What is Smoke Cleansing?

I mean what is it really? Besides lighting some plants on fire and waving the smoke around?

I am finding this question to be more difficult to answer than I had expected, especially when trying to explain it to people who are completely unfamiliar with the practice. 

Most people have some familiarity with smudging (the very specific and traditional Native American smoke cleansing ritual). It's been depicted in enough movies to make it somewhat recognizable to most people. And that's probably the same reason the term is used so liberally to explain this practice of burning dried plants. Technically, smudging is a form of smoke cleansing, just not one most of us non-Natives are sufficiently trained to utilize.

I've also likened it to burning incense, but instead of the highly scented rolled or dipped sticks, we are using the plants themselves, in their entirety. Allowing the smoke to release their natural fragrances rather than the scents of highly concentrated oils.

But the truth is, neither of these descriptions is sufficient. Both are accurate, but they are not enough. Neither encompass the enormity that is the practice of smoke cleansing.

In our modern-day, science based, model of understanding, we tend to place the importance of a compound's efficacy entirely on its interaction with our physical bodies at the molecular level. In other words, a supplement or plant or drug only gets credit for healing if a chemical shift takes place in our bodies and can be directly attributed to said substance. 

Many herbology experts who use plants and herbs for healing adhere to this approach as well. Certain plants are "good" for improving certain ailments. So we distill them down to their super concentrated plant essenses - what we know as essential oils. Then we take certain ones for colds and others to help us sleep and still more for skin conditions and body aches.

I'm not saying there is anything inherently wrong with this approach. Just that in our modern-day tendency to treat the human condition piece by piece, we ignore the fact that the human being is not a sum of its parts but rather this perfect Swiss timepiece of synergy and cells and systems all working together in unison and harmony to create something far greater than most of us walking around in these meat suits can even begin to comprehend.

Sometimes the things that are "good" for our bodies, minds and spirit cannot be proven by the scientific method. Statistical models only take us so far. Intuition is your true guide. And it is right there readily available for you to tap into anytime you wish, you just have to get quiet enough to listen to it.

Intuition - which we now understand emanates from that beautifully beating organ in your chest - is what our ancestors relied upon prior to the introduction of the scientific method. It is what guided them to use certain plants to treat ailments and encourage synchronicity between body mind and spirit. It is what allowed them to communicate with nature rather than simply seeing it as a picturesque backdrop to a microcosmic, compartmentalized version of real life.

But somewhere along the way, the reliability of intuition came into question, perhaps because the world became too noisy, and science was born.

Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we are still deeply connected to nature. Plants are literally responsible for our ability to breathe oxygen. They provide us food, shelter, and life itself.

But many of us are so disconnected from nature in the concrete jungles in which we dwell that we are desperate to reconnect. 

So what is smoke cleansing?

It is a physical practice.

It is the physical act of lighting an organic plant substance on fire and breathing in the fragrance of the plant. It is benefitting from a specific plant's compounds, like lavender for instance, to help calm the body and encourage sleep.

It encourages us to take a break from our busy days and pull us out of our heads and back into our bodies, grounding us in the process. 

And if that's not enough, it makes for an effective insect repellant and is quite efficient at removing airborne bacteria.

Because we are so connected to our physical world, these benefits are, for many, the ones we can most easily relate to and understand and explain to others.

It is a spiritual practice.

Our ancestors believed that lighting a plant on fire and sending the smoke to the heavens released the spirit of the plant and connected us to the spirit realm. If we tap into our intuition during this process, we can listen to the messages that plants have for us. If you feel yourself drawn to a certain plant, pay attention. It may very well have wisdom to impart.

Including fire as part of the ritual is deeply meaningful as well. After all, nothing touched by fire ever remains the same. The fire element is all about passion, inspiration and intuition. 

It is a beautiful combination of the physical and spiritual. We are using a physical part of our universe with which we are deeply connected to assist us in tapping into the non-physical part of ourselves.

And it is deeply personal.

While many newcomers to smoke cleansing are unsure of what to do with the sage bundle they just purchased (and I plan to address this by adding some ritual inspo in the near future), what you do with the plants is entirely up to you and your needs. The intention you set and your ability to quiet your busy mind will be far more important to the outcome of your practice than the ritual itself.

Smoke cleansing has been performed in every corner of the world for thousands of years. While different cultures have adopted their own variations of methods and rituals, the practice of burning dried herbs and plants is an undeniably powerful one.

Science may not be able to accurately quantify all of its benefits but that's ok. Because where science stops, faith begins. And if science was able to account for everything, magic and miracles would cease to exist.