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Now the Christmas lights have been taken down and the festive decorations have been packed away, it is a natural time to think: ”Well, what now?” Spending some quiet time reflecting on our achievements and mistakes over the past year and assessing our goals for the months ahead is a healthy and constructive way to ease gently into the New Year. Of course, it is not helpful to worry needlessly over past problems, but it is always useful to consider why something went wrong and what is within our power to change within ourselves. In this way, perhaps we don’t make the same mistakes again in the future! At the same time it is good to take responsibility for our own life in a pro-active way, since it is by having a positive ‘can do’ attitude that we are able to succeed and fulfill our aims.

I read something very inspiring over the Christmas holidays: “Our vocation is not what we do … but who we are!” If we take this to heart, it is great panacea against the stressful pace of modern life, where we tend to think we need to be in the fast lane to achieve our goals. But this attitude, which is always pressing us to work harder and to be someone different, is not conducive to a peaceful state of mind or discovering a sense of real meaning in our personal lives. Another words, our goal does not need to always be focussed on something external or about changing our outer situation but rather about uncovering a sense of serenity within our selves… this also means developing a healthy self-image.

One of the most useful ways to develop a positive attitude towards our selves is to take time out to relax. Indeed, it is good to try and find a regular space during each day for a reflective moment. It could be whilst out walking the dog, lying in a warm bath, doing yoga or practising meditation. The idea is to slow down and just witness what is going on around you, as well as how you feel and what you are thinking about at that very moment. Simply remembering to be present in the moment is something extremely precious and healing … it is also personally nourishing on a fundamental level. But of course the ability to just ‘be present in the moment’ is easier said than done!

The repetition of a certain act so we become habituated to it, is the essence of ‘ritual’. Natural aromatics have been used for thousands of years to accompany spiritual rituals, whether this is through prayer, meditation or the act of purifying our outer and inner environment, as in the Native American tradition of the Sweat Lodge. According to this tradition, ‘smudge sticks’ are used to purify people and places where the smoke from the burning herb acts to cleanse the body, an object or a place from any negativity. In the Plains Sweat-Lodge ritual, the floor of the structure is traditionally strewn with White Sage leaves for the participants to inhale their fragrance and to rub on their bodies during the sweat. In this way, the scent and effect of the herb becomes intrinsically tied up and associated with the experience of the ritual itself.

Perhaps the best-known botanical aromatic used in this kind of ritualistic manner in the West today is frankincense, which is traditionally used in the Roman Catholic Mass. However, in ancient times, it was the focus of an entire incense trade route that ran from East to West. Aromatics were seen above all as a means of communicating with the divine and as a way of raising the human spirit. In fact, incense has been used to influence the deeper recesses of the mind and psyche for thousands of years, especially in the context of religious and spiritual practises.

Our sense of smell is processed by the limbic region of our brain … the area that deals specifically with our stored memories and emotions. This is the reason why a certain scent can instantly transport us back to a long-forgotten scene from our childhood and why fragrance is such a powerful ‘trigger’, instantly connecting us with past experiences associated with a repeated ritual. Cypress, juniper, cedarwood, sage, frankincense, myrrh, and sandalwood are but a few of the many natural aromatic herbs, essential oils, woods and gum resins which have been used since antiquity to alter our consciousness, relax our breathing, calm the mind and create a sense of ritual which is conducive to contemplative practise.

All these essential oils can also be employed effectively in a modern day context, used in oil burners or vaporisers to accompany meditation practise, prayer, purification, yoga or simply a session of relaxation. Many essential oils can also be used to combat anxiety and nervous tension when used in massage oils or added to a warm bath for a soothing effect. Seen in this way, essential oils and aromatics are very valuable in helping to combat the stresses of everyday life through connecting with the time-long tradition of ritual.

NOTE: Always check the specific safety information for each essential oil before use and do a patch test before applying any new oil to your skin. See our Aqua Oleum website safety guidelines for more information.