My wellness practice has taken me over the years to a place of respecting nature and placing plants (and animals too) on a pedestal of some of the more powerful teachers we can learn from. Many of my earlier years were spent hardly even considering the fact that teachers can come in the form of non-human things (my exposure to childhood dogs was probably my first contact with this). My mind has since expanded and now I revolve my health and knowledge around more of what I can’t physically see vs. what I can. We are human, we are nature, and the plant and animal teachers can teach us more about life than most things. Spending too much time only around humans creates a weird perspective. For plants specifically, they are all poisons, they are all healers, and one needs to pay attention to the degree at which that plant communicates with you. A subtle balanced approach is far wiser than the, ‘if something is good then more is better’ way of being that is, oh so common in our culture. That mindset leads to sickness and exaggerative ups and downs and an over reliance on a simple solution to life when there really isn’t anything like that. Oh the limitless expanse of what nature can teach us.
One of the resources that has really helped me in my journey with learning about teacher plants is Dale Pendell’s Pharmakopoeia and I will use that as my main source of information and would recommend anyone to pick it up as it is a truly enlightening book about health, history, mysticism, poetry, nature, rituals, among many other things. The plant I’ve chosen to highlight today is tobacco/nicotine, which is technically called Nicotiana Tobacum.
Tobacco is the fertile hybrid between two wild species of plants and nicotine is the chemical within that is a stimulant. The leaves of the plant are used. Three quarters of the plants found around the world are native to the Americas. At the time of European contact, tobacco was more widely cultivated than maize. It then spread throughout the world more quickly than any other plant ever has giving testament to its addictive properties and the fact that it was an instant favorite among sailors. It was also an instant cash crop and is the unofficial father of the United States. The Jamestown colonies would have not survived if it weren’t for the profits of tobacco. In the 1800s the invention of the cigarette-rolling machine and a new curing method made it an accessible drug, milder, and more addicting. Since that time, having defeated many government prohibition laws (often ones in Europe and Russia that included death as the penalty for using) tobacco has become accepted and now causes about 400,000 yearly deaths and makes lots of corporations astronomical profits. If more people chewed (often called snuff which is put under the lips in the mouth) it is estimated that yearly deaths would plummet to about 10,000. Mouth cancer is mostly operable while lung cancer mostly isn’t and the lungs are more susceptible to addiction.
For many Native Americans tribes dating back to thousands of years, tobacco was often the only cultivated crop. Tobacco is ingested by drinking, smoking, snorting, chewing, sucking, licking, applying it on the skin, and/or by inserting it rectally as in an enema. My mind wanders at the thought of how a person decided to put this plant up their butt. I guess if you like something enough you eventually put it up your butt. Over the thousands of years of human history I would be wise to conclude that if you can imagine it, it has happened and somebody has taken the heat for experiments not working or for various amazing discoveries! Although the chance of overdose is high (overdose meaning death!), I wonder how many people learned the hard way with this rectal fascination. Nonetheless, the rectal ingestion has turned into an ancient practice especially when talking about deeply spiritual highs with tobacco. I love being human:)
For as fascinating as the rectal approach is, drinking a strong decoction is the oldest method. However, drinking it through the nostrils seems to have led to some of the more spiritual outcomes with people often claiming the process induces blackness and red flashes in the drinker’s vision (again, I love being human). Smoking it is a relatively newer form of interacting with the plant.
Among experts who study the teacher plants, and try to categorize all of them into various categories, tobacco usually commands the respect to have its own category. It is a special plant in that it encompasses all that plants have power to do. It is a stimulant, a tranquilizer, a narcotic, and a hallucinogen. In small doses it is a stimulant but a sedative or hallucinogen in larger amounts. In this way, it is the most toxic plant. It is ambiguous in its effect depending on how you approach it. It is a healer, a killer, an ally to your life, a seducer. It is seen the world over in all cultures and has no bounds for being kept out of any community. In the kingdom of teacher plants it is considered by many to be the most intense of teacher plants and the primary shamanic plant of the New World (America). You can learn all from the application of this one plant if in fact it didn’t kill you first. It has a universal appeal and can be used in conjunction with many other plants often bringing upon a re-balancing with whatever you are currently experiencing (at least momentarily). This is not something that is all too common for most plants. In this way, Tobacco is like the king of plants. Or it’s that super talkative, well-intentioned, insightful, and attractive friend who yearns to be in any situation at any time and who everyone wants to sleep with and usually does. Good luck with that relationship.
But cigarette smoking is an annoying habit and how can it be the same drug? The truth of the matter is that one or two drops of nicotine can kill you. What people commonly smoke in most cigarettes is not tobacco but an infinite fraction of nicotine and a whole bunch of other nasty chemicals. Native Americans used to commonly use smoking tobacco as a way to create an environment that is wholesome and clearing and absorbs unnecessary humors of the brain. It can be used to satisfy hunger and thirst for brief periods of time which can lead to a conducive environment to discuss important matters. Draw in the smoke and then speak was often a major tenet of discussions. Can you imagine that happening now with a common pack of Marlboros? No, it would be disgusting and be anything but tobacco or how the drug was ritually/spiritually used. In this sense, what you are smelling, smoking, seeing, is corporate tobacco; a product that is paying homage to the corporate gods while using a minute fraction of the original product. It’s a product that is intent at treating you like a consumer to the ever so needy capitalism and it’s goal is how to make you want to grab for something to be used as often as possible, without any sense of need, to only deepen another one’s wealth pockets. It is a selfish interpretation of the drug and one where humans have overstepped their boundaries. Again, looking at it with eyes that say, ‘if something is good then more is better’ only is good for the corporate god and that’s usually where it ends. The most powerful teacher plant has been enslaved, addictively enhanced, and sold to people in a human insecticide form. It will be interesting to see how other plants fare when prohibitions end and major corporations get ahold of them for cheap, mass appeal.
Tobacco induces amblyopia, which impairs day vision but enhances night. Nicotine is structurally similar to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is active in the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and somatic nervous systems. It is everywhere (no surprise for tobacco—stop sleeping with all my friends)! The digestive effects are well known as it leads to stimulation of the digestive tract or what I like to call, ‘pooping bonanza.’ It has an affect on learning in that has been found to increase interest/arousal to enhance learning and performance of simple tasks while some studies have linked it to impairing more complex tasks, although that last bit is highly debated. Dosage is critical as to whether performance on tasks is enhance or impaired. Let’s say that again. Dosage is critical. Dosage is critical. Small dose vs. large dose basically could be classified as a different substance all together with how different the outcome is. The importance on dosage, and how you intake the plant, will be a forever theme while interacting with the teacher plants. Nicotine also releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine and small amounts of norepinephrine and serotonin. Toxic levels of nicotine bring upon perspiration, light-headedness, general weakness, tremors, convulsions, and respiratory paralysis.
In the shamanic world tobacco is seen as an energy transferor and more specifically how the gods communicate with humans. The gods need tobacco as it is their food and they can ingest it after human use as no food grows in the spirit land. Tobacco is food that attracts spirits to come to you to feed, leaving behind spiritual interactions, hence a transference of energy. The craving of nicotine withdrawal is the growling hungry stomach of the gods. The symptoms of nicotine poisoning coincide almost perfectly with the stages of shamanic initiation, which include nausea and vomiting, followed by tremors, convulsions and catatonia. This is described as shamanic death, the doorway to the realm where spirits and gods live. Upon regaining consciousness, the dreams, visions, and conversations had of the spirit world reflect how one goes about traveling between the worlds. And as tobacco is a relatively convenient plant that taps into all aspects of spiritual states it doesn’t waste a lot of time as opposed to experimenting with multiple plants for the same result and often those many plants having affects that last much longer. Even shamans have a knack for convenience and have things to do and tobacco is altogether too convenient to not use to achieve their ends. So maybe in the end tobacco really just represents the cliff notes. None of us humans are immune from the quicker fix.
Some grand passages related to tobacco:
“A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is the exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want? (Oscar Wilde, Portrait of Dorian Gray).
Kids smoke to feel grown up, adults smoke to feel like kids. The re-balancing act continues.
The cigarette is thoughtfulness: reflection and contemplation before action. We smoke to contemplate action, until the smoking and the cigarette become the action. And then that is what we do: smoke.
Only soldier’s, convicts, or sorcerers would take up the habit as an adult.
Who but a fool would deliberately addict himself to nicotine? So we are dealing with a subset of humanity and since they are fools, no amount of wisdom will do any good. Legislation and criminal penalties won’t help. It is a human habit. The sacred weed costs us more than money as it’s linked to all sorts of death and illness. The poor who smoke are able to buy less food and are subject to the ‘sin tax’ of the product. We cut down forests to get the precious leaves. My precious. Never shall I part with my precious. Nothing seems to stand in the way of tobacco. The gods are hungry!
In the end, tobacco has proved itself to be the obsession of billions. Is the mass appeal and way it is used appropriate? From the corporate sense, of course not. In the people sense, anything goes. Whatever will be will be in a corporate, spiritual, and practically foolish sense. There are many people who do play along the poison path of tobacco and don’t get stung. Somehow they play with these substances with others but not so much alone. They don’t get wrapped into the obsessive world of the spirits, the gods, the corporations. These are the people who are deserving of study and are in a way, the true spiritual guides. More can be learned from them than from the addicts or abstainers.
The poison that is really at work here is habit. The person or zombie that is sleepwalking and out of boredom picks up a ‘smoke.’ What would become of the practice and poison in general if it were a deliberate act rather than a distracted one on the side? Smoking for a particular poisonous purpose not just because you have nothing else to do could dramatically change this practice and what comes from it (maybe would create more spirituality in us?). However, do deliberate acts have room in our multi task obsessed society? How many deliberate acts could you do in a day without getting caught up in the stream of distraction and not paying attention? How many obligations, friends, jobs, lovers, smokes would you have to pass up in order to achieve this? It would at first come across as a very lonely venture especially when everyone else around you participates in it. Perhaps a cultural, mindset shift is more in order than a substance shift. Because in the end, taking a walk and getting the blood and brain pumping achieves many of the same objectives and chemical paths as what would be gained from having a smoke.
The poison path continues…