From cleansing negative energies, to establishing deeper spiritual connections, promoting emotional and mental wellbeing and providing energetic protection, smoke cleansing can be a powerful way to help us create sacred safe spaces and bring more balance, clarity and renewal into our lives...
What is Smoke Cleansing? Smoke cleansing—burning botanicals, resins, wood, etc. for health and/or spiritual purposes—is an ancient practice that is common in a wide variety of cultures and faiths around the world. The rite of smoke cleansing is defined as "spiritual house cleansing." In essence, the smoke attaches itself to damaging energy. As the smoke clears, it takes the damaging energy with it, discharging it into a different space where it is transformed into favourable energy. The power of this smoke cleanses spaces, facilitates ritual, and is believed to even heal physical ailments. It can also be a transcendental medium to alter mood and allow us to engage in shadow and dream work.
However when anything becomes mainstream, it's important for us to remember to look at where these traditions actually come from, so that we may act in a respectful and sustainable way.
Smoke Cleansing vs Smudging The burning of herbs has taken place all over the world for centuries. Unfortunately, the main form of herbal smoke known today is appropriated from the Native American tradition of smudging. The burning of indigenous herbs, specifically white sage, acts as a tool for invocation performed by specific members of the tribe. The herbal smoke is not only used to cleanse a space, but as a sacred element to the rituals performed. It is necessary that the members who lead the smudging have experience navigating the spirit realm. If done incorrectly, it is believed that this could anger the spirits and cause negative effects. Smudging is about the power of connection to home and ancestors, it is a symbol and practice of culture, faith, and heritage to these indigenous people.
Although smudging and smoke cleansing can look visually similar, the meaning and purpose behind them is very different. Smoke cleansing is a much more interpretive practice that can be performed by anyone. Because it is not tied to a specific rite or culture, any other number of modifications and creativity can be used in these rituals. Some argue that the plants don’t know borders or cultures, they just want to heal and commune with people. While this may be true, cultural appropriation can be incredibly harmful in many ways and we simply cannot ignore the wishes of people who have endured so much trauma and damage to their culture because of colonisation. The commercialisation of smudging is unfortunate on multiple fronts. It has created serious issues around illegal and/or irresponsible wild harvesting of traditional smudging herbs, and it disregards the wealth of other forms of smoke cleansing from all around the world that are just as ancient and powerful. Many times, looking to our own culture, faith, community, or heritage in our relationship to the botanical world can help us identify herbal allies that are particularly aligned with us as individuals. Our ancestors all had personal relationships with various plants that have long been part of our people and the lands they inhabited. Smoke cleansing can be a powerful, renewing, and healing practice for many people, particularly when we embrace a form that resonates with our most authentic self.
Why Can Buying Palo Santo and White Sage Be Problematic?
Palo Santo is a sacred tree prevalent in South America, with the biggest growth happening in Ecuador and Peru. The therapeutic benefits of Palo Santo are many, with it being highly medicinal and healing. The highest quality oils form in the aged heartwood, which is used in sacred ceremonies and for healing by specific local cultures. The alluring, heady scent of the resin is one of the major contributors to its rise in popularity in the West. Much like white sage, Palo Santo is in the ancient and sacred Indigenous ritual of smudging too. Palo Santo in Spanish is “holy stick”. These herbs are revered in many Indigenous cultures for their potent medicinal properties, and many shamans in South American also use Palo Santo to aid the journey of a dying soul into the afterlife. The significance of this practice carries the deep dignity that is associated with the solemnity of religious rites, so a flippant “high vibe” IG post is pretty disrespectful and discourteous. Issues with participating in Palo Santo usage stem from over-consumption, habitat loss and cultural appropriation.
Why Is Cultural Appropriation An Issue?
The need to take ownership of cultural practices with disregard to the cultures they've come from is rooted in colonialism and capitalism, with a misguided belief that the possession of sacred tools is enough to bring about inner peace, rather than actually doing the work. When it comes to sacred items and traditions Indigenous communities have been using and practicing for centuries, the appropriation can be very hurtful, where in the past these very communities banned from practicing their religious beliefs for decades by white settlers and government bodies, who claimed their plant medicinal practices were evil and rooted in witchcraft. To suddenly mark it as trendy and attempt to engage in the rituals that were once illegal for the very communities that created them, suggests this culture is open for cherry picking and westernisation, where “cool” aspects can be taken, while the history and atrocities these communities had no choice but to endure can be ignored.
We cannot consume our way to our higher selves. We have to ask ourselves, what benefit are we really looking for here? Aren’t we just engaging in spiritual bypassing by assuming the “look” of a new-age “woke” human, or are we actually interested in ascending and bettering ourselves?
Indigenous folks worldwide have been clear that palo santo and white sage shouldn’t sold as a commodity (especially by retail chains), but rather be given to you by a shaman to ensure it actually has the sacred benefit that it is being used for. You can’t buy blessings from a rabbi, so apply that same logic here. While many Indigenous folk do sell sage and other plant medicines, it’s important we know where we are buying from and who we are supporting. Colonialism and capitalism place importance on extraction and commodities, whereas Indigenous cultures uphold the gift economy, a true spiritual exchange between all living beings.
So What Are The Alternatives? How Can We Consciously Smoke Cleanse?
There are so many common herbs that offer their cleansing gifts to us that we can use to avoid appropriating from indigenous cultures and depleting delicate ecosystems.
This list covers just a few that create beautiful and beneficial herbal smoke:
Each plant has their own spirit, their own purpose, and when we smoke cleanse we connect with each plant's specific healing properties. So choosing the right herbs, flowers and woods for you really makes a significant difference to your practice and rituals.
3 Things To Consider When Smoke Cleansing:
1. Be mindful that the herbs / flowers / woods have been sourced sustainably, or grow your own.
2. Do your research before use. Consider your 'why'. What is the purpose? What benefits are you looking for? What is the personal relevance to you, your location, culture and so on? How should the plants you've chosen be used?
3. Respect indigenous practices and be mindful of cultural appropriation and commodification. If you do find yourself following a more traditional ritual rooted in cultural significance, be mindful that you are educated about the protocols and customs of the people who originated this practice. Understand the historical context of cultural appropriation and the harm it can cause to indigenous communities and lands.
4. Spread the word. As we know better, we can all do better. And by sharing this information with those who need to hear it, we can create a positive change and avoid toxic, misguided practices.
Where / How Do I Smoke Cleanse?
There are many many ways to smoke cleanse and the way you decide to practice this will ultimately depend on your intentions, your chosen herbs, your personal beliefs and preferences.
But as a starting point, here's a little guidance...
You can smoke cleanse yourself, others a space or other healing tools like crystals and such.
Before you begin, consider your intentions - Are you creating a sacred space? Clearing negative energy? Are you cleansing to open up your intuition? To call in manifestations? Set your intentions
Holding your bundle / wand / stick, light the end and let it burn well for a few seconds. You want the burn to be slow and steady. Once you have a nice stream of smoke, allow the smoke to envelope you.
Next, walk counterclockwise around the space and fan the smoke focusing on the corners of the room. Corners are where stale energies accumulate.
Once you’ve covered the space, open a window or a door and let the old energy leave the room, flowing outward.
When the purification is complete place the wand/ herbs in a shell, fire safe bowl or earth and allow the ember to slowly fade.
Smoke cleansing is a wonderful ancient practice, that when approached consciously, ethically and sustainably, becomes even more beneficial to our wellbeing and the spaces we inhabit.