sawdust and chippings):
Sandalwood (possible cross reference with aloewood, oud, oodh, and agar – oud is a wood-like dark and fragrant resinous substance produced by the agar tree in reaction to parasitic mold infestation). A small heavy tropical tree historically found in South-east Asia, now cultivated in Northern Australia, India, China, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippenes. Aids meditation, calms and harmonises the mind (racing thoughts and mental ‘clutter’)
Santalum album is endangered due to over harvesting. It takes years before the tree produces the essential oil. Santalum spicatum is grown and cultivated in Australia and is now the Sandalwood of ecological choice.
Modern use and application of essential oils
Although traditional and herbal medicine is still applied in many parts of the developing world, essential oils are mainly (95%) produced and consumed by the food, flavour, perfume, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industry.
Apparently, the top ranking essential oils used by these industries include, by highest quantity (between 12,000 and 1,300 tonnes):
Mentha arvensis (Corn mint)
Litsea cubeba (May chang)
How do essential oils work as companions of meditation?
According to Kim et al’s 2016 systematic review of published research on the Influence of Fragrances on Human Psychophysiological Activity:
Inhalation of fragrances has significant effect on brain function due to the ability of fragrance compounds to cross the blood-brain barrier and interact with receptors in the central nervous system; olfactory stimulation of fragrances produces immediate changes in physiological parameters such as blood pressure, muscle tension, pupil dilation, skin temperature, pulse rate and brain activity.
Concluding, they confirm that fragrances directly and/or indirectly affect the psychological and physiological conditions of humans; fragrances significantly modulate the activities of different brain waves and are responsible for various states of the brain (EEG testing); a number of studies scientifically support the beneficial use of various aromatic plants in aromatherapy.
In another study exploring the effect of mindfulness meditation and the psycho-emotional influence of essential oils, Garcia et al (Soto-Vásquez & Alvarado-García 2017) found that, in combination, meditation and essential oils act synergistically to significantly reduce levels of anxiety.
The essential oils applied (Satureja brevicalyx and Satureja boliviana – plants native to Peru) in this study contain a high content of linalool, a phyto-chemical attributed with being ‘uplifting’, among other qualities, which they suggest attributed to the outcome.
They conclude that other essential oils containing linalool may potentially produce a similar effect and suggest, as an example, a blend of Ho wood, geranium and peppermint (peppermint does not contain linalool but in combination these oils create a similar chemical ‘fingerprint’ to the Peruvian oils).
Basil (linalool CT), lavender, neroli and petitgrain also contain high levels of linalool.
Other oils and resins that may support mediation include frankincense, myrrh, patchouli, rose, rosemary, spikenard and vetivert.
For example, Frankincense and patchouli slow and deepen breathing, instilling a sense of peace. Lavender and geranium balance and calm emotion. Rosemary aids memory and concentration. Vetivert is ‘grounding’.
Odour detection draws the perceivers’ awareness to their breathing, to the moment.
“Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart”. Proverbs 27:9
Qualities of essential oils that support meditation
As a very general guide when applying the qualities of essential oils:
The qualities of essential oils are numerous; their scents draw our consciousness into the present moment; they influence our mood and aid concentration; they protect, restore, and revitalise body and soul….gifts of nature to accompany our journey through life and time.