At a trendy meditation studio in Manhattan, a seemingly distracted desk attendant pointed me to three vials of CBD oil and a jar of tiny spoons. I took one eyedropper full and headed to a colorful room to lie down and listen to a guided meditation that told me to imagine myself floating above the Earth, looking down from my spaceship. And I thought, why do I need a spaceship to imagine myself in space? I soon realized this was not a good fit for me.

The plan had been to look into the growing trend of CBD oil use in meditation. Online testimonials said that the stress-relieving qualities of CBD and meditation could work in concert to melt away the anxieties of the modern world. But I wasn’t seeing it.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of more than 60 cannabinoid compounds found in a marijuana plant, which includes the substance most commonly associated with the “stoned” effect, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). CBD is legal, to varying degrees, in 46 states. New York legalized it in 2014, in part due to the efforts of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who argued at the time that it would be a mistake to outlaw the substance that had been shown to be one of the few ways of treating cases of medication-resistant childhood epilepsy. (He also viewed the hemp industry as a way to bring new jobs to the economically hard-hit Southern Tier region.)

Since then, multiple studies have found that CBD offers many of the benefits long touted by proponents of legal marijuana without the psychotropic effects. In other words, it doesn’t get you high. Even better, researchers have found few side effects associated with CBD use. Among its purported benefits, CBD studies have found promising results for its anti-anxiety and anti-inflammatory qualities.

That’s why many meditation and yoga studios in New York have turned to CBD as a way of catering to their stressed out and aching clientele. With classes offering CBD oil springing up across the city, I was left wondering why my experience at the trendy Manhattan one was so lackluster.  

According to Yoga Haven founder Betsy Kase, the reason was that I was going about it all wrong.

Kase sells CBD oil at her Westchester studios and takes it herself, and yet she told me she “doesn’t understand” why yoga and meditation studios offer doses before class.

“I’m sort of blown away that yoga studios are doing it,” she said.

Besides the fact that it takes around 15 minutes to feel the effects of CBD and ingesting it right before a 40-minute class is inefficient, Kase said that CBD oil should not be used to enhance an experience but should be part of a holistic self-care routine.

“We could all sit in the lobby and get high before we meditate,” she said. “But why are we doing that? What is that about? They’re making a novelty out of it.”

Instead, Kase argues that CBD can treat symptoms such as pain or anxiety that for some people can be a barrier to establishing a meditation practice. Adding CBD to her own yoga and meditation practice, Kase said, has helped her reduce the anxiety that she has been addressing with prescription pharmaceuticals for years.

“I’m 54 years old, and I’ve been trying to meditate since I was 13,” she said. “I’ve tried all different kinds of meditation, and I could not sit. It’s like I’m jumping out of my skin. If somebody feels like they’re jumping out of their skin continually, is it that they’re not trying hard enough? I don’t believe that. We should give somebody a little help. It’s like how in yoga, we have props that we didn’t have 30 years ago. If sitting in meditation without back support causes back pain, should that be the only way everybody should sit? No! Give them a chair or a block. These are all aids to help us do the practice.”

Kase says that students, friends, colleagues, and family have had positive results with CBD oil, including her father, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and has been using CBD to treat severe inflammation, which has allowed him to take a lower dose of steroids.

But Kase acknowledges that her CBD suggestions should not be confused with medical advice. Much like with her yoga instruction, she says that she is only sharing what has worked for her in the hopes that it will help others. “I don’t say, ‘I recommend and advise that you take ten drops, three times a day,’” she explained. “I say, ‘This is the particular brand that I use. You could try it and see if it helps.’ And people have told me that it does.”

So perhaps CBD and mediation can work well together. But does it align with Buddhist teachings and practice? The debate around the Buddhist view of drugs has a long history, and recently, a Tricycle article took a new look at the issue of using psychedelics to work with the mind. While some Buddhists encouraged the behavior within a safe environment, others argued that drug use violated the fifth precept against intoxicants or denounced it as a shortcut to a certain experience that was unrelated to the Buddhist path.

When it comes to the experience-oriented approach to CBD oil, the psychedelics arguments seem to apply. But with the treatment approach, the comparison between CBD and psychedelics is less clear. For practitioners suffering from extreme anxiety or pain, CBD would not be a shortcut to meditation, but a way of getting them onto the cushion at all. And since CBD is not psychoactive, it is more akin to caffeine or pain medicine than a mind-altering substance like LSD. If caffeine were a violation of the fifth precept, then Zen master Joshu would be in big trouble for his constant instruction to “go drink tea.”

Zen teacher Brad Warner, an outspoken critic of psychedelics use, agreed that CBD was a different issue. In an email to Tricycle, Warner explained that he had once tried taking CBD oil to treat “frequent and severe headaches,” but, “it had very little effect on me as far as relaxation. Chamomile tea is far more potent to me. Chamomile tea practically knocks me out, by the way. Maybe I’m strange.

“Buddhism in Asia has a long history of tea drinking to help people stay awake,” he continued. “And I wouldn’t begrudge anyone taking something that eases bodily aches while sitting—although I think you shouldn’t do too much of that stuff because you can end up becoming dependent on it. If the pain is really bad, though, I’d take pain relievers. I have, in fact, done that myself.”

However, Warner warned against using CBD to enhance a meditation experience. “To me, one of the great benefits of meditation is how it can enable a person to discover their own innate ability to not react to stress in a habitual way,” he explained. “That skill takes time and effort to develop. But it’s very rewarding because it’s something you can call upon any time, any place, regardless of whether there’s a source of CBD (or Chamomile tea) nearby. CBD-enhanced meditation would never allow you to find that innate ability. By adding CBD to the meditation, you’re taking away one of the greatest and most useful aspects of meditation.”

With Kase’s advice and Warner’s warning in mind, I wanted to try meditation with CBD again to see if I could catch a glimpse of what all the fuss was about. So why didn’t the CBD meditation class work for me? One possible reason was that I did not ingest the proper dose of CBD or give it enough time to take effect. Another reason was the meditation itself: the audio-guided visualization practice was nothing like the quiet breath-counting Zen meditation I am accustomed to. I decided to try again on my own terms.

I picked up a bottle of CBD oil at the place nearest to my apartment that sold it—a shop called Vape Kingz, which despite its ostentatious name had a delightfully helpful salesman. He explained the differences in price, taste, and concentration between brands, and I opted for the cheapest one—30ml of tincture that contained 500mg CBD oil.

The clerk told me that I should take one dropper of oil a day for a standard dose. He was half right. The approximately 15mg dose was standard, but since I weigh around 125 lbs, it would be above average for me. This sort of well-intended misinformation is an issue for many similar “alternative” treatments. St. John’s wort, Ginseng, and other often potent herbal remedies can be taken in excess or adversely combined with other medications because they’re not regulated as well as pharmaceuticals.

It is no surprise that CBD suffers from the same drawbacks, considering the legal grey area it occupies. Betsy Kase unwittingly waded into that territory when she started selling the oil at Yoga Haven. After she started listing the product on her website in September 2018, the credit card processing company that she had been using for the past six years dropped her as a client, and PayPal froze her account.  

“Even though I took it right off my website, they wouldn’t take me back on,” Kase said. Even though CBD is legal in New York, she explained that it is considered “a risky product, in the same category as marijuana.” After a few months of searching, Kase eventually found a new credit card processing company, but, she said, “It already had a huge impact on the functioning of my business.”

These barriers are part of the reason why I purchased my bottle at Vape Kingz instead of a pharmacy and was instructed to take a large dose by a well-meaning man in an oversized T-shirt.

The 15mg dose made me fall asleep within the hour. Higher quantities of CBD tend to have that effect, and many people use it for that purpose. Once again, I failed to see how it would help me meditate. So I adjusted the dose, starting with a low amount and slowly dialing it in over time. When I felt I had hit a good middle ground, I tried taking it before meditating again.

The effect was subtle. I noticed that I was able to work my way into the meditation a little more easily and access states of tranquility a little more readily. But, as a Zen teacher once told me, the practice of meditation is not the calm state of mind but the continuous exercise of returning to the practice itself. From that perspective, there’s nothing to be gained from making meditation easier—unless it is so difficult for someone that they cannot even begin, which is not the case for me. So I did not find it to be a panacea for stress relief or a meditation enhancer.  

The experience is likely different for each person, but unfortunately, for now, anecdotal evidence is all we have when it comes to learning about meditating with CBD. There has been virtually no research published on effects of CBD and meditation, according to Jennifer Whitney, a psychology PhD candidate at the New School, in New York City, who specializes in meditation research and who also teaches meditation in the mixed Vipassana and Zen tradition of the late Buddhist psychotherapist Michael Stone. She said that the recent interest in CBD is “too new” for researchers to have completed the peer-review process.

“I am sure all the people are researching it now,” Whitney said, “but the process of doing research and getting an article published generally takes around two years.” It will take even longer before we have definitive studies on the long-term effects of CBD use, she added.

As a researcher, Whitney does not think the evidence is strong enough yet to fully support the claims of CBD’s benefits, but in her capacity as a meditation teacher, she said students and colleagues have reported similar anecdotes about CBD’s ability to reduce anxiety.

“With CBD, they’re finding a certain level of anxiety and stress reduction that other things hadn’t afforded them or a similar effect but without the side effects,” she said. “My concern is about the potential reliance on the CBD doing the job for you rather than actually doing the meditative work. So maybe it could be like a boost that you could eventually let go of, instead of doing CBD plus meditation for the rest of your life.”

But Whitney said that few people report that anxiety has prevented them from developing a meditation practice. “It’s more that they don’t have the time,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest things that keeps people from finishing any of the intervention studies.”

In the end, CBD has not become a regular part of my meditation practice (though I have continued to use it as a sleep aid). I find that sitting with anxious thoughts can be helpful, and the anxiety does not feel overwhelming for me like it does for some. But self-care regimens are different for everyone. I remember one woman emerging from the same trendy guided meditation with a big smile on her face, letting out deep breaths of relief. If she found a program that works for her, then I don’t see any more harm in it than somebody drinking Chamomile every night. All I can say is that it’s not my cup of tea.

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