Life experiences, just like the seasons, always come full circle. Or better yet, full spiral. As the first crocuses and daffodils sprout from the warming earth, I find myself immersed in the most extraordinary and deeply moving rediscovery process. Let me explain...
I trained to become a medical herbalist in Scotland, UK. This four-year degree program was intense (to say the least), but it was so incredibly well-rounded. As part of my training I received extensive education in aromatic medicine, which is the use of essential oils both internally and externally in support of health and wellbeing. Essential oils were, in many respects, another set of tools in the medical herbalist’s tool box, just like our tinctures, infusions, and nourishing foods. This seamless integration, which mirrors the cultures of both the English and French models of Aromatherapy, also carried reverence and respect for the immediate, potent influence essential oils can have in regards to the woes of the human psyche and how this influence reaches to the guts of so much of modern day suffering; how the psyche, our psychology, and the nervous system can influence, exacerbate, and potentiate chronic disease.
Coming Home and Journey into the Unknown
After graduating and becoming a professional member of the prestigious National Institute of Medical Herbalists, I entered into clinical practice in Glasgow, Scotland. During this time, which would last for a period of two years, essential oils stood side by side with the bottles of tinctures and bags of dried herbs in my dispensary. In 2008, after over seven years abroad, I would decide to return to the United States. I knew, and am still experiencing, how the transition of ‘UK medical herbalist’ to ‘US clinical herbalist’ is profound. Although this is a story for another time, I will say that EVERYTHING changed and it has been as if I am constantly relearning how to practice herbalism in the ‘grey area’ of American political, legal, and medical systems.
That being said, it wasn’t until my meeting of Jade Shutes from the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies (who has become a life-line friend and aromatic collaborator), that I came to recognize that essential oils and aromatic medicine were completely missing from my clinical practice. They were even missing from my self-care routines! What was once a deeply integrated aspect of my clinical and self-care modus operandi, my therapeutic rationale, had been left behind in the moors of Scotland.
Epiphanies come with friendships...and copper stills.
My friendship and professional relationship with Jade is the spark that has set my heart aflame in my return to essential oils, aromatherapy, and aromatic medicine. It is like being reunited with lost loves. In fact, for my birthday last year she gifted me with my first copper still and it wasn’t much long after that I distilled my very first hydrosol. It was lemon balm, and it was perfect (I blogged about my experience here).
Since that moment, I have been distilling everything I can get my hands on. Bay laurel, mugwort, tea tree, eucalyptus, spruce, Mexican marigold, New England aster, Abor vitae. For me, distillation is not about ‘what I can use these hydrosols for’ or the accumulation of commodities to flip for profit. No. Aromatic distillation has become a radical act of self-care, a process in which I incorporate stones, tarot, and other reverent symbology from my cultural and spiritual traditions. Distillation is a conversation with the plants, and a profound way to deepen my relationship to them. We have had some incredible conversations, the plants and I, during these distillations…where I have learned to stop the one-way dialog of telling the plants who they are, and instead listen and let them tell me. (Erika will be teaching classes on Aromatic Distillation this year at Sovereignty Herbs and at the Great Lakes Herb Faire).
My reunion with lost loves has also been facilitated by the work of Cathy Skipper and Florian Birkmayer and their integration of Aromatherapy, Alchemy, and Jungian depth psychology. Through their teachings I am learning about how in my journey towards individuation, I go through cycles or spirals that can be tenderly but effectively navigated using the metaphors of the alchemical stages and essential oils for psychic support along the way. In my studies with these two wonderful, brave souls, I am building new relationships not only with my psyche, my Self, but also with the practice of Aromatherapy as a powerful, meaningful, and relevant art. So, not only have I been devouring all that I can read from Carl Jung, Marian Woodman, James Hillman, Robert Bly and the like, I have also been spending intimate time with essential oils as ‘molecules of connectedness’ (as Florian puts it). They are becoming my guides through the depths of my unconscious, my shadow, and the collective. This is ‘holism’ at its core. This is the ecological approach to health and wellbeing that I have been so desperately searching for (and how delightful that it also entails a romantic reunion with Aromatherapy). I encourage anyone who uses essential oils to check out what Cathy and Florian are up to. AromaGnosis. Such an amazing concept.
Straddling a cultural divide
In hindsight, the unforeseen disappearance of essential oils from my life and my clinical practice wasn’t so much that I had ‘forgotten’ about them as it was perhaps a reflection of the culture of aromatherapy and aromatic medicine here in the US. From an ‘outsider’s’ perspective, it is as if there is a gaping wound between the herbalism and aromatherapy communities. There is little to no integration. From the herbal community side of the canyon (in all its heterogeneity), the worldview seems to emanate some distrust for the oils, and definitely for the industry and its multi-level marketing dogma (just like with any gold rush, fanaticism is contagious). I have also heard echoes of fear from my herbal colleagues; some are concerned by how the misuse of these highly concentrated plant extracts are capable of causing so much harm whilst others’ trepidations are simply invoked by an unknown, unfamiliar territory. Adding to this diaspora are issues surrounding lack of sustainability and an assumption that those using essential oils (specifically the general public) have absolutely no relationship with the plants that these essential oils come from. (Click here to read an article I wrote on sustainability and essential oils).
From these types of conversations, it seems to me that the controversy is over Aromatic Medicine (the internal use of essential oils), and those who practice it willy-nilly, rather than with the essential oils themselves. My personal views are that we should not be looking to isolate the public from tools of self-care, but rather should be empowering people through education in their proper, safe use. It is likely worth remembering that we are all right, we are all wrong, and there is no such thing as clear lines in the sand.
However, as an herbalist with over a decade of clinical experience I am becoming fatigued by this rumination, this ‘us versus them’ dialectic. In my opinion the real conversation should not be about the internal use and abuse of essential oils by a lay public, but rather the ‘using essential oils to treat disease’ paradigm. This is biomedical or allopathic in nature; the treatment of symptoms and disease which constitutes the practice of medicine. This approach to essential oils and aromatherapy is not only outside the legal arena for many of us, it is also impregnated by a reductionist and industrialized medical culture wherein there is no active definition of health beyond it being ‘the absence of disease’ (Thank you Florian for pointing this out). This is the paradigm upon which our rapacious American ‘healthcare’ system was built, a system whose dark side can cripple, disenfranchise, marginalize, disempower. It breaks my heart to experience essential oils being pulled into this shadow.
I don’t mean to say that essential oils (whether internal or external) don’t have a role to play in acute, first aid scenarios (I am currently ‘treating’ a case of shingles on my face with that lemon balm hydrosol I distilled). Nor am I saying that there is no place for life-saving allopathic medicine. What I am saying is that ALL of us are missing the point completely when we remove our focus from the holistic (tacky word I know) application of essential oils in support of human health and wellbeing. And what I am learning from my work with Jade Shutes, Cathy Skipper, and Florian Birkmeyer is that this holistic approach is achieved through honoring the essential oils’ prowess at communicating with and supporting the human psyche. It is an approach which acknowledges the profound influence the mind has when it comes to our physical wellbeing. It is an approach that reaches beyond the banal notion of ‘treating disease’.
With the guidance and encouragement of my aforementioned friends and colleagues, I am learning to straddle this perceived chasm between ‘aromatherapy/aromatic medicine’ and ‘herbalism’. And like a spectre in the room, or a fly on the wall, I have been quietly observing the culture of aromatherapy in the United States so that I may get a better feel for its traditions. I am also attempting to contribute in a meaningful way, one of my interests lie in the interpretation and integration of scientific research on essential oils and aromatherapy into clinical practice. (I am currently teaching a webinar series with the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies titled Demystifying Essential Oil Research: An Evidence-based Approach).
I have also spent countless hours in deep, wonderful conversations with my friend and colleague Jade, an individual who has been a A leader in the Aromatherapy community for decades and continues to play a significant role in its growth and evolution. She is also watching the shadow side spread, like hot tar across a green forest. One subject that we continue to return to in our ‘solving the world’s problems’ conversations, is the apparent lack of a therapeutic model or rationale in Aromatherapy outside of this ‘treat symptoms and disease’ approach. Even within this approach, more and more focus is being placed upon chemical components and molecular outcomes in petri dishes and laboratory bred mice. This preclinical genre of scientific research is so far from human reality that it might as well be taking place in a separate universe. In many ways, it is also further prying apart the relationships between the plants and the people using them.
And this is where two roads shall diverge… Jade and I have been scheming something fierce and are working on the creation of a new therapeutic model which draws from the Galenic concept of 4 Humors, Thomsonian energetics, and the Physiomedical tissue state model, along with chemistry, essential oil research, a meaningful understanding of the physiology of the human body, and a deep reverence for aromatic plants and essential oils. We are calling it ‘Experiential Aromatherapy’, and it’s going to be epic! (Click here for more information about the course, live-streaming options, and how to register).
In these blossoming experiences with essential oils, I have come full spiral. There are not words to communicate my gratitude to Jade, Cathy, and Florian and to all of my clients that are experiencing and experimenting with me. It is a mutualistic and community-based endeavor, as perhaps every spiral healing journey should be.
Thanks for listening ~