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 ciggie. I seem to recall that she said she was also more aware of the unpleasantness of smoking, but my memory’s a bit hazy on that point.
Anyway, I was reminded of that when I stumbled upon this little gem of an anecdote, where a smoker approaches a Buddhist monk for advice:
A young monk strolled into the office of the head monk.
“Say, man. Would it like be okay if I smoke when I meditate?”
The head monk turned pale and began quivering. When he recovered, he gave the young man a stern lecture about the sanctity of meditation. The novice listened thoughtfully and went away.
A few weeks later, he returned with another question.
“I’m concerned about my spiritual development. I notice that I spend a lot of time smoking. I was wondering, do you think it would be okay if when I am smoking, I practice my meditation?”
The older man was overjoyed and of course said yes.
It’s a nice story, and it brings up some challenging questions about what meditation really is. 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 an activity of one-pointed activity in which the mind is fully concentrated, or at least an effort is being made to bring the mind to a point of concentration. In that state of concentration to which the mind if moving, there is a reduction in mental grasping. So the idea of smoking during this kind of activity is anathema. To smoke while meditating (in this sense) would mean to be splitting, and therefore breaking, one’s concentration, and giving way to a particularly virulent form of 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 an improvement to do it with more mindfulness, especially since we tend to regress to a pretty distracted state of mind when we’re doing something that involves emotional compulsion. It wouldn’t be a step forward to take something like sitting meditation and to introduce an activity such as smoking.
But ultimately it comes down to the question of which direction you’re headed in. 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.
An analogy would be if you were dieting: if you dilute your sweet-n-low with sugar you’re headed in the wrong direction, but if you dilute your sugar with sweet-n-low that’s going to be helpful. In both cases someone might be using 50% of each sweetener, but they’d be moving in opposite directions.
Going back to the anecdote, the monk is having fun poked at him because he missed an opportunity. Instead of responding with outrage at the idea of meditation being sullied he could have met the smoker where he was at and suggested that he smoke with more awareness. A case of the best being the enemy of the good?
Have you ever tried being mindful while smoking? I’d be interested to hear your story.