Scents and Sensibility

Scents and Sensibility

The spell of smell: Why using essential oils for meditation makes good scents

Of all the senses, smell holds surprising influence over cognition, emotion and even other senses. It’s an ancient, primal sense, deeply rooted in survival and practically universal. All living things, from single-celled organisms to the most accomplished bloodhound, rely on sensing odor cues in their environment. Odors are chemicals, and olfaction is just the vertebrate version of the invertebrate’s ability to sense chemicals. One of the lingering side effects of Covid, the loss of smell, has taught us not to underestimate its importance. While necessity may be the mother of olfaction, it’s other parent may well be pleasure. Many ancient civilizations, including Egypt, China and India, have used aromatherapy as a popular complementary and alternative therapy for more than thousands of years. The sensitivity to scent is an intricate evolutionary adaptation that until recently had comparatively little research behind it. 

But one thing is for sure: There’s more to odor that meets the nose. Smell helps us navigate social cues, physical stimulation, and even emotional regulation. It can fill you with loathing, flood you with memories, make you spend more money. It’s tied to intuition and memory. It can distract you but it can also help you focus, which is why many consider it an aid to meditation—a direct path to your quiet, happy place. 

As emerging meditators know, sitting still and doing nothing sounds much easier than it is. The mind abhors a vacuum—it likes to get into all the business and has issues relinquishing thoughts. Given the challenges that come with the cushion, anything that can help you become still and focused is worth exploring. From soothing lavender to grounding palo santo, the following scents can be a boon to your meditation practice. 

The best essential oils for meditation


Produced primarily in France, lavender has a floral scent with woody undertones. 

The essential oil, one of the most popular and versatile oils used in aromatherapy, is renowned for its ability to alleviate anxiety. A 2017 study showed that lavender oil aromatherapy can produce a "calming effect without sedation," which is the holy grail for meditators.


The strong floral scent of rose has been linked to love for millennia. It’s also linked to the heart chakra in Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine, so the scent can be especially uplifting for those experiencing loneliness or grief. Many studies show that rose has significant calming effects on the central nervous system. Aromatherapist claim it can boost self-confidence and self-worth, enhance connection, and even increase spiritual attunement.

Palo Santo

Palo Santo, known as a “holy wood” or “sacred wood,” has been used in traditional healing and in spiritual ceremonies in indigenous and mestizo Latin American cultures for centuries. Traceable back to the time of the Incan Empire, Palo Santo comes from the tropical dry forests of Ecuador, Mexico and the Yucatán Peninsula in Peru. Grounding and distinctively aromatic, Palo Santo is believed to ward off negative energy. Uplifting and calming, it serves as a powerful tool when implemented in meditation practices and prayer.

Consider using Palo Santo essential oil in lieu of sandalwood, which recently slipped into vulnerable status and whose cultivation has long struggled with sustainability issues. To ensure Palo Santo does not become similarly fraught, try to determine if the Palo Santo you’re

buying is sustainably sourced and ethically produced. 

How to use oils for meditation

There are three main ways to use essential oils in your meditation: In a diffuser, as candles or incense, or through applying them directly on your skin, diluted through a carrier oil. Diffusers allow the scent of the essential oil to permeate the room, creating a mist of scent that envelopes you. Alternatively, you can also burn candles or incense infused with essential oils during meditation but beware of synthetic fragrances that can be packed with phthalates, a toxic chemical. If you choose the skin method, be aware that essential oils are extremely volatile and do best when diluted with something like skin cream, carrier oil, or water, in order to be used safely. If you’re using a new oil, try a tiny test spot on your skin with the diluted oil. If your skin has a reaction, you should see it in 45 minutes. Any kind of irritation is a sign you will need to dilute the oil further or choose a different scent.

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