|9. The Personal Drug: Heart, Body, and Soul
Written by William Novak
|Saturday, 12 March 2011 00:00
9. The Personal Drug: Heart, Body, and Soul
Let it be well understood, then, by worldly and ignorant folk, curious of acquaintance with exceptional joys, that they will find in hashish nothing miraculous, absolutely nothing but the natural in a superabundant degree.... Hashish will be, indeed, for the impressions and familiar thoughts of a man, a mirror which magnifies, yet no more than a mirror.
— Baudelaire, The Poem of Hashish (1860)
Matters of the Heart
"Be sure not to miss the forest for the trees," a Seattle smoker advised me. "The major effect of marijuana is that it makes people feel good." Indeed, the point is so obvious that few smokers bothered to mention it unless they were specifically asked. Smokers will speak of euphoria, joy, and elation or of a feeling of contentment and well-being, but the word "high" is a richer description, and smokers sometimes speak of being "up," "on top of things," and in some cases, even "soaring."
Sometimes this state of happiness is accompanied by a sense of control or power, especially over one's own life or one's faculties. "I felt like I could understand everything immediately without even having to think about it," recalls Carol, of a particularly energetic high. Sandy remembers an evening during which she was overwhelmed by positive feelings about her own future:
I had been out late with friends, and when I came back, I clamped on the headphones from the stereo, and filled up my pipe. Between the music and the grass, I began to feel so wonderful, bursting with confidence and optimism. I think I was convinced that my life was going to get itself together, that I would live happily ever after. For those brief moments, I was soaring as high as I ever thought I could go.
Marijuana usually heightens the emotional state of its users; most people smoke when they are already in a good mood, and smoking usually makes them feel even better. But what about users who may be feeling sad or depressed? Many, as a matter of principle, do not use marijuana at such times. For some, smoking during unhappy states is simply inappropriate, or unappealing. Others fear that if they smoke while they are depressed, their depression will become worse.
Yet another group of smokers finds that marijuana can be useful in difficult times because it can lead them to understand better the nature of the problem at hand, thus providing some measure of relief. A computer programmer explains:
When I'm stoned, buried thoughts that are hidden because of an unpleasant association may come to consciousness. Sometimes this makes for a difficult moment. But often, the facing of the thought helps me to grow and understand. Sometimes the buried thought can be dealt with positively and effectively and brought out in the open in a way that would not have occurred unless I had been stoned.
Almost all smokers agree that marijuana is not especially helpful in avoiding or escaping from bad feelings, although some do turn to it in moments of sadness or stress. A Wisconsin teacher explains why:
It doesn't take away from the pain, but it does allow me to look at it from a more centered place, standing back and seeing it with some distance. With marijuana, I can let myself experience the unhappiness without being overtaken by a need to flee from it, and without being driven or compelled to take some automatic, habitual action.
The effect of marijuana on the emotions is not limited to the simple categories of happy and sad, since cannabis has a moderating influence on other feelings as well. Users find that tension and anxiety, for example, are often alleviated by smoking, leading to a more relaxed emotional state. In addition, as users are quick to point out, cannabis differs markedly from alcohol in that it is rarely or never an agent of social conflict or violence. "I have never seen a person become violent or nasty on grass," says a New Jersey bartender.
Many smokers find marijuana helpful in calming their nerves and in rendering them less aggressive, if only temporarily. A Los Angeles accountant finds this to be especially true of one of his clients, a millionaire in real estate who smokes daily. In the mornings, the man is cranky and mean, and calls the accounting firm with a host of complaints. After lunch, at which he usually smokes a joint, he becomes calmer and much more pleasant to deal with.
A counselor at a summer camp relates a similar story about the effect of smoking on her temper:
Pot seems to give me patience and calmness. Although I don't usually get angry, I did blow my stack one day with a group of fifth graders. Together with another counselor, I went into the woods and caught a buzz. Later, the same behavior that had made me lose my temper occurred again. But this time I remained calm and explained to the kids that what they were doing was unacceptable.
Many smokers find that marijuana brings them closer to their own feelings. "Sometimes I use dope when I'm feeling sad but unable to cry," says a Philadelphia saleswoman, who adds that "it frees me up more to let go, to really feel and express what's inside me." Some users find that smoking breaks down the various defenses—such as intellectualization, denial, repression, or minimization—that keep them away from their own emotions. This, in turn, leads to more direct communication, with oneself as well as with others, as a Las Vegas receptionist observes:
When I'm stoned, I like to write letters to my friends. When I'm completely straight, I'm more inclined to choose my words because I'm thinking of Who I'm Writing To, and What To Say To Them. But stoned, I only want to tell the person directly what I feel and to express my thoughts and feelings directly and honestly.
Judy, who is normally comfortable expressing and exploring her emotions, finds that this quality becomes heightened after smoking. She recalls an occasion when marijuana made her feel far more aware, and in this case more vulnerable, than usual:
We had smoked one night, and we were talking about buying a house. Murray asked me why I am so reluctant. It turns out that the external reasons, like money, career, and neighborhood, constitute only part of my hesitation. The rest, as became clear that night, has to do with something more basic: my fears of losing him. What if we buy a house and I am left alone in it? We started talking about my fears, and he told me about one of his patients who had recently suffered several losses. I broke down crying. I'm so much closer to these things when I'm stoned. Of course it was myself I was crying over.
If we hadn't been stoned, the discussion about the house would have focused, as usual, on the external issues. And even if we had discussed it on an emotional level, it would have been an intellectual approach. But that night, I felt it all so intensely, and didn't use my intellect in a defensive way. It was just me and my feelings. This was a cathartic experience, and since then I've been more reasonable about discussing houses, knowing how many problems are involved, and what my real fears are.
Although marijuana is often thought of as a social drug, many users, particularly veteran smokers, prefer to smoke when they are alone. At such times, marijuana can function as an introspective aid. Part of the process is that smoking clears away mundane concerns, allowing the user to respond to more serious things, as Steve, the car salesman, explains:
Immediately I'm transformed, and I start looking at a different set of concerns. Daily life is full of little hassles which represent one kind of reality. If you're not careful, you can end up being stuck there. Smoking is a way of keeping myself above the daily chores and problems, enabling me to be aware of the larger things going on in my life.
A Boston professor, a well-known writer and lecturer, uses marijuana only occasionally, always alone, in pursuit of a solitary, personal exploration:
I'm a late-night, two-joint, lights-out, headphones-on closet smoker, and although it's not always pleasant, it's usually helpful. Smoking allows things to come up from deep inside me, things which I have fought off, or opposed, or perhaps simply ignored. I play a particular sequence of records during these times, starting with some electronic music and moving to Bach and ending up with something more raucous. In this way, I can structure my trip, moving through various emotional states in a way that is by now pretty familiar, and which seems to work well, like a ritual. I just sit back and let my mind supply me with ideas, visions of people, and sometimes just feelings which haven't had a chance to emerge in other ways.
Introspective users of marijuana often find that they become less critical of themselves and more accepting of their own characteristics, both positive and negative. Some claim to be able to see themselves more objectively at such times, and occasionally such a self-encounter may lead to actual change, as this college student explains:
Pot is very therapeutic for me. When I'm stoned, I can really see myself. I can list my strengths and my weaknesses, and my goals. My mind is clear and eager to learn and understand, even when I have to understand awkward things, like those parts of my personality that I don't want to change. I can see parts of myself that I don't like, without hating myself in the process. I've learned things about myself that I have brought into my life when I haven't been stoned, such as how to be less self-centered, and how to be more low-keyed about myself, and less anxious in the presence of others.
A San Francisco social worker finds solitary smoking useful for reviewing past events, and especially for projecting future possibilities:
I believe that we actualize while fantasizing, that fantasizing is a way of practicing for life, of playing out different ways of being, some of which we choose to make actual. Dope has opened up some of my fantasies, showing me various possibilities and choices, including some I would not otherwise have thought of.
Some users are afraid that marijuana may bring them closer than they wish to certain truths that they have carefully and fearfully kept hidden. Curiously, the reverse is also true: other smokers find that marijuana enables them to be more accepting of their positive and optimistic feelings, perhaps including pleasant scenarios of events or private hopes and ambitions that might otherwise be too threatening to consider. As David explains:
We all have our private little hells, but I've noticed that for me and my friends, at least, we have some idea of where they are. Much of the time we are aware of our worst opinions about ourselves, and sometimes we feel trapped by them.
Stoned, I find it easier to accept some of the good things about myself, easier to imagine a happy future, or to take account of my various strengths and talents. In such moments, I realize that I am capable of a great deal, that many possibilities are open to me. It's important to have these moments of self-affirmation; they keep you going through hard times, providing inspiration and encouragement.
Whether smoking leads to negative or to positive realizations, for most users there comes a point where these glimpses of self become too intense. Not everybody finds it comfortable or even acceptable to be so close to emotional truths, and even those who smoke for the purpose of stimulating personal growth and awareness often find themselves hastily seeking a compromise, searching for an acceptable level of comfort from which to perceive the various insights that may be bombarding them.
For example, the social worker from San Francisco is aware that some of the most important understandings she gets from being high are almost immediately forgotten; it is these things, as much as the various insights she retains, that she wishes to preserve. Her solution is to accept the inevitability of this process, which she calls "the censor," and to preserve this elusive material until she can confront it at leisure. She explains:
You're barreling along on some long thought that's getting to its logical conclusion and suddenly... what was it? What was I thinking about? What was that problem I was understanding?
Whenever this occurs, I pay special attention. I ask: why is that so threatening to me? I had better pay special attention to it. And I will write myself a note: "think about X when you're not stoned, and see how far you can get with it."
Another way of seeking an appropriate level of comfort is to enter new areas of understanding slowly and cautiously. Judy, who has seen her husband undergo significant realizations about himself while stoned, describes her impression of this process:
After smoking, I might encourage Murray to take a chance and go to places he is normally not comfortable going. He might take a small, tentative step into a new area, and realize that it isn't so threatening, that he can stand to be there. And even if he does have to retreat, he has at least been introduced to a good place. Next time, he may return there not as a tourist, but as a visitor. And eventually, it may become familiar territory.
A Detroit clergyman uses a different image to make the same point:
There are always new areas that you have to understand about yourself. With marijuana, you can sometimes put your foot in the door, and pry it open a little wider. We all have blind spots about ourselves, and each of these blind spots has a radiation going out from it to other blind spots, to other things in ourselves that we don't want to look at. These blind spots are somehow in cahoots with each other. But if you chase one of them down, the others all give up a little.
Marijuana and Psychotherapy
Because of marijuana's dramatic tendency to make the user more aware of emotional realities, some smokers are interested in its possible congruence with more formal kinds of psychotherapy. Smokers who are in therapy may find that cannabis is helpful in inducing spontaneous childhood memories. Others use it more deliberately. "I've often smoked to review specific events," notes an Atlanta woman, "because I find I'm able to recapture the visual parts of past events with a clarity that borders on reliving them."
There is no consensus among patients in psychotherapy as to whether marijuana can be utilized constructively in the therapeutic process. A Vermont woman says she likes to smoke immediately after therapy sessions "when I come home with all sorts of stuff going on inside me, and I feel I'm on the brink of discovery." A Baltimore man believes that marijuana might be useful in getting past certain barriers in his treatment and in making him feel freer to talk about what they might be. A film critic notes that "smoking is like homework between appointments," while a woman in psychoanalysis observes:
When I'm working toward an insight, I usually begin with putting the pieces together intellectually, so that I might say "Oh yeah, that looks logical," although I might not yet feel it. But after working all week on a certain problem, I might get stoned Saturday night, and my mind will take me back to the issue I've been working on. This time, though, I might experience the feelings behind the insight. Then, when I go to my next session, it's as though I believe more strongly in the validity of the insight. In my case, smoking doesn't so much produce new insights as strengthen the ones I've already had.
For Judy, who is both an analytic patient and a psychotherapist, marijuana actually points the way toward the healthy state to which she aspires. She calls the drug "an antineurotic":
In my daily life, my various neuroses thrive. Dope helps me get rid of the unfortunate, learned, superego "should" kinds of things that we carry around with us. By freeing us from these kinds of restraints, it helps us see reality more clearly. It also provides a vision, a foretaste of what it would be like to live without these restraints, and it gives us more incentive to keep working until they are dissolved.
Other smokers are skeptical of the effects of smoking on the therapeutic process, regarding it as irrelevant or even counterproductive. A New York editor explains:
I make it a point not to smoke on days of therapy. I feel I want to be on my own as much as possible, and that's how I will fully comprehend what's going on. I don't want any interference in that process, and I think that pot sometimes does interfere. True, it's sometimes expansive, but I'd prefer to have the insight in its purer form.
A chemist in a photography company elaborates on this point:
I'm critical about my own smoking because it reduces anxiety, which seems to me like shorting out the parts of yourself that you don't like.
Marijuana and therapy don't go well together. Not that it isn't great to get rid of all that negative baggage, but it doesn't liberate you in a real sense. After all, when you're not stoned, these problems don't go away just because you felt good when you were.
Among psychotherapists, there is a similar debate. In view of how frequently smokers speak of personal insights gained through their use of the drug, it is somewhat surprising how little attention has been paid by the mental health profession to marijuana's psychiatric implications and possible uses. A few psychotherapists who are themselves smokers have given some private thought to its therapeutic potential, but as yet there is no evidence of it in the professional literature.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Harry Hermon, a Manhattan psychiatrist who believes that the only case against the use of marijuana in psychotherapy is the current marijuana law. Hermon argues that cannabis "puts the patient in a more receptive and empathetic state" and maintains that perception, recall, and the ability to interact are all enhanced by smoking. He advocates its use for both sex therapy and couples therapy, explaining that "a couple who is fighting can smoke a joint together and will stop fighting on the spot. They get into a completely different flow, and are transcended to a different level of awareness."
A humanistic psychologist practicing in Boston once found himself unexpectedly stoned during a session. He had come home from work one evening and was smoking a joint while cooking dinner. Alone in the house, he had the stereo playing and, with an entire, unscheduled evening ahead of him, was unwinding from a difficult day. Then the phone rang; it was a patient who was very angry about an interaction that had occurred earlier in the day. The therapist recalls:
I was caught off balance. I don't believe that marijuana has any place in therapy, and I wasn't even sure I was capable of listening to her. She didn't know I was stoned, and I didn't tell her; I decided to go ahead with the call. I found I was able to listen very closely to what she was saying, and we talked for about an hour. After the first few minutes I was no longer anxious about being stoned. Because she was a patient, and was upset, I put a lot of effort into the conversation. And apparently, because I was stoned, I paid extra close attention to what she was saying, as I didn't want the conversation to slip away from me. I kept asking her to explain more and more about how she was feeling.
The next time we met, she insisted on paying me for the hour on the phone. I didn't ask her to, but something important had occurred during that phone call. During the entire hour I found myself feeling the feelings that were behind our words, and apparently she could feel them too.
Even if they are smokers themselves, most therapists are understandably cautious about using marijuana with their patients. First there is the legal problem, which is enormous. But there are other obstacles as well. "Smoking with certain patients could be useful," one woman suggests, "but what if the patient got into a status thing, 'I smoked with my shrink'?" A therapist in Chicago articulates a commonly held position:
A person's time is his to use in the way he finds meaningful, within very broad limits. I don't mind if a patient comes to me stoned, but I won't supply anybody with marijuana, and I make it clear that I won't be smoking. That way, I don't have to lose any sleep at night worrying about somebody trying to put me out of business because he doesn't like my way of doing things.
In Boston, a distinguished psychiatrist on the faculty of a well-regarded medical school refers to psychoanalysis as one of the two major growth experiences in his own adult life. The other is marijuana:
I notice that some of my colleagues apparently assume that when you're high, you're off in some corner by yourself. But in fact, marijuana helps people get very close and become involved with each other, which is very different from withdrawing.
I have found that during a marijuana high, I have gained insights which I had not achieved even with four years of analysis. These have been insights which have made me a better person—I realize that sounds trite—and which have helped me to see things about myself which I hadn't been aware of. Sometimes these insights have been accompanied by a considerable degree of anxiety, but in analysis, too, that's part of the process.
Some of the insights don't seem very important later on, but others seem just as important. Some have been in the area of loving. There are ways that the marijuana high can help a person be more aware of the barriers which sometimes prevent or inhibit the expression of love.
Lester Grinspoon, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of the definitive modern work on cannabis entitled Marihuana Reconsidered, was originally skeptical about the implications of marijuana in connection with psychotherapy, devoting only a single paragraph to it:
Cannabis has been written about, albeit infrequently, as an adjunct to psychotherapy. The limited data available at this time are not altogether convincing. Moreover, my own experience in treating patients who are high on pot, while limited, is not impressive. The patient often has the conviction that there is heightened communication, understanding and insight, a sense which I as a therapist have usually not been able to experience. The drug does, however, appear to promote associational fluidity and, in view of this property, deserves more study as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
The book first appeared in 1971; since then, Grinspoon has partially revised his position. "I'm convinced that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in 1966 when the profession washed its hands of psychedelic drugs and said, 'There's nothing here for us.' Insofar as marijuana represents a kind of moderated psychedelic experience, then you have to wonder if it couldn't be used in similar ways." Grinspoon notes that some people have used LSD to open up certain channels in themselves that they can later reenter through the milder drug, marijuana.
Norman Zinberg is more skeptical. While conceding that some drugs are useful in the treatment of acutely disturbed patients, Zinberg questions the use of marijuana in a therapeutic or analytic relationship with relatively healthy patients. While acknowledging that marijuana may sometimes be useful to the social lives of the people who smoke it, Zinberg has strong doubts about its value in psychotherapy, where shortcuts are not necessarily helpful to the patient. The trick, he notes, is not just to get over certain inhibitions, but to find out what makes them important. Zinberg agrees that marijuana can be useful in helping the patient transcend inhibitions, but argues that this may be counterproductive to a real cure. Inhibitions are important, he maintains, "and the fact that a patient has them has to be respected and worked with. How these inhibitions serve you, and how they get in your way—that's what the therapeutic process is all about. When you get down to it, so you loved your mother or you didn't love your mother." In other words, psychotherapy is less interested in the content of the sessions—the understanding of which may indeed be facilitated by marijuana—than in the process itself, which may be distorted by it.
Jenny, a psychotherapist and occasional marijuana user, shares Zinberg's skepticism, explaining with a smile:
There is a door that normally separates your conscious from your unconscious mind. When you're stoned, the door swings easily back and forth, giving you access from your conscious to your unconscious and back again. Now that's exciting, but it's not always helpful. The way I see it, if Freud had wanted you to know about these things, if he had wanted you to have such easy access to your unconscious, he wouldn't have given you the id, the ego, and the superego in various "warring" combinations to keep you from getting too close to the truth. In other words, he wouldn't have given you defenses.
Until 1937, cannabis was available in every American pharmacy as a mild analgesic that could be purchased as freely as aspirin is today. In addition, extract of cannabis in an alcohol solution was often prescribed by physicians for a variety of ailments, including migraines, excessive menstrual bleeding, epilepsy, and even tooth decay. Marijuana and THC are currently being studied by medical researchers and may soon reappear as a medicine for glaucoma, nausea, and asthma. Many smokers, convinced that marijuana is medically useful, are not waiting for the results of the research and are smoking for various physical problems without the advice of their physicians. Most commonly, marijuana is used for insomnia, and for various minor pains.
Smokers commonly find that cannabis helps them fall asleep more easily and also helps them to sleep more deeply. "I've had some of the best and most relaxing nights' sleeping after smoking," says Sarah, and other users concur. Those who are aware of different varieties of marijuana usually report that Colombian is best for sleeping; some Mexican and domestic varieties are reported to leave the smoker far too stimulated to fall asleep. Hangovers are reported occasionally, but are not common.
Others find marijuana an effective analgesic; this Georgia man smokes whenever he gets a headache:
I've used weed for fifteen years. When I'm bothered by my frequent migraine headaches, one joint will quickly remove the discomfort. I have suffered from hemoplegic migraines for three years and have used all kinds of prescription drugs, but nothing gets rid of the pain as effectively as a joint or two. And I've never had to increase the dosage.
A teacher in Rhode Island reports:
The other night I was feeling pain because of some pulled ligaments. Instead of taking medication, I got stoned and took a hot bath. I started watching television, and soon I was totally relaxed, not feeling any discomfort at all.
Lenny recalls that he once injured his hand, and wasn't sure if it was a muscular ailment or a bone bruise. He got stoned and lay in a hot bath and concentrated on his hand. "Within moments I could perceive the way the pain traveled down my wrist and realized that it was a pulled tendon," he says. "I wrapped up the hand in an Ace bandage and stopped worrying about it." A visit to the doctor showed that his diagnosis was correct.
A Connecticut user observes that one of the nice things about using marijuana as a medicine is that even if it doesn't relieve the ailment, it helps him to endure it:
When I feel bad, the flu or something like that, I will usually smoke a joint. It's hard to tell whether I would have recovered just as quickly without it, but I do know that the experience of waiting in bed when I'm sick is often transformed from a miserable time to a fairly pleasant one.
A Mississippi man in his late forties has found marijuana beneficial in the treatment of a twenty-five-year ulcer condition. He discovered that a little Mexican grass acts as a tranquilizer. At first, he would smoke every few hours; after some months, however, he cut down on his use:
Now I smoke only to relieve stress. Sometimes I go without any for a few days so my system can get back to normal in case it needs to. I've been smoking for eight years, and haven't had any ulcer problems during that period. I'm not hungry in the mornings or an hour after dinner, and I have no more stomach distress.
When I think of the effects of marijuana on my condition, I am reminded of Popeye. I think his "spinach" was marijuana, and his strength was superhuman mind function, rather than superhuman muscles.
A man with a history of epilepsy (petit mal) reports that he had been taking Dilantin to control his seizures, without much effect. In 1968 he was advised by a friend to try marijuana instead. He has smoked two joints a day ever since and has not had a seizure since he began. His only complaint is its high price.
A young man suffering from bronchitis, who eats grass instead of smoking it, finds that when the high is over, he can breathe more easily for up to twenty hours.
Andrew Weil, noting the frequent unauthorized use of marijuana for minor pains, offers an explanation of why marijuana works, especially for headaches. Like all physical ailments, headaches are psychosomatic, meaning that both mind and body are involved. Weil suggests that the physical discomfort of the headache captures the mind's attention, which in turn gives more energy to the physical problem, resulting in a vicious cycle. "Shifting attention to a high, by any method," he points out, "will break this cycle and permit the physical aspects of the ailment to subside. People who respond favorably to marijuana can use it as a tool to make this shift."
A Chicago woman writes at length about her own experience, which serves as an interesting elaboration of Weil's thesis. Having heard about the analgesic properties of cannabis, she has used it several times when she has been in severe pain. She has a ruptured disc that sometimes causes pressure on the sciatic nerves, resulting in a crippling pain in her legs. At its worst, the pain confines her to bed for a week or more; at other times, she carries on despite the discomfort.
She finds marijuana not wholly effective as an analgesic. And yet, as she explains, it is still very useful to her:
What marijuana seems to do for me, and quite effectively, is to relieve the sensation of pain of its negative qualities. The pain becomes simply another sense experience like warmth, or wetness, and as such I can accept it, and sometimes even enjoy it, although I am not by nature masochistic. In other words, when the pain already exists, pot can make me appreciate those sensations that I would otherwise shrink from and find wholly negative.
I have not come across any similar accounts of marijuana and pain. Marijuana seems to transform my pain into an acceptable sensation that does not then hamper my ability to cope with situations. My legs may still cramp and buckle under me; I may still be confined to bed or unable to pursue my normal activities, but the pain is no longer the focal point of my consciousness, but is, rather, just another part of me in much the same way that the sensation of wearing a hat or carrying a knapsack for a long time becomes part of a person.
I have found similar effects in dealing with other usually negative factors, such as extreme cold, and in this friends concur. Marijuana seems to open a doorway allowing one to enter the sensation—pain, cold, or whatever—totally, stripped of its usual negative connotations, and then accept it as a condition of present existence, and to continue with whatever the hour invites, unhindered. So I have walked miles with friends in below-zero winds and felt exhilarated, at one with the cold, and have endured excruciating pain and still managed to enjoy company, thoughts and surroundings.
I should add that neither I nor my friends become insensitive to potential dangers when we are stoned. I am not inclined to court more pain or muscular atrophy by lifting when I should be reclining, or things of that nature. But situations that might normally be hateful or at least difficult become enjoyable with marijuana.
Does marijuana affect the values of the people who smoke it? For some users, at least, the answer is yes, although this group appears to be in the minority. It appears that these changed values go in two different directions, forming an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, many smokers have found marijuana the perfect companion to a greater pursuit of pleasure, sensuality, and physical comfort. At the same time, an equally large group, which includes some people from the first group, sees marijuana as the appropriate vehicle for an exploration of spirituality. Many considered marijuana the ideal drug for the 1970S because of these twin uses. The message of the 1960S was: choose either the good life or the meaningful life. For the most part, the smokers made the second choice. But the 1970S offered a very different message, which was difficult to resist: why not choose both? And with marijuana to help them, many smokers did.
Lenny, who has tried to incorporate both the good and the meaningful in his life, explains how marijuana fits into this scheme:
Dope is about Epicureanism. When you're stoned, and you're eating a bowl of soup, you can taste it better. If you're listening to a record, you notice it sounds better. Well, after a certain amount of time, when you realize that you can really get off on a good bowl of soup, or a record, you begin to understand something. What's right in front of your nose can be a real treat. You can enjoy a Sunday afternoon just walking down the street, doing nothing in particular except enjoying the trees, and getting off on what you see.
With all this going on, you wonder if you should be worrying so much about whether you become an associate professor or an executive vice-president by the time you're thirty-four. Hey, it's a beautiful day, let's watch the sunset! When it comes right down to it, either you're happy or you're not happy. Epicureanism says you can be happy with what's around you, that enjoying life is the most important thing. It also says that you can enjoy life even in a very small room—if you've got a large enough mind.
Steve, the car salesman who has been smoking heavily for ten years, claims that marijuana has helped him to realize the relative unimportance of material values in his life. "I think that everybody who gets into drugs on a serious level is looking for a remaking of all values," he says, pointing to the fact that most of the smokers he knows have in some way shifted away from the pursuit of money and career advancement and toward human relationships and spiritual concerns.
A man whose parents were survivors of the Nazi Holocaust sees marijuana as a symbol for a kind of thinking that could alert people to dangers they might not otherwise see, or want to see:
I hope that dope gives me the strength to resist straight-world thinking. During the early 1930s, when Hitler was newly in power, the Jews in Germany thought in straight-world terms: it made sense, after all, to try to save your business and your house. No logical person could have anticipated what was about to happen. It was absurd, and straight-world thinking doesn't usually take the absurd into account. People naturally assumed that things would get better. I hope that dope can help people in that way, by preventing them from relying too heavily on the external facts that their rational minds perceive, and by forcing them sometimes to think about the unthinkable.
For other smokers, a change in values has more to do with their own personalities. One man reported that he had been voted the most changed person in his class at his tenth-year college reunion. He attributes at least part of the change to marijuana, which, as he sees it, helped him to understand that there was more to life than intellectual concerns and the worship of scholarship for its own sake:
The goal of my life used to be the acquisition of knowledge, because that would somehow give me greater worth as a person. But I found that the pursuit of that goal led only to an increasing feeling of unworthiness, as the more I came to know, the more I was aware of how much I didn't know. This resulted in a feeling of inadequacy, and in a lack of satisfaction from what I actually did know.
Gradually, I started to shift my values. I started to enjoy things I did when I was high, things which weren't connected to productivity. I started to appreciate the present as something more than just a preparation for the future. This meant I could more easily spend time with other people, or appreciate a nice moment for its own sake, and for the memories it could yield.
Some smokers claim that marijuana has opened them up to religious awareness and expression, although this tendency is obviously more common in those who were religiously inclined to begin with. One woman who wasn't at all religious describes the effects of smoking in these terms:
There have been times at night when under the influence of marijuana I have looked up in the sky and seen not a God, but a kind of Godliness up there in the heavens. I never heard "voices" or saw "visions" while smoking, but I was led to transcend my normal consciousness, and to become aware of and appreciate the vastness of the universe.
I'll probably be a smoker all my life. I notice that many people don't believe there's any point to searching, don't believe there's any place to get to—with marijuana or anything else. I believe there is, and I believe I've been there.
At the other end of the spectrum is a religious mystic, a teacher of theology whose religious growth and awareness have come from traditional teachings, texts, and institutions. He has found marijuana and LSD to be enormously useful in leading him to deeper religious experience, and he takes strong issue with the automatic skepticism on the part of institutional religion toward drug-inspired religious awakening:
From the modern mystic's point of view, the most problematic of all are the words associated with religion. "God," "Holy," "Love"—and all the rest. The words have become prisoners of synagogues and churches where their overpowering reality is unknown. So long have they been read responsively that they evoke no response. Even the more sophisticated words now used in their stead suffer from guilt by association; "Numinous" and "Sacred" are too respectable—they turn no one on.
When coming to speak of the deeply religious quality of the experience many of us have had through the use of psychedelic drugs, I balk before conventional religious language. Members of the religious establishment have been too quick to say that any experience brought on by a drug is necessarily cheap. I rather tend to fear the opposite: to speak of psychedelic/mystical experience in terms familiar to religion might indeed cheapen that experience.
Most smokers find it difficult to speak to others about the details of their religious experience. An Arkansas woman describes an unusually intense reaction to marijuana, which has all the characteristics of a psychedelic experience. She had been stoned with some friends and was feeling funny, with the strong sensation that something important was happening, or was about to happen She lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling:
There was a light overhead, and I seemed to be moving toward it. Or perhaps it was moving toward me. I wasn't sure, but we were certainly going toward each other.
As it came closer, the light was so intensely bright that it encompassed everything my eyes could see, and there seemed to be the need for some kind of decision. It was as though a voice were asking me if I were afraid, because if so, I wouldn't "get through." But if I had the courage to get through (through the light, evidently), there was a promise of something—or perhaps a threat, I couldn't be sure.
I looked at the light and said, "Yes, I'll go," and then I went faster toward the light (or perhaps it was the other way around) until I was in the light, I was the light, the light was me. I felt I had seen God, or found God, or was God. I remember gasping, and then I experienced what I can only describe as an orgasm without any movement, a mental or emotional orgasm. It felt as if a giant hand reached over me and pulled my soul right out of my body through my feet. Then I began sobbing, the most body-wrenching sobs which went on for some unknown period of time, until finally I felt the greatest peace I had ever known.
Such experiences, it must be said, are highly unusual on marijuana, although, evidently, they are not unknown. More typical of a religious experience on marijuana is a report of a young woman who went into a field to meditate after smoking. In other words, she smoked for the explicit purpose of having a religious experience, which she describes in these terms:
I sat down and looked slowly around in appreciation. Everything hushed, except the many huge tall trees, which were stirred by breezes. As I looked more and more at them, I seemed to see each leaf, and saw each one sway, and I felt it was the presence of the Holy Spirit breathing on them, making them move so apart, so together, so perfectly.
And there was no more me, no conscious self observing; there existed only leafness, and then there was the dark, rushing feeling I have when I meditate, when I am pulled into something I can't explain or remember.
And then I awoke, or regained consciousness slowly. I looked around and saw the leaves, apart and together and fresh, and I marveled at them softly and felt awe in the peacefulness and beauty of everything. I was reborn. Then I remembered, little by little, me, and looked at my feet and hands and felt my face, and all this with the serenity of quiet peace. Then I remembered how to stand up, and did so, and went home.
A graduate student at a Christian seminary describes the marijuana high as similar to his notion of grace. "Marijuana can provide a coloring," he explains, "illuminating and separating out the specialness of ordinary experience, making visible some of the things we normally take for granted." Some fundamentalist Christians who use marijuana wrote to say that its use is sanctioned by various Biblical verses, in Genesis and elsewhere, which describe how God "brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after its kind."
There are those, as well, who use marijuana in connection with meditation, although more commonly, meditators regard cannabis as a preliminary tool along the path toward spiritual enlightenment, which must be discarded in favor of more natural, and therefore better, methods. But one meditator who enjoys smoking has little patience for his colleagues' prejudice against its use:
Getting high is a spiritual thing, involving humility. It's not by accident that all religious writings teach humility. Getting high is a matter of letting go, of dissolving the ego. What you have to do is to take society's negative attitude and turn it to your own advantage, getting off by being humble, by saying, in effect, "Well, I must really be a low person, because I have to use grass." I try to be careful of the spiritual chauvinists, those people who get up there—and who bring their ego right along with them.
Some smokers maintain that drugs themselves constitute a form of religious experience. Rabbi Zalman Schachter tells the following story:
When the Holy One, Blessed be He, saw that mankind in its extremity no longer looked to Him for help, but turned instead to the medicine cabinet, He decided to make Himself available there.
But Satan objected. "What will become of me and my task? You're running me out of business!"
God replied: "That is your problem. I did what I had to do, now do what you have to do."
A member of a Jewish religious community finds a correlation between religious observance and marijuana:
It's difficult to talk about marijuana and religion because I have a hard time separating them out. Authentic religion, when you sweep away all the extraneous stuff of politics and institutions, is about transcendence, heightened awareness, ecstasy, and goodness. Religion and marijuana both involve going beyond the rational, material, and normative concerns of existence. Religion is the original altered state of consciousness.
In the community I belong to, we celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, in a fairly traditional way. The aesthetics of the day are very important, especially the idea that on this day time is temporarily suspended, that on this one day of the week you do not concern yourself with mundane issues, but instead with higher matters. At the same time, the Jewish Sabbath is also a day of physical pleasures—eating, singing, making love, sleeping.
When I started smoking marijuana, it all felt somehow familiar, and I soon realized that the discipline of Shabbat was a good preparation for learning to use marijuana. I was able to learn from one altered state of consciousness how to appreciate another one, which turned out to be strikingly similar.
A man who calls himself a "new age therapist" made a similar connection, but in reverse. After smoking marijuana for about a year, he went to a synagogue service for the first time in twenty years:
It was Yom Kippur. I'm sitting there, watching all these people in prayer, and I begin to notice, for the first time in my life, Hey, they're getting high. That's what this is all about; you get high! It never occurred to me before that religion might have anything to do with getting high. As I began to think about this, I was amazed. At sundown, when the service finally ended, I saw the rabbi; he was standing there, and his face was shining. Energy was pouring down from his face, and I looked at him and started crying. I hadn't been open to that kind of thing before.
1. Marihuana Reconsidered: pp. 225-26. (back)
2. History of marijuana as an American medicine: see Edward M. Brecher and the editors of Consumer Reports, Licit and Illicit Drugs, chapter 54. (back)
3. Mystic: Itzik Lodzer, "Notes from the Jewish Underground: Psychedelics and Kabbalah," Response 2:1 (Winter 1968): 9-21. (back)
4. I sat down: I am indebted to Walter Houston Clark for providing this quotation from his research. (back)
5. Such references are reminiscent of the Rastafarians, a Jamaican religious sect that uses ganja in its rituals, citing various Old Testament proof-texts. One of their names for cannabis is "the wisdom weed"; the Rastafarians say that cannabis was first grown on the grave of King Solomon, the wisest man on earth. Curiously, this same group has a strong taboo against both alcohol and tobacco, and the Rastafarians sing songs praising the benefits of ganja, the natural substance, over those of rum, which is man-made. (Rastafarians: Leonard E. Barrett, The Rastafarians, pp. 1 28-36.) A similar argument is also heard among some American smokers, who cite a popular saying: "God made grass, man made liquor. Who do you trust?" (back)
6. Schachter's version of the story contains an additional line: "So Satan became a pusher." (back)
|Last Updated on Thursday, 03 March 2011 18:51