Re-Opening the Doors: Evaluating Cannabis, Perception and Self by "Oliver Smyth"
A 21-year old graduate from the UK who enjoys the broadening aspects of cannabis on perception discusses an altered world view and the ability of cannabis to reveal new beauty and artistic appreciation.
Encouraged by the articles by Dr. Grinspoon, I wanted to share my experience of marijuana use, especially in relation to music and film. I feel that the notion of enhancement is particularly important when understanding marijuana use, and is crucial to undermining the misrepresentation of cannabis users created through media stereotyping and the myopic discourse utilised by anti-drugs campaigners. I want to touch on these misconceptions, and how they create and perpetuate a negative image of an ostensibly positive enhancer. Although I will mostly use music and film as examples of how the power of cannabis can be harnessed towards beatific ends, it should be viewed as a holistic state of mind that may be directed at any form of conscious appreciation. Crucial to this appreciation is understanding and directing the effects of the ‘drug’. I maintain that instead of trying to analyse its effects in a specifically rational, and ‘straight’ mindset, as Dr Grinspoon refers to it, the altered state of reality should be embraced and explored, directed toward new avenues of comprehension.
Being stoned exposes the conflict between conscious and unconscious perceptions of self and world, and may well expose conflict never before encountered. For me, this began with complete re-evaluations of situations I had been in, things I had said, and how their context and meaning seemed so different to the ‘straight’ situation in which they occurred. At first, I merely thought it was a warped sense of reality induced by this altered state of mind, but then it struck me: why must we consider our ‘straight’ perceptions the rule? They could certainly be described as ‘the norm’, for it is what we experience most in our everyday lives; save the individuals who use substances to escape it on a regular basis. But just because it is normal, it does not make it right. I despise the way that normality is inextricably linked with positive moral connotations when morality- for me anyway – is a conditional and arbitrary construct. This is something that is likely to conflict with religious individuals who would no doubt argue that morality is non-negotiable, but I urge these people to briefly put aside these fixed and divine orders and just consider morality in a situational and non-determinist light. I do not wish to dwell on this issue too much, as it is a philosophical topic without objective answer, only subjective suggestion; but I think once we can learn to eschew the conditioned and often restrictive perceptions of normal/abnormal, right/wrong, we may well be on our way to better understand and appreciate different realities.
It was only when I realised that the seemingly altered accounts of my events were not necessarily distorted by-products of cannabis ingestion, but an entirely new and equally informative evaluation from a different perspective. It almost seemed as if my unconscious had always monitored and assessed events as they happened, but its thoughts were repressed by the action of supposedly ‘higher order’, rational cortical function. Our conscious mind is so good at distorting reality to suit our needs, it seems that a positive spin may be put on situations unduly, at least from an outsider’s perspective anyway. It is easier to live in self-denial by evoking an elaborate coping mechanism than it is to face a possibly different experience. We may apply a certain judgement to someone else in a given situation, but a different one for ourselves in exactly the same position. Somehow the brain usually finds a way of rising above, distorting.
In some cases I have found re-evaluation of experiences to be ego-dystonic, but I believe this is only because of the honesty of the unconscious. Being high somehow prevents the circumventing mechanisms of the conscious mind, and reveals an altogether different view of self. In many cases, this may at first be disturbing, but I feel this unease may simply be the result of a much clearer and unshrouded introspection, perhaps what some may describe as paranoia. But I think for this kind of experience, paranoia may be the wrong word. If this altered state of mind were to be maintained for an extended or even indefinite period of time, we would alter our behaviour around it, aiming at some end goal we feel content with: contentment within our own skin. I would wager that a drug to restore the previously ‘normal’ reality may well invoke similar feelings, leading once again to altered behaviour. Huxley realised the nature of these different realities which were so eloquently espoused in his masterpiece, The Doors of Perception. He argued that the beauty and scope of the world is so overwhelming, we have evolved filters or coping mechanisms in order to survive and function; this prevents us from being totally engrossed by the intricacies of a dancing shadow, or the perfection of form found in a single rose.
I believe that our self-deception may be facilitated through similar filters, filters that may be removed by cannabis, leading to enlightenment, rather than temporary paranoia. I think once we are ready to accept ourselves, to unite the revelations of our unconscious with ‘straight’ conscious functioning, we are really ready to embrace the power and utility of cannabis use. By understanding that our idiosyncratic way of processing and dealing with the world ‘normally’ may merely be an increment on a vast scale, it prepares us to understand and empathise with those who may ‘normally’ be operating on a different plane. The way I experience taste when high may be similar to an individual without the use of any mind altering substance. We take for granted our natural faculties because we are so used to them. Whilst we may realise that people have different tastes and different views, we naïvely assume that everyone must experience life in a similar but perhaps quantitatively different way, when it may be something so qualitatively different, that it is beyond the realm of our ‘straight’ consciousness’ comprehension. This is why the arts are such a wealth of information when trying to grasp qualitatively different forms of experience. Stepping out of normality leads to rebirth: ideas, sounds, textures and relations become transformed.
My own experience of music provides one example of this transformation, something that leads to great beauty and insight. The way I appreciate music becomes so enhanced, each song takes on such a definable character, the sounds convey emotions so competently, or sentiments that may only be experienced and not described. One becomes aware of every nuance, and the passage of a song becomes more open and enveloping, and somehow more directed; as if every note and construction points toward some end; a totality that engulfs the entire song and gives it character. I find it so much easier to empathise with the artist, everything somehow feels so much more intense, everything means so much more. Subtleties of production become far clearer as every instrument’s timbre is emphasised, coated with the character and taste of the producer. It’s almost like participating in a performance of some grand sonic narrative. Different sounds interact with each other to create a structure which seems much more cohesive, a structure that my ‘straight’ consciousness can detect, but not nearly to the same degree. If I were forced to distill such a complex experience into a single word, essence may perhaps be the most pertinent. Cannabis ingestion appears to reveal the essential nature of a track or an album, yielding an implicit or tacit understanding of the artist’s goal or perspective.
The same exploration of essence can be applied not only to music but to film. It becomes easier to discern the skill of an actor, the strength of dialogue and their relations to the context and aims of the film. Cinematic nuances become enhanced, and it becomes easier to get absorbed in the art form, both critically and emotionally. The use of lighting, colour and sound becomes much more prominent in creating mood. In general I find it gives me a much more critical eye, but not in the same manner I would normally judge a film. Instead of higher cortical function dominating, I find a more primordial empathy comes to the fore; I feel more for the characters and their plights and my judgement is based on their ability to convey sincere and emotive expression. This is opposed to a more logical–and arguably conventional–approach I would normally undertake. This is not to say that empathy is lost on me under normal circumstances; it certainly is not, but in many instances, I may have a tendency to overanalyse– applying more brain than heart, so to speak.
Some argue that being high reduces the ability to concentrate, rendering the ‘afflicted’ individual little more than a giggling fool. It is fair to say that perhaps the impairment of short-term memory may lead to this conclusion, but I would argue that concentration is merely diverted: re-routed to new areas of focus. New aspects become intensified, perhaps at the expense of general awareness. But why should this matter? I watch a film or listen to music to become engrossed. This may sound escapist, but I believe this oversimplifies matters. I would prefer exploratory: we all appreciate (or at least I certainly do) a break from hectic schedules, a chance to reflect, to truly experience.
The tendency for us to enter ‘auto-pilot’ under normal circumstances is great; we become accustomed to our routines and style. This habituation often leads to de-sensitisation, and a concomitant exiguity of appreciation. By experiencing an altered reality, we notice change; juxtaposition is immediate and revelatory. New appreciation arises both from comparison, and from the novel new experience in and of itself. Not only does this offer insight when under the influence, but also when not, through the synthesis of thoughts when high with the rational mindset when sober. This is not to say that stoned perceptions are necessarily any better, nor do they offer a clearer guide to thought and action, merely a different one. There really isn’t one true guide, only a number of possible mechanisms through which we may define ourselves and the world around us.
Although I would be tempted to promote a sense of increased ‘purity’ when stoned, this would simply be subscribing to an ethos of biased subjectivity. What I do believe, however, is that, subjective predispositions aside, the experience is undoubtedly different – and it is this difference, this opportunity to literally re-view circumstance, that helps negate the dumbing effects of habituation and reduced sensitivity. For me, then, cannabis is one way for coping with existential mystery, and for offering a new path in a familiar world. If it leads me to fresh thought and new pleasure in things already familiar, this can only be a good thing. Cannabis yields no ultimate answers, but is certainly an outlet and tool for grappling with the curiosity roused by the questions.