I’m reading a book I found at the thrift store recently, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History.
The book features a series of essays and interviews by none other than Terrence McKenna — “ American ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer, author, and an advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants” (source) — and is a mind-bending look at hallucinogenic plants and their role in shaping human awareness.
I admit, I’m fascinated by hallucinogens, namely because the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing them firsthand is when I drank a couple tentative sips of psilocybin tea at a party in my early 20s. It was enough that I saw mild tracers in my vision and chased a three-legged cat around the yard that may or may not have been real (probably real), but not enough that the experience could qualify as properly hallucinogenic.
I am fascinated by the idea of hallucinogens because the thought of actually taking them frightens me profoundly. The anti-drug “this is your brain” campaigns of the 1990s scared me so much, in fact, that I didn’t smoke pot for the first time until I was 18 years old.
I did eventually and unsurprisingly overcome my fear of cannabis, mind you, when I discovered how powerful its influence could be. In fact, I chock up a big part of my spiritual evolution to cannabis for its ability to challenge my routine ways of thinking, ignite my creative flow and instill a deep sense of connectedness.
I didn’t really begin smoking until my early 20s, when I developed what could appropriately be designated my first adult friendship with a group of women I worked with. I loved the ceremonial quality of it — that we’d come together and smoke a joint and cook or craft or simply philosophize on the meaning of life. We laughed a lot, too, of course, and that ceremonial bond played a big part in cementing our relationship.
I enjoyed the effects of smoking, and so I began to do it more frequently — when I watched a movie or cleaned the house or would sit down to read. It wasn’t that weed was making me unproductive — perhaps even the opposite because it made everything feel more present, more engaged, more mindful. The more I smoked, however, the more disconnected I became from the sense of ritual that had been so meaningful for me originally.
Around the same time, I began to experience severe anxiety. I’d been prone to anxiety my whole life, going as far back as childhood when I first began having obsessive compulsive behaviors, so I don’t necessarily think cannabis was the catalyst for the anxiety. And it wasn’t like the anxiety was directly related to smoking — yes, cannabis exaggerated my symptoms and intensified my fears, but the anxiety was present regardless whether I smoked or not.
Much of my anxiety, I realize now, was rooted in the fear of losing control. Because the altered state produced by cannabis perpetuated this sense, I was no longer able to trust it. I couldn’t risk the potential of not feeling in control.
It took me a long time — many years, in fact — to work through my anxiety. There were many things that contributed to my healing journey, but perhaps the biggest of all was cultivating a relationship with plants through my study of herbalism.
Working with plants is what helped to align me, in a way. I became better aware of my own sense of wellness, and how it manifests physically in my body. I started paying attention to the imbalances and how I could work to remedy them. And I began spending as much time in nature as possible, observing and listening and simply just being. I’m no expert at any of it, and still struggle every day with making the “right” choices, but I try to remain aware and call on the wisdom and tools I’ve cultivated to be able to take care of myself.
I’m grateful now not to experience the kind of severe anxiety I struggled with those many years before, but I also know my own tendencies — that I’m prone to pushing myself to the brink, to easily becoming depleted and rapidly suffering the misery of my exhaustion.
Which is why, about a year and a half ago, I decided it was time to re-explore my relationship with cannabis again.
I visited my local dispensary and, after explaining my desire not to “get high”, per se, but to take advantage of the relaxing, sedating effects of the plant, I opted for an edible option with a high CBD-to-THC ratio.
A few nights later I ate a very minuscule portion of the gummy I’d bought and experienced a deep and lovely relaxation compelling enough to convince me to repeat the ritual the following night. Except, that following night, in spite of consuming precisely the exact same amount, I was overcome by an agitated, restless energy that had me standing under a scalding shower, desperately wishing to wash away the discomfort.
That feeling of discomfort put me right off cannabis once more, until very recently — the past six months or so — when I tentatively began experimenting again with smoking.
Canada’s legalization of cannabis has, of course, made this process that much easier, mind you. There seems to be a breadth of information and resources available now examining the different varieties of cannabis, and which strains are better suited for certain people and purposes. Which is how I discovered that strains high in CBD and very, very low in THC generate for me the deep sense of calm I desire, while being just stimulating enough to allow me to still be productive.
Most importantly, I’m much more discerning now about when I choose to smoke. I’ve learned to intuit when the right time to smoke for me is. I do it a lot when I write, for example. It’s one of the ways cannabis has always worked for me, freeing up the shackles of my overly analytical mind, allowing me to release the self-criticism that can otherwise paralyze me from taking the leap in the first place.
I incorporate cannabis into my self-care routine and will often smoke when I have a bath, taking the time to write in my journal and surrender to the therapeutic combination of water and heat.
I sometimes smoke when I spend time in nature. It heightens my senses and attunes me to things I might otherwise miss. It plants me in the present and lets me take in my surroundings more slowly, more wholly.
And I typically smoke with my close group of friends, the same ones who initiated me to it many, many years ago. Cannabis has, in fact, become a staple part of our dynamic — the ceremony, the synergy, the connection of it.
Through this practice of intention and awareness, much of the ritual aspect that originally attracted me to cannabis has been restored.
Last fall I read Stephen Gray’s Cannabis and Spirituality: An Explorer’s Guide to an Ancient Plant Spirit. The book jumped out at me during a visit to Powell’s in Portland earlier that summer, and it was kind of weird timing, how it coincided with my decision to reintegrate cannabis into my own life in a more mindful, conscious manner.
What struck me about the book was that it was the first time I’d really noticed cannabis explicitly regarded for its entheogenic purposes. I had come across similar references in the past, but nothing that delved into it quite like the essays and interviews captured in the book.
I think it’s fair to say that when it comes to entheogens — “ a class of psychoactive substances that induce any type of spiritual experience aimed at development or sacred use” (source) — cannabis rarely registers on the scale. This is probably because its effects are dramatically less powerful than the typical substances addressed in Terrence McKenna’s book, substances like psilocybin and mescaline and ayahuasca. The types of substances that, I admit, intimidate me, probably because of the fact that taking part of these substances requires one to entirely surrender any sense of control.
The fact that I favour indica-dominant strains of cannabis tells me that I prefer the ability to keep my wits about me — to still be able to have a sense of control.
Nonetheless, I remain intrigued by the idea of hallucinogenic plants, and lately have been coming across accounts of microdosing with psilocybin. The premise is that taking minuscule amounts of the mushroom every few days can facilitate a heightened sense of awareness in which we feel inspired, empowered, focused and downright amazing.
The idea is not to hallucinate — in fact, the process is designed to avoid this — but to tap into a “flow state” of feeling “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best” (source). This notion of harnessing the benefits of the substance without giving up total control appeals to me. It’s the same reason I determined to reshape my relationship with cannabis in spite of not trusting it for a long period — because cannabis helps me tap into that flow state in a way few other things can.
Sure, it’s easy to feel in the flow when you’re on holidays, say, or in the the throes of a significant creative breakthrough. But these aren’t states that are ordinarily attainable, at least not for me, not as a participant of our modern condition — spending my weekdays chained to a computer, the weekends a fleeting glimpse of feeling like myself again.
Our day-to-day lives make it challenging to consistently find space to channel the flow, and that’s where I think substances like cannabis and psilocybin (probably, because I have yet to know personally) can help to realign us, to shed away the parts of our lives that might otherwise feel like a barrier.
Certainly I remain intrigued by the idea of hallucinogenic plants, and I can’t help contemplate whether there will ever be a time in my life when I’m comfortable experiencing them firsthand…and if that’s even an experience I care to have.
Given the length of time it’s taken me to work through my relationship with cannabis, it’s hard to say.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to read accounts like Terrence McKenna’s and let my mind be guided by the possibility.