About one in four deaths from cancer occur from lung cancer, which often manifests as a result of smoking cigarettes. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2015 about 15% of US citizens considered themselves cigarette smokers. The same report showed that nearly half a million people died each year in the United States as a result of cigarette smoking.
These are startling statistics, especially considering that cigarettes are considered highly addictive, both physically and psychologically. They’re used as punctuation marks throughout the day: wake up — have a smoke, finish a meal — have a smoke, break time — have a smoke. They’re also used as a stress management tool, a quick way to decompress from work, interpersonal issues, or even the strain of boredom.
Long before we had Marlboro and Camel, tobacco was seen as a sacred herb. The indigenous people of the Americas used tobacco as a way to commune with Spirit, to set intentions, and to pray. Commercial tobacco processing has completely divorced the act of smoking from these sacred intents, and turned it into a habit that kills and injures thousands of people every year.
Tobacco as a sacred herb
“It’s not an item that we smoke at our leisure. It’s a blessing from the Creator. He gave us this tobacco to use in our ceremonies, to ask Him for guidance.” ~ Wilfrid Cleveland, President of Ho-Chunk Nation
Most, (if not all), indigenous tribes approach life using the sacred wheel, which is oriented toward the four directions. Briefly, the East is the direction of the spirit, the South is the direction of the emotions, the West is the direction of the body, and the North is the direction of the mind. (You can find other interpretations of the directions based on different traditions.) Tobacco is considered the sacred herb of the East.
For many of the indigenous tribes of the Americas, tobacco is considered the first medicine gifted to man by Great Spirit. In traditional practices, tobacco is used as a way to transmit prayers and intentions to God, as its roots deeply penetrate the ground, while its smoke rises to the heavens.
Approaching tobacco in a mindful way
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zin
The first step to transforming an unhealthy relationship with tobacco is to become more mindful of your tobacco use. It’s so easy to buy a pack and light up without even thinking about it. Many times, I’d find myself chain-smoking, totally unaware of what I was doing until my pack started feeling suspiciously light.
The best way I’ve found to increase my mindfulness when it comes to smoking is to roll my own tobaccos. Every time I go to have a smoke, I have to take the time to feel every step in the process. I smooth out my rolling paper, set my filter to one side, pinch off a bit of tobacco, then carefully craft these ingredients into a tobacco.
Smoking this way has a few sweet side benefits, as well. It’s easier to find additive free rolling tobacco than additive free cigarettes. You can include additional ingredients like mint, lavender, or various herbs that actually combat lung inflammation, like mullein. Plus, it’s generally cheaper than tailored cigarettes.
Approaching tobacco in a sacred way
“Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you… Who among all these does not know that the Hand of the Lord has done this?” ~ Job 12:8-9
I lived for a time in a community in Peru which focuses on studying sacred plants, and creating community leaders based on a vision of life originating from the Sacred Wheel. In this community, tobacco is approached with reverence, and the process of smoking a tobacco (to differentiate it from a manufactured cigarette) is much more involved than just lighting up.
Since tobacco is used to send prayers to Great Spirit, the first step is to pray.
I sit quietly with my tobacco, and first concentrate on making a connection with the spirit of the tobacco. This is a subtle step, that develops over time, which can be started by simply placing your attention on the energy of the tobacco. Then, I offer a short prayer, often one of gratitude and affirmation. For example: Great Spirit, thank for the opportunity to exist in this present, perfect moment.
I will then offer my tobacco to the seven directions — East, South, West, North, Above, Below, and Center — as well as to the unending spiral of life. At which point I light my tobacco.
While I’m smoking, I use only my first or second finger and my thumb to hold it, as a way to acknowledge Great Spirit (the thumb), the Divinity in us all (my finger), and the unbroken bond between the two (the circle my thumb and finger make). When I’m finished smoking, I offer a brief prayer of thanks before extinguishing the ember.
In this way, every tobacco becomes an opportunity for prayer.
Redefining your relationship
“The more I contemplate God, the more God looks on me. The more I pray to him, the more he thinks of me too.” Bernard of Clairvaux
For years I smoked cigarettes without developing a healthy relationship with Grandfather Tobacco. Once I was introduced to Him, the transition away from my previous habits took some time, and is still developing. I won’t say I have a completely healthy relationship now, but it has improved drastically. I say this to emphasize the point that any transitioning of a relationship will take time, and effort.
If you’re motivated to cultivate a deeper and more nourishing relationship with tobacco, begin with a prayer. It doesn’t have to be as involved as I described above, but can be as simple as “I acknowledge and thank you.” Then, build from there.
The use of tobacco can be a beautiful addition to any spiritual practice, or it can be a powerful poison that leads to sickness and disease. As with all things in life, so much of its power lies in how we approach it.