1. Burning Incense, Big Stick or Small Stick: Let it Go.
The rituals of our life are everywhere. Ritual is an important part of living, even small rituals that may seem inconsequential. Whether you are burning incense with a giant stick or just managing to light a leftover nub from a forgotten incense bowl, the insignificance of offering a stick of incense is key. Burning incense doesn’t move you any closer to stated goals. It doesn’t seem to address your current concerns, whether it’s the relationship with your partner or global warming. Yet, offering—without expectation of something in return for your gesture—is training in generosity, the act of letting go.
2. The Best Incense Sparks Appreciation
It takes time to find incense that appeals to you. Japanese varieties can be delicate and floral. Tibetan incense evokes a warm, earthy quality. There are many subtle differences and endless varieties. In Asia, the right incense is understood to have medicinal benefits. You will burn the best incense for you. What do you like? Do you know? Another way of putting this: what makes you happy, or even better, content? By enjoying incense in the context of practice, you set a positive tone for your session. Sitting practice is about appealing to the part of you that is able to relax, slow down and appreciate. Cultivating appreciation is the discipline of meditation.
3. Burning Incense Connects you to the Elements
It is a small detail, but in order to burn, incense has to be lit. It requires fire to ignite and oxygen to burn. We need oxygen to breath and warmth to be comfortable. It is a truism to say that to survive, we need a relationship to our world, our elemental world, the world of our senses. By striking a match, lighting and enjoying a stick of incense, you have reignited a relationship with the world that sustains you.
4. Meditation Incense Brings you Back
When you sit down to practice, the smoke from your incense joins you. Some practitioners select the length of their incense sticks as a timer for their meditation session. Lost in thought, suddenly, the scent from a plume of incense wafting by brings you back to the moment. In this moment you can recall the intention behind your effort to practice meditation. This intention was expressed when you offered incense at the start of your session. Incense is a gentle reminder to return to your discipline.
5. Incense offers a Healing Truth
The incense stick begins at a full length and then grows shorter as it burns. There is no way to repair or retrieve a stick of incense from the ash left behind. At first, the scent permeates, soon the stick is gone and only a hint of the aroma lingers. Sometimes, before toppling off into the incense bowl, a delicate pillar of ash sits on top of the stick, like a memory of something gone by. When was it over? Recently? Long ago? Does it matter when? It’s hard to say. The smoke itself may rise slowly, like white ink from the stroke of an invisible brush. Or it may disperse quickly, chased by hidden currents of air. The journey taken by the smoke from burning incense reminds us that all experience is fleeting. Understanding this truth is healing.
6. Incense Needs a Plan
In order to offer incense, you need incense, matches, an incense bowl. You need to gather these materials before your practice session. The same is true for meditation practice. You will need to gather your time, find a place, and set your intention, organizing your life to sustain the discipline of mindfulness. Your time and your space have value. They are the very commodities of existence and essential resources. Always in short supply, they can be squandered or not. Prepare well and your practice will go well.
7. Burning Incense joins Heaven and Earth
Smoke moves in space. And space extends everywhere. When you light incense you invoke space. You can do this by letting the smoke go where it wants. Who would try to tell smoke where to go? Smoke rises, finding its way to the sky. At the same time, the sky is a reminder of earth. Eventually, after enjoying its freedom, incense smoke will settle into dust and land on this earth. We can’t forget to enjoy spaciousness in our practice. Practice takes effort—fire—but it can be lighthearted. Meditation doesn’t have to be so serious. In mindfulness we care for and watch over our mind. But we can also trust ourselves enough to let the mind go where it will. It is natural to enjoy the spaciousness of sky. It is natural to settle on the earth.