I was recently reminded of the battle smokers go through to quit. My story has many twists and turns which reach an ironic finish. If you’re in a hurry for the Taoist meat, skim some and skip to the ending, The Long Journey’s End.
I began to smoke when I came down with strep throat while in the Air Force. The sergeant told me that smoking would help with the pain, and it did. That I took him up on the offer was ironic for I was seriously into yoga at the time: eating vegetarian, doing asanas, and what now seems to me like goofy cleansing practices, i.e., shatkarma (1).
Fast forward a few years to wintertime in Perth, Australia, riding a motorcycle and smoking roll-my-owns. I’d ride to work in the morning and would have to wait until my fingers thawed enough to roll one. It was then I promised myself that I’d quit on my 21st birthday, and I did without batting an eye. My will power was at its zenith; downhill was where it would head, only to reach rock bottom in the middle of the Sahara desert seven years later — but that’s another story.
My vow to quit worked perfectly that first time. I ‘knew’ I would have my last cigarette when I reached twenty-one as I had promised myself. Predictably, I took up smoking again about a year later when I stayed with hill tribe people in North Thailand. They smoked their homegrown tobacco in a very cool, very long stem pipe. How could I resist. I easily quit again… only to take up rolling-my-own again a few years later with a tasty local-grown Vietnamese tobacco. After returning to the more peaceful surroundings of Thailand and Malaya, I came across a pleasant and somewhat sweet cigarette rolled in banana leaves. They were so yummy that when I boarded a ship for Japan, I abruptly quit smoking rather than switching 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 a 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 was 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 (the same Swedish girl). We patched things up, quit our jobs in Japan, and traveled West back toward Sweden. On the way, we stopped in India to study yoga at Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, still smoking I think.
When we reached Sweden, I decided to quit smoking yet again. This time turned out to be truly hard. I finally decided to take myself to the point of revulsion and create an aversion. That had worked for whiskey. I drank so much the first time that just the odor would be enough to send shivers down my spine for decades. The day came and I smoked one cigarette after the other until I’d polished off a whole pack. I looked and felt like I was going to die for a while. Indeed, Ingela nearly called for an ambulance. Well, I safely recovered and it worked for about a week! I had by then finally become truly addicted to tobacco. Interesting that it took so long to hook me fully, and from that time forward, I continued to struggle with it. For a while, I’d limit 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 grow my own tobacco. Smoking my own homegrown was the best. Yet, I really did want to quit. I tried various gimmicks, the aversion thing, throwing my pipe into the lake, making ‘contracts’ with Leslie, i.e., she wanted to lose weight, I wanted to stop smoking
The Long Journey’s End
Finally, I just came to the end of my rope. I accepted that I was destined to be a life long smoker. I gave up all notions 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. I finally began to see that visceral needs and fears, and nothing more, always drove my actions — or so it seemed. Doubting free choice certainly made utter acceptance of my smoker’s fate easy, if not seemingly inevitable.
Chapter 22 may best illustrate the oddest facet of this story — the ‘taoist’ element:
It is because he does not contend that no one in the empire is in a position
to contend with him. The way the ancients had it, ‘Bowed down then preserved’ is no empty saying. Truly it enables one to be preserved to the end.
Within a week of complete submission to my destiny as a smoker, I quit smoking. Of course, I’d quit smoking before, and in recent decades painfully so. This time quitting was completely and uniquely passive; my addiction just fell away from me like water off a duck’s back. I had finally taken the lower position; I’d stopped battling with myself over conflicting needs, i.e, I want to quit vs. I need to smoke. As chapter 61 says,
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.
Using stillness I had overcome the male. I had adopted the lower position and the battle ended. This signaled the end of my journey. My total submission allowed the dust of the battle between my needs and fears to settle. I could see what I truly wanted of life – not the battle, not the quitting per se, but rather peaceful self-honesty. If that meant smoking, so be it; it that meant not smoking, so be it.
Chapter 36 hints at the evolution of this,
If you would have a thing shrink, You must first stretch it;
If you would have a thing weakened, You must first strengthen it;
If you would have a thing laid aside, You must first set it up;
If you would take from a thing, You must first give to it.
This is called subtle discernment:
The submissive and weak will overcome the hard and strong.
Deep down more than anything, I didn’t want to be a slave to the addiction. The only way I could free myself was through total surrender to the addiction. The process of life 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 how I even knew about it. Yoga in those days was not common. I do remember picking up a book about it in a Denver bookstore.