Woven Wings will be producing a podcast on the topic of sacred tobacco in August.
As a practitioner within the generalized field of health, wellness, and spirituality, I am struck often by the unconscious and implicit dualisms that often mark our pursuits of well-being. In my recent trips working with Day Schildkret and Morning Altars at Wanderlust Festival in Squaw Valley, CA and Stratton, VT, I found myself rubbing shoulders with yogis-by-day who partied by night and spiritualists who loved shopping – “spiritual gangsters” and “namaste motherf**kers”, well-heeled reformers who still sheepishly smoke. I am not above them or any different from them, and I shared cigarettes, even weed, while supposedly tending to my soul’s work.
This experience led me to reflect on my own conditioned assumptions about duality, purity, and shadows, and particularly in the way I use and relate with tobacco. My grandfather died of lung cancer, a point my father is always quick to point out, and my own fluctuating use of cigarettes throughout the years has been a pattern marked by guilt and shame. I have largely believed that I would have to entirely cease smoking and hide my prior use of it if I was to succeed as a counselor and teacher.
However, when I really dove into this topic, I began to suspect that this perspective actually reflected a cultural disconnect from the wholeness and complexity of life’s fabric. I came to see that the dominant Western culture's relationship toward tobacco and cigarettes is a case study in its pathology, neurosis and pain.
What we generally understand about cigarettes is that they are an indulgence that cuts directly against the value our culture holds of optimum health. Cigarette smoke is still cited as the number one cause of premature death in the world, and public health campaigns to reduce and even abolish smoking are a staple of well-meaning health practitioners and the generally considered wisdom of a wholesome and life-affirming society.
But under the hood of this narrative lie a number of misguided and senseless assumptions. In America’s see-saw between a suicidal addiction to Big Tobacco and an abolitionist’s fervor to leave this substance behind for good, our culture exhibits a familiar careening between extremes. We see this pattern in our politics, in our media, and in our race relations. And in our own lives, particularly if we aim to do good or cultivate spiritual pursuits, we are often caught between “higher” aspirations of purity and transcendence, and human slip-ups and sins that we “fail” to fully corral. This impossible oscillation in a duality of our own making reflects a culture that does not understand balance and moderation, and is not at peace in its own spiritual and emotional center.
Traditional, nature-based cultures offer a different way of relating to wholeness and the interconnected web of life, an orientation that is reflected in their way of relating with what is considered to be a sacred plant, tobacco. Many of these traditions believe tobacco carries prayers and intentions to a greater spirit, as in the case of many North American indigenous tribes, such as the Lakota. For others, as in the indigenous and mestizo traditions of the Amazon, tobacco (as ironic as it might seem to Westerners) serves as a conduit for healing. Via sopladas, or “blowing smoke,” it is believed that shamans and healers can expel negative energy and cure the sick, setting the field of relationships back into order.
Our culture stands in stark contrast to this approach, and many voices acculturated to the dominant Western paradigm will certainly be quick to dismiss the championing of such practices as superstition, cultural fetishization, and the unscientific placebo of antiquated savages. But in this dismissal and demonization, I submit that we lose a gift that our failing culture sorely needs. We seek to conquer nature, and subdue weakness, and solve addiction via eradication. But what’s lost in this mad dance is that tobacco, and nature or our bodies in general, is not simply an object to be used. Rather, it is a sacred plant – for some cultures, the most sacred – that has been employed reverentially and with respect for thousands of years. This is to say that tobacco, far from being a demon, has the capacity to carry and transmit sanctity and a devotion to the deeper mystery and meaning of our lives.
This is not to say that we should chain-smoke, or that there isn’t a deep value to physical health and an importance to its public encouragement. This is not a nihilist trope, or an invocation of hedonism that fulfills itself in folly. It is also not a dismissal of the ravages of addiction, which are exceedingly painful and real and are themselves the outgrowth of the trauma and despair that emerge from disconnected cultures. There are a diverse range of ways to have a healthy relationship with tobacco, not the least of which is abstaining entirely from its use.
However, there are other ways to work with tobacco, ways that reflect a more balanced, compassionate, and ultimately sustainable lifestyle. By forming a working relationship with tobacco, we can find our way back into the world. Tobacco, as traditionally prepared, is a detoxifier and a messenger. It can be soaked and drank, powdered and snorted, offered and prayed with. A connected relationship with tobacco, and the natural world that follows, is not a matter of consumption. Rather, it is a matter of prayer. It is the initiation and renewal of a relationship with the mystery that binds us all.
Health will always be one of the deepest values of life. But true health – soul health – cannot be judged on the rubric of purity. It cannot be judged based on the length of one’s lifespan. Indeed, to do so would be to corrupt our understanding of what health truly means. While terms like sacredness and spirituality can quickly, in our day and age, seem shallow, I’d like to suggest here that there is such a thing as the sacred, and that the sacred is intimately intertwined with our health. The sacred is not a transcendental ether, but rather a quality of relationship that we cultivate with the mystery of the world, both without and within the depths of our very soul.
Soul health, in one sense, is the product of initiations that open us to the profound fragility and fleeting nature of life. This fragility, however, should not solely inspire us to seek preservation, but rather to fully embrace and dive into the passing moments we have against vast odds been granted. Tobacco, in a prayerful sense, is an invitation into this world, this world that lies a level deeper. It is an initiation, across a threshold our culture avoids, into a world of wholeness and complexity, beyond the superficial pursuits and comprehensions of the day. It is a way of being “taken up” by the world. If a drag of a cigarette, or a pinch of a prayer, helps in that full-throated expression of our soul’s spark, it must be said to serve honorably a profound and beautiful purpose. More than physical health, more than living forever, this is what we most need to rediscover in our time.