Choosing Health over Poison
I used to be a smoker. In fact, I continued smoking for quite awhile after beginning a yoga and meditation practice. Madness, I know. Cigarette smoke contains too many deadly toxins to count; smoking is a very good—albeit slow—way of killing yourself. So why did I continue doing it for so long, even after starting a regular meditation practice?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place nicotine (along with the chemical compounds that constitute cigarette “tar”) close to the top of its “most addictive substances” list. It’s right up there with heroin and cocaine! It’s also no secret that cigarette manufacturers have worked on the formula over the past several decades to make their products ever more addictive. The addition of things like ammonia—and chemicals to prevent cigarettes from burning out between drags—has made cigarettes among the most addictive substances on the planet. People who smoke are drug addicts, whether they choose to see themselves that way or not.
Smoking is viewed as anathema in yoga, meditation, and holistic living circles, and with good reason. Since focus on the breath is so central to these practices, the habitual inhalation of toxic fumes represents their antithesis. You might even say that smoking is “The Anti-Meditation.”
Interestingly, neurologists have discovered that tobacco smoke has a fascinating effect on the human nervous system: it tends to provide the release that the brain craves, whatever that may be. If you’re feeling listless and lacking in energy, smoking can make you feel alert. If you’re overstressed, it can make you feel relaxed. These effects make nicotine unique among drugs: it literally affects the human brain in contrary ways depending on the need of the moment. Hence its insidiousness as an addictive drug.
Once the brain has habituated to nicotine’s effects, it seeks them again and again on a biochemical level. This is the so-called “hijacked brain” effect common to all addictions. The brain becomes convinced it cannot function without the chemical “hit” it has become accustomed to. There is also a strong psychological component to nicotine addiction. Smokers tend to associate the whole smoking ritual—opening the pack, lighting up, taking the first drag, and so on—with feelings of well-being and calm. (It’s a lie, of course; well-being is actually the last thing that smoking induces.) A wise counselor once told me when I was still smoking, “Don’t be fooled; smoking will kill you, one way or another. If you’re not killed suddenly by a heart attack or stroke, you’ll suffer a lingering death from lung cancer or COPD.” Wise words– which I nonetheless ignored for far too long.
Thich Nhat Hahn proved—once again—to be the source of wisdom that finally changed my behavior. In one of his articles, he states the following:
Not all internal formations are unpleasant. There are also pleasant internal formations, but they can still make us suffer. When you taste, hear or see something pleasant, then that pleasure can become a strong internal knot. When the object of your pleasure disappears, you miss it and you begin searching for it. You spend a lot of time and energy trying to experience it again. If you smoke or drink alcohol and begin to like it, then it becomes an internal formation in your body and in your mind. You cannot get it off your mind. You will always look for more. The strength of the internal knot is pushing you and controlling you. So internal formations deprive us of our freedom.*
I was helped a great deal by Nhat Hahn’s Fifth Mindfulness Training, which reads as follows:
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to…use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins…I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment.**
The solution to nicotine addiction was, for me at least, a long period of extended meditation on this mindfulness training, along with aspects of the First:
Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, or in my way of life…**
When I came to see smoking as the antithesis of nonviolence—when I fully internalized that truth—giving up smoking became inevitable. To harm and kill is antithetical to the ahimsa principle, including when the recipient of that harm is oneself. In time, I came to realize that I could no longer reconcile such an act of self-hostility with a lifestyle of nonviolence. If I was willing to harm myself in such a fundamental way, harming others was a very short trip away. I gave it up for good.
Now, when the urge to smoke comes (usually in response to strong emotions such as anger, grief, and jealousy), I use the following gatha until the craving subsides:
Breathing in, I am aware of a strong desire to smoke.
Breathing out, I smile to my craving.
Breathing in, I know I can handle these emotions without a cigarette.
Breathing out, I release my craving.
This is what works for me. Breathing deeply in full awareness, I am reminded of how precious it is to be able to breathe freely. Meditating on dissolving the internal formation—the inner “knot” of craving—helps me past the immediacy of the urge. Whatever methods work for you to stop self-destructive habits like smoking and other acts of self-poisoning, I encourage you to employ them. Such positive self-control is foundational to mental and physical health, to a lifestyle of health and sustainability. Without it, we are not free; we become slaves to whatever craving happens to drive us in any given moment. Clearly, living in such an unmindful state, we can do a lot of damage, both to ourselves and others.
** The Five Mindfulness Trainings by Thich Nhat Hahn, http://www.plumvillage.org/mindfulness-trainings/3-the-five-mindfulness-trainings.html.
Copyright © 2012 by William K. Ferro, All rights reserved