Aromatic Shamanism – A Manifesto

We have been thinking about writing this article for a while now. It is an open letter to the aromatherapy world about our calling and how we have decided to address the important issue of sustainability of essential oils. It is our manifesto.

I, Cathy, trained in aromatherapy in Lyon, France at L’Ecole Lyonnaise de Plantes Medicinales, as part of my herbal training. I co-authored the book Aromatic Medicine, based on the French aromatherapy model with the director of that school, Patrice de Bonneval, When I came to the US, I co-taught the online class French Aromatherapy, also based on my French training, with Jade Shutes at her then School of Aromatic Studies.
Since then, I have evolved greatly in myself and in my work. This is why I decided to leave the proceeds from the book Aromatic Medicine to the school in Lyon. For the same reason, I ended my collaboration with and removed my classes from what is now The New York School of Aromatic Studies. My work no longer resonates in the mainstream aromatherapy world.

Florian and I have thought long and hard about the sustainability of working with essential oils. I Cathy am an herbalist and field botanist and together we teach intuitive plant communication. A liter or quart of essential oil requires hundreds if not thousands of kilos or pounds of plant matter. If we can connect with the healing resonance of plants without even picking them, how can we justify working with these highly concentrated plant extracts?

Our answer to that question is embodied in our work. We use aroma to work deeply with the psyche. Our sense of smell is the most profound portal into our unconscious psyche. The healing work that we teach at AromaGnosis is a combination of aroma, psychology, plant consciousness, spirituality and personal journeying for healing the mind, emotions, soul and restoring our living connection to the plant world. In short, we work with the unconscious psyche with scent as our guide and for that we have found that essential oils of the proper quality are the most powerful allies.

Perfumed oils and aromatic plants have been used for thousands of years to transform consciousness and expand states of mind. All over the world, complicated and often secret aromatic formulas were at the center of religious ceremonies. The bible has over two hundred references to perfumed oils, incense and aromatic substances that were used for healing the mind, body and soul and connecting to the divine. The Ancient Egyptian myth of creation has the aromatic blue lotus in a central role.

The sense of smell touches the unconscious most directly. All our senses, except our sense of smell, are filtered through a part of the brainstem called the thalamus. The thalamus filters and modulates the sensory input before it enters the cerebral cortex and consciousness. Your ears can focus on a quiet conversation in a noisy place, due to the thalamus. You don’t feel the clothes on your skin right now, due to the thalamus. Your eyes only see what your brain tells them to see, through the thalamus. If the thalamus did not actively filter, we would be overloaded by sensory input.

Our sense of smell is different. Odors travel to the back of the nose where they come into contact with millions of olfactory neurons that connect directly to the limbic system, which is responsible for memory and emotion. Certain scents disrupt the Default Mode Network, which is responsible for our habitual frame of mind. Disrupting this habitual frame of mind is only one way aroma expands consciousness. The way these neurons encode scents is like a melody. Like certain transcendent melodies, certain aromas can give us goosebumps and that numinous sense we are being touched. Aromas reconnect us to ourselves, to Nature, to Spirit, which is why Florian calls them the Molecules of Connectedness.

We don’t just smell with our nose. We have olfactory receptors in every organ. We literally smell with our skin, with our kidneys, with our heart. There are over nine hundred genes in the human genome that encode olfactory receptors. And that is just the family of receptors called Olfactory Receptors (OR). There is another entire family of receptors called Transient Receptor Potential Channels (TRPC), which encode the feeling of coolness of mint and apparent heat of capsaicin and many other as yet to be discovered sensations.
If you think of each receptor as the letter of an imaginary alphabet, imagine what beautiful poetry, what complex ideas you could form with such an alphabet. Our English alphabet pales by comparison. We have, most of us, become completely unconscious of smell. We’ve lost our instinct and our deep connection to the Nature through scent. Yes, some may eloquently talk about beautiful aromas, essential oils or perfumes, but that is an intellectual construct, using language. What if we were still native speakers in the language of scent?
In many spiritual traditions the word for spirit is same as the word for breath and air, e.g. pneuma in ancient Greek, ruach in Hebrew, etc. Even the English word awe carries this between its meaning and its sound. We we say awe is we make a slow, open-mouthed exhale, a spirited breath. The first thing we do when we are born is that we inhale and the last thing we do as we die is exhale. The air we exhale is inhaled by others. Plants turn our exhaled carbon dioxide into oxygen which we in turn need to breathe.
We are connected to all living things through the air we breathe. The air is between and within all of us and forms a giant presence around and within us all, a great spirit that we are all part of. If spirit is air, then the volatile aromatic molecules could be seen as the ‘neurotransmitters’ of this spirit, or messengers within the spirit realm. In Alchemy this is Mercurius, the ever-changing messenger, reconciler of opposites, as hard to capture as a scent or the wind.
Recently, we sat down together and talked about why we work with essential oils and asked ourselves if it is still sustainable to work with essentials oils. We decided that the olfactory work with aroma is one of the most powerful ways of working with plants and at the same time, if we just smell the oils, a little goes a long way. If we just smell the aroma, a bottle of a few milliliters can last for years.
We have committed to only working with aromas by smelling them. To us, this is the most suitable and powerful route and it is sustainable. This means, we make no more products with essential oils. We no longer use them as or teach about their use in cosmetics, healing balms, medicine balls, syrups, massage, etc. If you use the oils in the way we teach, their effect is extremely powerful, and a bottle can last you a lifetime.
How do we choose the oils we work with? We have set up a subsidiary to Aromagnosis, called Cathy’s Attars ( We did this because we realized that in order to work with aromatic plant essences as allies in respectful partnership, we needed the most sacred and alive aromas, whether essential oils, attars or hydrosols. We are constantly searching for the most sacred and alive aromatic oils available.
Only very few oils have this alive quality that the alchemists called ‘viriditas’, or ‘greenness’ and which is required for the oils to speak to our psyche and be our allies. When we finally find a reliable source, we want to share these with our friends and students, so they can work using our approach with the oils best suited for this purpose. These precious oils and attars are allies on the journey of self-realization and transformation. They directly target our limbic system, where we process and store emotions and memories, which helps us transcend habitual, limiting, unconscious mental patterns. We are interested in an oil’s vibration and energetic quality, because it is on this level that we communicate and enter into relationship with the plant.
The oils resonate with our own energetic vibrations and depending on the plant’s biochemical composition, the energy that went into its production and other factors, each oil has its own vibratory signature and unique frequency.
We have committed to only working with oils that we select because they fit the above criteria. Our son Jah Skipper, who is a talented botanist, has joined us at AromaGnosis. One of his roles is to check the sustainability status of all our oils. Because of Jah’s research, we have decided to stop using Palo Santo and Spikenard essential oils, because these plants are at high risk of becoming extinct. We love the power of these oils but being sustainable requires tough choices in our age of man-made rapid climate change, when thousands of species are going extinct every year.
We have also committed to transparency, which is a prerequisite for sustainable sourcing of essential oils. We are committed to transparent relationship with our distillers. We are clear about who they are and why we have chosen them, and we have visited their distilleries. Right now, we only have two such producers. We hope to find more.
Our attars are made in a base of sandalwood essential oil from India. In response to the increasing prices, sustainability issues and limited supply of sandalwood from India, companies in Australia are growing huge plantations of Indian sandalwood, Santalum album, and fast becoming the principal global suppliers. There is a native Australian species of sandalwood, but it is not valued nearly as much. Efforts to increase the number of sandalwood trees and try to fulfill the global demand can be viewed positively, but there are limitations.
We have again thought long and hard about the issue of sandalwood sustainability. We do not think it is appropriate to grow acres and acres of a sacred tree just to produce oil for non-spiritual, unsustainable use i.e. cosmetics, balms, industrially produced perfumes. We need to honor the ancestral, spiritual and traditional use that goes back many thousands of years in India. To me this means that sandalwood essential oil should not be used for the mass market, which is never sustainable and disrespectful to this sacred tree.
We have chosen to build a strong relationship with our Indian distiller. Transparency, trust and communication are extremely important. We commit to educate the essential oil market about sustainability and quality through continued dialogue. He purchases his sandalwood at auctions organized by government of India to address the issues of sustainability. In addition to the high cost and sustainability issues of sandalwood, competition from synthetics have had a severe impact on the traditional attar makers. At the moment many of the traditional distilleries are laying in ruins with cobwebs covering the rows of stills in a community that have been making attars since the time of the Moghul emperors. If we do not continue to communicate with and support authentic Indian attar makers, there will be none left.
For us, it is definitely better to change the way we work with oils, minimize the use of the oils we have to have and cease to support industrially produced oils and unethical selling methods.
We now prefer to call our work Aromatic Shamanism than aromatherapy. The soul of the plant is carried by its scent. We all need to ask ourselves, are we working soulfully?

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