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.
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.
Okay, maybe I’m not a superhero, but for some reason, I now have a better sense of smell than people who never smoked.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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. From the heart, Sifu Anthony