Reaching Into the Universe

7 differences between sacred tobacco work and smoking cigarettes: a 4 quadrant analysis

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.

4 quadrants - differences between sacred tobacco work and cigarette smoking

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.


Plant medicine, the illusion of control, and living life

SlidersI'm always amused when people say things like, "Oh I could never do that, I don't like not being in control of myself."

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.


Minor ayahuasca miracles and preventative dentistry

TEETHIn which procrastination pays off, ayahuasca heals a cavity, and the field of dentistry thankfully evolves.

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.


Using tobacco to quit smoking

Praying with mapachoGiven 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:

  1. "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.
  2. 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.


Two ways to pray with tobacco

Holding mapachoHere are two ways I've learned to pray with tobacco, both of which involve:

  • 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.

  1. 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.

    1. Take a pinch of loose tobacco in your hand.
    2. Speak your prayer or intention into the tobacco.
    3. Toss the tobacco onto a fire to release your prayer into the universe.
  2. Smoking method
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.

Four ways to use tobacco shamanically

MapachosMy 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:

  1. Offering
    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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Questioning tobacco addiction

MapachoI grew up with DARE and Just Say No. My aunt smoked, and my cousin 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.


Gratitude for life

Gift BoxOver fall equinox, huachuma helped me confront and deal with the powerlessness I felt during my grandma's dying process. In that, I recognized that the powerlessness we feel over someone's death is not different than the powerlessness we have over their lives. This is the corollary to the idea that we die the same way we live. How we live is our choice, and in some senses how we die is, often, our choice as well.

If I value letting go of trying to control other people's lives then I get to let go of all of the regrets I've entertained thinking that if I had only done something different, pressed harder, helped more, she might have lived healthier and died later, or at least better. My grandma died the same way she lived; she lived "by the book" and she died by the book too. The helpful measures I suggested weren't in it.

Talking with a friend Saturday night, I found that those regrets, while false, turned upon something true. The wish for her to live longer was and is a true and good thing. It's when it becomes expectation or demand that it crosses the line. I came to the conclusion that it's best to think of a person's life at each moment as a gift.

When a person gives us a series of precious gifts, we don't balk when they spend some of their energy elsewhere. We don't harangue them to reorganize parts of their lives so that they may enable themselves to give us even more. Nor do we consider it proper to resent them when they stop giving.

That leads to the realization that if I looked in the mirror, it would be best to relate to my own life as a gift as well. This strikes me as the kind of "heart opening" effect the huachuma curandera said grief could have.

One day later and I'm talking with a different friend on Sunday night, who tells me about a dream he had about death, the punch-line of which is the appropriate response to having received a gift such as life : gratitude.

Next was my own dream, in which I felt a particular feeling, a feeling that I would soon read about in a blog post written by a cute bearish man in response to a question I asked him on Scruff (smartphone chat app for scruffy gay men). In my dream I remember thinking that if my life was a gift, being grateful for it would involve taking better care of myself. As his post says, "[G]ratitude is not just a mental exercise.  Gratitude is both attitude and action." He writes about the actions he takes in response to his gratitude for his car. What kinds of actions would most appropriately reflect your gratitude for your life? This 3-minute Uzazu practice video I received in my email recently might help you embody it.

I'm enjoying how these learnings are unfolding over a series of different conversations and synchronous events, across various relationships and media. It's like my life is a novel and the cosmos has introduced a new theme.


Good medicine: huachuma

Huachuam flowerI recently had the privilege of participating in some huachuma ceremonies. Huachuma is a cactus native to the Peruvian Andes that has been used for healing and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. After working with it, I can understand why. Among other things, huachuma is a master heart opener and emotional healer. I think I'd like to work with it for a couple thousand years myself.

The medicine is masculine, which we can compare to ayahuasca's feminine. Ayahuasca is often called Mother or Grandmother; huachuma is called Grandfather. I found huachuma to be very straightfoward; with ayahuasca the phrase "feminine wiles" is an understatement. Ayahuasca is a vine that grows with twisting, sensuous curves; huachuma is a columnar cactus that grows straight up toward the sun like an erect penis. As a gay man, I felt very at home with it.

Unlike ayahuasca, which is almost always used at night, huachuma can be used during the day. The ceremonies can start in the morning and stretch into the night. When done during the day, the ceremonies are about celebration, connection, and community. They have less structure than nighttime ceremonies and we were able to explore the natural environment, talk with each other, and partake in different types of Andean healing.

The ceremonies started with a tobacco medicine called singa. This is a tobacco juice mixture that is taken nasally. A small amount of the liquid is poured into a conch shell, the tip of which is inserted into the nose then tilted back to send the medicine down the nasal passages into the back of the throat where it is swallowed. Each nostril has a purpose in the ritual, with the left side used for releasing negative energy and the right for receiving goodness. The entire procedure looked more terrifying than it actually was. If you have any experience with neti pot practice singado is not much different. The medicine has a bit of a burn in the throat, but not bad. Singa clears the sinuses, gets you present, and opens up the way for the huachuma medicine.

After singa came the huachuma, which was served as liquid. It was basically cactus juice, although I don't know all the details that go into the shamanic preparation of it. The taste was mild with some bitterness, and much easier to get down than ayahuasca. The effects can take a long time to come on, although I found myself in slightly non-ordinary reality within an hour. My experiences were mild, with some difficulty walking at times, increased sensitivity, and a gentle opening of my emotional process.

I discovered that my grieving process has been stuck as the huachuma released it; I had been stuck in the powerlessness I felt during my grandmother's dying. The second night I confronted the self-hatred I've been carrying around, traced its origins back to childhood, and left with some simple practices to begin shifting the patterns of fear and distrust that have kept me living as a smaller person than I know myself to be.

During the day we experienced flower baths, "the original aromatherapy", in which massive amounts of colorful petals are infused in a large tub of water with great joy and love and pints of this mixture are poured over participants' heads. I was skeptical of the ability of this simple rite to have any real effect, but the shift in my interior experience was immediate, unmistakable, and difficult to describe other than to call it delicious. It brought me up above the challenging aspects of the medicine so that I could enjoy the experience even as I faced some hard self-work.

I practiced some craniosacral therapy while in the medicine. It was amazing, much less subtle an experience than usual. And working with people when they are so open and more able to let go facilitates the work. I can't wait to do more.

At night we gathered around a campfire. Such joy, people singing songs, offering poetry, telling jokes. It was like ILALI's Metaphor*phosis event, an event I didn't realize could have been even better, but all you have to do is add a campfire and huachuma and you have a recipe for an experience that I would gladly welcome as the default for a good weekend the way some people go out on the town every week.

DespachoThe day after came the despacho, a closing ceremony and gift back to the earth. Led by the facilitator, the group created a mandala of flowers, candy, and symbols to express gratitude for what we had received. The despacho gets bundled up in gift wrap and then used in a final cleansing of each participant before being offered to the earth along with offerings of alcohol and food. The despacho is said to help restore the balance between humans and the planet by giving back some of all that we receive.

Receive we did. It's hard to quantify "how much" one receives from a particular plant medicine experience and so difficult to compare experiences. What I can say is that not only did I receive so much from working with this plant, I was also able to consciously understand what I was receiving which is not always the case in medicine work. Sometimes I don't know what I've received from ayahuasca until months later, so a lot depends on trusting the medicine. In this case though I left with immediate gratitude and gifts aplenty.

I'm left thinking that huachuma would be an excellent introduction to plant medicine work for the inexperienced. While some participants did have a more challenging time, overall it seems that its gentleness and straightforwardness makes it less overwhelming and confusing than other plants, and the freedom of the looser ceremony might be easier for a beginner to deal with than more structured traditions.

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