To smudge or not to smudge
Shamanism is not church. There’s no place for dogmatized or imitation-ritual. At the same time, ritual can be an important link that guides us from everyday consciousness into non-material realms. An informed or well-tailored ritual can become a pathway into the imaginal.
Michael Harner (my first shamanic teacher — 1985) used ritual elements on his altar, such as candles and incense, but clearly did not rely on them. His opening ritual involved calling in the spirits and a rattle-blessing around each circle participant. Smudging (cleansing with incense) was independently introduced into our practitioner’s circle pretty much from the beginning. I was aware that the practice imitated Native American sweat lodge ceremony, and was therefore reluctant to adopt the practice. I was aware that some Native Americans did not favor non-indigenous export of their ceremonies. That seemed understandable.
I spoke with my spirit helpers on this topic, who explained to me that there was nothing mandatory about smudging, and recommended that I find my own relationship with sage and incense. There is an ineffable and natural quality to the rising smoke to which I attended, honoring the link between participants and spirits, earth and sky, material and non-material. When it came my way, I was encouraged to move the smudge or incense stick with intention, often in a circular motion. I didn’t realize it right away, but it eventually occurred to me that I was making an offering. In addition, I was encouraged to scry, to gaze into the smoke, and in that process open myself to evolving intent and potential needs of our drum circle. It felt like a link of clouds, like a column of mist. My everyday mind would stop — entranced as the wisps of smoke faded into the invisible.
This relationship with the rising smoke led me to occasionally share the experience with “less integrated” areas of a ritual circle or room, which naturally led to using incense as an aid to cleansing “chaos” in a house or frequented area, or as adjunct to blessings. Something ineffable, like budding light, seemed to encourage a more spiritual atmosphere. The gesture, moving with the smoke and helping spirits, was encouragement for harmony.
There is a literal historic use of incense that lends itself to symbolic cleansing. Indigenous Peoples used local incense to prepare for the hunt. A strong aroma, such as sage or sweet grass, can mask human scent from potential prey like deodorant. Thus, smudging was literally bathing. In many of the world’s major religions incense is used to purify a place of meeting. Historically, there was a very practical motivation for this: people often traveled from a distance and had not bathed prior to the gathering. Purifying a space was a ritual means of masking human odor. Any form of cleansing, from washing feet in the desert to baptism, can lend itself to symbolic cleansing. Perhaps unfortunately, modern cleansing is so quick and convenient that it is more difficult to adapt as mythic ritual.
Perhaps as an extension of burning incense, smoke inhalation pre-dated the use of individual pipes, and may go back as far as 5000 BCE. Methods included waving the smoke toward the nose for inhalation, as well as the use of tubes for more efficient access. Hypocrites used smoke inhalation from herbs as remedy for certain female diseases. It seems likely that there were a variety of blends for a variety of occasions. According to Science Daily, burning frankincense activates channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. I always have thought there must have been a reason for its value and expense.
Whatever their olfactory, medicinal, or psychoactive properties, there is also a strong mythological aspect to incorporating incense into a ritual as element-air. Representations of the four elements — water, earth (stones), fire, and air — are bonding agents to the natural order and potential links to a successful gathering.
Within four years of serious shamanic practice, a ritual pipe came to me in a special way, such that I could not refuse it. Shortly thereafter I was given a large bag of kinnikinnick, a blend that probably included wild tobacco and a variety of herbs. Kinnikinnick is a generic term; there are a variety of blends. I had no idea what went into mine, but it was easily the most pleasant tobacco I have ever smoked. Still conscious of the Native American link, I chose not to use this pipe in public. Rather, this was a pipe that I only used with close shamanic peers or on my own. Shortly after running out of kinnikinnick, I began using a pipe I inherited from my grandfather. I loved my grandfather, so substituting his pipe for the beautiful red pipestone seemed appropriate.
The age of asthma
In modern populations there is an increase in respiratory allergies and asthma. I myself have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With the emphasis on energy efficiency, our houses are becoming tighter — with a great deal less airflow from outside. Consequently, I no longer use incense during indoor rituals. And I no longer smoke a pipe. I do not miss them, perhaps because I have integrated the ritual process into a more direct attention to the sacred.
Of course, differing situations may coax differing approaches. There are so many ways to honor helping spirits — with our songs, our prayers, our altars, our gestures…in short, with our groomed attention. As Rumi says: there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. It is good practice to approach the spirit world with respect, love, and controlled abandon — preparing ourselves to leave behind the patterns of our everyday lives. Developing respect is core to any relationship building. Demonstrating respect is pleasing to our helping spirits, and lights up the better parts of our nature. In the age of asthma, it is worth reminding ourselves that we need not rely on spiritual paraphernalia to connect with Spirit.
An offering is a dedicated gesture, the purpose of which is to honor the link with helping spirits or Soul. An offering, or dedication, often takes the form of a living ritual — offering something tangible, such as the renewal or the making of an altar with the attention of our heart/mind. But as the dedication becomes internalized, the ritual may become less necessary.
We can make dedication at any point in our daily lives by integrating conscious awareness, effort, and gratitude. We can make dedication through the effort of a physical act — any daily activity that requires focus. For example, we can dedicate an exercise routine and the circle of breath, like yoga, in gratitude of our helping spirits. We can make dedication through the attention of our heart/mind, dedicating stillness or a moment’s circular pause.
When we become conscious, any act can be made religious — linking — and that link can attach (as is its will) to outcomes as broad as love and light. Or the link can be more specific — in service of friends, family, or clients as we tend to potential for best possible outcomes. Like pilgrimage, our day’s activities can be intentionally dedicated to potential as we approach the sacred — seeking a circle of intention.