The Definitive Guide on How to Use Incense in Meditation and Ritual Practices
Incense and its use in meditation and ritual has deep roots in the history of our world.
The Aztecs had the Palo Santo tree, the Christians had their Frankincense and Myrrh, and the Buddhist used a whole host of incenses in their rituals, meditations, and even as medicine. These examples are but a few of the civilizations which have used incense for Millenia.
You may be interested in using incense in your meditation practices or your spiritual rituals and ceremonies. We decided to try to dig as deep as we could and produce for you a guide on the how? And why to burn incense during meditation or ceremonial practices?
How Incense Affects the Brain
To start out let’s look at why you may want to burn incense during meditation?
Researchers at John Hopkins University conducted a study on mice and found that Burning Frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain that alleviate anxiety and depression.
This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses, literally!
We could not find scientific studies on all of the incenses we researched for you in our The Definitive Guide To The Best Incenses For Meditation And Ritual Practices, so we will have to rely more on the ancient tradition which suggests that different incense can have profound effects on our mind and mood.
The History of Incense In Ritual and Meditation
The word incense comes from the Latin incendere meaning “to burn.”
One of the oldest existing incense burners was found in Egypt and dates back to the 5th dynasty (25th century BCE). In Egypt, the pleasant aroma of incense was widely used to keep evil spirits at bay or appease the gods.
The ancient Egyptians used combustible bouquets for both it’s pragmatic and mystical capabilities. As you can imagine ancient times were a lot smellier than they are today, so burning incense to obscure the malodorous products of humans living in such close habitation was almost a necessity.
Incense burners which date as far back as 33rd century BCE have also been found in South Asia. India adopted the techniques of burning incense from East Asia and adapted their techniques to encompass their own aromatic roots and indigenous flora. Frankincense, Cypress are a few of the incenses used by the Indians.
Evidence of incense use in China dates back to the Neolithic era, however, it’s application in a religious or spiritual sense dates back to the 20th Century BCE. Cassia, Cinnamon, Styrax, and Sandalwood were used as components of many formalized ceremonial rites.
The technique of burning incense was brought to Japan in the 6th century by Korean Buddhist Monks, who used the mystical aromas in their purification rites. In later years Samurais would often use incense smoke to perfume their helmets and armor to achieve an aura of invincibility.
Most cultures at some point adopted the use of incense into their rites and spiritual pursuits. From the Aztecs in South America to the Mongols in Asia, from The Celts in Europe to the Egyptians in Africa the use of incense by our ancestors is ingrained into our collective unconscious.
How to Burn Incense
There are many different ways in which you can enjoy incense in your home, during meditations, or in your temple space.
One common way is to burn a cone or stick of incense. Another common way is to burn a piece of charcoal that is designed to have raw incense placed on top of it. For people who are averse to burning incense for personal or health reasons, we will also cover how to use essential oils.
How to Burn Cone or Stick Incense
Incense that comes in a cone or a stick form is very simple to use. Simply light the end or tip, let it burn for a few seconds, and then blow on the flame to extinguish it.
It should now have a small red ember on the end of the incense and smoke coming off of it.
If it is not smoldering, which does happen sometimes, simply relight it and let it burn a little longer, before extinguishing the flame. Repeat this procedure until it is smoking.
Place the incense on a fireproof incense holder.
How to Burn Incense on Charcoal
Burning incense this way is slightly more difficult, and potentially messier, than using a cone or stick, however, many people find that when burned this way the quality of incense smoke is much higher.
Most charcoal pucks today are very easy to light. Using a match or lighter, ignite one side of the puck. It should begin to spark and sputter, as the rest of the puck begins to light. It is important to place the puck down in a fireproof incense holder before it is entirely lit, or else you will burn your fingers.
Now that your charcoal puck is lit, you can place a few grains of raw incense on top of the charcoal. It will melt and burn to produce the incense scent and smoke.
How to Use Essential Oil in a Diffuser
If you are worried about inhaling smoke or have a pre-existing medical condition which may be irritated by smoke, you can always try an essential oil diffuser.
Each diffuser will have its own instructions, read the packaging carefully for exactly how to operate your diffuser.
Many of the incense in our guide to incense, also have an essential oil version. Using a diffuser may not give you the same smoke ambiance but it will allow you to experience the scents that are often used to transport one’s mind into a more meditative space.
How to Use Incense in Meditation
How you choose to burn incense during meditation is entirely up to you and may vary depending on what traditions you are pursuing or what instruction you were provided by your teacher or spiritual guide.
We recommend placing the incense holder on an altar or table that is close to or inside your meditation space. This is entirely up to you, it’s your practice, be creative and do what works best for you.
How to Use Incense in Ritual
Similar to meditation, using incense in ritual may vary greatly depending on what traditions you are practicing and on what advice you have received from your teacher or spiritual guide.
If you are new to this we recommend starting with a smudging ceremony. Essentially you light incense and hold the incense holder in a way that allows it to waft over you. You can use your second hand to wave some onto you. Imagine you are taking a bath in the smoke.
Or to cleanse a room, light incense and then carry the incense holder to the four points of the room. Start in the east where the sun rises, let the smoke drift throughout the area, then head to the north, west, and south.
Take your time and allow the incense smoke to cleanse the area. It is important to visualize or sense that the energy in the room is being cleansed or anything negative and replaced with positive energy. If you are new this may seem hard to do, or even a bit silly, but this simple practice has been used for millennia as a way to purify a space and make it ready for ceremonies and rituals.
Please note: that burning incense can pose some safety issues which should be addressed here.
Firstly, young people should not burn incense without the supervision of an adult.
Cone and stick incense must be burnt in a fireproof holder designed to burn incenses and kept away from anything flammable. Any type of fire lighting device, like matches or a lighter, should always be handled with the utmost respect and caution, follow the instruction of the manufacturer, and keep away from anything flammable.
Similarly, the charcoal pucks used to burn incense on should only be used in a proper fireproof holder, often called a censer, and kept away from anything flammable. As always, be cautious using matches and lighters, follow the instruction of the manufacturer, and keep them away from anything flammable. Lastly, make sure to put the charcoal down well before it is completely lit or else you will burn your finger.
We recommend that you have a fire extinguisher in close range of your meditation and ritual space.
To dispose of incense it is important to make sure ti si fully extinguished before getting rid of it. Dosing them with water is recommended to ensure that there is no way that the incense can start a fire inside the trash can.
Maybe Incense is Not for Everyone
We do want to state that burning incense is not for everyone, if you have any respiratory ailments, such as Asthma, please consult your doctor before burning incense.
Some studies suggest that “When incense smoke pollutants are inhaled, they cause airway dysfunction… The effect of incense smoke on health and the mechanism behind it needs to be further studied.” According to the The U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
The NCBI also suggested that if burning incense it is important to open a window to ventilate the room.
If you think burning incense will be an issue for you, we would recommend essential oils as a great replacement.