I was recently reminded of the battle smokers go through to quit. My story may contains more twists and turns than most, however, and ends with an ironic finish. This post is a bit long, so skim some and then go down to “The End Of A Long Journey” for the Taoist meat.
It all began when I came down with strep throat while in the Air Force. The sergeant told me that smoking would help with the pain. It did. That I took him up on the offer was ironic for I was seriously into yoga(1) at the time: vegetarian, postures, and what seems to me now like goofy cleansing practices. Oh well, no one ever accused me of being consistent, especially in those teenage years.
Fast forward a few years to winter time in Perth Australia, riding a motorcycle, and smoking roll-my-owns. I’d ride to work in the morning and have to wait until my fingers thawed out enough to manipulate the paper and tobacco. It was then that I promised myself I’d quit on my 21st birthday. I did, without batting an eye. My will power was at its zenith; downhill was were it would be headed, only to reach bottom in the middle of the Sahara desert seven years later. But that’s another story.
That vow to quit worked perfectly that first time. I “knew” I would have my last cigarette when I reached 21 as I had promised myself. I took up smoking again a year or so later when I stayed with hill tribe people in Thailand. As I remember, they smoked home grown tobacco using a ‘cool’ long stem pipe. How could I resist. I quit easily again for awhile, only to take up with a tasty local-grown Vietnamese tobacco in roll-my-owns. After returning to more peaceful surrounding of Thailand and Malaya, I fell in with very pleasant, somewhat sweet, cigarettes rolled in banana leaves. They were so yummy that when I boarded a ship for Japan, I abruptly quit smoking rather than switch to “that nasty Virginia tobacco”. Quitting was still easy somehow (as was starting up again).
I took up smoking again in Sweden over a bottle of wine shared with new Swedish girl friend who offered me a cigarette. Drinking and smoking go so well together; I’m sure many have relapsed because of alcohol. I don’t think I really got hooked then though – cigarettes were so outrageously expensive there. When winter approached, she and I hit the road south through West Africa.
The next time I remember taking up smoking was some years later during a rough patch in my marriage (with Ingela, that Swedish girl friend above). We patched things up and traveled West back toward Sweden after three years in Japan. There in Sweden, I decided to quit smoking yet again. This time was to be truly hard. My idea was to go to the point of revulsion and create an aversion. I mean, that had worked for whiskey. I drank so much the first time, just the odor would be enough to send shivers down my spine.
I smoked one cigarette after the other until I’d polished of a whole pack. I looked and felt like I was going to die for a while. Indeed, we nearly call for an ambulance. She wanted to, but you know how men are loathe to go to doctors. Well, I recovered and it worked for about a week. I had by then finally become addicted to tobacco. Interesting that it took so long to truly hook me, and from here on out I continue to struggle with it. For awhile I limited myself to only smoking butts which I found on the ground. Perhaps that was the last straw in our marriage; Ingela could take no more of my weird, eccentric, unconventional nature.
Traveling through South America with Leslie (my future and final wife) I limited myself to buying one cigarette at a time from local folks. We soon returned to USA to settle down, at which time I started a garden and began to grown my own tobacco. Smoking your own home grown was the best. Yet, I really did want to quit. I tried various gimics, the aversion thing, throwing my pipe into the lake, making contracts with Leslie, i.e., she wanted to loose weight, I wanted to stop smoking.
The End Of A Long Journey
Finally, I just came to the end of my rope. I realized I was destined to be a life long smoker. I’d given up any notion of ever quitting. I’d even begun to give up the notion that I had any free will to choose anything at all in life. My actions, I noticed, were always driven by what I needed or feared… and nothing more, or so it seemed. Doubting free choice certainly made utter acceptance of my smoker’s fate easy, if not inevitable.
The odd part of this story, the ‘taoist’ part, may be best illustrated by chapter 22:
Within a week of complete submission (“bowing down”) to my fate as a smoker, I quit smoking. Of course, I’d done that before, painfully so over the last years. This time, quitting was completely passive; my addiction just fell away from me like water off a ducks back. I had finally taken the lower position; I’d stopped battling with myself over conflicting needs – I want to quit vs. I need to smoke (i.e., addiction).
In the union of the world, The female always gets the better of the male by stillness. Being still, she takes the lower position. It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position to contend with him.
I had surrendered the “male” and turned to the “female”. This signaled the end of my journey. I had utterly given myself to smoking; now I could take myself from it. I had set it up; now I could lay it aside. My total submission allowed the dust of the battle field to settle. I could see what I truly wanted of life – not the battle, not the quitting per se, but rather, to peaceful self honesty. If that meant smoking, so be it; it that meant not smoking, so be it. Deep down I wanted more than anything to not be a slave to the addiction. The only way I could free myself was through total surrender to the addiction. Life (the process) can be most baffling which brings me back around to Chapter 1 and the question: To be a slave or to be free?
(1) I can’t for the life of me remember why I was drawn to yoga, or even knew about it. Yoga in those days was not common. I do remember picking up a book on it in a Denver bookstore.