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Sensi Magazine

Holy Smokes

Dec 13, 2017 09:52PM ● By Leland Rucker

Anybody who decides to use cannabis eventually realizes that there’s more going on than just “getting high.” Books and essays outline human’s long history with the plant, and modern yoga teachers and herbalists are incorporating it into their classes. There’s even an international church of cannabis that operates out of a former Lutheran church building in Denver. After decades of repression, cannabis is in a period of renaissance, and it’s not that surprising that many are looking into its introspective qualities. 

Stephen Gray, editor of a recently published book of essays, Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to An Ancient Plant Spirit Ally, sees two elements pushing the enthusiasm around the plant these days. The first is the psychological and emotional tendency people have to get excited about new things. “It could be called projection or transference, where you look outside yourself for salvation and get all excited when you think you’ve found something,” he explains.

But the other factor he mentions is that the cannabis plant has been badly under-appreciated and misunderstood in recent history. “For me personally,” Gray says, “rather than coming first from that gung ho place, I have become increasingly impressed with the multiple benefits of the plant.”

I have talked with people over the years who get very enthusiastic, excited, and emotional about any one of those multiple benefits. But the passion for this plant is hardly new. There is mounting evidence that humans have been experimenting with cannabis for at least a few thousand years— and perhaps much longer.

“What cannabis does is to open the doorway between the conscious and the unconscious,” says Chris Bennett, who’s published several books on the historical use of cannabis in religion, ritual, and magic. When most people think of cannabis and religion, they probably think of Rastafarianism, Bennett says, which uses cannabis as a sacrament today.

But research indicates that the cannabis plant dates back to ancient history and that humans have been interacting with it for thousands of years in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Bennett has found evidence of religious ceremonies that used cannabis dating back at least 5,500 years. At one point or another, he says, cannabis has been used as part of major religious traditions like Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and even Judaism.

Bennett’s research leads him to believe that the origin of all religions was more based on the individual using entheogens (psychedelic, mind-altering substances like peyote, mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca, and psilocybin) to enhance the religious experience. Gradually, over time, that began to change. “It became a threat to fundamental religion, just as Darwin was to Adam and Eve,” he says. “Magicians and shamans even today use the plant as something bigger than yourself. That is something that Abrahamic religions have eliminated. Today, the church needs to be the source of the divine.”

The divine, like most of the terms we’re using here, can be interpreted in many ways. The International Church of Cannabis opened its doors in a former Lutheran church in Denver on April 20, 2016. Out- side, it looks like any other church until you notice the windows. Elevation Ministries commissioned colorful psychedelic paintings by graphic artist Kenny Scharf, and a marvelous colorful ceiling in the nave by Okuda san Miguel. There is also a video arcade downstairs. Services are held weekly, and the church’s co-founder, Lee Molloy, says there are about 500 members, called elevationists, with about 40 regular worshippers.

In no sense does this church consider itself the source of the divine. “We wanted to create a safe and diverse interfaith church for anybody that uses cannabis as part of their personal spiritual journey, regardless of the culture, religious tradition, or body they were born into,” Molloy says. “When a person ritually uses cannabis with the intention of exploring their spirituality, it is virtually impossible for them not to become elevated, which means to rise above the petty and destructive distinctions manufactured by most organized religion.”

In the foreword to Cannabis and Spirituality, Dr. Julie Holland writes: “There are many among us who are addicted to greed, to power, to newer, to more...And this is where pot comes in— it’s a way to opt out, temporarily, from the rat race. Cannabis can unlock us from our habitual way of doing things, and more importantly, of thinking about things...It enables contemplation and reflection.”

Gray says the focus of the essays in the book is aimed more at this kind of spiritual awakening that cannabis can help provide. “I think of it as advanced spiritual meditation. One of the reasons for the book is to put perspective on what it can do if you use it skillfully.”

Perhaps the most important part of using cannabis skillfully is putting yourself in the right state of mind and in a comfortable place. I remember reading The Natural Mind, a book by An- drew Weil, when I first started using cannabis and entheogens in the 1970s. Weil wasn’t advocating for drug use— he was partial to meditation— but he acknowledged mankind’s universal quest to alter consciousness, whether spinning about until you fall down as a child or drinking alcohol or using drugs as adults. Weil used the terms set and setting, which Gray incorporates in his book, too.

“Set refers to everything you bring to the encounter: your history, your personality, your psycho-spiritual makeup, your intention, and the preparedness you undertake related to the taking of the medicine. Setting is the actual environment and conditions in which you meet the plant,” Gray writes.

Clearly, we’re not talking about hitting the bong and falling back on the couch with a bag of chips. Gray says that used correctly, what cannabis can do is to help put you in the right mood for spiritual amplification. “Kathleen Harrison talks about an attitude of respect and reverence,” he explains. “When you do that— use respect and reverence— then you’re more likely to have deeper, richer experiences with it.”

Becca Williams holds monthly cannabis elevation ceremonies from the website, and she says that creating a comfortable environment for participants is an essential component. We all experience trauma in our lives, she says, and the ceremonies are intended to help people explore the inner reaches of their consciousness with the help of cannabis. “It’s not spirituality as we know it,” she says. “You see people who are triggered, constantly in a state of hyper-arousal. We are creating a framework using ancient Indian traditions and the group dynamic for individual work.” Ultimately, she says, we need to create our own ceremonies. “We’re all looking for meaning in life, and it can be pretty empty out there.”

Brigitte Mars, an herbalist, teacher at Boulder’s Naropa University, author, and a longtime cannabis advocate, says she encourages people to experience cannabis as a sacrament, whether by themselves or with others. “It’s a really special plant. I don’t know another herb that has as many possibilities of use,” she says. “Using it with good intentions in a safe setting with people you know and trust can be a powerful thing.”

The more people I talked with, the more I realized that just like we’re just starting to learn about how cannabis can impact everything from creativity to the body’s endocannabinoid systems, we are learning more about the plant’s spiritual side, too. The plant isn’t the end itself, but rather a means to an end. “It opens me up to a different perspective,” Bennett says. “It just increases my power of intuition and totally helps me grab ideas and expand realms of association.”

Other, stronger psychedelic entheogens like LSD and psilocybin tend to grab you by the throat and won’t let loose, Gray says, but cannabis is different, with an effect that can almost be described as gentle.“When you’re there, you want to get out of your own way and be present. I consider it a flexible, gracious kind of ally.”