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Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, and Mindful Smoking to You!

smokesomovThin mists and light clouds waft imperceptibly;

The friends who have gathered here pass the pipe around.

I know that there is no constancy in what is possible and what is not,

Yet I do not believe that fire and ash are only fragments of time.

—Wang Lu, a Japanese seventeenth-century “gentleman smoker” (quoted in Smoke: A Global History of Smoking)

Marla and I are big fans of Leonard Cohen. A weekend or so ago he turned 80 and decided to resume smoking: “too young to die, too old to worry,” summarized NYT Jason Karlawish.  Cohen himself said the following: “It’s the right age to recommence [smoking].”  Indeed, why not, if it gives you “the pleasure of the present”?

We are not being rhetorical.  In our 2011 book Smoke-Free Smoke Break we have made a harm reduction case for mindful smoking as well as for the idea that we have more than one kind of health – the health of the body and the health of the mind.  A risk-taking behavior (be it rock climbing or smoking) is an existential choice to pursue the wellbeing of the mind while consciously accepting possible costs to the body.  So, with this in mind, we congratulate Leonard Cohen not only on reaching the age of wisdom but also on remaining the rascal sage that he’s been – and teaching us the existential calculus of controlled recklessness. Mindful smoking to you, Leonard!

What follows is an excerpt from our book – its least read chapter – the chapter on harm-reduced/mindful smoking.  And to any stray moralizers that might have stumbled upon this piece of writing, a tip: listen to Cohen’s songs of existence – there is more to human decision-making than meets the statistically-dualistic eye.

If you decided to take the path of harm reduction, either as a short-term mindful-smoking sabbatical (as you gear up for the next attempt at quitting) or an open-ended, long-term harm-reduction commitment, you will have to learn how to get more out of less. To do so, you’ll have to shift from mindless smoking to mindful smoking. The following is a series of points to consider and a handful of suggestions to try.

Zen of Smoking: When You Smoke, Smoke

Lu Yao, the eighteenth-century Japanese “arbiter of [tobacco’s] taste” and author of Yanpu (“Smoking Manual”) reminds the smoker to remember to just smoke (quoted in Brook 2004, 88). In particular, we learn that a mindful smoker “does not smoke when listening to the zither (the preferred instrument of [eighteenth-century Japanese] elite), when feeding cranes (symbols of longevity), when dealing with subtle and refined matters, or when looking at plum blossoms,” nor should the refined and knowing smoker “be caught with a pipe in his mouth when performing a rite, appearing at an imperial audience, or sharing a bed with a beautiful woman” (ibid.). Editing out the classist sentiment, we can reduce Lu Yao’s advice to the good ol’ Zen notion of living in real time without multitasking. Thus, the second suggestion we can glean from the tobacco manuals of eighteenth-century Japan is to take time to enjoy smoking.

Be Brand Disloyal

As you learn to be a mindful smoker, we suggest that you remain a free agent. Avoid brand loyalty. The reason is simple: brands brand, that is, enslave. Indeed, when you decide to go with a brand, you are taking the path of mindless smoking. Once you have made a choice not to choose, you are a zombie. First your tongue and then your mind go on autopilot and stop paying attention to the flavor of what you smoke. Unwittingly, you transition from a quality mind-set to a quantity mind-set, and what starts out as mindful smoking begins to regress to mindless smoking. We suggest that you never buy more than one pack of any given brand at a time, and if you can help it at all, keep experimenting with different brands. Each time you go to buy cigarettes, try something you haven’t yet tried. If you have to, start ordering from online vendors and catalogues. Keep the mind-set of experimentation. Remember, novelty keeps the mind awake.

Buy Top-Shelf Brands

Mindful smoking is a pursuit of pleasure, not quantity. Let go of the money-saving mentality of buying cheap, lousy smokes. That’ll cost you more money in the long term as you lose interest in the quality of smoking and revert to mindless high consumption. Remember that mindful smoking is slow smoking and, as such, is unlikely to cost you any more than the mindless, high-velocity, budget smoking you did before. So, start buying from the top shelf, and let the price awaken your mind.

Awaken the Smoking Zombie

Many of the pattern-interrupting exercises we presented in chapter 4 double up as slow-smoking ways to infuse the routine of smoking with more mindfulness. We encourage you to recycle these smoking experiments as nothing less than mindful-smoking meditations. Here are a few more suggestions for you.

Try Cigar Mentality

Cigar smoking, unlike cigarette smoking, tends to be more mindful and experience driven. So, if your goal is to cut back on cigarettes, we suggest that you try thinking of them as cigars. For instance, instead of bumping one cigarette after another out of a pack, buy a pack and empty it into a humidor, and try smoking cigarettes as “singles.” The idea here is to trick your mind, of course, into being more mindful. Right now a cigarette is just one of twenty in a pack that you can easily carry with you. If you dump the cigarettes into a humidor, the topography of your daily smoking will dramatically shrink. Smoking will stop being so portable and become more of a parlor pastime. Another way to import cigar mentality into your cigarette smoking is to increase the cost per unit. Stop clipping coupons and buying tax-free cartons from the reservation. Start buying top-shelf cigarettes. Now, worry not; since you are planning to cut back, your total smoking budget won’t suffer. Let us clarify: cigar-ify!

Roll Your Own

Mindless smoking is largely a function of the ease of tobacco delivery. Smokers have outsourced everything but their lungs: they no longer grow their own plants, they don’t cure them, they don’t roll their own tobacco—heck, they don’t even bother to light a match and instead rely on the thumb roll of the lighter. We recommend that you consider adding a step to this stupidly simple process: try rolling your own cigs. Experiment with loose tobacco, and either hand-roll your cigarettes or invest in a manually operated cigarette-rolling machine. The point, of course, is to take your mind off autopilot. Bumping one cigarette out of a pack is way too easy of a task to break the threshold of your mind’s attention. Now, rolling your cigarettes is an entirely different matter, particularly if you roll them on a per-need basis rather than stock up. All of a sudden, a desire to smoke will involve a step of nominal, but nevertheless, labor. Wouldn’t it be a hoot if, for a change, you passed on smoking because you didn’t want to deal with the hassle of it? Right now, with your fully modernized smoking routine, there’s no hassle, and that’s a mindfulness opportunity loss!

Be Mindful, Not Lungful

On the meaning of smoking in French cinema, Dawn Marlan writes (2004, 256): “In my view, smoking in the French cultural tradition has been represented…as a pleasure that involves an experience of emptiness.” Indeed, the process of mindless smoking has a built-in vacuum of sorts, satisfying one desire only to initiate a craving for the next, or as Richard Klein writes in Cigarettes Are Sublime (1993, 26), “[E]ach cigarette immediately calls forth its inevitable successor.” Mindless smoking is a relay race in which one and the same mind at a particular time passes on the baton of dissatisfaction to its own psychological descendent at another time.

Oscar Wilde observed, “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” We disagree: a cigarette smoked mindlessly does leave one empty and dissatisfied. But if smoked mindfully, a cigarette can deliver its promised pleasure. And that is exactly the point: the goal of mindful smoking (either as a harm-reduction strategy or as a stand-alone way of smoking) is to fill the mind’s occasional emptiness, not with a craving for the next puff, but with a sense of self-reflective fullness. Fill your mind with smoke, not just your lungs. How? Make smoke itself an object of meditation. Instead of enslaving yourself to mindless chain smoking, liberate yourself with a moment of pause, and allow yourself to be “thrilled by the subtle grandeur of the perspectives on mortality opened by the terrors in every puff” (Klein 1993, 2).

Savor the Smoke, Not Smoking

Mindfulness of any variety is always a mindfulness of the process, not the outcome. As you consider mindful smoking as a harm-reduction strategy, we encourage you to begin to shift your attention away from nicotine and tobacco onto the nuances and subtleties of the smoking process itself. We encourage you to become a contemplative, meditative smoker who uses smoke as a rock musician uses a fog machine, as an ambient backdrop to life’s ponderings. Sure, you will have to puff to envelop yourself in this misty solitude, but we hope that at times, you will just allow yourself to let a cigarette burn like incense, entirely satisfied with it as a smoldering prop, as a meditative mandala, not unlike a lone camper squatting over the dying coals of a fire or an ancient Mayan regarding the smoking pipe as a portable altar for worshiping the cosmos (Burns 2007). Puff less, witness more; that’s the essence of the mindful-smoking harm-reduction path.

Try Social Smoking

In learning the art of mindful smoking, let’s take a few lessons from seventeenth-century Japan. Tobacco-pipe smoking was “first introduced to Japanese high society, for example, to the samurai (warriors), the Buddhist priest classes, and some rich merchants” (Suzuki 2004, 78) many centuries ago, and quickly became part of the mindful appreciation of life that consisted of “the tea and incense ceremonies, and writing or appreciating poetry” (ibid.). Of course, tobacco is no longer the status symbol that it was in seventeenth-century Japan. The fact is that tobacco has been quite a democratizer in its capacity to erase class distinctions. But that’s beside the point. So, the first suggestion of note from the writings of seventeenth-century tobacco lovers is that one way to infuse the smoking process with mindfulness is to share the experience.

Furnish the Habit with Elegance

Democratization of tobacco rid smoking of its originally cultivated elegance. Our third suggestion, gleaned from the lessons of old Japan, is to reverse-engineer the elegance element back into smoking. Eighteenth-century Japanese gentleman smoker Chen Cong wrote a tobacco manual in which he emphasized the importance of proper paraphernalia (Suzuki 2004, 79). In those pre-cigarette days, these paraphernalia were a tabako-bon (a tray for tobacco), a tabako-ire (a pouch or case for tobacco), a kiseru (a smoking bowl), and a kiseru-zutsu (a case for the smoking bowl) (Suzuki 2004). Cigarettes, of course, streamlined the process and turbocharged the smoking pace, resulting in mindless chain smoking. Thus, the idea to consider is to reinfuse the smoking process with aesthetics. Doing so will likely slow down your smoking and help you leverage more of an experience out of each and every cigarette. How? This is where you might have to get creative. For starters, you might begin by getting yourself an aesthetic specialty lighter. Say you are smoking a pack a day and want to cut back to just a few cigarettes a day. Say you hope to limit yourself to no more than five cigarettes per day. So, put your money where your smoke is: since you plan to cut back your smoking by 75 percent, take 75 percent of your monthly smoking budget and spend it on a nice lighter. This act alone, as extravagant as it might seem, will help you slow down enough to get an aesthetic feel out of your mindful investment. Repeat the same step with next month’s smoking budget and get yourself a very special ashtray. You get the point, we hope: each aesthetic accoutrement will add a touch of mindfulness to the smoking ceremony. But, of course, no object will ever replace the key ingredient of mindful smoking: mind itself.

Meditate on Miasmic Vapors

Writing about the history of tobacco, Eric Burns (2007) called this herb the “smoke of the gods.” What is this enticing mystery of smoke? In their book Smoke: A Global History of Smoking, Sander Gilman and Zhou Xun (2004, 9 and 12) explain that right from the get-go, Europeans were mesmerized by the phenomenon of smoke:

[S]moking, inhaling the residue of burning materials using an implement, was something that was perceived as new.… Tobacco conquered the world via the magic of smoke.… The spirit of the magic smoke has haunted human souls and bodies since the beginning of time, long before the discovery of the New World. It has to do with nostalgia for a lost world through our nose and our sense of smell—one of the most fundamental senses of our being. Smoke satisfies our craving for pleasant odors, warms our skins, comforts our souls, heals our sorrows, and brings back the sweet memories of childhood. Smoke had been always part of culture.

Smoke is a fitting metaphor for the ghostly nature of our presence, a portable 3-D hologram of impermanence, in all its ever-diffusing inevitability. We won’t, of course, interpret the meaning of smoke for you. But we certainly encourage you, the mindful smoker, to meditate on these miasmic vapors. Notice what your mind projects on these Rorschach cloud patterns of your own making. Let the smoke you pass become a mirror of your own existential passage.

Enter the Cloud of Unknowing

Mists are mysterious. Be it forest fog or stage fog, cigarette smoke or the ghostly exodus from a chimney stack, clouds cloud judgment and, in so doing, reveal the illusions of our knowing. Life is absurdly uncertain. At any given point in time, we are driving blindly into the unknown of what is yet to be, sometimes with nothing more concrete than the glow of the tip of a cigarette between our fingers. Dawn Marlan (2004, 261) notes:

[S]moking is…compatible—with whatever complicated ambivalence—with existentialist absurdity.… Nihilism…best describes the link between a philosophical worldview and smoking as a way of life. In a system that calls for the reevaluation of all values,…smoking is not an activity that compromises the value of health and happiness, as much as one that argues for overcoming health and happiness as values at all.

Let’s face it: there always were and, we think, always will be people who choose their own values. The body politic of youth, in order to sell its wares, insists that mind is subservient to the body and prompts us to quit doing whatever we might enjoy (be it eating fatty foods or riding motorcycles without helmets) to preserve, at all mental cost, the welfare of the body. That’s certainly one path, a path of pseudo certainty, a path that promises that a healthy body houses a healthy mind. But, of course, all too often we’ve seen the reverse: a healthy body with an unhealthy mind and a healthy mind in a disabled body. Just as we’ve been told for ages, since the days of the Roman Empire, that there are many roads to Rome, there are certainly many ways to deal with the fundamental uncertainty of our existence. We can try to obsessively take care of our bodies, on the presumption that this will guarantee happiness, or we can enjoy ourselves and pay for the pleasure of the mind with the coin of the body. It is your choice. And if you choose to smoke, own your path.

Smoking Air

Mindful smoking is as much about how to smoke as it is about knowing how not to smoke when you have a craving. A mindful, harm-reducing smoker smokes just a couple of cigarettes per day and smokes air in between to deal with cravings to smoke. Therefore, mindful smoking is not just training in mindfulness, but also an ongoing opportunity for continued mindfulness-based craving-control training. As such, mindful smoking is an open-ended process of self-liberation.

And Circle Back

As you master the skill of mindful smoking, plan to remain an amateur. We encourage you to think of yourself mindfully smoking as being on a harm-reducing smoking sabbatical. Having reached the destination of harm reduction, now and then get back in the air and return to abstinence. Metaphors aside, plan a periodic attempt at quitting, say, every six months, certainly every year, until you get it right. And remember that your mindful smoking sabbatical is not a waste of time, but continued practice of quitting skillpower. After all, mindful smoking is mindfulness practice, and mindfulness, however you come by it, was, is, and will be an excellent platform for continued attempts to quit. So, despair not, and keep circling back from mindful smoking to mindful-smoking cessation until you finally roll this smoking rig into a hangar and hang a padlock of finality on it. In the meantime, keep smoking air and taking smoke-free smoke breaks whenever you can. Be well, fellow coper. You know how.

Final Destination: Life!

The stabilization of atmospheric oxygen at about 21 percent seems to be a mute consensus reached by the biota millions of years ago; indeed it is a contract still respected today.… The present high, but not too high, level of oxygen in our atmosphere gives the impression of a conscious decision to maintain balance between danger and opportunity, between risk and benefit. If oxygen were a few percent higher, living organisms themselves would spontaneously combust. As oxygen falls, a few percent aerobic organisms start to asphyxiate. The biosphere has maintained this happy medium for hundreds of millions of years, at least…. [J]ust how this works is still a mystery.

—Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Microcosmos

As mysterious as smoking might be, plain old breathing is pretty miraculous in and of itself. While, on one level, this book is about smoking, it is fundamentally about breathing. Scare tactics are misguided; smoking is not a matter of life and death (dead people don’t smoke, you know!), but breathing is: no breathing, no possibility of smoking. So, ignore the government’s oversimplistic ways of trying to scare you into abstinence with cheesy horror shots of charred lungs and stitched-up chests. Get inspired by the mystery of breathing itself instead. Whether you are breathing straight-up, unfiltered Mother-Nature air or the junk-flavored air sold by the tobacco industry, remember to enjoy this breathing journey. And be grateful for this life privilege. Thank something, thank someone, thank yourself—for being alive.

So, here you are, wherever that “here” might be. Perhaps—and we certainly hope that’s the case—you have reached your final destination and quit. If so, congratulations! Or, maybe you haven’t quit yet, but are scheduled to quit. Then, Godspeed you! Or, maybe, you are still in flight, perhaps training or testing. Take your time in practicing your skills. Or, perhaps you decided to use your newly acquired craving-control skillpower and mindfulness know-how to try out harm reduction, either as a prep phase for eventual abstinence or as an open-ended harm-reduction choice. If that’s what you decided, then so be it—live your choice mindfully. There’s also the chance that you have quit and already relapsed, in which case, consider going on a mindful-smoking sabbatical by flying Smoking Cessation Airlines with us again. You will rule the air one day soon!

But wherever you are, we hope you can be there with a sense of acceptance of wherever you’ve been and of wherever you are heading. Recognize that the final destination of life is life itself.

Smoking or not, we salute your existence. We applaud your self-help effort. And, as strange as it sounds (since we don’t know you), we also feel fundamentally connected to you, fellow living being, by this virtue of breathing. We—you the reader, we the authors, and all of us who respire—share one and the same existential platform of breathing.

Let smokers, ex-smokers, and nonsmokers filter their attitudes about each other through this sense of breathing commonality. Let us all be inspired by not just lungs but also each other, the ordinary ecstasy of our interdependent coexistence, and the mere breathtaking fact of being alive.

Related: An Unofficial Apology to Smokers (P. Somov, Marla Somova)

Smoke-Free Smoke Break: Stop Smoking Now With Mindfulness and Acceptance (Pavel Somov and Marla Somova, New Harbinger, 2011)

about Smoke-Free Smoke Break book:

From the first page, I was riveted. Having worked professionally with addictive behavior for thirty years, I am seldom surprised with new ideas. Yet this book surprised me with many delightful, inspiring, and useful ideas and exercises that I immediately began to bring into my work with patients. This book rides the crest of a new, hopeful, and effective approach to positive behavior change that’s revolutionizing the way professionals understand and address addictive behaviors.

— Andrew Tatarsky, PhD, Center for Integrative Harm Reduction Psychotherapy

Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, and Mindful Smoking to You!

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2019). Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen, and Mindful Smoking to You!. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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