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.


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.