The following is a transcript of Dr. Spiegel’s recent interview of Florian Birkmayer, MD, on the Optimal Living podcast.
Jeremy Spiegel: Hello and welcome to Optimal Living with Dr. Jeremy Spiegel. Optimal Living is brought to you by Casco Bay Medical in beautiful downtown Portland, Maine. Optimal Living will bring you ideas and tips to help you improve your one life on this planet.
Today my guest is my good friend, Florian Birkmayer. Dr. Birkmayer, M.D., is a Wounded Healer and co-developer with his wife, Cathy Skipper, of AromaGnosis, which synthesizes Jungian depth psychology and aromatherapy.
Florian and Cathy have been practicing what they preach through a continual commitment to transform life’s obstacles into opportunities for growth using aromas as living allies.
They teach their approach all over the world as well as online.
Florian thank you so much for being here today.
Florian Birkmayer: Thank you for having me, Jeremy.
JS: I should also note that I met Florian over 30 years ago as we were both undergraduates at Princeton. This was in 1988 as freshmen.
FB: That’s right.
JS: Yes, it’s been a while. So Florian, the one question that comes to me immediately is, what does the psychiatrist Carl Jung and his psychology have anything to do with aromatherapy, or scents, or aromas.
FB: That’s an excellent question, Jeremy, thank you. Well I’m going to try to be focused here but it does take a little bit of context.
So, Jung was very interested in the unconscious and both the individual unconscious as well as what he called the collective unconscious. I think more and more people are aware of the collective unconscious, you know these forces that shape us that manifest in different ways, that we encounter in different ways, through projection, through our dreams.
And so the funny thing is, Jung himself–I’ve scoured his writings–he only mentioned a rather disturbing aroma of a haunted house once, but otherwise he was completely blind to the power of aromas as far as I can tell.
And he and Freud said that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. But to me, really, aromas are the royal road to the unconscious.
You know, we all have experiences where a smell gives us goose bumps. I guess the most beautiful example is Marcel Proust who eats a cookie. He’s a writer in the 19th Century, and the taste of the cookie, which is really the scent of the cookie, reminds him of a cookie he had as a little boy at his aunt’s house. And then come this flood of memories that he wrote down in a three thousand book called Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time.
So what do Jung and aroma have to do with each other? Jung provides the framework and aroma provides the allies and the energy to deepen our relationship with the unconscious. To really learn how to collaborate with the unconscious.
JS: Yes, yes, I see. That makes sense. Now, I’ve heard you call essential oils the molecules of connectedness. What do you mean by that exactly?
FB: Well, let me start with a question. I mean why do we have a sense of smell? And just keep that question in mind. You know I’ve been fascinated by neurotransmitters, these molecules we have in our head, for a long time. Why do we have dopamine? Why do we have serotonin? There’s just sort of…the question why.
What I realized is that they were plant molecules for millions of years before they were in our brains and other mammalian brains. And on the one hand you could say well why did that happen? Oh, evolution likes to recycle, which is one argument.
But I actually think there’s a deeper reason and that is that–and this was inspired by an idea–I’m a backyard beekeeper–and I was just fascinated by how bees and the plants that they pollinate communicate with each other and when I looked into it, about 200 million years ago flowering plants, plants that evolved flowers to attract pollinators, co-evolved at the same time as pollinators. The most famous pollinators of course being bees, and there’s other insects and critters.
But the idea is that these plants figured out that by releasing these aromatic molecules, these molecules that travel through the air that the bees can smell and we can smell, the plant can get the bee to do it’s bidding saying: “Hey, pollinate me!”And if we expand that if you look at the role of aroma in people’s psychology, I think the plants really are constantly communicating with us.
When you work with aromas, if you have a friend and you say, “Oh smell this perfume,” you can’t say to your client or your friend, “Oh you smell this and I’m not going to smell it.” As soon as there’s smell molecules in the room, they all touch us.
And with my work as a psychiatrist the core symptom that many people suffer from is to feel cut off. I work with a lot of clients with trauma and PTSD and the word trauma literally means “cut” and it comes from the Greek word for a physical cut. But that cut is very important because trauma cuts us off from the people we love, it cuts us off from our selves, from our spirituality, from our sense of being human.
And what better way to heal that sense of being cut off than these molecules that the plants evolved millions of years ago to communicate across species, across kingdoms, and again in a way that you cannot turn off.
So that’s why I call these aromatic molecules the molecules of connectedness because they remind us that we’re part of this much larger spiritual ecosystem.
You know, people often say that the brain’s a computer. But the brain’s really like a Wi-Fi network. We’re constantly in communication verbally and non-verbally, and aroma is actually a huge language of communication. You know we’re smelling things constantly.
Just to put things in perspective, we have 900 genes in our genome that code for olfactory receptors and we have olfactory receptors in every organ in our body and To oversimplify it, if you imagine it, every olfactory receptor like a letter in an imaginary alphabet and you have 900 letters imagine the poetry you could right if you had 900 letters in the alphabet.
JS: That’s beautiful. When there is trauma something happens in the unconscious and then we might act out in a certain way or behave differently for the entirety of our lives because of some initial trauma. What should everyone know about the unconscious?
FB: Well, I think what everyone should know about the unconscious is that it can destroy you, which we see often in people who are severely traumatized and especially also in people struggling with addictions. Or it can be the source of life.
You know, I’ve had many clients tell me–clients with addiction issues–I’m at the cash machine getting the money out to buy my drugs and there’s a part of me that’s saying this is so stupid but I can’t stop myself.
So people who struggle with substance abuse actually have this beginning of wisdom that they realize there’s a force inside them, inside of all of us, that is much more powerful than the ego. And this force can either destroy us or if we learn to get along with it, it gives us a much deeper sense of being alive. In a nutshell, it really feeds us our personal myth.
I think the greatest opportunity in life is to really be ourselves fully and one way to look at that is to ask: What is my personal myth? What is my soul asking me to do in this life?
In a way the soul is part of the unconscious or another name for it. So when we have a healthy relationship with the unconscious it gives us that fulfilled life, and if we don’t have a healthy relationship with it it will destroy us.
JS: Now how does that relate to the concept of individuation? I know Carl Jung speaks about individuation or wholeness. Can you speak to that?
FB: Yes, thank you, that’s an excellent question. You know one thing that bugged me in medical school is that there really isn’t a positive definition of health. In Western medicine health is purely defined by the absence of illness and that, to me, is a negative definition.
There’s this apocryphal story about Freud where they once asked Freud, “Well, Dr. Freud, if I do all this psychoanalysis I can afford, and I get all the help I can get, what’s the best that I can hope for?”
And Freud supposedly said, “to be as normally miserable as everybody else.”
So again there’s this absence of neurosis, this absence of disease is the best we can hope for.
What I like about Jung’s view is that he coined this phrase, individuation, which is the idea that our opportunity in this brief one life as you said at the beginning is to become more and more ourselves. Another way to say that is to develop the relationship with the ego which is also called the self with a lowercase ‘s’ and the Self with an uppercase ‘S’, which in the Hindu tradition is called the Atman, the Divine Self.
So individuation is really a positive definition of health, it’s something that we can work on throughout our whole life to become more and more ourselves. And I’ve realized the word individuation is sort of jargon, so I prefer to use the word personal myth. And even that may be jargon.
So the other word to make it even more simple is, “What’s your soul’s purpose?” You know, you get born, and many people have great lives but at some point they realize something’s not right, you know this is a good life but this is not my life. The same happened in my personal journey.
And so when our soul comes calling and saying, “You need to live your life.” We ignore it at our own peril, but if we listen to it it becomes a lifelong journey that becomes more and more fulfilling.
JS: Let me ask you, how might you then introduce aromas to this individual you are working with? And what is the best I could hope to get out of this, your approach?
FB: Those are excellent questions. So I started, with my work, I really focused on with symptom relief. If someone had a panic attack in my office when they were recounting a trauma, they start breathing hard and they get palpitations, I’d have them smell certain oils to calm them and bring them down, back to reality from being really anxious or even dissociated.
But then I realized that the right quality of an essential oil can go much much deeper. So there’s an oil–an aromatic substance called Labdanum–it was actually first made by the ancient Egyptians–and now there’s an essential oil of it, and it’s from a plant called Cistus or Rockrose that grows in the Mediterranean, and this oil my wife and I call it the “Master of Shadows.”
In a supervised setting, with a good therapist, if you smell this aroma things will bubble up from your unconscious and, you know, the unconscious and that oil have a certain wisdom that won’t overwhelm you and won’t give you more than you can handle. But you’ll understand these unconscious connections.
The other thing that a lot of people struggle with is being dissociated. You know, we all know dissociation as a result of overwhelming trauma. People zone out and there’s lost time. Nowadays they use cell phones and their laptops to constantly stare at the screen and it’s like an electronic dissociation. Healing and being present and individuating and living our personal myth requires to be in our bodies.
There’s a number of oils that can really bring us in our body and ground us. One that I really like is Vetiver and there’s a particular type of Vetiver called Roucou that’s from India and wild grown. It’s an aromatic grass that has aromatic roots that’s used for erosion control. It really grounds people, it brings people into their body. That’s an important prerequisite for being ourselves.
Another aroma I want to mention in this context is Yarrow, which is a plant that grows in a temperate climate. The oil is a beautiful blue oil. We call the plant Yarrow the plant form of the Wounded Healer. It’s really good for healthy boundaries. Oftentimes people in the healing profession we take on a lot of other people’s energies and really for anybody.
When we have all sorts of feelings and experiences sometimes we are feeling feelings that aren’t even ours so Yarrow is really good at establishing these boundaries. In addition to these healthy boundaries it can teach us a lot more about our own wounds.
One thing I want to mention in terms of what these oils do is the network in the brain called the Default Mode Network that is getting more and more attention. It’s like when you’re not doing anything in particular, when you’re driving to work, a road you’ve driven a hundred times, you sort of go into the Default Mode Network.
But the Default Mode Network is also involved in very quick judgments and social judgments. I think when you click on a Facebook Like you’re operating on the Default Mode Network.
And I think with trauma, we talk about these ruts people go into, which I think are ruled by the Default Mode Network.
There are two studies I found that aromas will disrupt the Default Mode Network so that you’re not in these ruts.
So one thing is aromas can really disrupt these habitual, often traumatized patterns. And what’s the best we can hope for? That these oils can really help you live your personal myth. To be fully yourself, to be full of life energy, and to have a lifelong journey that you’re looking forward to.
JS: Wow. It’s fascinating. And it’s particularly fascinating for me as a psychiatrist because as a psychiatrist, whether it’s necessary or not, I’m often looked at as someone who is a supplier of medication. Even though clearly I’m capable of other things and other treatments and healing practices.
It seems that here you’re using molecules in a way that’s not altogether different from how me might ordinarily use molecules as medicine. But your molecules tend to be quite volatile, that is to say that they are ephemeral, or that they’re more reflective of what life is actually.
The ephemeral, moment to moment, sensations and experiences and also something that’s quite primal, we never talk about that sense of smell when we’re talking about all the things that psychiatrists tend to talk about with their patients.
FB: But what you said is beautiful. You know that life is very changing. To be in the moment is to fall from one moment to the next moment. And you’re right, and the other thing I love about these molecules–again, our brains evolved in the natural environment where these molecules were constantly talking to us, they’re sort of our native language if you will, even before we evolved our speech and written word.
JS: Florian, please tell us. Say someone’s interested in learning more about this with you and with your wife Cathy Skipper or receiving some kind of treatment from you. Where would I direct somebody?
FB: I think the starting point is our website, AromaGnosis.com. At that website we have online classes, we have a schedule of different live classes. We’re teaching all over the US and internationally this year and we’re scheduling more and more classes. And we also offer individual consultations, right now we’re developing and focusing on a consultation package that we call Find Your Soul’s Purpose.
We can do that both in the office here in New Mexico, but we’ve also done that literally all over the world online. So there are different ways to go deeper: the online classes, the live classes, and consultations with us.
JS: That’s perfect. Dr. Florian Birkmayer, thank you so much for spending time with me today and educating our listeners. This has been Optimal Living with Dr. Jeremy Spiegel and thank you so much for listening.