Researcher say nicotine is as addictive as cocaine. Perhaps, but then I only know the nicotine side of this. My story has many twists and turns which come to an ironic end. If you’re in a hurry for the Taoist aspect, skim some and skip to the ending, The Long Journey’s End.
I began smoking 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 my will power would head, only to reach rock bottom in 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. Even so, I took up smoking again about a year later while staying with hill tribe people in Thailand. They smoked their homegrown tobacco in cool, long stem pipes. How could I resist. I easily quit again… only to take up rolling-my-own again a few years later using 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 (I believe). They were so good that when I boarded a ship for Japan, I abruptly quit smoking again rather than switch to commercial tobacco. Somehow, quitting was still as easy as starting again.
I began 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… relapsing is easy! Yet, I doubt that I was truly hooked even then. Cigarettes were so expensive in Sweden that I didn’t really make it a habit there. Beside, we were saving our money to hitchhike south to West Africa come winter.
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 an ordeal! 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 recovered and it worked for about a week! I had finally become utterly addicted to tobacco. Interesting that it took so long to hook me fully, and from then on, 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 (p.587) anything at all in life. I finally began to see that visceral needs and fears, and nothing more, always appeared to drive my actions. 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?”
These two are the same, But diverge in name as they issue forth. Being the same they are called mysteries, Mystery upon mystery, The gateway of the manifold secrets.
(1) I can’t remember why I was drawn to or even knew about yoga. Yoga in those days was not common. I do remember picking up a yoga book in a Denver bookstore.
Precisely! You’d think people like Stephen Mitchell would offer there work as ‘interpretations’ rather than ‘translations’. Of course, for all I know, many have (???)
Dan, this question deserves a succinct reply! I’ll ponder it awhile and post my two cents as pithy as possible.
Dan Littler says
I agree with you, Lau’s translation appears to leave out a lot of the, well, let’s say “flowery embellishments”, that I’ve found in a lot of other versions. The translators often use their own interpretation of living according to the Tao, so this can muddy the transmission of what was actually written. With only academic feelings towards the Tao Te Ching, Lau was able to translate in a more direct way.
I started out reading Stephen Mitchell’s version, which is completely different. He attempts to translate his personal take on the ideas behind each verse, which was great for me initially, as it makes the subject matter more accessible, but since reading Lau, I’ve concluded that Mitchell has taken altogether too many liberties, making it hard for the reader to form their own feelings about what is meant. This, of course, is key. We each understand and experience the Tao in a personal and unique way.
I’ve never thought of desire as need+thought. What a marvellous way of thinking about it. I’m only beginning to be aware now of just how much influence thought habits and the focus of one’s thoughts can have. Hence, these little aids to thinking are helpful.
So, I’d like to ask, since you seem to have led (presumably still are leading) a very full and interesting life, do you have any life advice for a man approaching 30 who recently discovered Taoism? It seems an odd question perhaps, but one that I quite often ask: I hope later in life to be able to pass down my life experience to those young enough to use it, and I tend to assume others feel the same.
Thanks for those kind words. I’m always happy to hear my observations may have use.
Now, I don’t see ‘following the way’ or ‘doing what come naturally’ as meaning to “feeding our addictions”. Addiction is really just desire (need + thought). Need, deep down, stems from fear. You could say addiction is a way of filling up one’s fear of the emptiness (void) we all feel.
‘Following the way’ means embracing the emptiness, rather than escaping it by filling (accumulation, addition, gluttony, intoxication, etc.). We spend much of life contending, by having one set of desires at odds with other sets of desires. Addiction is one manifestation of this war of ‘filling’ we wage with ourselves. True surrender is the surrendering of fears… and therefore needs. In surrendering fear, one becomes a formidable “warrior” in spirit (i.e., not actual combat these days generally).
One reason D.C. Lau’s translation is good is that it is very faithful translation of the original Chinese. Not surprising as D.C. Lau is a Chinese scholar. I was surprised to learn recently that many popular translations are actually not translations. They are interpretations of actual translations, like D.C. Lau’s. I find the original Chinese the most accurate transmission of the ‘taoist’ view. Perhaps simply because it uses less words. The more words spoken the more chancy the transmission. Interpreting a translation just increases that chanciness, in my view.
The only weakness in D.C. Lau’s may stem from a possibility that he is not a ‘taoist’. I got that idea from what he wrote in the forward in his translation. Also, I notice discrepancies as I’ve compare the original Chinese with his translation. Nevertheless, it is 98% faithful to the original, and just superb!
Dan Littler says
I felt the need to write you a note thanking you for sharing this experience of applying Taoism to everyday problems. I’ve only recently discovered these ideas, about two months ago, and I’m obviously having a few issues around using these ideas to solve each problem in my life. So far, one problem at a time, it’s happening. However, the concept of addiction puzzled me, as it seemed to me that one following the Tao might end up in fact following their addiction. Doing what comes naturally means feeding our addictions, I figured. I haven’t got used to surrendering myself to every situation yet, but I found your story to be inspirational, so thank you for expanding my understanding of using Taoist philosophy.
Additionally, it’s nice to see someone else using the D C Lau translation, everyone else on the internet seems to be using someone different, but after sampling a few, this is the one I return to.
Lynn Cornish says
Interesting to me is that Bill Wilson came to the very same conclusion in his battle with alcohol. His surrender was to admit his powerlessness over the addiction and to turn his will and his life over to the care of God. In his words,he had to “stop fighting everybody and everything, even alcohol.” He tells people who doubt they are powerless to go ahead and drink some more and see if they can control it. If they can, good for them! If not, AA is waiting for them to come back.