The Breath

Saturday 16 January 2010

I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for two decades.  That's two decades of shoving evil tasting and smelling sticks into my mouth and lighting them and breathing in.  Not the most rational of acts.  They say that now, after five years of abstinence, my risk of stroke is reduced to that of a nonsmoker.  Even after doing that to myself for 20 years.  Amazing.  Quite forgiving, really.

I started smoking when I was 13 years old.  First off it was just a few here and there, a puff with the buddies at school, a stealing of my friend Karen's father's cigarettes when he wasn't looking.  Going with Karen down to the little park a few doors down to sit on the swings and moan about boys and smoke.  On weekends we would go and buy a pack of Alpine menthols for $1.78.  But by the time I was a veteran of 15 or 16 I was smoking at home (oh, my poor mother) and smoking at work, too - how strange to think of myself, working as a typesetter, with a burning cigarette almost always on the go beside me.  Goodness me, smoking in the office is as antiquated a concept as the giant 20cm (8 inch) floppy disks onto which we were saving our work.

From the time I was 16 until I was 34 I smoked a pack a day.  Yukky.  How irritating to break up each and every day into 30 minute increments to sit and puff on a fag.  In one way it was irritating;  in another it was one of the things that concerned me most about quitting - how would I legitimately get that time-out throughout the day if I was a non-smoker?  No smoke breaks at work.  Where would the buffer zone be?  I quickly worked out that I was going to have to rejig the way I thought about stuff and factor in some legitimate down times when I needed to throughout the day.

These thoughts came after I'd had CFS for years and years and smoked my way through it, dragging myself up to go outside.  Man, I even smoked my way through such a bad bout of tonsillitis I thought I'd swallowed a cutlery shop full of knives.  I was so ill, and yet I'd get up, and go outside, and have a cigarette, dragging the harsh and even worse than usual acridity in past my poor raw throat that killed me when I swallowed.  Hmm.

You know the thing about smoking relaxing you?  It's just not true.  Oh, it feels true, sure, but the strangest thing of all, the ultimate irony of smoking, must be that the relaxation more than anything comes from the fact that you're doing deep breathing for five minutes at a time.  That you're inhaling noxious fumes in the process is really just a sideline.

I often think about smoking when I'm trying to break habits.  You know what they say about habits taking 21 days to form or break?  I suppose that's probably about right for the thoughts to stop assailing you every third second until you think your head's gonna flip off.  That was a hurdle that bumped me once or twice in my quitting attempts.  The next couple of times were stranger and more humiliating - quitting for five or six months at a time until one day the urge, the shiny whisper - just one.  You're strong enough now that you can handle just one.  Just a puff at a party, or whatever.  Then, just one cigarette, botted off a friend.  Then just a pack 'cause you're going out.  Just one and then a month later you're back on for good until you can muster yourself again to give it another go, another year or two down the line.  

The ultimate quitting thing for me was a book.  Written by Allan Carr and called The Only Way to Quit Smoking Permanently, it dispelled all the illusions for me until I had nowhere to hide, no smokescreens left.  After that, I saw a way clear.  I recommend that book even though my inner proofreader and typesetter was aghast at the awful grammar and horrible layout.  Atrocious.  Every second paragraph bolded and underlined until you thought your eyes would explode.  But anyway ...

I was thinking about smoking earlier when I was standing at the sink doing dishes.  I have got in the habit lately of occasionally checking in on my breath.  So often I notice that I am either holding my breath or breathing into my chest, shallowly.  Yoga practice and meditation practice are both clueing me into a more conscious awareness of my breath, of how it directly and totally influences my mind and emotions when i breathe into my stomach, flooding my body with oxygen (just not too much.  The Sweet were right:  you get too much you get too high :)

I think a great deal about my breath lately because ... well, because there is something so wonderfully spiritual about the practice of breathing.  The ruach.  I like to think that the Holy Spirit is as close as my breath, maybe so close as to be undifferentiated from my breath.  In.  Out.  In.  Out.

In meditation practice there is a method for stilling your mind whereby you block one nostril while you breathe in, and then block the other one as you breathe out.  After several cycles in this fashion you reverse the order so that each nostril gets its turn of in breath and then out breath.  I practised it the other night.  It is said to help balance and calm the mind and that was certainly the case.  My friend Jane practises this when she cannot sleep, when she has the CFS jitters, the jingly jangly anxiety that races throughout every nerve in your body and which was by far the worst symptom of all, as far as I am concerned, in the crap bag of CFS symptoms.

But the breath.  Always coming back to the breath.  The coolness of the in-breath, the warmth as you breathe out.  The simplicity of it.  It is this sort of simplicity, the very small things, that bring me back to God after weeks-long temper tantrums.  He's just there, underneath it all, when I get small and silent enough, when I tune into my mind as an ocean, my breath as gift.


  1. What a marvelous accomplishment -- not only freed but renewed and regenerated! Your post taught me alot about the addiction to smoking. May you develop a long-lived addiction to breathing, pure and simple. Is there anything sweeter than fresh air in the morning? The Spirit indeed enters with every breath and carries out all the unredeemed garbage with the exhalation. You might be interested to know that we do breathing exercises before each calligraphy class.

  2. Wow. We are so much a like and in very similar places with our "breathing" these days. I was 15 when I started puffing fags (immediately after my dad died of lung cancer from smoking...go figure). Didn't quit till I found out that little stinker Keven was floating around inside me. I didn't have a choice, I wanted a healthy kid so I quit. Plus I was too tired to smoke, eat, think, I was exhausted.

    And I've been checking my breath and purposely breathing lately too. I learned three breathing techniques that Dr. Andrew Weil recommends and do whichever one seems appropriate for the moment.

    Breath is LIFE. I got to see that in action when Anthony had 0% lung function. If someone would have tripped on the machine and unplugged it - he'd be dead. Scary thought that a machine was keeping him alive and now he's walking around like "normal".

    I did pick up the evil tobacco again but only smoke one a day. I may quit soon. May not.

  3. fresh air inhaled deeply is so good for the soul

    what a journey you've been on to get there

    good on ya'

  4. Barbara - no, I do not think there is much sweeter fragrance than fresh air, especially if it's amongst a bunch of gum trees. Mmmmm. Yumski. I am very unsurprised you do breathing exercises before your calligraphy class - a necessary grounding of yourself into your own body before you start such intricacy. I am beginning to do this with my writing practice also. It's quite delightful :)

    Barbara/Layla - ahhh, isn't it weird how we function? To deal with your father's death you start smoking - hmmmm, more rational creature behaviour :) We are strange beings. I just had a look at Dr Weil's breathing exercises (; they look good.

    Kel - thanks, chicky. It is so good for the soul, isn't it? Such an everyday thing, as close to us as ... well, our breath, haha! :) It is grounding, brings me back to realising how little I really need.


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