Many of those discovering Ayahuasca in the western world aren’t really aware that it is actually part of a wider Amazonian practice of plant based healing. The Amazon has a reputation as the medicine bowl of the world and within it jungle curanderos and vegetalistas employ a much greater variety of medicines in their work than just Ayahuasca. It is arguable that more important and revered than even Ayhauasca, is a plant that the west has come to have a mixed relationship with at best: Tobacco.
Since before recorded history tobacco has been considered sacred throughout the Americas. Even indigenous Australians worked with the nicotine containing plant, Pituri, highly prized as an item of trade, giving enhanced endurance as well as assistance in shamanic work.
Back in the Amazon, before the discovery of the Ayahuasca brew there existed a form of plant medicine shamanism with Tobacco at its centre, practiced by Tobacco shamans known as tobaqueros. Among the many myths surrounding the discovery and origins of Ayahuasca is a story that suggests that it was in fact the spirit of this potent jungle tobacco, nicotina rustica (commonly known as Mapacho) that first taught these early tobacco curanderos which plants to combine in order to create the very first Ayahuasca tea.
People don’t often realise that tobacco, in high doses, is a visionary medicine in it’s own right, and that the Mapacho used in the Amazon is up to twenty six times stronger than the tobacco we buy commercially in the west.
If Ayahuasca is a master teacher, able to assist apprentices in opening communication with other plant spirits, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine that there may have been an earlier plant that was just visionary enough to show humans which plants to combine to create the first the soul-vine brew.
According to Steve Beyer, there are three key plants at the centre of curanderismo in the Amazon. Tobacco for protection, Ayahuasca for learning and Toé for power. (The risks associated with the pursuit of shamanic power will be discussed in a later article.)
Ayahuasca is a master healer to some, a master teacher to others. I’ve even heard it claimed that Ayahuasca does not do any healing at all, instead showing you what needs to be healed and how to heal it. By the same token I have heard that tobacco is for protection, but it may have acted as a teacher in order to show humans how to make Ayahuasca.
In truth, we’re talking about a plant consciousness: an independent awareness, with conscious volition of its own. So just like a human consciousness, these plants have the capacity to play more than one role, though they may have a particular gift for one area of specialisation. In fact, if you ask ten vegetalistas the uses for the same plant, you’ll almost always get ten different lists with perhaps as much overlap as variation.
So what commonly known gifts does the Tobacco spirit have to share?
As mentioned, protection is widely considered to be at the top of the list. Mapacho (which strictly speaking describes a cigar sized paper cigarette) is used most commonly to clear the energy field of a person seeking balance and realignment. During this process the curandero is very likely using it as a tool for diagnosis too. If it burns unevenly it indicates that there’s an imbalance in that area and smoke will continue to be blown there until balance in the Mapacho (and the person’s energy field) is restored. The completion of this process leaves the person sellado, sealed, which is a good state to be in before an Ayahuasca ceremony begins.
During ceremony, Mapacho may be blown as a form of limpia or cleansing, often over the crown and neck. It may also be smoked by people having a challenging experience in order to bring them out of chaos into clarity. Conversely it can also be used to clear away obstruction and allow the visions to come through with more intensity. In this way, Ayahuasca and Mapacho have a highly synergistic relationship.
The deeper traditions of the Tobaqueros have carried on and are still practiced independently or in conjunction with ayahuasca curanderismo. These include dieting with the plant for extended periods of time in order to study with it, doing tobacco purges, or receiving tobacco based snuff such as nunu or hapé. One tobacco initiation ritual involves large volumes of hot smoke being blown almost continuously into the nostrils.
During these more focused tobacco rituals, the physical power of Mapacho is undeniable. It’s capable of inducing a purge at least as powerful as the strongest purges during Ayahuasca ceremony, known to clear flukes, parasites, fungus and other pathogens from the system. It will ground you, bring you back into your body. During its effects you may feel weak, or ill. You may go into cold sweats. Your mind may go completely still and you may even experience visions. It is what can be described as ordeal medicine, which often involves feeling awful during the experience in order to feel better afterwards.
On a spiritual level, making friends with the tobacco spirit is more complex than forming relationships with plants completely unknown to a westerner. Tobacco carries a lot of negative baggage in the collective mind of western culture. “Buy it! It’ll make you look cool like they do in the movies. But it’s bad for you – though they used to say it was good for you. Why would society lie to us like that?” … and on and on.
It takes time to untangle all of that, and it’s hard not to let prejudice create interference. At the core of the challenge is this: how does one become reverent of something that gives people cancer all over the world?
You can tell yourself that it’s the chemicals added by industry that are the real killers as much as you like but when you come face to face with visions of Grandfather Tobacco – trust me, that mistrust in Tobacco’s ultimate intentions is going to need to be dealt with.
“This was the final ceremony for the dieta. At some point I remembered meeting the tobacco spirit during the ceremony before. I hadn’t had any recollection of it until now, which I found unusual, like part of its power was to keep things concealed at will. Enormous monstrous thing. Toé had shown itself to me in simple unassuming plant form. The tobacco spirit was enormous, sprawling, complicated, tangled yet ordered – but not ordered in a human way. Organic. An immense living organic tangled sprawling mess. Kind of smokey too, with lots of green with black and purple.”
It came with a real sense of strength, perhaps like no other plant in the jungle. I could see why so many people practicing shamanism around the world want it on their side. It was definitely an energy not to be fucked with.
“As I observed it further, two distinct sides to it’s nature started to emerge. I felt like the wild sprawling part was the Mapacho incarnation and the well presented, neater, less powerful, more refined version (commercial tobacco) was somehow more insidious… but was this insidious feeling coming from the dark intentions of the tobacco spirit itself, or the dark intentions of the humans exploiting a sacred plant?”
It is undeniable that tobacco is useful to humanity. Useful in the sense that we just keep on using it, even if it’s in addictive way – only masking our problems. To me the key to treating addiction is to get down to what the person is really getting out of the drug then find a way to achieve that objective without it. No amount of dealing with the biological addiction will help if you never look at the underlying reasons for the drug use. How is it useful? How does it serve the person?
I could see now how people all over the world who want to feel safe and protected might become addicted to Tobacco. A dear friend once described that for her Tobacco allowed her to cut off an unpleasant experience that she was feeling and put it in the past, clearing the way for a new and different present experience. This fits the profile of a protector spirit. What is protection if not creating and maintaining strong boundaries and what is cutting an experience off and clearing it aside of not doing exactly that? Unpleasantness over there; I am right here. Unfortunately, it is a tool that helps people avoid the present moment and it is precisely these that are the most addictive.
I personally use tobacco in a ceremonial way, meaning it’s not casual. I don’t turn to it at any hint of not liking a situation. I tend to turn and face unpleasantness and try to find a way to shift it on my own. I’m interested in taking more personal responsibility for my wellbeing and my moods, so I don’t feel the need to ask for help very often. I believe for this reason my relationship with tobacco is, for want of a better word, healthy (though a part of me still has a hard time putting ‘tobacco’ and ‘healthy’ in the same sentence).
Perhaps the tobacco spirit is giving humanity a lesson in personal power and responsibility. Getting something outside yourself to take on the responsibility of making you feel safe, secure and protected also gives that thing the ability to exercise power and control over you. In the world we live in right now, I think it’s a lesson urgently needed and not quickly enough being learned.
While slowly establishing a stronger relationship with Tobacco, I tell myself often that ‘I’m working with the organic natural version of Tobacco has been used for thousands of years, and the epidemic rise of cancer is only a recent phenomenon.’ The fact is though, that it’s hard to say for sure that it’s not toxic – and that doesn’t feel good. I turn and face the discomfort of this realism. I search for a narrative to help me come to acceptance.
First I trust that it has undeniable benefits, like ejecting fungus and parasites that may have caused cancer somewhere along the line. I remind myself of Paracelsus and his ‘The dosagemakes it either a poison or a remedy’ quote. And I rarely take the smoke into my lungs. I also trust that I am working with numerous other medicines with the intention of bringing myself into a better state of alignment so I can be in more effective service to the good of all. Some of which have known anti-cancer properties. Cancer cells emerge in every human body on numerous occasions throughout a human life. If my immune system is strong then they will never swell in numbers to the point of ever even being noticed, let alone a problem.
I feel much more able to open myself to deeper connection with the Tobacco spirit with thoughts like these, yet the question of its overall intentions toward humanity is still unresolved. I search for a positive spin on the worst case scenario; a myth to tell myself to come to acceptance.
If the consciousness of tobacco is intentionally killing so many people and the humans profiting are unknowingly in tobacco’s service, is there an optimistic way to look at this possibility?
I remember learning about the re-introduction of wolves into Yosemite. Removing the wolves didn’t seem to be a problem until you looked at the forest in plant time instead of human time. After a few decades the elk had overpopulated. Over time they had eaten so many of the seedlings that were someday meant to replace the forest, that the forest itself was dying out. When wolves were returned, they didn’t overbreed despite the abundance of food, and they only took the weakest elk, which helped strengthen the gene pool of the elk overall. The forest began to once again replenish.
Perhaps tobacco is intentionally weeding out weak parts of our gene pool, naturally selecting (by not killing) those who want to learn to face the uncomfortable things and have the courage to stand up for themselves and make their own boundaries of protection. Perhaps it’s removing large numbers of people who want to hand over the responsibility of their own security and protection to something outside themselves. Perhaps it’s doing humanity (and the earth) a favour. Now, I’m not entirely sure I’m ok with the idea of plants performing some form of eugenics on humanity. I sure as hell am not ok with humans ever deciding who get’s to pass on their genes and who doesn’t. When I think of it though, plants have been killing off some animals while others adapt and survive since animals first emerged. Who am I to get offended by this, just because it occurs to me that it may not be happening by accident?
Ultimately, no matter how many narratives I use to help resolve my feelings towards tobacco, they’re as tangled as the sprawling mass in my vision. My perspective on tobacco is however becoming less tangled over time, and with more experience in the future, I hope I can share further insights about this powerful and multifaceted plant consciousness. The meeting is really only the beginning.
Jonathan Davis was the Associate Producer on Aya Awakenings. He is a writer and filmmaker with a strong personal interest in the safe and responsible use of plant medicines and entheogens for healing and personal evolution.
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