Why do some cannabis users seem to get shifts in awareness, or find themselves growing more 'spiritually-minded'? And how can a drug that seems to induce soporific states have any place in meditation?
Indian holy men use it, some forms of Tibetan Buddhism use it, and tokers the world over say how it helps them reach deeper states of meditation or glimpses of transcendental states - but why does cannabis have the effects that these people claim? Surely, a drug is a drug, and cannabis is hardly up there with things like Ayahuasca or DMT, and isn't everything you're going to experience using it going to be pretty much a product of your own psyche?
Yes and no. Whereas many of the things that we can experience, drunk, high or straight, are things that our own minds conjour up, in the case of cannabis the effects it can have come about through channels you may not expect.
Firstly let me try to explain the process that a serious meditator in search of enlightenment may choose to follow: Although most people think of meditation primarily as focussing on objects ('Shamatha' meditation), or being highly aware of their movements and their experience of life ('Vipassana'), in fact these styles of meditation are really just tools to help you prepare for the much deeper forms of meditation offered by more advanced traditions. Although some people may stay quite happily with either Shamatha or Vipassana their whole lives and do very well out of them, the higher schools offer a much faster route to altered states and enlightenment. These schools, mainly Tibetan Buddhist and either a form of Mahamudra or Dzogchen, use an entirely different approach, and on first look their students may not seem to be meditating at all. But a Mahayana (Middle Way) practitioner is classically said to require many lifetimes using Shamatha and morality to reach realisation, a student of Dzogchen can feasibly reach it in this one, and many do.
The experience of enlightenment (in its first stages at least) is to perceive the true nature of realtiy, as reality itself. In Buddhism, Hinduism and even in the Muslim esoteric tradition of Sufism, students are trying to achieve exactly the same thing, an experience of 'self' as non-dual reality, and the gaining of particular direct knowledge concerning this state and the nature of reality as a whole. Rather than just being, say, an altered state of awareness and a pretty light show, the experience of enlightenment MUST be conjoined with this understanding. An experience of enlightenment, no matter how deep, is just an experience without this knowledge
Think of realisation/enlightenment in some ways as being in a lucid dream, where for a few brief seconds, or even days and years, you 'wake up' and see that the world that you inhabit is vastly different than the one you had grown to believe in. This experience of lucidity - enlightenment - in waking life is so powerful and comes with so much authority, that those who have its deepest forms will never be the same again afterwards. Once their belief in themselves and reality, as is, has gone, so too goes their desires for gain, their anger, greed, fear - and they experience ego death. They need nothing, and their consciousness of the greater reality continues to tickle at the edge of their senses for the rest of their lives. Even the deeply religious may choose to leave their chosen religion after an event like this, saying that what they've found is more than 'God'.
Bearing in mind this analogy of lucid dreaming, part of the thrust of the traditions mentioned is to give it's students a fuller understanding (both intellectual and through direct experience) of the world that really is, the nature of ultimate reality. In some ways it's like telling someone with amnesia facts about their lives from before they developed the illness in an attempt to jolt them back to proper awareness. Knowing what the world really is, even if you aren't enlightened, helps you break through this relative illusion of reality we call our Universe. Many people - even if they've never meditated or considered any of this at any time in their whole lives - will get strange feelings, or blisses, or even enter into higher states of awareness and enlightenment itself, simply by hearing/reading about ultimate reality, for this very reason. That sudden understanding, and applying it directly to the world around yourself, is for some all that's needed.
I've no doubt that there'll be plenty here for whom looking at the stars, or reading esoteric texts they hardly understand will give them a sense of the above. We're all that close, we really do only need to change our understanding of reality to begin the process of shattering our current perceptions and moving towards enlightenment.
That out of the way, back to the cannabis connection. Why does it help?
One of the aims of the techniques in all the approaches is to get to a point where you can turn on, or remain permanently in, a state where you feel happy, totally relaxed and very mindful (aware) of the here and now. These three pre-requisites are the same through all schools, high and low, because a relaxed and happy mind is clearer and more able to sense subtle changes in awareness and moves into advanced states. If you're also Mindfully aware at the same time, this effect is even more pronounced. Get all three in place and meditate, or consider truths about the ultimate nature of reality, and you're far more likely to get a proper glimpse of enlightenment. Luckily for us
This is exactly what cannabis does, particularly to new users. You're hardly ever more mindfully aware of this moment in such a continuous way as during the first few experiences of being high, whether that's through psychedelics or cannabis. Unless you're bothered with weed-anxiety (something that's very easy to get rid of) cannabis also tends to make you happy and relaxed too. In short it provides a perfect ground for the practise of most forms of meditation in.
Obviously, if you're tired, or doing too much cannabis, or the wrong type, or have got to a point where the effects aren't as novel to you so you pretty much go about your normal life while high rather than being aware of what the drug is doing to you, then it's less valid as a tool and it can actually become a barrier to progress. But with the breadth of high caused by a good weed, or better still, eating it, the ideal ground of meditation will open up for you to use and explore. With ongoing correct use, a cannabis user can cause him or herself to remain permanently in that state of relaxed, happy awareness, and thus in a state where they're closer to understanding and enlightenment.
As something to play around with, sort through some of the Hubble space shots and find a couple that you like; I'd also recommend some of the YouTube video clips of zooming into an astronomical feature, or time lapse movies of things like the Sagittarius area of the Milky Way.
YouTube - SagitĂˇrio na noite de Cerro Paranal
Those at the ready, the next good high you get, look at each quietly for a few minutes. No need to stare or fixate unnaturally on them, just look at them in a relaxed and normal way - thinking at the same time that you are the Universe itself (and more) and that whatever you're looking at is inside you. Don't try to imagine that it is, the more you can make this a feeling that you simply know it is, without effort, the better.
I hope this article will help those who already get odd shifts and feelings from cannabis understand what may be happening to them, and that it might also encourage the more casual user to consider the doorway into enlightenment that it can offer.