Practicing mindfulness to help you break the habit of smoking
Here’s a hot news flash to smokers: Cigarettes are bad for you. They can make holes in your lungs, mouth, throat and (more recently) your wallet. You are likely to have more frequent illness and lost income. The smoke you exhale will also impact people around you, some of whom you love. You will die younger than you would if you did not smoke and have a compromised quality of life while you are here.
Are you motivated to quit? Generally the answer is yes with a qualifier or two. In addiction treatment, patients generally say, “Not right now. Let me get off one drug at a time.” It is a reasonable answer, but even well into recovery, many smokers are still not ready. Why would that be – given the overwhelming evidence in favor of stopping and the fact that these particular addicts successfully quit alcohol, heroin and/or cocaine?
The simple answer is that smoking is a form of insanity that the logical mind and our own better judgment cannot solve. Many smokers have been helped by mindfulness meditation, a means of slowing down the action and beginning to penetrate the experience of the addiction. Once it is better understood, a rational choice can be made (of whether to continue smoking or not). Meditation practice is also a means of developing the intention to be fully present, kind and compassionate. It promotes the right kind of effort – neither too tense nor too loose, which emphasizes wholesome thinking and outcomes and steers away from less wholesome ones. It is the effort to be here now the best we can, remembering our humanity and what is truly important in our lives.
- try mindful smoking (if not yet committed to quitting)
- stop completely
- frequent grounding
- come to your senses
- surf the urge
- scan the body
- bring mindful awareness to daily life
- focus on smoking as bad or evil
- tell yourself you must not smoke
- criticize yourself or listen to criticism of others
- fight cravings and urges
- become overwhelmed
Do try mindful smoking (if not yet committed to quitting)
Notice the whole process including reading the warnings on the pack, feeling the cigarette between the fingers, smelling it, watching the flame as you light it, tasting it, feeling the smoke in the mouth throat and lungs (inhaling and exhaling). If the mind wanders, continually returning to the sensations of smoking, right to the end of the cigarette. Afterward, notice how you feel, look at and smell the fingers, notice the taste in the mouth. This will help you to see exactly what you are doing, the benefits and costs of smoking, and make a more informed decision about quitting vs. continuing.
Do stop completely
This act captures the commitment and respect for your body. The first 72 hours are likely to be difficult and the practices below will help bring acceptance to impatience, anxiety and cravings. Using nicotine replacement can help at this stage
If you decide to cut down the amount instead of stopping completely, keep it to a brief phase in the process of quitting. Then you limit the continual tease and mind game.
Do frequent grounding
Doing this throughout the day (as illustrated in the touchpoints exercise) provides a focus and a distraction. Many people also use breath awareness, which can be both grounding and relaxing.
Do come to your senses
Take a few moments to notice simple sensory experience – sound, the touch of air on the skin, smells, tastes, seeing – without the storyline. Also, take regular walks in nature. Notice the contact of the feet on the ground, the arms swinging, the motion, the breathing, the sensory experiences coming and going. These activities will increase awareness and appreciation for the body and the simple experiences of being alive and present.
Do surf the urge
Cravings and urges will come and generally last 90 seconds to 3 minutes. Many smokers are able to get through these by simply admitting their presence, then either ignoring them or keeping busy. Another way is by “urge surfing,” a technique developed by addiction researcher, Alan Marlatt in the 1980s. His patient, both a smoker and a surfer, observed that cravings and urges are like waves – they originate, crest and fall. By using the breath as a surfboard, we are able to ride the wave and tolerate the urge without giving in to it.
Do scan the body
The body scan can be done lying down or sitting. Start from the feet and move upward to the top of the head, noting each body part accompanied by breath awareness. This meditation promotes compassion for the body and builds concentration.
Do bring mindful awareness to daily life
This can include simple moments like brushing teeth, peeing, vacuuming, laundry—and less simple ones like talking to a friend. Just focus on the body as you are doing the activity. This is simple, but not easy, since the mind always has something to say or wants to be entertained. Cultivating this ability, as with anything worth developing, takes practice, and protects us from going on automatic pilot, where most relapses occur, and builds appreciation for our lives.
Do not focus on smoking as bad or evil
You started smoking for good reasons – to enjoy, to relax, to fit in. Those reasons may still be there along with some negatives. It is now a choice. Focus on your choice and commitment to succeed, rather than how bad or evil smoking is.
Do not tell yourself you must not smoke
Try this: Don’t think of a white bear. Does it work? More than likely all that you can think about is the white bear. How can you stop doing something when you are constantly thinking about it? Free people generally don’t like being told what to do.
Do not criticize yourself or listen to criticism of others
Calling yourself stupid, lazy, or self destructive is both unkind and counterproductive. Here is a place to limit your creativity.
Also, don’t listen to the criticism of others. Allowing anyone else to characterize you as stupid, lazy, or self destructive is equally unskillful. You then have to smoke to either rebel or ease the pain.
Do not fight cravings and urges
You will never win that one. If you do that, you are just playing into the hands of the addiction. Refuse to play that game and instead, use the techniques of mindfulness stated above.
Do not become overwhelmed
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, try starting with a few suggestions and build from there. Practice mindfulness one day, one second even, at a time. Nobody gets everything accomplished all at the same time. Be patient and have confidence in yourself.
Let’s face it, it is not easy to be human. We have many pressures and stressors and life keeps changing. It is natural to seek a way to relax and balance ourselves as we face all of the demands of school or work, in relationship and for self care. Our addictions – whether to substances, food, shopping, gambling or an infinite array of behaviors – do provide a reliable rest point or refuge. Nicotine is particularly effective in correcting energetic and emotional imbalance, but if you are reading this, smoking is likely a problem as well. The development of mindfulness skills and meditation practice provides a set of alternative strategies for centering, relaxing and balancing energy. It takes about three weeks to change a habit. If you try some of these practices and that is more interesting than smoking, you will likely continue. And if you start with the commitment to care for your body and pursue what is most important to you, your patience and kindness will naturally build. Seeing is believing.