It is said that the average smoker will try and fail to quit smoking seven times before they finally succeed, if they succeed at all. Nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, more chemically addictive than heroin, alcohol, cocaine, or caffeine. Smoking causes respiratory diseases, is closely linked to several kinds of cancers, and results in an increased risk of stroke and heart failure. Beyond the litany of detrimental health effects, cigarettes have a way of taking over one's life. As any smoker will know, whether or not he or she chooses to admit it, nicotine cravings can shape ones schedule, work, relationships, and daily habits. Give cigarettes a chance and they will own you. Consider yourself warned.
I smoked heavily for seven years. I had my first cigarette as a senior in high school one night when the parents were away and I was feeling bold. Then, still in school, I started working nights at an all-night diner, slinging eggs and pancakes until dawn. After work, I'd shower, gather up my books, smoke another ciggy and head off to school, all abuzz with nicotine and caffeine and financial independence. Smokes and coffee became a way of life, a means by which to extend my waking hours indefinitely until light and dark, day and night were lost in the grey nicotine haze.
Eventually, I started living more healthfully. I made time for sleep. I started eating fresh, whole foods and drinking more water. A couple more years down the road, I started doing yoga. But I still smoked. A lot. It became part of my identity. I was "a smoker" and to change that would mean to change an element of my character, to give up a little piece of who I thought I was. And yet, I hated myself for smoking, and I realize now that I smoked because I hated myself. It became a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior, deciding every day to quit, and every day failing to act on that decision. This pattern created a deep rut in my psyche that became more and more impossible to emerge from. The yoga scholars among you may recognize this pattern as samskara.
"Samskara: mental impressions stored in the subtle body and existing as an archetype for the brain (Hatha Yoga Pradipika)."By continually allowing myself to light up in spite of my compulsion to quit, I created an ever-deepening imprint on my mind. With every failure to act on my desire to quit smoking, my resistance to cigarettes became weaker and weaker.
Yoga, as it tends to be, was the catalyst for change. In spite of the smoking, my body responded quickly to the physical practice. I grew strong and vibrant. I learned to love and honor my physical body... but I also learned that my body is not me. I am not the body, and though the body suffered less as a result of the practice, the state of my mind, skewed as it was, became more and more apparent.
Meditation brought the issue front and center. I learned to step back and quietly observe, to allow truth to surface. Whenever I sat, the reality of my smoking habit was always the first to disturb my peace. The thoughts would sneak up and take over, How much have I smoked today? Way too much. I'm killing myself. I'm going to die of cancer. Maybe I'll quit today. Maybe I'll never have another cigarette again. Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? I'll light up after practice like I always do... And so it went. Every day.
I had made one serious but failed attempt to quit a year before the final smoke. It lasted about a week, and my mind worked overtime day and night trying to justify another cigarette. Eventually, it succeeded and I caved. So how did I finally quit for good? Not with iron will, or mind-over-matter mentality. Not with harshness or rules or self-abasement. Just the opposite. I was finally able to quit smoking, cold turkey and without any pharmaceutical assistance, with compassion, acceptance, and patience.
I arrived at a place of acceptance. Acceptance for myself, for my past, my habits, and my desires. I fully realized that my decision to quit smoking was not going to make the cravings stop. I came to accept the fact that I WOULD experience cravings, and that these cravings would cause me suffering ONLY if I continued to berate myself for having them. I replaced the self-loathing with compassion, supplanted the harshness of my resolve with softness and patience. I acknowledged my nicotine cravings without judgement, but rather as a normal and necessary part of the quitting process. With this attitude of mindful compassion and acceptance, quitting became easy. After a few days, the cravings slowed and, after a few weeks, they ceased altogether.
I am not a smoker anymore, but somehow, I am still me. Just a freer, healthier, and happier version. The smoke-free me revels in the peaceful quiet of meditation, undisturbed by the constant conflict of dependency, and drinks the sweetness of the breath, unblemished by the ruins of tar-filled lungs.