Nowadays, the materialism of medical science has become its own kind of dogmatic religion. Nothing that can’t be seen, touched, and measured has any pragmatic value, say scientists. This viewpoint is used to undermine and discredit every folklore, religious practice, and spiritual ritual as superstition and fantasy.
Unfortunately, this often pits science against holistic and natural medicine, which is rediscovering the profound wisdom of folk medicine and ancient spiritual practice.
This wisdom is based on a deep and comprehensive knowledge of wellness—one which views health as something that extends to the mind and spirit, and one which recognizes that the body must be healed as a whole system, not as a mechanistic and arbitrary collection of parts.
The practices that arose out of this wisdom may not have been developed in accordance with clinical data and peer-reviewed medical journals—but they are rooted in thousands of years of direct experience.
One such practice is what’s commonly referred to as smudging—which involves the burning of medicinal plants (such as sage or palo santo) for the purposes of spiritual cleansing.
This ritual dates back to prehistoric times, and carries with it a rich and complex tradition, which has been passed down from generation to generation by indigenous peoples. It is believed that by burning a medicinal plant with reverence and intention, the spirit of the plant is called upon to cleanse the body and its surrounding environment. This effect is amplified by the use of specific feathers and other smudging tools, which leverage the power of certain animals (for example, turkey feathers are ideal for releasing attachments and preoccupations, and crow feathers symbolize physiological and psychological balance).
Smudging has been warmly adopted by modern spiritual seekers, but only recently has it gained the partial support of the scientific community.
Research proves that the shamans were right after all…
Luckily, there are members of the scientific community who wish to use research to bridge the gap between accepted medical doctrine and folkloric healing. These individuals and organizations are beginning to present data that’s making the mainstream medical establishment think twice about its harsh judgment of practices like smudging.
One incredible study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology demonstrated that it is powerfully cleansing in a quite literal way. In fact, the results of the study show that smudging might just be the most potent antiseptic practice ever devised. Just 60 minutes of smudging reduced the airborne bacteria population in a room by 94%, and this purified state persisted for 24 hours after the practice.
The study also revealed that this antimicrobial smoke is a fantastically effective way to treat various types of infection—especially those that affect the lungs, brain, and skin—because the smoke allows its medicinal components to be rapidly absorbed by the brain and body.
And amazingly, these three areas of the body are exactly the ones that indigenous healers most often target with medicinal smoke. Looks like these “unscientific” medicine workers do know a thing or two after all.
While this research only addressed the beneficial physical effects of smudging, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Other preliminary research suggests that burning sage and other sacred herbs releases negative ions, the presence of which has actually been linked with subjective states of greater harmony, contentment, balance, and happiness.
These examples only scratch the surface of the spiritual effects that shamans and indigenous healers attribute to smudging and other folk techniques. There are numerous stories of terminally ill patients being cured by these ancient methods—and their doctors have no explanation for how the healing could have possibly occurred.
So whether you’re searching for an alternative treatment for chronic illness, or just looking to keep your body and home cleansed and purified, smudging is practice that you should consider adopting. And you can rest assured that even the dogmatic scientific community now has reason to believe in its efficacy.
Appreciate science, but respect tradition
The validation of indigenous healing practices by modern science represents an important and exciting bridging of a cultural divide—and it gives me hope that we’re moving closer to the society-wide acceptance of integrated medicine.
It’s all well and good to justify your use of smudging with research data, but it’s also essential that you respect the tradition from which it originated. Trust that it has some benefits that cannot yet be quantified by medical science, and open yourself to receiving these gifts that the practice has to offer.
This open-mindedness will allow you to practice smudging as it was originally intended—that is, as an intentional, prayerful ritual.
Try it out: acquire some sage, sweet grass, palo santo, or other medicinal herb (these are the ones that are most commonly used for smudging). Find a bird feather with which you feel an affinity (you can also purchase smudging feathers online or from specialty stores). Set an intention for cleansing, healing, and purification (doing so silently is fine, but stating your intention aloud can help you be more concrete, and it shows that you’re invested enough in the ritual to voice your feelings out loud).
Light the plant matter in a bowl (try to use a clay or alabaster bowl in lieu of plastic, glass, or metal, and a wooden match in lieu of a lighter or torch). Open a door or window, so that the negative energy you’re smudging away—whether you choose to refer to it as harmful bacteria or “bad vibes”—has a way to vacate your space.
Sweep the smoke onto yourself with the feather, brush all parts of your body, and breathe in a bit of it. Then leave the herbs to burn until the room is lightly filled with smoke, at which point you can sweep the smoke out the open door or window with the feather.
Dispose of the ashes outside after you’re finished, and express your gratitude for the cleansing that this ritual has brought.
If you’ve never tried smudging before, you’ll be surprised by how much lighter and more refreshed you feel afterwards (and if you have any kind of infection, the smoke will help your immune system fight off harmful bacteria too). You might just wonder why it took you so long to open yourself to this ancient, time-tested practice.