Saints, Sages and Ordinary People and Their Encounters with Aromatic Plants

An Invitation to Read: SEVEN SCENTS: Healing and the Aromatic Imagination by Dorothy Abram

     SEVEN SCENTS: Healing and the Aromatic Imagination is an invitation to enter the lives of individuals who have been transformed through their interaction with sacred fragrant plants.  I examine the historical lives of saints, sages, and ordinary people whose encounter with aromatic plants provided the means and method to heal the crisis of a divided mind.  Just as smell retrieves memories from the distant past, the power of the aromatic imagination constructs reality in the present.

The book begins by studying the origins of the repression of scent as an authentic source of knowing in Western society.  The consequences of that rejection for identity are tremendous: we live with this loss.  Echoing Western philosophy from Plato onwards, Freud claimed that, in fact, the evolutionary repression of the sense of smell was a necessary act that initiated our humanness.  Freud explained that by renouncing a four-footed stance in favor of a two-footed posture (that prioritized vision as the dominant sense for survival), humans repressed the sense of smell.

This profound absence continues to leave its trace in our lives today.  Yet, the sense of smell cannot be rejected in our pursuit of human wholeness. Questioning the emotional costs of such an act for contemporary society, this book proposes that reclaiming an aromatic imagination has the potential to heal this fundamental division in the senses.  Paying particular attention to the socio-economic setting that promotes such divisions within, this book seeks to locate and to elucidate the necessary attributes of an aromatic imagination.  Fragrant plants appear in cultural and historical settings worldwide and at various historical moments whereby we may pay witness to the power of reclaiming scent for contemporary consciousness.

Beyond theory, we must consider the lives and cultures that demonstrate the power of the aromatic imagination for what they may teach us.  In this way, we witness its power to unify and heal.  I examine seven fragrant plants and the people whose lives were transformed through their engagement with these fragrant sources.  These seven plants include:

  • Sandalwood (Santalum album)
  • Lotus (Nymphaea caerulea)
  • Neem (Azadirahcta indica)
  • Terebinth (Pistacia terebinthus)
  • Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum)
  • Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi)
  • Jasmine (Jasminum officinale)

The chapter on sandalwood tells the story of a female sage in 19th century India who healed a problematic case of madness through her use of fragrant sandalwood.  We would not have known about this powerful aromatic healer had she not entered the life of the mad priest of Kali, Ramakrishna.  Her healing method reminds us that, in addition to the physical upset, illness is a story—a narrative—that is constructed to make sense of experience.  It is the aromatic imagination at work.  The narrative that this female sage offered Ramakrishna enabled him to reform his identity from mad priest to divinely inspired saint.  Because they lived in a culture that honored spiritual insight and religious experience, they were named great teachers and creative geniuses.

The chapter on lotus (blue water lily) examines a traditional biblical narrative from the perspective of shamanism.  This is an unusual framework with which to analyze the book of Job.  The focus on the lotus opens new approaches to understanding that are not available without taking the plant and its meaning in the narrative into account.  In fact, it enables the reader to recognize Job as a shaman; that is, as a healer of humankind who gains his expertise through his successful underworld journey and the power of magical plants.  Analysis of this scented water plant reveals the emotional significance of Job’s journey.

The study of the pungently scented neem tree offers a fascinating inquiry into ambivalent states of mind brought together through interaction, inhalation, and ingestion of the leaves of this sacred tree.  It offers powerful lessons in healing through states of mind that must accompany the botanical cures for true healing today.  Highlighting the smallpox epidemic in India and the goddess called Sitala Mata who was believed to be in charge, neem demonstrates the power of faith to bring about healing.   The aromatic imagination heals the divided mind.

The passage of Abraham’s recuperation under the fragrant terebinth tree in the biblical book of Genesis sets the stage for a new look at the ancient tale and often studied story of the near sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac by the command of his God.  That is how we are often told this story: that the sacrifice was a God-given command to test Abraham’s faith.  However, by looking at the cultural context in which the act was nearly accomplished and by examining the Hebrew words used, the reader comes to a very different understanding that makes sense of this cruel request.  This evidence also demonstrates the quality of consciousness that Abraham achieved under the terebinth tree resulted in a compassionate ending to the episode.

Similarly, the chapter on fragrant tulsi narrates the specific qualities of plant, mind, and action that are required to bring about an altered state that expands consciousness.   Examining a maiden rite still held in India today, this chapter reveals the use of scents to describe emotional states of expression and achievement of unified consciousness.

Spikenard is well-known from the New Testament as the fragrant oil that Mary of Bethany used to “anoint” Jesus’ feet in the gospel of John.  By examining the original Greek text, we discover that Mary’s actions were directed toward Jesus, the man, in a profound and intimate gesture of relaxation and aromatic healing.

The chapter on jasmine examines this fragrant flower for use in healing epilepsy in the 19th century and in aromatherapy today.  In both situations and at both times, the scent of jasmine facilitated the physical control of symptoms and management of the disease.

In addition to their fragrant scents, all of these plants have psychoactive potencies that were employed in the healing practices described in this book.  But, it is the story that accompanies the botanical treatment by which healing is truly secured.  That story is different in each context where it appears.  However, in all the cultures and contexts that I examine in SEVEN SCENTS, the story pays witness to the achievement of a spiritual level of awareness.  That achievement is brought about through inhaling the scents of these sacred plants in a narrative cultural context.    Whereas the individuals in these chapters require healing from a conflict and crisis of consciousness—the divided mind—aromatic healing demonstrates a unification that is witnessed across cultures and historical eras.  This is the aromatic imagination.

Clearly, such diverse origins necessitate the location of a common underlying crisis; something that traces back to the origin of our shared humanity. I propose that the repressed sense of smell may finally have achieved its reappearance and vindication in the aromatic imagination.

We are healed with scent.

Feeling the Way: What Does it Mean to Heal Someone?

long-feelingtheway-c2wIn this blog by Rob Long, author of Feeling the Way, Long examines what healing means and how it applies to our lives. 

 

In my new book ‘Feeling The Way’ I make the bold claim that everybody possesses what is commonly called ‘healing hands’. That means you! What appears in the book is a stripped-back, extremely practical how-to guide, based on insights from over twenty years of my own trial and error in the clinic. I have called what I do ‘Qi Sensitivity Healing’, or QHS for short, and whilst much of it is innovative, it also owes a huge debt to ancient Chinese practices, especially those of the Daoists, those progenitors of Acupuncture, herbal medicine and many other instantly recognizable modalities .

Continue reading

Use it or lose it! A bodyworker’s guide to self-rehabilitation after injury – by Noah Karrasch

Picture of Noah KarraschMany years ago when I first met Susan Findlay, owner/director at NLSSM school of massage in London, she told me she would like me to offer a course on knees.  I responded that I didn’t feel I did good work with knees, but focused on getting better hips and ankles; then knees seemed to get better on their own.  Her response:  “If you’re not comfortable with knees, that’s the course you need to teach!”  At the time I wasn’t pleased with her response but I’ve come to see the value in it since.

I’ve recently given myself an opportunity to test my theories about bodywork much more strongly than I might have liked.  A few days ago I severely injured my right knee… working for several hours on a friend’s cold concrete floor, with lots of kneeling and twisting.  After several hours with just the right twist, I heard a loud ‘pop’ and felt that my knee was very unhappy.  As far as I could self-diagnose, it seemed I’d either damaged my lateral collateral ligament or torn the lateral aspect of the meniscus.  Either way I couldn’t put weight into the knee, couldn’t bend or flex, and couldn’t get comfortable for quite some time.

Anyway, what an amazing opportunity to self-rehabilitate!  And I’m pleased to say it’s working:  48 hours after the initial shock, I was back to about 75% function in that knee, and continuing to feel stronger by the hour.  I think the ‘formula’ that’s working for me gives us all something to think about.  While I can now negotiate lifting myself up a step through that leg and knee, I can’t yet sink through the knee without a great deal of pain, and I don’t see the value of too much pain.

So what’s working?  Why am I getting better, without MRI’s and surgery?  Can we all get better with a bit of self care?  I think we can, but we’ve got to do a bit of work instead of expecting the work to happen to us.

1. I’ve not pushed myself too fast or too far… there’s very little twisting involved, and precious little bending and flexing yet.  On day three there’s finally a bit of flexing and extending the foot on a stair step.  Only gradually should we trust ourselves to give a bit of flexion while still doing most of the lifting work through your arms, if your toes, knees or hips are complaining.  You’ll have a pretty good sense of what’s too much and what’s just right in terms of the paces to put yourself through.  The big toe pushups from my book Meet Your Body remain the single most important piece of work I can recommend to rehabilitate one’s entire deep line, but especially the knee.

Karrasch_Meet-Your-Body_978-1-84819-016-0_colourjpg-web

Meet Your Body by Noah Karrasch – featuring the big toe push up and other exercises for releasing trauma in the body

2. I’m always interested in breathing, or at least in staying relaxed while I work to rehabilitate, and I invite you to look at the same.  Current Heart Rate Variability studies suggest that a great deal of basic health is predicated on remembering to breathe in and out, regularly, approximately 6 times per minute.  This causes a greater HRV which facilitates heart function, strengthens the immune system and reduces inflammation among other wonderful features. When we push too far and too fast, we stop breathing.  It’s that simple.

3. I tend to want to look for longer lines of transmission in my body.  We’ll rehab ourselves faster if we’re as interested in what’s happening in that big toe on that same side foot, and how it relates to what’s going on in our low back, as we are in what the knee itself has to say.  While stretching the big toe hinge by holding onto a table and lifting into the toes, can you also keep your low back back, while stretching your head to the opposite side and looking behind you?  Can you see the value of trying to find lines of holding and getting breath through them to help find that most important holding spot and release and resolve it?

4. Finally, I do subscribe to the ‘use it or lose it’ school of thought.  I’ve seen too many frozen shoulders or creaky knees where patrons told me that it hurt if they moved, so they’d simply quit moving.  Well, how does one expect to get better if one hides from the challenge?  While I can understand the thought process, I can’t condone it.  We must move through pain and fear to get to the other side!  For too many of us too much of what we call debilitating pain is simply fear-based lack of movement into and through a problem spot.  Consider that movement can be seen as oiling rusted hinges throughout the body; they won’t start moving freely right away!  It will take a bit of time and energy to make them work smoothly again.

And so far, this experience of rehabbing a very scary knee injury is bearing me out on these thoughts.  I believe my experience could be duplicated by most of us…those who are serious about getting better, first need to decide to get themselves better.  It seems we’ve become a generation of people who expect others to fix us and take responsibility for us.  A surgery might be easier, but more likely a 4—6 week recovery from a surgery just isn’t as efficient as a 2—3 week recovery from the work one does for oneself… can more of us begin to think this way?  Can we use the simple principle “Use it or lose it” more of the time?  Can we decide to first assess what’s going on in our body, second, remember to keep breath flowing through it, third, slowly ask the body to come back to balance, and last, to keep on keeping on without overdoing?  Such, I think, defines the ability to heal self.

So, the good news:  another learning experience, another healing, another opportunity for me, and possibly you, to practice what I preach.  While I wish we didn’t find ourselves in these situations, I truly believe we can still find our way out of them.  By slowly returning to a regular climbing of stairs, full range of movement through the knee hinge, and general attentiveness to the way we ask our bodies to work, we can heal.  I believe all of us could be inspired to slowly but with purpose, move into and through the pain and fear, and return to function and joy.

Noah Karrasch is a certified Rolfer and licensed massage therapist, and holds a teaching degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia. He teaches core bodywork skills throughout the midwest and also works with the Wren Clinic in East London. Noah has written two books on bodywork: Meet Your Body and Freeing Emotions and Energy Through Myofascial Release.