Incense has been used for thousands of years in almost every culture on Earth; from the sands of Egypt, to the high plateaus of Tibet, from the jungles of Ecuador, to the cherry-blossomed hills of Japan. Incense is a sacred art of precision: carefully combining natural aromatic herbs and ingredients in just the right amounts. These special fragrant formulations are used for a wide variety of purposes. They are burned to honor gods and deities, to nourish the spirit, uplift the mood, and as medicinal incense to heal the sick and bring balance and harmony to the mind, body, and soul.
Over the past few decades, with the worldwide spread of consumerism and Western culture, the mainstream crafting and use of incense has slowly begun to loose its spirit. People are loosing touch with the ways of their ancestors, their intrinsic spiritual connection, and their ties to natural world. Sadly, through this unfortunate process, there are many ancient aromatic crafts that are becoming compromised.
There are still many incense crafters around the world who honor and practice the traditional ways of incense preparation, though the majority of the large-scale incense manufacturers we see on our store shelves in the West have forgotten, or neglected altogether, the ancient purposes and virtues of incense. Many have also side-stepped the importance of naturally grown and harvested incense ingredients, oftentimes choosing chemicals over nature in the name of profit. With consumerism and exports from India and Asia at an all time high, the integrity of business practices and purity of ingredients is often a questionable and overlooked aspect; with too many companies focused more on profit margins than actually providing the highest quality products.
Incense As Medicine
In many different traditions around the world, incense was, and still is an important healing art. As we know through countless Aromatherapy studies, aromatic plants have the ability to heal on many levels. Though essential oils usually get all the credit these days, it is important to remember that incense is the roots of modern aromatherapy, and all forms of the aromatic arts for that matter. Incense and plant smoke has been traditionally used to heal minds, balance moods, strengthen cognitive function, heal the skin, cure respiratory ailments, and alleviate countless other physiological and psychological symptoms. On the more profound and sacred side, incense has also been used to aid people in their personal evolution, positive transformation, and spiritual growth since humanity’s early beginnings.
To this day there are ancient medicinal incense recipes still being meticulously followed. Various Tibetan incenses are labelled ‘medicinal’, and have been prepared according to ancient recipes from dusty, thousand-year-old scrolls. There are still a handful of incense crafters in China and Japan who pride themselves in rigorously following in the footsteps of the medical incense masters who came before them. Many incense crafters of India, China, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia are holding true to their ancient medicinal incense ways. Though sadly, the number of these dedicated artisans decreases with each passing year. The younger generations of today are more interested in technology, city life, and modernism, leaving no one for parents and grandparents to pass ancient family traditions and trades on to.
The mission of The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine is to bring traditional wisdom back into the light, and to majorly impact the philosophies, principles, and use of pure, natural ingredients. Not many people you speak to about incense these days look beyond the uses of incense for enjoyment and pleasure. We hope to spread the understanding that the art of incense can be, and once was, a profound healing modality in many renown medical systems around the world. Daily use of incense, whether for simple enjoyment, meditation, connecting to Spirit or your higher self, or for its medicinal qualities, is a way of life. In Japanese culture this way of life is known as ‘Listening to Incense’.
The blending of particular aromatic herbs for medicinal benefit is just one aspect of incense crafting. Incense receives much of its healing powers from the intentions and prayers of the incense crafter. For example, today there are still many Tibetan medicinal incenses made at Buddhist monasteries that are traditionally prayed over by all of the inhabitant monks, sometimes for an entire year. These four-season incense blessings are accompanied by daily Buddhist mantras, gongs, drums, horns, and reciting of ancient healing prayers. These incenses are then distributed all around the world to spread the blessings, positivity, and healing virtues of blessed, aromatic medicine.
To have an incense made with healing herbs is one thing, but to have an incense made with naturally grown botanicals, infused with prayer and positive intention is simply unmatched. There are countless instances of indigenous healers who pray for a patient’s healing while harvesting medicinal plants and producing medicine for them. Through this sacred process, a certain spiritual potency and profound effect is generated. The powers of prayer, belief, and faith are important tools to the medicinal incense crafter or healer, and are traditionally exercised during all stages of preparation.
Though many of the rich incense traditions of the world are dissolving with the changing times, there is still hope for them. There has been an increasing interest in these ancient ways in recent years, with a growing awareness of the harmful, chemical-based, commercially produced incenses that have become such a staple in the past few decades. It is up to each of us to choose natural over chemical, whether in our own aromatic practice, or when supporting other incense companies and artisans. A little research goes a long way. We must all do our part to support the traditional incense crafters of the world to make sure these sacred traditions stay intact, natural, and pure.
As herbalists, perfumers, aromatherapists, and incense crafters, we must follow in the footsteps of those that came before us, and help guide the mainstream understanding of the sacred modality of incense back to its natural roots, where it can remain untainted and alive with spirit for our future generations.
“Making a perfect medicine incense is in itself the most wonderful process. It usually takes 2 to 3 years, in which we experience with our heart, natures ingredients in the ways our ancestors did, and learn to enjoy the four seasons drenched in natures exotic and mystical scents.”
– Li Shiliang, 7th generation Master Medicinal Incense Crafter
Article by Evan Sylliaasen
Evan Sylliaasen is the founder of the Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine and Higher Mind Incense. For the past decade his incense company has been a leader in sustainability and conscious sourcing of aromatic plants. As the head instructor of his online school, he teaches aromatherapists, incense lovers, herbalists, and spiritually-minded folks the traditional art of incense crafting, incense as medicine, and the art of wild-harvesting aromatic plants responsibly.
Evan lives with his family in the foothills of the Olympic Mountains of Washington state. He channels his creative passions through writing, photography, wood working, craftsman building, and music. When he’s not working, he’s out in the garden, forest and fields, walking along rivers, beaches, or in the mountains breathing deeply.
© 2016-2021 Evan Sylliaasen, The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All Rights Reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.