For the majority of human history, spirituality has been intertwined with plant medicines such as cannabis, soma, the kykeon, ayahuasca, iboga, and psilocybin mushrooms. While today’s major religions try to hide this fact, researchers are uncovering evidence that strongly suggests visionary plants have even played a role in traditions like Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism. In the yogic tradition of India- the birthplace of Buddhism- this role is overt with a millenia-old tradition of hashish use by spiritual devotees that continues to this day.
Today’s modern cannabis smoker may not know that they are cultivating a relationship with a plant that has an ancient tradition of spiritual use. When paranoia strikes, clothed as it always is in the personal story of that individual, it is all too often seen as simply “a bad time” or “proof that I suck”, rather than an auspicious moment to reveal and transcend the ego, an opportunity for real spiritual work. Whatever spiritual understanding you ascribe to, reducing fear, deepening your sense of peace, and understanding your own power to direct these forces is the essence of true personal growth.
To unpack this deeper understanding of cannabis and how to work with the challenges and opportunities it invokes, we spoke with Stephen Gray, author of Returning to Sacred World and Cannabis and Spirituality, and co-organizer of the Spirit Plant Medicine Conference happening this November in Vancouver. In this conversation, Stephen applies his own deep understanding of Buddhism to explicate on one of the most common issues that cannabis users face- paranoia- and how we can contextualize it as an opportunity for self-realization.
Thank you again for speaking with us, Stephen. Let’s zoom in on paranoia. What are its roots, and how can it be avoided?
Paranoia is an elaborate construction of fear where you concoct a story of threat, and also an elemental experience that you feel in the body. However you define it, it’s all about the ego; it’s about a threat to “me.” That’s what spiritual work is all about: learning to relax out of the fixed, constricting story of the self and into the unconditioned mind.
In Buddhism, they talk about this cocoon we build around ourselves that requires constant maintenance. Unconditioned reality- which is the way things actually are- is a threat to the ego, which has a desire to constantly protect itself. Because cannabis is an amplifier, it raises the stakes as it were, and that’s one reason why some people don’t like it at all: it threatens the status quo. But that’s why it’s so powerfully beneficial as well. That is the journey of spiritual awakening as I understand it: learning to trust the energy of the moment that is beyond our concepts about reality.
If your mental stability is fragile to begin with, then maybe cannabis is not your medicine. But as a principle, once your protective ego gets wild and worried and creates a story, one way to deal with it is simply don’t buy it. Don’t buy the story, and let it go. Pay attention to your breath, breathe deeply, move a little, and try to recognize that it’s just a story, it’s not real, and it can dissipate in a heartbeat. I’ve been using cannabis for a very long time and don’t have issues with paranoia, but if I take enough I do feel some physical discomfort. When I use techniques to spill that energy off like playing my guitar, then I don’t feel it anymore.
In Buddhism, they say that the thinking mind is the primary way the ego tries to avoid unconditioned reality. We have these busy minds spinning layers of veils that are overlapping and continuously interweaving. That’s why finding techniques to get out of the thinking mind, at least some of the time, is a whole other way of being in this world.
I’m a big fan of Joe Rogan, who has been an important proponent of conscious cannabis use. One thing that’s pretty fascinating is how he frames paranoia, which he embraces as a kind of useful ordeal to shake things up and really face the darkness and process it.
Yes, perhaps it’s a reminder that we are not all that enlightened, coming face to face with all of that. The ego wants to have it all wrapped up into a tight package. In Buddhist descriptions, there are the six realms, and one of them is called the god realm that is described as being the realm that is the most deluded. In the god realm, you’ve got everything going your way- money, power, everything you touch turns to gold- but there’s this incredible egoism and narcissism along with it. And lurking just underneath is a paranoia that it could all fall apart at any moment, which it generally does at one point or another.