by David Crow, L.Ac.
Traditional medical systems such as Ayurveda and Chinese medicine (TCM) are fundamentally systems of “eco-physiology,” which describe the functioning of the human body using terms and concepts derived from observing the elements and energetic patterns of planetary biospheric physiology. If students contemplate these principles deeply, they begin to develop a kind of “macro-thinking” that reveals not just the basic elemental correspondences taught in Ayurvedic and TCM colleges, but vast patterns of interrelationships between living beings and the underlying commonalities of biological functions. When this type of synthetic and integrative thinking is combined with an understanding, even rudimentary, of botany, physiology, and chemistry, a truly holistic vision of life emerges. A holistic vision of life awakens a sense of reverence for the intelligence operating within every aspect of nature, and this awakening in turn is the foundation of spiritual wisdom.
The subject of prana is an excellent contemplation for developing the type of macro-thinking that forms the basis of Ayurvedic philosophy. Functioning both at the universal and at the microscopic level, prana unites all life into a unified field yet functions in specific ways within the anatomy, physiology and consciousness of living beings. Any aspect of life could be the entry point for this contemplation, as we could examine the nature of prana in any field of science or in any path of spiritual study and practice.
Essential Oils and Prana
For the purpose of this article we will follow the journey of essential oils used in aromatherapy from their origin within aromatic plants until their absorption into the limbic system of the human brain and their subsequent impact on physiological functions and ultimate metabolism into consciousness. The subject of aromatherapy is especially relevant for this contemplation on the nature of prana, as volatile aromatic molecules, distillation, respiration, olfaction, and the effects of fragrance on the central nervous system all share prana as their primary elemental medium.
The journey of prana as an essential oil from aromatic plants into the recesses of our limbic systems and inward to states of consciousness must begin ultimately at the source of the elements that nurture the plants.
“All that exists in the three heavens rests in the control of prana,” states the Prashna Upanishad. According to this all-encompassing description, prana is the original creative power of the universe, inherent within both Purusha (primordial consciousness) and Prakruti (primordial matter) before its projection and manifestation into all levels and forms of Creation. It is therefore to be found in the fertility of the soil, in the nourishment of the waters, in the luminosity of fire, in the life-sustaining power of air and breath and diffused throughout all space. This is the deepest origin of all the healing powers inherent within medicinal plants: the pancha mahabhutas (five elements) as the expression of Prakruti’s prana (primordial matter’s life force), made available to nourish, strengthen, and cure all beings.
The biological process of creating essential oils begins with the assimilation of the environmental pancha mahabhutas into the bodies of plants. Being the original inhabitants of the earth, plants have the capacity to live by directly consuming the elements of the biosphere, while humans, who appeared relatively recently in planetary history, are completely dependent on plants for both the food chain and the atmosphere. In this way, plants might be described as “higher” beings living in a “lower” realm of biological evolution.
Sunlight and Alchemy of Sandalwood
Using the example of a sandalwood tree growing in the forest of Tamil Nadu, we can observe how the external elements of the surrounding forest are assimilated by the tree: the earth and water elements in the form of nutrients and liquids in the soil are absorbed by the tree’s roots; the process of photosynthesis captures the radiant energy of the sun and transforms it into carbohydrates; the air element is inhaled and exhaled through the leaves; these four elements circulate through the channels of space within the tree. Over time these elements slowly undergo metabolic alchemy within the heartwood and roots, resulting in a clear, slightly viscous liquid with a golden-yellow hue that has a rich and subtle bouquet of soft, sweet and woody aromatic notes.
This process is not unlike the creation of ojas (nutritional essence) within the human body, where nutrients of food undergo transformation resulting ultimately in a substance that Ayurveda describes as the distilled essence of the solar and lunar influences metabolized by the plants we have consumed, a nectar gathered from the flowers of the dhatu agnis (tissue metabolism).
What is it that guides this assimilation of the pancha mahabhutas and their metabolism within the tree and leads to the final alchemical result of sandalwood oil?
The Kaushitaki Upanishad says: "From prana indeed all living forms are born and having been born, they remain alive by prana. At the end they merge into prana once
more. " It is, therefore, the presence of prana that distinguishes a living body from a dead one, whether it is human, animal, or plant. We can infer from this quote that prana is present within the seed, that it is part of the power of germination, that it supports the development and birth of every organism and that it is the sustaining power that supports the survival of every being. We can also infer that it is the force that is energizing the metabolic transformations taking place inside our sandalwood tree and therefore an inherent ingredient of the oil that gradually appears in its heartwood.
Prana as Intelligence
However, prana is not only energy, but also intelligence. How many trillions of events are taking place this moment within the sandalwood tree as it metabolizes the elements of the forest environment into oil? What controls the myriad physiological events that occur every instant in our own bodies? What force pumps the heart, breathes the air, digests the food, regulates the hormones, excretes the wastes, fires the nerves, balances the liver enzymes, gives power to immunity? Furthermore, what control do we actually have over these events? Obviously, the human body, and likewise all living things, possess an innate and profound intelligence that knows how to grow, evolve, sustain and multiply itself, in spite of interferences from the negative habits of individual consciousness. Remembrance of our utter dependency on this intelligence, present within us from the moment of conception until the last exhalation, is a profound spiritual practice, another of Ayurveda’s gifts to the world.
To be continued...
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