This interview with Swami Chaitanya and Nikki Lastreto was conducted by Alexander de Cadenet, Contributing Arts Editor for Watkins Magazine.
There is a long-standing history of the use of cannabis by mankind as an entheogen, and references to cannabis as an aid to access and celebrate the spiritual dimension proliferate in ancient sacred texts such as the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran and more contemporary sacred texts such as the Rastafari’s Holy Piby. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has also commented on the topic of smoking marijuana, “For some it’s not a substitute for realisation or spiritual awakening, but can be an initial opening”.
Given California’s warm climate, outdoorsy way of life, relaxed attitude and history of counterculture, it is no surprise that using cannabis has always been popular here. Since the passing of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act in November 2016, cannabis “for recreational use” was made legal in California. The state is the greatest consumer of the plant and the largest state market for combined sales of medicinal and recreational cannabis in the USA. Legalization has brought with it the chance for larger groups of people to openly explore the deeper, more sacred dimension of the plant without fear of breaking the law. In addition to more mindful use in individual and small groups, several churches have even sprung up in the United States which integrate the consumption of cannabis into their rituals or liturgies.
Swami Chaitanya and life partner Nikki Lastreto met each other over 50 years ago whilst living in a commune in California. Together, they have created one of the more, if not the most, enlightened cannabis brands in California called Swami Select.
I met with them (online) and followed up with a written interview which explores the spiritual dimension of the plants they are growing at their farm in Mendocino County in Northern California.
You have spoken about breaking through personal boundaries and being given confidence by the plant – how has smoking cannabis expanded your consciousness? How would you describe your comment that cannabis “helps you get the reins of the horse”?
Cannabis consumption stimulates the chakras and sensory perception, since each chakra is associated with a particular sense. The third eye is also activated which is the gateway to higher consciousness by increasing one’s awareness of more subtle cues and enables one to tune in to the true vibration of a particular moment or relationship. It opens up the possibility of group mind telepathy. It is not just that it lessens inhibitions, but more that it opens the mind to the mental vibrations of others and of the surrounding mood of the moment. Cannabis tends to remove the doubt about the reality of these higher perceptions.
In meditation after consumption, in the beginning it can seem like one’s thoughts are racing everywhere, but cannabis can be used to still the turmoil by grabbing the reins to bring the dancing thoughts into one pointed focus, by an act of the will.
What does the saying “Yantra plus Mantra is Tantra” mean to you?
There is much misinformation about Tantra in western culture, most people associate it with exotic sexual practices. To me, Tantra is the conscious practice of rendering the mundane and profane actions we perform in the world into sacred actions through focusing one’s consciousness totally on the task at hand, and seeing each and everyone and everything as an emanation of the Divine. Actions and relationships considered taboo, sinful or unclean by conventional society are transformed by ritual and stated intent to be sacred actions and divine associations. Yantra and Mantra are the means of doing that.
Yantra means “a tool, device or machine”, that is, something that aids one in an activity or a work. Mantra is the sound vibration inherent in everything and everyone. Each God or Goddess has His or Her individual mantra which is chanted to invoke the divine energy symbolized by the particular deity.
A Yantra is usually a geometric diagram which metaphysically provides a location or a place for the energy invoked by the mantra to manifest for the task at hand, or the task for which the energy has been called forth. The mantra is the energy, is the Deity, and the repetition of the mantra harmonizes and tunes the individual chanting the mantra to the source of the energy, which is the Divinity. The yantra is used to contain the mantra energy of the divine within a diagram, this enables the energy to be used for the purpose of the intoner.
You have written “At its most fundamental, the new phase is the conscious intent to place more expressly spiritual content around the entire process of growing the sacred herb, and also putting more obvious spiritual intent in all aspects of our daily lives”. What daily practices might you suggest people can do to bring more joy and stability into their lives?
Meditation, of course. But what is meditation? Many people think that they meditate, but in fact they are usually just “sitting” and kind of watching their thoughts go by or getting lost in their thoughts. Nothing wrong with this, but it is not quite meditating.
Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras begins by stating that “Yoga is the stilling of mental fluctuations”, to paraphrase. One doesn’t get to this state right away, needless to say. Yet there is a “place” or “state” of empty fullness, where the constant stream of thoughts both trivial and profound no longer dominates one’s consciousness. There are many paths to arrive at this place within the mind.
Some hints or guidelines: Select a quiet place in your home which is your Sacred Space. Designate it and decorate it with whatever pictures, objects and symbols which resonate with you and lead your thoughts to the divine. Only use that space for your meditation and quiet time, even if it is only five or ten minutes each day. It is your sanctuary. Over time, just sitting there gets you into the mood. Burning incense helps create the mood. Lighting a candle symbolizes the bringing of light.
Sit in your sacred space first thing in the morning after your ablutions, while your mind is clear and unburdened by the cares of the day. Establish a sequence or pattern for your practice, either from a Guru or make up your own, but stick with the practice, don’t keep changing it.
Sit with your back straight, whatever you have to do to accomplish this. It is not necessary to sit in a lotus position, although admittedly it is the best, because the legs are folded in on one another, which helps focus and retain the energy within yourself. A straight backed chair works. A cushion on a bench is good too. If you sit on the floor, be sure to have a woolen blanket (or perhaps a tiger skin) between you and the floor or earth, so the energy doesn’t dissipate back into the ground.
Begin the meditation by uttering a protective invocation: “May this area be safe and pure for meditation and devotion!” This protects the meditator from negative and malevolent energies, and allows you to open your consciousness to the higher powers without letting in negative energy.
If you have a mantra, you can use that to help focus your energies. Its repetition forms a drone background to your meditations. One thing to remember, no doubt your mind will go racing about, uncontrolled for awhile. If you can dwell on just one thought it will give you an anchor. Some people focus on their breath going in and out. Some people gaze on a candle flame or look at a picture of a divine or holy being. Some focus on their Third Eye.
Soon you will be able to hold one thought for one or two minutes before you think about what you are going to have for breakfast or the problem you had at work yesterday. But it is important not to be a harsh judge of your efforts even if you seem very scattered. Don’t scold yourself if you can’t focus. The only “bad” meditation is the one you don’t do.
It is best if you can devote even just 5 or 10 minutes a day, every day, not matter what is troubling you. At the end of your meditation it is good to offer a blessing to others, a sharing of the energy and insights you have downloaded in your quiet time. You can end with a prayer for others: “May everyone be happy, may everybody have a realization, may all those in sickness and pain be free from their sufferings, may all those who hunger be fed, may all those who are homeless be sheltered and may all those falsely imprisoned be freed. May peace love and prosperity come to each and every one.” Then touch the ground with your right hand to return to the earthly plane.
One of your latest plants, Shakti Pot, has a specific meaning based on the Sanskrit word ‘shaktipat’: “direct transmission of spiritual energy”. The plant is described in the following way: “Shakti Pot inspires Philosophical focused thoughts and is a Meditation enhancement”. Could you share the inspiration behind this product please?
The inspiration comes from the several moments when I have received shakti pat, a direct transmission of spiritual energy. This is different from a “sudden insight” or an epiphany, which are phenomena experienced in the consciousness, kind of like as we say “a light going on”. In shakti pat the whole body, mind and consciousness is overwhelmed with a bolt of electrified conscious energy, which changes the valence of every electron in every atom in every cell of the body and one is forever changed. Transmogrified. That has happened to me when I was hit by lightning during a meditation camp in Arizona. It happened when a brahmin priest from Chidambaram—one of my teachers—handed me a tiny bronze statue of Siva Nataraj directly off his altar and an electric shock literally went up both arms going straight to my heart and I burst out in tears. It happened when I was bathing in the Ganges River at Kumbha Mela in Haridwar in 1998 and a single drop of Amrit—the Elexir of Immortality—fell onto the crown chakra on the top of my head and I felt it course through my body from head to toe, altering and charging every molecule in every cell in my body.
Naming our cultivar Shakti Pot is a play on words, first to indicate that it is powerful pot, since Shakti is Sanskrit for power or ‘better, conscious energy’, seen in Hinduism as the Divine Feminine, the energy of the Goddess. The interaction of Siva and Shakti creates the universe. In Cannabis, it is the female plant that has the power for the consumer/devotee and Her interaction with the male creates the seeds to continue the line. Shakti Pot, like Shakti Herself downloading spiritual insight, has the power to open your mind to higher levels of consciousness, if you let her.
I noticed Tibetan/Indian deities up on your walls. Are there any visual artists who really inspire you and why?
Great art is always an inspiration. For many years I was a photographer and a painter and my path to higher consciousness is through art, through the witness of beauty everywhere as the demonstration of the hand of God. We have sacred art on the walls and statues of divinities in the house and also outside in the forest and meadow to demarcate spiritual energy as it manifests here on our land. There are Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian and Jewish symbols and icons who all play together.
The brand features growing under the stars and the moon – what is the essence of the stars and the moon that is infused into the plant or is it mainly meaning “grown outdoors”? I understand you plant seeds at beginning of star sign periods of time and in relation to full moons – could you just give us a bit more information about this, please?
Sun, Moon and Star Grown does indicate that the plants were grown to fulfillment outdoors in the full sun for the long season. But it means more than this, too. It means that the plants hear the wind in the trees and the songs of the birds and crickets, as well as all the other sounds of nature. Both the plants and the people working in the garden feel the beneficial effects of being in the natural environment.
As firm believers in astrology and of aligning our activities with the lunar and planetary rotations, we refer to the phases of the moon when planting our crop. The moon’s phases create the ocean tides, so their effect on water is not in doubt. Plants like humans are comprised mainly of water. When the moon is waxing—increasing in size—it pulls the energy from the ocean and the earth upward and stimulates fertility and vitality in the soil and in the seeds planted. From new moon to full, each day the moon is visible for an additional 45 minutes, bringing more light to the darkness. The stars also have their celestial light and we are blessed to see the Milky Way sparkling overhead in the dark of the moon, showering the plants with Starlight.
Each of the twelve signs of the zodiac is assigned a quality of earth, water, fire or air. The first two are fertile signs and the other are sterile; that is plants can grow in earth and water, but not in fire or air (with a few exceptions). This may seem hippie nonsense, but traditional farmers have used astrologic guidelines for planting and harvesting for millennia and know that observing these guidelines improves yield and potency.
We generally start harvest according to a fire or air moon or at the full moon when the Sun is in Libra (Sept 23-Oct. 22), although I in fact “ask the plants when they are ready to come in” so the actual harvest date of each plant is psychically determined.
The main garden itself is laid out in the pattern of the interlocking triangles of the Sri Yantra, with the plants’ positions at the nodal points and along the lines. The whole is aligned with North-South longitude. This is a form of geomancy, (or Tantra) using a sacred diagram as part of a ritual along with chanting a mantra to infuse the plants with spiritual energy.
Prior to popping the seeds, they sit at the feet of the Goddess Ganja Ma for a moon cycle to absorb Her energy. When the seeds are soaked in water to open them, the mantra is chanted and a drop or two of sacred Ganges water, which is considered the Elixir of Immortality, is added. When the cracked seeds are next put in 3 gallon pots for sprouting, another drop of Ganges water is added as the mantra is chanted.
How important is material abundance to you?
Not important at all. In the teaching of Yoga the first principle is Ahimsa or non-harmfulness. The second principle is truthfulness, which seemed significant to me that this came second, because truthfulness can be used in a hurtful way. The Third principle is non-stealing or not taking what one is not entitled to. The fourth is non-hoarding. Both of these mean that by taking something you are depriving someone else the benefit of having that thing.
When one is on a spiritual path, the concept is that as one is in tune with the universe, so the universe will provide all that the aspirant needs. Hoarding and stealing are signals that one does not live the faith that whatever you need you will be provided. “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need!” There is another principle of yoga called Santosh, which is usually translated as: satisfaction, that is satisfaction with the role and status in life you have been given, and to use that place as the foundation of your spiritual growth. I come from an upper middle-class family, but we never had an abundance, nor have I had since I left home. I do have an abundance of love and of friends, that’s all anyone needs.
You have also spoken about feeling part of the whole while taking cannabis and experiencing telepathy – could you give us your thoughts on how this happens?
Cannabis can remove one’s internal barriers to magic and wonder, which opens us up to other levels of perception and experience. We are all capable of telepathy, but most people reject this idea as not possible and so ignore incoming telepathic messages. Mainstream culture denies and devalues this heightened sense of awareness. People have “hunches”, “epiphanies,” sudden insights, intuitions, realizations out of the blue, inspirations. But if the response is: “Oh! That’s not possible!” or “You’re crazy to think you can read someone else’s thoughts” or “Where’d you get that idea?”, the mind is closed to the possibility that there could be truth there. Cannabis helps suspend the disbelief and overcome the doubt that the inner voice is your truest guide.
Could you give our readers a sense of how the ‘Cannamaste Church’ might be able to bring more consciousness into the world?
Cannamaste Church is the brainchild of Chris Conrad, working with his wife Mikki Norris. He has developed a Cannabis Creed, acknowledging the sacred and utilitarian nature of the sacred herb, and a ritual celebration of the plant and her multitudinous qualities and powers. One of the reasons for establishing a Church of Cannabis is to offer a legal defense for cannabis consumption if a worshipper were to be arrested, by declaring that cannabis consumption is an essential act of worship for the member of the church. To this end we always pass a ritual communal joint around the circle of devotees, made up from cannabis flowers brought by the celebrants. When passing one looks the recipient in the eye, intones: “Cannamaste”! while covering the heart with left hand and using the right hand to pass the joint. [We will have to institute a variant of this ritual so as not to pass germs in the new age of virus].
Celebrating the cannabis plant as a Divine Gift will change the stigma that has long surrounded cannabis. This replaces the designation as outlaws, criminals, degenerates, drug addicts, etc. which the media has perpetrated. The spiritual power in the plant is the source of her healing power. To acknowledge this is to augment that power and bring its use to its full potential. Using cannabis for meditation, for inspiration and for connecting with our fellows on a higher level creates a community of sharing.
Find out more:
Nikki Lastreto was born in the right place at the right time to be a flower child in San Francisco in the Sixties. After years of being the Ultimate City Girl, working at The San Francisco Chronicle and KRON-TV, Nikki dropped out and traveled the world, living primarily in India. After several years, she returned to San Francisco, soon making her way north to the hills of Mendocino County. Now, as founder of Swami Select, she fosters the growth of sustainable, lab-tested craft cannabis that is cultivated in living soil using regenerative, organic methods.
Called “The Swami of Pot” by Rolling Stone Magazine, Swami Chaitanya is a radical classical. Having started life as an East Coast academic, now, in his early seventies, he’s grown over the years into a West Coast Cannabis Holy Man. A self-described “original hippie,” Swami moved to San Francisco in 1967. From there, he travelled the world, living in South America, Europe and India for many years, before settling in Northern California’s Mendocino County, the heart of the Emerald Triangle. Swami speaks and teaches publicly on spirituality.
To explore further you can check out Swami and Nikki’s blog, content and articles on their website: www.swamiselect.com