Back in the 1990s, I enjoyed taking smoke breaks at work. A couple times a day, I would leave my desk saying, "I'm going out for a smoke; be back in a few minutes." I could do that then. People were OK with that, because it was an improvement. Until recently, they had had to sit on the other side of an upholstered cubicle wall inhaling secondhand smoke. They were grateful. Go, they'd think, take that poison outside. Of course, some were jealous that they didn't have the excuse of a recognized and still somewhat socially acceptable addiction that would justify their brief departure from the confines of their cubicle to the world outside with its natural light.
Through the lobby's spinning doors I would go, squinting into that light, emerging to stand in view of the traffic passing on Market Street a major artery through Center City. Often times, there would be a fellow comrade or two or three. We would stand next to each other—co-smoking. But just as often I was left alone for my seven to ten minutes of quiet to inhale and smell and taste a cigarette, to watch the smoke rise as I blew it out.
I remember a friend, a fellow smoker, saying that he liked smoking because it was the closest thing you could do to doing nothing. If someone asked you what you were doing outside sitting on a wall, you could say, smoking—a legitimate reason for being alone, for absenting yourself in the first place.
I married a non-smoker. Our wedding had been dramatic on a few accounts and I couldn't wait to get to Hawaii and sit on the beach and do nothing. My new husband, on the other hand, had something planned for every single day—snorkeling, a helicopter tour, a traditional luau, hiking the red dirt on narrow paths around cliff sides to a beach where we briefly sat, then swam before heading back up the trail. At one point, while driving around the island of Kauai, I finally asked if I could please just have one smoke on the beach. He begrudgingly granted my request. It was windy and the cigarette was difficult to light, but I managed. I looked out at the ocean waves, while he sat next to me and waited impatiently. But I got my smoke break, my moment of sitting and doing almost nothing nearly alone.
Many years after I quit smoking, I started meditating and discovered it reminded me of my smoking days. Meditation is also pretty close to doing nothing. It too gives you an excuse to go off by yourself. In mindfulness, you are in the present, not letting your mind dwell in the past, plan the future, or fantasize about what could be. You focus on the moment you are in and you often do this by focusing on your breath.
So it occurred to me, perhaps this is what I was searching for all along—breathing space. Smoking was just an excuse to step away and do nothing. It trained me to pause and watch my breath and not think. Obviously, meditation is a much better option for me. Still, today's officemates might look at you strangely if you said you were going for a breathing break. You might be labeled the office weirdo.
In the summer of 2013, I was once again on a beach with my husband. This time we were vacationing with our two children in the Pacific Northwest. We went to Meyers Creek Beach on the coast of Oregon. I was blown away by how different it was from the Jersey shore where I vacationed growing up. For one thing, there were so few people. We needed to hike to this beach too. When we arrived, we saw huge boulders. We walked along the beach, investigating the tidal pools. At some point I wondered off a bit, while my husband and children continued to poke around discovering orange and red starfish. I found a nice spot. My view was two boulders, one to my left, the other to my right. There I sat breathing, looking, listening to the waves, trying to take in the timelessness, trying to soak it up so that I could conjure this moment again at a time I needed it—on a crowded subway, in a waiting room. My family caught up with me.
"What are you doing?" My husband asked.
"Just sitting. Looking at this." I reached my arms out toward the boulders, the sea. "Come sit with me."
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. "Come on, kids. Your mother's having her 'Moment of Zen.'"
And I was.
My husband thought I was being weird and wanted to convey that to the children. They laughed and headed off. He, who loved nature and hiking and traveling as much as I did, had always experienced it a little differently than me. He still had only two modes—constant motion and sleep. Pausing wasn't an option.
I stayed for a few minutes longer, aware I was being watched, perhaps the butt of a joke. I sat appreciating the ocean waves, the shadows the boulders created, the wingspans of the birds overhead.
I can't help but wonder if he would have understood better if I'd sat down to have a smoke. "Leave her alone, give her some space" or "she's smoking her cancer sticks," he could have said, easily condemning the selfish action as both physically and morally bad. Smoking, an addictive urge, was easier to explain than wanting to sit in silence, taking in the sights and sounds and sensations that were right in front of me.
All those years ago on the windy beach of Kauai I realize what that newlywed really wanted wasn't so much a smoky treat, but her "Moment of Zen."