Smoking a Pipe

En route to meeting friends, I was in the consumerist paradise of Tokyo, Ginza, and happened upon a pipe shop. But firstly…

I was aghast to find that Japan was full of smokers. Sydney-and maybe all of Australia-has successfully pushed smoking to the fringes of society. Pubs, one of the bastions of beer and cigarettes, no longer allow for smoking indoors, and generally have a smoker walk a fair distance beyond the premises to light up. Tokyo, however, was a totally different story.

A local art installation in Tokyo.

As i wandered Tokyo on my first day, I came across a strange, glassed-off area in Shinjuku. I wondered what everyone was doing huddled in their together. The closer I got, the reality dawned: it was a group of smokers in their own private, enclosed space. Not an art installation or some kind of special event, just your average Japanese folk going outside for a smoko.

I saw this kind of thing everywhere.

Restaurants and cafes had special smoking sections. Even boxes of cigarettes could be bought at the local vending machine, and they didn’t have grotesque images of tarry lungs or gunky arteries. (I recently enquired about cigars at the local IGA and was so confronted by the images I declined the purchase). Ew. Well, back to Ginza.

Bertrand Russell could not make a piece of toast but he could light a pipe.

I wandered inside this sophisticated store and was greeted with a bow at the door. This man traded with another that could speak English and he guided through what makes a good pipe. I said that I was interested in a Japanese made one for a souvenir and he showed me a series of different designs (again, appealing to individualistic tendencies of what design ‘suits’ you). Before I knew it, I’d left the store with port-flavoured tobacco, a pipe, and a cleaning kit. Naturally at the back of my mind was the thought of black lungs or throat cancer, so I quickly did a search on the effects of pipe smoking. Apparently, compared to other forms of smoking, it is far less harmful. I somehow rationalised it by stating that several contemporary Christian heroes (Tolkien, Lewis, Bonhoeffer) or even some of the more secular dudes (Derrida, Sartre, Russell) were pipe smokers. Einstein smoked a pipe. Preacher Charles Spurgeon smoked cigars his whole life. So logically buying a pipe will make you like these men. Oh yeah, and Gandalf smoked too.

Tolkien smiling.

When I got back home I had a go at smoking my pipe and it was a disaster. In fact, from all of the relaxation to be gained from smoking a pipe I had none. The whole experience was a waste of tobacco, matches, time, and lung capacity. I was more concerned about smoking it right than enjoy the smoke. It wasn’t until, after a long day at work, that I finally got the right specifications, portions of tobacco and lighting properly, that I truly enjoyed smoking my pipe.

It is everything that you’d expect for relaxation and contemplation. It’s true, all of it. Here what Einstein apparently said: “I believe that pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.” Einstein was onto something (and was smoking something). The effect of the tobacco relaxes the body and slows everything down. It is somewhat of an existential moment – a being-in-the-world that engages contemplation in a different way. Of course, you can go to a quiet place and allow yourself to meditate (not the mind-emptying kind) and slow down. We call this mindfulness, right? Well ok, smoking a pipe is an induced state of mindfulness (yet I hasten to add it is not mind-emptying, but contains a mystic quality).

Derrida, a man full of angst.

This brings up a problem that the casual observer notices about smokers (although they are a different kind of smoker to a degree): they’re more likely to be addicted and use the tobacco’s effect to calm themselves down. In other words, it is self-medication from the feelings of anxiety. This is obviously a pathway towards dependency and addiction, a relinquishment of self-control. Once something rules you, you’re a slave.

I did highlight some of my concerns earlier about smoking a pipe, but I’ve come to see it as a helpful example for considering what enjoyment in moderation actually means. We do plenty of things that aren’t good for us, such as eating McDonald’s or drinking alcohol on a frequent basis. One results in being overweight and the onset of a series of nutritional issues, the other to liver damage and weight gain if not controlled moderately. Pipe smoking, for all its so-called ‘benefits’, is something I personally intend to keep in moderation. I can see the allure of tobacco smoking but it doesn’t master me.

Those images plastered over cigarettes packets warns the user of a bad omen; a pathway to serious health issues. Yet pipe smoking still retains more sophistication than the odd fag. However, I haven’t realised a single pipesmoker amongst my friends nor seen one in the general public. Whilst not stigmatic, its a frowned-upon relative of the cigarette. I for one have moved on from this initial awkwardness.

I’m not any of those historical pipe smokers, I’m me, and I enjoy pipe smoking for myself now. It sure makes for a good 30 minute pause in the day to draw conclusions about life, the universe and God Himself.


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