Why Incense is More Than Just a Pleasant Backdrop to Meditation; Research Reveals Brain Health Benefits
I’m addicted to incense. I use it in the morning. I use it in the evening. I find it triggers something in me, a sense of peace, a sense of coming inside, but also a feeling of connection. Nearly all spiritual paths include incense. Zen Buddhists face the wall, with only incense, and the bell (and occasional whack) for company. Using essential oils, without the incense stick (usually heated in a bowl of water over a candle) can have all the delightful sensations of incense, without the smoke — which can have risks associated with inhaling smoke.
Purchase our Original Cedar & Piñon Incense:
In temples all over the world incense is even right now wafting heavenward, some believe carrying prayers, and always presented as a heartfelt offering. In Catholic Cathedrals, censors waft. In every Hindu ceremony, temple and shrine, incense is a constant. These are offerings, but Science is now supporting what religious teachers have said for centuries — “Incense is good for the brain.” This evidence also appears to support actual clinical benefit, rather than just placebo-type benefits based on belief or faith.
Science: Supports Benefits of Incense
I recently came across a release from John Hopkins University, that seems to suggest that incense is more than just symbolic in terms of meditation practice. While it is antithetical to Buddhist belief, the scientists, as they usually do, tested on mice, but I’ll leave that for another story — we, at Buddha Weekly are 100 percent against this type of research involving animals. However, we felt the results were important information, even if the ends did not justify the means. Science Daily, who reported on this study, described it this way:
“An international team of scientists, including researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describe how burning frankincense (resin from the Boswellia plant) activates poorly understood ion channels in the brain to alleviate anxiety or depression. This suggests that an entirely new class of depression and anxiety drugs might be right under our noses.”
Another one, a study of 3,000 people at the Research Centre of Chicago “found that if people had the ability to smell fruit many times a day… they ate less and lost weight.”  It’s fairly clear that smells influence mood, emotions and to the brain itself.
Pleasant Odors Have Antidepressive-like Behavior
These studies support the notion that the benefits aren’t just psychological. By extension, once can logically deduce (but not prove) that all pleasant odors would have an antidepressive-like behavior. It’s a reasonable hypothesis, and certainly supported by aroma therapy, and my own experiences.
Incense is the top of mind offering substance. Nearly all spiritualities use incense as an offering. In Buddhism it is more than just an “offering.” Offerings are a critical daily practice and not because of superstitious reasoning — i.e. my gift will make my deity happy. By honouring the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, we create several positive conditions, supportive of good karma:
- Merit: by making an offering, we create good Karma of giving
- Overcoming selfishness: any giving is good karma because it overcomes our selfish and ego-centric tendencies and because we give away something with generosity.
- Overcoming pride: giving away what is valuable is also a way to overcome pride, especially if the incense is offered with a bow.