I started smoking cigarettes with a friend of mine in high school, when I was about 15 years old. Looking back, it’s difficult to say why, but I do remember when and where. We were not the “cool kids” and we didn’t think smoking would make us cool. We weren’t really all that rebellious — troublemakers, yes, but not that rebellious — so rebellion wasn’t really a major factor. It wasn’t peer pressure nor were we looking up to people who smoked, wanting to be like them. Our mothers both smoked cigarettes (secretly), but I honestly don’t think we cared that much. We were just mid-level geeks, not the bottom of the food chain, but nowhere near the top, and I think we were just bored.
All of our friends used to stay at each other’s houses on the weekends to play video games, read comic books, listen to music, and to play Dungeons & Dragons or other similar games. At night, we would sneak out and walk around the neighborhoods, just a bunch of insomniac teenagers getting into mischief, trying to kill the boredom. I was staying at my friend’s house one weekend, we snuck out, and we were hanging out at the end of his block. We always had lighters because boys like fire and there was a cigarrette on the ground (gross — I know!). We picked it up, lit it, and smoked it. It was not really an enjoyable experience. I think it involved coughing, choking, and getting dizzy. We later figured out a way to buy a pack of cigarettes and we did it again — boys are dumb, but very clever when it comes to figuring out ways to act on their stupid ideas. This time, we chain-smoked until we were sick — and that was when I became a smoker (perhaps one of the greatest single regrets of my life).
Years later, I still smoked. By this point, I was smoking about a pack of cigarettes a day. When I started doing hapkido, I either walked or took the bus to class and I would smoke while walking or waiting for the bus. I probably smelled disgusting — like a smoker — while training, but no one really mentioned it. I was really starting to enjoy hapkido training and it was starting to change me. I was happier, more focused, and I felt like my life had a little bit more purpose.
One day, I left class and I felt amazing! I was clear-headed and I felt a lightness of being that was somewhat foreign to me (Rasputin with a dark cloud over his head, remember?). All was right with the world and with me in it. If there are such things as spiritual experiences, I was having one. I was moved. Then, as I walked away from the dojang, ecstatic and uplifted, I lit up a cigarette. It all went away…
It was as if I had just found the sunlight for the first time and then, with one drag off of my smoke, a fog rolled in and engulfed me. I was back in the cave and all I could see were shadows. As I finished my cigarette, I thought to myself, “This is why I smoke. I can’t stand the brightness of my own being and I’m covering it up with cigarette smoke. I’m beating my own light down so that I don’t have to face myself, so I don’t have to see myself.” Then, I quit.
To be continued…
Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body