Throughout our lives, we have the opportunity to self-reflect on the processes and thought patterns of our own minds. During any part of any day, we can remove our minds from focusing on the tangible world, and check in with our emotions, listen to the depth of our breath, and the pace of our heart beating. As we practice observing ourselves, it can become easier to become aware of our state of mind- and change it, if we choose.
Since time immemorial, humans have been inhaling the fragrances of incense, finding that within the wafting smoke was a transformation between the physical world and the unseen. It is thought that smoke blending into the air in ceremonial incense offerings can carry prayers and blessings from the living into the realm of the spirits. Many traditions and practices today use incense for purification, cleansing, or protection.
Biologically, the sense of smell uniquely sends signals through parts of the brain associated with memory and emotion, creating a deep emotional response to a smell before any actual thought is experienced. Inhaling essential oils can also stimulate or calm our sympathetic nervous system, adjusting our response to stress. By creating actual changes in the neurochemistry of the brain, aromatics can shift the mood and influence our wellbeing.
Fortunately, smelling the most incredible scents on earth can be experienced by all. Resin, sap, wood, leaves, and bark with aromatic properties can be heated to release their fragrances, and are easily found in nature. Creating a way to evaporate the essential oils from plant matter (without burning the fibrous aspects of the plant) is ideal.
An effective technique for offering incense, requires a bowl, a small amount of collected ash from a fire, clean burning small pieces of charcoal, a metal stand (which can be made from twisted wire, and a piece of mica (a rock which can be sliced into thin sheets similar to glass). Add the ash to a bowl, and then use a spoon, shell, or other tools, to shape the ash into a volcano or pyramid shape. After lighting one side of the charcoal, tuck it into the center of the ash volcano and make it glowing ember. Place the metal stand over the charcoal so that the slice of mica can rest on the stand; close enough to allow the heat from the ember to release the oils of the plant.
While many plants can be used for a variety of applications based on your intention, here is a small guide to aromatic plants that have been used throughout history.
Collecting sap, wood, and resin from familiar and inspiring places can be a way to connect to those places, or to the way you feel when spending time with those plants. It can also be a way to spend time with tobacco or other plants that we have had an abusive relationship with, to reestablish appreciation and respect.
Offering incense can be a way to release a prayer into the ether, shift the energy in a room, or to share a gift with our ancestors, family, or friends. This practice has as many applications as we can imagine. As we spend time with the fragrant blessings of each plant we chose, we also will become more aware of the lessons these teachers have for us to breathe in.