When I was teaching meditation at the University of Montana I had a student called Connie who was very concerned about her smoking habit. In my youth I sometimes used to smoke roll-ups at parties and I sometimes even bought tobacco so I could make my own and not be cadging from other people all the time, but I never got addicted and so I had no experience I could share about giving up the evil weed. But I do encourage people to be mindful, and so I suggested that she really pay attention to the sensations and mental patterns that arose each time she was smoking a cigarette. It seemed like a long-shot, but it was all I had.
She reported that after taking up this suggestion she was smoking a lot less. It took her longer to smoke each cigarette, and she was less likely to light up again immediately after finishing one cigarette. I seem to recall that she said she was also more aware of the unpleasantness of smoking.
Anyway, I was reminded of that when I stumbled upon an anecdote where a smoker approaches a Buddhist monk for advice:
A young man who’s on retreat asks the head monk a question during their daily meditation interview.
“I experience a lot of craving for tobacco. Would it be okay if I smoke when I meditate?” he asks.
The head monk is shocked at the suggestion and gives the young man a stern lecture about the need to practice mindfulness.
The next day, the young man returns with another question.
“Since I spend a lot of time smoking, I was wondering, do you think it would be okay if when I am smoking, I smoke mindfully and turn it into a meditation practice?”
The head monk thought this was a very creative suggestion and gave the young man his blessing.
Of course, from one point of view the net result is the same, whether you smoke during meditation or meditate while smoking.
The reason this story works is because the word “meditation” is being used in two different ways. The monk is initially hearing the word meditation as referring to a formal activity in which an effort is being made to bring the mind to a point of concentration, and in which distracted mental states are being let go of. One of those distracted mental states that’s being let go of is craving, and so the idea of smoking during meditation is anathema. To smoke while meditating (in this sense) would mean giving in to craving rather than giving up craving.
The second time the smoker talks about meditation, he puts it in the context of daily activities, and the word means something more like “taking a mindful approach to whatever you do.”
If we’re going to do things that involve craving, such as smoking, then it’s a step forward to do it with more mindfulness. But it wouldn’t be a step forward to take something like sitting meditation and to introduce an activity such as smoking. Take meditation and add smoking, and you’re heading in the direction of craving. Take smoking and add meditation, and you’re heading in the direction of mindfulness and non-craving.
But does this work as a technique for reducing dependence on tobacco? Actually, it does. One person wrote to me from Australia to share his experience of working in a drug rehabilitation unit.
I have been teaching this technique in a group to help clients bring awareness to there smoking addiction, and behavioral dependance for the last 5 years. It has been highly successful with many people quitting and if not, certainly bringing a great deal of awareness to there behavior. We also apply this practice when we talk about how to change patterns of behavior in drug use.
And a recent study showed that meditation reduced tobacco consumption by 60%.
So if you’re a smoker, you might want to try being more mindful of the actions of smoking.
You might also want to be mindful of the cravings that lead to smoking. I’ve been working for months now at being mindful of the sensations of hunger, and it’s been a fascinating practice. I’ve learned that I used to treat the sensations of hunger as being a kind of emergency. At the first sensation of being hungry I’d feel the urgent need to go eat something. Now I treat hunger as just another sensation, and will often not eat until an hour or two of being mindful of my hunger pangs. And what’s really interesting is that when I’m mindful of my hunger it stops being unpleasant. Could this work for smoking as well? I don’t see why not.
If you’ve practiced mindfulness of smoking or mindfulness of craving nicotine, I’d love to hear from you.
Really interesting. I gave up smoking two weeks ago (so still stopping really) and often wondered if there was a way to be more mindful towards the habit, but always thought it sounded ridiculous so never thought to act upon it.
Thanks so much for this article. It speaks to where I’m at with my smoking habit and my mindfulness practice. I’ve certainly become more aware of my smoking – not just a mindless grab-and-smoke at every urge. I smoke less. I’m also more aware of the harm as I focus on smoking, while smoking. I think this principle of being mindful while smoking is important.
I think though, that quiting smoking tends to be difficult because it is a ‘mindful’ experience in and of itself. That is, it is an opportunity to stop the hustle and bustle, take a moment and breathe – although the breathing includes inhaling nicotine.
I recently saw (yours?) an article on over-eating and the S.T.O.P. method. Stop. Take a minute to breathe. Observe the emotions/mind. Proceed with caution. I’m going to incorporate that into my daily practice. I suspect I’ll smoke less.
Few years late with my comment but.. you phrased it perfectly, I feel the same way.
More than physical addiction, need for cigarettes is the need of a time-out. No kind of meditation can take place in our daily routine and allow us these few un-questionable minutes of “pause” so easily, naturally, and realistically.
Same here (and also late). I quit cigarettes almost 2 months ago. I’m through with the physical cravings but I miss the activity which I’m fairly sure is very similar to meditation (pranayama!). I’m also convinced that this similarity (as you said the “time out”) is the key reason why quitting smoking is so difficult. I’m trying to replace the act of smoking with pranayama exercises hoping one day I’ll be able to draw the same satisfaction from it as I drew from the act of smoking. Not an easy task!
I drink quite a bit. I have often thought about the relationship between alcohol and mindfulness. I have been reading articles about mindfulness alot and this is as close as I have come to seeing a link between mindfulness and addiction. I now describe being drunk as mindlessness.
Actually since reading about and practising mindfulness I have become very concious of the amount that I drink. And I have cut my consumption by more than half. I still love to drink, but mindfulness is teaching me to watch myself in a way I never thought before.
This is good to hear, Ian.
Thanks so much for this article. It is really helpful.