by Hart Broudy
From the most ancient times, incense has enhanced the spiritual strivings and practices of all faiths. Why this is so has been the subject of ongoing academic studies. It’s been shown that incense affects the limbic area of the brain, affecting mood, and does indeed possess anti-depressant qualities — but this is the tip of the iceberg. What hasn’t been analyzed so concretely (as yet) are its psychic, vibratory effects upon the creative mind.
It’s vitally important to understand what incense can’t do — and not to be gullible regarding any manufacturer’s claim. The mere burning of incense will not bring karmic reward nor any ‘accumulation of merit’. It is naive to think otherwise. The mastery of one’s lower nature and communion with the higher is accomplished solely by ongoing selflessness and perpetual compassion: in other words, forgetting the self to know the Self.
What incense can do, however, is to enhance meditation practice by providing a more ‘sensitive’ environment. According to the writings of the Tibetan Master DK, smell is considered the highest of the purely physical senses, allied with the spiritual sense of discrimination. Consequently, the effects of incense upon the higher consciousness during meditation could prove to be a rich and extremely fascinating New Age study.
Regardless of the mechanics, what we do know is this: the use of incense in meditation can aid in establishing needed tranquility. It can help in the focusing of thought and in doing so, potentially provide a link to one’s higher creative nature. It can help open doors, but like everything else in life, mindfulness is the key — from the lighting of the stick to the placing in the container, to correct breathing and proper meditation procedure. The fact that the meditation area may ‘smell nice’ is in reality, a minor side benefit.
The type of incense used is of prime importance. It’s imperative to stay away from cheap, artificially-colored and perfumed varieties. Since the aroma permeates the senses, it can produce effects both physical and psychic: hence the need for purity. Whether powder, coil or stick, incense should be all-natural and chemical-free, with absolutely no artificial perfumes, coloring or ingredients, and with little-to-moderate smoke. The meditation area should also be adequately ventilated. Incense is an enhancer to meditation — never the focus of it.
Those new to both meditation and incense often prefer mild, fragrant sandalwoods or agarwoods; these scents offer pleasurable aromas and are easy to live with. More experienced meditators may tend toward the more pungent Tibetan and Bhutanese varieties. Generally speaking, Tibetan incense is the stronger and more aromatic of the two. These types of incense do require ‘getting used to’, as they are more complex and intense — and at first can be quite distracting. They are hand-made according to strict, traditional Buddhist teachings passed down over many generations. Scents are many-layered, often difficult to describe. In fact, some say that if one tries to describe a particular scent, one has completely missed the point: words have no place here. Incense is best experienced wordlessly — absorbed, if you will, by the consciousness — and accepted or rejected according to personal preference. It is a very private exercise.
Another consideration for those who are vegetarian: there are two kinds of Tibetan and Bhutanese incense. One is purely vegetarian, using only grasses, plants, flowers, spices, barks and various natural herbal and medicinal ingredients. The other is not, and adds to these ingredients musk and often, scales of pangolin.
So. How does one decide what incense to use and how can one gauge its effects in meditation? Experiment — note what’s happening! If there’s any discomfort — an itching at the back of the throat, a desire to cough, a headache, a sense of unease — then that variety is certainly not for you. But if the aroma welcomes you and ‘becomes part of you’, and lingers like a tantalizing dream, then you may have found something very special.
Incense can enhance meditation practice by helping to create a serene and positive atmosphere. It can thus aid in calming, focusing and concentration upon one’s journey. The rest of the voyage is entirely up to the personal abilities and hard work of the meditator.
About the author:
Hart Broudy is a published writer/poet and graphic designer living in Canada. Having become enthralled by the wonders of Bhutanese and Tibetan incense on various trips to the far east, his wife and he decided to establish an online specialty incense shop, www.incense-traditions.ca. They stock various varieties of high quality incense previously unavailable in North America.