People from my culture who are new to shamanic work with tobacco are often unsure and concerned about this plant, given all of the negative messaging we receive about addiction and the harms of smoking. And friends and family unfamiliar with traditional tobacco work may mistake these practices as no different from the smoking habits they are familiar with.
However, when viewed through the lens of integral theory's 4 quadrants, we see that sacred tobacco work and cigarette smoking are actually completely different.
1. Tobacco work is intentional, usually with a mindset of prayer or healing; cigarette smoking is habitual, usually with an unconscious or default mindset.
2. Tobacco is often of a different species (N. rustica, or mapacho) and free of additives; cigarettes contain highly processed tobacco laced with hundreds of different additives, many of which are particularly nasty and unhealthful.
3. Tobacco is usually not inhaled into the lungs but cheek-smoked. It's also worked with in other ways such as nasal snuffs and infusions such as singa. Cigarettes are smoked by inhaling the smoke into the lungs repeatedly.
4. Tobacco is held as a medicine and as a powerful, sacred ally. Cigarette smoking in our culture is held as an unhealthful, shameful addiction.
5. Tobacco is seen as a spirit with which one develops a relationship (an I-Thou relationship). Cigarettes are seen as a drug that one "uses" (an I-It relationship).
6. Tobacco is worked with mostly in ceremonies or during private prayer. Cigarettes are smoked casually at any time.
7. Tobacco is gathered or cultivated like any plant ally. Cigarettes are produced by corporations for profit and distributed as consumer commodities.
So what's the point of all of this?
Besides the bare differences, it's important to note that from a shamanic perspective, tobacco's function as a kind of "fertilizer" is going to magnify each of those differences.
From this understanding, we can see that:
- Tobacco will reinforce your mindful intentions OR your inadvertent unconscious dynamics.
- Tobacco will feed equally well either your growing conscious relationship with its spirit OR your culturally taught stories of addiction and powerlessness.
- Tobacco will empower the intentions you consciously set OR the intentions of tobacco companies bent on getting you to give as much of your money to them as possible.
- Tobacco will even empower your story that what you do with it is healing OR your story that what you do with it is harmful. The effects you receive depend more on the story you empower than anything objectively true about the chemical makeup of the plant or its smoke.
Currently, the stories about old ayahuasceros and tabaqueros who have worked with mapacho tobacco for a lifetime and are healthy and cancer free may only be anecdotal. But we would do well not to jump to conclusions about practices represented by the graph on the left based only on science done to date within the context of the graph on the right. Especially if there truly is more to tobacco than meets the eye.
We started the first day of kindergarten in the largest room in the school—the Multi-Purpose Room they called it. Gathering us around the teacher and her aide, we were instructed to sit. Not just sit, but specifically cross-legged.
"We need you all to sit on your sitting bones," they said. What the heck was a sitting bone? Whatever it was, I knew sitting cross-legged was uncomfortable for me. I raised my hand. "I usually sit on my knees," I stated. I was answered with a repeat of the instructions, emphasis on "all of you," and I gave in.
I don't know why I gave in. More to the point, I don't know why I said what I said when I raised my hand, why I didn't tell them about my physical discomfort. Looking back, I can see that I hadn't been taught by my family to speak my truth or my needs. I certainly wasn't taught to advocate for myself—how many 5-year-olds are?
The first day of school, the first thing I was taught was that here, too, the authority of adults was higher than the authority of my body.
Nearly 20 years later, I would be sitting in another classroom on the first day of class. The instructor would ask us to sit in a particular way. I would be too uncomfortable in my body to do so. And it would be different than my first day of kindergarten in two meaningful ways.
First, there was no expectation to conform. The instructor had said, "If you can sit seiza, that's nice. If not, sit in a way that's comfortable for you." Not, "I need you all to sit this way," but simply "that'd be nice". He didn't desire to control us.
Second, seiza, the traditional Japanese sitting posture, was exactly how I used to sit as a young child. It was there at massage school that I noticed that the ability to sit comfortably in that position had been trained out of me by my kindergarten teacher. Throughout massage class, I had to sit cross-legged.
It's perhaps only a small way, but this is certainly one way that the weft of control that's woven throughout our culture landed in my body. I feel some sadness around each part of these memories and experiences—sadness acknowledging the kind of culture I was born into and that its consequences don't just exist "out there" in environmental disasters or social injustices but also "in here," in my tissues and the history they embody.
Touching into these memories, I feel not just the sadness but also pain as I draw the connections between global and social issues and my own vulnerable little boy self. I see how these ways that we currently enact our human presence on the planet do not meet my very basic needs for physical safety and well being.
So what do I want? I want a culture that's grounded not in our separation and difference but in our interbeing and interconnection. I want a culture that seeks to cooperate rather than control—cooperate with each other, with nature, with life.
I want to be around others who also want that, who are willing to do what it takes to shed their domestication, let go of the need to control, and live from a realization of non-separateness.
Ok, so that's a work in progress. What, I'm curious, do you want?
A Facebook friend posted this zenhabits article, The Other Person is Never the Problem, with the following comment: "Intellectually I know this is true. No one else can make me angry or upset. I'm doing that to myself. But it's sure hard to realize this and stay calm all the time. Something I need to keep working on."
I was surprised to see someone else's comment responding that the idea was "bullshit," that people do indeed "make us angry and upset us." Apparently I've been living in a bubble because I don't expect to see that from people anymore.
But I remember what it was like to think that way—blaming other people for my feelings. And I also remember what it was like "in between"—understanding, on some level, the idea that I am responsible for my feelings... but not really knowing how to do anything useful with that knowledge.
Something called Non-Violent Communication (NVC) changed all that for me...
NVC to the rescue...
I had two responses to the conversation on anger from an NVC perspective:
- There's a difference between what someone does and my feelings about that thing they do.
NVC's model of communication helps clarify that difference, as well as explains the connection between the two.
- "Staying calm all the time" is not really the goal.
Feelings are important information, especially anger. Anger is a sign that our needs our not being met.
So, what's NVC?
The NVC communication model has four basic components:
Observation is the stimulus, the thing that actually happened. For example: a friend is half an hour late in meeting us, a relative pushes our buttons at a family gathering, the roommate does that thing we don't like for the millionth time.
Feeling is the feeling that comes up in us in response to what happened. But while what happened may be the stimulus it is not the cause of our feelings. Our feelings arise out of the transaction between the stimulus and our thoughts about it. We can see this is the case when we ask questions like, "Would everyone in this situation feel the same way?" Different people would have different ways of interpreting and evaluating, different ways of thinking about, the exact same stimulus. Different thought, different feeling.
For example, I feel annoyance (feeling) when I see that my housemate has not taken out the compost and it's his turn on the chore's chart (stimulus). I feel that way because I have thoughts like: it's a big deal, I shouldn't have to take out the compost when it's not my turn, and other people should be more mindful. Whereas other people might feel differently (ambivalent, curious, or some other feeling) because they have different thoughts, like: it's not a big deal, I wonder what's going on in his life right now, etc.
Needs are at the root of feelings. In the example above, my needs for consideration and responsibility aren't going met. You might feel unhappy when someone shows up to a meeting late because it doesn't meet your need for respect. When your partner works late too much, perhaps your needs for connection and companionship don't go well met.
Our feelings represent information that tells us if our needs are being met or not. When our needs are being met we feel feelings that we usually call "positive". Conversely, when our needs are not being met we feel feelings that we usually call "negative". As information they are neither good nor bad, and both kinds are important.
Requests are clear, concrete requests for what we want that would meet our needs better. Requests are always made along with the observation, feelings, and needs that we notice.
All four pieces are critical in an effective communication. We include the observation so that the other person can know exactly what they did that we are referring to. We include the feelings and needs so that the other person can empathize with us. We include the request so that people know exactly what we would like from them—otherwise, people make assumptions about what we want.
The request is especially important. Since many of us are trained to take responsibility for other people's feelings and expect others to take responsibility for ours, if we don't include a request telling people what we want, people often assume that what we want is for them to be responsible for our feelings.
Less Zen, more communication
If we make a goal out of staying calm in the face of all stimuli, we misunderstand the important role feelings play. We risk ignoring the important information they represent. Rather than attempt to be calm instead of angry, equanimous instead of annoyed, we can allow our feelings to point us to which of our needs are or aren't going met. We can then use all of this information to invite empathy from others and make requests of them.
The zenhabits article suggests that we refrain from action when angry and "toss our expectations into the ocean". Of course this is appropriate in many cases—how would we begin to request to all motorists that they never cut us off in the future?—but as a rule, I see greater value in learning how to communicate my feelings, needs, and requests to others in ways that help them empathize with me and consider my requests, which can lead them to make different choices that enrich both our lives.
This is a basic overview; anyone interested in learning more about NVC should check out one or both of these books: Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by the creator of NVC, and Don't Be Nice, Be Real: Balancing Passion for Self with Compassion for Others.
1. You are already not in control of yourself, or anything else for that matter. See for example Sam Harris's Free Will. This illusion of control can be quite the trap. Especially when attaching to it means you cut yourself off from opportunities to learn and heal.
2. Plant medicine cannot make you lose control because you can't lose what you never had in the first place. What plant medicine does is birth you into an experience the way that being born births you into the experience we call life. We can call the experience that plant medicine births you into "the ceremony."
Ceremony is totemistic for life: you take the medicine, you are born into an experience, and that experience does not stop until it does. Until it dies. Then that experience is over forever.
In some ways, you already know something about how to go through ceremony because you already know something about how to go through life.
Where it gets really good is this: the more you learn about going through ceremonies (by going through them) the more you learn about living life. Life is the ultimate ceremony. Plant medicine ceremonies give, among other things, the opportunity for concentrated practice and learning under the tutelage of extraordinary teachers—the plants themselves.
In 2007 I was diagnosed with a cavity. I've had to deal with cavities since I was a kid, despite good oral hygiene. My childhood dentist eventually told me that, although I should keep doing what I was doing with brushing and flossing, there was nothing I could do to prevent cavities and would just have to deal with them as they arose. This turns out to be more of a reflection of the state of dentistry at the time than of the reality of my mouth.
But back to my most recent cavity. I was really resistant to getting it filled at the time, as I didn't want any crap in my mouth like amalgam or composite. My cavity was too small for a gold inlay, the only kind of gold restoration my dentist offered.
I found out about an old, dying technique called gold foil. It is one of the best kinds of dental restorations, but obscure and hard to find. Modern materials are cheaper and easier to work with, whereas the gold foil process is painstaking and gold is expensive. But done well, gold foil can last a lifetime (unlike amalgams and composites) and seemed like the perfect answer to my tiny cavity.
I was told nobody does gold foil anymore, but I found an old dentist near Fresno who still did them and was willing, if somewhat reluctantly, to give me one.
Then, I never made it happen.
The time and travel, the expense and hassle... I procrastinated. Various factors conspired to help assure that I would avoid the dentist another five years or so. In part, I was stuck between choices I didn't like. The cheap, easy, local way out versus the expensive, difficult, slightly scary dental road trip.
During that time a low grade worry around not dealing with something I knew needed to be dealt with took up residence in the back of my mind.
At some point that worry surfaced into consciousness enough for me to formulate an intention around dental health to bring into ayahuasca ceremonies.
I recall an intention that went something like this: "Ayahuasca, I don't know what's possible here but anything you can do to help my teeth would be great. I mean, I'd love it if you could make my cavity go away and replace it with healthy tooth again, but that seems like a stretch. So uh if you could at least stop it from getting worse maybe and ending up in some kind of overwhelmingly expensive and painful procedure like a root canal, that'd be great!"
In other words, please save me from my procrastination and failure to take better care of myself. As far as I knew, cavities weren't reversible, my wish was an impossible fantasy, but it never hurts to ask for miracles and bringing this intention to ceremony felt at least like doing something rather than nothing about the situation.
More time goes by, and then finally an ally helps me kick myself in the ass. I see clearly how the worry is a constant drain on my energy even when I'm not aware of it. I had known it must have been, but knowing about something and clearly seeing it in front of you are two different things. "Make dental appointment" goes onto my to do list, then actually gets done.
By the time the day comes and I make it into the dental chair, I've resigned myself to accepting whatever they want to put into my mouth. I just want business taken care of. I tell myself that resin composite probably isn't that bad.
Then the dentist tells me: I have two cavities now, not just the one. And they are "inactive" and do not need filling!!!
What? She tells me that the bacteria that cause decay are arrested and no longer decaying the tooth structure in those areas, and... get ready for this... that the tooth has "remineralized". Instead of being soft and sticky in the cavity, it's hard and solid again.
Wow. Intention manifested. I'm blown away. In fact, I'm high from the news pretty much the rest of the day. I can't prove it was the ayahuasca, and at the same time I don't know what else it could have been. Either way, my gratitude is off the charts.
At our next appointment, the dentist buffs over the old cavities lightly and applies a sealant over them, just for good measure.
Counting my blessings, it looks like I have saved money, effort, and tooth structure, and spent some amount of worry now shown to be unnecessary.
Ayahuascero Ron Wheelock once told me that ayahuasca has taught him never to worry about anything. At the time I took this as a kind of spiritual tenet. But now I am seeing that not worrying is also just a practical side effect of having powerful allies at your back.
The other good news is: preventative dentistry is starting to take hold in the field.
Rather than telling me that there's nothing more I can do, my present day dentist is all about prevention. It turns out that filling cavities is just treating the symptoms of the underlying "caries disease" (fancy dental-speak for "getting cavities"). Luckily, disease is something ayahuasca is excellent at healing, and dentistry has started to pay attention to it as well. A paper she shares with me discloses that "current dental caries management considers caries disease to be a dynamic and reversible process."
So the dentist does a "caries risk assessment" that measures the amount of "bad bacteria" in my mouth. The number on the readout is over 7,000 which places me in the second-highest risk category for developing more cavities.
She gives me a mouthwash treatment that she says can actually shift the balance of flora in my mouth so that good bacteria can dominate. It's somewhat scarier than the fillings I managed to avoid. It comes in two bottles, and each dose must be mixed at home right before use, like those heavy duty epoxies at the hardware store that come in two tubes. It almost burns and tastes like radioactive pool water.
I kind of do and kind of don't want to know what the chemical reaction I'm putting in my mouth is. I just want that bad bacteria number down a risk category or two next time I see the dentist.
Given the theoretical considerations, it's been suggested that one can actually use tobacco to quit smoking.
After all, if
- tobacco is a carrier and amplifier of intention (a "power food"—it feeds whatever you give it to),
- the tobacco used to make commercial cigarettes carries and amplifies the intentions of the tobacco corporations to feed addiction to make more money, and
- the tobacco in cigarettes can be cleared of those intentions and imbued with your own intentions (to quit smoking or change your relationship to tobacco)
then it follows that the cigarettes you smoke can empower your intent to stop smoking them.
All it takes is a simple method of putting your intention into the cigarette before you smoke it.
I can see it going either of at least two ways:
- "Quit smoking" within the current story of tobacco addiction.
The tobacco empowers your intentions, so every time you smoke it either feeds the reality in which you're "addicted", or it feeds another such as your desire to "quit". You choose to use the tobacco to feed your desires for yourself to quit rather than the cigarette companies' desires for you to continue buying their product. After you successfully quit you still operate from a "tobacco bad/nonsmoking good" worldview that sees tobacco as only a negative.
- Step into a different reality by replacing the "smoking bad/nonsmoking good" story with a different paradigm in which tobacco is a sacred ally.
In this case, the tobacco still empowers your intentions, but your intention is to let go of any paradigm that sees tobacco as a negative in all ways and instead replace it with a perspective more in alignment with indigenous and shamanic uses of tobacco. In this perspective, tobacco is a helpful tool, a plant spirit to be respected and used in good ways. The concept of "addiction" doesn't have much meaning here; it's simply not how a person would work with the plant or treat its spirit.
On either route, it's probably helpful and more healthful to switch from conventional cigarettes (laced with an endless array of additives and chemicals) to pure tobacco. Since I'm not into commercial tobacco, the only brand I'm aware of is American Spirit, but there may be others.
- formulating your intentions or desires
- empowering your intentions
- releasing those intentions into the universe of creation
I've found them to be quite powerful, especially within shamanic or entheogenic contexts.
- Non-smoking method
This method is touching and connective when done in groups, e.g. around a campfire, as prayers can be shared aloud with each other.
- Take a pinch of loose tobacco in your hand.
- Speak your prayer or intention into the tobacco.
- Toss the tobacco onto a fire to release your prayer into the universe.
- Smoking method
- Hold a mapacho or cigarette in your hand (pure tobacco such as mapacho or American Spirit recommended). Blow into one end of the mapacho with the intent to clear it of any past prayers or intentions.
- Speak, sing, whistle, or blow your intentions into the tobacco. Sometimes I do a combination of these. Don't hold back or be timid—make your prayers powerful, respectful, heartfelt. You can pray for yourself and others, even the whole world. Sometimes when I'm praying for something that I want for myself I include everybody else in my prayer. For example, if I'm praying for prosperity I might pray for prosperity for all.
- Finally, light the tobacco and begin to smoke it. It's traditional to cheek smoke rather than inhale, or take the smoke into the stomach rather than the lungs. You don't have to smoke the whole thing. Smoke until you feel complete. You can use the remaining mapacho later for other prayers.
My perspectives on tobacco have shifted radically since my "Just Say No" upbringing. Tobacco is no longer a scary threat in my world but instead a powerful helper I am only beginning to understand and work with.
Here are some of the ways tobacco is used in the forms of shamanism I've had experience with:
Tobacco can be thought of the spiritual version of Popeye's spinach. It is like a nourishing food for energy. For this reason, it is left as an offering to trees and plants, or placed on altars for ancestors and spirits. It strengthens whatever it is fed or dedicated to.
- Protecting and cleansing
In the same way that it strengthens spirits, it can strengthen energies of protection. It can help define and protect a sacred space by blowing tobacco smoke in a circle around the room before ceremony. It is used at the end of ayahuasca ceremonies to cleanse each participant and close the ceremony. It's also used on its own for cleansings called limpias.
- Empowering prayer and intention
Tobacco is said to be a very strong carrier of intention. It's used to make the energies of one's prayers stronger, and to carry the prayers out on its smoke. In particular, I'm familiar with two ways to pray with tobacco, a smoking method and a non-smoking method.
- Purging illness
Tobacco is sometimes added to ayahuasca during the brewing process, which can make the medicine more purgative. Smoking mapacho during ceremony can help make a difficult purge easier. In general, discomfort and illness can often be addressed with it.
I grew up with DARE and Just Say No. My aunt smoked, and her daughter and I pestered her constantly to quit. The government had told us that smoking was bad for her, and so we hid her cigarettes, or did other devious things all programmed by anti-drug propaganda.
That was the extent of my experience with tobacco when I arrived in Amazonian Peru at 28 years old. I had come to work with ayahuasca, and one of the first things our guide did was take us by the Belen marketplace where we bought mapachos, cigarettes rolled with N. rustica, the sacred jungle tobacco.
No on could seem to give me a really clear answer on what I was supposed to do with the mapacho. I was left with the vague impression that they could somehow be helpful in ceremony, but beyond that I was unsure. I didn't gain much more clarity that trip, although I did have my first few faltering experiences with this medicine.
Over the years, things have slowly unfolded. It's true that when you work with the plants, they will teach you themselves. These days I increasingly experience tobacco as an invaluable ally. This is in such contrast to the way I was raised to relate to tobacco, which has only been called further and further into question since I began working with mapacho.
What I haven't experienced with smoking mapacho in intentional ways is any kind of craving for or addictive quality to it. N. rustica is said to be several times more potent in terms of nicotine content than the N. tabacum found in commercial cigarettes, and yet the felt effects seem only mildly notable to me.
Thus I am having a difficult time imagining the appeal of smoking cigarettes in the first place while also questioning the narrative around its addictive potential. I am led to conclude that cigarette addiction in our culture must have more to do with cultural construction and/or chemical additives than with the tobacco itself.
A shamanic understanding of tobacco reveals an additional layer of the addiction dynamic however. It has been said that the tobacco used in commercial cigarette making magnifies the intentions of the corporations making them—and those intentions are to enslave people in addiction for the purpose of profit. Tobacco companies purposely set out to "feed the spirit of addiction in us" and their customers pay them for it.
Notice how "quitting smoking" is a construct of our current mainstream reality tunnel. Within a different set of stories, stories in which tobacco is a sacred helper, "smoking" and therefore "quitting smoking" don't even exist as they exist within our culture. Waking up from the mainstream reality into a different relationship with tobacco could prove much easier than "quitting smoking" by obviating the addiction story entirely.
Having been at the ERIE conference on Monday made me have the fantasy that if my college friends and I were still in academia, we could have another conference... we had one my sophomore year, called Y2Queer, our version of the Queer Ivy Conference.
It was totally the conference we needed to have at the time for ourselves, personally. It was such a period of crystallization for me around values, identity, etc.
But it got me thinking, what kind of conference do I really need most now?
I feel like it would be an integral Solutions For the World type of event. Mental health, spirituality, shamanism, personal health and fitness, social and economic justice, environmental sustainability, and resilience in all of those things. What would it be like to bring the best in all of those together?