10 Zen Lessons I Learned From 10 Years Without Cigarettes

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Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

Originally published: March 3rd, 2016

I haven’t had a cigarette in 10 years. Not one puff.

Today is a big milestone for me. I like to write, so this post is my way of celebrating. You can celebrate with me by reading along.

In 2013, I published a post entitled, Why You Shouldn’t Quit Smoking. It is one of my most popular posts of all time. I checked the stats, and 28,285 people have read that post. Wow.

I think it’s time for a sequel.

Today, I’d like to share 10 Zen lessons I’ve learned after 10 years an an ex-smoker.

For the smokers — please don’t worry. I’m not going shame you or try to guilt you into quitting. I hate that kind of shit just as much as you do.

If anything, I’m going to convince you NOT to quit, just like I’ve done with dozens of people over the last 10 years.

Let’s get started.

1. The grass is always greener…on my side.

“I can’t even imagine a life without cigarettes,” I said to a friend. This was maybe 15 years ago.

It was an existential problem for me at the time. All sorts of questions came up when I thought about quitting.

How would I drink my morning coffee without a smoke? What about meeting a friend for a beer in a bar? And what about that post-meal cigarette?!?

Now, I actually feel the same way – but flipped. It’s exactly the same feeling, except that now I can’t imagine life WITH cigarettes.

For example, I love my morning coffee so much that I can’t imagine dulling the rich aromas and subtle flavors with a cigarette.

I guess it’s sort of a “grass is always greener” conundrum – except that the grass is greener on whichever side I’m on.

I’m content where I am, without cigarettes. The grass is nice and green here, just like it was when I was a smoker.

2. Stop and smell the damn roses.

IMG_4350

You’ve probably heard that your sense of smell returns after you quit smoking. In my case, my sense of smell not only returned; it turned into a super power.

Olfaction Man!

Okay, maybe I’m not a superhero, but for some reason, I now have a better sense of smell than people who never smoked.

I don’t know if some of this is because of qigong and tai chi. It might be. Whatever happened, I love it.

Imagine being given a new sense. That’s how I feel, and it’s one of the things I’m most grateful for 10 years later.

Olfaction has become one of my most profound ways of interacting with the world.

Food is a totally different experience with strong olfaction. And coffee. And bourbon.

You’ve heard the phrase “stop and smell the roses.” It’s a cliche, of course. Take time out of your busy schedule to stop and enjoy life, right?

These days, I take the cliche literally. There are roses all over Florida, and I stop to smell them as often as I can.

And they smell amazing, dammit. I can’t get over how good roses smell. They smell like nirvana.

Today, I go through life a bit more like my dogs — nose first. I have a better idea of how dogs experience the world, and it’s pretty amazing.

Speaking of dogs, I love the way mine smell.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a good smell. I live in the country, and my dogs run around outside chasing birds and squirrels all day.

They smell like dirty dog. But I love it. The odor is somehow directly linked to how I feel about my dogs. And I love my dogs. When I smell them, it’s as if I’m inhaling love.

3. I don’t miss my ex.

I honestly thought that I would miss smoking. You know, like you miss your ex a few months after the big breakup.

I don’t. I don’t miss cigarettes. I don’t think about them. And if they come into my awareness, at a bar for example, there’s no allure.

I guess the Buddhists would call this non-attachment. I find the Chinese term for this fascinating:

wú niàn
無   念

This literally translates to “no thought,” but actually means “not affected by thought”.

Not affected by thoughts of cigarettes. Yes. That’s exactly what I experience now.

4. I do miss the darkness.

I won’t lie. I lost some of the darker, bad-boy aspects of my personality when I quit smoking.

The dark side has an allure, right? Otherwise, Yoda wouldn’t need to caution us against it all the time!

Being alive is hard. And you know what? Sometimes, death and darkness can be kind of sexy.

Not suicide. I know all about suicide, but I’m talking about something different.

None of us are getting out of this thing alive. We’re all dying slowly. Some of us just die slower than others.

And yet, how often do you actually feel your mortality?

Smoking helped me get in touch with my mortality, with the primordial darkness in my soul. I knew cigarettes were killing me – but I also knew that life itself was killing me.

Ironically, killing myself a little faster made me feel more alive. At the time, when I was battling an unknown demon in my early 20s (that demon turned out to be major depression), feeling alive was a big deal.

I miss that feeling. Luckily, I found a replacement in the most unlikely of places.

5. I found my original face.

A koan (gongan, 公案) is a tool that Zen teachers use to test a student’s progress. Here’s a famous example:

“Without thinking of good or evil, show me your original face before your mother and father were born.”

(#23 from the the Wumenguan, or Gateless Gate.)

It’s pretty trippy stuff, right?

Becoming a ex-smoker was like a Zen koan for me, and I found my original face. Or at least a new face.

After I quit, I felt like my entire consciousness was up for renegotiation. Talk about a zen moment!

Maybe that’s why quitting smoking is so hard – because it’s not just about changing habits. It’s about changing identity.

All is impermanent, as the Buddhists say. Now I understand what they mean. I see that even my face, my self-identity, is impermanent.

5. I’m no longer afraid.

Actually, that’s not true. I’m scared shitless all the time.

I was afraid to quit smoking, afraid to live a life without cigarettes. But I quit. And it taught me something.

I learned that Mark Twain was absolutely right, that courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s mastery over your fear.

Or as John Wayne put it:

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

Life is scary for most people. And for me too.

But something changed a few years after I quit smoking. Fear gradually had less and less of an effect on me.

It wasn’t just quitting that changed me. I think it was the combination of facing fears while simultaneously practicing meditative arts like qigong and tai chi.

Meditation gives you the ability to observe your thoughts rather than just get swept away by them.

I still feel fear. But I’m able to sit with the fear, to just notice it and observe it I can’t say that I am able to control my fear, but one thing is for sure: fear no longer controls me.

6. I slayed a dragon.

This one probably sounds cliche. I’m sorry. It’s still the truth.

Cliche or not, I feel like I can do just about anything now. That feeling started a few years after I quit smoking.

I slayed a dragon when I quit smoking. It was kind of epic.

Maybe you’re thinking that I’m different somehow. Maybe you think that I’m brimming with self confidence.

I’m not. I’m full of self doubt, even today.

Self-doubt and self-criticism are common features of major depression, and I’ve wrestled with these feelings my entire adult life.

And yet, I quit smoking. Ten years ago. I did that. It actually happened.

Reminding myself of this fact helps me to continue to slay my internal dragons, especially those nasty dragons of self-doubt.

7. Smoking was a spiritual tool.

Smoking brought out the worst in me – the bad habits, the darkness, not to mention the coughing.

But it also brought out some of the best aspects, even before I quit.

The desire to quit, even after multiple failures, for example. That’s something beautiful.

“Fall down seven times. Stand up eight.” – Japanese proverb

I kept trying to quit, but kept failing. Back then, I didn’t understand willpower, or how it gets depleted.

That stubbornness, that persistence, the fact that I kept trying – that’s the human spirit at work.

It’s odd to think about smoking as a spiritual tool. But that’s exactly what it was for me. Smoking was a catalyst for my own spiritual grown. No doubt about it.

8. Shame is a problem for us.

The world has changed. Smoking isn’t like it used to be.

I remember smoking in cafes in New York. My favorite spot was The Hungarian Pastry Shop near Columbia University. Smokers sat on one side of the cafe, and non-smokers on the other.

Good times! At least for smokers.

Things started changing in NYC even before I moved to Florida in 2004. People began shaming smokers. Once, a complete stranger actually yelled at me for smoking on the street. On the street!

The topic of shame wasn’t on my radar until a few years ago. Honestly, I didn’t think it applied to me.

Then I read Brene Brown’s books. I read them reluctantly at first, mainly because my wife recommended them.

(If you’re curious, Daring Greatly is a good place to start, or you can try her free TED talk on shame.)

Having read all of Brene Brown’s books, I can now admit that I had WAY more shame about smoking than I thought.

I still have shame about it. I feel shame right now writing this.

What I’ve learned is that shame can’t stand the light. It thrives in darkness. Talking about your shame is a great way to start bringing it into the light.

You see what I’m doing here by writing this? Please do the same thing for yourself. Please start bringing your shame into the light.

(Note: If you are communicating with someone about their shame, then please learn how to use empathy correctly. Otherwise, you might make them feel worse. Brene Brown’s books are a great resource for this.) 

9. Smoking was a mindfulness practice.

Smoking was meditative for me.

I smoked mindfully while drinking my coffee. I stared at the sky, mindfully, while taking a smoke break at work.

I was lucky. I was practicing mindfulness arts like qigong and tai chi long before I quit smoking.

When I finally quit, I quickly realized that some of my cravings were actually mindfulness cravings. I was craving a moment of zen, not just cigarettes.

Now I just breathe instead of smoking. I read somewhere that a typical cigarette last about 14 drags. So now I take Fourteen Breath Breaks. Breathing is amazing.

I think it’s important for smokers to keep their mindfulness habits, and transfer them somewhere else. Find whatever works for you, but recognize when you’re craving nicotine, and when you’re craving zen.

Quit smoking if you’re ready, but don’t quit mindfulness.

10. You Shouldn’t Quit

Over the last 8 years, I’ve helped about 2 dozen people to quit smoking.

And you know what? Most of them weren’t ready to quit when they came to me.

So my old article still applies. In fact, that article is what helped them to quit later.

Keyword: later.

I’m not saying that my method is the only way. But I know that it works, and not just for me.

It also happens to be a very zen approach.

I can just imagine the Zen master in the temple saying:

“Grasshopper, to quit smoking, first quit quitting.”

Final Thoughts

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. And don’t forget to practice empathy, not just toward me, but toward everyone!

Also, you should congratulate me. I’m celebrating. Smoke a cigarette for me, and make sure you enjoy the hell out of it. 

Mindfully yours,
Sifu Anthony

I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world to use qigong for their own stubborn health issues. I teach online courses, and also lead in-person retreats and workshops.

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17 Responses to 10 Zen Lessons I Learned From 10 Years Without Cigarettes

  1. Seth March 5, 2016 at 1:02 pm #

    Love this article. ..and was enjoying a smoke as I read it! Lol. I have been trying to shift into many different healthier habits for some time now, but smoking is something I’ve always felt like when it’s time, I’ll quit. I’m glad to say that time is approaching. I’m really beginning to notice how much of a hindrance it is to meditative and martial practices and I’ve just kind of had it. But as it is one of my few sources of comfort at the moment, I’ve decided to let it be a forced, but willing departure. I will be putting myself in a situation where I can’t smoke and at the same time will be developing healthier habits of eating well and practicing Kung fu and qigong. Since I am ready to quit, I believe this will be a relatively painless breakup, and I look forward to all of the rewards that you have listed here.
    Thank you as always for your empathetic and no-bullshit article. I love your approach.
    …and CONGRATULATIONS!!! 🙂

  2. Deb March 5, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

    Great article – I can relate to everything you said. I quit 2/21/09 and don’t miss them at all. As you said, I can’t imagine myself smoking again. Congrats, Sifu!

  3. Sharon March 5, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    I quit smoking on August 3, 1986, for my then boyfriend (it was his birthday). He didn’t smoke and I needed to give him a gift he’d appreciate. I didn’t tell him for several days in case it didn’t take. I too smoked with my coffee and after meals. When I quit smoking, I stopped most of the activities that I smoked before, during and/or after. I stopped taking breaks at work and I worked through lunch. I didn’t drink coffee (for a while) and I lost weight. I loved smoking and, for a number of years after I quit, I loved the smell of cigarette smoke. Until one day, I didn’t.

    Congratulations on not smoking for 10 years, Sifu!

  4. Canan Balaban March 5, 2016 at 2:51 pm #

    Congratulatıons! I am not a smoker. I am sure your artıcle wıll help many who wants to quıt smokıng. I admire your courage in sharing your feelings.

  5. Anne Young March 6, 2016 at 8:52 am #

    This morning during my early morning woodland walk, I passed through a placed strewn with little yellow flowers that had fallen from a vine in an overhead tree. I was suddenly aware of the blissful, very delicate scent that surrounded me, stopped in my tracks, remembered this article, and just enjoyed a moment of smoke-free gratitude. Not roses, but very effective! Thank you, Sifu, for again sharing your experience and wisdom,

  6. Sandy March 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

    Very inspiring article. I smoked for over 40 years. I could not imagine what living a life without smoking would be like. I FELT LIKE THERE WOULD BE NOTHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO. I did manage to stop smoking for 5 years at one time. But then I started again when I became friendly with some people who were big smokers. Then years later, there came a time when my asthma cropped up again after I had a cigarette. Asthma and bronchitis put me into a situation where I could not tolerate the cigarettes. I started using patch and actually stopped smoking. The asthma went away. It was not easy and I gained weight because I started eating ice cream every day so I had something to look forward to. I missed it terribly for a long time. And then one day, I DIDN’T. Just like that. Next month it will be 10 years for me. I sometimes feel like “spirit” was sending me a strong message with the asthma. And I am very grateful.

  7. Robin Schapiro March 7, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

    what i’m taking away is this – i ALWAYS downplay that i quit smoking. i don’t even remember when i did, except for the year. i don’t know why. but now i’m going to remind myself that i did do something hard. give myself credit for the good thing i did and not just the stupid shit. thanks again, sifu! nice to be in this with folks, sometimes. 🙂

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais March 7, 2016 at 12:49 pm #

      It’s hard giving yourself credit — almost as hard as quitting smoking. 🙂

  8. Luanne April 11, 2016 at 6:41 pm #

    Hello , I am almost there. Your blog articles have been more effective for me in a common sense reality way then anything I have read. And, I have read alot. See, I am 48, I have smoked since my teens. It was glamorous, cool. Now it isnt. I seem to be the last one left. It is shameful. I am embarassed by it. My children are embarassed by it. It is ruining my health and my looks. But I am very afraid. I cant imagine what it will be like in the absence of it. I know I will have to reinvent myself. It is all l know. The thought of being free is exciting though. Its as if I have been in prison all this time. Sneaking, hiding, planning, plotting. All for that cigarette. I am ashamed. I am excited to begin this journey. Thank you for being REAL, not some unattainable lecture from a non, never, smoker. Luanne

    • Sifu Anthony Korahais April 11, 2016 at 6:46 pm #

      Oh I’m so glad I’m able to help you somehow, Luanne! Work on that shame (try Brene Brown’s books), and keep at it. You can do this!

  9. Peggy September 6, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    Jolly good day to you all. Pat ourselves on the back for quitting, kick our own asses for smoking. I am told I quit approx. 8 years ago. I was smoking a pack and a half a day. Capri Menthol’s. I cant imagine that smoke in my space now. I too have heightened senses, all senses. Mostly from a brain surgery a year and a half ago. We lady’s would get together on Tuesday nights, Ladies night. We’d share yummy healthy organic offerings, drink whatever we drank, and we all chain smoked cigarettes. By the end of each eve we all felt a combination of Hell and Joy. We all ended up feeling like crap in the end and for me the obsession of an attachment like cigarettes, was just that. Another obsession, and with other smokers feeling we were the cool kids that stepped over the line and too a cooler and riskier road somehow. Of course we were just speeding up whatever suffering was to be had from our Freedom to spend so so so much money on our addictions. I remember the immediate change in income. Had no idea what I spent everyday til I quit and the change was immediate and a shock. I too, will never EVER tell another what path they should take. We all are on our own path with options and choices for each area of our lives. When I quit I walked away and never looked back, Somehow it was a piece of cake simple because I was done, that very long season was over. It became an over the top discussion for many in my social circle that Peggy quit smoking. The shift took place. In the end, my own forward shift inspired many others to follow suit. We were all strong women, we talked about it all the time as we chain smoked. Hmmmm. Saying it and doing it are two different planets. Peace of cake when your time is right. I smoked so often I had no idea what I’d fill my time with. Another surprise, more time for life and less time on rabid fixation. There it is. Be well to all, have a beautiful day and let there be no suffering.

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