We live in very interesting times on this Mother Earth. Time has seemed to speed up, distraction is everywhere, and as a whole, modern society has all but lost its ancient connection to its spiritual nature and to the Earth. In light of this, many people are searching to reconnect with the sacred and many have adopted different spiritual paths such as yoga, meditation, First People’s ways, Eastern philosophies, Taoism, Buddhism, and countless others, searching for a deeper meaning to this life we all share here together.
Over the past few hundred years, millions of ancestors have migrated overseas across the world away from their own culture, many allowing their native traditions to fade away, slowly dissolved by the modern societies in which we live. Many people who are still deeply connected to their traditional roots hold tight as the Western World spins faster and creeps further into the natural green edges that surround it. Others feel the need to explore ancient, sacred traditions that they may not have been born into, but still nourish the soul, open the mind, and heal the heart.
All of these spiritual and religious practices have something in common: ritual. Ritual is intrinsic to the human experience. From the beginning of civilization, every culture held ritual and ceremony at the heart of existence. Sacredness and spirituality weren’t just a part of daily life, they were a way of life. By understanding our inherent connection to nature, our higher selves, our ancestral traditions and the Divine, we can recognize the need for nourishing them all through personal sacred ritual.
What Exactly is a Sacred Ritual?
Rituals come in many different forms. Some are communal, others are very personal experiences. They are performed for many different reasons; to nourish the spirit, for prayer, healing the self, initiation, celebration, to attain sacred wisdom, or to commune with spirits, deities, gods or goddesses, to name a few. They are a way of putting intention into action by acknowledging the spirit realm using prayer, incense, and spiritual tools. A ritual, ceremony, or sacred rite, is a procedure in which a spiritual experience is achieved at a soul level.
Spiritual Diversity of Ritual
There are countless spiritual rituals and ceremonies that are unique to different cultures, belief systems, and religions around the world. Some are very ancient and others more modern. They range from complex and lengthy, to short and direct. Many ceremonies of different organized religions can last up to many days, strictly following ancient traditional protocol, while other rituals can be very intuitive and formless, with the practitioner being guided by their heart and prayer.
Many devotees of Buddhism perform daily rituals of meditation and prayer, often accompanied by incense to help create a sacred atmosphere, calming the mind and sharpening the senses. Many Native rituals call for prayer and incense to strengthen the spirit, as offerings to the spirit world or the Creator, or to bless loved ones on their road of life.
There are many different indigenous purification and cleansing rituals performed in solitude or with the help of a healer. Smudging, herbal baths, the sweat lodge, or certain releasing rituals all help one to let go of things that are no longer serving their life. Often times these emotions, blockages, sicknesses, or energies are given back to the Earth in one way or another. These rituals also help to rejuvenate and lift the spirit and open the heart and mind, helping one feel lighter, stronger, and aligned on their spiritual path.
Celtic and Druid priests and priestesses performed rituals to honor ancient deities, faeries, and nature spirits by burning traditional incense, joining in song and dance, and speaking prayers in alignment with the rhythms of nature and the seasons. The ancient ritual of honoring deceased ancestors in Mexico was originally a month long Aztec celebration using fires and incense, flowers, food, and costumes. All cultures celebrate the passing of loved ones with their own ceremonies and rituals, most of which call upon the burning of incense accompanied by prayer.
The ritual of Puja is an ancient Hindu practice of worship. For millions of people it is a daily practice of honoring deities and the gift of life, and for many this practice is a way of life. It can be complicated or simple depending on its purpose and intention. Flowers, food, and incense are given as spiritual offerings while an inner peace and transformation takes place through the recitation of prayer or mantra. In ancient Japan, the famous incense ceremony, the Koh-do, was performed in royal courts, uplifting the spirit through the sacred aroma of fragrant herbs and honoring the precious gifts of the plant kingdom. The ancient Japanese incense masters of old named their sacred, venerable art “Listening to Incense.”
The Golden Thread of Sacred Rituals
There are countless sacred rituals that are unique to every culture on our rich Earth, performed for just about any purpose imaginable. In one way or another they are all based upon connecting to the Divine and are almost always accompanied by a form of prayer. Another golden thread that runs through just about every sacred ritual, ancient and modern, is the presence of incense; holy smoke.
Humans have burned aromatic herbs in a sacred manner during prayer and ritual for thousands of years. Some of the earliest writings of incense in the Bible speak of the holiness of fragrant plants and their strong connection to divine forces. Incense was once used to appease gods and goddesses of every religion, as a holy offering and sacrifice. It is believed to ‘open the doorway’ to the Divine, bridging our world with that of spirit. And many incense herbs certainly have the ability to ‘thin the veil’ between worlds.
On every continent the ritual and ceremonial use of aromatic plants in the form of incense can still be found, as it is one of the most effective means to enhance any ritual. Throughout many cultures, the sense of smell is thought of to be our highest, most sacred of our senses. Aroma effects the limbic system of the brain, which is directly connected to our memory, creativity, emotions, stress levels, energy levels, fear, anxiety, ecstasy, and joy.
When we inhale the smoke of an aromatic herb through the nose, a magical process unfolds. Particular aromatic molecules unique to each individual plant, act as keys to unique cell receptors in the brain. When the keys enter the keyholes, they unlock internal processes that range from old memories, feelings of elation or even bliss, heightened energy, higher concentration and focus, calming of the nervous system, lowering of stress levels, to feelings of complete comfort, to name a few. It is no wonder incense goes hand in hand with ritual and prayer.
Have you ever noticed certain memories arising at first contact with a familiar smell? Have you ever felt more relaxed and comfortable after lighting incense or had something change within your consciousness after catching wind of aromatic smoke or a fragrant plant in nature? Many aromatic plants used in incense have a calming effect on the sympathetic nervous system, and often times kick the parasympathetic nervous system into action; slowing the heart rate, bringing about serenity, calmness and relaxation. Incense works to bridge the gap to the world of spirit, among many other things, but it also prepares our bodies and minds for a sacred connection, allowing us to let go of stress and unimportant thoughts, and helps us to be present in the moment.
Exploring Simple Sacred Rituals at Home
Many spiritual rituals call for years of practice and deep understanding that many people simply do not have. There are many simpler rituals however, that can be of profound benefit in the privacy of your own home. Meditation, gratitude, prayer, mantras, chanting, the Native American ritual of Smudging, and others are simple yet profound practices that can lead to positive change and personal transformation through repetition. Starting your day with a simple morning act of sacredness, incense burning, and ritual can have profound effects on your daily life. It sure beats turning on the news before work, or checking Facebook or your swamped inbox before your eyes are fully adjusted to the morning sunlight.
One of my favorite ways to start the day is with a cup of tea, followed by prayer and the burning of incense. Simply sit in a quiet space, center yourself and do your best to free your mind of any thoughts that don’t pertain to the sweetness of the moment. Then begin to set your intentions or prayer for the day ahead with incense in hand, light your incense and become enveloped by the sacred smoke carrying your prayer upwards to the Creator. This is what I like to call being “shrouded in prayer,” and helps to start the day out with more purpose and direction towards your goals and dreams.
Smudging is a traditional Native American ritual that calls upon the aid of certain aromatic plants to help cleanse and purify mind, energy, thoughts, and spirit. The most common herb used in this ritual is white sage. Sage is a potent incense herb that is known to dispel negativity, malevolent spirits, undesirable emotions, and thoughts, and cleanse the subtle energy fields of the body. Smudging can be performed to purify a home or sacred space, other people or yourself. It is most beneficial when energies or stress accumulate, causing anxiety, difficult emotions, or unwanted feelings. Cedar or sweetgrass are traditionally burned after burning white sage to draw in positive energies, thoughts, emotions, and benevolent spirits.
There are many forms of meditation utilized throughout many different spiritual traditions. Different incenses are traditionally used during meditation to achieve greater focus, sharper awareness, and higher states of consciousness. Oftentimes, a trance-like state is achieved by chanting or reciting mantras, while other variations focus on clearing the mind of thoughts and concerns. No matter which style of meditation may call to you, they are all aimed at helping one to step out of daily reality into a deeper, more meaningful inner experience where one can nourish their connection to the mysteries of life, spirit, and their own higher selves.
Someone once shared with me a very profound teaching after many years of Buddhist and Vipassana meditation. I asked why I had so much trouble turning off my busy, ‘monkey mind.’ In turn they replied saying, “Meditation is not all about turning off your thoughts completely, rather changing the quality of the thoughts experienced during your meditations.” This changed my perspective entirely. Through practice and perseverance, my thoughts began to change from undesirable or mundane thoughts, to higher thoughts of wisdom and insight.
Again, with many forms of meditation having different focuses, I recommend you find a style that feels best to you and incorporate it into your daily life. With a daily meditation session accompanied by calming incense, even just thirty minutes to an hour, relief of stress, anxiety, negative emotions, old patterns, and many other personal transformations can take place.
Prayer and Gratitude Rituals
Prayer is a universal practice, a way of life that can be found throughout every religion, spiritual practice, and culture. It is an intrinsic part of life; a way to be in greater alignment with your own unique path. It is a way to consciously move forward by deciding which direction in life to go. Prayer is a way to speak to whatever higher power you believe in. It can be used to express gratitude for the blessings in your life, for asking for guidance through struggles and challenges, calling in positive change and growth, strength, confidence, courage, health, wellness, joy, a loving partner, etc. As prayer is a way of life, it can pertain to every human experience, and can be used to bring more positive outcomes in any circumstance with practice, understanding, and repetition.
In most cultures, prayer is strengthened through the use of incense. Sacred herbs are used to ‘hold’ people’s prayers. By simply holding herbs or incense in your hands and consciously directing a prayer into it, then burning the incense, the prayer is believed to be released, ascending through dancing smoke. It is believed that when a prayer is infused into incense in this way, the sacred element of fire then consumes the physical body of the incense allowing the smoke, containing the prayer, to be released from its physical bonds upward towards the spirit realms or heavens.
An incense ritual is very simple ritual that anyone can perform. The ritual itself is simple, though the effects and unseen magic of it are complex and work on many subtle and energetic levels. In an incense ritual, prayer can be used in the ways explained above, or the simple act of lighting an incense and sitting in its presence in front of your incense altar as it burns can also hold countless benefits. The act of stepping out of your daily routine to sit in silence as a cone, resin, or stick of incense burns is a rewarding, sacred practice in itself.
The mysterious nature of aromatic plants and incense works on other levels as well. In addition to the many benefits of taking time to yourself during an incense ritual, the smoke from sacred herbs comes to life in different ways within you and around you.
The plants work their magic on energetic and spiritual levels as well as effecting the human psychology and physiology. As the many aromatic molecules of incense smoke find their way through the nostrils, into the olfactory receptors in the brain, into the lungs, and eventually into the bloodstream, they carry with them their unique healing potential and medicinal properties. The mind, emotions, subtle sensations, cognitive functions, memories, and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are all effected in positive ways. It is no wonder that so many ancient medicinal practices such as Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda prescribed the burning of incense for many nervous, mental, and emotional disorders.
The Ancient Art of ‘Listening to Incense’
The fragrant history of ancient Japan is rich, colorful, and full of tales of the wildest imagination. Heavily influenced by early Buddhism, Japan was introduced to many sacred rites and rituals that called for particular incenses to be burned. Many royal functions and court events adopted such rituals. Over many centuries, a variety of exotic aromatic herbs were introduced by travelers from China and India. These herbs were incorporated into the standing rituals and eventually were crafted into a variety unique blends. Many incense crafters strayed away from incense that was reserved solely for religious purposes and began to explore the depths of pleasure, sensuality, and the aesthetics of aroma through non-religious ritual.
At this time, the Koh-do incense ceremony was born. Participants of this ceremony took the art of incense very seriously. While burning and quietly sitting with their incense, they would hone in on the subtle sensations, feelings, emotions, and aromatic signatures that were unique to the herbs and incenses that were burned. Countless hours of practice, silent meditation with incense, attuning the sense of smell, and learning to tune into the heart, were all incorporated into a daily practice of ritual.
Through their diligence, they were rewarded with stillness of mind, absence of stress and anxiety, inner peace and calm, a stronger connection to the Divine, healthier mind and thoughts, and the healing wisdom of the plants they used. The Koh-do masters of old were true masters of aroma, penetrating deeper past the surface of scent into the higher realms of the fragrant mind; coining the humble phrase, “Listening to Incense.”
The abilities of the Koh-do practitioners can still be developed by anyone today with practice and diligence. Many of the techniques they used can even be integrated into other rituals or incense ceremonies. Learning to be more present while sharpening the senses and awareness with incense smoke, can be a profound aid to one’s spiritual practice or personal ritual. Incense holds the key to unlocking the divine potential that lives within us all.
If a personal incense ritual, or any form of sacred ritual is performed on a regular basis, peace of mind, ease of emotions, calmness of the heart and relaxation can be felt emanating throughout your daily life. Whether you are searching to connect to something greater than yourself, are desiring more sacred experiences, or are desiring more balance and harmony within, establishing sacred ritual in your life is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Creating a sacred rhythm through ritual is part of our human nature, and with the aid of incense, it holds the key to unlocking hidden potential, inner wisdom, inner peace and profound personal transformation.
*Check out my new online program Listening to Incense.
Article By – Evan Sylliaasen
© 2016 Evan Sylliaasen, Higher Mind Incense. All Rights Reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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