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November 10th, 2013

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05:31 am - No regrets

"The outside of oneself is hard and protected, as if by a thick shield or a wall. It is only because of love, trust, and the transcendence of egos that we can allow our bodies to merge and our hearts to beat as one."
- A.G.

I have never had regrets that I started to smoke. There is a story behind it. It involves the girl who loved me and whom I still love...

We were asked to be the bridesmaid and the best man at our best friends’ wedding. Since we did not know each other, at least not in person, we met a few days earlier to chat and generally get acquainted. I arrived with a bouquet of spring flowers, because it is what the best man does. Also because, it was an early spring. She was sitting at a cafe table sipping black coffee, no milk, her dress matching the flowers I brought, an amethyst ring on her middle finger, a simple silver necklace and bracelets on her wrists, sensuous, radiant and beautiful.

We are planning for but a brief chat about the wedding and about our friends. But one topic led to another, a quick cup of coffee morphed into a dinner, the dinner into another conversation. "I would like this to never end", I thought but said nothing; for this is not what the best man says, especially, not on the first date. Besides, each of us had other duties to attend. So, we called it a night.

I called her few times during the next week to check on various things and then the day of the wedding arrived. She was even more beautiful, more radiant, and we danced and talked late into night.

I did not call her for a while, maybe too busy, maybe not willing to reveal too much, not yet at least. But long before the next weekend I gave her a ring just to check on the things and see what the perspectives might be. "Hello!" she greeted me, "I knew it was you calling". "How could you possibly know such a thing?" I asked because, at that time, the caller IDs were not yet invented. "When it's you, the phone rings differently", she laughed and right there and then I knew that, this time, the gods might be on our side.

We met for a dinner on the river's high bank and talked over a bottle of wine about taking chances and kites flying nuances, for even then I loved building kites. And then we talked about ahimsa (no-harm), a vegetarian cuisine, my thesis about animal rights (in progress), her thesis about the dynamics in gypsy communities (also in progress), and the differences between the Theravada Buddhism, with its ideal of arahat who aims at the individual liberation, and Mahayana Buddhism, with the ideal of bodhisattva who postpones such liberation for as long as there is anyone needing his or her help. Yes our conversation was long and meandering. And, sure, maybe I was a bit boring, for at these days I was even more long winded than I have become later. The fact is, she seemed to like what I had to saying and I loved the music of her voice and her musings about French existentialism, Irish poetry, her thesis, and anything else she wanted to talk about.

Few days later we met again, this time for a dinner at her place. She already knew I have not eaten meat for years. So, she fixes a delicious vegetarian pizza for us, from scratch, the 10th level of perfection hit especially that I had never had a pizza before. "I think I will continue like this for 7 more weeks", she says. "49 days of eating pizza?" I asked though I already knew what she had in mind. "No, silly man" she laughed. "49 days without meat. 7 weeks. That's how long it took Siddhartha Gautama to reach his Great Awakening and become the Buddha. maybe it will be enough for me, too, to make a little bit of progress on my path to self-discovery. Don't you think?" "And what is going to happen the?", I asked. "Then we shall see" she smiled and we left that topic there.

But we talked some more about then and now and many other things, sometimes stepping outside so she could take a puff. I did not like it too much but it did not look like there would be much progress on this front soon. Still, how many times you meet a girl who stops eating meat after but two conversations with you, even if it's only a trial? So, I thought, I'll put up with her smoking at least for a while.

and then came that time when friendly hugs started to feel more like affectionate embraces. And right when I was beginning to feel it, right before I was about to make the next step, she stopped, "why will not you have a cigarette, too, Sir?" "Why would I like to have one?", I shrugged it off for my quite rigid rules for healthy living did not allow for such a stupid thing. "Well, many philosophers smoke", she says, "Sartre and Camus surely did". "As if what some continental folks think or do could sway someone already entrenched in the analytic camp and already on the path to healthy living", I laughed it off again. But she was, well, so... insistent, "My father smokes in films and on a stage, too, when his role calls for it. Surely one cigarette is not going to hurt you or anyone else". So, I asked jokingly, "Do you want me to play a role of some French intellectual?" "You know", she smiles, "French folks have a good reputation in terms of their taste for food, wine, jazz and a few other things". So I turned up the Modern Jazz Quartet even so slightly for, at this point, some things were obvious. It was not about us playing any roles. Then I took a puff or two off her cigarette and we kiss for the first time.

Some days she would drop by my bachelor's pad on her way to school (we were both doctoral students at the University of Warsaw and I lived exactly on the way). "I just like your cooking", she would say. So, I invent and then perfected some crazy dishes just for her. Like, for example, the Polish toast which you can make exactly like a French toast except you skip all the sweet pleasantries and cinnamon and make it sharp and spicy, sort of like a pizza or eggplant parmesan. Then you can serve it with fresh leaves of spinach or romaine, cilantro, and chopped scallions. Magically, it would score the perfect 10 from her every time she was around. It must have been the beginners luck, I thought... The fact is, it all felt natural when we were together including these moments when we were taking a break to step outside. She would sip her coffee slowly from her favorite mug, one with the smiling honey bee and a rainbow. And then we would share a cigarette, just one, and acting like some French intellectuals sitting at the sidewalk cafe, we would watch spring clouds and dragons floating in the air.

For there was magic in those quick breakfasts that sometimes morphed into long lunches and even longer dinners. And there was magic between us, too. And when she was gone and I felt really alone, sometimes I would have one more, she entering me in each and every drag, each inhalation filling me with her presence.

Years later a friend of mine, a Lakota man, invited me to a sweat lodge ceremony. We build the lodge from scratch in silence accentuated only by the beat of drums, the entrance facing the sacred fire, entered it one by one to the steady pulse of a chant, a calumet-pipe shared after words. In every inhalation I felt the Divine entering me, feeling in my inside and everything around. And if it sounds sacrilege, so be it. But those puffs off my girl's cigarette were full of the same sacred energy, too.

Soon, we become quite crazy about each other. I remember one time we went to a country fair and, on a spur of a moment, she said "This Gypsy woman over there! She seems so intriguing". "Wanna have a reading?" I asked. "No, I'd like you to have one" she glances around (she was quite funny doing these sorts of things), "as I watch with my anthropological eye and take notes". To these days I have no clue how the Gypsy woman knew to make a point there is a connection between me and a certain Aries girl born right in the middle of April. The fact is, that's when she was born, exactly on the 15th. It was one time I knew in the marrow of my bones I am with someone with whom to have a big bad growling Cerberus to protect our gait and a purring mouse-catcher with a quick furry tail, maybe even a girl and a boy, too, or a few. And then spend the rest of our days making love and raising them.

Looking back, a house needs solid walls to protect those who live within. But sometimes walls can become too thick, the house turns into a castle great for keeping adversaries away but just as efficient in keeping away friends. And sometimes a castle morphs into a complex maze encircling, constraining and preventing us from living in the real world. So, yes, solid walls are important but so are the doors and the windows that can be opened widely letting the air and sunlight in. And, similarly, if we have to make a maze, let us not make it too complex and let us leave a thread behind. So, someone can find a path leading to us and we can find the path leading back.

The same is true about rules. Sure, we need them to protect ourselves and our loved ones. But if we make them too rigid they turn into a stifling maze that thwarts us and becomes an obstacle rather than a help on the path. And so, the old rule have evolved into something new, just one and a half cigarettes a day, sometimes two, as a form of meditation, a ritual allowing to relax, reset, and find myself again.

Now, widely open windows and doors allow for the sun and air to enter in. But they also create an opening for dust and noise. Similarly, I am not an absolutist; a rule that admits to but few well defined exceptions seems ok. But, if you allow for too many, the rule bends too far, breaks, dissipates. Like I said, I have never regretted that I started smoking. But I regret I continued when it was time to stop.

There are many reasons for this. First, as an act of solidarity with all the animals first tortured by tobacco companies in tests designed to discover how to addict us to nicotine and then tortured by pharmaceutical companies in tests allegedly designed to discover how to cure the cancer caused by our addictions. I cannot condone, or even appear to give an excuse, for this sort of "research". Furthermore, yes, perhaps one cigarette has not yet harmed anyone. And, sure, I was smoking organic tobacco, because the wellbeing of environment has been close to my heart. Still I am not on a stage where my role requires a puff, and I do not even want to appear like I do not care about my health and the health of other beings. Most importantly, perhaps, when I am in love again, or when I even think I may be falling, I do not want us to hold on and hesitate when our lips are about to meet.

So, I decide to take a break. At first I have chosen to allow myself few exceptions for the times when I am on a stage, perhaps running a show, or between the sets, especially when the environment is new to me and it is harder to use available natural resources (like sitting meditation) and yet you need to remain focused, alert, and loose. In addition, having some exceptions is sometimes good in a process of self-discovery. Exceptions force us to abandon flying on an automatic pilot, they require to pay attention to each and every moment and especially to the moment right before taking a drag. For, otherwise, how can you know whether or not an exception applies? Exceptions are like windows in the wall; they let the air in and help to shed new light on old situations. They open us to air and light but, as we know, they also open us to risks. Thus, to counterbalance them and remain honest, I decided to duplicate the same activities without allowing myself any exceptions: one week I would perform on a stage after having a cigarette another without having any. And quickly I started to make discoveries.

First, I discovered that it is very hard to smoke but two cigarettes a night, and stop there. Once you allow yourself two, the third one tries its best to sneak in through the slightly cracked door, and then sometimes the forth one cries its way in, too, perhaps on the way home, when all is said and done. Furthermore, some of these cigarettes are meditations grounded in choices but others, not so much. Rather, they are giving in to cravings. I like this discovery and disliked what I discovered profusely. And I also discovered that it is easier not to smoke at all than to allow yourself but two per night and then stop.

Second, I discovered there is a clearly identifiable difference between wants grounded in needs and wants grounded in cravings. In essence, some things are necessary for our flourishing, others are not. Basically, no one can do it without clean air and water, adequate food, security, friendship, absence from a prolonged intense suffering, and so on. We need these things and we want to be in situations where these needs are fulfilled. Assuming we are not too neurotic about it, however, once our needs are fulfilled we stop worrying and obsessing about them; we do not form persistent conscious desires that drive us to do things that objectively are not very healthy. Once our needs are fulfilled we move on or, at least, that's how we are supposed to be and function according to a philosophical tradition going back to Aristotle and his concept of eudaimonia. Essentially, human beings have both biological and intellectual nature. Thus, to us to flourish and be truly happy, both our biological and intellectual needs must be fulfilled.

Cravings are very different in at least one important respect. Namely, they have nothing to do with our needs. They are not grounded in or connected to our flourishing; rather, they are not grounded in anything, they are self-perpetuating. Consequently, they cannot be fulfilled; the best you can hope for is to push a craving a little bit behind the line of horizon and keep it there for a while. But soon, it sneaks upon you again and so you smoke another cigarette just trying to keep your craving at bay and the vicious cycle starts again. For, unfortunately, once you give in to a craving there is no end to it, you give in again and again, and soon things start to collapse.

Third, I discovered that, when I smoke, I tend to breathe very slowly and deeply, involving a diaphragm, in a way akin to a zazen breathing that I do doing a sitting meditation. It was a very interesting discovery; in a way it was the crucial one. For it looked like it was not so much about smoking in the first place but rather about using cigarettes as a sort of crutch to generate deeper form of breathing. But if what is essential to this whole thing is using diaphragm and breathing in a way analogous to doing zazen, then why not to reject a crutch completely and just focus on the breathing itself. This last discovery was quite liberating. After two weeks of using some exceptions and paying attention to what it does, I decided that I neither need nor like them. I decided to continue without allowing myself to smoke in any form of shape.

There was still an issue related to cravings that I needed to confront. I addressed it in the most direct way, I decided to embrace my cravings. Now, the phrase "to embrace the cravings" tends to create some confusion. It is frequently taken to imply acting on one's cravings, which is not the case at all. In fact, it means the exact opposite. Let me explain. I found the following in one of the Buddhist forums where I belong. The person nicknamed "Iamkatia" smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for 25 years. Then she quit without major difficulties. Here is what she says:

i want to share something i wrote in the buddhists a while back in response to someone asking for help with their 'struggle with addiction'. i think we are so used to the idea of 'struggling' and 'fighting' with unwanted parts of ourselves and i simply want to present a new way of viewing things.

i think your use of the word 'struggle' itself is problematic.

why struggle?

i think you have a better chance of overcoming your addictions if you are coming from a place of love and acceptance. i smoked for 25 years and quit 5 years ago. the one thing that helped me so much was reading this one little sentence in a quit smoking pamphlet. it said, "you are reaching for cigarettes not because you want a cigarette but because you want to avoid this feeling of 'craving'. if you just accept the feeling you will not reach for the cigarette." so you see? you can banish the idea of struggle altogether.

i would get a craving, watch it arise, feel it dwell in me, in my belly mostly, just under my bellybutton.

i would speak to it sometimes too and say, 'hey you little craving. it's ok. you can stay here as long as you need to. really. i created you and i am so very sorry for that. you just stay here and i will hold you, ok? i'm here for you now, don't worry.'

and i would hold my belly and rock with the feeling of craving like it was a little baby in need of love. i never did battle with it. never had to fight it at all.

i loved it, i fully accepted its presence in me and as a result it was not difficult to overcome at all. the cravings persisted for 5 days only. it's unheard of after 25 years of smoking 2 packs a day. but it's because there was no resistance to the cravings, nothing at all, no stories to perpetuate them.

only love.

I hope this helps someone. [ http://www.livejournal.com/users/iamkatia/364951.html ]

I have been using the very same method dealing with all forms of craving I have encountered including, for example, my craving for sugar. It has dissolved all cravings I encountered so far. So, I resolved not to smoke for 49 days, embrace my cravings, and see where it will all go.

The last Autumn Equinox, September 21st, was the 49th day without a cigarette. I decided to do 49 more days, twice 7 weeks, just to see what will happen. It should be enough time to make some progress on the path of self-discovery. I think I will not stop there, not a big deal for me one way or another. For it is not about smoking or not smoking. It is more about what is authentic and real, real like these nights together, the Big Silver Moon smiling upon us, her resting in my arms, and our kittens curling in our feet

falling asleep
the sound of muted trumpet
weaves in our dreams

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:November 11th, 2013 01:59 am (UTC)
Always a pleasure to read of your life and progress, my friend!

And in an interesting bit of synchronicity, it turns out that you were the best man in the wedding of one of my students 18 years ago. I wonder if it was this wedding...? The bride's name is Renee...
[User Picture]
Date:November 12th, 2013 01:07 am (UTC)
~deep bow~

Also, I sent you sth back channel on FB. Thank you so much and what a small world!!

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