My new Spiritual Naturalist Society essay: "Marijuana is my secular

The third essay that I’ve written for the Spiritual Naturalist Society is about a subject of considerable interest not only to me, but also to just about everybody in Oregon, where I live, since on July 1 of this year it became legal to grow, use, and possess marijuana.

Sacred marijuana

In “Marijuana is my secular sacrament” I argue that cannabis produces an experience of less-self, or even non-self, that is a genuine spiritual experience — using that word, spiritual, in a decidedly non-supernatural sense.

You can either read the essay over on the Spiritual Naturalist Society site, or right here. In the version below I’ve included the entire column I wrote prior to Oregon’s 2014 marijuana legalization vote. It had to be truncated on the SNS site.

I don’t embrace God. I do embrace marijuana. Big time.

In my experience, cannabis is way more spiritual than a supernatural being who almost certainly exists only in people’s imagination.

Pleasingly, on July 1 marijuana became legal to possess and use here in Oregon, though recreational sales are on hold for a few more months.

When I use my fingers to carefully pluck small bits of buds (flowers) to place in a vaporizer receptacle — no metal grinder for me; I enjoy touching the herbal essence of a marijuana plant — this has a sacramental feel.

I’m grateful to Mother Nature for bringing forth a substance that elevates the spirit.

There’s a reason we speak of getting high.

Cannabis has a way of making my usual worries and anxieties appear much smaller, as if I were standing on top of a mountain, looking at them from a distance rather than close-up.

At the same time, I don’t feel like I’ve lost touch with reality. Rather, marijuana stimulates a sensation of This is how life really is.

Meaning, my supposedly “normal” perception of having to make my way through a world filled with obstacles, problems, barriers, irritations, and what-not is supplanted by a flowing feeling where stuff happens, but not really to me.

Both modern neuroscience and ancient forms of spirituality such as Buddhism agree that this cannabis-caused diminishing of self is closer to how things truly are than everyday waking consciousness.

Inside the mind/brain, there is no sign of any independent, unchanging, non-physical entity corresponding to our sense of “I” or “Me.”

Yet we feel like there is.

To escape from this fantasy I don’t need to laboriously meditate under the critical gaze of a Zen master. I just fire up my vaporizer, take a few puffs of THC-infused warm air, and, voila!, enlightenment. Thank you, caring compassionate cannabis.

Now, spiritual traditionalists look upon marijuana as an illicit short-cut. They argue that changing one’s consciousness to be more in tune with the reality of no-self must be done naturally, not artificially.

I agree. We just differ as to what is natural, and what is artificial.

Cannabis is a flowering plant indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Humans have used it for thousands of years, as have other animal species, impelled by what psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel calls the fourth drive in his book “Intoxication: the Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances.”

We need intoxicants — not in the sense that an addict needs a fix, but because the need is as much a part of the human condition as sex, hunger, and thirst. The need — the fourth drive — is natural, yes, even healthy. 

…Over the centuries, people have sought — and drugs have offered — a wide variety of effects, including pleasure, relief from pain, mystical revelations, stimulation, relaxation, joy, ecstasy, self-understanding, escape, altered states of consciousness, or just a different feeling.

As noted above, I don’t see this as a drive to escape reality.

Rather, marijuana and other psychedelic drugs propel human consciousness into a less ego-centered state that more accurately reflects neuroscientific understanding of the brain’s inherent selflessness.

For a marvelous hip-hop dance mirroring of this truth, I heartily recommend watching Alex Wong’s and Twitch’s “Get Out of Your Mind” routine.

Jump off your self-absorbed psychoanalytic couch and go freaking crazy! This might well be the sanest thing you’ll ever do.

Oh, but what about the dangers of marijuana? It’s well known that there is no lethal dose of cannabis. Don’t people get psychologically addicted, though?

Sure, in much the same way Gallup tells us that almost half of American smartphone users agree with the statement “I can’t imagine my life without my smartphone.”

Are they addicted? Yes. Do they care? No. Because 70% of smartphone users say their device has made their life better.

Which is how I feel about cannabis.

After using marijuana heavily in college back in the 1960’s, I took a long break during thirty-five years of searching for my True Self through being a vegetarian, hours of daily meditation, and abstention from alcohol/drugs.

Back then I thought my essence was immaterial: a soul-consciousness detachable from the crude physical body.

Now I look upon myself as an integral part of nature. Like everything else, I’m made of energy and matter which eventually will return to its basic constituents when I die, leaving me nowhere to be found.

So I live for today here on Earth, not for an imagined tomorrow in some heavenly realm. Ingesting an herb which alters my brain chemistry is not only morally acceptable, it is “spiritual” in the way I now view that word, as realizing that I don’t have a soul, or self. (The Onion humorously reports on another guy’s similar discovery in “Search for Self Called Off After 38 Years.”)

Sam Harris speaks of this realization in his book, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion.”

My goal in this chapter and the next is to convince you that the conventional sense of self is an illusion — and that spirituality largely consists in realizing this, moment to moment.

…Most of us feel that our experience of the world refers back to a self — not to our bodies precisely but to a center of consciousness that exists somehow interior to the body behind the eyes, inside the head.

The feeling that we call “I” seems to define our point of view in every moment, and it also provides an anchor for popular beliefs about souls and freedom of will.

And yet this feeling, however imperturbable it may appear at present, can be altered, interrupted, or entirely abolished.

…Subjectively speaking, the only thing that actually exists is consciousness and its contents.

Far out, man.

Inspired by Harris’ arguments, I used his ideas in a pre-election Strange Up Salem column I wrote for my city’s alternative paper, Salem Weekly: “A strange reason to legalize marijuana.”

Here’s a news flash from the front page of modern neuroscience: “You don’t exist.” At least, not in the way most people believe they do.

We feel as if we look out upon the world as a detached ethereal consciousness floating behind our eyes, inside our head. We feel as if we’re a weightless self or soul inhabiting a body.

These feelings are wrong. The sense of self is an illusion. You, me, and everyone else are billions of neurons woven together via trillions of electrochemical connections.

Marvelously, the brain tells itself stories about how it is other than it is.

As biologist Edward O. Wilson puts it in his new book, “The self, despite the illusion of its independence created in the scenarios, is part of the anatomy and physiology of the body.”

Mind-blowing, right?

Scientifically obvious, yet shocking to our intuitive sense of ourselves as immaterial self or soul. I am brain-meat that has evolved the capacity to consider itself, if not divine, largely aloof from physicality.

Which is my philosophical neuroscientific reason for voting “Yes” on Measure 91, Oregon’s marijuana legalization initiative.

Apparently an underlying assumption of legal pot opponents is that human consciousness is some sort of pristine, pure pool of unsullied awareness which shouldn’t be contaminated by chemical substances like THC, the major psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

Here’s another science news flash: the brain produces conscious awareness, and it is filled with over 100 chemical neurotransmitters.

They make us happy, horny, hungry, and so much more. Including, high.

I’m writing these words buzzed on a chemical my brain adores: caffeine. Is this wrong? Should caffeine be illegal because it alters my consciousness, increasing alertness and improving my mood?

Of course not. It’s beautiful, really, how humans can bring parts of the world into their brains, then those substances enable them to view the world differently.

We are the world. The world is us. There is no immaterial self standing apart from materiality.

So it isn’t a big deal to add marijuana to the long list of ways human brains are legally altered chemically in Oregon. Marijuana is safer than alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. Informed adults should be able to choose their preferred consciousness-changing substance.

After all, there’s no such thing as a normal state of consciousness.

No one knows how anyone else experiences reality. If somehow this were possible, likely we would be surprised by how differently another person subjectively perceives the same objective world.

Further, whatever you or I experience in the privacy of our own awareness, it is extremely doubtful that the socially accepted definition of psychological normality is the best we humans are capable of.

Artists, visionaries, mystics, poets, meditators, and, yes, users of psychoactive drugs, along with other explorers of altered states of consciousness, tell tales of how they opened doors of perception that made them feel more in touch with reality, not less.

Vote for Measure 91. This is a wonderful way to strange up Salem, and Oregon.

Strange Up Salem seeks to lift our city’s Blah Curse. Give us a Facebook like. Brian Hines blogs at hinesblog.com