Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Smoke Signals

Ah. . . the blessing of a cool morning and the humbling gifts of living as an embodied soul/ensouled body, effected by internal and external conditions that challenge us to keep our hearts open.

I have a small private pie-shaped balcony where I do my morning practise of prayer and meditation each day. I get up as early as my body will allow to catch the pre-dawn coolness and quiet time in the city. I live on the second floor and my balcony looks out on a small park. As I settle in for my practise I look up into the dense green of maples and hemlocks filled with black squirrels chasing each other and birds singing the sun up each morning.

And, as I take a long deep inhale to settle into my meditation on these summer mornings, I am greeted by the smell of cigarette smoke. The man who lives in the apartment above me is also an early riser. He sits out on his balcony each morning watching the sun rise, smoking and coughing in a way that makes my own chest ache to hear it.

I admit I was initially annoyed by both the acrid smell and loud coughing. But I quickly realized there was nothing I could do about it. This man had every right to be on his balcony in the morning and to smoke.

I have a kind of soft spot for smokers- even though I am allergic to cigarette smoke. Every adult human being I know has addictions or habits they know are not good for them.  Some, like over-work, are lauded and many are done in secret away from other’s eyes. Nicotine is incredibly addictive, and smoking is almost impossible to hide- others are going to see you do it, smell it, and hear the effects we all know about in your cough

So, I decided that when I smelled smoke or heard my neighbour's burning, hacking cough, I’d just say a small prayer for this man on the balcony above me, sending cool healing light to his lungs and wishing him well. That helped me let go of any annoyance that arose and return to my practise.

But over the last few weeks, what began as primarily a defensive move intended to maintain my cherished shot at (real or imaginary) equanimity has become. . . .  . something else. I do not know this neighbour personally, although we say hello in the lobby and on the stairs. But, hearing the painful cough every morning and smelling the smoke that is no doubt a contributing factor, I realize I do know him. He is another myself, another human being doing the best he can. We all do some things that cause suffering some of the time. Smelling the smoke, hearing the coughing, I feel my heart cracked open to our shared humanness a little further each day. I still offer a prayer for this man’s health and well-being, but the prayer has changed, has become more about “us” and how we struggle, and includes genuine gratitude for the reminder of our shared humanness. This is particularly valuable on a day when my practise is going “well” and I am tempted to separate myself, if only in my own mind and only for a moment, from those aspects of self or others that are having a moment that is not going so well (including myself, yesterday, when monkey mind had me by the throat and calmly meditating was impossible.)

The longer I live the more I am convinced that our humanness is a feature and not a bug of this life we are given. It is the very thing that teaches us about the magnificence and beauty that is revealed only under conditions that are not "perfect" by beings that, although capable of heart-breaking mistreatment of self and others, can and often do choose compassion instead.

Every moment offers us what we need to remember what we are, pulls us to open our heart a little more to ourselves, others and the world. And for this, I am deeply grateful.

Oriah House (c) 2013

14 comments:

  1. Oh Dear Inspiring, Compassionate and Humane Oriah!
    This unbelievable coincidence made me want to comment in this wonderful post. I have a neighbor living with his girlfriend in the apartment next to mine - on the second floor. their balcony is next to my balcony. They are both heavy smokers. And I work from home and love keeping windows and a balcony open - summers are short in Russia so I enjoy every moment of fresh humid delicious air coming from the forest nearby. For the past couple of days all my apartment got filled with such a heavy smoke of the cheapest cigarettes that I saw it and could hardly breathe. I went to the balcony and said the lady their smoke gets into my apartment and violates me, my health and my space. She stopped smoking there. But her boyfriend was smoking as heavy as never before. Yesterday my apartment got filled with this heavy smoke about ten times. I was suffocating, developed headache and a bad sore throat for the first time in many-many months. I started to read about the effect of second hand smoke on humans and found that 10 minutes of exposure to such smoke causes genetic mutations in our airways as a way to adjust to this poison. So I went to the balcony and told him that his smoke is all over my apartment and he laughed in my face. I started to panic and shake feeling so helpless and so much not wanting to confront and create disharmony.. After another two cigarettes I went there and yelled at him because not only my apartment, but clothes, hair, walls started to smell like smoke. He stopped, it seemed. But in an hour it all started again. And again, until midnight. The last thing I was doing, screaming in the darkness - What are you doing? Why are you poisoning me?
    I didn't sleep this night and all day feeling sick and not knowing what to do. My sense of justice is hurting from the fact I have to spend time and energy to fight for a basic need - clean air. And his girlfriend is smoking again today so I was just thinking of how to protect myself from this and feeling sad it threw me totally out of balance and harmony. And after hitting the lowest bottom of misery, I saw this post. Thank you, Oriah, for inspiring me to be better even at worst of existence, to be humane and forgive these people who probably have no clue of the harm of their addiction.Thank you for being a quiet harbor of peace, harmony, strength and inspiration in the storms of the chaos I am, was, in for the past days. Now I will look at this situation with a softer heart and more open mind and will have a lot to reflect about unpredictability, uncontrollability of external circumstances and importance of keeping inner strength and understanding of others going through their own battles in life. Thank you and have a wonderful, peaceful, sunny day! Your posts are a breath of FRESH air :).

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    1. Oh dear, this sounds truly horrible. I do want to be clear that although the scent of smoke is unpleasant (and does waft into my apartment at times) I am not actually getting the smoke because the smoker is above my place and the breeze generally dissipates the smoke. It sounds like your situation is very different and does indeed pose a threat to your health (and being in canada I understand too well the desire to have windows open for the brief warm season.) I send prayers that there may be a way to resolve this that allows your health not to be compromised by the second hand smoke (which truly does have an effect.)

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    2. Dear Oriah,
      Thank you for your kind words. After your post I am really having a true peace of mind and tonight there was significantly less smoking. Maybe the prayers are working. And I am sending prayers so that the rays of light that are radiated from your beautiful soul would touch more and more hearts.

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    3. I had one other thought as I was out walking today and thinking about your situation. I would be tempted to set up a fan inside at the balcony door (assuming that's where most of the smoke is coming in) and turn it on when they are out there smoking. That way you could keep the door/window open and might be able to prevent a great deal of the smoke from entering your apartment. Just a thought :-)

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    4. Thank you, Dear Oriah, from the bottom of my heart! Your words of support are so heart-warming.
      Unfortunately, this problem is complicated with the direction of the wind, which is strong and changing mostly towards my windows. Also, another room is right above the entrance of the building and there are usually several smoking people stay under this window during the day and the exhaust system sucks it all in. Plus, as it's the second floor, every smoking person passing by during the day and night - I smell all that as well - and there are a lot since Russia is not yet ready to give up this coping mechanism that a very large part of the citizens have. Fortunately the law that widely prohibits smoking in public places has come into effect this June and there will be more restrictions coming up soon as well, so I will be involving the police officer who is responsible for our building. He can't do anything much yet, but will just visit and politely talk to them. And I will be praying for them and their health. And I believe it will get better.
      Also, this whole situation has really reminded me about my highly anticipated educational goal in another country - where this problem doesn't exist. So I am speeding up my efforts starting today :).
      Thank you, Oriah! Your posts make me a better person.

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  2. Pat Mary from LondonJuly 25, 2013 at 6:51 AM

    Thank you very much indeed for this sweet and tender reminder, Oriah, and for the dialogue with the person in Russia. Thank you, also, you who wrote from Russia.

    I often need to be reminded that 'those others out there', smoking or doing other things that seem destructive, are part of me too. And when this reminder comes with gentleness and compassion, I am more able to take it in.

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    1. Thank you Oriah for sharing your recent thoughts. I immediately became attentive as I too live in a building with smokers and am often aware of this when I have my balcony door open. But it bothers me the most, or it has until reading and thinking about your way of looking at the problem, when I'm waking up in the morning and my first conscious intake of breath is mixed with cigarette smoke from somebody living below me. Sometime before reading your email I did have the thought though to send a prayer, which might help change the situation somehow. Perhaps one of these people is trying to quit smoking and if someone is praying for them, maybe it could help, aiding more than just the person doing the smoking. My heart goes out to you in Russia, I can really understand your feelings and reaction to your situation. I thought Oriah's idea of a fan in the doorway a pretty clever idea. Hope you could try this and that it helped. What I did a few times, although my problem is more like Oriah's, where I just get whiffs of smoke for a short period,was lighting some incence in the balcony doorway, so that I smelled that more than the cigarette smoke.
      A universal pest....hopefully it will be become less and less.

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    2. I'm afraid I'm not at the point to accept somebody's behaviour that not only hurts them but also other people. Everybody can do with their body as they please, and there I agree fully that most of us have our issues. But being an annoyance or even an offence to other people's health and wellbeing is not beneficial to human coexistence in this world. As smokers are behaving this way, I'm afraid that I don't have a soft spot for them... I'm happy for you, Oriah, that your situation doesn't afflict your morning meditation, but even supports your path to understanding and sympathy. You really make the best of it!

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    3. Nora, well I absolutely support boundaries that stop one person's choice from damaging others- like laws that stop smoking in restaurants or other places where non-smokers get second hand smoke. I want to be clear that I am only getting the faintest smell of the cigarette smoke and, of course, the sound of the coughing- which I have found annoying. However, I would challenge the idea that "being an annoyance" should not be allowed- since I'm pretty sure that there's a wide range of behaviour that someone could always find annoying. For instance, some people find children who are simply behaving like children, annoying but I'm not wanting to ban children from public streets, parks etc. Being annoyed may not be a choice when it first arises, but what we do with our own annoyance determines whether or not we continue to seeth and separate (where simply asking for a change is not possible or desireable)or let go of the annoyance. This is the challenge- how to live together where our sensibilities will be different than others. No simple answer, but a process of inner and outer negotiation :-) (p.s. My soft spot for smokers is not because they smoke but because they are often targeted with disdain by others who have more hidden additions- some of which, like overwork or secret drinking, affect others in proximity deeply.)

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    4. I meant "hidden addictions" not additions.

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  3. I agree that it depends very much on personal attitudes what to call an "annoyance" and what not. And how to deal with that is certainly one of our big lessons in this life! Thank you for your impulse.

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    1. Nora, I was thinking about our conversation when I went to the grocery story yesterday. For some reason I was repeatedly "annoyed" by many- the woman blocking the aisle seemingly unaware; the check out clerk who was slow and spacey; the store's lack of my favourite cereal. . . . Even as annoyance arose and I grumbled internally I wondered why I was feeling so snappish, knew that these were all largely a matter of perspective (except the cereal- it really was not there! :-)) Annoyance arises of it's own accord. . . maybe sometimes (like for me, yesterday) it tells us where we have been stretched too thin without noticing it.

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    2. Oh yes, I think so, Oriah! It is not really flattering but I have to admit that annoyance may vary from day to day in my life... If I'm relaxed and happy, I am much more tolerant, so I stick to my daily mediation :-)

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  4. This post really touched me Oriah. The best part of our lives is turning the small annoyances into big lessons, which you did so gracefully here. You're right, whatever we see in other human beings is the same things we have going on inside of ourselves, but in different forms: struggles, heartache, addiction, sadness, joy and happiness. I only hope I can continue to channel your thoughts into my next situation and can see that we are all, indeed, one.

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