The Lost Sacredness of Tobacco
Artists beloved to be Asuman and Atanur Dogan.
By Jonathan Davis / 10.11.2016
The Hidden Power of Tobacco
For many indigenous people alive today in the Americas and Australia, tobacco and other nicotine containing plants are considered just as sacred as they had been for their ancestors. For most people, however, the idea that tobacco and nicotine might be sacred sounds about as ludicrous as a magazine article from the fifties with medical doctors recommending cigarettes. How can a plant with so much potential for harm be considered sacred? Over the past decade, I’ve somehow gone from being someone who had no respect for tobacco whatsoever, actually having quite a lot of harsh judgment for anyone who smoked it, to a person who now has a very deep level of reverence and respect for what has been an ancient friend to humanity.
The Distinction Between Use and Abuse
For the past five hundred years, tobacco has been used by the western world. During most of that time, there were no chemicals added and still there was addiction, sickness, and death caused by tobacco abuse. Before Columbus encountered it for the first time in Cuba and brought it to the west, tobacco abuse and addiction was not a cultural problem for those who worked with it, and the reason according to Indigenous North Americans is the concept of the right relationship.
‘Right Relationship’ with Tobacco
I’ve heard it said that for the Indigenous North Americans, tobacco is the hotline to the Great Spirit. If your culture had taught you that every time you smoked tobacco, the entire universe was listening intently to every thought that was moving through your mind and every feeling that was moving through your heart, you might not be so quick to light one up. It’s hard to imagine some of the kids at school sneaking away behind the bike sheds to eat the Eucharist bread they took from church on Sunday. It puts tobacco into a completely different context. In this way, there was cultural regulation of behavior, casual use didn’t exist, and there was no-one trying to convince anyone that it was cool.
Pre-colonization Native Americans, in comparison to most modern western people, lead incredibly healthy, active lives, with very few toxins and a high level of nutrition. Many also engage in regular rituals, such as sweat lodge – which causes intense detoxification. Combine these factors with the fact that tobacco was used sparingly and smoke was almost never taken into the lungs due to wild harvested tobacco being lot stronger than cultivated tobacco, and you can start to get a picture as to why there is no evidence of tobacco being any kind of problem in their society.
Tobacco as an Intention Amplifier
The oldest evidence for tobacco cultivation was found near the Peru/Ecuador border in the Amazon jungle. Nicotina Rustica is up to 26 times stronger than commercially available tobacco and is considered one of the three most powerful plants in Amazonian shamanism. To many, it is even more revered than the sacred visionary medicine, Ayahuasca. Over almost a decade of exploring South American plant medicine practice, I have again and again seen people I respect show deep reverence towards tobacco, and slowly over time, I have come to gain a perspective on why.
From what I have learned from engaging in non-western spiritual practices, perhaps the best model for explaining people’s beliefs about tobacco is that its primary gift is that of an intention amplifier. This helps explains why tobacco is considered by many indigenous cultures to be food for the spirits. When it is offered, it is a way of us giving the gift of amplified intention to whatever the being is that the offering is being made to – something like ‘may your prayers and intentions be made stronger’. For the curandera (shaman) that wishes for the discordance in her ayahuasca ceremony to pass, or for the ayahuasca to come through with more strength, it amplifies her intention also. If she wishes for a person’s energy field to become clear and sealed, it amplifies this intention too. All across the amazon, tobacco is employed for spiritual protection, as when this is the intention, it is amplified.
For the modern smoker, when we feel uncomfortable and wish for this current moment to be in the past and a new moment to be opened up in the present, it will amplify and enable our avoidance of discomfort. If we want to feel more confident in social situations, it will amplify that. If we want to suppress anxiety or the pain of past trauma, tobacco will amplify these intentions too, though more evidence every day is linking supression of emotions with suppression of immunity. Psychiatry even recognizes its ability to help bring a degree of stability to people going through extreme mental health challenges, much like the way it is used in the same way during turbulent ayahuasca experiences.
Tobacco is a Hallucinogen
At high doses, tobacco is indeed a hallucinogen. At every dose, it brings about an adjustment in our perception: varying degrees of non-ordinary awareness, from slight to moderate. Commercially available tobacco causes just enough of a state change that we want it, but not enough that we really notice it has happened. The problem here is that hallucinogens, and indeed all forms of voluntary or involuntary non-ordinary states, may be inducing varying levels of enhanced neuroplasticity. We have seen numerous studies in recent years showing how psychedelics can cause neurogenesis and help brains rewire after trauma. If tobacco also causes an enhanced state of neuroplasticity, it would provide a tangible basis for some of the claim that it amplifies intention.
Imagine a person going outside to have a cigarette break at work. They smoke their tobacco from end to end feeling angry, frustrated, bitter: “I hate my job, I hate my life”. If the ancient wisdom is true, then this kind of thinking and feeling is being amplified inadvertently through the use of tobacco. If nicotine were to accelerate neuroplasticity, there would be a more significant strengthening of the pathways associated with these negative thought patterns, perhaps requiring something like cognitive behavioral therapy to undo. As we increase our scientific understanding of the effect hallucinogens have on the brain, as well as the feedback loop between our emotional state and our immune system, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if there was a significant link between negative thinking during the use of tobacco and cancer. Personally, if I smoked commercial tobacco, the last thing I would want potentially being amplified by enhanced neuroplasticity is all the words and pictures that are on the warning labels. SMOKING CAUSES CANCER, written on the packaging may possibly be woven deeper into the consciousness of the smoker, by the very tobacco the smoker is being warned about.
The Power of Culture
Perhaps one of the key reasons why cancer wasn’t a significant problem for indigenous people working with tobacco was because their culture knew better than to smoke tobacco while not being in right relationship with it. Indigenous culture may have described things in language that sounded too poetic or didn’t sound rational enough to be considered important – but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t the accumulation of thousands of years of wisdom encoded in those traditions.
There’s a reason why indigenous people didn’t get sick from tobacco and it could be this simple: they had traditions that told them how to engage with it in a safe way. This is the advantage of having the experience of your ancestors passed down, fully in tact, through culture. Somewhere along the way, over the course of tens of thousands of years, people probably found out the hard way that tobacco is dangerous and needed to be shown a deep level of respect. That information was woven into tradition and people could trust that the tradition was there to keep them safe, even if they didn’t fully understand the reason for it. Even if the original reason for the tradition was lost, there was still trust in the intention of their ancestors to preserve and care for the lives of future generations.
So You’re Saying It’s OK To Smoke Tobacco?
No. There are many other factors at play. Native Americans may have co-evolved with this plant and have a certain level of immunity, just as westerners are more immune to certain diseases for which indigenous people have little or no immunity at all. Growing the plant in non-organic conditions may also be a factor that increases the risk for modern people.
The undeniable fact, however, is that the plant simply is poisonous, even without the 200+ carcinogenic and addictive chemicals added to commercial tobacco. Even organic tobacco is actually one of the best natural pesticides known. Reconciling the fact that tobacco is in fact toxic, is perhaps the trickiest challenge for having a sacred relationship with it. It seems ancient cultures partly resolved this with the knowledge that poisons and medicines can be the same, depending on the dose. I have also spoken with modern day tobaqueros (tobacco healers) who hold the belief, and remain very aware, that they are giving some of their own life in exchange for the amplification of their prayers and intention. Hence the care in using it sparingly and in an extremely conscious way.
For people who have been trained by their culture to believe that tobacco is inherently toxic and nothing else, there may be even more risk. Smoking a substance that may be amplifying your thoughts (either spiritually or through neuroplasticity), and at the same time thinking you are smoking something that will kill you, isn’t a good combination. For people who are already addicted, however, transitioning to a more sacred relationship can mean smoking less, because in a sacred relationship with tobacco, a person not only uses it sparingly, but also maintains a clear purpose, remaining in a state of full presence and reverence for the entire duration. There is nothing casual about it. It is done in either silence or the only words spoken are prayers. Most people just don’t have time for that much deep prayer in their day, and so use reduces. It should also be mentioned that anyone considering taking a sacred approach to their relationship with tobacco will immediately stop purchasing tobacco that contains more than 200 carcinogenic and addictive chemicals that are intentionally placed there by the tobacco industry.
A Deeper Relationship with Tobacco
I strongly believe that all substances that bring non-ordinary awareness should be treated as teachers. As addiction expert, Gabor Maté suggests, ask yourself what you are getting from the substance? How is it helpful to you? Then learn how to achieve the same result without needing the substance. Transitioning from an abusive relationship to a scared relationship may be a helpful stepping stone to an even deeper relationship. There are those I have met who are capable of gaining the same effects that they once gained from smoking tobacco, by simply singing a song to call its spirit. In terms of neuroscience, perhaps the song causes the same neural pathways to fire that were developed while smoking the tobacco… without needing the tobacco to do it.
If taking a sacred approach to your relationship with tobacco is taking you closer to this level of mastery then keep going with it. You’ll know because you’ll need to smoke it less and less frequently, in smaller and smaller amounts. If your sacred approach is not continuously taking you closer to not needing it at all, then the tobacco is still the rider and you’re still the horse, so to speak. This approach is not for everyone, by any means, but for some, it will resonate like a bell. To those people, I wish you luck in coming into the very highest level of relationship with this plant.
If you, or someone you love, is still dependent on tobacco, remember the power of intention. Treat this substance with respect and perhaps bring in a clear and pure intention by considering what you are grateful for. Keep in your mind and heart the thoughts and feelings you wish to amplify and soon enough, you may find the need to reach for tobacco reducing.