Smoke Cleansing: A Tradition of Healing Body, Mind, & Spirit
The Corona virus pandemic had us all debating about how to keep everyone safe and healthy. Masks have become a common sight as we all walk around trying to be cognizant of the distance between ourselves and the next shopper or pedestrian, and everywhere you go, there is a bottle of hand sanitizer on the counter.
Now as another flu season looms and COVID in the background, some of us are still asking, what else can we do? And while we’re putting a lot of emphasis on our physical health, are we keeping up with our energetic and spiritual health that is just as important and bound to be affected by this environment too? As more and more people contract these viruses, and experience deteriorating mental health as a direct result of these circumstances we now find ourselves in, we may be looking for simple additional ways that we can help ourselves and our families through this difficult time. This is where the ancient art and tradition of smoke cleansing comes in.
The tradition of smoke cleansing, or burning bits of dried herbs and plants, has been around for eons and has been used by people of many different cultures and religions around the entire globe to cleanse spaces, facilitate rituals and magical practice, and heal physical as well as energetic and spiritual ailments and issues. The use of incense is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments of The Bible, and Roman Catholics will recognize the scents of Frankincense (Boswellia sacra) and Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) emanating from the censer being swung by the priest. Widely used in the entrances to both Buddhist and Hindu temples, incense can be a blend of many herbs and dried plants to cleanse the practitioners, carry prayers, and connect the people to their deities by the sharing the experience of the divine aroma.
The cultures of each continent have their own unique rituals around smoke cleansing. The Aboriginal people of Australia welcome newcomers to their country in a specialized smoke cleansing ritual called a Smoking Ceremony utilizing several different Eucalyptus varieties among other native species of plant allies. The Shamans of South America bless, cleanse and purify their tribal members with their native palo santo wood (Bursera graveolens), especially in efforts to drive away evil spirits or any type of misfortune.
Many of the indigenous peoples of North American tribes practice the tradition of smudging, typically with white sage (Salvia apiana). Many people nowadays are familiar with the term smudging as this form of smoke cleansing has seen a rise in popularity in recent years as the new age community in particular and others become more aware of the importance of energetic hygiene. However, with the rise in popularity has also come the increased realization of the appropriation or adoption of another culture’s customs and rituals. It is typically a dominant culture copying an element or elements of a minority or disadvantaged culture, usually without the depth of understanding or respect of the custom or ritual being appropriated. While it is usually done without awareness and certainly no malintent, it is important and socially responsible to consider this when developing your own smoke cleansing ritual.
Yet another concern that has come up around using plants and herbs for smoke cleansing rituals is the fact that some of the most popular species of plants being used in modern smoke cleansing are being overharvested and their long term existence being put in danger, such as the aforementioned white sage of the western United States, and palo santo of South America. Even Frankincense and Myrrh are being harvested in their faraway native habitats of Somalia and Ethiopia at a rate that is not sustainable due to the popularity of this practice.
The good news is that there are culturally and ecologically responsible ways you can incorporate this beautiful and useful tradition of smoke cleansing into your daily or spiritual routine to receive all of the physical, energetic and spiritual benefits. Here are 3 examples to get you started:
Honoring your own cultural background – Whether your ancestors hail from Europe, South America, the Middle East, India, or the Native tribes of Central or North America, it is more than likely that they have at some point used smoke cleansing in their traditions. If you are familiar with your heritage or can ask family members and relatives, you can begin to research how your personal ancestors used smoke cleansing and incorporate these traditions into your own routine. What a lovely way to get to know and connect with your ancestors as well as enjoy the physical, energetic, and spiritual benefits of smoke cleansing.
Get creative! Develop your own practice – If for whatever reason, you’re not open to or able to find out about your ancestors’ traditions of smoke cleansing, not to worry. One of the beautiful things about this practice is that it’s open to interpretation in that you can take the basic element shared by all the cultures, burning dried plants and herbs, and develop your own unique practice around it that has special and significant meaning to you. Don’t be afraid to be creative – blend your own mixtures of herbs for particular uses (as always, do your research to make sure you’re not dealing with anything toxic), craft your very own fanning device - use tools that hold special value to you. The meaning is a big part of what will nourish you when you practice.
Use sustainable, organic sources when acquiring your supplies – Are you into gardening? Even the least little bit? Many herbs and plants that are used for smoke cleansing are easy to grow, even for those less experienced with gardening. If you don’t have much land for a large garden, a few containers on your patio, porch, or balcony will give you plenty of personal supply for your smoke cleansing routine. Some of the more common herbs such as Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis), Bay (Laurus nobilis), and Catnip (Nepeta cataria) make easy container gardens and are thought to have air purification and antiviral properties as well as energetic and spiritual significance.
But if getting your hands dirty is not your thing, that’s okay too. There are suppliers who get their merchandise from sustainable sources and they will usually market their products as such. If it’s not immediately apparent, contact the seller and ask from where they are sourcing their products. And as always, shop local as much as possible to support your neighbors and community, as well as cut down on ecological impacts from shipping.
This year has really taken its toll on everyone in dealing with the virus, the conflict, and the fallout from both. Along with wearing a mask, social distancing, and limiting time out in enclosed public spaces, practiced responsibly, creating your own smoke cleansing tradition is another tool in your personal arsenal to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy – body, mind, and spirit.