Zen and the Art of Not Smoking

There’s a tough to process but very important Buddhist concept called anattā which means “no-self.” In very brief and very poor layman’s terms, the idea is that the unchanging and eternal self is an illusion, our identity is constantly shifting and born from the clash of an ever-changing storm of forces. “No-Self” is the lynchpin of Buddhist thought, it’s considered to be one of the three marks of existence shared by every sentient being, it’s directly tied to the notion of dependent origination, and it’s the key to liberation. So much of our suffering and dissatisfaction comes from the “I” stories we tell ourselves.

I understood anattā a lot better when I quit smoking, or as I still think of it constantly, “Today, I chose not to smoke.” I had tried to quit smoking before but it had never worked, it never stuck. I knew people who had tried to quit smoking before and they never made it more than a couple of months. One friend of mine regularly quits every couple of months, only to start right back up again. Barring those sometimes smokers and the people who I suspect have a genetic trait that runs counter to physical addiction, the people I know who had stopped smoking and hadn’t started up again all did it without the aid of patches, pills, or gum. The only way is to sweat out the week of physical withdrawals then commence the mental battle until you’re through the woods.

After several days of choosing not to smoke, I remember one day thinking how “weird” it was to not be smoking. Then I remembered being a kid and hating smoking with every core of my being. My father chained one cigarette after another, burning through several packs a day. On his day off, after finishing the grass, he’d sit in the television room and watch war movies and smoke cigarette after cigarette. I couldn’t stand to be in that room. The haze was so thick. It burned my eyes. And it stank something awful. I swore when I was a kid that I would never smoke cigarettes. There was even a teenage relationship of mine that had difficulties because she smoked and I hated it. If you had asked anyone if Chad would ever smoke cigarettes, they would have told you no.

Not smoking was part of the unchanging and eternal “Chadness” for me.

But see, then I did start smoking once I went to college. There was a girl I really dug who smoked, a friend who had picked it up over the summer, and an entire LARP where pretty much everyone smoked cigarettes so if you ever wanted to interact you had no choice but go outside and step into the cloud.

After college, I never stopped. I smoked a lot. And often. I liked smoking. It was a ritual. Wake up, smoke a cigarette. Drive to work, smoke a cigarette. Take my break, smoke a cigarette. It was relaxing. Stressed, smoke a cigarette. Anxious, smoke a cigarette. It was helpful. Awkward new social situation, smoke a cigarette. If you asked me, I would have told you that I was smoker and would always be one.

Smoking was part of that unchanging and eternal “Chadness.”

It wasn’t until I chose not to smoke that I remembered both times, that I saw each side by side and remembered how everlasting each had felt when they were perceived to be true. It was a liberating and fulfilling realization. And one I keep trying to go back to.

Then just the other day, before the start of my vacation, I was walking from Bloomington Bagel Company to my office on campus. It was early. Still pretty quiet. Not too warm, a little cool in fact. As I walked and ate my bagel, I was thinking on anattā, rolling the concept around in my thoughts, trying to apply that insight quitting smoking gave me, when I had this sudden revelation about “no-self” in regards to death. It filled me with such intense warmth and such a deep sense of comfort, I found myself crossing the bridge over the Jordan and smiling like a madman. For the seven steps it took me to go from one end of the bridge to the other, I was without fear and anxiety. I mean that completely. No fear about what the workday would bring, no fear about whether I’d have enough money this month to pay every bill that needed paying, no fear about my wife’s blindness and what it will mean for her and for me, and no fear of death.

Then, once on the other side, I couldn’t remember it. Whatever it was. Whatever connection I had made, whatever insight I had had into the human condition, whatever it was and whatever you want to call it, it was gone.

Immediately afterward, it made me a little sad.

Later in the day, walking around on my lunch break, it made me laugh.

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