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One thing I did not necessarily expect to find at a shamanic healing retreat was the smoking of big, tobacco cigars throughout the course of the day.
However, having attended two separate retreats, I have noticed that this is definitely a pattern.
Tobacco has long been recognized as a sacred plant teacher and therefore deserves a certain level of reverence and attention as according to the context of the indigenous culture. Their thought is that tobacco is an aid that provides the seeker with ancient knowledge and wisdom.
The cultivation of a mindful relationship with tobacco is generally seen as a positive experience. As far as I can tell, this seems to be a common practice in nearly every indigenous culture throughout the Americas.
Modern western culture has a different view of things.
For most respectable citizens, the use of tobacco is seen by many as nothing more than a disgusting habit. Admittedly, I have at times struggled with my own overuse of tobacco. My abuse of this particular drug has usually been set-off by either an excess of menial work or of alcohol consumption.
Once I have returned to a healthy lifestyle however, my smoking habit seems to slow itself down quite naturally. If I can discipline myself to enjoying one or two hand rolled cigarettes of natural tobacco per day as a contemplative activity, I am satisfied.
In June 2001, Canada emerged as the first country in the world to implement picture-based health warnings on cigarette packages. A decade later, Canada decided to increase the picture size from 50% of the packaging to a whopping 75%, just in case some unwitting smokers had somehow missed the rotting set of teeth colourfully displayed on half of their cigarette package.
Canadians are still, however, trailing behind countries like Thailand and Australia who have dedicated over 80% of their cigarette packing to health warnings.
It would seem that such measures have had an effect as there are many statistics online that show a clear decline of tobacco use since 2001. It must be remembered, however, that this evidence is correlative and that there are many other contributing factors.
And there are soon to be more.
The next plan of action is to eliminate all brand-specific information—such as colour, font, and slogan—and leave only a plain-text wording so that consumers will at least know what kind of cigarettes they are buying. Australia has already implemented this policy and apparently many other countries are in the process of following suit.
I have often heard people say that these warnings are directed towards the chemical additives and not the natural plant material. It would make sense if this were true. However, in many countries it doesn’t make a difference whether or not the tobacco is soaked in chemicals or if it’s totally organic: the warning labels are required by law regardless.
Therefore, whether by intention or by carelessness, the effect is that tobacco itself is the target, rather than the chemical additives. For example, I currently have a pouch of additive-free, natural tobacco and yet I am still required to glance at the image of a dead fetus every time I choose to smoke.
It seems to me that if we continue in this direction, the law-abiding citizen who decides to smoke will eventually be forced to wade through an entire visual library of death and decay before being permitted to purchase a cigarette totally devoid of any sort of frills. This daring consumer will then be obliged to place himself in the privacy of his own home—ensuring the absence of any unsuspecting secondhand smokers—before lighting up and inhaling the sweet smoke, the satisfaction of which has perhaps only been intensified by the aforementioned rigamarole.
I could be wrong, but I find it a bit crazy that I am forced to look at pictures of rotting organs and dying people if I choose to legally purchase and smoke tobacco.
The concept seems as ridiculous as a group of verdant pro-lifers parading the streets with grotesque posters of aborted and bloodied fetuses. Regardless of the political and moral reasons that may motivate these behaviours, the extreme distaste and borderline insanity that the propagation of such imagery exemplifies is inexcusable.
I completely agree that a campaign to educate the masses of the dangers of excessive tobacco consumption is entirely appropriate and even necessary—but there must be a more enlightened way to do it.
Long before the idea of political propaganda had even entered into human consciousness, the traditional use of tobacco as a sacred plant was common practice. As the western world separated itself from nature, these concepts were either forgotten or regarded as superstitious and pointless.
Fortunately, we are now in the process of remembering that the disregard and demonization of plant life is a pathological way of doing things.
Just as we are reconsidering our social relationship to marijuana, I believe we would also benefit from a re-evaluation in the way we portray tobacco. Perhaps a proper recognition of it’s elevated status as a power plant among countless pre-Columbian cultures is a good place to start.
I have witnessed an Amazonian shaman blow tobacco smoke over the head and body of an entranced spiritual seeker in an effort to offer protection from malevolent spirits. I have also heard that a shaman will utilize the mucus that is produced from smoking tobacco to form a protective barrier in their throat while they “suck” the negative energy out of the person they are healing.
These are difficult concepts for the western mind to accept as valid medical practice, and I don’t expect to see these activities taking place at western hospitals anytime soon. However, I believe it is worth examining other cultures’ relationships with nature and how many respect various plant life as living spirits.
It’s a relationship of symbiosis—a concept whose absence within our “dominator” culture has produced our current state of planetary ecocide.
If the widely venerated spirit of the tobacco plant could sit down and have a conversation with our government’s health ministries, I think it would express a desire not be packaged and adorned with images of decaying body parts. The stress and tragedy that encompass many aspects of modern life have unfortunately made substance addiction an extremely common problem.
However, this is a result of our own spiritual disease and has little to do with any inherent quality in nature. If we can take a cue from more symbiotically aligned cultures and refrain from demonizing the plant world, we may one day be able to fully acknowledge it’s intelligence and humbly request it’s assistance in teaching us to live in harmony with our natural world.
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