My Thoughts on Incense
Incense and spiritual rituals go together like calculators and math. There is some math that you can do without a calculator. You can even be really stubborn and insist on doing as much as you can without one – but at some point, it’s no longer practical if even possible.
This is how I feel about incense. I am trying to be stubborn and figure out all manner of ritual and offering techniques that don’t require it, but try as i might, I keep running into a “need” for that noxious health hazard.
Incense has a long, continuos history of use in almost every religion across the globe, but does that mean it’s necessary? I tend to validate my beliefs and practices by taking note of trends which transcend time, culture, and geographic space. If the collective human mind finds merit to it, there must be something there.
However, some cultures break away from parts of the collective as new information becomes available to them. Smoking (tobacco or anything else) used to be the thing to do (for ritual, meditation, or just because). It still is a thing today, obviously, and that’s all fine and well – but health conscious people no longer partake.
The most common place to find incense is in New-Age stores, where a large portion of customers are vegan and/or keep their mind and body healthy through yoga and meditation, the latter of which frequently involves the use of incense. Sure, they can keep their windows open, or not use it every day, etc. – but why is it necessary at all? There are other, more healthy, methods of aromatherapy available if scent-induced calm is its only purpose.
When it comes to religious ritual, it’s not only about the aroma. It’s also about a sacrifice to the gods. Technically, the smoke itself is the sacrifice, but to me, I feel like I am making a sacrifice of my health by inhaling some of it. Even if I only burn it as long as absolutely necessary for the ritual – I have to wonder, do the gods really want me to inhale all this crap for the sake of sacrifice? I really don’t think so. There are plenty of other offerings that the gods accept (especially in liquid form). I’ve heard that smoke makes offerings more accessible to the deities, which might make sense, but then does this mean that other offerings are pointless?
So far, I’ve reasoned out using incense for meditation or sacrifice. That leaves purification. Incense, including sage and herb bundles for smudging, is used to purify a space. I find this slightly ironic. I’m purifying the space by suffocating my pets? If I have to open the windows in order to purify my house after “purifying” with something else, then I don’t see the point. However, in the case of banishing negative energies, one might reason that the noxious fumes are just as noxious to the bad things as they are to me – so of course they are going to get the heck out of the way. In that sense, incense might as well be likened to pesticides. Sure, it kills the bugs – but it slowly kills us too.
Before you write me off as a complete killjoy – I don’t hate incense. I’m trying to reduce my exposure to it, but I absolutely love the smell of nag champa. It reminds me of my grandmother’s house. I keep boxes of it in my closet so that the smell gets on some of my stuff. Sometimes, I’ll burn it unattended (I know, bad bad…) so that I can return to the left over aroma without having to experience the smoke. It’s not entirely a matter of health, though. Yes, I am health conscious – but I like a cupcake as much as the next person. We are all going to die and no one lives such a perfect life to keep themselves as healthy as possible to the end. Some people abstain from pleasures, but this too is unhealthy.
Health aside, incense smoke causes me physical discomfort – especially to my eyes. It’s terrible. I can’t enjoy being around it, healthy or not, unless I am outdoors. My last ritual I did outdoors and I used incense, it was lovely. I even had the smell of it in my hair all day. But I can’t always do my rituals outdoors.
I recently purchased some core-less pure incense sticks – supposedly they cut down on the irritants. If I can tolerate them, I may try to use them occasionally for some of my offerings – but I still don’t understand why I should have to. As far as making offerings to the fire for my ADF rituals – rather than use a censer and charcoal – an oil burner seems sufficient. Oil or potpourri is transformed by the fire of a candle, so it should be a suitable substitute. Consecrating the sacred center is where I’m still on the fence. All the ADF ritual guides suggest incense in addition to asperging. I don’t see why I can’t just do the asperging. Or why I can’t use fire – pick up one of the candles and circle it around the area.
In the end, it’s really up to me, though it’s hard to break a tradition and feel like I’m still doing it “right.” It’s also hard to force myself into tradition against my better judgement.
If I can find an incense that doesn’t irritate my eyes too much, I will use it from time to time as one of the guilty pleasures I allow into my life, but I won’t do it because I have to or because I think the gods require it of me.