This is an excerpt from Philip H. Farber's High Magick: A Guide to Cannabis in Ritual & Mysticism (Llewellyn, 2020), a guide to using cannabis safely and effectively in spiritual settings. Farber is a magician, teacher, and the author of several books on magic. He lives in the Hudson Valley.
Cannabis and meditation have been closely linked since prehistory and through Hinduism, Taoism, and other meditation-heavy traditions. We’ve seen Aleister Crowley linking samadhi (a state of union that is one of the possible outcomes of meditation) with cannabis. So what exactly makes this such an important and historic connection? Let’s start with some basics.
There are so many different practices labeled “meditation” that it’s sometimes difficult to come up with a simple definition of the practice. For some, meditation means simply thinking about something, as in “meditate on how you ended up here, reading this book.” For others, meditation might be following a guided fantasy or visualization. For the most part, though, meditation is a set of specific practices that help to quiet the mind and develop useful outcomes such as enhanced calm, relaxation, increased ability to focus, and greater awareness. In many (if not most) traditions, meditation may lead to mystical outcomes, including awareness of the unity of existence and the ability to raise and direct psychic energies.
The catch in most of these practices is that actually thinking about any of these outcomes detracts and moves attention away from meditation. Meditators are generally advised to simply meditate without desiring a particular outcome, which can be a confounding idea to goal-oriented twenty-first century practitioners.
Wherever you might be, whatever thoughts might be in your head, acknowledge and accept what is happening and then aim your attention toward the process of meditation. And that is essentially the process: while concentrating on the object of a particular meditation—a mantra, a symbol, a chakra, a candle flame, the experience of breath or sitting—a variety of thoughts will arise. Each thought is perceived, acknowledged and then attention is returned to the meditation.
The distracting thoughts that arise can range from intrusions of minor physical discomfort (“My nose itches!”) to thoughts about the day (“Will I get the project done before my boss gets upset?”) to full blown, full-sensory daydreams. In the context of meditation, these are not repressed or denied in any way. Each break in concentration, no matter what form it might take, is acknowledged, accepted for what it is, and then attention is brought back to the meditation.
Observing the ebb and flow of concentration and distraction during meditation can be enlightening in several ways. First, we are observing the interplay between the consciously focused prefrontal cortex and the brain’s default network, the tendency for various parts of the brain to chatter between themselves when no conscious focus is applied. The ability to quiet the default network builds concentration ability that can be applied across many different life tasks. If you learn to concentrate at meditation, you’ll also improve your concentration for reading, playing, working or for whatever you need. Regular practice can also lessen the internal dialog and rumination characteristic of depression and anxiety, which is based in the default network.
Second, the distracting thoughts that arise may give us some indication of what kinds of things lurk below ordinary awareness. After a while, we may start to notice patterns in the kinds of thoughts—are they mostly physical distractions? Worries about money? Fantasies about sex, food, or vacations in exotic places? Memories about childhood, friends, family, or traumatic or pleasant incidences of the past? No matter how serious or trivial the thoughts seem, they may hold clues to resolving the ongoing issues of our life. Additionally, as each thought arises in consciousness, it may be reconsolidated in memory along with some calm from the meditative state, subtly changing the way we respond to these thoughts in the future. But leave the analysis and retrospective for later and bring your attention back to the object of your meditation.
If you keep pursuing your meditation, then benefits continue. Daily practice (indeed, regular practice of almost anything) will mirror the same meditative process over time. Do you get distracted by other activities and forget your practice times occasionally? Do you sometimes get tempted to take a day off, watch TV instead, go out with friends, and so on? Just as with a break in concentration during meditation, these distractions can be acknowledged and accepted and then you turn your attention (and behavior) back to your practice.
Here are a few simple meditation techniques to explore:
Sit in a position with your spine vertical and straight (a chair will do nicely). Allow your breathing to become relaxed and natural. Let it set its own rhythm and depth, however it is comfortable. Focus your attention on your breathing, on the movements of your chest and abdomen rather than on your nose and mouth. Keep your attention focused on your breathing. For some people an additional level of concentration may be helpful. You might add a simple counting rhythm spoken in your head as you breathe: “One” on the inhale, “Two” on the exhale, and repeat. Or you might visualize your breath as a swinging door, swinging in on the inhale and out on the exhale.
Sit and pay attention to your posture, your breathing and your environment. As thoughts arise in your mind, note them, give them a label, and then let them go. Label them without being judgmental. That is, note that “this is a thought about an itch”… then let it go. Or “this is an emotional thought of love [hate, anxiety, compassion, happiness, etc.]” and then let it go and return your attention to your present experience.
Basic Mantra Meditation
Select a short phrase to concentrate upon. This can be something from a spiritual tradition, an affirmation that you’d like use, a nonsense phrase (or phrase in a language you don’t understand), or simply counting. Repeat the phrase out loud (if circumstances permit) or in your head. If and when your mind wanders from the mantra, accept the distracting thought without attempting to repress it, and then, as soon as you are able, return attention fully to your mantra.
Okay, so what happens when you combine meditation with cannabis? Again, it depends somewhat on set and setting, but there are some general tendencies we can explore. Remember that cannabis has the ability to allow for both focused awareness and imagination. Meditation is usually an interplay between these, but when cannabis is involved, they can occur simultaneously. That is, you can have thoughts, visions, hear sounds, have various feelings and—with practice—keep focus on the object of your meditation at the same time. This allows for a unique kind of experience in which one can continue to meditate while insights and other thoughts that might otherwise be intrusive can continue to happen, too.
Meditation, in general, gives us practice in observing and participating in the normally unconscious action of our minds. Cannabis seems to intensify this process, allowing for more “second attention,” the part of consciousness that can observe itself. As well, noticing the contrast between high and non-high states can reveal even more insight into our internal processes.
It is important to be familiar with both the technique and the cannabis experience before you combine them. That is, practice your meditation regularly without cannabis so that you can ascertain what kind of experiences are, in those circumstances, typical for that technique. And be familiar with the particular kind of cannabis and route of administration that you intend to use. Then combine carefully. Start with a small amount, a puff or two if you are smoking. If it seems like more would be useful, complete your meditation session and experiment with a greater amount on another occasion.
Just about every kind of meditation or ritual will benefit from repeated practice and it may happen that the really interesting, exciting, educational, or mystical experiences will result after you have explored regularly for a while. How long? Everyone is different and times may vary, but the more you practice, the better it gets.
Watching the Smoke
This is a very basic meditation that uses smoke as the focus of attention. This can be done with incense, which will burn longer, or with the smoke from the end of a joint. Very simply, take a deep toke, then, as you breathe deeply and comfortably, hold the joint or incense in front of you at a distance of a foot or two and observe the smoke rising. Keep your head and eyes aimed forward and focus on the stream of smoke that is directly in front of you. Repeat the toke until you have reached an appropriate state, then continue observing the smoke. Allow all other thoughts to dissipate and just watch it rise. As new thoughts arise, acknowledge them then return your attention to the observation.