Cannabis as a Philosophic Sacrament by David
“David” is a pseudonym. The 40-year-old author is a philosophy professor at a distinguished liberal arts college. His ritualized use involves refection and solitude, note-taking during periods of intensified pleasure in thinking, and the awareness of the interaction between his disciplined “Apollonian” daily work and his liberated “Dionysian” hours. In this reflection on moderate use by a professional, we follow him into the rebirth of wonder.
Reading what others have had to say about cannabis has reassured me that despite the absurd lengths to which our society has gone to tell us otherwise, cannabis can be a positive force in human lives. Yet even well-meaning folks who wouldn’t mind seeing it legalized often view cannabis as a more or less harmless means of inducing temporary silliness and stupidity in its users. Hardly the stuff of sacrament! In what follows I don’t mean to deny (since I myself enjoy) the purely recreational virtues of drugs like cannabis and alcohol. Yet it may be a more useful contribution to the larger conversation about the uses of cannabis if I say something about how cannabis contributes to what I regard as some of my better hours.
I am a forty-year-old man who teaches philosophy at a distinguished liberal arts college on the East coast. Besides being a devoted reader and writer, I am happily married and enjoy the company of a circle of family and friends. An athlete in college, I remain fit, running and practicing yoga regularly.
The first time I got high was in college (after a chemistry final, fittingly enough). I immediately liked it more than alcohol. During college, I smoked cannabis occasionally, sometimes going months without it. It wasn’t until graduate school that getting high grew into a habit or, as I prefer, ritual. I usually get high by myself, except on those occasions when my wife and I smoke a little before bed. Getting high is solitary both from inclination and circumstance. At the present time, there is to my knowledge no one in my immediate circle who uses cannabis. “To my knowledge” being the crucial phrase. For of course I have colleagues and neighbors who use cannabis; but the community in which I live and work is conservative, and the drug of choice is alcohol. I suppose if I were eager to have friends to get high with, I would find them. But as it happens I prefer the solitude and have long associated the ritual of getting high with the sweetest moments of solitary reflection. I find that other people tend to divert my attention from what I most enjoy about cannabis – the enthusiasm of the senses it sparks, and the related intensification of my pleasure in thinking. That said, I have two far-flung friends whose disposition towards the drug is much like mine, and I relish those rare occasions when we get high together.
During the past couple years I find myself using cannabis more regularly than ever before, about two days a week or so. Some weeks not at all, either because we’re traveling or because my work is so pressing that I do not make time for it. Going for weeks without getting high is usually a sign that I am overly busy and stressed.
I called using cannabis a ritual for me. It goes like this. During the academic year, I leave my Wednesday evenings free from all obligations. I work in my study until 4:30 or 5pm. (My work on these afternoons often goes very well, driven perhaps by the pleasure of anticipation and by the knowledge that, unlike many other days, I will not be working late into the evening.) When I’ve finished my work, I prepare some cannabis for my Tulip vaporizer, sit back in my reading chair by the window, and await the reliable lifting of fatigue and the rebirth of wonder.
Dogs are tuned profoundly to ritual (especially rituals that involve their happiness!), and my dog associates the scent of cannabis with long, leisurely walks. He stands, stretches, comes over to me, bright-eyed and wagging his tail. Soon I get up, gather a small notebook and pen that I keep handy by the door, and then we set off outdoors. I won’t say much here about the experience of the outer world when I’m high – plenty has been said by others more poetic than myself. I’ll simply corroborate that I find the objects of my senses more vivid and striking and generally pleasing than when I’m straight. Why? It feels as though my mood has shifted and released the psychic energy necessary to pay proper attention to my surroundings.
Since I spend most of my waking hours engaged in reading, conversation, study, and writing, I have always been grateful for this power of cannabis to bring me back to my senses. Walking outdoors, I feel the day’s accumulated trivia and obsessions begin to disperse, and with them the wearisome self-absorption that in my own case seems an inescapable part of caring for my works (“works” understood in the broadest sense, to include all those matters to which one devotes sustained energy). This turn from interior to exterior is invariably revitalizing. It relieves me from my cares and heightens my enthusiasm for what the senses are revealing, and this in turn lifts my spirits. And for what it’s worth, it is a fact attested by neuroscience (one may always rely on scientists to point out the obvious!) that we think better and more energetically when we feel good.
Aristotle observed that philosophy has its origins in wonder, and the single greatest gift of cannabis is reliable occasions for wondering anew about what is before me: a magnificent tree or the aging clouded eyes of my beloved dog; a book I’m reading or an idea I’m meditating on; a fugue of Bach’s or the melody and rhythm of a song I’m singing; the conversation of my wife as she speaks her mind or the feel of her body as we make love. Being high is not the only time I appreciate such things, but what’s powerful about this drug is that it reliably produces a shift in consciousness that heightens my wonder and enthusiasm. (Inclined as I am to melancholy, I’ve often wondered exactly how this bears on my responsiveness to cannabis. If I took antidepressants, would the shift I describe be so pronounced?)
But while philosophy begins in wonder, it naturally leads to investigation and finally to knowledge of that thing that got us thinking in the first place. For me this means that a thoughtful life requires many sober, disciplined Apollonian hours for every Dionysian hour liberated through cannabis.
Back to the ritual. Since my deepest passion is thinking about and writing philosophy, this naturally tends to be the focus of the time I spend high. By the time I return from our walk I usually have a few pages of scribbled notes – more or less important and incisive ideas, either about what I observed on the walk or about some topic I’m meditating on in my work, reading, or personal life. I make no effort to think about anything in particular while I’m out walking. The pen and paper is merely a net for catching those flighty thoughts, should they occur to me. It matters enormously to the liberating quality of the ritual that I have no agenda and no expectations. In this respect, my mood is receptive rather than active. Usually I return again to my study and use a little more herb. Not too much, though. I distinguish a moderate “high” from being intensely “stoned.” Ordinarily I prefer being high, since I find myself more able to enjoy thinking; but if I have chosen to spend the time being in my body primarily – for example, having sex – being stoned can be wonderful.
Then I usually sit down at my desk to work out at greater length, in writing, the thoughts I had jotted down. (Or, if the day finds me over-tired, I may find myself listening to music and practicing yoga instead; after all, the ritual is not meant to extend my work day but to be a counterpoint to it!) Needless to say, during the enchanting hour or two that pass many more thoughts come rushing in, each called forth by the last. These hours spent reflecting are the best and most satisfying ones I spend high. They never feel like work, though afterwards I feel pleasantly exhausted. For the record, I find that if I use cannabis later in the evening I often feel a little dull in the morning, whereas I recover completely if I leave off by 7pm or so. I am a light sleeper, and since cannabis stimulates my mind, it can interfere with the quality of my sleep. Whence the dullness.
Let me say a bit more about the character of contemplation that being high encourages in my own case. As I said, I do not set agendas for whether, much less what, I’ll contemplate; that is the nature of morning, or Apollonian, work. Instead I give my mind over to free play. Liberated, it makes many associations I am unlikely to have considered. In the morning light, some turn out to be more trivial than they appeared while high, while others turn out to be very suggestive and helpful indeed. My well-trained, sober mind possesses many habits and views that lead it away from apparently implausible paths and connections. While high, those habits of mind and viewpoints are set aside: My grip eased, I find myself entertaining a subject from a fresh perspective, one that often sets it off in bold relief, facilitating comparison with the tissue of thoughts surrounding it. Or I find myself making a connection I hadn’t noticed before. These thoughts seem encouraged in part by what the abbreviation of memory makes possible: a kind of imaginative clearing in which what is familiar becomes fresh and original once more, because it has been temporarily isolated from all the habitual thoughts my memory ordinarily connects to it. That these musings often yield substantial insights is beyond doubt, seconded as they are by that Apollonian self who patiently reviews and edits (and, yes, occasionally winces at the sometimes childish enthusiasms I’ve recorded) the prior evening’s reflections. By the way, subjecting one’s musings to that discriminating morning light does help keep one honest about their actual quality and worth. This is the more important, given how easy it is to imagine when we’re high that the pleasure a thought gives is a measure of its substance!
In general, two points stand out about the effects of cannabis. First, getting high excites my senses and my brain and thereby kindles my pleasure in thinking through whatever comes to mind. Even when I imagine I’m too dull and careworn by the day’s events to entertain a single thought, it usually happens that after I’m high I find myself enchanted and engaged with a swarm of them. This transformation strikes me as little short of miraculous, until I remember that it costs me something, that it cannot be sustained day after day. On those occasions when I use cannabis two or three days in a row, I find it less likely that my mind is concentrated to good effect, both while I’m high and when I’m straight. Being high is still pleasant, but my mind feels a little ragged and diffuse. Discovering this has limited how often I use cannabis.
The second point has to do with cannabis’ effect on my mind’s operations. In brief, ideas tend to have more texture: their differences and hierarchical relations to one another grow clearer to me. I see how completely unprofitable is a line of thought I’ve been pursuing so studiously; or I see that an idea I had thought was peripheral actually belongs closer to the center of my thoughts. So much of thinking well rests on the ability to see which questions are worth asking, and to distinguish essential thoughts from accidental ones, crucial insights from trivial ones. Cannabis can be enormously helpful in these efforts. In my own experience, the very sophistications of Apollonian thinking – achieved through the desire for great learning and perfect lucidity and ruthless self-criticism – can make it harder to see these matters clearly. Professorial souls may have a hard time making the simplest observations clear and compelling, in part because that sophistication can lead us to qualify an insight to death by belaboring details, exceptions, doubts, and the like. We become obsessed with analysis and detail and forget to look up from time to time and take our bearings from the larger landscape, which is always where significance appears.
One further bit of speculation about how cannabis affects thinking. Synthetic thought – adding things up and seeing things whole – comes easily, but its counterpart, analysis, seems harder to engage. This may be because analysis, as the etymology of the word suggests, involves breaking things down into their parts, and this places a premium on memory. For it requires keeping an extensive body of knowledge actively in view in order to make the right distinctions and keep track of where one is in an analysis, or argument. Thus analysis calls on the very power that cannabis “compromises”, namely memory. On the other hand, this same compromise serves to heighten synthetic powers, insofar as the abbreviation of memory promotes the capacity to make connections we might not consider otherwise. So cannabis can aid insight, which is the quintessential achievement of synthetic thought; but it is less useful when straightforward analysis is wanted. We may have good thoughts about the fundamental theorem of the calculus when high, but we’re less likely to find ourselves digging into intricate proofs concerning it.
How pleasurable and uplifting these hours spent in solitary meditation! They are usually among the best moments of my week. And being a Protestant, I sometimes wonder if that’s not a problem. Wouldn’t it be better if such moments and hours were attained without drugs? In a qualified sense, my own answer to this question is, yes. But one qualification many cannabis users probably agree about is this: the frenetic pace of life and work in our culture argues against the very cast of mind cannabis can help invoke. So, until that day I leave it all behind – my rewarding but demanding work and my crowded schedule filled with the cares I’ve chosen for myself – until I escape to my Walden, I shall in all likelihood continue to enjoy cannabis as a welcome counterpoint to the cares of my workaday world. It may be a shortcut, and my limited experience with spiritual practices such as meditation leaves no doubt there are natural approaches to the same prospect. But for the time being I have made my peace with a busier life, which is to say a more communal and therefore more conventional life. Here cannabis is a sacrament I use periodically to fling off and rise above the world-weariness and tedium native to such a way of life, good as it is in other respects.
I think those who call cannabis harmless do it an injustice: anything that has so much power can be harmful. For myself, I question whether the greatest harm my use of cannabis might do is diminish my power to enjoy the world when I’m straight. Many afternoon walks with my dog feel terrifically dull; the contrast when I’m high is so striking that of course I’m tempted to get high more often. Why not maximize my power of enjoyment? But as I said earlier, I find that getting high too often diminishes the excellence of the high, and this suggests that the pleasure of being high depends in part on the contrast with being straight. After all, if I got high all the time, against what would I measure those heights? So, in answer to my own question, it may be that by getting high regularly I do somewhat diminish my capacity for joy when I’m straight; but in return I enjoy regular and greater high points in my life than I would otherwise.
Besides, there are many things I can only do well when straight: Write essays and lectures, converse with colleagues, friends and students, follow another thinker’s intricate argument, commit new things to memory, go on a long run, to name a few. So I live for both the Apollonian and Dionysian moments, and I try to be vigilant that the desire to be high doesn’t interfere with these other goods in my life. Since I think of cannabis as a powerful sacrament in my life, I work to preserve its place and not profane it by making it too common.
Now it may be that all this talk of “work” merely rationalizes my Protestant worries about being seduced into an idle, muddled life. Yet I can see how the virtues of cannabis I’ve described have a downside if used too often. I might become impatient with the humbler discipline of those less ecstatic morning hours in which I labor towards understanding things. Instead of engaging in that careful discursive work, I occasionally imagine leaping over it and enjoying being in the know all the time. But I like the Apollonian hours so well as not to be tempted to “wake and bake.” The likelier and more insidious prospect is diluting my mornings by indulging too often at other times. I worry when any of my actions (including novel reading and late nights talking with friends) intrude on my ability to engage energetically and lucidly in morning work, whatever that work may be.
After a morning spent writing this, I got high and, while out walking, had the following thoughts: Since I don’t much like moralizing talk from others, why say anything at all about the dangers cannabis might pose? God knows the public square is full of righteous people speaking to that point. Why not just describe my own experience and leave it at that? Of course, I thought, we do need serious reflections from people who actually know something about cannabis, who use it and like it! Then Aristotle came to mind again, in particular his definition of human flourishing as the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. And I saw that it is because I agree so profoundly with his conception of the good human life as an active one that I find myself returning to Apollonian virtues in an essay on Dionysian ones. Ever since we were thrown out of Eden, thinking and acting well have been fragile goods achieved only through serious effort: unlike our metabolism, a good life doesn’t just happen for us. This reminded me of Tarantino’s film “Jackie Brown,” in which Samuel L. Jackson’s character tells his girlfriend that if she doesn’t stop smoking so much pot it will rob her of her ambition. Her reply: Not if my ambition is to get high and watch TV. Admittedly, watching TV is an activity that just happens, but it’s hardly the stuff of our best hours.
For those who have the head for it (and many do not), I think cannabis can contribute to flourishing. But it may also dim our prospects if used in such a way as to make us less capable of thinking and acting well.