This article is based on the collaborative work and classes that Florian Birkmayer and myself have been engaged in for the last two years and is as much the work of Florian as myself.
‘We each have something to contribute to the global healing process, a particular gift or vision, skill or song. Individual healing has a lot to do with finding this gift and using it for the world’s sake, finding our song and singing it’. Miriam Greenspan, Healing Through the Dark Emotions
It took me many years to feel I had the right to sing my song. The herbal situation in France, where I trained, is very precarious. The French are still under the heavy influence of the witch trials in Europe, which they brushed under the table rather than processed. More women were killed in France than any other European country and it is even now having a powerful effect on the subconscious. The fear of being ‘hung and burnt’ in the market place for working with plant medicine is still part of the collective unconscious in France and a very real fear in many people. It is for this reason that the school where I trained made it a priority to concentrate on scientifically based teaching and clinical herbalism. Albeit still illegal, this made them and their students feel a little safer.
I therefore spent the first years of working and teaching in herbalism feeling I too had to conform to what was considered ‘standard practice’. I am not against scientifically based research and information, but I am against a system that makes it the only valid and accepted form of ‘knowing.’
I had always felt my unique song was about those subtle, underlying issues that resulted in imbalance, lack of vitality and disease. When I saw clients, it was to their emotions and spiritual states that my attention was drawn. How could I help them heal their grief, sadness, anger, confusion? How could I help them attain their true potential? What deep genealogical scars were still influencing them from past generations? These were the kind of questions I found myself asking.
Another question that I spent many years thinking about was ‘What is it to really know a plant?’ It didn’t feel right to reduce the relationship between myself and the plants to a knowledge of their chemical constituents. I knew there was more.
Over the years, I gained in experience and confidence and I began to allow myself to follow my calling, helped by an intensive training in energetic kinesiology and plant communication. I was more and more able to ‘sense’ and ‘feel’ what direction I should take and guide people within my work as an herbalist and teacher.
The most important key to my own path so far came a little under two years ago. This is what I want to talk about in this article, as it has made up the majority of the work I have been doing since late 2014. It seems magical and timely that the structure that would enable me to really embody my craft would turn up in my life at the same time as my mother died, I was diagnosed with cancer, I met my soul mate and I moved continents.
As I have mentioned, I was beginning to feel that I had no choice but to follow my true calling and dance my true dance. However, the subtle, energetic approach to things can sometimes lack a clear structure with which to process. Drawn towards C.G Jung’s approach to alchemy, I began to see a framework that I could really relate to and use as a base for my work with plant medicine and the inner journey towards wholeness. When I say ‘the journey towards wholeness,’ I am referring to my own journey. I have really learnt in every cell of my body recently that the path of the wounded healer (a term coined by Jung himself) is primordial for anyone in the healing arts.
“The wounded healer IS the archetype of the Self and is at the bottom of all genuine healing procedures.” Marie-Louis Von Franz
It is in pursuing the work on my own wound and the way in which my relationship with plants can, in a living and authentic relationship, help me to heal that I can have an effect simultaneously in the outer world. It is this inner commitment to personal growth and healing, the transformation of the heavy, ‘lead-like’ aspects of being wounded to the expansiveness of consciousness or inner gold that is my personal myth and healing message. It is through this journey that I am able to work with plants authentically and from a place of relationship and experience.
Life takes us on many twists and turns and sometimes it is many months or even years later that we ‘see’ the deeper reasons for some of these twists of fate. I had always been pushed into aromatics, aromatherapy and smell without making any conscious effort. I had been asked to translate courses on aromatherapy, write a book on the subject, planted several aromatic gardens, etc. Today I realize the importance of aromatic plants in my work with the psyche. Perfumed oils and aromatic plants have been used for thousands of years to alter states of mind. All over the world, complicated and often secret aromatic formulas were used regularly in 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.
Aromatic plant molecules are an important element in a Bio-Psycho-Social-Environmental-Spiritual approach to healing. They can be allies in deep personal transformation by reawakening the senses and reconnecting humans to the consciousness of the ecosystem they are merely a part of. If we allow ourselves to see our entire ecosystem as one system in which all the different participants, i.e. plants, animals and humans are in constant, mostly unconscious communication, then volatile aromatic molecules found in plants can be viewed analogous to neurotransmitters or neuro-hormones in this network that is larger than any individual or species. Aromatics reawaken the senses and awareness. They truly are the ‘molecules of connectedness.’ (1) In this article, the aromatic plant extracts that I will refer to are often in the form of hydrosols or essential oils. The hydrosols mentioned are in most cases those we made ourselves from local plants and the essential oils are of the best quality possible chosen for the highest energetic and aromatic value. A sniff from the bottle is all that is needed in most situations, when working with the mind and emotions. ‘Less is more’ so to speak. I recommend to choose the best possible hydrosols and essential oils, from people who know, rather than mainstream, unethically harvested and distilled products. I am very lucky, because my husband has the finest ‘nose’ I have ever come across and together we source our oils from John Steele, who travels the world searching for the purest expression of plant aromatics available or from small artisan producers.
When learning herbalism, or any medical field, we are taught about the anatomy of the human body and how the organs and body systems function, which is much the same for everyone. The soul, emotions and mind are a domain that is much less defined, however, they may too have a similar anatomy for everyone. One that is not reduced to physicality but is much more expansive, but nevertheless consists of a specific composition. The psyche is a system that is self-regulating and always looking for homeostasis much like the rest of our organism. The psyche seeks to evolve, in a process Jung called ‘individuation,’ which is the journey of the ego to the Self. The Self with a capital ‘S’ incorporates the sum of all aspects of the psyche and its optimum potential. Isn’t ‘Healing’ the quest of the Self to reach his or her fullest potential? Just as, for example, the kidneys can be broken down into different parts i.e. the renal capsule, cortex, nephron, medulla etc. so can the psyche. The ego can be seen as representing the conscious mind and the thoughts, memories and emotions a person is aware of, including feelings of identity and continuity. It helps us link the inner and outer worlds. All information exists in the psyche as a whole and the ego acts as a personal filter, selecting relevant information from the environment and letting the rest slip into or remain in the unconscious. The personal unconscious consists of everything we know but are not bringing to awareness at the moment, everything we have known, but which cannot at this instant be consciously recalled. The collective unconscious can be seen as an innate universal data bank that everyone is born with. Myths can be seen as emmanations of the collective unconscious.
Plants also have a psyche and collective unconscious. By recognizing our own psyche’s anatomy and that of plants, our relationship with the plant world changes drastically. There is a difference between learning about the properties of a plant and learning what a plant knows. It is only through plant communication, an approach that is deep, holistic, universal and at the same time radically individual that we can learn what a plant knows. Through my inner journey, I recognize that the ‘paysage’ (landscape) of my psyche is nature and my guides are the plants and trees. In this very alive, authentic relationship, plants teach us that they are neither a philosophy or a mysticism, but living beings intertwined with our lives since humans have been on earth. We just have to re-remember.
As we learn to communicate with plants we learn to listen to their voice inside ourselves, we learn to listen when they call.
Plants are conscious of the fact that they exist in time and space; “They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives … integrate it and then behave in an appropriate way in response. And they do this without brains, which, in a way, is what’s incredible about it, because we automatically assume you need a brain to process information.” Michael Pollan (2)
Pollan says plants have all the same senses as humans, and then some more. In addition to hearing and taste, for example, they can sense gravity, the presence of water, or even feel that an obstruction is in the way of its roots. Before coming into contact with an obstacle, plant roots will shift direction, to avoid it. Plants can hear themselves being eaten.(3) How plants sense and react is still somewhat unknown. They don’t have nerve cells like humans, but they do have a system for sending electrical signals and even produce neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin and other chemicals the human brain uses to send signals.(4)
The collective unconscious contains the responses of each plant to its environment (soil, air, sunlight and water) and to their variations (meteorology, modification of water and soil). In The collective unconscious of plants holds information about pollinators (bees, wind and pollen mixes) to diseases and also the health of the plant. (5)
Plants are a vital element of the unconscious realm and they are the key to the living world. All creatures need plant chemistry to survive. Plants make up the world’s largest pharmacy. They make up all the constituents that are essential to life on earth. As much as their physical make-up is a vital element, so is their consciousness. I have always wondered why we forget, when listing all the things we need plants for i.e. housing, food, medicine, clothing, heating, that our relationship with plants, trees and nature is probably one of the most important aspects of being healthy and one of the reasons our modern society, cut off from plants, is suffering so badly. The disconnection we are feeling is a disconnection, both physically and within the psyche, with the natural world. When working on the inner journey, the aim is to no longer choose a plant to heal based on ego-symptoms, but to learn to tap into the unconscious realm to connect with the consciousness of the plant in partnership and open to its living intelligence and wisdom.
The disconnection I mentioned, I believe, has lead us to no longer being able to sense the way in which the living world vibrates. We have forgotten that life is not just about existing, accumulating material wealth and status. Living is honoring the link between beings. Plants are ruled by their collective soul. When you communicate with one oak, they all know it. Their psyche is all-pervasive. We are continually able to be connect with them. The ego often tries to tell us that unconscious content is meaningless or unimportant, but another perspective is to allow information from the unconscious, the ‘invisible realms,’ to emerge and become conscious. In this way we can enter into this deep-rooted, sensual, authentic relationship with plant consciousness that is unique to each individual. Plants have always revealed their wisdom to me when I needed it most. They bring messages that instantly change, open up and expose deep complexes that are ready to be transformed.
Communicating with plants involves a change in consciousness, a subtle shift of perception, an opening of the heart doorway and authenticity. As children today are born with the innate ability to use computerized machinery with ease, since this machinery existed before they were born, we too have knowledge of the plants in our DNA as they were on earth for about 100 million years before humans. Communicating with the plant world re-activates its signature in our bodies like re-installing a program that already exists in our collective unconscious. This allows us to regain our natural place in nature as a part of it, rather than as a consumer of it.
I had always heard people talk about alchemy. In the plant medicine world, subjects such as spagyrics always held a certain mysticism and intrigue to me, although I did not know much if anything really about them. I did buy a book about spagyrics with the idea of making some alchemical medicines, but it wasn’t until I studied the work of Jung and his interpretation of the alchemical stages on a psychological level that I really found a framework that made sense to me. Jung read everything he could lay his hands on, in terms of ancient alchemical texts. He paid attention to accounts of the dreams some of the ancient alchemists had and sensed that there was an inner realm to this outer process of changing lead into gold, something many of the alchemists were keeping secret or not finding the words for. Jung saw the alchemical processes as models of transformation of all aspects of one’s being. Emotional, mental and spiritual bodies go through total transformation and this happens in cycles. The alchemical framework, which I will explain stage by stage below, gives us a structure to work with. In this way, our so called ‘negative’ states of being can be understood and accepted as a ‘normal’ part of the process of becoming more complete or whole. It is a relief to find a system that incorporates an active definition of health. Rather than health just being the absence of disease, optimum health is seen as the journey of the ego to the Self, Individuation. At the same time, the framework also provides a fabric in which to weave a healing relationship with plants that will accompany us on this voyage.
In order to get to wholeness and remembering that the path is more important than the goal, we need to confront our personal and collective unconscious, including our Shadow.
It is through the following stages that plants and our psyches can dance and reveal themselves to each other.
This is the first stage and involves a resistance and friction, like the rubbing of two sticks, that eventually ignites into fire, producing a white ash ‘of things that endure’.
This stage can be understood as generating the energy necessary for transforming of the ego. Often we build survival structures, ego walls to protect against the unconscious so to speak, that stop us facing our deepest fears. Frequently these structures were integrated as children during traumatic or frightening events. There comes a time when they are no longer helpful and the only way for the psyche to regulate itself is to ‘burn’ through these old, outdated patterns. It may be a deep anger or rage that manifests. In my case, the first time I was able to identify this stage of the process, it was fear that ignited the inner fire. My personal core wound is related to abandonment and rejection. I was at a stage in my life where my soul knew that it was on the cusp of huge new growth but in order to leap into this new life, I needed to ‘risk’ my greatest fears of rejection and abandonment. For several weeks I worked with these physical feelings. A strong fear tightly gripped my intestines. I tried bravely to fully feel it. Sometimes it was too much and I had to draw back in, or ‘cool off.’ It was here that I uses aromatic plants in the form of hydrosols and essential oils to tame the fire. Instinctively I was drawn to those aromas that cooled and calmed the intensity. Rose (Rosa sp) helped the heart support the work, helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) calmed the emotional intensity and holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) relieved the stressful feelings and helped me to relax. The hydrosol form of these extracts is brilliant—matter as metaphor—as the watery mist sprayed around the face creates a micro-climate and instantly changes the energy as it falls in the finest droplets onto one’s face. This ‘heating up’ process took a few days and finally one night the fire roared, it was the right time and this time there was no going back and it was too late for the calming hydrosols. I had no choice but to allow the process. I thought I would die but I knew I had to go the whole way this time. The need to separate the pure from the impure, the permanent from the superficial, had become stronger than anything else. All night the fire roared and by morning, I could just feel the embers in my belly of what had once been what I thought was me.
In this example, I had no need to put oil on the fire to encourage it to burn, or ‘turn up the heat.’ However, in some journeys this is necessary. Less naturally fiery characters or those that hold back may desperately need help to really feel the intense emotions, so that their energy can be transformed. In this case, very heating aromatics such as thyme (Thymus vulgaris), oregano (Origanum marjoranum) winter savory (Satureja montana) can be beneficial. If you taste these plants, they are extremely hot, burning the tip of your tongue. In these plants’ essential oils, the heat, which comes from the phenols, is intensified through the distillation process and just a sniff can begin to ‘turn up the heat.’ People who’s temperaments are already ‘bilious’ (hot and dry) or ‘sanguine’ (hot and moist) often find themselves feeling angrier and more volatile than usual if they use these oils and the heat is turned up too much.
This need to heat something up in order to transform can also apply to the physical body, for example in the case of fevers. Fevers are part of the body’s defense system, aimed at slowing down the growth of bacteria or viruses that are creating illness, by generating an environment that is unfavorable for their growth. Rather than categorically reducing fevers, it is often best to let them run their course and in some cases even encourage them. After all, something needs to be burnt off. Native Americans use sweat lodges to accelerate the process of calcinatio both on a physical and emotional/spiritual level. Heating herbs or diaphoretics, such as ginger (Zingiber officinale), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), cayenne (Capsicum annuum), elderflowers (Sambucus nigra), sage (Salvia officinalis) are among some of the herbs that can bring out heat.
Calcinatio also incorporates a drying out process. The heat dries out water-logged, unconscious processes that are stopping us from advancing towards wholeness. This drying out process can also relate to physical ailments, e.g. water retention/edema. Being physically sodden may have its origin in waterlogged unconscious complexes that need to be dried out and purged of their moisture. I moved to the desert shortly after working through this process and I had always suffered from water retention in my lower limbs. I am sure that through the process of calcinatio in my own inner journey and thecalcinatio triggered by the desert environment—the desert dries off everything that is unnecessary—these drenched, unconscious emotions mirrored in the water retention in my legs were ‘cooked’ away.
Once the fire is over, we are left with the white ashes, which are then dissolved in water to form an ’elixir’, which in Arab literally means, ‘from the ashes.’ This second stage is known as dissolutio.
‘Psychologically, this represents a further breaking down of the artificial structures of the psyche by total immersion in the unconscious, non-rational, feminine or rejected part of our minds’ (6). Often after the calcinatio stage, there is a release of emotions that had previously been held down or camouflaged. They are now free to flow outwards from the unconscious. Accessing these deep-seated emotions, allowing the barriers to dissolve so they can be felt, is important as they are essential to our soul’s wellbeing. It is this feeling of dissolving ramparts that is needed for our creativity to manifest. Accepting our feelings is honoring our soul. Creatively channeling them through journaling, dancing, painting, crying and dreaming are ways of cleansing and letting go of these deep feelings. This is a stage where structure and form are less critical. It is important to feel but not necessarily understand intellectually.
The wateriness of this stage is best suited to hydrosols and aromatic baths. Bathing can be seen as a metaphor for the womb of creation, for letting go and allowing grief and painful, buried emotions to emerge. It is important to remember that the aim behind the ‘letting go’ of painful emotions is freeing blocked energy and re-aligning the self on the journey towards wholeness. This ‘letting go’ is mirrored in the need for a physical relaxation, which, again, the aromatic baths are great for.
Aromatic flowers such as jasmine, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, chamomile, lavender and roses help us melt into feelings. They could be added to the bath as petals or a few drops of their essential oil (or the absolute in the case of jasmine) added to coarse sea salt and then added to the bath. Time to soak in aromatic waters in candlelight and allow the volatile molecules to enter the organism. Through scent and the skin these aromas help bring about a feeling of being enveloped and dissolving into dreamy, unconscious realms.
Recipe for a Voluptuous Honey Bath
The following recipe can be used in a ritual bath for releasing deep emotions:
200g/7oz of course sea salt
100g/3.5oz bicarbonate of soda
3 liters/100fl.oz organic whole milk
60ml/2fl.oz sweet almond oil
30 drops of any of the above oils or others that you may be drawn to.
Combine the essential oils, the sweet almond oil, bicarbonate of soda and sea salt together. Melt the honey slowly into the milk and then add this to the rest and finally into the bath.
Light candles and relax deeply in the bath, allowing the mind to let go and noticing the emotions that you feel in your body. Allow them to come up without trying to understand them or find reasons behind them. Afterwards wrap yourself in a thick, warm towel and journal or just let your hand write without engaging the mind and let what comes up, come up (automatic writing).
The third stage in this internal alchemical journey is known as Coagulatio. We are reminded eventually, that we cannot stay in the watery, dreamlike state of dissolutioforever, which is in a way what people addicted to certain drugs are trying to do. We must come back to the body and its limitations. It is necessary to integrate the growth and liberation of energies that we have experienced in the first two stages.
Existence, being in the body, is coagulatio. Alchemists saw this stage as the process that turns something into earth. Psychologically it is the phase of grounding and embodiment. It feels heavy and permanent. In certain people, this stage can be too emphasized. Such people can be intractable, stubborn, rigid and lacking in fluidity, too attached to materialism, material success and ‘this-is-all-there-is-ness.’ In these cases, encouraging the dissolutio experience through the use of the scents mentioned above could be useful. In many cases in today’s society, however, the problem is a lack of grounding and not fully being in one’s body. I have talked about this is detail and the plants that can help ground/embody in an article in my blog. (7)
Plants are a perfect symbol of coagulatio in that they transform light into ‘bodily structure’ through photosynthesis. Then they enable all other beings, such as animals and humans, to ‘feed’ on this light transformed into matter, so they too can be embodied. The archetypal image of this in the Rosarium Philosporum, a series of alchemical woodcuts (8) is an image of a green lion eating the sun. There is another alchemical image of the earth as a mother, breastfeeding a baby. As a mother gives her milk to nourish the baby, plants nourish animals and humans with their own matter. The connection here with essential oils is strong. They are a direct link, as a product of the energy generated by photosynthesis. These light-filled ‘molecules of connectedness’ infuse the air we live in and unite us through the breath. We are programmed for receiving scent molecules, we have over 900 genes in our genome that code for olfactory receptors. We have olfactory receptors in all our organs, including kidneys, pancreas, skin. As neurotransmitters are the communication molecules within the human body, we can imagine that aromatic molecules are the communication molecules between all the different species in an ecosystem including plants and humans. It’s as if they were they neurotransmitters of a larger being, the collective unconscious, the world’s soul.
One of the plants that has really come up as being a cornerstone when working oncoagulation is yarrow (Achilleae millefolium). Blood is a living symbol of coagulatio and yarrow governs blood, coagulating it when necessary. Matt Wood calls it, ‘the master of blood.’ However it is yarrow’s overall energy that really interests us here. Yarrow is symbolic of the wounded healer, Chiron, who has to accept his wound as the place that healing comes from. Yarrow also defines safe boundaries, protecting and stopping energy leaking out. All these aspects are related to the stage of coagulatio . Recently I came across a preview for a new book called ‘Numen naturae: The magician’s wand’ a collaborative work by Hearthside publishers that makes the correlation of yarrow with the magician archetype from the major arcana of the Tarot. I began to think about this. Yarrow is a core herb, multidimensional, full of opposites. Personally, yarrow is always present and continually brings me back to the self, physically, emotionally, spiritually. The magician archetype is also full of opposing poles and like the alchemical journey, its aim or focus is transformation. Yarrow definitely accompanies us on this journey, helping us accept our opposites and become whole. The magician and yarrow help us create our physical reality by bringing spirit into matter and realizing the power of intention.
The fourth stage is known as sublimatio and is related to the transformation of matter into air through the process of volatilization. Sublimis means lofty, high, exalted, elevated. Psychologically this can be seen as the spirit rising above the body and being able to see the whole picture from above. This is a stage that is intricately linked again with the aromatic molecules in essential oils and hydrosols that are extracted through the process of distillation. In fact, in some of the alchemical texts, sublimatio is referred to asdistillatio. In the distillation process, steam passes through the plant, carrying with it the light aromatic and volatile molecules in the form of gas and steam, which rises into the onion dome and through the copper tubing to the condenser, where it is condensed as the serpentine tube goes through cold water and the gas transforms back into a solid or liquid. Sublimatio can help us see our problems more clearly and globally. It gives us an eagle’s perspective—the higher one goes, the more one sees. This can be very helpful, but one must not forget that it’s not good to stay in any one stage indefinitely. In this stage we may be able to see from a higher perspective, but we cannot act. We need to come back into the body to be able to have a concrete effect on the actual situation. One of the negative aspects of this stage is when disassociation, e.g. due to trauma, becomes a habit or one stays in it indefinitely. The ultimate sublimatio is death, where the soul is irreversibly separated from the body.
Aromatically, with sublimatio, we have been working with ketones that are the aromatic fraction of plants such as sagebrush (Artemisia tridanta), wormwood (Artemisia absinthum) mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas), helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), penny royal (Mentha pulegium), sage species (Salvia sp.). Ketones are found in high quantities in essential oils made from these plants. It is interesting to bring this particular molecular family into the limelight, as it has had a lot of bad press in the world of aromatherapy for being the constituent in many of the essential oils that could be considered ‘dangerous’ or ‘toxic’ if ingested in high quantities. What is interesting here is to consider this family for their ‘energetic’ attributes. So there is no need to ingest or even apply them at all. Smelling them is enough in this context. Plants that are high in ketones often have a white veil to them, mirroring their energetic qualities of not being fully incarnated. They do not have the shades of green we are used to seeing in plants but instead veer towards whites and greys, as if they were shrouded in a cloak. Distiller Maltz Hozzel calls them, ‘anti-matter energy’ and says that they, ‘lift us up from a mere physical existence, opening us to spirit and spiritual experiences’(9) and author and aromatherapist Jennifer Peace Rhind says that, ‘they reduce physicality, they are disincarnators of Mother Nature’.(10) It is interesting to note that we ourselves have a higher ketone level in our bodies with age. Could they be subtly preparing our souls for the next stage? Many of the ketone-rich oils have been used traditionally in ritual and meditation, i.e. hyssop was used to cleanse the wounds of Christ on the cross, andSalvias and Artemisias have been used for cleansing, smudging, religious rituals and introspection by different people the world over.
Next we move on to the stage called mortificatio. On first appearances this could be considered one of the most difficult states to be in, as there is a feeling of darkness, defeat and a strong sensation that a part of oneself is dying. It is my work with nature and permaculture that really helped me see the positive side of this stage. When studying the forest as a framework for the way nature works, we can see how the decaying, rotting, dark part of the cycle is also what provides the humus, which is where the new growth of the forest begins. The dying and putrefying animal and plant matter that fall on the forest floor create the place (humus) that new seeds sprout from, covering the soil and feeding the trees. Modern day agriculture has echoed society’s fear of decomposition and death: Weed killers and ploughing keep the soils bare. This can be seen in the difference between many gardens and the forest. Jung notes in Psychology and Alchemythat, “a garden is a place where Nature is subdued, ordered, selected and enclosed. Hence it is a symbol of the consciousness as opposed to the forest, which is a symbol of the unconsciousness, in the same way as the island is opposed to the ocean. At the same time, it is a feminine attribute because of its character as a precinct”. The stage of parts of us dying away is necessary on the inner journey. Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth.Together they form two halves of the whole. That is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems. Psychologically, when we are going through this stage, it feels very final, but what it actually is asking for is a complete letting go of outdated ways of being, of controlling. It can feel very frightening as we enter the dark stage. It is usually a time where we need to change old patterns of behaviour and ways of doing things and leave behind everything we have known, our old views and ways of seeing the world.
The plant that really echoes this stage is Palo Santo (Bursera graveolens). Palo Santo means Holy Wood in Spanish. This resinous tree, native to South America, has been used by indigenous people for centuries in ritual and healing magic. The wood is traditionally used in ceremony for burning and smudging and it is from the wood that the essential oil is extracted. For the wood to have all its healing powers, energetically and in terms of its aromatic constituents, it must have lain dead for at least ten to twenty years. Its main aromatic constituent is limonene (approx. 85%). Limonene has been studied and is known for its action as an antimicrobial for plants. It is interesting to note that in lower quantities is does act to protect the plant from bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects. But once it gets to higher levels, building up in Palo Santo after being dead for years and also citrus fruits as they ripen, it then attracts pathogens. In the case of citrus fruit, this is to help decompose the tough outer skins so that it is easier for mammals and birds to access the pulp and thus disseminate the seeds. Based on this information, it seems that the Palo Santo tree continues to produce limonene for years after being dead, in order to help the very hard wood decompose more easily and become part of the forest floor, giving of itself.
I discovered the essential oil a few years ago and since then have spent a lot of time working with it. From this decomposing wood comes an aroma that is so full of light and wisdom, it can be perturbing to begin with. When I first encountered the oil, I was literally blown away as it brushed the parts of me that no longer needed expression aside and made room for new growth. It is a tree for healers, holding the opposites once more in its aroma, from dark decay to life giving light, from the pain of the wound to the joy of healing, from the detritus of the forest floor to the seeds and new shoots that renew the forest. The following notes came from a group communication/meditation with Palo Santo in France. I think it really helps to emphasize these opposing forces that are so important in the alchemical journey and expressed by this holy tree.
The more we go upwards, the more we fall downwards, the more we expand outwards the more we retract inwards, the more things decompose, the more there is light, trauma is the mirror for healing, it mirrors our potential. Total mirror for the potential of humanity, the more we find stillness, the more we evolve, we are the world, the world is in us. We are tiny, we are huge, we are on earth, we are in the universe at the same time – this is the gift.
As Jung says in his Red Book, “No tree, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
The penultimate stage is separatio. I personally had the hardest time getting to grips with this stage. Chemically, it is the isolation of the components of dissolutio by filtration and then discarding any inauthentic or unworthy material. Getting back to the process of distilling plants to make hydrosols and essential oils, once the distillation is finished, we can see a separatio of the subtle (aromatic fraction) and gross (spent plant matter) parts of the plant. This is just one kind of seperatio. Seeing the different parts of the Self, what is good and what is shadow, what is eternal and what is transient can only happen when one has worked on recognizing all aspects of the self including those that are buried in the unconscious. This is carried out in the stages that came beforeseperatio. There is a gradual deepening and seeing of all aspects of what we are made up of. This stage also allows us to differentiate between what is truly ‘oneself’ and what has been imposed on us through education, culture, society. This is where one can begin to be aware of the need to heal not only oneself but historical and intergenerational trauma.
Individuation therefore also means separation, differentiation and recognition of what is yours and what is not.” Marie-Louise Von Franz, Alchemy.
One of the ways I began to understand this stage, including the importance of identifying and reconciling the opposites inside ourselves, was through looking at the aromatic make-up of some of the plants that we have been working with. I realized that although some plants are totally hot and dry for example such as pine (Pinus sylvestris), many others contain opposing energetics, once we start to separate their different volatile constituents. Take for example bay laurel (Laurus nobilis): If we separate out its principal aromatic constituents, we have monoterpenes, monoterpenols, oxides, phenols and esters. Within these there are many opposing actions. For example, monoterpenes are drying, while phenols and monoterpenols are humid. Esters are relaxing, whereas monoterpenols, monoterpenes and phenols are stimulating. Esters are cooling, yet monoterpenols, monoterpenes and phenols are warming or hot. Oxides are electro-positive and esters are electronegative, etc. These opposites work together to form a whole. It is not all-or-nothing, but a complex bringing together of different, opposing parts and this is the same for us psychologically, spiritually and emotionally. The sum is greater than the seemingly contradictory parts.
Separatio is acknowledging all parts of ourselves, without letting ourselves be defined by them. This is especially relevant to trauma. Once things are separated out, you’re not overwhelmed or possessed by them. Separating out the pieces that you think make up yourself, you become aware of an observer perspective, which is separate from those experiences that become a part of ourselves but are not under control of the ego. We can even become aware of the ego from a perspective beyond the ego. This movement outside and above the ego, or to put it another way, ‘to take up residence in an awareness beyond the ego’ is the core transformation of separatio.
Once again yarrow comes into play here. It actually makes sense that as the magician, yarrow accompanies us through most or all of the stages. In its healing capacities on a physical level it is a major player, so, too, is it on a spiritual and energetic level. Yarrow has a separatio property, ‘always ongoing, always with us’, healing on many levels, bringing together opposites and reminding us that our wound doesn’t define us.
And so we arrive at the final stage, conjunctio. We must not forget that there is actually no ultimate ‘end’ or ‘goal.’ The journey continues in the form of a never-ending spiral, as we repeat the stages again from our newly evolved standpoint. This final stage can be symbolized by the man and woman coming together to create a child. On an inner level, this can be seen as the inner masculine or King (consciousness, spirit, sun) and the inner feminine or Queen (body wisdom, soul, moon) coming together in the expression of true creativity of one’s essence. Once we have been through all the stages, once we let go of the unnecessary, transformed the mutable and identified the different parts of ourselves that make up the whole, we obtain glimpses of what it feels like to honor this unity and hold the space that enables the Self to breathe its essence into the world. In plant medicine, synergy is a good example of this. Synergy is the idea that all the different constituents of a plant or essential oil make up the whole and even those in tiny quantities have an important part to play. The whole is greater than the simple sum of its parts. When teaching this class as a two day inner journey with aromatics, we finish by asking students to formulate their own unique botanical perfume as a symbolic representation of conjunctio. It is always beautiful to see, after the intense inner work, the ease with which each person is able to finally create their own aromatic signature and the way in which certain aromas, that people thought they didn’t like, are suddenly blended beautifully into their perfume. The shadow is finally accepted and integrated.
An awareness of these alchemical stages in one’s inner work and that of one’s clients and students helps us to realise that the negative and uncomfortable emotions that come up are not a ‘bad’ thing, they are a normal part of the journey inwards in search of the Self and one’s optimum potential. We are not condemned to take this journey alone. If we allow and open up to plant consciousness, a magical landscape reveals itself, where plants take us by the hand and share the wisdom that lies behind their form.
Bon voyage !!!
(1) Florian Birkmayer, in preparation
(2) Michael Pollan – http://michaelpollan.com/media/
(4) Witzany G, Plant Communication from Biosemiotic Perspective, Plant Signal Behav. 2006 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2634023/
(5) Claude Lefebvre – Le livre des Plantes
(6) Ana Stasi Fennell “The mystery of Aquarius”
(9) Maltz Hozzel
(10) Jennifer Peace Rhind – Aromatherapeutic Blending
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