Up in smoke
From the mundane to the mystical, burning incense has been in vogue for thousands of years. Whether a pleasant fragrance comes from a trail of smoke from an incense stick or from an invisible draft or air carrying perfume, we enjoy it thanks to the miraculous sense of smell. The power of sight may overpower all other senses, but without a background scent, however subtle, the experience is not complete. Nature is full of pleasant odors, such as the smell of the earth, trees, flowers, the heavy salty air by a seacoast etc. The sense of smell also plays a vital part while consuming food, which may be turned into a ritual by itself. Feasts have been enjoyed over the centuries. It involves not just laying our eyes on a sumptuous meal or delicately placing each morsel on the tongue, but also taking in the complexity of the aromas and breaking them down to their distinct individual odors. A small patch of tissue, little over a square inch, protected by the bony and cartilaginous scaffold of the nose contains all the necessary equipment to create an experience related to the sense of smell. This nasal tissue traps invisible odorous molecules, deciphering their chemical signature, and sends them to the brain as electrical impulses. The mind then has the relatively easy task of categorizing these sensory inputs into our likes and dislikes.
The mind has very simple binary system when it comes to what we may like or dislike. It can be very decisive in this aspect, especially towards our dislikes. Time is always flowing like a river and every day, thousands of moments go up in smoke, each of which may leave an “odor trail” in the mind. We identify with some of these moments as ones to either cherish or regret. Just as perfume may be worn by one person in a room but all are free to enjoy the fragrance, each thought carries a scent which suffuses the whole mind. A room full of people wearing different perfumes can create a complex and confusing mixture of smells, leaving us unable to focus on one odor. Similarly, the “odor trail” of each thought is different. The net result of a mind full of thoughts that are different in orientation and scope is shortened attention span and poor focus, a scenario we refer to as a restless mind.
Just as we may pick one fragrance to liven up and refresh a room, it is best to follow the scent of one thought if we want to make the mind an inviting and a livable space. A part of us is always in the mind, and we cannot completely disconnect from it at any point in time as long as there is life in the body. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to make this space as cozy and pleasant as possible. The body releases various chemicals in response to our differing emotions. Although our nasal receptors cannot smell these chemicals, the mind can. The “smells” connected to our emotions may infect all the prevailing thoughts in our mind at that point in time when emotions peak. Although the rush of any emotion may quickly disappear, it leaves a lingering odor trail making us carry a certain mood for part or all hours of any given day.
We don’t quite inherit a mind as we do DNA that determines our body characteristics. The mind crystallizes over time acquiring shape and form due to our habits and conditioning. This “rigid” part of the mind defines our outer personality. There is however, plenty left of the mind which can be as nebulous as smoke. The mind may be compared to a lighted incense stick, which has a solid component and a smoky portion joined by a burning interface. In the solid portion of an incense stick, fragrance is trapped, only when it burns and turns into smoke does the fragrance escape and diffuse throughout the room as smoke. This solid component may be compared to the conditioned mind which carries our habit patterns. When we build up this part of the mind and make it rigid, through indulging in repetitive patterns of thought, behavior and actions, our creativity and freedom is trapped. Along with that, our awareness also becomes trapped and we are not free to express our true inner nature.
“Burning down” the heavily conditioned part of the mind involves the “fire” of non-attachment. Through non-attachment we develop a witness stance. Frequently non-attachment is construed as turning a blind eye to the mind. That is a passive and negative form. A more productive, active, and positive form of non-attachment is watching the mind “burn down”. Then the sweet fragrance of true freedom is released. Just as a good fragrance may be enjoyed by all, not just the one who lights an incense stick, joy that comes to one who has experienced any degree of inner freedom may be felt by all those who meet such a person. When we are overcome with a powerful presence of peace in the presence of someone, that is proof of the fragrance of inner freedom.
All that we know about ourselves is through our thoughts. Each one is a “brick” that forms the foundation and walls of the mind. What happens if we don’t partake in any thought but simply observe them? Few people pose this question to themselves and even fewer take the step of carrying out this exercise. Energy trapped within thought finds outward expression through our behavior. Without identification, if we just witness them, the contents of our thoughts burn up on their own accord. Negative emotions such as anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, lust, greed etc. have their roots buried deep within thoughts and they will disappear. Love will blossom as it has its basis elsewhere. The thoughtful find it hard to express love, only the thought free can effortlessly exhibit it.
Thoughts imply finitude and constraints. A thought free state is synonymous with freedom and infinity. Love exists in this sphere of infinity. In the mind, we only get a sample of it. Love cannot be packaged and stored. Its nature is to flow. Just as fragrance emitted by an incense stick spreads if it is burning, so long as we “burn” the past, love has a chance to spread. When a mother expresses her unconditional love for her child, it is spontaneous, and it is expressed fully in that moment. There is no question of storing that love and sharing it after the child has met certain future goals. The love we normally express is a give and take situation. We give either after we have taken something in return or expect a return in the future. Time burns both the body and the mind. Just as a stick of incense continues to emit the same fragrance till it completely burns out, we are also capable of fostering good thoughts and spreading the perfume of love regardless of the age of the body. Time defines the lifespan of the body, but it is powerless against the strength of noble thoughts, the acquisition of which is the only burning desire worth keeping.