Cannabis and Meditation: Will It Help or Harm Your Practice?
The combination of cannabis and meditation is not a new trend. There is a long history of cannabis being used for meditation, spiritual rituals, and healing going back thousands of years.
In some Hindu sects in India and Nepal, holy men consume cannabis to aid in meditation and many lay people consume it for holidays and rituals. It is even believed to be used by the Hindu god Shiva, who some say gifted the plant to humans on earth. Cannabis use was also an important aspect of practice for some Tantric Buddhists in Tibet and the greater Himalyan region, who used cannabis as part of meditative rituals to both facilitate meditation and heighten awareness of all aspects of their ceremonies.
Today this tradition continues, and has spread to other areas. In the contemporary western world, both meditation and cannabis have become popular and there are a host of retreats, books, services and teachers aimed at using cannabis to help augment the meditative process.
Still, there is controversy as to whether cannabis is helpful or harmful when it comes to meditation.
Some champion the combination, pointing to the history of its use for meditation and saying that cannabis makes them more mindful, calm, and aware. Some even credit cannabis with opening their eyes to meditation practice and making the meditative journey possible.
Others discourage using cannabis for meditation saying that it takes away your ability to focus, scatters your mind, and dissociates you from your real experience. They also worry that using cannabis regularly for meditation may leave you dependent on an illusion of relaxation and calm created by cannabis — rather than help you build resilience to the reality of the world.
So does marijuana help or harm a meditation practice? The question remains extremely controversial in the meditation community, but perhaps the best answer is that it can do both — and may be beneficial for some and not for others. As we’ll see, this is actually what our best science predicts.
How cannabis can aid meditation
Meditation and mindfulness practices are undertaken for so many different reasons and in today’s world, many use meditation to improve their health and reduce stress. In fact, the science shows that meditation can be a big help in this regard, reducing pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia and boosting the immune system.
But for some, meditation can be hard to start. In some cases, meditation can cause them to relive trauma or have intense panic attacks — but this is usually not the case. For those who have a hard time meditating, cannabis may be particularly helpful. Many cannabis users, this author included, report anecdotally that cannabis helps to put them into a more mindful headspace — relaxing and calming their anxious response to meditation and allowing them to sink into the practice. While the simple act of being with their mind was just too much without the plant, with it they are able to get in better touch with their inner world in a way that feels manageable.
This makes sense with the science because cannabis is able to reduce stress reactions, lessening both a subjective sense of anxiety and its chemical markers like cortisol. For those who find meditation extremely stressful or retraumatizing, this can help bridge the gap, easing them into meditation until they are comfortable with the practice on its own.
Cannabis may also help people with chronic pain to meditate. Because cannabis can lessen chronic pain, it can help take away a big distraction to practice and make sitting for long periods more comfortable. While some meditation is aimed at getting in touch with our pain, others are not, and it can help those in chronic pain to be able to focus on other aspects of experience as well.
Others report cannabis expands their awareness and makes them more mindful as they meditate or simply go through their day. Some say it makes them more aware that things are not as they are, and have an illusory nature. Still others say it helps them to be more kind and compassionate to themselves and others. Or, some find that improves creativity or insight during meditation.
These are all reasons why people use cannabis for meditation. But it may not work well for everyone.
How Cannabis can hurt meditation
On the other side of this conversation we have those who say cannabis should be avoided in meditation. Often, this comes from past cannabis users who report that cannabis made their meditation experience more difficult, scattering the mind, reducing focus, and negatively impacting emotional balance.
Or on the other hand, some say that cannabis felt so good that they were using it to dissociate from their real experience. That might create a cloud of illusion that everything was fine, instead of letting them do the hard work of being with things as they really are — the work that is said to bring about enlightenment.
These experiences also align with today’s scientific knowledge. Cannabis is known for its ability to both induce euphoric sensations and sometimes to cause problems with focus, memory and mood.
Why cannabis meditation experiences differ
The diverse opinions about cannabis and meditation make sense considering that marijuana affects different people very differently. Cannabis interacts with our bodies’ endocannabinoid system, which regulates aspects of our experience like mood, pain, energy, focus and memory. When that system is balanced and functioning well, adding cannabis to the equation can cause imbalances which may lead to effects like increased anxiety and depression, lack of focus, or excessive euphoria.
But many have deficiencies in this system, which might be responsible for problems like increased anxiety, depression, pain, or focusing issues. For those who already have these imbalances, adding cannabis can sometimes help — reducing these issues and leaving them feeling “normal.” In fact, research shows those who use cannabis medicinally tend to have improved cognitive skills while using cannabis.
So it’s likely, given cannabis’ diverse effects, that marijuana can help some with meditation — particularly those with conditions that cause added stress, depression, pain, or focusing issues.
But for others, particularly those who are healthy and find meditation manageable on its own, cannabis could cause problems. Thus, those using cannabis for meditation should do so mindfully — noticing it how it impacts their personal meditative experience and avoiding use if it causes problems like dissociating, losing focus, or getting distracted by the euphoria.
Most importantly, remember that your experiences with cannabis and meditation are your own, and we know there are many different ways cannabis impacts people. The way cannabis impacts your meditation might not be how it impacts meditation for the person sitting next to you, so listen to your own wisdom and do what is right for you.
This reinforces our understanding that experience with cannabis is very individual and based on a variety of factors, including the person taking it, strain, concentration, and a host of other factors.Some champion the combination, saying it makes them more mindful. Others say it dissociates you from your real experience.
This Is What Happens When You Combine Weed and Meditation
I’m a cannabis nurse—a registered nurse who specializes in medical marijuana—and I serve as a patient educator at MarjuanaMommy.com. This makes me intimately familiar with the medical benefits of weed. I also meditate daily. And while I do use cannabis all day every day, I microdose, so I’m not usually high when I meditate. Still, I’m not afraid to partake a little more heavily if, for example, my pain levels (from a cervical spine injury I got years ago) are elevated. As we know, though, weed isn’t just used to alleviate pain—people love how present it makes them feel.
Science’s growing support of meditation as a coping/healing mechanism gives me the feeling that marijuana and mindfulness might just be a natural combination. Research has shown long-term meditators exhibit “changes in the brain, and positive effects on empathy, meta-cognitive skills and health.” Exactly how meditation produces these effects is not completely understood, but these benefits correlate with decreased activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN). Decreased activity in the DMN is suspected to signify a mind more at rest. While there isn’t any substantial research on weed relaxing your mind, there’s a strong belief that CBD—one of its two main components—can have a calming effect.
So my natural next step was to see if an increased dose of weed might also deepen my meditation.
Unfortunately, I live in New Jersey where prohibition still reigns and there are no ganja yoga classes (yet). So I decided to simply head to my next meditation class amply medicated. About an hour before class, I scarfed down a wickedly potent kief cookie, attempting to time the peak of my high with the beginning of a tibetan singing bowl sound bath meditation.
Stacey Mulvey, ganja yogi and founder of Marijuasana (a Las Vegas-based community of weed-positive yogis) tells me, “As cannabis users, we do enlightenment almost a little bit backwards in a way. Instead of getting there through years and years of dedicated practice of strict meditation, we’re kind of amping it up and [getting a] glimpse of that other side first…Then [we] learn how to ground that, and balance it, and center it, so we have a better understanding.”
High meditation may have a new-age vibe, but this practice actually has ancient roots. The Vedas—historical texts written in India around 1500 BC—name cannabis as one of the five sacred plants. Additionally, many legends describe Lord Shiva, a Hindu deity, as a passionate cannabis lover. Modern-day Nepal still holds a yearly spiritual festival with marijuana serving as a central feature of the holy celebration.
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Being able to access calm when you need it can be physically beneficial. “Mindfulness can be helpful for a variety of physical health issues, generally speaking, stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA Semel Institute’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. “Conditions that relate to inflammation can be positively affected such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc, and it’s also has been shown to boost the immune system and promote the healing response.” Cannabis has also been associated in very small initial studies with a decrease in blood pressure and an improvement in conditions related to inflammation. It’s reported to help as a muscle relaxant, with chronic pain and gastrointestinal issues.
On the other hand, THC can spur anxiety. This is exactly what happened when I walked into the studio and saw class more crowded than expected. Sweat dripped down the back of my neck as I began to wonder if I was the only attendant who was high. Were my eyes red? My tongue felt like the Sahara (tip: bring water). Surely the other meditators could tell? But no one seemed to notice or care. Then I remembered I was conducting important research: Getting high and meditating was my job for the day. After I got a water bottle, I relaxed and reconsidered bliss.
That night, I didn’t just hear those crystal bowls, my full body experienced them.
Mulvey thinks that when we meditate, do yoga, or exercise in general, we’re naturally supplementing our endocannabinoid system (a bunch of receptors in your brain and body that affect how you feel and behave). And this balancing can purportedly result in a feeling of bliss. Research supports this: A 2015 study suggests the euphoria of “runner’s high” is actually caused by the natural endocannabinoid, anandamide, as opposed to endorphins as previously accepted.
The strain you choose when you meditate steers your experience. Keep in mind that CBD is relaxing, but not intoxicating; the THC in weed is the part that gets you high—and for some, this is ideal. Others are more prepared to add THC: My kief cookie was filled with a high-THC blend of Nigerian Haze, which is marketed for for creative insight, and Death Star, for full-body relaxation. Whichever strain you choose, use cannabis responsibly and in moderation. You don’t want to be so inebriated that feet look funny. You also don’t want to wreck anyone’s bliss with a pre-Savasana panic attack. Cannabis newbies should always start small and work their way up to higher does gradually.
What I Learned from Teaching High Yoga
The Nigerian Haze heightened my senses, as it does for many others. With the lights dimmed, we began by sitting upright on our mats. The instructor coached us through a series of deep breathing, reminding us to fill our lungs and exhale fully. She encouraged us to let go and allow the tension to melt out of our muscles.
Soon we relaxed on our mats, and our guide circled the room anointing the forehead of each participant with a blend of aromatherapy essential oils. She reassured us that falling asleep was common and appropriate, and while I did hear soft snores scattered throughout the room, I didn’t drift off.
With everyone at ease, our meditation leader began playing the Tibetan bowls. Sprawled on my yoga mat, the sound waves seemed to dance across my skin. The sound of singing bowls is hard to describe, I wouldn’t call it “pretty” in a classical sense, but the vibrations are storied to have healing properties and enhance the meditative state. Maybe it was the weed heightening my imagination or perhaps it’s the mystical quality that science still hasn’t explained, but I felt something different during that meditation. Around the area where a metal plate now holds together my spine, I felt a sense of longing. I can only describe it like a massage where the masseuse is hitting the right spot but you’re desperate for the pressure to be deeper.
At the end of the session, the leader gently roused us, instructing us to wiggle our fingers and toes. She refreshed us with a drink of water which had been stored in the bowls while they were being played. While I packed up my mat, I reflected. The vibrations of the bowls had penetrated my psyche, combining with my high. And while I wouldn’t yet be able to identify all the benefits of two lauded practices—smoking weed and meditating—my marrying of the two for under an hour intensified my conviction for both.
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