Individuation & the Power of Scent: An Interview With Florian Birkmayer MD

Florian Birkmayer is the kind of multidisciplinary spirit we love at Aromatica Poetica. Trained as a psychiatrist, deeply influenced by Jung, and devoted to the healing power of scent and the natural world, particularly aromatherapy and equine therapy, his practice has led him to found Aromagnosis with his wife Cathy Skipper. Together they are developing an online and live learning curriculum that is truly unique, including classes such as Alchemy, Aromatherapy and Medicine of the Soul, Intuitive Plant Communication, Hydrosols Certification, and more.

Aromatica Poetica: Your training is in psychiatry, yes? Can you tell us a little bit about your clinical and theoretical practices, models and influences?

Florian Birkmayer: Yes, I am a psychiatrist. I got my medical doctorate at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in NY. Then I did my specialty training in psychiatry at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (which is how I ended up in New Mexico).

At this point I think my biggest influences are my wife Cathy Skipper, as well as C.G. Jung, shamanism and certain strains of ecopsychology. In the past I’ve also been influenced by multi-cultural collaboration with Native Americans, the mental health recovery movement and finding the beauty in everything (I’m thinking specifically of the influence the photography of Joel Peter Witkin had on me.). From my deep collaboration with Navajo traditional healers at a tradition-based detox/rehab in Gallup I learned about multiple truths and realities and how to collaborate across those. From the mental health recovery movement (and later the work of Robert Whitaker and Mad In America) I learned how mainstream psychiatry disempowers people and how important it is to foster people’s self-efficacy.

Since I started my private practice in 2009, I had the opportunity to help many people get off psychiatric medications, which can be a harrowing journey, and I learned a lot from my clients about resilience and self-efficacy. I had long been frustrated by the symptom focus of biomedical medicine and psychiatry and the Jungian idea that the symptoms are messages from the psyche, that should be honored instead of suppressed, was transformational.

The Jungian model offers a positive definition of health, while biomedical medicine offers only a negative definition. Instead of health being merely the absence of disease (a negative definition), which is the biomedical view, the Jungian view says that each of our lives is a unique opportunity to individuate, that is to become fully ourselves–our symptoms and struggles can be transformed into meaningful experiences on the journey of discovering our Personal Myth. Individuation offers a lifelong path of evolution, embodied in each of our Personal Myths.

AP: Did your interest in aromatics develop before, after or during your medical training? And how so?

FB: I’ve been interested in aromatherapy since childhood, and in my private practice finally had the opportunity to use it with clients, to help them through the difficult parts of their journeys of individuation. I’ve worked with a lot of clients with trauma and PTSD, and the core wounding from trauma in my experience is a feeling of being cut off–from themselves, from their family and loved ones, from their environment and nature, and from Spirit. The word trauma in ancient Greek actually means wound or cut.

Aromatic molecules are the molecules of connectedness, one of the main media through which plants communicate with each other and other beings, including us. They remind us all of our connection to nature around us and allow us to tap into the healing wisdom of Nature. We’ve kept the psyche that is greater than us, of the world, i.e. Gaia, in the unconscious. We need to reconnect to Nature’s spirit to survive. My current work with my wife Cathy Skipper aims to reconnect people to their own spirit and Nature’s spirit through using aromas.

My interest in aromatics began in childhood, when my grandfather got a bottle of JHP, one of the first essential oil blends from a Swiss company in the 70s. I’ve used aromatherapy on myself ever since then. In medical school, I had to keep my interest quiet, since there was a lot of skepticism by my professors in medical school, but my interest deepened. At the time a friend and mentor shared an essential oil blend that is incredibly effective for wound healing and I began to see the deeper power of aromatherapy. I only started using it with clients once I opened my private practice and it was very well received.

AP: Do you use aromatics with patients/clients, and if so how?

FB: I am currently not seeing clients for psychotherapy or medication management since I’m focusing on teaching with my wife Cathy Skipper–both in person and online–but when I was seeing clients I used aromatherapy in a variety of ways ranging from symptom relief, e.g. for insomnia or anxiety attacks, to using aromas as allies in the journey of spiritual evolution. Most of my clients had trauma and PTSD, often in addition to other issues such as addiction or major mood disorders. I’ve used aromatherapy to relieve cravings from various addictions, relieve insomnia, anxiety, dissociative episodes. I also made custom blends for clients, as allies, which some clients called “my guardian angels.”

AP: How does your Jungian training relate to your interest in aromatics, if at all?

FB: To me, Jung’s model of individuation provides a framework for aromatherapy for emotional, mental and spiritual needs that is beyond just relieving symptoms. Jung himself wasn’t aware of the power of scent on the psyche, it was in his unconscious. Yet his rediscovery of the Collective Unconscious was invaluable–it bridges the gap between psychiatry/psychology and new age spirituality. (In fact Jung has been called the father of the New Age and was the first to use this phrase.) To me it seemed natural to combine aromatherapy and the Jungian model. The ancient Egyptians and Indians used scent as a spiritual technology for millennia

AP: How does equine therapy relate to aromatherapy, if at all?

FB: What both equine assisted therapy and alchemical aromatherapy have in common is that they help us get out of our intellect and into our body. Instead of being trapped in the past or the future by our thoughts, we come back into our body and the present moment. We connect with ourselves and Nature around us. To me this is foundational for any healing.

AP: The sense of smell is our only sense to have a direct connection with the brain, and is deeply influential on the limbic system, which is known to influence our emotions. Can you talk a little about the limbic system and its connection to smells on the one hand and our emotional well-being on the other?

FB: With regards to the limbic system, let me first give you the ‘narrow’ view and then expand it. The nerve fibers from all our senses, other than scent, go through an area of the brain called the thalamus, which is like a mixing board and where the brain influences the sensory input. Our eyes only perceive what our brain tells them to perceive. The reason we don’t feel the clothes on our skin constantly is because our brain filters that out from the touch neurons.

However, the sense of smell is the only sense that goes directly into the limbic system, which is also the area where we encode emotional memories. This is why scent can trigger powerful emotional memories, e.g. as can be seen in Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, a 3000 page novel of thinly veiled personal recollections that is triggered by the author eating a cookie–the scent of which reminds him of his childhood. There are interesting discussions of scent and memory in the early pages of Proust’s work and a colleague of mine years ago called Proust a neuroscientist for these descriptions.

Of course, scents can also change our emotional state in the here and now, very rapidly and powerfully. In terms of the relationship of the limbic system and emotions, the limbic system can be seen as the hardware and the emotions as the software. The limbic system is the central system for processing and feeling emotions, in connection with other parts of the brain. So much for the narrow view.

Based on my experiences with equine therapy and an interesting talk by Reggie Ray, a Buddhist teacher in Crestone, Colorado, who cofounded Dharma Ocean with his wife, as well as many people, especially women talking about their ‘gut sense’, my understanding of emotions has changed. I’m sure you’ve heard of the idea of cellular memory, which is the idea that all our cells everywhere in the body encode memories, including traumas. I’m speculating, based on my reading about Transient Receptor Potential Channels, a large family of receptors that react to combinations of stimuli, and are why menthol feels cool and chile hot, and which are found all over the body, that these receptors may be the medium of cellular memory.

When doing equine therapy, many clients and myself experienced a sense of wordlessness and of being fully in the present. Being with the horses pulls our awareness from our brain (neocortex) and ego-mind into our body brain and emotional presence and connectedness. I see the neocortex (and ego-mind) as intrinsically disconnected/insulated/removed from the world by the skull and dependent on the external senses. In contrast, the body brain, which I think consists of the neurons found in the heart and gut (and it is said there are more neurons in the gut than in the brain), as well as all the cells in the body (cellular memory) is in direct connection with all the beings around us. (This is discussed more in writings about HeartMath.)

Like equine therapy, aromatherapy can help bring our awareness into our “body brain” and restore connection and overcome the sense of isolation. I think this is crucial to our emotional wellbeing and survival in harmony with Nature.

As a side note, the metaphor ‘left-brain / right-brain’ that’s become widely known refers to this, but is functionally and anatomically inaccurate. I would prefer to refer to the same idea as ‘head-brain’ (or ego-brain) and ‘body-brain’, which I think, is more precise.

AP: In the hydrosol encounter you taught with Cathy Skipper, you seemed to be urging us to think like a synesthete. How is this approach helpful in appreciating the taste and aroma of hydrosols?

FB: Our sense of smell has been neglected in our culture and we haven’t cultivated it. No wonder Jung didn’t think about it, it’s mostly in the collective unconscious. In order to help people rediscover their sense of smell, I deliberately don’t tell them what the hydrosols are ahead of time in the hydrosol encounter. As soon as someone knows what a scent is, they are no longer perceiving with scent, but rather it is filtered through the intellect. So how do we reconnect people with their sense of smell, if they are unconscious of it? We need to reawaken them and making them aware of the power of scent through bringing participants’ awareness to their other senses and intuitions (non-sensory perceptions if you will) is one way to make people aware and give them more language to describe it.

I’ve been fascinated by synesthesia since childhood, when I experienced smells that weren’t smells (they were ‘metallic’ but not as a scent, more like a texture and shine) and ‘abstract’ things like numbers, letters, weekdays and months had different ‘colors.’ Later (in college I think) I found out Vladimir Nabokov experienced synesthesia and wrote about it. I’m hoping to revisit the topic in upcoming work and hopefully classes on scent.

*To learn more about the wonderful teachings of Florian and Cathy, and to learn when they’ll be in your part of the world, visit Aromagnosis.com and be sure to sign up for their newsletter! And,check out our fascinating interview with Cathy Skipper: Alchemy, Aromatherapy, and Distillation*