Messages from the Incense

When you light a stick of incense, you hold the match to one end, and it lights up with a small flame. You have to let that flame burn for a moment so it can bond with the stick.

But only for a moment.

Then you have to blow it out — or, rather, you have to blow on the flame until it passes the torch to the stick and then expires. Then the stick smokes and you smell the incense.

This morning, I lit some incense, and as I breathed it in, I watched this moment through two lenses.

1. Extinguishing the Ego

The flame is the ego; and blowing it out, we let it go so that the true spirit of what we’re doing can be experienced by others. For instance, if I wash the floors, and while doing it, I think about how good I am and how my spouse is going to (or should) appreciate this, and how it’s really racking up my bodhisattva points…that’s ego.

Side note here: because I’m not a fully enlightened being yet, I might need those thoughts — the desire to be good, the desire to be thought good — to initiate the washing of the floors. But then…once I’ve started doing it, the next thing has to happen.

I have to ‘blow out the candle.’ This means I stop thinking about myself, and just ‘smell the incense’ of this particular moment, feel my hands on the broom handle, hear the squish of water as it dribbles out of the sponge, watch the floors start to shine. Doing anything with an agenda makes for stinky incense. Doing it for its own sake ushers me into the room. I get to be in the room with myself and whatever I’m doing. And this is what brings about the sweet scent of presence.

2. What I Leave Behind

Blowing out the flame is also my moment of death; and the smoke that continues down the incense stick (for much longer than the initial flame) that’s all my actions during my life, coming into fruition afterward.

Every kind word was the flame. How that lived in the people who received them is the smoke. Every moment of expressed irritation — flame. Receipt and reaction from my victims — smoke. Every act of courage and integrity is the flame that everyone sees, warms their hands by and trusts. And what they all do later, because I was brave or true, what people I may not even know were paying attention DO, what they realize they’re capable of, and then what they go and do, maybe generations of them — that’s the smoke.

Light a stick of incense today — either real or metaphorical. Remember to stay in the room with yourself. Remember that this life will be over in minutes. But who you are in it leaves its essence in everyone you touch, and their children, and their children’s grandchildren.

Let’s do what we do on purpose.

It matters.