Let’s be Friends with Tobacco by Alex Robertson

Courtesy of Boston Public Library

Courtesy of Boston Public Library

The following article has been written by Alex Robertson   (@dcalexrobertson / http://www.doncharles.org )

For most people the concept of a shamanic healing retreat does not necessarily evoke images of its participants smoking big tobacco cigars throughout the course of the day. Yet, judging from my own experience at two separate retreats, that is often what seems to occur. Within the context of the indigenous culture that is providing the seeker with ancient knowledge and wisdom, tobacco is recognized as a sacred plant teacher and, as such, it is to be treated with devotion and reverence. Therefore, 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.

The dominant consumer culture in which I was raised has a different point of view. Nowadays, the use of tobacco is seen by many as nothing more than a disgusting habit. I have at times struggled with my own overuse of tobacco. I only tend to abuse the plant if I am either in a stressful work environment, or if I am under the influence of booze and/or stimulant drugs. Once I have returned to a healthy lifestyle however, my use of tobacco seems to slow itself down quite naturally. Ideally, I would enjoy a hand-rolled cigarette of natural tobacco every now and then as a contemplative activity. Despite this desire, I feel obliged to recognize the politically correct crusade against any such activity.

According to the Tobacco Labelling Resource Centre, Canada became the first country in the world to implement picture-based health warnings on cigarette packages in June 2001. Ten years later, Canada decided to up their game by increasing the picture size from 50% of the packaging to a whopping 75%, just in case some unwitting smokers had somehow missed the bleeding heart colourfully displayed on only 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.

There are many studies that show that graphic image warnings are more effective than the text-only variety. A glance at the some of the widely publicized statistical information on the declining rate of smokers in Canada since 2001 would seem to confirm these claims as correlative evidence. Another strategy that has been in the works is to eliminate all brand-specific information—such as colour, font, and slogan—and leave only a plain-text wording to let consumers know what type of cigarettes they are. Australia has already implemented this policy and apparently many other countries are in the process of following suit.

I have heard the argument being made that these warnings are more directed at the chemical additives as opposed to the actual plant material. However, in many countries it doesn’t make a difference whether or not the tobacco is additive-free, the warning labels are required by law regardless. For that reason, whether by intention or by carelessness, the effect is that tobacco itself is the target and not the chemical additives. For example, I have in my possession a pouch of additive-free natural tobacco on which there is an image of a dead foetus prominently displayed.

It doesn’t take a powerful imagination to predict where all this is going. Eventually, the law-abiding citizen who decides to smoke will have 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 second-hand smokers—before lighting up and inhaling the sweet smoke, the satisfaction of which has perhaps only been intensified by the aforementioned rigmarole.

Call me crazy, but I find it strangely absurd 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 almost as ridiculous as verdant pro-lifers parading the streets with giant billboard images of aborted foetuses. The political and moral reasons that motivate these behaviours do not excuse the extreme distaste and borderline insanity that the propagation of such imagery exemplifies. Perhaps a campaign to educate the masses of the dangers of excessive tobacco consumption is entirely appropriate. But I am sure there must be a more enlightened way to go about it.

The traditional use of tobacco predates the entire concept of political propaganda by many thousands of years. It seems that we are just now beginning to learn that the demonization and illegalization of plant life is a pathological way of doing things. Just as we are now in the process of reconsidering our social relationship to marijuana, I believe we would also do well to re-evaluate 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 in general hospitals anytime soon. However, it is worth examining the overall relationship with nature that seems to arise from cultures that acknowledge and respect various plant life as living spirits. It’s a relationship of symbiosis, the exact quality whose absence within the 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. Modern society unfortunately produces humans that are extremely susceptible to all kinds of addiction. This is a manifestation of the varying levels of spiritual dis-ease within our own lives. I say we take a cue from more symbiotically aligned cultures, and instead of demonizing the plant world, we acknowledge its intelligence and humbly request its assistance in teaching us to live in some semblance of harmony with our natural world.

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