Smoker's breath

I have been smoking heavily and uninterruptedly for the past 19 years. Even when both my lungs collapsed (one at a time, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to write about it!), the last thing that I did before surgery was to sneak to the hospital’s parking lot to smoke a cigarette. The result, predictably, is that my lung capacity is now compromised. I can’t breathe very well, and walking up a hill or running for more than fifty meters has me gasping for air. Just the other day, while slowly pushing a pram up Gipsy Hill, I thought that, like everything else, even this sad state of affairs has interesting metaphorical implications. I thought about the Hindu notion of prana as the cosmic energy that enlivens the whole of the existent, and its common association with breathing. Pranayama, the yogic practice of controlling prana, is primarily understood as those forms of breath-control (especially slowing down or holding one’s breath), that allow one to expand their inner awareness and consciousness. Central to this notion, is the yogic structure of the manifold stages of consciousness, and the yogi’s desire to be able to move between them through the practice of pranayama. By being able to control one’s breath, a person who’s adequately equipped in terms of doctrine, might be able to expand their consciousness, that is, their awareness of themselves and of the world and the very quality of their presence in the world.

But what happens to a smoker, like me? A person who is at the mercy of their own breathing – not to speak of their addiction? Walking up the hill panting, I become my breathing, not in the sense of identifying with prana, but of submitting myself entirely to my bodily functions. As I cough myself breathless, my consciousness becomes entirely subjected to the anxious requirements of my damaged pulmonary tissue. At the same time, and consequently, the horizon of my world shrinks. At every shorter breath, not only my inner awareness but also my connection with the outer world withers a little. A heavy smoker sits in an ever-shrinking train carriage, whose windows are progressively being fogged up by condensation. My vision takes to focus on the smaller, inner movements, rather than on their connection with greater, universal motions. A smoker like me is besieged from within, resembling those defence towers built by insecure medieval despots, that had embrasures pointing both outside and inside the city. Indeed, crushed between two potential enemies, from within and without, one assumes the existential stance of a paranoid fortification, unrolling thinly along concentric rings.

It is perhaps out of this condition, that I’ve resorted to developing an alternative form of meditation – a practice of ‘distraction’ that is the mediocre doppelganger of meditative concentration. Rather than deepening my physical awareness, all the way to finally overcoming my superficial consciousness, I have started to remove myself as much as possible from my own physical presence. Rather than looking at the world directly with greater attention, I look at its reflections as they appear in the objects of my distraction. In any thing or in any moment, I seek – or better, I imagine – the glimmer of ‘something else’, a hidden passage to a realm where words like ‘this’, ‘that’ and ‘I’ lose their precision. Instead of concentrating on things as they are (including my embodied self), I tend to read them as symbols of what they are not. Whenever I have a chance, I follow the path of withdrawal and of distraction. This is, of course, no casual distraction – there is a discipline to it, as to all practices. Possibly, it is the same discipline that has informed most of my work in the past few years. I have been writing much about swapping one’s own identification with their socialised, historical, linguistic self, with an alternative identification with the ‘ineffable’ dimension of their existence. Of course, I have borrowed much of my recent philosophy from the overflowing hoard of mystical literature – yet I have bent it to my own necessities. Replacing the notion of me and a stone as two separate objects, with an identification of both of us as manifestations of one sole ineffable existence, is also a way to disentangle myself from my predicament. Whatever happens to me, as a singular embodied entity, doesn’t really affect me that profoundly: after all, my fundamental, ineffable kernel lies beyond language as beyond corruption and destruction, and it runs uninterrupted through the existent. Or so it goes.

True, it would be more effective, and wiser, to simply try to develop a new relationship with my own physical self. For example, to really try to quit smoking. But here is the problem: to be able to intervene on yourself, first you must be within yourself. The more you remove yourself from your embodied presence, the more it becomes complicated to find enough solid ground from which to act – and this in turn intensifies detachment, and so on. This is a well-known fact to all those who suffer or have ever suffered from depression: the first difficulty in gaining again motivation, self-esteem, etc., is that there is no one left to whom that motivation or self-esteem could be re-assigned. In such cases, one’s ghostly appearance might be read as the epiphanic ‘apparition’ of a person who is a ghost to themselves.

Yet, there is also something to say in favour of this particular condition. The views, however entirely imaginary, are broad and often spectacular. Boredom is banished in favour of an entertainingly productive – albeit often disabling – anxiety. One’s network of friendships expands well beyond the realm of currently living humans, encompassing the dead, objects, artefacts, words and plants alike. History becomes a porous surface, accessible at every point. And every microscopic portion of the time-space continuum reflects a warm, welcoming, alien light.

The question, perhaps, is just one of fundamental teleology. What is the point of our earthly existence? Conquer and capture, pleasure and happiness, wisdom and consciousness, or just wonder and awe? A smoker like me, defiantly lighting another cigarette, would probably choose the latter pair. Like a contemporary Bardamu, his defiance would be just a disguised form of militant cowardice – yet, his reasons wouldn’t be entirely illegitimate. Granted, each of us is under the categorical imperative to look after others, trying to enhance their enjoyment and to safeguard the horizon of their living potential. But inasmuch as it concerns our management of our own existence, every teleology is fundamentally arbitrary, and thus equally legitimate. Withdrawing into the realm of distraction, seeking wonder while fleeing one’s own presence in the world is a form of cowardice – but even cowardice, perhaps, has a place as a dignified existential option. “Some Saian mountaineer / Struts today with my shield. / I threw it down by a bush and ran / When the fighting got hot. / Life seemed somehow more precious. / It was a beautiful shield. / I know where I can buy another / Exactly like it, just as round.”(1) Even as my own physical presence fades, I can ‘buy another exactly like it’ anywhere: I can throw down my own limited identification with myself, picking up instead that with a stone, a plant, a melody, or with any other reflection of the Imagination. Life is precious, indeed, but it might be more like the dream vision of a temple with dozen open doors, than a tight snail shell stuck on our back. It might be just like that. Or it might be just a smoker’s weakness speaking.

1) Archilocus, in Greek Elegy and Iambus, Volume II, 1939, Harvard University Press,