Monday, 25 October 2010

The Ordinary Mind, Perfume and Natural Health

Here's a transcript of a talk I gave recently at the International Federation of Aromatherapists' conference in Tokyo. The audience was made up of Aromatherapists mainly from Japan and Korea and a few from other East Asian countries. I illustrated part of the talk with the beautiful picture that I commissioned from artist Fiona Owen; the centrepiece of which I used for the cover of my book.

Like the little stream
making its way
through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
turn clear and transparent

Ryokan 1758 – 1831

Many of you will recognise this little poem written by one of your greatest and most influential poets over 200 years ago. These simple words capture the nature of the ordinary mind so precisely because the author knows directly from the immediacy of his own experience the health inherent in a simple uncluttered mind. Having ordinary mind is the single most important factor that unites the poetry of Ryokan with that of Baso, Ikyu, Bankei and Hakuin. The old Zen master Rinzai hoping to provoke the arising of ordinary mind in his monks and nuns asks ‘going in and out of the gates of your face is a person of no ranks or title, who is it?’

We have been called the therapy generation. Therapy has become a huge, multinational, multibillion dollar industry driven, in part by hypochondria. Many of us have learned to hate our body image. Even teenage girls are having cosmetic surgery. We loathe ourselves, and our low self esteem can make us obsess neurotically about our symptoms. New Age pop psychology promises to deliver a bigger, better, spiritual, cosmic ME. Some of us look back to the past hoping to find some obscure tradition that will deliver us from ourselves. The more ancient and secret the better and preferably only practised by a spiritual elite who develop special powers and understand the secrets of the universe.

Having worked with children who were victims of extreme abuse I have some understanding about the necessary establishment of safety, trust and care before any therapy could possibly begin to help. These children as adults often carry deep scars which undermine their ability to have healthy relationships. Sadly, some of these people whose childhood was brutally cut short and their sense of wonder robbed along with their innocence will turn from victim to perpetrator and the unresolved issues will pass down to the next generation.

So let us be clear there is a very serious need for therapy and effective legal structures to contain these dysfunctional splits. Many communities are fragmenting due to anti social behaviour in all post industrial societies and most pre-industrial ones too. Consumerism is raging out of control in our obsession with growth to the point that we may be threatened with extinction. Everything is measured by money and we desperately need to factor in a sense of wellbeing to compliment economic data. If consumerism could deliver wellbeing the richest people would be the happiest and most contented but they are clearly not. So let us now look at where health may lie and how we might connect with it.

The obsessive self concern of the therapy generation is likely a major cause of being unwell. Further, the more self centred we are the more isolated we feel. I propose trying to re-connect to that sense of wonder that we all knew as children and one way of doing this is through our relationship with the natural world via plants. Plants roots absorb nutrients and water from the soil and the chlorophyll present in their cells absorbs light and heat energy from the sun and converts it into chemical energy. When we eat plants our bodies break them down through mechanical and chemical processes to absorb the complex array of vitamins and minerals needed to maintain health. So plants transform the goodness in the earth making it available to us and we in turn break them down into constituents that support health and consciousness. So we are really not separate from the earth at all. How amazing is that?

Here is a painting which I commissioned because I wanted something visual to portray an amazing story that I am going to tell. Have you ever wondered which creature has the most highly developed sense of smell on our lovely little planet? The answer to my question is the moth by a mile. Actually six miles would be more accurate; being the distance that some moths can smell a single bloom from. These white flowers shown in the central panel are entirely dependent on the moth for pollination, which is why they release their scent at night. It also seems that the plant deliberately drains chemicals from its petals to make them white so as to reflect the light of the moon and stars to further help the moth to find them. It’s beautiful isn’t it?

I can honestly say that sometimes when I am working with some of my absolutes or concretes I experience the same kind of wonder that I get from lying on my back and looking up at the stars on a clear night. Gratitude arises naturally and we should be so grateful for the gift of life and simply for being able to witness creation. Wilderness is restorative and we should spend time in wild places but a lovingly created garden says something about the relationship between nature and human consciousness that transcends both. Such a garden is heaven on earth and working in one becomes contemplative activity.

The word perfume is derived from the Latin per fumen, which in English means ‘through smoke’ this tells us that the earliest use of perfume was as incense. This tree in the twelve o’clock position is a cedar of Lebanon and it was the most highly prized incense used in the early hierarchic city states of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. What made the perfume industry possible in Europe was the domestication of the camel. This meant that early Arabian traders could bring their precious aromatic gifts across the desert to Alexandria in North Africa. At this time the Italians had the best trading relationship with the city and for this reason alone the European perfume industry began in Italy.

This trade went on until 1498 when a Portuguese mariner called Vasco da Gama arrived back in Lisbon after returning from India having discovered that it was possible to sail under Africa. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Japan in the 15th Century and if you look at your paintings of the time the artists make them look like little white devils.

Once it was discovered that Vasco da Gama had brought back nutmegs, benzoin, cinnamon and other aromatic spices from India the Italian stock exchange of the time collapsed and the navy was sent to engage the Portuguese. The battle took place in the Indian Ocean and the Portuguese victory was swift and decisive. The consequence of this was a shift in the focus of the perfume industry from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic where it remains to this day. Four centuries of wars followed as the European seafaring nations expanding Empires sought the wealth to be had from far flung corners of the globe. Natural aromatics were a huge part of these riches.

There are many more stories hiding in this picture and we don’t have time to tell them all now so I would like to show you these botanical images around the outside of the picture. They represent the eight kinds of plant materials that we use to extract essential oils. Concretes and absolutes are the closest we can get to the aroma of the donor plant so these are the best materials for use in natural perfumery. There are many herbal absolutes and they smell quite different from essential oils extracted from the same species by steam. For example I would never use thyme oil in a fragrance because it is simply too aggressive but thyme absolute is like bottled Mediterranean sunshine and reminds me of Greek Islands, honey and beeswax.

The difficulty of using absolutes is measuring them accurately because many are completely solid at room temperature. However, they are soluble in alcohol and I make up strong tinctures called extraits in specially prepared alcohol which are then aged for several months before they are ready for use. In this form they can be measured down to 1/200 of 1ml. Standardisation of aromatic raw materials is crucial. We also need a methodology, to be able to measure precisely and to keep meticulous records of our blending.

The most interesting part of perfumery for me is making one off bespoke fragrances for individual clients. It is an interesting process for the client too, as we explore a range of sixty natural aromas together and decide which ones are suitable for their fragrance. I believe that this will become a growth area in perfumery and is an area in which big brands will be unable to compete with Artisan perfumers.

Training and using our noses is very important in perfumery but it is also a way of being intimate with oneself. The experience of really smelling something with awareness and enquiry is meditative. Our mind becomes still as the sensation is felt in non rational parts of the mind. Zen master Dogen’s shikantaza ‘just sitting’ meditation method is a practice of bodily awareness. The effective use of the method entails shifting ones awareness away from the stream of thought and placing it in the body. The method works because the body is always present whereas the mind hops around like the hare in the moon. Once the mediation is established the body mind harmonises and like Ryokan in his poem we may turn clear and transparent. We should aspire to practice perfumery just like that.

The ordinary mind is not something we create it is something that we already have but it is covered over by our self centeredness and our ceaseless striving. We should cultivate gratitude and wonder because both diminish self centeredness and that leads to contentment. If we slow down enough we become present. When we are truly here the self, which is forever lost in past and future dissolves and we know if only for a moment the health of the ordinary mind.