While passing Butler, I always see smokers outside. Or, at least, I can’t remember the last time “always” wasn’t the case.
Students engage with the calming stimulant in the most essential practice: inhalation and exhalation; inspiration, hold, and expiration that forces the hand of a nonsmoker to their nose, brings a scowl to their face, or reroutes their path. And rightfully so—smoking is a disgusting habit. A passerby may imagine the burning cigarette’s proliferation into cartons and the lifetime accumulation of tar in the smoker’s lungs with each puff. Impending cancer in each magic stick. But who’s really counting?
When I smoked, I always counted. I started out Juuling and worked my way up to a pod a day. But after finding the Juul in my mouth with an inadvertent presence, maybe even sucking on it more often than not, I tossed the device and turned to the adult alternative that I could count more easily. I would have enough to get me through the day: a cigarette at 11, 5, and 9. More if I had exams, and more if I were to drink. Yet even as a light smoker, Butler’s perpetual smoke break was too public a place for a pre-med and his killing practice. (Can “do no harm” include self-harm?) So, unlike with the more social Juul, I’d take a walk down Riverside.
The tobacco plant naturally protects itself from insects. Whether the bugs are attracted to its aromatic poison and accidentally die or the plant murders them with a guilty conscience, I can’t tell. Either way, much like the tobacco plant, I enjoyed time alone. I enjoyed it because a smoke break offered me a moment of mindfulness. At Columbia, I have found myself spending more time ruminating on previous courses or anticipating the next rather than tasting what’s already on my plate. But tobacco has a strong flavor. The cigarette brought me back to the present, away from persistent attacks from the past and future that college so readily normalizes. It could be me with my cigarette, and just that: being in the present.
But the cigarette burns and the DNA mutates. The journalist Michael Pollan states, “Memory is the enemy of wonder,” and as wonderful as each smoke was, each present that it brought preceded my return to campus, the memory of all previous cigs, and most pungently, when would that dogmatic punctuation summon me next?
Over winter break, I found myself fiddling with a pack of cigarettes in my pocket, hiding my sweet repellent from the two high school friends I was visiting at MIT. We stood in front of a clock. It read 3 a.m., but the second hand was still. Rather, the minute and hour hands, with the background markings, ticked each second counterclockwise.
To fully celebrate the present, empirical time must be decentralized. I had thought that each smoke break halted the second hand, granting mindfulness of the present that most seemed to miss on a daily basis. Yet while I stood alongside friends that I hadn’t seen in over six months, my hand focused my attention on the pack in my pocket. I was tracking empirical time to paradoxically escape it: addiction.
But the history of my relationship with cigarettes ought not to remain isolated from cleaner Columbia experiences. Smokers may feel they can only be mindful or present with a cigarette in hand, so then I ask the nonsmoker, how often do you extricate yourself from the perpetual knocking of rumination and future plans? How often do you lose yourself in a good book, losing track of how many pages until the next chapter? How often do you think about those in your life, loved or not, and wish them well, extending infinite gratitude that they occupy some place in relation to your existence?
There are many ways to be mindful. Smoking might be the lousiest. Four weeks ago, I substituted meditation for cigarettes (a difficult task even for a light smoker; I can only imagine what a pack a day feels like). Now I count breaths, not cigarettes. And that seems to be it: Count within the present—not the time outside of it—to make the present count.
Next time you pass Butler’s perpetual smoke break, I encourage you to interpret it as your reminder to let that second hand stand still while the hours and minutes and the schedule’s markings pass unnoticed. Be mindful, and count the present.
Teddy is a junior in Columbia College studying anthropology and biology. Please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join him on a walk down Riverside (smoke-free, of course). Read Minded Moment alternate Thursdays.
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