Furthest Right

Pipe Meditation (May 3, 2019)

Many of us work in worlds of symbols, whether computer code, figures in an account book, concepts in philosophy, theories of law, or the production of the product known as “news.” This leads to a bubbleville mentality of seeing the world as symbol.

If we need a reason to praise the pipe (beyond the obvious, that is) we might find it in an escape from symbolism. A pipe invokes thinking that deals with spectra of reality, often in multiple axes.

Consider for example packing tobacco. You have an ideal density, but also an anticipated expansion. One must consider moisture content — of both tobacco and surrounding air — as well as pipe size and shape. Then there is the sugar and oil content of the leaf, and how it will settle. We tend to twiddle our fingers around and fill the thing somehow, but this is an unconscious act, reflecting many small estimates in our minds. These estimates, rather than measurements, give us an alternate view of life to the symbolic. We are using our knowledge to assess a likelihood of certain factors, rather than trying to find finite answers, and plan for a range. You can pack a bit lighter and plan to smoke the first third of the bowl a bit slower, until the tobacco caramelizes and sinks together into an oily mesh. You might wait and see and plan to tamp. Every time you look down at the pipe, you are estimating its progress and planning strategy in response, even if in a very small context.

Even the tasting of tobacco requires a high tolerance for ambiguity. We normally describe tobacco flavor in terms of food: nutty, bready, honey, hay, pepper, figs, raisins, and vinegar. Complicating that, some tobacco comes with a coating of non-tobacco taste, called “top flavoring,” and this is how you get varieties like mint, cherry, vanilla, cocoa, and various fruits. These may not be artificial; it is easy enough to make extracts from skin, pulp, and seeds. Some are true horrors, others are passable. Smokers pursue a series of holy grails such as mild tobacco, lack of “bite,” good burning scent (called “room note”), and the quality of mellowness which tends to mean low nicotine. Most smokers want a food substitute and something to fiddle with, a hobby to occupy them in the down times between work and family, and an excuse for a treat that might deliver a mild boost. This is why 90% of them like top-flavored tobaccos with a good room note — fewer complaints from wives, girlfriends, and coworkers, since you smell like what you smoke — that they can buy over-the-counter and not worry about it burning well, requiring special care to keep for several months, or stinking up the room. These condition their taste buds to a certain range of flavors.

The quest for tasty tobacco unveils a long history, starting back when humans smoked Nicotiana rustica, or wild tobacco, and experimented with smoking, fermenting, and sweetening it. Now that we have the tamed cultivars of Nicotiana tabacum, more options present themselves. All aromatics taste to me faintly of cotton candy; the sugar used to make the top flavor palatable gives off a smell of its own melting, on the edge of caramel, in contrast to the subtler flavors of caramelizing vegetable sugars in the tobacco itself. If you step outside of the world of the 90% however, you find what are called “natural tobaccos,” despite the impossibility of such a thing. Any tobacco is dried, cured, soaked in a “casing” usually of anise and honey, sprayed with Mycoban to prevent mold, and then cut. Optionally, it may be air-roasted, cooked or “stoved,” pressed with 200 tons of pressure, steamed, and aged. All of these things make subtle changes to flavor, level of nicotine that your mouth can absorb, and the scent of the burning tobacco.

Among the natural tobaccos, one finds a new variety of flavor. At first, it all seems inscrutable; who can tell a nutty taste from a sweet almond? Over time, the flavors appear through the use of subtle distinctions. In other words, the mind learns to taste all over again, this time with a finer-toothed comb. The more precisely made the mix, the more the smoker learns to taste. An English mixture which clobbers you with Latakia offers little distinction, but a mostly-Burley blend with a few condimentals in sparse amounts allows the flavors to separate and be spotted for what they are. Within months, the smoker can distinguish between similar blends and sometimes identify their ingredients down to rough estimates of their ratios. This is similar to how the mind perceives life and finds new pathways through previously-known but unexplored landmarks and seemingly mundane events and objects.

It is the same way with symbols. At first, we understand at the cartoon or comic book level, where there are bad guys and good guys and some clear mission to protect something universally good like democracy or friendship. Love seems like a force that seizes you and overrides everything else; death is incomprehensible, sadness absolute, and the emotions that appeal are bittersweet, like wistfully standing between two places, despairing for losing one and uncontrollably excited to move on to the next. These heavy flavors are easily picked out and so we can lose ourselves in them, feeling their importance to the group flowing through us as if it were our assessment of their importance, like people in a church participating in a group mystical experience or the crowd at a popular music concert, imagining themselves the “stars” on stage when in fact they are merely ticket-buyers in a grubby crowd of hipsters and music nerds. This is an introduction to symbol, a “symbol as talisman” level where we hope to ward off superstitions and invoke the favor of gods based in words, shapes, and numbers, or their modern equivalents. Think of blowing on dice before you roll it.

After that, the symbols fragment and we are left with a world where symbols are descriptive and not equivalent. Instead of X=Y, we have X as an attribute of Y, and we assess organically how much that has influence. Metaphors, or conscious awareness of establishing parallels of pattern and shape but not equivalence, take the place of representation. We no longer believe that the right magic chant brings out the gods; the gods emerge when the pattern of events, mind, and nature forms a causal initiation which will bring them forth. Over time, symbols break down even further, until we reach the meditative state of not even visualizing, articulating, and enumerating, but simply sensing like aesthetics the relationship between things. This preverbal state shows us symbols eclipsing themselves to the point where all that remains is a sense like intuition, the unconscious mind, or the advanced reflex action with which we move in an emergency.

This puts us in fearful territory, the ambiguous land beyond the fence line of whatever outpost in which we live. The 90% use symbols as yes/no decisions; X are good and Y are bad, so we want more of X, and we use that to manipulate other people. If I get caught doing something wrong, I simply find some argument that makes it seem as if I was secretly working to get more X all along. For them, life is not a hierarchy but a flat space, where they wander between containers to see which ones are X and flee not only anything which is Y, but anything which is not-X because it is likely to be Yish. If you know what you want, you pursue only that. This makes the masses act together as a herd, because whenever an instance of X is spotted, they race toward that in a stampede and trust it. When you wander beyond this point, you are looking at things as they are, which requires understanding their importance in context, which in turn requires understanding that context, and that takes you into the dual study of reality and your own intuition, which allows you to estimate — like tasting tobacco — where everything fits in the bigger order that you will know at an organic level and not through symbols.

My advice, pack an extra pipe or two. It might take awhile to get there.

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