As I admitted in a previous post, I really didn’t know why I studied religion in college other than I found it more interesting than most other things. I was simultaneously beginning a career in massage and alternative therapies with the dream of creating a healing center someday. This past August, that dream became a reality as the Upward Spiral Center expanded to include a retail store featuring our own line of essential oils. Within a month of opening a new store, I found that one of the first lessons I learned in the study of religion was also an invaluable tool in aromatherapy education and sales.
I grew up surrounded by essential oils and aromatherapy, and they were really part of my everyday life. My mom founded one of the first and longest running aromatherapy schools in the country just a few years after I was born, and had studied and worked with essential oils for ten years prior. Earlier in my adulthood, I followed my own career path, but I have recently committed myself to a dedicated study of aromatherapy with the dream of continuing and expanding my mom’s intellectual legacy.
An important part of her mission is educating practitioners on safety. On the outside, one may not realize the intense battle that has been occurring for decades concerning the best guidelines for the safe use of essential oils. When I was younger, my mom, in her passionate nature, would be all fired up some days about some essential oil company that was teaching a practice where undiluted essential oils are dropped on a client’s back. To my mom, this was blasphemous! All of her experience had shown her that using undiluted essential oils on the skin created a greater chance for burns, irritation, and sometimes an irreversible allergic reaction (called sensitization). She spent a great part of her career working to correct certain beliefs that essential oils are universally safe – self-proclaimed “superior quality” oils included – emphasizing that they are even less safe when used in high concentrations and can be extremely unsafe when used in “pure” or undiluted applications.
For those of us in the aromatherapy community, this can be an area of contention – one that divides us, for sure. The example above is just one, but there are more. There is no universal agreement on proper safety for using essential oils and the disagreements on proper practices are vast.
I recently had an interaction with a woman in our new store that showed me how bad things can be when people from opposing “schools of thought” in aromatherapy start to talk. I won’t recreate the entirety of the interaction here – which concerned our opposing positions regarding certain uses of essential oils – but let’s just say that I ended up feeling defeated. I decided that if I am going to contribute anything of significance to this field, it is going to be finding a way for real conversations to go beyond “proving” one side as right or wrong. It seems clear that this is what our world is lacking.
These types of interactions and conversations may specifically pertain to the field of aromatherapy, but the issue here is universal. Contrary beliefs are dividing our community just like contrary religious beliefs or political beliefs are dividing communities around the world today. But, one of the most invaluable tools I received from my Religious Studies degree came from the first reading in my first class (Introduction to World Religions): a two-page document called the “Dialogue Decalogue.” It spelled out the “ten commandments of inter-religious, inter-ideological dialogue” – and brilliantly, I might add.
I can recognize that the conversation I had with the woman in my store ended the way it did because I was so stuck in my own perspective – especially since I was identifying as an educator – that there was no room for dialogue. Obviously, I wasn’t the only one stuck in a perspective, but I can only take charge for my own actions and responses.
The “Dialogue Decalogue” defines a dialogue as “a conversation on a common subject between two or more persons with differing views, the primary purpose of which is for each participant to learn from the other so that s/he can change and grow.” I know that as I engaged with the woman in my store, I was not dialoguing with her. I was far more concerned with being able to bring the “truth of aromatherapy” to her so that she could change and grow. But, as the first “commandment” states, the reason one enters dialogue is so that one can change and grow, not change the partner’s point of view. And just that simple shift can create a major breakthrough. When we allow ourselves to learn and grow from what our partners say, then our attitude towards them changes, which totally changes the interaction.
I also broke another one of the commandments when I unfairly compared my ideals about what is “right” to what this customer told me about how she practices with her essential oils: consuming them in her water every day. Though I believe this is unnecessarily risky, I could have just diffused this tension between us by instead comparing the difference between the ways we both consume the essential oils. The “Dialogue Decalogue” points out that “we must not compare our ideals with our partner’s practice, but rather our ideals with our partner’s ideals, our practice with our partner’s practice.” Comparing ideals to practice, or vice versa, is unfruitful because it immediately invites judgment, which inhibits a rewarding and thoughtful engagement. Individuals don’t want to be told that they are doing something wrong, especially when they are doing something to improve their health or the health of those around them.
My resolution is to approach this issue in our field with the same care as a facilitator would an inter-ideological dialogue. My goal will not be to change the beliefs and practices of these groups that do things I do not agree with, but instead to work to understand them in order to understand myself and my own beliefs and practices better. Instead of trying to disprove their perspectives with hard science and countless testimonials of adverse effects, I will instead seek to understand the reasons why they believe certain things are safe. Perhaps with that openness they will seek the same understandings too. Accusing and pointing fingers doesn’t make friends nor does it solve problems, but being able to openly dialogue has the chance to. I believe that the point of educating is to encourage dialogue. All I need is that chance.
The awareness of this delicate dance of dialogue is something I owe to my study of religion, and it seems to be what’s needed in this divisive world – not just in terms of aromatherapy, but much broader issues as well.
Who could you initiate true dialogue with today? I’d love to hear about new ways you might apply the “Dialogue Decalogue” in your own communities or fields of study. Let’s dialogue about it here. Please leave a comment with your thoughts and observations!