On Pipe Smoking

Marshall "Butch" Armstrong
Have you ever thought about pipe smoking?
It must seem like a silly question. Of course we think about pipe smoking. We think about it every day. We think about our down time when we can enjoy that next bowl. We think about which tobacco we’re going to smoke next, and which pipe we’ll use. But what I’m getting at goes deeper than that. Have you ever really thought about why you smoke a pipe? This may seem a bit esoteric but I hope not. I think there are deeper reasons why we smoke pipes that we rarely think about. On the surface we like smoking a pipe because of the taste of the tobacco, because we want to try new pipes and new flavors. Because we like to share what we have with others. Because we want to collect pipes and tobaccos. But I still think there are other reasons we smoke that don’t always come to mind. Maybe some of those reasons don’t translate well into words. I’m thinking of contemplative and meditative reasons for smoking a pipe.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist and philosopher of science. He is considered by many to be the smartest man who ever lived. Living with that weight on your shoulders would give anyone a stress level that would be hard to manage. But if you’ve ever seen pictures of him smoking his pipe you’d never know that he was under any stress. His face is always serene and contemplative. Recently I watched a television program about him. That program is what got me thinking along these lines. The program showed a film clip of him smoking his pipe while reading some physics papers. Calm and serene as anyone could be, he contemplated ideas that we common folk could never think of. All while smoking a pipe. I believe that pipe smoking has a science to it that few understand. It does something for us, and to us, that we don’t understand except on a deeper level that doesn’t require conscious thought. Some of you might say, "That’s fine, leave it that way." And on the one hand, that’s not a bad idea but on the other I think it’s worth exploring. Many other famous thinkers, writers, scientists, philosophers and actors such as, Bing Crosby, Bertrand Russell, Edwin Hubble, J.R.R. Tolkien, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and C. S. Lewis were also pipe smokers.

Bing Crosby

I tried surfing the web for anything written on the science of pipe smoking and found plenty of articles. Unfortunately it was mostly about the actual "science" of how a pipe works. The "thermodynamics of pipe smoking" or "packing and lighting, strength and pace of draw, and smoking technique." All of these things are covered quite well on the web and in quite a few books, but the "science" of what pipe smoking is, or what it does to, and for the pipe smoker is largely untouched. There were many articles that alluded to the meditative and contemplative aspects of pipe smoking but none that I found that helped explain why or how this is so. From a web site called "Science 2.0, in an article called "Weekend Science, The physics of Smoking a Pipe, by Hank Campbell, August 27th 2011, the author says: "If you are like me, and you grew up watching Sherlock Holmes, heck even if you watch "Mad Men" today, you see pipes. Once a minute, someone will thoughtfully take a puff, a cloud of smoke will appear and something intelligent will happen." Which immediately raises the question for me, "Why do intelligent things happen? Is it because the men are intelligent, or because they smoke pipes, or both, or is it something else?" Why does this seem to be so elusive?

On a website called eckSermonator.com by Jason Hess it says, "Pipe smoking is the perfect companion for philosophical conversations (sic)" And from an article on the Washington Post titled "Bowled Over No Longer" By Peter Carlson dated Sunday, June 19, 2005, the author says, "It was a world of wise, contemplative men who sat and smoked and read serious, leather-bound literature, as well as a world of rugged outdoors-men, canoeists and fly fishermen and clipper ship captains who puffed their pipes as they pored over nautical charts before sailing ’round the Horn." Again my question, why? Why are pipe smokers wise and contemplative? Is it something about the pipe smoking that helps us to be that way or are we smart thinkers already and are simply drawn to pipe smoking? Is it media such as movies and books that have portrayed pipe smokers as such that has put these ideas in our heads?

I was drawn to meditation quite a few years ago and I do it (meditate) a few times a week. There is a meditation technique called "mindfulness" which is a meditation of concentration. Mindfulness basically means focusing your mind on exactly what is happening at this moment. Take driving a car for instance. You grab your keys, jump in the car, start it up and before you can get out the driveway you’re thinking about where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there, instead of concentrating on driving. Using mindfulness meditation means concentrating on nothing but the driving. Hands on the wheel, feet on the pedals, looking in the mirror, watching the road. Not letting your mind wander off in another direction. It’s not easy to do and really takes some practice to get good at it. I tried this technique while smoking my pipe. Packing and lighting. Drawing the smoke, blowing it out. Watching the smoke rise from the bowl. Concentrating on the flavors. When other thoughts appeared I simply pushed them away and returned to the smoking. I did this when I was preparing for the article I wrote on smoking Virginia tobaccos. It was a great experience. I was fully involved in the tasting and smoking and the meditative effects were wonderful. I felt more relaxed and peaceful than I had in a long time because all other thoughts were pushed aside except for concentrating on my smoking. No worries about anything in life. Just the enjoyment of the pipe. It was great.

I think that the art of smoking a pipe is such that you have to slow down to do it. Or you want to slow down at least. I have been a cigar smoker for years but there isn’t much to think about there. Cut the end off, light it and smoke it. But with pipe smoking you have to pay more attention. Fill the bowl, light, tamp, light again, draw right, etc. And when you’re not letting your mind run a hundred miles an hour with the cares of the day you can easily get to that contemplative state that I’ve talked about. Pipe smoking helps us to think a little more about what we think and do as opposed to just doing it full steam ahead. So then we become contemplative and meditative and start believing the world is not such a bad place after all. Now I’m getting philosophical, but that is a part of this idea too. There have been a lot of philosophers who smoked a pipe. When the scarecrow in the "Wizard of Oz" thought that he needed a brain, maybe all he needed was a pipe. (And to be careful with matches, of course.)

So I’m not exactly sure if writing all this has helped me come any closer to understanding what I’m talking about. Maybe some of you have some ideas about this and I’d love to hear them. There is some kind of connection between pipe smoking and a contemplative, meditative life. But it’s elusive and seems to hover right at the edge of thought. Kind of like the feeling of having something "right on the tip of your tongue." You’re almost sure you know the answer but it’s just not showing itself yet. Maybe all I need to do is have another pipeful and think about this some more. Yeah, that’s it. Another pipeful. Then I’m sure it’ll come to me. Yeah right!


Marshall Lee Armstrong enjoys camping, fly fishing, kayaking, painting, drumming and writing. He has published two books of poetry and writes a blog called “The Window", which includes a section called "SMOKIN‘" where he writes about cigars and pipe smoking. He is 58-years old, and has worked as a Rock Band Drummer, Electroplater, Chemical Process Technician, and Circuitry Manufacturing Supervisor. He is currently a Medical Lab Technician. He started smoking pipes in 1980.


12 Responses

  • At this contemporary point, I’d say there has to be a nostalgia angle behind who might and who might not become a pipe smoker. If not love of nostalgia, there has to be a reverence for the past on the part of the smoker. Pipe smoking is a very deliberate act, which is not at all like picking out something from a restaurant menu. In a non-smoking milieu, pipe smoking isn’t on any sort of menu to begin with.
    Thus, symbolism exerts its presence on those who would or would not smoke a pipe. You have to be a bit of a character to even want to take up the briar to begin with, unless you’ve already been some type of smoker and are looking for an alternative. But even then, it has to be an angle of nonconformity. Similarly, the mid-90’s cigar boom saw many proponents coming from those who sought to project an image of wealth and worldliness. The piper is perhaps the more eccentric form taken by those who otherwise might be cigar smokers. I am however merely pointing out stereotypes which are far from necessarily valid in each individual case.
    Another factor given short shrift is the appeal of aroma. Personally, I know two incense devotees, and the desire to have smoke floating in the air without directly imbibing it has always been a little lost on me. When I smoke however, I am immersing myself in a world of aroma when its a pipe or cigar. I might not have had any latakia smokers among my ancestors, but I have to be tapping in to a certain tradition with historical antecedents when I fire up a blend of Turkish and Cyprian.
    Pipe smoking is not something people do just to be smokers, but this is perhaps the case for those who smoke cigars or cigarettes. Anyone who makes a lengthy habit of the briar is a person who really enjoys it for its own sake, beyond any sort of desired appearance. Thus symbolism and image are not sustaining factors in the long run. Pipe smoking is a unique attraction unto itself.

  • Great comments guys, thank you. Very valid and important points ststephen. I think you have hit on some of the metaphysical aspects of the art and act of pipe smoking, which involves all five physical senses and surely senses we can’t put into words. Thanks.

  • why do I smoke a pipe ? because it relaxes me. the Mindfulness technique you talk about you left out one crucial point. as your sitting there meditating you are concentrating on your breathing.. nothing but the sound and feeling of breathing in and out , and you are doing it slowly. breathing slowly makes you think clearer and see the world and your thoughts in better focus. Now this approach to get you to slowdown and relax is hard to do because your just sitting there telling your self not to move or think about anything except your breathing. Now smoking a pipe your concentrating on smoking slow, your paying attention to how you smoke, when to tamp, how the smoke tastes/smells etc. you are getting in the zone ! nothing else matters but what you are doing at the moment. Pipe smoking helps you to do this easier then yoga because you are letting in all the stimuli that mindfulness approach tells you to push away. so its easier to do. to get in the zone. Just like when your playing your drums and the bass player and you are locking in on a groove..you get into the zone. you are not pushing away the stimuli your getting but using it to get in the zone. So you smoke a pipe get in the zone and you brain remembers that trigger. To relax slowdown and get in the zone. Thats way people smoke pipes because without them knowing it, it resets the mind to relax and focus on the task at hand.

  • Thanks for an interesting and well written article. I think you might have understated the beneficial effects of other forms of smoking. Maybe cigarette and cigar smokers aren’t as contemplative as pipe smokers, but do we know this for sure? What I’m really getting at is that nicotine, or perhaps just “blowing smoke”, releases or inhibits hormones that modulate our feelings.

  • Quite valid comment, Cortez. I’d add that pipe smoking makes no one contemplative, but that contemplative souls are drawn to pipe smoking.

  • In my experience, stilling the mind allows for creative activity to flourish. Pipe smoking – for all the reasons stated within both this article and its attendant comments – provides an excellent vehicle for attaining such a state.

  • Getting to the present through whatever means, and mindfulness techniques do this well, is very difficult due to the pervasive influence of instinct on ego. Ego is the royal prince of instinct as it is its control center of perception, conception, volition and thought, and an important part of its wiring is to the vagus system of 100 million nerves that connects the limbic system with the larynx, diaphragm, stomach, heart, intestines and the ear and tongue. So the basal regulation/state of the inner organs is reported by afferent nerves from these organs to the limbic brain via the vagus nerve. The limbic system is a complex set of structures that lies on both sides of the thalamus, just under the cerebrum. It includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and several other nearby areas (internet pillage).
    The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating your hunger, thirst, response to pain, levels of pleasure, sexual satisfaction, anger and aggressive behavior, and more. It also regulates the functioning of the autonomic nervous system (see below), which in turn means it regulates things like pulse, blood pressure, breathing, and arousal in response to emotional circumstances (more pillage)
    All of this, to me, shows the body’s physiological incursion of basal survival to the brain, and somewhere in the brain is ego, which is more concerned with survival than prosperity. We’re so busy surviving that we forget to thrive.
    The commandeering of consciousness, getting it to do anything approaching sitting on command, is a very difficult process; but the good thing is that determined folk have been doing it successfully for a very long time.
    To my mind anything that slows, stops and furthers entrance to spiritual states is a good thing, and pipe smoking can do this. My trouble is that my smoking is almost exclusively done in front of a computer at work and doing the million things that I do on the computer; thus, using pipe smoking to restore/enhance my mental state doesn’t as a rule occur. Maybe that’s a reason why it’s so hard for me to slow down my smoking cadence. I do however pray/meditate in front of pictures of saints on my desktop while smoking, but this article takes this one step further. Maybe I can make pipe smoking meditation, as well as the reverse.

  • That was a really interesting essay, and I enjoyed reading the comments. I have spent several decades trying to answer the same question, and it is obviously complicated and personal. If you are interested, check out my audiobooks in which I try to answer this question, both in the text and in conversations that precede each chapter. Pipes open up a world of contemplation, fun and enjoyment like no other — and only a few of us have discovered this secret treasure.