Can Nothing Change Your Life?

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Several weeks ago, I was given a small glass bottle filled with water, a vegetable glycerin preservative, and the subtle energetic imprint of seven flowers selected by my subconscious. I was told to put four drops of this mixture in my drinks at least four times a day. After a month or so, this ritual would hopefully bring about an emotional shift culminating in my ability to “Radiate ME,” as the cheerful handwritten label on my bottle read. By the time I received this bottle, I was in fact already beginning to Radiate ME and fully understood what that meant and found none of this stupid. Wellness reporting is a slippery genre.

At this point in the evolution of the second New Age, many wellness-aligned exercises, often rooted in (or catastrophically appropriating) long-standing indigenous and traditional practices, have relaxed into a generic space in the Western cultural mainstream. Doctors are prescribing yoga. Reiki is offered as a gentle complementary treatment in some hospitals. The flower essences I was experimenting with are sort of in this sphere, but they’re still “very much on the weird end of the spectrum,” Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter and a longtime critic of all things woo-adjacent, said bluntly in an email. They’re often used by people who are already in the zone — already meditating or craniosacral therapy-ing or taking a class in spiritual herbalism.

I first learned about flower essences about a year ago at a popular yoga studio in Brooklyn, where a teacher mentioned a flower-essence workshop she was running. In the following months, I became obsessed with the concept because I like to feel confused, I guess. Despite the name, flower essences are not flower essences in the sense that there are actual flower particles involved. Don’t you dare confuse them with essential oils. They smell like nothing. They look like nothing. As a product, they are flamboyantly ambiguous. Which, I came to learn, may be the point.

The essences are made by “charging” a flower in a clear bowl of water under sunlight for two hours or, alternatively, by boiling the flower in water for 30 minutes. The water is then said to take on the subtle healing vibrations of that particular flower, though no physical botanical compound remains. (Since I received flower-essence therapy from Aki Hirata-Baker at MINKA Brooklyn, I have, technically speaking, been putting drops of water in my water.) But I’ve met several — fairly sane — people who use them. And then there’s the author Naomi Klein, who once told the New York Times that she started using the Bach Rescue Remedy, a blend of essences, to help her remain calm while reporting in Iraq. “I have no real sense that it works,” she said. “I think of it like a kind of talisman.” Bach Remedies also touts the professionally unhinged Real Housewife Shannon Beador as a fan (along with Jennifer Aniston, Naomi Watts, Martha Stewart, and Dr. Oz).

“It used to be that flower essences were just attracting 40-year-olds on up and people who were into the health-food-store scene,” said Sara Crow, a flower-essence practitioner who has been featured in Goop. But the “health food store scene” has evolved into a $4.2 trillion global market, and although the trend remains niche, flower essences are being sold at Whole Foods and trendy apothecaries and wellness emporiums like CAP Beauty; they’re offered in treatments at high-end spas, they’ve been cited by “wellness consultants” as gentle sleep aids, and practitioners say they’re seeing a bump in business. You can buy the essences individually or receive a custom blend in a flower-essence therapy session. “It’s definitely in the up-and-coming category,” Crow said.

My session at MINKA, a community-oriented healing space with sliding-scale payment options, began with something like talk therapy. It was very nice, frankly. I told Aki Hirata-Baker, my glowing flower-essence therapist and MINKA’s co-founder, that I worried I was too inwardly focused. (The irony, as I sat in a flower-essence therapy session, was vibrant.) “It’s not that you are selfish; you are just kind of hiding yourself, hiding your brightness, really,” she decided. “And people don’t get to see you.”

Based on the issues we underlined, I was to instinctively choose certain cards featuring pictures of flowers, which she arranged and rearranged in a geometric shape on the floor until it felt right to her. She then blended the corresponding essences together and performed Reiki on the bottled substance to give it a “boost.” By the end, I had a hard time finding any of this off-putting. It’s a confusing project to devalue what feels good, even if it is — objectively speaking — an expensive bottle of water blended with care.

How much can nothing do? Can nothing change your life? Hirata-Baker thinks so (though she might not phrase it that way). She says she has done this therapy with about a hundred people, and for a lot of them the reaction is “Oh my God, life makes sense now.” But “taking flower essences will not change you,” she added. “It gives you a new way of perceiving your reality. So if you don’t change the way you do things, then you’ll stay the same.”

This lack of clear or immediate impact is, for some people, part of the draw. Flower essences “are for people that are interested in cultivating something that’s deep and requires a little bit of art to receive,” said Alexandra Roxo, 35, a wellness coach and influencer who used to use flower essences for stress (and nowadays “to align with certain plant allies I feel excited about”).

Anna Cheechov, 33, a doula from Brooklyn, likes the subtlety of it too. She started taking the essences after a friend got trained in flower-essence therapy, and she thinks they’ve helped her maneuver out of some personal issues she was stuck on. Her interpretation is closer to Klein’s “talisman” theory. The flower essence is a conscious act of tuning in to what you want to work on,” she said. “I don’t know how effective the medicine in itself is, but combined with the intention it’s really powerful.”

There is, unsurprisingly, no scientific evidence that flower essences can effectively treat psychological problems or stress beyond having a placebo effect, though placebos can be curiously powerful. Flower essences were developed and codified in the 1930s by Edward Bach, a British bacteriologist and homeopath who believed all diseases were expressions of negative emotional states. (He died young of cancer.) And outside the realm of peer-reviewed science, it’s not always easy to say what precipitates change within ourselves or when change is even happening. In the weeks since I began taking my custom “Radiate ME” blend, things definitely happened, and I did feel a bit lighter, though things do tend to happen in life and people are known to feel lighter. I wrote a song I liked and let someone listen to it. I got into graduate school. I got a rash under my nose that won’t go away. I noticed that I’ve been trying harder to say thoughtful things to people, to hear their perspectives in my head. I reminded myself that my life is fine. There was overall a sense that something was getting worked out on the back end. Whether this was actually true didn’t seem to matter at all.

In the lexicon of wellness and neo-spiritual circles, “holding intention” to do something is a significant part of doing something. Maybe, the thinking goes, growth can be triggered less effortfully — and more earthily — than we think. In the broad school of thought known as Western esotericism, there is the idea of “energetic fields that can be aligned intentionally between astral bodies, minerals, the human body, the human mind/spirit, and the divine,” the Reverend James Lawrence, a professor of new religious movements at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, told me over email. In other words, everything we need is already here; it’s simply a matter of channeling it. As the natural world dies, and raw capitalism erodes basic dignities, and political bodies become more volatile, the appeal of a mystical realignment with the physical universe is obvious, if sometimes expressed in remarkably counterproductive ways.

“I think a lot of people are looking for some sort of alternative way of seeing the world, given what [we’re] looking at now,” said John Haller, an emeritus professor of history at Southern Illinois University who has written books about homeopathy and the placebo effect. “You see the youngest generation wanting to tell their elders, ‘You’ve missed the point!’” Maybe, he added, there’s something about flower essences that creates space for “a new self-identity.”

Flower essences seem to demonstrate this longing for homegrown solutions a bit more distinctly, and wildly, than the rest, being proudly empty of relevant physical matter — no crystals, no acupuncture needles, no physical touch. For the advanced New Ager, emptiness can present its own draw. The final frontier of empowerment is a blank void, maybe. Because if nothing’s there but something seems to happen, then that, to some, implies that there’s more to us — and to reality — than this.

Can Nothing Change Your Life?