Incense is used traditionally in religious worship. Though to some people it may perhaps seem a little too “churchy” and ritualistic, in fact it serves three very valid purposes—not only for church services, but for personal meditation and devotional activities.
1. Blocks distracting odors
Often, during meditation, the nearby odors from such things as car exhausts, food cooking, cigarette smoke, or even upholstery in the room where one sits can be distracting to the mind, and indeed may also awaken mental associations that have nothing in common with the mood of inner upliftment.
The gentle, pervasive scent of incense can help to block that often-bewildering diversity of smells, smoothing them out into a single, prolonged, and continuous sensation that itself, especially with repeated association, becomes uplifting. Gradually that one, over-all scent becomes an aid, not a distraction, in directing the mind one-pointedly toward contemplating higher realities.
2. Creates an uplifted mood
A second benefit from incense pertains to the sense of smell itself, which is said to be the most memory-stimulating of the five senses. How often does the smell of something become immediately associated in our minds with some memory—perhaps from years ago, perhaps even from our early childhood.
The regular use of incense during devotional and meditative practices gradually causes an association of that scent with those practices. Thus, the scent helps one to return more instantly, without effort, to an uplifted mood.
3. Helps to focus the mind
The third benefit is more particular. During the yoga practice of watching the breath, the best place to concentrate on the flow of breath is the point where it enters the body. I don’t mean the nostrils, but rather where the breath enters the head. This point is, of course, quite close to the point between the eyebrows, the Christ center recommended in yoga teachings as the best point at which to focus one’s concentration.
An awareness of the scent of incense at that point, and the association of the scent itself with devotional upliftment, help one to keep the mind focused on the breath entering and leaving the body.