by Ember Grant
(Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal.)
Meditation helps train the mind to focus and achieve clarity, while promoting relaxation and fostering a spiritual connection. There are many ways to practice meditation, including guided exercises and special breathing techniques, but part of the experience often includes the burning of incense. We know it's a common practice to burn incense for ceremonies, rituals, and meditation—but which ingredients are the best to use to promote this meditative state?
Some practitioners don't recommend burning incense during meditation but instead beforehand in order to prepare the room. Sometimes the smoke can be distracting and interfere with breathing. If you do decide to burn it while meditating, be sure the room is well-ventilated or that the smoke isn't drifting directly into your face. Burning certain herbs, woods, and resins purifies the air and many of these ingredients contain medicinal properties as well. But most of all, scent can induce a calming state of mind, sought by more than just mystics and monks. Today, more than ever, people need respite from the stress and calamity of their hectic lives, and such relief can be found through meditation.
To accompany your meditation with incense, the most important detail is not what type you use, but that it not contain artificial ingredients or toxic chemicals. Avoid "Truck-Stop" incense, or the kinds found at fairs on sale for ten sticks for a dollar, that come in bright colors like purple, blue, and red. If you can't identify the ingredients, don't buy it. One clue is to watch the smoke of your incense—it should never be black. Having said this, don't despair—you can find good quality incense at many new age and metaphysical shops. Being able to search this way puts a world of high quality incense at your fingertips.
So, which types are the best for meditation? There are many, but we'll look at four types here and what makes them so special. Let's start with an obvious choice, the very popular sandalwood.
- Sandalwood (Santalum album) is number one according to most Buddhists. The aroma of sandalwood is warm, rich, sweet, and woody. Sandalwood has been in use as incense for over four thousand years. India was once the main source of sandalwood, but it's also found on islands in the Pacific. This wood was once so treasured that its trade rivaled whaling for bloodshed and loss of life. Sandalwood is in short supply these days. Some forests have been depleted and since the greatest oil is found in the tree's heartwood, it takes time for new trees to mature—sixty to eighty years. In India, the trees are protected by the government and in 1792 the tree was designated a royal tree. No individual may own one—even if the tree is on private land it still belongs to the government. However, poaching is still a problem.Sandalwood powder and chips are most commonly used as incense, although the wood is often used in carvings, and for beads, and the oil is used as well. The scent of sandalwood promotes relaxation, openness, and grounding. Its special calming effect has been used to treat anxiety and depression, and it acts as a mild sedative. It can aid with opening the Third Eye and is considered by some to have qualities of an aphrodisiac. It's also a disinfectant. Sandalwood is one of the classic aromas that have been burned in monasteries and temples for centuries.
Several woods are marketed as sandalwood so make sure you know what you're getting. When in doubt, always consult a reputable dealer. Also be aware of Red Sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) which is used chiefly as a dye, base ingredient, or combustion agent when making incense sticks. Sandalwood can be expensive, depending on the quality, but affordable varieties and blends are widely available.
- Aloeswood (Aquillaria spp.) is the most highly prized of the fragrant woods. The finest aloeswood, Kyara, is reputed to instantly produce the calmness achieved by a thirty-minute meditation. The reason aloeswood is so special is due to the way it is formed. This evergreen tree, which grows in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, is very unique. After a tree dies from a natural death, a fungus begins to grow and creates a resin in the heartwood. This may take anywhere from months to years to form. The older the tree is, the greater the value it has as incense. The wood itself is not aromatic until burned, and in burning it refreshes the mind.Aloeswood may be the ultimate incense experience, but you'd better be willing to pay a lot for it—it can range in price from a few dollars a gram to a few hundred dollars a gram. Fortunately, there are many different grades and even what is considered the "lowest" quality aloeswood is still good. The best way to enjoy aloeswood is to purchase stick incense that contains aloeswood in the mixture. Some fine quality Japanese incense contains a blend of sandalwood and aloeswood and can be obtained for around $20 a box. These types are often marketed especially for the purpose of meditation.
- Frankincense (Boswellia) is one of the most common incense ingredients and one that most people are familiar with. But there's a reason Frankincense is so popular—it has a calming effect on the nervous system. Frankincense contains certain phytochemicals that affect the cerebral cortex and limbic systems—these have been known to expand consciousness and even induce mystical visions.Frankincense can also be chewed to obtain healing properties, but don't try it unless you're sure it's of the highest quality. For incense, it's all about the aroma. One interesting feature is that the smoke is a natural insecticide, which is one reason it's used in cleansing and purification rituals. Rather than being relaxing, frankincense has the quality of adding focus and awareness to meditation.
There are 25 known species of the Boswellia tree and this resin once rivaled that of the most precious gems, silks, and gold. Few environments on earth yield the appropriate climate for these trees—they require moisture from morning mist. They are found in Southern Arabia, India, and North Africa, on rocky hills and cliffs and dry riverbeds.
The resin is produced as a healing response when the tree is injured. To cause this to occur, the trees are scraped and the resin is harvested about two weeks later, after it has hardened and fallen to the ground. The harvesting period occurs two times a year over a three-month period, which gives the trees time to rest. The resin is aged about twelve weeks before being sold. With so many varieties of Frankincense to choose from, you are likely to find an affordable selection.
- Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi), is another good meditation incense ingredient, not to be confused with American Spikenard (Aralia racemosa). Its scent is spicy and earthy; it calms the nerves and strengthens the mind—but it can also make you drowsy. Yet despite its use as a mild sedative, it does not dull the senses but instead increases overall awareness.Spikenard is the aromatic rhizome of a woody herb that grows wild, but is often cultivated, in India, China and Japan. It's most commonly found in the upper elevations of Nepal. The rhizome is dried and resembles hair, or it is ground into powder. Jatamansi is Hindu, meaning "lock of hair." Spikenard is in the same family as Indian Valerian.
Each of these ingredients can be burned as loose incense alone or combined together or with other herbs, resins and woods. For burning loose incense, grind the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle and sprinkle them over a bamboo charcoal. Avoid the self-igniting charcoals that contain saltpeter or sulphur, which are toxic chemicals.
For simplicity, the easiest types of incense to burn are sticks. It's worth noting that many of the high quality natural incense sticks are not dipped onto a central stick of wood, so they will not burn well in certain types of incense burners. The entire stick will burn all the way to the bottom. This doesn't mean you have to rush out and buy a new incense burner, just use a glass or metal dish or ashtray with sand in the bottom and simply insert the stick—the ash from the incense will fall safely into the container. You can use the same container for bamboo charcoal burning as well. The layer of sand in the bottom will keep the container from become too hot, but still be sure to handle it with care.
High quality stick incense blends are available, but you may have to look a little harder, and pay more, to find them. You'll find it's worth the effort. Companies that specialize in Japanese incense will offer the best selection, such as brands like Baieido and Shoyeido. These sources often sell the loose ingredients as well, and even offer instructions for making your own rolled incense sticks and cones. You can even learn various ceremonial methods of burning. Triloka is another brand that claims to use only natural ingredients.
As with any type of aromatherapy or treatment, above all you must choose what appeals to you. Although the ingredients listed here are some of the most popular for meditation, if you can't obtain them, try something else. Keep in mind that smell is a vivid trigger of memory, so if a certain scent promotes an unpleasant association or feeling, experiment with other ingredients. Ultimately, it's up to you. Blessed burning!
Article originally published in The Llewellyn Journal. Copyright Llewellyn Worldwide, 2005. All rights reserved.