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A Meditation on Scent

By Jennifer Peace Rhind, author of Essential Oils 

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor

The ultimate goal of meditative practice is to reach the state of pure awareness that is known as Nirvana, enlightenment or truth. However, it is the secondary benefits of meditation that are regarded as more achievable, and these are improvements in physical, mental and emotional health. Meditation allows us to detach ourselves from the transient realm of the mind and emotions, and enter a mode of awareness and allowing, or receptivity. There are two main approaches – concentration (associated with Yoga) and mindfulness (or insight, a Buddhist practice).

Scents, in the form of oils, candles or incense, are often used to enhance meditation. An appropriate fragrance can encourage a meditative state. Indeed, the preparation of the scent, such as lighting the candle or joss stick might even form part of a personal ritual that precedes meditation. However, despite this close association, scent is usually an adjunct, not the focus of the meditation. The focus might be concentrating on a flame, a mantra, or the breath, or, in the case of mindfulness meditation, allowing an unbroken, detached attentiveness to any thoughts and sensations that arise.

So, how has scent become linked with meditation? The use of aromatic substances to elicit particular responses via the sense of smell was integral to many cultures and life practices. These early uses included sacred and ritualistic practices such as anointing with fragrant oils and offering rites to gods; embalming and medicinal practices; as cosmetics, fumigants and mood-altering substances; as spiritual and philosophical healing systems; and for ritual stimulation of dreams and visions. Therefore aromatic substances were from the earliest times used as a means to alter mental states as well as for pleasure. It is now well established that scent can alter moods, perhaps by imparting a sense of calm, or clarity, or vitality. Some fragrances can even bringing about altered states of consciousness. For example, many shamanistic practices involve burning aromatic plants to alter consciousness and allow communication with the animal, plant and spirit worlds. It was priests and shamans who were the first healers of the psyche…

Meditation often begins by focussing the mind and attention on a sensory stimulus –usually a visual or auditory one. From there, you progress to the point of being alert and receptive, and eventually the division between the self and the focus of the meditation becomes blurred and disappears. As the mode of consciousness changes, different perceptions come and go.

Therefore scent too can become the initial focus of a meditation. We can focus on the scent, becoming aware of the different layers, as the top notes fade while the middle and base notes emerge. Analysis is not needed, and this removes us from the ‘problem solving’ state of mind and aids the shift to receptiveness – so we become centred in awareness rather than our mind. The interesting thing about scent meditation is that it seems to encourage creative awareness.

The following scent meditation can be used with the fragrances of essential oils, and you might like to start with the oils that we have highlighted. It is best to dispense a couple of drops on a smelling strip or blotting paper to allow an even and unhindered evaporation; this allows the true fragrance to evolve. The meditation was originally designed by the artisan perfumer and psychotherapist, Mandy Aftel, and has been adapted from her original script.

A meditation on scent

Prepare your chosen essential oil, and sit in a comfortable position, in a place away from other smells and distractions. You might like to close your eyes and count backwards from 30 to help to still your thoughts, or take a few unforced, deep, slow breaths. Then, hold the scent to your nose; sniff a few times to gain an initial impression. Then, focus your attention on your sense of smell, and continue to sniff, as needed, for a few moments. Notice the different notes that emerge, and then let them go. The scent will keep changing, sometimes obviously, sometimes this will be subtle. Discard any mental distractions that arise and keep returning to the scent. Then, holding the scent to your nose again, inhale deeply three times. You might like to open your eyes while you imagine your consciousness dissolving outward to the scent, feel as though you can touch it, merge with it, flow into it. When you feel you have reached the point of saturation, close your eyes again, and detach yourself from all senses but smell.

Descend deeply inside, bearing the essence of the scent you have chosen, and touch it with your vision of the scent. Build an inner picture of the essence – the essence of the essence. Imagine it as an object, or something abstract, a sound, a colour or shape, a plant, an animal, a scene, a place – anything that seems to you to be conjured by the deep impression of the scent. Turn outward again, and consciously smell the scent again. Repeat the outer phase and inner phase until you feel that the experience has reached a natural conclusion.

You will find that each scent you meditate upon creates a different internal image and meditative experience.

Meditation adapted from Aftel, M. (2001) Essence and Alchemy: a book of perfume London: Bloomsbury

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.

Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part Five: Bitter Orange

This is the final post in Jennifer Peace Rhind‘s exploration of five essential oils and their roles in wellbeing. Click through to read earlier posts on NeroliBenzoinCardamom and Virginian Cedarwood.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor

Bitter orange

The bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium subspecies amara, has been cultivated for its fragrance products for many years – as we have already learned how its blossoms yield neroli, the leaves and twigs yield petitgrain (meaning ‘little seed; look for the suffix ‘fol.’ to indicate that it is derived from leaves), also an important constituent of colognes, and the small fruits (suffix ‘fruct.’) yield bitter orange oil from their peel.

These fruits have a long history of culinary and medicinal uses. The liqueur, Curacao, is flavoured with the unripe fruits. The tree is native to Asia; and so its flowers and fruits form part of Oriental medicine – mainly as remedies for the myriad of disorders of the digestive system, as a cardiac tonic and for anxiety.

So, unlike the other aromatics in this short series, we turn exclusively to perfumery to discover bitter orange’s tradition of use. The citrus oils are some of the most volatile of raw materials of perfumery – they form the top notes – the ones that reach the nose first. Bitter orange oil has indeed a citrus odour, but in contrast with its close relation sweet orange, it is subtle, fresh, with a fairly tenacious floral undertone, and is considered by artisan perfumers to be more interesting. In perfumery, bitter orange is used in eaux de cologne (like its close botanical relatives neroli and petitgrain), but it is also is important in many other categories of fragrance. It gives a light, green-floral citrus freshness to the top notes of a composition; however like all of the citrus oils, this is short-lived and rapidly disappears as the fragrance heart develops. The tenacity and persistence of the citrus oils is poor in contrast to most of the other natural aroma materials.

However, in aromatherapy this tenacity issue is much less of a problem. The carrier oil used for massage will help slow down the rapid evaporation of the citrus oil in the prescription, and the scent is strong enough to be noticeable when first presented to a client. There have been several studies investigating the impact of citrus scents on mood, and it could be reasonably assumed that some of the mood benefits identified would apply to bitter orange. Citrus peel oils can decrease autonomic nervous system arousal (characteristic of stress) and promote feelings of cheerfulness and vigour, so the use of citrus oils to alleviate depression and stress is now a well-established aromatherapy practice.

The only caution regarding bitter orange, and some other citrus oils, is that they are phototoxic. This means that they should not be applied to skin that will be exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, because burning can result. Phototoxic compounds in citrus peel oils are present because they are obtained by an expression process (literally squeezing the volatile oil out of the peel) rather than distillation. These molecules are quite large in comparison to the small ones found in essential oils, and they are not volatile (that is, they don’t evaporate) so they cannot be distilled. The phototoxic molecules can also be absorbed in to the top layer of the skin, and stay there for a few hours. If the skin is then exposed to sunlight, the molecules can absorb the UV light and store it before releasing it into the skin in a quick burst. The IFRA (International Fragrance Research Association) issue safety guidelines regarding the levels of such oils in products; the maximum limit for bitter orange oil in fragrance is 1.4%, at time of writing.

When you smell bitter orange, the top notes will appear fast and fleeting – citrus zest first, then the green notes, the floral notes will appear, and the heart is sweeter and slightly fruity. It is difficult not to smile and feel more at ease when bitter orange starts to make its impact, frustration and anger can diminish, making space for clarity of thought and the energy for creativity and innovation, or simply leaving the negative behind and making a fresh start.

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.


Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part Four: Virginian Cedarwood

This post continues Jennifer Peace Rhind‘s exploration of five essential oils and their roles in wellbeing. Click through to read earlier posts on NeroliBenzoin and Cardamom.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor

Virginian cedarwood

Although it is commonly called cedar, Virginian cedarwood essential oil is in fact derived from a species of juniper – Juniperus virginiana. This tree and its wood, and the incense derived from its wood holds an important place in Northwest/Pacific Indian tradition. The Cherokee tell that cedar wood holds powerful protective spirits. Pieces of cedar wood are placed in medicine bags, and also above the doors of homes to ward off evil spirits. Cedar wood was also used to make totem poles and ceremonial drums. In ceremony and prayer, cedar is burned – and in common with other practices involving incense/smoke this is to carry the prayers to the Creator. In traditional and contemporary sweat lodges, cedar wood is used along with sage and other herbs such as sweetgrass, having a purifying function, and similarly cedar branches are used in house blessing ceremonies. It is interesting that the Pacific Northwest tribes say that not only does cedar drive away evil and negative energies but also brings in good energies.

Virginian cedarwood oil is distilled from the waste, powdered wood from sawmills, as the wood itself is an important commodity. The main use is in the manufacture of pencils, but it is also used in furniture manufacture, including the traditional ‘cedar chest’.

In aromatherapy, it is the essential oil from a true cedar – Atlas cedarwood – that is used in preference to that of Virginian cedarwood. This is possibly because of the mention in some texts that Virginian cedarwood is not recommended in pregnancy – although this is an unsupported caution. However, it is widely used in perfumery to impart woody notes in scented soaps and other toiletries. In artisan perfumery it is a useful top note, contributing soft, fresh, woody and faintly earthy characteristics, giving a very ‘natural’ sensation.

When you engage with the smell of Virginian cedarwood essential oil there are no real surprises – it really is reminiscent of the wood itself – with a gentle, fresh coniferous, slightly resinous, woody top, a more balsamic woody body and a dry, woody dryout. The scent will be ‘familiar’ to many of us, and is reminiscent of the forest environment too, so perhaps this is connected with its ability to promote a sense of resilience and inner strength. The scent can be likened to having an ‘inner anchor’, and can help in times of transformation, such as when redundant negative habits are being discarded and replaced with independence of mind and spirit.

Read tomorrow’s post to discover the properties of Bitter Orange.

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.

Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part Three: Cardamom

This post continues Jennifer Peace Rhind‘s exploration of five essential oils and their roles in wellbeing. Click through to read earlier posts on Neroli and Benzoin.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor


Cardamom essential oil is derived from the seed capsules of Elettaria cardamomum – native to Southern India, and a member of the same botanical family as ginger. It was exported from India as early as Hellenistic times, and remains one of the world’s most expensive spices, second to saffron. Cardamom has been used for thousands of years; it is a very important spice in Arabic cultures and in Eastern traditional medicine. It is still added to Turkish coffee to counteract acidity. Like neroli, it is often considered to be an aphrodisiac – but not quite to the same extent, and usually in combination with other aromatics. However, according to Vedic texts, it had a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac. Cardamom was used as a mediaeval love potion, and was known as ‘the fire of Venus’ (Venus being the Roman goddess of love and beauty). Cardamom features in incenses too, for example in Tibetan practice it is used medicinally for anxiety, and in Hindu ceremonies it forms part of a powdered incense formula called ‘Abir’. In ancient Egypt, cardamom was sometimes included as an ingredient of the incense known as kyphi, as an alternative to cinnamon. However, the Egyptian texts do not have a word that has been identified as meaning cardamom; it was the early writers such as Plutarch, Galen and Dioscorides that made these comments about the mysterious and celebrated kyphi.

Cardamom has been distilled to yield the essential oil since the 16th century, and is used in perfumery to give spicy, warm notes in floral fragrances. Its use in perfumery has perhaps been eclipsed by its medicinal attributes. An ancient Roman perfume called ‘Mendesium’ included cardamom, along with ben nut, myrrh and galbanum; this was valued not only as a perfume, but as a treatment for sore muscles – an early aromatherapy preparation? The essential oil should have a fresh spicy character; if there is a harsh or strong medicinal eucalyptus-like note, the quality may be questionable. This medicinal note is caused by the presence of a constituent that is also dominant in many eucalyptus essential oils, commonly known as eucalyptol, that gives the typical eucalyptus, or cineolic, odour. It can be present in cardamom essential oil at fairly high levels, but too much is detrimental to the fragrance. Eucalyptol, or 1,8-cineole has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain – hence the reputation of scents such as eucalyptus as stimulants to combat fatigue.

In aromatherapy, the main psychotherapeutic use of cardamom is for mental fatigue. Other uses are for the digestive system (echoing the traditional medicinal uses), the nervous system (traditional and contemporary evidence to support this) and as an expectorant (because, partly of the influence of the 1,8-cineole which has this property).

When smelling cardamom essential oil, look for a strong, penetrating, slightly cineolic note at the beginning that quickly gives way to the aromatic, sweet, spicy body before the balsamic nature of the dry out starts to be revealed. As you might expect, the eucalyptus-like top note can confer a feeling of alertness and clear sensations, so this scent can be very useful to help promote mental clarity, vitality and serenity.

Read tomorrow’s post to discover the properties of Virginian cedarwood

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.

Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part Two: Benzoin

This post continues Jennifer Peace Rhind‘s exploration of five essential oils and their roles in wellbeing. Click here to go to the  first part in this series – Neroli.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author photo: Robert Taylor


Benzoin is an aromatic resin that exudes from the wounded bark of small shrubby trees that are native to tropical Asia. The botanical names for the sources are Styrax benzoin, Styrax paralleloneuris and Styrax tonkinensis. The second part of the name indicates the different species, but they are all members of a larger botanical group known as the genus Styrax – tall, rapidly-maturing, birch-like trees. Two types of product are obtained, depending on the geographical and botanical origins. Siam benzoin occurs in brittle, yellow-brown to white ‘tears’, while Sumatra benzoin is a milky resinous sap which hardens before it is scraped off the bark. Benzoin cannot yield an essential oil, because its odorous molecules are not sufficiently volatile to distil over. Instead, benzoin is solvent extracted to give the material used in perfumery and aromatherapy; this product is known as a resinoid, and it can be further treated – for example, it needs to be dissolved in alcohol to facilitate use in perfumery. Resinoids themselves are difficult to handle, as they are thick, sticky, usually brown coloured extracts.

Benzoin, sometimes called gum Benjamin, was well known in the ancient world, and it has a very long tradition of use as a fragrance. Benzoin resin was a valuable commodity in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was used as a fixative in perfumes. The Romans called it laserpitium, and it was valued not only for its own contribution to a perfume, but also because it helped prolong the odour profile of the perfume and increase its staying power.

Benzoin was introduced to Europe in the 17th century. Its popularity endured, with the result that Siam became a major producer and supplier. Although it had medicinal uses, in Hindu and Buddhist practices benzoin was one of the incenses used to drive away evil. It is interesting to note that one of the ancient practices was to burn the resin at the feet of the dead, so that their souls were lifted to heaven with the smoke.

Both types of benzoin resinoid have a soft, sweet, vanilla-like scent; both are still used as a fixatives and base notes in perfumery. Siam benzoin resinoid has a sweet, balsamic, chocolate-like scent, and Sumatra benzoin resinoid is warm, sweet and powdery. Balsamic scents are sweet and warm, with a soothing character. The term powdery is used to denote a note that is reminiscent dry powder. Benzoin resinoid has a low evaporation rate, and is classed as a base note. This means that its odour molecules are amongst the last to evaporate and thus it contributes more to the final phases of a perfume rather than the initial impact. However, the resinoid does have its own top and middle notes. In Siam benzoin, which is more commonly available, the top note has a floral character, and the body is sweet, balsamic and the vanilla notes begin to emerge; the vanilla character is the part that persists and really characterises this resinoid. The vanilla note is due to the presence of a constituent called vanillin – the synthetic version of this is widely used in modern perfumery.

As well as being a valuable perfume material, benzoin resinoid has many other uses, for example in pharmaceutical preparations for the gums and skin, and as a component of tinctures to aid the respiratory system such as ‘Friar’s Balsam’. In in aromatherapy, it is primarily used for its calming, comforting scent, for stress-related problems, for skin problems and respiratory problems. Benzoin does have a reputation as a sensitizer (causing an allergic type of skin reaction), and it is sticky to touch, so it does require care in skin preparations. However, sniffing and inhalation are completely safe activities.

The scent of oils from resins such as benzoin can be used to help impart a sense of inner peace and security, stability and equilibrium. The sweet nature of benzoin is also experienced as nurturing and comforting, grounding and calming.

Read tomorrow’s post to discover the properties of Cardamom

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.


Five essential oils – an Introduction to Plant Derived Scents and their Role in Wellbeing. Part One: Neroli

By Jennifer Peace Rhind, author of Essential Oils.

Photo: Singing Dragon author Jennifer Peace Rhind

Author Photo: Robert Taylor

Over the next five days, I would like to introduce five very different plant derived scents, and, as well as throwing some light on the traditional uses of these scents, show how current research supports their use in aromatherapy, and how they can be used to enhance wellbeing. Along the way, we will explore a variety of interesting olfactory experiences.


Neroli essential oil is obtained from the blossoms of the bitter orange tree. The botanical name of the tree, and source of neroli oil, is Citrus aurantium subspecies amara flos. (amara meaning bitter, and flos. indicating that the oil is derived from the flowers). This tree is the source of three very distinctive essential oils and one absolute (an absolute is obtained by solvent extraction rather than steam distillation, which yields essential oils). Apart from neroli essential oil and the orange blossom absolute from the wonderfully scented blossom, there is bitter orange oil from the peel of the small fruits, and petitgrain oil from its leaves and green twigs.

Neroli first become popular as a fragrance in the 16th century. The scent was named after a town called Neroli, near Rome, whose princess used the scent and thus made it popular. Other writers suggest that it was named after the Italian Duchess of Nerola, who scented her kid gloves with the fragrance. Whatever neroli’s original claim to fame, over the years, its use became widespread in Europe, from princesses to prostitutes. It is one of the most expensive natural materials in perfumery. The natural perfumer Mandy Aftel describes its fragrance as ‘cool, elegant and intense…. with suave strength and understated sexuality’. Interestingly, her words might indeed echo the characteristics that appealed to its earliest users! Many of the floral oils and absolutes, especially those derived from white flowers, such as jasmine and neroli, contain tiny amounts of indole, a compound that is also present in animal and human faeces. This might just have an erotic attraction for the animals involved in pollination, and is perhaps why many of the scents categorised as aphrodisiacs do contain traces of indole. However, it should be stressed that indole is not the main chemical that contributes to the characteristic, disgust-provoking odour of faeces – it is compounds that contain sulphur that are the culprits.

The essential oil is often referred to as neroli bigarade. The scent is a light, ethereal, although persistent floral, and some might detect a lily of the valley type of note. In the top and middle notes (that is, the first impression and a short while later, when the scent is developing on the smelling strip) you might detect a fresh green note, like crushed green leaves, and a faint impression of citrus, and even a slight bitter note, overlying the more typical, heady orange blossom fragrance that persists until the ‘dry out’ – the last notes that remain after the main phase of evaporation. A few noses might just get the very faint faecal impression, but this is unusual, and should certainly not deter you from experiencing this beautiful and complex scent.

Aromatherapists use neroli in many situations – it is regarded as ‘safe’ in most circumstances. It is often found in prescriptions for muscular aches and pains, especially the stress-related variety, and for skin problems such as sensitivity and acne. However, it is best known for its uplifting, anxiety-relieving and calming actions that are of value in both aiding sleep and counteracting fatigue. Both animal and human studies support these aromatherapeutic uses. Neroli is also said to induce a trance-like state if it is inhaled when warm. Several aromatherapists have reported experiencing this when conducting massage treatments. This emphasises the difference between sniffing to detect and appreciate an odour, and inhaling a larger quantity of the vapour. A therapist will actually inhale as much as, if not more than their client will inhale, as the therapist is much more active and taking more breaths!

In perfumery, neroli is an important ingredient in classic Eau de Cologne, and as a top note in many fragrances. Its solvent extracted counterpart, orange blossom absolute, plays more of a role in the middle notes of perfumes. Floral oils such as neroli, with their intense, sensual odours have become associated with aspects of creativity – and this includes having fun, feeling relaxed and in touch with the senses, and stimulating the imagination. Perhaps the main potential benefit of engaging with the scent of neroli is the dissipation of anxiety, and so the pleasure of being in the moment.

In tomorrow’s post, Jennifer will explore the properties of Benzoin

© 2012 Singing Dragon blog. All Rights Reserved.