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February 1996, Volume 3 Nr 6, Issue 30

Incense as Metaphor

At our home in rural Wells, Vermont, sixty-two inches of snow has fallen this winter season. One storm deposited over a foot of snow. In the midst of that snowfall, I found myself listening to the quiet, alone. I lit a stick of Japanese incense and was mesmerized by the curling wisps of smoke twisting and turning, making the journey up toward the cathedral ceiling. A few feet away from the burning stick, the smoke changed into a steady stream which blended into air: the scent that was the room.

The point of this short descriptive is that the incense and the stream of smoke might be a metaphor for life. As we live out our lives, so does the incense burn. The currents left behind alter the room, our world and universe, as a consequence of what we are and what we do. I call the recognition of the tip of the incense stick burning, the consciousness leading to the smoke, the swirls, the stream, the altering of the room and the scent within, the incense factor.

The incense factor helps me to come back to that which is important in my life. The burning incense is short lived just like our lives. Eventually the incense is extinguished. Observing the point of burning is like being here now.

I saw part of Bill Moyers’ series, Healing and the Mind. Moyers interviewed a fifty-year-old cardiologist who was undergoing both orthodox and alternative therapies for a chronic heart condition. With tears in his eyes, the man said that his life was going along with every thing working well and then suddenly, all that changed. He now had to live with the recognition that his heart condition altered his life forever: the incense factor at play once again. While we may be absorbed by the wisps of smoke we can recognize that the burning point is where it is all happening. Time to take a close look at the here and now. It is the here and now that alters the stream of what happens next.

Listening to this man, I realized that I could not alter all the wisps of smoke in my life by reaching and grabbing, trying to change the stream. However, if I focus on the burning point, and make changes, then I create a different stream of smoke.

Case in Point

In the past two weeks I have been given the opportunity to place into practice the incense factor. Our son, Dylan, had been diagnosed as having a low blood platelet count. There were numerous possibilities for this thrombocytopenia: medication, virus, etc. When two of his medications were ruled out as the culprit, his hematologist suggested that he undergo a bone marrow test for leukemia. JeanneE and I decided to have the test the very next day.

Hearing that one's son might have leukemia is typically a serious and disturbing possibility. I decided right then and there that no matter what the results were, that we would handle it and that we would know what to do. I knew that all would be well. I also made the decision to expect the best and then let it be. The test was simply a test and it was yet to happen. Ken Keyes, Jr. suggests in his book, The Handbook to Higher Consciousness, when you think about it, most of the moments in life are just fine. No amount of worry or depression on my part would change the outcome of the test results. Tuesday afternoon at four o'clock, the phone rang. JeanneE had the test results which showed that Dylan's bone marrow was producing normal blood platelets. He did not have leukemia.

As everyone knows, it is easy to talk and write about making the decision to remain calm and centered. It is more difficult to place it into practice. There were moments when fear and worry become apparent and falling into despair is a possibility. That is a human reaction, though concern rather than worry has a higher probability of leading one into action. It is just as human to let go of the fear, recognize the concern, do what needs to be done and then refocus and let be.

Any Time is the Right Time

In December, a colleague left a holiday happy note in my mailbox. She did not state the author of the poem at the bottom of her greeting:

I Am Here at the Right Time

(author unknown)

We are all on an endless journey through eternity and the time we spend on this plane of action is but a brief instant.

We choose to come to this planet to learn lessons, to work on our spiritual growth, and to expand our capacity to love.

We come to learn to love ourselves more and to share that love with all those around us.

We come to open our hearts on a much deeper level.

Our capacity to love is the only thing we take with us when we leave.

If you left today, how much would you take?

In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson writes, "The only meaning of anything in the past is that it got us here, and should be honored as such. All that is real in our past is the love we gave and the love we received."

Over the years I spent much time improving and honing a variety of skills. I practiced sending and receiving Morse code, writing computer programs, drawing, painting, teaching, etc. Other people choose to dance, run, debate, play pool or basketball, skateboard, etc. We spend hours each week participating in our activities of choice. Somehow, however, when it comes to the state of our mind, we find excuses. When our spirituality requires attention, we say to ourselves that we seldom have time to do the things that we want and so we ignore it. Recall that by spirituality I mean the moment-to-moment internal state of affairs of the mind.

The mind is the processes of the brain’s conscious and unconscious thinking, the process of the thoughts that we have. Imagine how our internal state of affairs might benefit from making space and taking as much time being conscious of our state of mind than we do with our state of body, our financial affairs or political position.

Any time is the right time to begin. We cannot browbeat ourselves once we achieve recognition that there is an important aspect of our being that we have ignored.

The Weston Priory

Last evening on national Public radio (NPR), I heard a story about the monks at the Weston Priory in Weston, Vermont, an hour from our home. The report covered aspects of monastic life at the Priory. The monks sixteen hour days include prayer, work, singing, writing, studying, contemplating. As I was looking for ideas to write this issue, here was an idea choosing itself.

The monks at Weston pray as a way to return to their center. The Catholic Priests of my childhood attended Vespers to do the same. The elderly Polish women, wearing babushkas, attending Novenas, did so as well. Other people chant, sing, dance, etc. What varies is what we use to get to our center, the techniques we use to arrive there. For me, it might be the mantra (a repeated word or phrase) or focusing on a glowing stick of incense. For someone else it might be taking a break from all work, taking time for a cup of tea with other people at five o’clock in the afternoon. Still others find an hour or two a week to sip their beverage of choice as they review the week and connect with each other sharing a few moments of calmness.

Yesterday, our teenage daughter Guinnevere commented that society has it all backwards. "We should work so that we can live, rather than live so that we can work." This is akin to saying that we are human beings and that we need to stop thinking of and judging each other and ourselves as a series of accomplishments. We simply need to be. What is more important: the time we spend acquiring things and degrees or the state of our psychic house and the love in our hearts? We know what the materialistic answer is. Our socialization may have us believe that what we accomplish and what we acquire are an accurate measure of who and what we are. Yet, if happiness and peace of mind were obtained by virtue of acquisition then we would experience much of both. However, often we do not. That should be a clue that something needs to be changed.

Other Modalities

There are a vast array of techniques and modalities by which we may come into more intimate awareness of ourselves. Recently, JeanneE and I attended a presentation on Holotropic Breathing at the Equinox Holistic Center. Our friend, Leonard Gibbon, Phd, who is a trained facilitator in Stanislav Grof’s techniques of holotropic breathing introduced the topic to an overflowing room of interested people. It was encouraging to see people of all ages, from young adolescents to grandparents, taking the time to learn about other modalities that enhance the spirituality of the individual and enhance the possibility of healing.

Holotropic breathing is the process by which an altered state of consciousness may be reached. This altered state can bring one in touch with issues that need to be worked through: early childhood experience, traumas, bliss, etc. Practitioners report that past life and prenatal experience happen as well.

Lenny Gibson explained that for millennia people of diverse and varied cultures, while in the process of dancing, chanting, drumming, etc. used enhanced breathing techniques to achieve altered states of consciousness and that holotropic breathing was an example of deliberately trying to recapture that experience through a safe and monitored environment.

The concept of achieving an altered state of consciousness is an interesting one. Throughout the ages, countless individuals have attempted it. It may be achieved through alcohol, drugs, hypnosis, prayer, meditation, singing, breathing, running or other exercise, music, dancing, screaming. The technique I use must be spiritually enhancing, non-threatening and non-harmful to anyone. It must be life and health affirming. I choose quiet meditation alone with incense as a focal point. I prefer being more conscious to altering my consciousness although some might argue that being more conscious is an altered consciousness.

Childhood Incense

I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. I remember as a child attending the old Latin Mass. In particular, I remember vividly the High Holy Mass that includes procession, benediction and incense. It was at this Mass that I had my first exposure to incense.

As a choir boy, being part of the celebration, I remember watching the altar boy that was in charge of the thurible. The thurible was a beautifully hand-crafted vessel (sometimes referred to as a censer) used for housing a small amount of charcoal which heated a plate placed directly above. The plate is where generous amounts of frankincense were placed. A cover was then lowered onto the incense. The entire thurible was then lifted by hand by way of four small but sturdy chains.

The altar boy gently swung the thurible in front of him left-to-right and back again. At the end of each swing, a generous puff of incense would emanate from the thurible slowly encompassing the entire altar area. The church of my youth was large enough to hold a thousand or more worshippers. I remember that even sitting in the back row of pews one could, after a while, smell the aroma of frankincense.

The altar boy’s job was to keep the incense burning in preparation for the priest using it to bless the altar and the people. I envied the altar boy’s position. I would focus on the thurible and the puffs of smoking slowly filling the entire church. Without realizing it at the time, I was meditating. For those minutes where I was focused on the sometimes billowing plumes of fragrance, nothing else mattered. I was transfixed and free from worldly burdens and the western mind’s quest for happiness seemed irrelevant. Not surprisingly, when I looked around the church, I saw other members of the congregation similarly affected by the incense, the music, the choir, hundreds of candles. Was this not an altered or heightened state of consciousness? I believe so. I have always wanted a thurible for my home, though a small burning stick, cone or block of incense will do.

Thoughts on Incense

Millions of people throughout the world use incense. For many, incense is a vehicle to still the conscious mind helping to access the subconscious mind. It assists our ability to shift consciousness.

Today, the study and use of incense includes the broad topic of aromatherapy (which includes herbs, oils, fruits, flowers, resins, gums, etc.). Some believe that the smoke from incense is sacred in that its fragrance carries prayers to the gods. Incense appeals, excites, entices, soothes, focuses, mesmerizes, attracts, pleases, enchants and unites. Incense is used to create sacred space, send a message or prayer, censer or bless participants, clear a space from negative thought or spirits, offer protection, cleansing, etc. This is why many of the world's religious rituals would not be complete without incense.

Some Native Americans collect and combine sage and cedar, calling it the Medicine or Smudge Stick. Prayers, blessing the herbs and the earth from which they come, are said over the Medicine Stick. The smoke of the Medicine Stick is used to bless a home, oneself when sick and to show respect to those that have died.

A few years ago, JeanneE went on a trip to Utah. She hiked through parts of the desert where sage grows and brought back a bundle of dried twigs and leaves that were bound together by string. We filled a small clay pot with fine sand and extinguished the sage in it after we thoroughly filled our home with the fragrant smoke. It was difficult not to succumb to thoughts of the sage's origin. I can easily imagine the landscape, the brush, the rock formations from which the sage came.

Some other examples: the Mayas honored their elderly father and mother figures with prayers and offerings of incense.

The tale of three wise men coming upon the baby Jesus in the stable bear gifts which include aromatic frankincense and myrrh as tokens of their respect and adoration.

One Christmas, I received a gift of two cedar containers with large corks. One container had frankincense while the other contained myrrh. Along with the containers came a censer, a brass metal vessel into which could be placed a half-dollar sized piece of charcoal that self-started and burned throughout when touched with the flame from a match.

Frankincense has a pleasant yellowish color and a fine fragrance when burned. Myrrh is reddish in color. Though it is burned as an incense, it is also considered a medicine. Both are extracted from the natural resin of special trees found mainly in Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East today, frankincense and myrrh are important for their therapeutic, fragrant and medicinal value.

From my research and experience with the topic, I conclude that incense (as well as candles, bells, music, etc.) may be used as a signal to our brain that it is time for meditation. Since I do not meditate as often as I might, lighting incense as a pleasant exercise is a good reminder to do so.

What Happens

When I use incense as a call to meditation I try to still my mind and watch the world go by. I try to let all my thoughts just be. If a twitch occurs, I try to just let it be. I notice the birds chirping outside or the honk of an automobile horn. I try not to feel anything special or elevate my senses. I merely listen, watch, notice without internal commentary.

Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book, Everyday Zen, writes, "There is one thing in life that you can always rely on: life being as it is." My meditative practice with incense is, at least for a few moments, noticing life being as it is. I can extrapolate this experience to my workplace, school, everywhere I go and everything that I do. Life will be as it is. How I respond to it creates action with calmness if I am aware, or turmoil if I am unmindful and engaged with ego visions of control. "When we make a personal investment in our thoughts we create the I (as Krishnamurti would say), and then our life begins not to work."

At the end of her book, Charlotte Joko Beck tells the story of Joe (the parable of Mushin), a typical fellow, who loses his job and his wife. He decides that he will then find enlightenment. Joe purchases a book called How to Catch the Train of Enlightenment. He proceeds to find the nearest train station, sits, and awaits the Train all the while reading and studying his book. Soon, other people join him and before long a large group, including children, await the Train. Every so often they hear a roar as the Train passes them by, never stopping to let them aboard.

Meanwhile, the neglected children become hungry. Mushin, as he now calls himself, remembers a book that he brought with him, How to do Zazen. Zazen is the practice of Zen sitting mediation. As he sits and practices Zazen, Mushin comes to the decision to feed the children and to organize them and the growing multitude into a small community. Since the needs of the growing multitude were not being met by the Train watchers, Mushin does what needs to be done.

As time went on, the importance of joining the people waiting for the Train of Enlightenment diminished for Mushin. He became more involved with taking care of the children and the growing community. He simply did what needed to be done. He loved the people waiting for the Train and took care of them. He no longer had many questions.

One night, he thinks to himself, for no reason, to sit all night. In the morning, Mushin hears a train which stops in front of him and then disappears, evaporates. Instantly, he realizes that he has been on the Train all along and that he is the Train. "There was no need to catch the Train itself. Nothing to realize. Nowhere to go. Just the wholeness of life itself." Just like this moment, typing on this keyboard, is living in the moment.

Hyannis Sound

JeanneE, Guinnevere and I recently attended a concert by the a capella singing group called Hyannis Sound. This group features a dynamic personality in the presence of Rob Stewart who was a former student of mine. One of their numbers was Louie Armstrong's, What a Beautiful World. This was the third time in a week that I heard this song. The first was a recording of the original version as performed by Louie Armstrong himself. I do not often hear this song. When I do, I am, as I have been trying to describe, returned to the moment. The words to the song speak for themselves:

What a Wonderful World

Bob Thiele

I see skies of blue, clouds of white,
the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night,
and I think to myself....
What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too,
I see them bloom, for me and you,
and I think to myself....
What a Wonderful World

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky,
are also on the faces of people going by.
I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do. They're really saying, I love you.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow,
they'll learn much more than I'll ever know.
And I think to myself...
What a Wonderful World.

Zabbadadeedidododi.......Oooooooooohhhhhhh yes..........

Parting Thoughts

It has now been a few months since Dylan's first diagnosis of low blood platelets. He continues to go to school and take his medication. Other than some activity restrictions for safety, Dylan leads a typical school child's life. Yesterday, I took him for another blood test. All is well and sometime later today I should get the results. The results will be what they will be. Till then, there are other things I might do.


There is no prayer so blessed as the prayer which asks for nothing.

O.J. Simpson, Faith and Experience, 1895

Let each one remember that he will make progress in all spiritual things only insofar as he rids himself of self-love, self-will and self-interest.

St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 1548

Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance", Essays, 1896

The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting.

Pierre Teihard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 1955

Do not defile in contemplation thought that is pure in his own nature. But abide in the bliss of yourself and cease those torments.

Saraha, Saraha's Treasury of Songs, 10th century

1996 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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