The spiritual power of L.A.’s sacred ritual: burning incense

My studio apartment in West Adams is the closest I have to a temple. There’s an accidental shrine to my 20s on the left side of my desk: A neat stack of unpaid bills, undeveloped reels of film. That jagged slice of amethyst was given to me by an old lover. A year’s worth of photo booth strips and Polaroids and party flyers. A “magic candle” for creation from the House of Intuition next to an almost empty bottle of Agua de Florida. I have performed exorcisms for my previous versions here and pray for the new ones. I could attribute sanctity to almost everything that happens in this space, but there’s one particular practice that fixes it all: At least once a day, a sweet, warm, pungent aroma overflows. filled with air, spilled through my window, found its way. into every crevice. My daily ritual is to burn incense.

As a custom, burning incense has been passed down by many different cultures throughout history. The purposes varied across eras and regions, but its connection to spirituality was inseparable throughout: from the measurement of the passage of time in ancient China, to the copal smoke that filled the walls. Sweating ceremonies in indigenous Mexico, became an integral part of worship and prayer in South Asian traditions. Some beliefs hold that smoke itself can purify energy, or that when used in meditation, the aroma can be a tool to bring us back to ourselves, our senses, our breath. ta. Since I was a teenager, it’s been one of the most tangible ways for me to access spirituality – there’s something special about the lingering scent of burnt perfume it leaves on my hair and clothes. me, the way the white smoke coils itself in while burning. Burning incense brings everything into focus: Once the smoke clears, whatever problems I have – or who I want to be – become clearer.

In retrospect, it was a necessary ritual in itself. With any ritual – even those that don’t seem spiritual, like drinking coffee alone in the morning or walking around my block at night – the magic lies in the action. I read somewhere that smokers are just as addicted to the smoking ritual as they are to nicotine. I don’t know if this is scientifically correct, but the idea intrigues me: There are very few moments in the world that make you feel like ours – where we can stretch time and space. A ritual as a small moment can happen, if you will, your bad thoughts can be erased; you can appear new again. “We do rituals every day,” says Marlene Vargas, co-founder of the spiritual organization House of Intuition. “But we don’t do it on purpose. If and when we begin to really understand ritual through intention, that’s where the beauty and the magic lie. “

For millennia, incense has served as a gateway to this feeling – or an opportunity to express it. It’s what has the most powerful effect on the olfactory system, activating our innate knowledge: We know this smell, at the cellular level. We know, directly or ancestrally, that it is connected with something sacred. Today, there are many incense manufacturers and suppliers that sell sticks and powders, organic rolls and blends of elegant scents that evoke the sensations of leather and eucalyptus, while at most liquor stores, you can still find compilation classics, like “Sex on the Beach. “In 2022 LA, incense is as important to our daily routine as it was thousands of years ago. It’s more than just lighting up a stick and scented your home. It’s about the energy behind it. Through the ritual of burning incense, we invite in hope.

The scent meets you on Crenshaw before you step into the Taj Mahal Imports, the local outpost for body lotions, shea butter, Jamaican black castor oil and, yes, handcrafted fragrances and goods. They come in the form of long plastic bags dripping with mahogany oil that can stain your fingers with their spicy aroma. The novelty scents feature names like “Michelle Obama,” “Dolce & Gabbana,” “Paris Hilton,” “Lick Me,” “Patti LaBelle,” “Cashmere” and “Baby Powder.” About a dozen wooden sticks are packed in a $1 bag. Looking at the wall of incense is like looking at a crystal ball of collective references – from pop culture, from group memories, from smells, feelings, aspirations – crushed and turned into something to burn. on fire.

Likewise, when you drop into Incense Route, a small shop on the corner from the Wholesale Center, off Los Angeles Street, stacks of incense boxes provide opportunities for love, new customers, and new business. your own or a way to prevent envy from others. There are labels that claim they will bring luck and blessings forever; Others promise a festive night or to open your third eye. So, a lot of choosing the right fragrance lies in what you’re hoping to last or sympathize with it. Each label is a small expression, a special moment awaited when everything has turned to ashes. It seems that today’s most popular scents and blends seem to reflect all of our desires.

a ceramic vase full of incense and tall flowers next to an open watermelon leaning against a coral curtain

In 2022 LA, incense is as important to our daily routine as it was thousands of years ago. It’s more than just lighting up a stick and scented your home. It’s about the energy behind it.

(Stephanie Shih / For The Times; Ceramics by Eunbi Cho)

At House of Intuition, clients seek money, love, and healing – in that order. The 10-store chain, which started in Echo Park in 2010, sells a blend of all-natural incense, resin, and handmade sticks. Among the blends, is Iré Ayé, which blends patchouli, palo santo, frankincense powder and dragon’s blood, ingredients that together “show abundance of money and encourage the magical rain of riches”. Fe Ocan, a deep red blend of gum, rose, white copra, red sandalwood and amber, “encourages love in all its forms”. Iwala “balanced”[s] body and mind” with gum arabic, sandalwood, lemongrass, orange peel, frankincense and white copra.

Vargas explains that plants retain certain properties on their own. The resins (hard, scented resins from the trees) sold at the House of Intuition – including white copra, dragon’s blood, frankincense and myrrh – serve different purposes. “Those are the most traditional flavors,” says Vargas. “Things that have been here for thousands of years. They have a lot more longevity to them. However, we do not use them often because they are sacred tools.” When performing a cleansing ritual at someone’s home, Vargas would use the dragon’s blood to dispel heaviness or bring love; She uses white copal to invite the spirits back. Frankincense, which Vargas likens to a father figure, creates a protective force field; and myrrh is often seen as a metaphor for Mother Earth because of its grounding effect. Choosing which one to burn is like picking up a money-green incense box that says “Attracting Money”. “It’s all about intent,” Vargas said.

On my 18th birthday, just before I moved out on my own, my older, cold cousin – who had returned to town from a Mexican jungle tour – gave me a gift. gift. Inside the bag was a small metal tray, a turntable, and a sticky, yellow plastic bag that I later learned was copal. She shared with me: how I have to heat coal and burn copal on it, how it makes sense to clear my space and stimulate my energy. There was an unpleasant discomfort. It is not something you can light up and forget – the energy envelops you; thick opalescent smoke that cannot be released. When my cousin gave me this suit, she insisted that I was participating in a sacred ceremony with years of history behind it.

We’ve been doing this for ages: viewing history will go up in smoke. Incense was burned long before our generation (some of the earliest traces date back to Ancient Egypt) and will likely be burned long after us. There is a comfort in not only practicing a tradition we find meaningful, but also passing it on to those we love, who then find their own meaning in it. Ritual can change – and depending on the time frame and historical culture – but the purpose of ritual remains the same: to anchor us.

Alex Naranjo, another co-owner of House of Intuition, explains: “One thing she has turned into a spiritual practice after a difficult year of loss is her morning shower. After all, water is the element of emotions. Naranjo imagines it not just a physical wash but also an emotional, heaviness or depression that is swirling down the drain. In this space, Naranjo allowed himself to cry. The water coming out of the shower serves as an example and a metaphor. Her release allows her to better connect with her mother, who she recently lost, or her dog Jackson, who died last month. “It gives me a sense of comfort, like I’m connecting with someone I love,” says Naranjo. “It doesn’t have to be a big ceremony like this – the little things we do every day can turn into something meaningful because it’s done on purpose.”

My own incense ceremony always has the same beginning and the same goal. The center is me, feeling so small in a world that’s too big to explain, trying to grasp something that’s not my business (life, existence) and finding a sense of virtual control thought. First, I would clean my apartment – wash the dishes, make the bed, mop the surfaces, water the plants – and only when I’m done do I scan my options. The growing collection of scents on my coffee table provide an accurate snapshot of my subconscious wants and needs: “The Money Matrix”, “Anti-Stress”, “Super hit”, “helps reduce the negative and increase the positive aspect of all zodiac signs.” I took one of the long sticks, put the wooden end between my teeth, and lit it with a blue lighter. lemon like a joint I took the firestick out of my mouth, blew out the flame, put it in a cheap incense stick I bought from Santee Alley and took a deep breath now I can actually start or end your day.

My apartment has an arched doorway that somehow seems iconic. Getting through it feels like entering a sacred space – reflection, forgiveness, and revelation happen here. I break myself and build myself back here. The residual scents that caught my attention first: warm ash, burnt flowers, sage and sandalwood. It smells like incense that has been burned over the years to represent love, happiness, and success.

“It takes you back to the memory of being in a prayer space,” Vargas said of incense. “You feel that divinity when we step into a space where we believe in holy faith that God exists. Burning incense makes me think of those moments.”

When I light a lamp here, when the golden light of evening or morning shines through the curtains, revealing swirls of smoke dancing toward the ceiling, I feel like I’m seeing a version of myself. something of the divine. The spiritual power of L.A.’s sacred ritual: burning incense

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