I was having a bad day.
I had been going through a lot, and with my girlfriend out of town, a lonely house awaited me after my shift waiting tables. I didn’t want to go out drinking. I’ve long tried to abstain when at my most depressed — with my history of alcoholism, I have always been aware that using it to cope with the dark moments could well put me on the path to ruin I’ve flirted with for so long.
But spending the night doing nothing sounded bad.
I needed something different, and something safe. And then I remembered that I was just two blocks from Orlando’s Corona Cigar Lounge, their selection visible through the windows on the many nights I passed by.
So I picked out a single craft beer from my cooler at work, walked over to get a cigar, and made my way to my destination: my quiet, dark, back porch.
Over the course of the next few hours, the depression that had gripped me for the better part of a year finally started to subside. My mind crafted a project that met all my wants, and maybe even my needs. I went to sleep perfectly content for the first time in months.
But that’s all a story for a different day. I’m here to tell you that part of what I found was the magic of a cigar. Or, rather, the cigar was there to show me the magic of meditation.
It would be easy to discard the moment as nothing more than my addict brain clinging on to a new, addictive vice if it wasn’t so damn powerful compared to the mild
Now, half a dozen similar evenings under my belt, I can tell you that it has almost nothing to do with the nicotine. In fact, towards the end of a cigar, when the “high” becomes more pronounced, I stop enjoying the cigar entirely. It becomes a detraction from the experience.
That experience is, in its purest form, a form of meditation that works tremendously well for me.
There is perhaps no two stereotypes more different than that of a cigar smoker and that of one who finds peace in meditation. When I think of a cigar smoker, my mind conjures up an image of a round, loud, 50 something year old womanizing character with good stories, but utterly lacking in personal growth.
Conversely, when I think of someone that’s found success with meditations, I picture a thin, bearded man that seems wise beyond his years, who speaks with a reserved passion that draws you in. (Okay,Russell Brand, I picture Russell Brand.)
And yet I have found a sliver of peace from the latter through the means of the former.
Maybe you’re like me, and though you see the incredible value of meditation, you struggle with it. To my own credit, I’ve gotten better at it, and I’ve had a few really intense experiences, at times reaching some level of tiny transcendence.
But usually I sit and listen to my mind race in a million different directions, being anything but still. Try as I may to let go, like a child attempting to let go of a parents hand, my willpower rarely wins out.
And because I’m not good at it, I don’t enjoy it.
Because I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it as much as I should.
And, full circle, because I don’t do it more often, I’m not good at it.
I thought that real progress through meditation was not something I’d find in this life, and had kind of come to accept that.
And then I had that cigar.
It was daunting walking into the Corona Lounge. I imagine the feeling is similar to customers that come in to see me at work, and are greeted by 55 taps and 300 bottled beers. But, I the alcoholic, guide them efficiently to something they’ll likely enjoy based upon the hints they give me.
Much the same, when I said I had never really lit up a cigar before and needed something smooth, easy, I was guided to something that matched my desires.
Now it’s a little different. A few hours of internet rabbit holes, and I actually have a working knowledge of cigars.
This is all to say that the process starts well before a torch is fired and held to a “stick” (that’s what we aficionados call cigars..). And while you can surely pick cigars like an alcoholic picks beers — reaching in and grabbing what your hand finds first, or defaulting to exactly what you already know you like — it’s far more fulfilling to actually have to pick out a new stick or two.
So too was, once I was sure I had found a new hobby, picking out my first humidor, torch, and cutter. They aren’t much, but they’re mine.
And through the process, a first morsel of happiness, as you have something to look forward to.
No matter how bad things are, no matter what is going on in my life, on nights I have a cigar planned, I at least have that. I have an hour plus of forced stillness, and all that brings.
And so that moment comes. Work ends, my key hits the door, I flip off my shoes, slip out of my work shirt, sit idly for a few minutes mindlessly flipping through my phone (far less dangerous now that I’ve left Facebook, but still
I gather all that I need — Bluetooth speaker (always jazz for these moments), phone, beverage (sometimes a craft beer, sometimes, refreshingly, a flavored soda water on the rocks), a book, torch, and of course, man of the hour, the cigar.
All gathered on a small patio table, I sit. Most cigars being wrapped in plastic, I slip it delicately from its clear sheath, give it a curious smell, and examine it, looking for qualities I’m not aware of.
Having previously consulted several YouTube videos, I hold the lit torch a few inches from the foot, warming it before moving the tri-flame closer to light it. Fifteen seconds and a few puffs later, it’s uniformly lit, and we’re off.
But, interestingly, for the five to ten minutes from the start of this process to now, I’ve thought of nothing else. My mind is casually focused on the task at hand, much as it was during the selection process.
Telling your mind not to think is incredibly challenging — casually focusing on one simple task is quite easy.
I wish I could say that, right from there, my mind calms, and I enjoy peace for the hour plus it takes to burn through a stick. It does not. Free from the focus of selection or ritual, it returns to business as usual — endlessly racing to an infinite number of topics and worries.
During the first cigar, unaware I was in the midst of a new process, I let it, out of the exhaustion that comes from smother depression.
What’s the best way to calm a petulant child that’s throwing a tantrum for attention? Supervise, remain calm, don’t get upset, and let said child throw said tantrum. Eventually, he or she will tire, and in place of all of the noise, the parent will get peace.
The chaotic mind is a petulant child. So that first night, and with every cigar since, I let it rage on. Think about anything. Worry about everything. Even doubt that this dumb cigar trick will work again.
Sometimes, just like the child, the length of the tantrum exceeds the patience of the calming force, and you have to drag a restless entity to bed, for better or for worse. Can’t win ‘em all, as they say.
But most of the time, my mind grows bored and exhausted of itself and its own rantings.
And something weird happens. I start noticing things.
The wind. Breeze, breeze is weird, just a difference of barometric pressure from one side of the branch of that tree to the other. Trees… trees grow from air, dirt, and energy from a star millions of miles away. And how grand they can be, from seemingly nothing, something.
The cigar forces me to sit with myself for 60, 90, 120 minutes. At some point, my cluttered mind just gives up on trying to fill the void. Mindful to not use my phone for much of anything, other than perhaps a change of playlist or answering a question my mind has wandered to. And then, without really noticing it in the moment, the mind becomes free from itself.
While the goal of may be separation from all thought, a mind free of any idea of expression, the next best thing is focus on just one thing, a very simple one at that.
I swing back and forth between two states. First, a deep, fulfilling ponder, an inner self exploration that is neither stressful nor exhilarating. It just is. It is honest about myself, which I’ve found is kinder than my natural state. If the moment becomes negative, positive, or bothersome, or boring, or really the moment I notice that I notice, I turn back to the cigar. A puff. I watch the smoke curl in the night air. I watch it burn, and wonder how long the ash can hold on for. I take in the scent, let the smoke roll over my tongue, and breathe slowly, deep breaths between the twoish-puffs-per-minute. (Inhaling cigar smoke is, by the way, one of the harshest ways to be brought back to awareness of personal suffering, through acute, temporary suffocation. Would not recommend.)
Eventually, my mind comes back around, or the cigar runs short enough to become unpleasant. And while the moment is over, my mind is slow to return to its old tricks. I’m filled with the results of what an hour of near peace will bring — gratitude, calmness, relaxation, acceptance.
Western culture moves at a mile a second, and it’s accelerating every day. We’re constantly connected, our minds always seeking the next hit of dopamine. We’re overstimulated, but on the most unfulfilling stimuli.
Cigars, like most things, have their risks. But I’ve found that, if done right, they can settle even the most stubborn of minds for longer than I would have ever expected.