Essential Oils as Meditation Companions: The Science of Their Use
Essential oils possess numerous qualities that can support and enhance wellness and a sense of well-being. They may improve mental clarity and concentration, instill a sense of feeling calm and uplifted, energized and awake. They are perfect meditation companions.
What Is an Essential Oil?
Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile, odiferous phytochemical derivatives extracted from various parts of certain plants, trees, and shrubs: for example, rhizomes and roots, stems, leaves, flowering heads, seeds, wood (stumps, trunks, heartwood, sawdust), twigs, bark, resin, needles, berries, blossoms, fruit, rind, and grass. Not all plants produce essential oils. According to Tisserand and Young (2014) and Lawrence (1995), there are an estimated 350,000 plant species existent throughout the world, of which just 17,500 (5%) are aromatic. Yet just 400 of these aromatic species surrender essential oils suitable for commercial use. Half of these are specifically cultivated for their essential oil while others are grown, managed, and harvested in the wild. Many essential oils are produced as a by-product of industry (for example, citrus oils are produced for the food, manufacturing, and perfume industries).
How Does the Brain Respond to Essential Oils?
The brain is responsive to external sensory input and neurological stimulation and facilitates internal homeostasis, environmental awareness, consciousness of a deeper sense of being, and relationships with other people and the external world. Fragrance detection triggers numerous neurological, physiological, emotional, and hedonistic responses at the same time, which are difficult to disentangle. While it may be difficult to prove or explain specifically how essential oils affect the brain, numerous studies demonstrate that their vaporizing odorous molecules do instigate neurological responses that appear to affect mood, emotion, memory, concentration, and cognition (either via inhalation or circulatory absorption), even if this influence is temporary.
Studies using animals, such as mice, although ethically controversial, eliminate many potentially influential subjective psycho-emotional variables when exploring the basic physiological and behavioral effects of essential oils, and provide very useful indications. However, these studies do not completely reflect the real complexities of true life scenarios when applied to humans, where the idiosyncratic psycho-emotional and hedonistic responses to essential oils contribute to the outcome of their actions--and/or, for that matter, conversely, the complex influence essential oils actually have on the individual’s psyche, cognition, and physiological function.
Odor memory is more tenacious than other senses (sight, sound, touch, hearing). Memory is reinforced, enhanced, and may last or linger longer where multiple sensory stimulation occurs at the same time, especially when less consciously controlled cognitive processes, which do not involve judgment, deliberation, reasoning, or rational evaluation, are being performed--for example, creative tasks, learning performing by rote, etc. (this works the same for negative and positive experiences). Thus, activities such as massage, meditation, visualization, or relaxation techniques may be positively enhanced and experientially memorably reinforced when complementary essential oils are vaporized at the same time. Herz et al (2000) applied odor in connection with pleasant and unpleasant circumstances to examine the effect of odor on memory, finding that “memories elicited by odors are more emotionally potent than memories evoked by other sensory stimuli, and when salient emotion is experienced during odor exposure, the effectiveness of an odor memory cue is enhanced.” Pitman (2000) exploited this salient connection between odor and memory to help hyperactive children manage their restlessness, using visualization and self-massage during exposure to selected essential oils to instill a sense of calmness and peace that could be recalled and experienced later when deliberately inhaling the odor of the same essential oil(s) as a memory cue. Pitman observed that, “it was very noticeable 4 that both the oils and the relaxation improved concentration. Students definitely stayed calmer longer and recovered quickly from upsets. There were fewer disruptions to lessons.”
Primary Cephalic Actions Supported by Essential Oils
Sedative / Calming
Stimulant / Uplifting
Balance of the central nervous system
Subjective Terms Used to Describe the Psycho-emotional Effects of Essential Oils
Essential Oils and Meditation
Essential oils can be used prior to meditation as part of your preparation process (perhaps in a bath, in an oil blend to be applied in self-massage, or simply environmentally vaporized in a diffuser). They can be used during meditation to aid concentration, focus, and alertness, and to calm racing thoughts and ease restlessness (perhaps applied as a personal perfume or, again, diffused into the atmosphere). Following meditation, essential oils can be used as a memory cue, a gentle reminder to return attention to the here and now. Their physiological and psycho-emotional uplifting, grounding, and balancing qualities are also beneficial at this time.
Your selection of essential oils will be personal and pertinent to you and what you require or need; there is not a “perfect blend” in this context, only the one that works best for you at any given moment in time. Your own nose will help you discover the alchemist within; your instinct is a good starting point.
As a very general guide to get you started, woods and tree resins, roots and rose blossom feature among the traditional scents employed to support meditation and prayer. Woods and flowers/blossoms in combination are balancing and uplifting. Woods aid breathing. Resins and roots are grounding. Spices and citrus oils are stimulating. Herbs are balancing; some are more stimulating (rosemary, for example), some more relaxing (marjoram, for example), some are both, for example lavender and patchouli.