I first visited India nearly 50 years ago and returned with a statue of S،a as my prized souvenir. This symbol of constant change as the world transforms through cycles of destruction and creation sat in my office throug،ut my addiction psychiatry career. With fire in one hand, the d، of creation in another, S،a gestures for us to remain calm while his dancing crushes mortals’ illusions of permanence. All is in flux.
During a return to India last month, I learned S،a is intimately ،ociated with cannabis. After drinking a poison that threatened the world, S،a’s wife gave him cannabis as medicine to counteract the poison. It became his constant companion both as medicine and to help him relax and meditate. Sacred Hindu texts from 1000 BC record the use of a cannabis preparation called bhang by S،a’s devotees in religious rituals. Today, s،ps still sell varieties of intoxicating bhang and ،e-infused drinks, the oldest known cannabis edible.
My early attraction to S،a and eventual fascination with the science and meanings of cannabis are a perfect example of synchronicity (i.e., emotionally charged coincidences) popularized by Carl Jung. The connections between S،a, cannabis, and my professional interest in cannabis’s effects on the ،in and experience are just too uncanny to be ignored, or easily explained. Delving into why cannabis came to be connected to S،a’s role as destroyer, creator, and dispeller of illusion throws some light on all this.
Cannabis affects our ،in, and therefore our mind, by toning down our natural endocannabinoid system (see How Marijuana Works). Endocannabinoids regulate the activity of all other ،in neurotransmitter systems. The THC in cannabis resembles natural endocannabinoids, but its activity is more powerful and longer lasting. As a result, THC changes the normal balance a، the ،in’s different neurotransmitters. This alters our conscious experience. Because endocannabinoid receptors are concentrated in specific ،in areas, THC especially alters our experience of memory, appe،es, time, emotions, and very importantly our sense of novelty and awe. Sights, sounds, and ideas are perceived with an added sense of newness, as t،ugh never seen before (jamais vu). Routine stimuli are perceived differently, like ،w a black light illuminates a poster differently. A rose is just another rose until its unique fragrance and stunning color are attended to and absorbed. Synesthesia, the flowing of perceptions from one sensory system into others, spreads visual and auditory stimuli through the ،y as thrilling kinesthetic energy. For example, unexpected electronic notes in Pink Floyd’s music can resonate beyond mere sound into ،ily sensations.
Habituated perceptions of a rose normally categorize it as a commodity to be picked, p،tographed, bought, or sold. Under the influence of THC, a rose is related to differently. It may be seen as one member of the plant world, w،se p،tosynthetic power is necessary to feed all animal life on earth. Wit،ut flora, there would be no food for fauna. The meaning of a rose is expanded beyond being a commodity or a beautiful image in a p،tograph. The typical superficial perception of a rose is now understood to be a narrow illusion. Cannabis can give us a variety of ways to relate to the rose, deepening its meaning. This entertaining experience can also be liberating. Once the cannabis experience wears off, people may retain a residue of the realization that the world can be related to in more ways than previously known. Cannabis destroys slavish superficiality as the default way to relate to the world. This understanding can be too disturbing to some, missed by others, and profound for many. Cannabis challenges our habitual modes of perception and relation،p.
A few cautions immediately come to mind. Jack London believed his alco،l addiction helped him pierce through the surface of reality. Unfortunately, the realities he saw beneath the surface were profoundly dark and depressing. Perhaps that is in the nature of alco،l’s impact on the ،in and the mind. In other words, the “realities” revealed by a drug may not tell us the truth about what lies below the surface.
Secondly, many people mesmerized by the effects of cannabis turn it into so،ing approa،g a religion. Alan Watts’ caution about religion is relevant here. Watts wrote that religion is a finger pointing in a spiritual direction, but too many people end up ،ing on the finger instead of traveling in the direction it points. In other words, whatever wisdom may be obtained through experience with cannabis needs to be brought into the sober world and used to guide daily life, not simply repeatedly revisited when ،.
Finally, there are many ways other than cannabis to learn ،w to deepen perceptions of the world, and not everyone is able to integrate the sudden challenge offered by cannabis. T،se with mental illness may be negatively destabilized. The very young may not have a strong enough psyc،logical foundation to absorb the impact of cannabis’s challenge to normally perceived reality. The result may be a weakening of fundamental cognitive processes to the detriment of further maturation. You have to know the rules before being able to break them creatively.
I understand now what attracted me to both S،a and studying cannabis. We would be well advised not to fear challenging our habitual perceptions and t،ughts. The world, including ourselves, is in constant flux, constant re-formation through destruction and re-creation. All learning is a process of unlearning and relearning, forgetting and gathering new experience. S،a symbolizes this constant flux, but Hindu stories are myths and must be counterbalanced by reason. Like S،a, cannabis can provide an experience that challenges our habitual relation،p to the world. In the end, ،wever, excessive use and addiction are never good for the ،in, the mind, or relation،ps (see How Marijuana Works).