One night, several years ago, I was talking to an old friend on the phone and he asked me how I was doing with my tobacco abstinence. I told him I had still not smoked – six months at that time – but it was not unusual for me to ‘miss’ it when I felt stressed or unhappy. He said one of these days he would turn over his new leaf and go on a diet and start exercising.
My addiction is to breathe in something that will relieve the pain, if only for a little while; his addiction is to swallow something that will relieve the pain, if only for a little while.
I told him how I had felt the night when I had so suddenly quit a forty+ year habit. “I was very unhappy and alone in the world. Although my dog Emmie’s spirit remained good, she was drawing closer to death every day. I had money problems and physically I just didn’t feel so good. When I looked ahead, I no longer believed that tomorrow would be any better than today.”
In the past, when I would feel overwhelmed by life or on the brink of a deep, deep sorrow, having a cigarette would muffle the edges just the slightest bit, just the tiniest bit of a reprieve and I would feel better if only for a few minutes. But in those last few weeks, even having a smoke didn’t help. The real reason I quit smoking was it just wasn’t working anymore.
Smoking is very déclassé these days. There’s even more social acceptance if you are hooked on drugs or alcohol. At least then you can go to some ritzy rehab clinic and emerge a newer, better, stronger person. But smoking is considered a ‘dirty’ habit that not only affects the user but the second hand smoke kills others around him – which is ironic because alcohol and drugs ruin individuals and families everyday.
Everyone has a deep sorrow or sometimes it is experienced as fear – somewhere in their psyche or soul or mind or heart – I don’t know if it can be in all those various locations but it is tenacious in its grip and terrifying in its revelations. When we feel this sadness it is so profound that we will do anything not to go into its depths – for fear of not emerging. So we run from it, or try to cover it up, or try to feed it, or try to silence it, etc.
But it cannot be evaded or satisfied or silenced. That night before I quit smoking, my question to the universe was “what can I do to make my life better?” or in other words, how can I be happy. The answer was to stop smoking. Not that not smoking was going to make me happy but that I could not understand how to be happy unless I stopped smoking. In other words until I stopped running away, until I lived with this great loneliness, this great sorrow, I would not be able to transcend it.
The existential question is “What can I do to make ‘me’ happy?” But it is a trick question. Who is the “I” who feels it must act, and who is the “me” who is demanding to be happy? I know for sure that the ‘me’ is the ego, that self-centered, frightened, survival-dominated part of my mind who never has enough love or safety or possessions or security. If this ‘me’ can never be happy or satisfied, or no thing ever satisfies the ‘me’, then why do “I” go on trying?
How can I make tomorrow better than today? How can I pursue happiness? Isn’t happiness another illusion? Isn’t it a temporary state that some times exists because the ‘wanting’ is temporarily silenced and when that desire is satisfied another soon rises in its place. It is not in the nature of the ‘me,’ of the ego to ever be satisfied.
When smoking no longer temporarily silenced the wanting, there was nothing left to do. There were no more pain killers. The pain must be lived with on a daily basis, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. It is only in living with pain that we can see through it.