The Lost Sacredness of Tobacco

By Jonathan Davis – Tuesday October 11th, 2016

The Hidden Power of Tobacco

For many indigenous people alive today in the Americas and Australia, tobacco and other nicotine containing plants are considered just as sacred as they had been for their ancestors. For most people, however, the idea that tobacco and nicotine might be sacred sounds about as ludicrous as a magazine article from the fifties with medical doctors recommending cigarettes. How can a plant with so much potential for harm be considered sacred? Over the past decade, I’ve somehow gone from being someone who had no respect for tobacco whatsoever, actually having quite a lot of harsh judgment for anyone who smoked it, to a person who now has a very deep level of reverence and respect for what has been an ancient friend to humanity.


The Distinction Between Use and Abuse

For the past five hundred years, tobacco has been used by the western world. During most of that time, there were no chemicals added and still there was addiction, sickness, and death caused by tobacco abuse. Before Columbus encountered it for the first time in Cuba and brought it to the west, tobacco abuse and addiction was not a cultural problem for those who worked with it, and the reason according to Indigenous North Americans is the concept of the right relationship.

Tobacco abuse and addiction was not a cultural problem for those who worked with it.Tobacco abuse and addiction was not a cultural problem for those who worked with it.


‘Right Relationship’ with Tobacco

I’ve heard it said that for the Indigenous North Americans, tobacco is the hotline to the Great Spirit. If your culture had taught you that every time you smoked tobacco, the entire universe was listening intently to every thought that was moving through your mind and every feeling that was moving through your heart, you might not be so quick to light one up. It’s hard to imagine some of the kids at school sneaking away behind the bike sheds to eat the Eucharist bread they took from church on Sunday. It puts tobacco into a completely different context. In this way, there was cultural regulation of behavior, casual use didn’t exist, and there was no-one trying to convince anyone that it was cool.

Pre-colonization Native Americans, in comparison to most modern western people, lead incredibly healthy, active lives, with very few toxins and a high level of nutrition. Many also engage in regular rituals, such as sweat lodge – which causes intense detoxification. Combine these factors with the fact that tobacco was used sparingly and smoke was almost never taken into the lungs due to wild harvested tobacco being lot stronger than cultivated tobacco, and you can start to get a picture as to why there is no evidence of tobacco being any kind of problem in their society.


Tobacco was sacred –  Artist: Jonathan Thunder

Tobacco as an Intention Amplifier

The oldest evidence for tobacco cultivation was found near the Peru/Ecuador border in the Amazon jungle. Nicotina Rustica is up to 26 times stronger than commercially available tobacco and is considered one of the three most powerful plants in Amazonian shamanism. To many, it is even more revered than the sacred visionary medicine, Ayahuasca. Over almost a decade of exploring South American plant medicine practice, I have again and again seen people I respect show deep reverence towards tobacco, and slowly over time, I have come to gain a perspective on why.

From what I have learned from engaging in non-western spiritual practices, perhaps the best model for explaining people’s beliefs about tobacco is that its primary gift is that of an intention amplifier. This helps explains why tobacco is considered by many indigenous cultures to be food for the spirits. When it is offered, it is a way of us giving the gift of amplified intention to whatever the being is that the offering is being made to – something like ‘may your prayers and intentions be made stronger’. For the curandera (shaman) that wishes for the discordance in her ayahuasca ceremony to pass, or for the ayahuasca to come through with more strength, it amplifies her intention also. If she wishes for a person’s energy field to become clear and sealed, it amplifies this intention too. All across the amazon, tobacco is employed for spiritual protection, as when this is the intention, it is amplified.

For the modern smoker, when we feel uncomfortable and wish for this current moment to be in the past and a new moment to be opened up in the present, it will amplify and enable our avoidance of discomfort. If we want to feel more confident in social situations, it will amplify that. If we want to suppress anxiety or the pain of past trauma, tobacco will amplify these intentions too, though more evidence every day is linking supression of emotions with suppression of immunity. Psychiatry even recognizes its ability to help bring a degree of stability to people going through extreme mental health challenges, much like the way it is used in the same way during turbulent ayahuasca experiences.

When it is offered, it is a way of us giving the gift of amplified intention.When it is offered, it is a way of us giving the gift of amplified intention.


Tobacco is a Hallucinogen

At high doses, tobacco is indeed a hallucinogen. At every dose, it brings about an adjustment in our perception: varying degrees of non-ordinary awareness, from slight to moderate. Commercially available tobacco causes just enough of a state change that we want it, but not enough that we really notice it has happened. The problem here is that hallucinogens, and indeed all forms of voluntary or involuntary non-ordinary states, may be inducing varying levels of enhanced neuroplasticity. We have seen numerous studies in recent years showing how psychedelics can cause neurogenesis and help brains rewire after trauma. If tobacco also causes an enhanced state of neuroplasticity, it would provide a tangible basis for some of the claim that it amplifies intention.

Imagine a person going outside to have a cigarette break at work. They smoke their tobacco from end to end feeling angry, frustrated, bitter: “I hate my job, I hate my life”. If the ancient wisdom is true, then this kind of thinking and feeling is being amplified inadvertently through the use of tobacco. If nicotine were to accelerate neuroplasticity, there would be a more significant strengthening of the pathways associated with these negative thought patterns, perhaps requiring something like cognitive behavioral therapy to undo. As we increase our scientific understanding of the effect hallucinogens have on the brain, as well as the feedback loop between our emotional state and our immune system, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if there was a significant link between negative thinking during the use of tobacco and cancer. Personally, if I smoked commercial tobacco, the last thing I would want potentially being amplified by enhanced neuroplasticity is all the words and pictures that are on the warning labels. SMOKING CAUSES CANCER, written on the packaging may possibly be woven deeper into the consciousness of the smoker, by the very tobacco the smoker is being warned about.

At every dose, it brings about an adjustment in our perception. At every dose, it brings about an adjustment in our perception.

The Power of Culture

Perhaps one of the key reasons why cancer wasn’t a significant problem for indigenous people working with tobacco was because their culture knew better than to smoke tobacco while not being in right relationship with it. Indigenous culture may have described things in language that sounded too poetic or didn’t sound rational enough to be considered important – but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t the accumulation of thousands of years of wisdom encoded in those traditions.

There’s a reason why indigenous people didn’t get sick from tobacco and it could be this simple: they had traditions that told them how to engage with it in a safe way. This is the advantage of having the experience of your ancestors passed down, fully in tact, through culture. Somewhere along the way, over the course of tens of thousands of years, people probably found out the hard way that tobacco is dangerous and needed to be shown a deep level of respect. That information was woven into tradition and people could trust that the tradition was there to keep them safe, even if they didn’t fully understand the reason for it. Even if the original reason for the tradition was lost, there was still trust in the intention of their ancestors to preserve and care for the lives of future generations.

Tobacco could be dangerous if it isn’t a deep level of respect.Tobacco is undeniably dangerous and requires a deep level of respect.
So You’re Saying It’s OK To Smoke Tobacco?

No. There are many other factors at play. Native Americans may have co-evolved with this plant and have a certain level of immunity, just as westerners are more immune to certain diseases for which indigenous people have little or no immunity at all. Growing the plant in non-organic conditions may also be a factor that increases the risk for modern people.

The undeniable fact, however, is that the plant simply is poisonous, even without the 200+ carcinogenic and addictive chemicals added to commercial tobacco. Even organic tobacco is actually one of the best natural pesticides known. Reconciling the fact that tobacco is in fact toxic, is perhaps the trickiest challenge for having a sacred relationship with it. It seems ancient cultures partly resolved this with the knowledge that poisons and medicines can be the same, depending on the dose. I have also spoken with modern day tobaqueros (tobacco healers) who hold the belief, and remain very aware, that they are giving some of their own life in exchange for the amplification of their prayers and intention. Hence the care in using it sparingly and in an extremely conscious way.

For people who have been trained by their culture to believe that tobacco is inherently toxic and nothing else, there may be even more risk. Smoking a substance that may be amplifying your thoughts (either spiritually or through neuroplasticity), and at the same time thinking you are smoking something that will kill you, isn’t a good combination. For people who are already addicted, however, transitioning to a more sacred relationship can mean smoking less, because in a sacred relationship with tobacco, a person not only uses it sparingly, but also maintains a clear purpose, remaining in a state of full presence and reverence for the entire duration. There is nothing casual about it. It is done in either silence or the only words spoken are prayers. Most people just don’t have time for that much deep prayer in their day, and so use reduces. It should also be mentioned that anyone considering taking a sacred approach to their relationship with tobacco will immediately stop purchasing tobacco that contains more than 200 carcinogenic and addictive chemicals that are intentionally placed there by the tobacco industry.

Transitioning to a more sacred relationship can mean smoking less.Transitioning to a more sacred relationship can mean smoking less.

A Deeper Relationship with Tobacco

I strongly believe that all substances that bring non-ordinary awareness should be treated as teachers. As addiction expert, Gabor Maté suggests, ask yourself what you are getting from the substance? How is it helpful to you? Then learn how to achieve the same result without needing the substance. Transitioning from an abusive relationship to a scared relationship may be a helpful stepping stone to an even deeper relationship. There are those I have met who are capable of gaining the same effects that they once gained from smoking tobacco, by simply singing a song to call its spirit. In terms of neuroscience, perhaps the song causes the same neural pathways to fire that were developed while smoking the tobacco… without needing the tobacco to do it.

If taking a sacred approach to your relationship with tobacco is taking you closer to this level of mastery then keep going with it. You’ll know because you’ll need to smoke it less and less frequently, in smaller and smaller amounts. If your sacred approach is not continuously taking you closer to not needing it at all, then the tobacco is still the rider and you’re still the horse, so to speak. This approach is not for everyone, by any means, but for some, it will resonate like a bell. To those people, I wish you luck in coming into the very highest level of relationship with this plant.

If you, or someone you love, is still dependent on tobacco, remember the power of intention. Treat this substance with respect and perhaps bring in a clear and pure intention by considering what you are grateful for. Keep in your mind and heart the thoughts and feelings you wish to amplify and soon enough, you may find the need to reach for tobacco reducing.


Feature Image: Artists beloved to be Asuman and Atanur Dogan.

The Art Of Smudging – A Shamanic Cleansing Ritual

by Nick Polizzi ~ The Sacred Science

If you grew up religious, you probably witnessed the ritualistic use of smoke in ceremony. For me it was frankincense and myrhh being burned during Sunday mass. For others it might be smoldering incense at their Buddhist Temple, or the spiraling tendrils of bukhoor in a mosque.

There is something primordial within us that connects smoke with spirituality.

In Native American tradition, it’s seen as a bridge to the higher realms, a way to bring in good spirits and dispel the negative or stagnant ones. The most common smoke-purification ritual used by the northern tribes is a technique called smudging.

This practice (or some variation of it) is embraced by almost every one of the native cultures we’ve worked with in the western hemisphere.

When we see a unique method used by different tribes across multiple continents or land masses, it’s a strong indication that it yields very real physical and/or spiritual benefits.

Below, I want to show you how to try smudging yourself and also explore some of the wisdom behind this ancestral art.

A Shamanic Cleansing Ritual

Photo by Rose De Dan

Photo by Rose De Dan

Smudging is the ritualistic burning of herbs and plant resins in a shell or clay bowl while prayers of gratitude and wellbeing are said aloud. The smoke is traditionally fanned using the hand or a feather (eagle feathers are treasured for this) and directed over a person or throughout a living space. The purpose is to wash away impurities, sadness, anxieties, dark thoughts and any unwanted energies or emotions that may be clinging to a space or individual.

This is often done before a ceremony or special gathering, after an argument (to literally “clear the air”), when moving into a new home, at the end of the cold season to re-invigorate one’s living space,
and on a variety of other occasions.

There is much subtlety to this practice, and its potency reveals itself in the experience as you work with it.

Before we get started, it’s important to understand the deep symbolism that underlies each of the objects used in a typical smudge. There are centuries of wisdom woven into this process.

First and foremost, the materials involved each symbolize and honor one of the four elements, a central theme in many Native American rites.

– The shell or clay bowl represents water
– The herbs and resins represent the earth,
– The feather and wind it creates represent air
– The flame used to ignite the herbs represents fire

The herbs:

Sometimes only one specific herb is burned, but often a carefully prepared mixture is created. The Cree people of Montana and Saskatchewan call this botanical blend a kinnikinnick, and it can contain up to 30 different plants, chosen for certain outcomes or to treat a specific illness.

The most common herbs used for smudging in North American traditions are white sage, sweet grass, tobacco, and cedar. Not surprisingly, these are also four of the most sacred plants in this part of the world.

“Sweet grass grows high in the Rocky Mountains. A gift from the creator, it is said this grass never dies. It is one of the great smells reminding us of the mountains and open air. Sage is the cleanest smell of the desert. It is also a present from the Creator. Tobacco is another gift. Our thoughts and prayers are carried on its smoke. It carries the two great smells of the mountain and desert. It is a visual representation of our thoughts and prayers being transported.”

– John Joseph, Chinook Shaman

A Smudging Practice To Try (with a Native Prayer):

A word to the wise: it’s important to hold pure and focused intention while you perform a smudging.  Before you begin any purification ritual like this, make sure you’re fully present.

1) You’ll need: a clay bowl or abalone shell, a few leaves of your dried herb of choice (or a blend), a flame, and an open hand or feather.

2) Gently separate any stems or buds from the leaves of your dried herbs (only the leaves or blades are used in this process).  Then place the leaves into your smudging vessel – clay bowl or sea shell.

3) If you are inside, open the windows in the space you are in, creating a flow of air from outside.

4) Using a match or lighter, ignite the herbs and let them flame for 20 to 30 seconds before sweeping your hand above them to extinguish any fire. (I’ve been taught that using the breath to blow out the fire is not the proper way.)  Tendrils of smoke should be steadily rising from the smoldering herbs now.

5) It is customary to smudge oneself first before moving on to others and the surrounding space.Using a cupped hand, draw the smoke around you.  Starting from the top, bring the smoke over and around your head, down your torso, all the way to your feet.  Make sure to pay attention to your breathing while doing this.  Slow and relaxed.

6) Once you are finished with yourself, use your feather or hand to waft the smoke gently into the corners of the room and over any plants or pieces of furniture.  My friend Santiago once advised that we need to be present with the smoke and watch carefully how it behaves and flows around specific people and objects. When we are fully aware, we’ll notice that it moves differently as it touches certain things. There is information there.

7) Once you have finished smudging, tradition tells us that the ashes of the spent herb should be brought outside and returned to the soil.  Call it superstition if you’d like, but many tribes believe that the charred residue carries its own energy and must be given back to the earth.

A Native Prayer you may want to use while smudging:

Creator, Great Mystery
Source of all knowing and comfort,
Cleanse this space of all negativity.
Open our pathways to peace and understanding.
Love and light fills each of us and our sacred space.
Our work here shall be beautiful and meaningful.
Banish all energies that would mean us harm.
Our eternal gratitude.

– The Medicine Wheel Garden, E. Barrie Kavasch

I find smudging to be a powerful way to clear stagnant energies and bring a renewed sense of wellness into my living and work space.  Next week, my wife, son, and I will be creating a special smudge stick from some local sweet grass and sage that grows in our backyard.  Another wonderful way to connect with the earth magic that surrounds us!

Stay curious,

Nick Polizzi
Director, The Sacred Science



Here is a writing worth repeating and remembering if you find someone to help with your healing, but then don’t like what you hear. This happens a lot and anger erupts. But later, you often use their medicine and realize the anger was with self. –Jim Graywolf Petruzzi
and you find a real one
do not expect him to entertain you
with magical passes
His art is to provoke your demons;
Those that you well guards, justify,
deny and attribute to “another” …
If you go looking for a shaman, prepare yourself
for an undressing with his words,
know that he will anger you with his silence
Be alert when he exasperates you
with his brutal honesty.
Go prepared for battle …
the worst Battle: the battle with yourself.
“Whoever has magic does not need tricks”.
–Author unknown

LOOKING FOR A SHAMANTruth.. It is the choice we make when we continue to live in shadow, by feeding the dark wolf! Many will tell us just what we want to hear.. But, she or he who is guided by spirit as a hollow bone .. MAY just share with us; Truth.. which we may or may not be prepared to hear!

As the elder often speaks in parable, one is left with only hints as to which direction to journey, I have learned that it is often wrong to lead one off of her or his chosen path as that is the lesson they have chosen to learn at that stage of their life.. It would be a robbery of sorts! A’ho –Spiritual Warrior; Wise OwL Medicine


by Alberto Villoldo

Alberto VilloldoIn many cultures around the world, the Spiritual Seeker is celibate – and that’s a wonderful way of avoiding the complexity and complications of relationships.

The shaman understands that we are attracted to those people that we have to learn with and learn through. Most of our early relationships are deeply karmic. We are looking for that person who can help us heal our wounds, who can help us find ourselves. And, of course, we can never do that through the Other. The Other only serves as a mirror for what it is that we need to heal.

A friend of mine who is getting divorced recently told me: “I miss the woman that I married, but I don’t miss at all the woman I’m divorcing.” And that’s because she became such a clear mirror for him of what he needed to do to heal himself. I told him, “You have to stop looking for the right partner, and instead work on becoming the right partner.”

When we understand that marriage is the arena where we can go to meet Spirit face-to-face, and when we practice deep gratitude for all of those difficult lessons that our partner is offering us, then we can truly evolve our relationship. But if we insist on making the Other wrong, then we are only going to dig ourselves deeper into our hole. Our task is not to look for someone who is going to be more like us, but to find the person that we can commit to a healing journey with.

When you think you have found that person, go through a courtship process like the one I did with my wife, Marcela. Examine the seven chakras on the body and make a commitment at the level of each chakra.

At the first chakra: How are you going to help each other with your survival needs, your basic identity needs, and are you going to commit to each other in meeting your most fundamental needs? This is where you will learn if you have the foundation to keep building. Do you feel safe? Can you disclose yourself, who you really are, and not who you want others to see you as? Can you trust this person to not hurt you if you show your soft underbelly? This is what it’s all about, and you have to be willing to reveal yourself, and to talk about it – which can be scary and painful.

At the second chakra: How are you going to embrace the Other for who he/she is – and all the gifts, blessings and curses? Are you willing to receive them and embrace them and commit to help the Other discover the fullness of their being?

At the third chakra: How can you acknowledge, respect and contribute to each other’s power and expression in the world without feeling threatened by it?

At the fourth chakra, the heart: How can you dedicate yourselves to practicing unconditional love – and by that I mean love that is not conditioned by our upbringing, by mommy and daddy. Unconditioned love is based on honoring the Other.

At the fifth chakra: How can you respect each other’s voice? Can you make a commitment to hear the Other deeply, to be a good listener, to be a careful witness to your partner and invite their voice to be developed to its fullest, versus a hidden whisper for fear of offending.

At the sixth chakra: How can you support each other’s vision of your journey in the world?

At the seventh chakra: How can you have a joint spiritual practice?

You must go through the seven levels of deep commitment that are required for a fulfilling relationship, because if you have only six – say that at your second chakra, your sense of self, you don’t feel you are being received or respected by your partner – it’s not going to work. If you do the work at each of these levels, then you can grow the kind of relationship that can thrive, even in the most challenging of times.

Many of us start out hoping we have found the most perfect partner out there … and that lasts for about two weeks (or if you really stretch it, maybe two months). But we can become the right partner by going through this series of initiations.