I started smoking cigarettes four months ago, out of the blue. I didn’t question myself about it, just figured that a nasty habit had swooped out of the sky and carried me off in its talons. I’d smoked a few times before, once for two years, rolling my own when I lived in a mountain cabin and wrote; smoking was a substitute for companionship. I never liked the effects of the nicotine, but I loved the ceremony of the roll and the lighting of the end from a candle or oil lamp chimney or splinter of wood from the fireplace. I liked dragging the smoke deeply into my chest, and the burn it gave my lungs. I rolled and smoked about six a day. Every Top tobacco nail made me dizzy. I never adjusted to that. Sometimes I’d wonder why I was doing something that made me reel. Once, my son asked me why I smoked and I told him that it was because I was trying to turn myself inside out. I never understood what I meant by that until just now.

This time, I quickly got addicted to the suck and puff and blow. I liked peeling the cellophane off the packet and picking out the first one from the fresh regiment of smokes. I liked the feel of the cigarette between my lips, the flaring of the match to light the end, the glow of the ember on my inhales.

When I got heated about something, I noticed myself dragging very deeply and smoking the cigarette right down to the filter.


A volcano helped me work out why I was smoking. Cai and I were bathing in a hot spring at the base of the Arenal Volcano in Costa Rica when it went off. There was a rumbling that grew in intensity, the ground shook, and then there was a tremendous thundering and explosion as a plume of smoke and ash shot out of the top of the huge coned mountain. I was awestruck and happy. I laughed. Something had connected.

The volcano was mirroring something I was trying to do. The cigarette had been trying to tell me in its small and pervasive way, but what opened the door was that volcano erupting.

The cigarette smoking was the messenger; the message was that I was holding on to a lot of anger and that I had better blow my top before that dark burning manifested itself within me physically; before it became a part of me by burning me apart. It provided me a perfect model: the fire of the match flaring and then being blown out; the ember of the cigarette burning without flame; the smoke and smoke and smoke; the stabbing out of the contained fire and — because I was still unsatisfied — the lighting of another cigarette.

It took me four months from the first cigarette to the last to get the message. An acupuncturist confirmed it for me. “You’re sitting on a lot of anger there,” he said after taking my various pulses sixteen different ways. When I left, I went up the hall to my office, smoked four in a row so furiously I almost passed out, and that was pretty much the end of it.


What did I do with the rage? Became aware of it. Sank a shaft into it. It’s been accumulating for a lifetime, lots of hot lava wanting to get out, and now I’ve taken a step toward allowing that. Maybe Life Times magazine is one of the vents for that anger, a disguised volcano that’s transmuted the rage through alchemy into something positive. But now is the right time to unload it more directly, rage into the wilderness, fill the wind with primal screaming and laughing, and do a lot of forgiving of myself and others — maybe pray for our happiness and well-being. Nothing like sincerely loving someone who you figure has hurt you to finally neutralize that hurt.

Another positive aspect of this experience has been an insight into habits, and my theory of messengers and the messages they carry to us. Are the habits we judge as bad for us really divine messengers we’ve embraced, without looking for the messages they bring us? Could it be that those habits contain keys to help us free ourselves from limitations we’ve imposed on ourselves and others? If a cigarette can instruct us on how to open doors to the light, what might habitual shots of Old Overcoat have to say? Or two-pound boxes of walnut fudge? Or any other drug? They are not intrinsically bad. Is calling them bad only our stoic refusal to read the messages they bring us?

Maybe all habits, be they a particular illness or substance or person, are messages of importance, there to free us from our hurt. Maybe diabetes says we want sweetness but cannot tolerate it. Help us change, help us open to being loved. Crippling arthritis may be our soul telling us that we are ossifying from lack of the emollient of love, that we have contracted away from it and begun turning ourselves into knots.


Alcohol by itself is the natural effluent of yeast eating sugar in the dark, neither good nor bad, but something that in excess stupifies us to the pain of refusing to grow. The message is to open up and allow the light into us and out of us, to permit the efflorescence of fermentation (which is a strong symbol of growth for ourselves); to allow the real happiness and ease that the first few drinks bring on to be a mainstay of our lives rather than something induced by the depressant action of ethyl alcohol. The messenger is the alcohol; the message is in there somewhere. Find it if alcohol is your messenger.

What is the message of sweets and eating too much? Eating is kissing, nursing, reaching out to be fed what we most need — which is not what we put in our mouths in substitution. We re-create our baby fat, suck in sweetness from candy and pastry and soda, and miss the symbolism of what is being told to us by our essential selves.

Cocaine? Our nose to the world. Our “no”s. No, no, no, no, no! It seems to release good feeling and brilliance, creativity and love, but that is only the shadow play. It is constrictive, self-cancelling. To what do we say no? Is it to growth? To receiving love? Are we refusing to love ourselves? To allow life to stimulate us directly? Once we can answer that honestly, the dependency will begin to go.

Are the habits we judge as bad for us really divine messengers we’ve embraced, without looking for the messages they bring us?

The messenger is a person. The habit is this person. The message is on that person’s face, in their eyes, their posture, the way they speak to you and treat you, the way they dress and like to see you dressed, the way they touch you and want to be touched by you. The message is in what they say to you day after day, and often in what they don’t say. You can hear what they are really telling you anytime you want to. Once you hear them and connect to what you — through them — are trying to tell yourself, the relationship will either have fulfilled itself and turned you both loose, or you will go on to the next step together. A person habit is one we all have. If we don’t have it now and then it is only because we are shopping around for a new habit.

We are attracted to people by the way they mirror us back to ourselves. The image we have of ourselves is what we try to match as closely as possible in the person with whom we choose to spend the most time. We fall in love with people who give us the finest resolution image of what we are under all the malarky — or what we perceive ourselves to be — and then spend the rest of the relationship trying to change the mirror. We are drawn to those who see us clearly and love us despite the parts we prefer to hide from ourselves. We welcome them as messengers, embrace them, and then forget the messages they bring. We often turn them into habits in which we cloak ourselves to keep away the light, and the more they allow this to be done with their love, the more we despise them — and the more they despise themselves.

But whenever we decide to, we can look into their eyes, touch their souls, and hear the message they bring to us, for it is always there. Look for the message not only in the way they talk, and dress, and touch you, but in the entire spectrum of their being. You may find that everything you are aware of in them is a message from you to you. Put on hold your judgements of them and all they seem to be, and start taking notes. Look for symbols, and trust your intuition to interpret those symbols. Look for the way they react adversely to you, and look into yourself to find why they react that way. Have you hidden your light? Have you tried to hide their light? Have you interfered with their freedom to live their lives the way they choose? Or have you allowed another — maybe even them — to interfere with your life? For they will despise you for allowing them to challenge your right to live life the way you want to and for not standing up to them. This may be part of the message they bring to you: stand up to me and when you can finally do it easily, you will have achieved a level of growth that I can never take away, no matter how hard I try.

Or maybe it is the other way around — you have snatched away all the choices they have reached for, telling them you know better what is good for them. And one day they stand up to you and say, “No more. I am free.” It is time then to renegotiate with the messenger as to whether continuing the relationship will still serve you both. If not, it is time to go on alone and to honor always what they have helped you to do, for there is no relationship in the world in which the “bad” outweighs the “good.” Look closely enough and you will always see that the hardest times with a person were those in which one of you was pushing the other to grow when you didn’t think you were ready, or standing in the way of growth if you were ready. The best times were when you allowed one another to grow in accordance with your unique rhythms and lent support to that growth by your love alone. Love is completely allowing others to grow according to their own light. Anything else is torturing the messenger and, through association, the recipient of the message.

Paradoxically, these habits are symbols of the purity and joy and bliss we believe we have lost. . . .

Are you a workaholic? The messenger is work so hard and intense that you do not see the rest of life; the message is that you do not want to see the rest of life or those who love you and want to be with you. You are too busy for love, but until you slow down and start to feel who you are, you will not grow. You will be a cog in a steamy, non-stop machine that goes nowhere until it breaks down, and the place it goes then is not really where you want to be — the repair shop or the junkyard.

Can’t get enough sex? Does the drive for ceaseless union leave you obsessed and exhausted, always on the make, never satisfied? The messenger is the urge; the message is to learn to give of yourself and not depend on others’ bodies to receive affirmation of your own worth. Give and you are given to. Man or woman, you have chosen sex because you want to be fertilized, pollinated so that you can bloom. Find the creativity you are so narrowly channeling, and express it more fully. Love yourself and you will not be as driven to hear others moan loving platitudes to you so often. Make love to yourself. Bear your own weight, transmute your disjointed sexuality into passion for living, for sharing the adventure of living from a more diverse perspective than the bed.

Are you dependent on sleeping pills? Are you afraid of losing control? Do you have to stay awake because you can’t let go? The messenger is the pill; the message is that you deserve to sleep and that there is nothing there to be afraid of. You have done nothing wrong. The experiences you judge as bad and fearful are only lessons you went through. You will be released once you see them as growth begging to go on. Everyone you bring into your life has come to give or take exactly what you wanted to receive or give in your evolution. Do not judge what has been. Look for what you learned, and what you may still be learning. Then see if you can wrap up that aspect of your growth and move on. You’ll sleep like a baby once the self-condemnation and the apprehension about losing control over your perceived enemies, including yourself, are turned out to pasture.

Do you often get colds and the flu? It’s the same syndrome as the cocaine habit. The messenger is the weeping and choking and sniffling; the message is that you don’t have to feel unloved, because there is nothing bad, only aspects of growing that we often lack the overview to benefit from. Find out what makes you feel unloved. Use meditation or Rolfing or hypnotherapy or acupuncture — any of the countless tools available to you once you look at yourself and see how beautiful you are. Colds are almost a worse habit than cocaine, because you give yourself nothing in return for the suffering except the climax of an occasional sneeze. The cokehead at least conjures up an artificial happiness for the trials and tribulations of the habit.


Are you addicted to heroin? The messenger is the needle and its contents. As love and the promise of you was injected into your mother, as there was receptivity and surrender and unconditional love at that moment, as there were limitless horizons and potential for reaching them all, as there was ecstasy that was a touch of the pulse of God, so now you shoot mother-love, father-love, God-love into your body and wait for the embrace you so desperately miss. You feel that nothing has come of that potential at conception, and the pain is more than you can bear. You are trying to recapture and arrest the moment of conception each time you “fix” yourself. But these bandages only cover the hurt. Come out of the womb again, run through your life, and look at it with open eyes. See hurt and suffering as learning to love yourself, and the more paradoxes the better, because paradox indicates truth. The message of the needle is that you are seeking the beauty of a flower — the red opium poppy — of “poppy” and maybe “mommy,” looking for the blossoming of life and love. You are wanting to be a flower, not just emotionally sustained by flowers. Don’t put the flower in your arm, jamming it in by the stem and squeezing. Allow it to grow in your heart.


The messenger is cancer; the message is refused growth. You have so staved off growth that you have given free rein to a particularly destructive form of growth that plays havoc with you. This is a compacted fear and guilt habit that has become so swollen that it has burst into dark blooms. Your fears and guilts have ripened to so awesome a degree that their fruits have ruptured and spat deadly seeds throughout the garden of you. The seeds need the darkness to sprout; when you bring the light onto them, they shrivel and die. Take a look at what you have been holding on to for so long that carries such potent malignancy, and deal with it. No one else can. No one else should. It’s your movie. Forgive those you have hated and feared. Find and embrace the beauty of you. Know that you’ve always done the best you could at any time in your life. You weren’t born with all the answers. No one had a blueprint for you, because you are unique. You had to learn as you went. Where you stumbled and fell was no more than a mark in the dust that the wind blew away long ago. It happened, but it does not exist now except in your opportunity to learn and move on down the path.

Know that you have given yourself a messenger and that you need to read the message in order to kick this habit and get better. Miracles await when you do this. We can all do it. It is entirely up to us. If we decide that it is too late or too hard to find the impactions and let them go, that is all right because life never ends. There will be other chances to let things go. But why not now? It is such a joy to see the doctors’ reactions when you prove them wrong and return to life not only cured by yourself, by your freed love, but also younger in spirit and more determined than you’ve been in many years. Beating any killer disease can change your whole attitude about life.


The habit is power; the message is that I want my own power. I want to empower myself. The messenger is power over others. You can be in a position to dictate your choices to half the world and still be weak. In fact you would be seeing almost perfect weakness and ineffectualness in some who had managed to bring all the world under his or her thumb.

That must eat at a lot of dictators because, deep down, they know the truth about themselves. They wake up feeling fragile and, over breakfast, order someone killed, punished, or tortured, or some country invaded.

You can become obsessed with this sort of power because you perceive resistance and revolt everywhere — a mirror of your resistance to your own divine power on a grand scale. You lock up everyone you can get your clammy hands on because you are locked up. You suffer, so everyone suffers. The paradox is that you have the power to enslave five billion people and make them dance to your tune, but not enough real power to oust the fear that demands such a charade.

With real power you are at ease; your life is in order; you awaken with clarity and joyous anticipation of what the day holds for you. You perceive no plots or insurrections in your reality because you don’t need them. You don’t need more power than you have because, being free, what would you do with it? The real power is love. Anything else is a desperate search for that same love.

If I own New York, my mom and dad will love me, maybe. If I kill lots of people — literally and figuratively — in business, argument, war, or romance, maybe people will fear me enough to have to love me. Some people are so fragile and unloved by themselves, and so determined to find love, that they become obsessed with the messenger. Love then becomes hate, and that unloved one embraces it unto the last breath. The messenger is hate; the message is love. Strange — at first glance.


What do these habits have in common? What ties them into one impulse with only topographical variations for individual preferences? They all represent our search for the tenderness and security of mother-love, of God-love, of total, uncomplicated acceptance of who we are; they represent our search for the warmth of a total and continuing embrace. Paradoxically, these habits are symbols of the purity and joy and bliss we believe we have lost, an attempt to turn ourselves inside out to reveal what we really are and once again touch the beauty of that.

Look for the good in all that you perceive or judge to be bad. Get the habit of embracing everything you see as messages to you from you, by way of the universe, to use as ways to grow and flourish, to get out of stagnation in order to receive your inheritance of beauty, health, prosperity, abundance, and love. It’s all there for you. I’m the messenger; that’s the message.

Jack Underhill is the editor of a lively and soulful new quarterly, Life Times, which celebrates the human spirit with essays, stories and poems.

I like Underhill’s own writing best. Honest and passionate, he invites readers into his wonderment, his confusion, his generous love. This essay, from a recent issue, is characteristic of his provocative style. We’re thankful for permission to reprint it.

Life Times is $16 for four issues from P.O. Box 4129, Santa Barbara, CA 93140.

— Ed.