Edition 75: New Year 1 January 2015
Incense: the universal expression of spirituality
FOR THOUSANDS of years the aromatic smoke of incense (from Latin incendere – ‘to burn’) has ascended, symbolically merging material and non-material realms of being in its diffuse, spiralling, vaporous cloud.
It has signified the fragrant and sensual conjunction in ceremonial, meditation and rites of worship: ‘Let my prayer be set forth in your sight as incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.’ (Psalm 141).
Incense has burned in every temple, shrine, stone circle, church and cathedral for millennia, distinguishing its holiness.
Nearly every expression of human spiritually has been accompanied by the sacred act of burning fragrant plant matter.
The ritual, with its consciousness-raising smell, opens up the psychic faculty to connect the human being with the Divine, higher Self, Source or the God/Gods of their belief system.
In short, incense represented transcendence, the intrinsic impulse of the evolving human consciousness.
It all started with fire
Incense–making is as ancient as humanity’s control over fire.
We can imagine the practice originating from the simple act of placing aromatic woods and plant materials into the fire and noticing the different tranquilising, stimulating or mind-altering effects that were produced.
Gradually a body of knowledge about what plants created which effects, would have evolved into a highly specialised art and ritual.
Tossed into a fire, incense would fill the sky with an otherworldly and magical smoke, representing the gross material form transforming into the unearthly to gain entry into the world of heaven and the gods.
Only the best for the Gods
The name perfume belies much about the origins of the fragrant commodity: the Latin phrase per fumum means ‘through smoke’, and this is exactly how the first aromatic substances were initially used; they were cooked over a fire to release their fragrant properties.
An offering or sacrament as a worthy gift of gratitude or appeasement to the Gods in return for help, protection, a bountiful harvest or survival of scourge, had to be something truly precious to humankind.
Little was more prized than plants; the treasured resource that provided food, clothes, shelter, warmth and healing for human survival. Quality pure plant incense even today is to be valued as a rare and precious product as the price will reflect.
About 5000 years before Christ, Egyptians were already using scented smoke offerings made from resin and plant essences to honour their sun god, Ra.
Incense has long played an important role in the religious and magical rites of early civilizations and it is still held in veneration and awe as a sacred element by certain peoples who have continued to live in cultures less developed and bound by ancient traditions and ways of life. Primitive societies could better contact the spirit world through burning incense, with psychic effects enabling them to communicate with supernatural realms.
This was a direct method to allow humans to free themselves - even though fleetingly - from the prosaic confines of mundane existence.
Incense, with carefully chosen plants, opened the fascinating worlds of indescribably ethereal wonder to them.
Let us not overlook the more prosaic function of fumigation, whereby incense was employed to kill air-borne viruses and cleanse disease-ridden places of pestilence and the accompanying offensive odours of sickness, decay and death.
The Bedouin peoples kept immaculate personal hygiene in the water-scarce desert by burning aromatic gums and resins in fumigating tents.
Incense was also offered to the Gods to sweeten the smell of animal flesh burned in sacrifice. Indeed foul odours are indicative of an insalubrious presence.
Burning aromatics became integral to ‘clearing’ rituals, used in exorcisms to banish evil spirits and waved into air to smudge away bad energy as prescribed by the American Native peoples.
Esoterically, this banishing concept of cleansing the environment around us of germs and bad smells worked well to likewise dispel negative thoughts that are counter productive to the meditative state and impede spiritual progress of the aspirant.
The recollected mind is fully awake and aware
The meaning of “creating sacred space” is to purify negative energy and clear the way to awaken psychic awareness for deep spiritual experience.
The Persian mystic Rumi said that the wound is where the light enters us and indeed all wounds of the flesh must be cleaned of festering bacteria to heal.
The same may be said of the human psyche: for healing light to enter we must clear away the impeding debris and detritus of our entrenched patterns of negative thinking to recover the pieces of the fragmented Self.
If the recollected mind is fully awake and aware, then without a doubt, it is at our subtlest levels of function that we must make room for real healing to take place and this is why we burn incense; its unfolding furl of fragrant smoke delivers to us the subtle messages of nature’s wisdom.
Although trees and plants are the silent witnesses to the march of evolution, the scents that they exude and we extract from them do speak to us and never more so than when burned as incense with sacred intent.
A noble History Two of the three precious gifts of the Magi presented to the baby Jesus were incense: frankincense, emblematic of his divinity and myrrh, his future death on the cross. Frankincense and myrrh are obtained from the dried sap of two different species of botanical family of plants common to present-day Somalia.
Both resins were particularly prized in ancient Mesopotamia, Africa, Egypt and India for religious rituals and healing.
At Sinai, God was said to have commanded Moses to blend frankincense and myrrh with spices into fine oils for anointing and consecration (Exodus 30:37).
Daily worship of the sun God Ra included burning golden resin at dawn, myrrh at noon, and at sunset a compound of frankincense, honey and wine, symbolic of harmony.
Myrrh and frankincense both have antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, and were important ingredients in the Egyptian embalming and deification mysteries of the dead.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis illustrates myrrh’s association with both death and cleansing. The story describes how Myrrh the maiden, whose incestuous love for her father produced Adonis, is transformed into a tree whose weeping sap is her repentant tears.
Pungent fumes of ritual incense rose over the effigy of Babylonian Tammuz, Ishtar’s beloved, in order to awaken him from the sleep of death, so that the earth could be regenerated each spring. Similarly, the phoenix fabricates her nest of frankincense and myrrh, ultimately to be reborn in its perfumed smoke.
The sensual and sacred qualities of incense have made it an aspect of cultic rites throughout the world.
Copal resin is burned domestically and religiously in Mesoamerica. In China, the burning of hsiang was a part of ancestral cults, and accompanied writing and the performance of music.
On the Mexican Day of the Dead, the burning of incense guides the spirits to their former homes. Christian churches make ritual use of incense for purification. The fragrance of incense evokes the presence of the divine and the flowering gardens of paradise.
And he made the holy anointing oil, and the pure incense of sweet spices, according to the work of the apothecary.
- Holy Bible
Using real plant incense signals a return to the importance of the rituals in the passage of life and indeed there are so many specific times and celebrations that mark the transitions in human life.
Burning special incense for the festivities of birth, birthdays, name-calling, christenings, weddings, hand-fasting, initiations, Christmas, solstices, equinoxes and certain moon phases renders these occasions special, memorable, beautifully fragrant while uplifting the mood of everyone present. The scent will leave an enduring and unique memory with a profound and lasting effect on the group’s dynamics and psyche.
‘Listen' to incense
The art of incense has reached the height of refinement in Japan, where the incense master is a highly skilled and revered artisan. They teach that incense must be ‘listened to’ in order to learn the wisdom of each scent.
Orchid breathing incense into butterfly’s wings.
- Matsuo Basho (C1689)
Each aromatic ingredient becomes so merged with the senses that they are heard as well as merely smelt, felt and seen. This becomes part of the contemplative process, requiring one to still the mind significantly and focus on the breath.
The olfactory-respiratory approach to incense should be done in such conditions of meditation or reverence whereby all your senses and psychic capacities are gathered to merge with the very essence of this scent to receive an inspired message from it. The scent will speak or sing its story for you to hear if you become soft and receptive.
Like the first whiff of burning incense, or like the taste of one’s first cup of sake, there is in love that moment when all its power is felt.
- Soseki Natsume
Pagan Earth Magic
In ancient earth magic, incense is burned to increase the focus and fervour of intent and visualisation; it all comes down to vibrations.
All matter possesses vibrations and upon smouldering plant materials, these vibrations are released into the atmosphere to go about their business. Prayers or invocations to higher beings will help align the incense ritual with our intention.
From the moment you begin gathering the herbs and oils to create incense, to lighting the candle, you are setting the powers of the earth energies into motion; your very concentration is the key to invoking this intrinsic power that is available to everyone.
Memory serves the mind; the mind serves the soul
Incense smoke is capable of inducing specific mental states and transports the aspirant back in time to memorable places and events; to evoke the same trance-like mystical state used in sacred ceremony and thus a familiar portal for the inter-dimensional traveller. The same scent will recapture the exact state of consciousness every time it is used thereafter.
The central nervous system is a most complex organ and some of the mind-altering plants, with all their attendant active principals, have far-reaching positive effects on the human psyche.
Most human senses have very complicated nerve responses that send information to the brain.
The sense of smell differs in that it is directed wired to the brain, not having to follow the longer circuitous route of the nervous system.
Gaining intimate entry into the old brain territory the effects of shifting state are immediate, affecting the memory, feelings and even sexual desire of the individual.
Altered states of consciousness Some of the altering effects that plant scent has upon mood may be caused by the acceleration of endogenous brain opioids.
These endogenous opiates can have narcotic-like effects. It is documented that the anti-depressant, sedative effects of plant smell is partly attributable to their consequential release of endorphins and enkephalins, which are neuro-chemical analgesics and tranquilisers.
Primitive shamans knew this instinctively, employing plants artfully to achieve altered states.
Material form to the subtle
In most esoteric teachings, it is always the subtle that informs the gross; offering incense reverses this process, to empower the user. The incense itself has condensed the spiritual and vital forces of plants in material form, which upon burning is then alchemically transformed back into the ethereal plane.
To use incense judiciously, we employ our own reservoir of life-energy - that which has created us and sustains our physical lives. This is acknowledged; summoned and coaxed forth to be transformed with clear intent and honourable purpose to fuel our prayers and heart-felt desires, transporting them from the material world into the esoteric realms and back for self-actualisation.
The magical act of incense burning can be an all-involving art of ritual and deliberation. If we are willing to expend psychic energy, we must also be willing to exert the physical energy necessary to manifest our wishes into solid physical reality.
Tears of Trees
Aromatic plant oleoresins, balsams and gums provide the key combustible substance of pure incense; myrrh, frankincense, styrax benzoin, labdanum and agar wood are good examples.
They are collected from the resin that is exuded from woody, shrubby and mature bushes that grow in arid regions, which are inflicted with wounds severe enough to create resin ducts.
Resins are produced within the plant as its own natural healing response to protect its wounds, much like human skin forms a scab. People tap the trees so the thick liquid oozes out; hardening upon contact with air into what is rather poetically called ‘tears’.
These can be refined to smaller lumps, or ground and burnt alone directly over heat or charcoal blocks, providing in themselves simple pure plant incense.
It is, however, when the resins are blended with other plant material including the roots, barks leaves and volatile essential oils that incense really comes alive to unfold its multi-dimensional character and fragrant holistic experience.
Why bother with the unreal thing?
All serious seekers require good quality incense. The best incense to use for authentic and transformative spiritual purpose is raw, granulated pure plant incense, which is basically loose powder consisting of ground plant resins, gums, herbs, spices and essential oils.
Too often an incense stick, cone or brick shape relies on additional potassium nitrate or saltpetre to make it more combustible and different glues or binders to adhere the powder to the stick or glue the substance into a form.
This is unnecessary and not a wholesome libation to welcome into our intimate olfactory system. The other common aberration that corrupts the incense experience is the use of synthetic perfume oils, rather than the more valuable pure essential plant oils.
Those charlatan sweet sticks!
If you think about the common and low-priced packet of incense sticks, supposedly scented with rose, jasmine, champaka or some other expensive exotic oils; how could this be so?
Such oils are invariably very expensive because it takes tonnage of hand-picked plant material to yield very little essential oil. How the product is presented and with such cheap costing does not reflect its value.
This tricks a lot of people who are often attracted to the sweeter, initially seductive smell of the joss stick; the dominating sweetness swiftly becomes noticeably sickly and cloying; and definitely non-conducive to enhancing spiritual experience.
In fact the fake scents used in common incense tend to anesthetise finer mechanisms of the olfactory organ, which nullifies any opening of psychic faculties.
It may be necessary to re-educate the nose, training it to only accept what is pure and from plants, however once this is accomplished; one would be very reluctant to return to the synthetic joss-stick experience.
Real incense is a treasured resource and should be used accordingly.
It is a concentrated pure plant product, hand-made with care and generosity; something to be savoured and used with reverence and not squandered mindlessly.
Reasons why raw powdered incense is so good
• It is far more potent and not ‘cut’ or diluted with fillers.
• It is devoid of extraneous substances to make it burn more readily.
• It is a healthier more wholesome substance for the body to imbibe.
• It is a powerful ceremonial tool to be burned on charcoal blocks, squeezed into a pile and burned directly or used in a slow heating electrical or candle incense burner.
• It releases dramatic and satisfying spirals of fragrant smoke when burned directly, which is exciting for rituals.
• It smells uniquely of plants and of nature.
• It does the job, performing admirably to enhance spiritual experience.
• Its effects are far-reaching, immeasurable and transformative.
• It is something special and different to be treasured
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