I started smoking in 8th grade, when I was only 15. My father smoked so I emulated him, sneaking cigarettes at first from his packs and then later, from 18 on, buying cartons at a time. By college I was a pack-a-day smoker, with favorite brands I identified with: Old Gold, Kent, Camel non-filter. I had friends who were also smokers since high school and I felt more “cool”—less of a nerd—by smoking. It began to represent me as a habit I thought was part of my persona. I smoked when I drank coffee, studied, wrote poetry, journalled. These all became intertwined as a pattern that I believed identified me as an individual.
But I was also athletic in college; I was on a successful fencing team. These two practices of smoking and fencing clashed. I learned this the hard way when once, at a fencing tournament in Rhode Island that I had worked hard with two of my teammates to qualify for, I literally collapsed on the strip after just a few seconds, unable to get my breath. I lost this bout; winning it would have let me move on to the next round in the tourney. That very evening at the hotel, by synchronicity–and divine intervention–I saw a program on TV about what the lungs of a smoker can look like. I committed that night to quit the habit.
It took me exactly a year to break the habit. I started by switching to low tar and nicotine brands, True and Carlton. I allowed myself to smoke as many of these as I liked, but no other brands. These were bland and relatively tasteless compared to the heavy duty brands I had used before, so my desire gradually weakened. Then, for the grand finale of a month or so, I switched to salted sunflower seeds. I allowed myself to eat as many of these as I liked, to satisfy the oral fixation smoking had established. I filled glass after glass with the hulls of seeds I ingested, replacing salt and the cracking of seeds for the nicotine and smoke of cigarettes.
It worked. I reached the point where I would rather have nothing in my mouth than another sunflower seed. A few months later I attended a college lecture with a roommate of mine who smoked, Michael. Triggered by a disagreement with something the speaker had said, I asked, “Michael, give me a cigarette!” I took one drag, though, and I felt a nauseating, “negative” charge of electricity that spread in moments from my head to my toes. I put out the cigarette immediately, and I have never had the slightest inkling of a desire to smoke, ever again. That was 1975.
Quitting smoking was amazing in my life for its results. I could BREATHE again. My head and thoughts felt CLEAR, as if for the first time ever. I could CONTEMPLATE—which I have daily since 1974 as a spiritual practice—and not feel “earthbound” with a clouded mind. I felt FREE to think, to explore, to thrive.
In retrospect, quitting smoking counted as a success, as a coup, something I have been able to bank upon many times since whenever other negative habits or thoughts have developed in my life. If I could break the smoking habit (and around the same time, drinking alcohol, which dropped away very easily, though), I could detach myself from anything, or anyone, that might otherwise hold me down or hold me back from pursuing my dreams. Quitting a ‘bad’ habit gave me the strength to implement good habits based on self-discipline and freed me to pursue my dreams with passion instead of compulsion.