Burning precious woods and incense to release fragrance is an ancient practice—the word ‘perfume’ comes from the Latin ‘per fumus’, meaning ‘through smoke’—and has been prized for centuries as an art form and religious ritual in China and Japan. Today its uses extend to treatment for ailments ranging from insomnia to psychological problems, as well as a means to restore well-being and fully engage all five senses.
Incense is perfume liberated by fire or heat to soothe our souls. As the daily challenges of modern life evolve into more complex psychological forms of stress, the use of incense is increasingly valuable in relaxing and nourishing our spirits.
Scent can be a powerful tool when working with emotions, because it’s processed in the part of the brain that is linked to memories, feelings and motivation. It has the power to take you on a mental journey, and its effects are immediate and profound.
Incense exists in various forms. You can burn sticks, spirals and cones or heat compounded resins, and the Tang Dynasty method of burning powder in stenciled trails is becoming fashionable again in China and other parts of Southeast Asia. But regardless of the method used, the key to appreciating incense is to ‘listen’ to the scent, instead of just smelling it.
Listening to incense, in a process known as ‘mon-koh’, is largely exemplified in the Japanese tradition of Kodo (Way of Incense). This is where small pieces of precious aloeswood are gently heated on a piece of mica, hovering above hot charcoal in a cup. It’s a method that has been practiced for more than 600 years, and the masters of Japanese incense schools have appraised several fragrant aloeswood varieties and given them names based on the mental images they conjure.
Aloeswood, also known as agarwood or oud, is a dark fragrant resin-suffused heartwood that forms in niches of large evergreen Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees that are native to Southeast Asia. It forms over decades and centuries in response to injury and fungal infection, turning the naturally pale wood dark brown or almost black from the resin produced by the tree to fight the infection.
Becoming a Kodo master can take up to three decades, one of the longest periods of training within the Japanese traditional arts. But you don’t need to go to that level of training to enjoy contemporary forms of incense.
So, what skills do you need, and where do you start?
The foundation of olfactory perception lies in understanding the way fragrance engages all five senses. Scent notes have both pitch and volume as well as color, texture and taste. If that seems difficult to imagine, try these simple experiments and you’ll get the associations straight away.
Crush a handful of cilantro – the scent is green, vegetal, sharp, spicy and intensely loud with a ringing high pitch. A vanilla caramel custard wobbling on a plate? The scent is white, yellow, creamy, sweet, silky smooth, comforting and moderate in intensity, with a midrange akin to a cello. The scent of rain, the mist that hovers in the air after a rain shower, has an earthy, dark, deep, quiet hum of a low, extremely grounding tone. These perceptions come naturally to us, and once we start thinking about incense in this way we can start to experience it more deeply.
The ability to appreciate scent is so innate, most of us take it for granted and only notice scent when it’s not there. (Think about how miserable you feel when you have a cold or blocked nose and can’t enjoy the smell or taste of food.) Despite being able to survive on the basics, we all seek out tantalizing food and drinks whenever we can. Underlying this is mainly olfaction, not simply taste. While eating nourishes us on a physical level, smelling nourishes us emotionally.
To start appreciating incense, I recommend beginning with those of medium to low intensities, preferably made from natural ingredients free from synthetic fragrances and binders.
High-intensity incense, such as those in the form of cones, smoky herb mixes or certain synthetic molecules at high concentrations, can make you anosmic (unable to smell anything).
Start by burning an incense stick or heating some fragrant resins in a relatively large space with moderate airflow, observing how the scent evolves around you. As your muscles relax and stray thoughts become fewer and farther between, it becomes easier for more subtle sensations to take hold. As we close our eyes and inhale the fragrant air, we are taken on a mental journey away from worldly concerns.
Appreciating incense is to experience scent as a form of music. In music, notes of different pitches are interspersed with varying amounts of silence, creating melodies and rhythms. With incense, clean air is the ‘silence’ into which different aromatic notes are played. The interweaving of scent and scentlessness creates its own melody, pace and rhythm, and space for the imagination to roam free.
Instead of being analytical and trying to pick out notes, try to let go of expectations. Living in the present moment, with a mental stillness like a pond where the scent is like gentle ripples, our sense acuity increases and our ability to appreciate incense heightens.
There’s an ever-increasing number of incense schools, offering events and workshops that provide a good foundation on how to use different types of incenses, from sticks to balls to powders and pouches containing a blend of herbs akin to potpourri.
But all can be appreciated in the same way, which is simply by closing your eyes and… listening.
Photos: Getty, Kyara Zen