Some of you may know that Olivia saved my life in London last year; here’s a brief reprise.
I had just started chewing a mouthful of steak when a piece of gristle and fat separated from the rest of the piece, and slid quickly down my throat, lodging across the trachea—instantly I knew I could not breathe. I could not breathe out; I could not breathe in. I stood up; time slowed. The certainty that I could no longer breathe was profound. I was mute; I signalled that I could not breathe. Olivia ran around behind me and slapped me as hard as she could in the middle of the back, several times. Nothing changed. Still behind me, she clasped her arms around me and began the Heimlich manoeuvre and at the same time I slumped forwards against the pressure of her arms; the small fragment of fat and gristle popped out. Life restarted.
Last night I realised (for the first time) that my habit is to breathe out before taking a mouthful of food. (This just goes to show that even someone who has meditated as long as I have, and have felt the movements of the breath many, many times, can still have 100% blank spots about regular daily life habits.) How do you breathe when you eat?
The significance of this habit, always breathing out before taking a mouthful, cannot be overstated: fundamentally, it is dangerous. If your breath is out as you place food in your mouth, you will be at least partially breathing in through your mouth as you begin to chew—which means you can breathe a part of this into the wrong place. As well, compounding the danger, you cannot breathe out if something does become lodged. This is precisely what happened in London. Had I been on my own, I’d be dead.
Last night, seeing and feeling this pattern clearly, I paused before every mouthful, and breathed in. Only when the breath was full did I place the food. I noticed that introducing this tiny pause had a number of effects: I became more aware of the appearance of the food on the spoon and I was able to appreciate its appearance. Once on the tongue, I breathed out as I started to chew. Absolutely no chance of choking here.
The most amazing aspect of this was to realise how unaware I was about a tremendously important aspect of how I ate. ‘What else have I missed?’ was my second thought.
More prosaically, please observe how you actually eat a mouthful of food. If your habit is to breathe out before putting food in your mouth, try doing it the way I suggest. Does this make any difference for you?
For me, like all awarenesses, I cannot not be aware of this from now on.