Cannabis has been an integral part of sacred rituals for more than 2,000 years. In Hindu culture, a cannabis brew known as bhang cleanses the spirit and transports believers closer to Shiva. “In the ecstasy of bhang the spark of the Eternal in man turns into light the murkiness of matter or illusion and self is lost in the central soul-fire,” J.M. Campbell wrote in an 1894 essay, “On the Religion of Hemp.” Such benefits were attainable only to those who treated the plant with proper reverence. Drinking bhang in excess for pleasure was a sin.

Ancient Hindu tradition wasn’t the only one to bow its head to cannabis. Evidence of its ritualistic use has been linked to early cultures from all over Asia and Europe.

Today the sacred spiritual context of cannabis has been largely lost—but it’s not entirely forgotten, thanks to a handful of practitioners like Daniel McQueen.

McQueen is a 39 year-old healing practitioner based in Boulder, Colorado. In 2012, he and his wife Alison founded Medicinal Mindfulness, a grassroots consciousness organization dedicated to “supporting individuals and communities who choose to use psychedelics and cannabis with intention.”  This year they’re forming the Medicinal Mindfulness Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting psychedelic harm reduction practices and the therapeutic uses of cannabis.

Daniel McQueen, founder of Medicinal Mindfulness.
Daniel McQueen, founder of Medicinal Mindfulness.

A former political activist, McQueen shifted from the political to the personal by earning a master’s degree in transpersonal counseling psychology from Naropa University, the liberal arts college that integrates Eastern wisdom studies with traditional Western academics. After Naropa, McQueen worked as a clinical intern on one of the world’s first studies of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD, conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). At the time, the idea of psychedelic-assisted therapy seemed radical. Now it’s beginning phase three of an FDA-approved clinical study, the last phase before being approved as a prescription medication.

When Colorado legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2012, McQueen saw an opportunity to share the therapeutic use of psychedelics with the public. After the law was enacted in 2014, he began facilitating Conscious Cannabis Circles, guided group meditation ceremonies that harness the power of specific cannabis blends. These take place either indoors to the sound of music and a guiding voice or outdoors by firelight. They can last up to six hours.

After hearing about McQueen’s ceremonies, I reached out to him in Boulder to see if I could take my cannabis experience to a higher plane. McQueen welcomed my interest and agreed to guide me during a one-on-one session.

So I hopped a flight to Colorado.

● ● ●

“Most of the people flying in to do this are therapists and healers in some way,” McQueen told me. We were driving across Boulder on a late spring afternoon. McQueen’s voice registered just above a whisper, which forced me to lean closer. “People who use medicines with spiritual and psychological intention. A lot of ayahuasca practitioners, or people who are new to medicine experiences and are looking to explore new possibilities. Locally, we have a combination of therapists and healers, like massage therapists. Naropa students, and some CU students too, though we only work with people over 21, of course.”

Rows of small homes and gardens rolled by. Patches of snow still clung to the curb.

“Another fascinating subgroup is computer engineers and software programmers,” he added. “That’s a huge percentage of our people. Creative types. But a large percentage of them want to be facilitators. They want to be able to facilitate these experiences for friends and family.”

I asked him what I should expect.

“It’s often been described as something like a two hour ayahuasca experience,” he said. “We ask newbies to drop every notion of what they think cannabis can do in these ceremonies.”

I’d read about the powerful spiritual rituals associated with ayahuasca, a DMT brew traditionally used by Amazon tribes. I doubted that cannabis could induce a state of mind quite like that. Could it?

It’s often been described as something like a two hour ayahuasca experience.

● ● ●

We pulled up to McQueen’s home, nestled neatly in a grove of trees. He led me past a refrigerator covered in a child’s crayon drawings, into a sun room where the meditation would soon take place.

Fading daylight bled through the window tapestries. Drums, bells, and other curious totems were tucked around the room. Traditional folk music trickled out from the speaker – the only piece of modern technology in the room save for McQueen’s computer and my own phone.

We settled across from each other in cushioned floor chairs. A black cat knelt beside us, his demeanor a mirror of McQueen’s: calm, still, serene. “That’s Candlelight,” he said, handing me a cup of hot mint tea. Candlelight nuzzled his head against me as if he knew his feline spirit put my own at peace.

Using a tiny bronze spoon, McQueen gently dug into a jar of cannabis.

“What strain is it?” I asked. “How do you decide which to use?”

“I figured you’d ask,” he laughed. “With strains, we’re looking for a very specific mood. Sometimes there’s an energetic requirement. I need a strain from a particular person that I know, because that person has a particular energy I want to bring into the experience. Some of the strains going in to this one are grown on the land where we do the Circles, so it’s really special.”

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Colorful paper curtains line one wall of Daniel’s sun room.

“This particular blend was gifted to us by members of our community to share with you,” McQueen continued. “Participants in our Conscious Cannabis Circles bring their own herb, but can share it freely under Colorado law with other participants. This ensures that we’re both fully complying with Colorado law while also ensuring that everyone has the best and most congruent experience they can.”

He pulled out a sheet of notebook paper with a series of names I recognized: Blue Dream. Chemdawg. Doox.

“We consider cannabis a sacred medicine for physical, spiritual, and psychological healing, so the more intention you put into every step of the experience, the more you’re healing your psyche,” McQueen said. “The more you treat it with respect, the more it shares with you.”

“There are four primary ways people use medicines intentionally,” he said. “Spiritually, to connect with something greater than us. There’s psychological healing and exploration. There’s a lot of trauma resolution in this work. Creative problem solving, consciousness exploration. A lot of computer programmers and scientists use it for those purposes. We call it ‘recreational use’ but really it’s letting go of unhealthy or unsafe use, to find creativity – art, music, play, joy, and celebration.”

The sun retreated behind the Rockies.

McQueen held out a small white pipe. “Are you ready to begin?”

● ● ●

We began by praying to the seven directions—north, south, east west, below, above, and within. For each one, McQueen gave thanks while I closed my eyes and exhaled the cannabis smoke. Having invoked a sphere of sacred energy around myself, I descended into new planes of consciousness.

“If you could let go of anything, what would it be?” McQueen asked.

Eyes closed, kneeling with my hands open to the ceiling, I considered his question.

What did I want gone? Obligations. An ever-growing pile of to-do’s. Buckets of problems and responsibilities I seemed to be forever baling from my sinking ship.

In the haze of burning sage and smoldering incense, I took in a belly full of oxygen. I exhaled more than just my breath: inhibition and worry dissolved in the air.

Meditation ceremonies begin with smoking once for each of the seven directions.

“There’s nothing to fix,” McQueen said. “We allow and witness, and it will move through you like a wave.”

Candlelight the cat scurried away from my feet as I eased onto my back. The impressions of my physical environment evaporated. McQueen placed a black cloth over my eyes as I sunk into the darkness.

Dancing, ever-changing patterns of light played in my mind. I was falling into the kaleidoscope of my own imagination.

Bells gently rang in the distance. I heard McQueen’s guiding voice from the West. Somewhere behind him stood the snow-capped mountains. I heard him, but I was becoming lost in a memory and reverie of my own.

● ● ●

I fell into a moment years ago in the foothills of Mount Rainier. My boots dug into a blistering ankle. I was an idiot for wearing Doc Martens on an 18-mile hike, but I hadn’t realized what I’d signed up for. The crescent moon hung among a sea of stars, a performance you’d never see in a light-polluted city sky. A star fell, leaving a scar of light trailing behind as it shot down behind a silhouetted peak. In the distance I could see a faraway waterfall pouring itself down the mountain. The moonlight made the landscape look surreal, like a page torn from a fantasy novel.

In awe of the scene before us, no one spoke. My brother and friends led the way to a rocky wall that stood between us and the Eden of our climb. Dawn’s halo crept into the horizon, and I could see the dwarfed outline of my friend standing at the top.

Dancing, ever-changing patterns of light played in my mind. I was falling into the kaleidoscope of my own imagination.

Painfully pulling myself over the final boulder and beyond the rift of shade, my eyes beheld a sight now etched in memory: fields of tall grass swaying in the golden light of sunrise. Mount Rainier turned rosy pink in the morning light. I followed my brother up the hill through the grass, hands gently grazing over the blades as I walked. A herd of mountain goats gathered close by. As I stood at a cliff’s edge beside my brother, my stomach filled with a physical fluttering sensation. Love, I think, is what you’d call it.

● ● ●

McQueen brought my mind back to the mat.

“Breathing, breathing, breathing.” His voice melted with the music and the haze. “All is well.”

He guided me through a body scan — a slow mental inventory from head to toe. McQueen described it as liquid light filling the spaces, flowing upward from my feet, through my body, and up to my head. My body became light, in both senses of the word.

An involuntary smile gave way to a rush of emotion. There was immense gratitude toward loved ones for filling my life with support and joy.

Over the next three hours, my mind would wander through halls of thought that showcased the wide spectrum of human emotion. I’d climb to the peaks of my memory – to mountain sunrises, to childhood adventures, to faces of people come and gone – and then plunge into flashbacks long kept hidden in the dark.

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After smoking, the eyes are covered for meditation.

When I came out of it, my temples were wet with teary deltas.

“Remember. All is well,” I heard again from the West.

I breathed the memory out, surrendering it, and filled my lungs with new air. The smile came back to my lips when I remembered that I had only smoked cannabis, as I had done countless times before.

● ● ●

After we finished, McQueen placed a plate full of snacks in front of me. I’d barely eaten all day, and the cannabis had piqued my appetite. I dug into the fruit and small squares of cheese, followed by crackers and chocolate. McQueen helped himself to a piece of salted toffee chocolate and patiently waited for me to find my voice. I was still in a speechless daze, uncertain of how to bridge thought and word.

I reduced the experience to one intentionally vague word as I wrangled my emotions.

“Amazing,” I said, hoping my eyes conveyed more.

The writer in me panicked. I spit words that captured the experience with dull inaccuracy and shrunken scale. It was like taking a photo of the moon using a crappy phone camera. Even as I experienced them I knew most of the thoughts, sensations, and ideas that flowed through my mind would escape me. Thinking I could preserve them was about as sensible as hoping a bird will stay in its cage once you open the gate.

But words slowly developed over time. McQueen smiled when I expressed my newfound astonishment in the power of cannabis. I wanted so much to share this awareness, this opportunity, and this medicine – but knew that was impossible while it’s illegal for so many people.

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McQueen at his home in Boulder, Colorado.

“Prohibition stops us from living,” McQueen said. “It stops us from identifying who we truly are. There’s a lot of fear, but we’re helping facilitate people entering a world in which it’s okay, it’s safe. We do it with intention. It’s not just about smoking pot and getting high. It’s about creating a deep relationship with Self and the divine and each other.”

“What if everyone did this?” I asked McQueen. “What if everyone could have this experience? What if this were a part of everyone’s every day?”

A spark came to his eye. “Wouldn’t that be something?” he said. I could tell he was actively imagining such a world.

● ● ●

On the flight home to Seattle, my face touched the cold airplane window as we flew over the Rockies. From 30,000 feet, they looked like wrinkles in the earth’s fabric. That evening the sunset lasted over two hours as we chased it west across the continent. Most of the passengers slept with the window shades closed.

As we approached Seattle a darkness eclipsed the sky, consuming the final minutes of sunset. To the West, Mt. Rainier hid behind menacing storm clouds. At first I blamed it on the edible I’d taken before my flight, but then the man behind me cried out, shaking awake other passengers so they could behold it too: lightning bolts were dancing around Rainier’s snowy peak. The volcano itself seemed to be generating the energy, like an electric force field. Billowing clouds lit up with the bolts, lanterns meant for gods.

I pulled out my phone and tried to capture it on video. But the playback was so dark and grainy, it looked like nothing at all. I figured it was nature’s way of mocking my technology, reminding me to trust my memory. It will be there when I need it. I deleted the video and leaned in to rest my forehead against the window’s corner, recording the end of the show in my mind, my head bowing ever so slightly to the West.


Photo Credits: Meditation photos by Ryan Dearth/Leafly. Landscape photo by Bailey Rahn/Leafly.