by Katharine Koeppen, RA
Last weekend, I facilitated a contemplative retreat for a group of 10 women. Our theme was A Sense of Wonder: Rediscovering the Divine Child Within, and most of the participants had no prior experience with meditation or contemplative prayer practices. What better way to incite a childlike wonder than through scent, the most primitive and least appreciated of our senses?
The original use of fragrance came from a need to communicate with Divine presence. It was thought that the pleasing smoke of burning resins and incense called down the gods and enabled a bridge for two way communication between supernatural forces and the various priests, oracles and shamans who summoned them. Ancient temples were literally thick with fragrant smoke, and many centers of worship burned incense 24 hours a day. In fact, many of these aromatic woods, resins and powders contained psychotropic phytochemicals which induced feelings ranging from general wellbeing to outright stupefication... no wonder the priestly classes of old saw visions and heard voices! Although our holy places are no longer completely enveloped in smoke, incense is still burned to mark special ceremonies everywhere from contemporary Christian churches to timeworn Shinto temples.
I began my presentation by burning a stick of palo santo wood and blessing each participant. Many of the women had no previous experience with ritual use of fragrance, and were enchanted by the individual clouds of aromatic smoke wreathing their heads.
The choice of palo santo (Bursera graveolens) was very intentional. The name literally translates as holy wood in Spanish, and it has been used in Andean healing ceremonies for over a thousand years. Nowadays, it is burned in Ecuadorian churches to mark holidays and special occasions. The aromatic oil cannot be extracted from live palo santo trees; it develops years after the trees die and are infested with a specific termite. The smoky-sweet palo santo fragrance is then recovered from the trees, just as these women were trying to recover and reconnect with their Divine Children.
For the meditative part of the presentation, I selected a series of aromas that are either loved by children everywhere or have strong memory associations for most people: sweet orange, mandarin, peppermint, spearmint, lavender, rose and rosemary. Participants were presented with scent strips for each essential oil and asked to choose the one which most appealed to them. Because much of the population is visually oriented and I anticipated that some people would be hesitant to rely on their sense of smell alone, everyone was provided with a fruit, flower or herb that matched their chosen scent. They were asked to taste and touch this visual cue while inhaling from their personalized scent strip, reflecting on the Divinity that created all of nature.
After a 20 minute meditation with their scent strip, they were asked to spend some time journaling about the experience. Much to my surprise and delight, it was hard to get them to put down their pens! When I asked them to share their observations and perceptions, the women could barely contain their excitement. Several had connected with happy childhood memories. One awestruck woman proclaimed, "I can't believe my God created something as beautiful, complex and perfectly made as this mandarin. Now I can see God everywhere, in everything!"
That, of course, was the point of the sensory meditation. At the end of the day, I received many compliments from the participants, who felt that they had reconnected to the natural world with the joy of a Divine Child in a unique and unforgettable way. They left the day with a newfound appreciation of both fragrance and its Creator.