Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath

I read Zen in the Martial Arts for the first time when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I don't know what happened to my original copy... probably lost in a move at some point, maybe I sold it or lent it to someone who never returned it. Anyway, I picked up a new copy a couple of years ago and was as impressed re-reading it as I was the first time I opened the cover nearly 30 years ago.

Zen in the Martial Arts

...in October 1972, I was on holiday with my wife, Elke, in Europe. One lovely summer morning we were driving through the wine country of France when I felt an agonizing pain in my abdomen, compounded by a splitting headache. Soon my entire body ached with excruciating pain. Within an hour, I was writing on the seat and intermittently lapsing into unconsciousness. My teeth chattered and my body convulsed with coughing attacks. I had to ask Elke (who, fortunately, was driving) for a tissue so that I could wipe my lips, because I was too weak to pluck one from the box. Elke quickly took the tissue from me, glanced at it, and threw it out the window. I later learned that it was covered with blood.

Elke began driving at a furious pace, taking unpaved roads and driving on sidewalks to gain time. She knew of a university clinic in Freiburg just across the border in Germany, and we could be there within minutes. I drifted in and out of consciousness as if in a dream.

By the time we arrived in Freiburg, pain filled every joint in my body. When Elke found a doctor he came to the car and immediately called for a stretcher. I have only vague memories now of being wheeled into an examining room and given some tests.

I have a clear memory, though, of the doctors telling Elke in German that I was not only vomiting blood but also voiding it. I then heard him ask her if there were any next of kin to be notified, and I knew I must be dying. I panicked. My heart started palpitating, and each heartbeat shook my body. The doctor who was attending me thought I was having a heart attack and had a fibrillator prepared to regulate my heartbeat.

At that moment I thought, "This is absurd. I am sick enough without adding a  heart attack to my problems." With my breathing labored, my heart palpitating , and my body tense, I began forcing myself to regulate my breathing by taking deep belly-breaths (the stomach goes out during inhalation), holding for one, two, or three seconds, and then forcefully expelling all the air. I repeated the process until I settled into a relaxed belly-breathing that required my concentration, inhaling through my nose for four counts and exhaling through my mouth for four breaths. This technique, which I had been taught as a prelude to aikido, is an aspect of Zen practice that makes one oblivious to external impressions. The more I concentrated on my breathing, the more immune I became to the fear that I was dying. Within a few minutes I was in control of myself and my body again.

Before the fibrillator reached my bedside, my heartbeat was normal. "Unglaublich," the doctor said in German. "Incredible."

I lapsed into unconsciousness again and was brought to the clinic's intensive care unit where I remained for five days. Twice during that time my fever reached 106º, and the doctors told Elke they had lost me. Of those moments, I recall only floating in a cocoon of warmth down a narrow tunnel where I would be free of pain. I could hear Elke's voice from a distance pleading with me not to die.

Each time this happened I began to regulate my breathing. Three weeks later I was discharged from the hospital. I had survived a case of Weill's disease, a rare virus which is usually fatal. (I was the first case in Germany in over forty years.) According to the Institute for Tropical Disease, I had contracted it from some foul water in Spain.

Had this incident befallen me a few years earlier, I would have certainly died because the Zen breathing technique was not yet known to me. Since then I have found the technique especially useful in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations when my breathing becomes irregular and fear distorts orderly thought processes, which tend to immobilize both my mind and body.
Breathing and breath control are vital to performance and health. I've touched on it a few times over the years in this blog and plan to add entries on the topic over the next few weeks. You'll find a lot of overlap in the materials, but hopefully discover something new or remember something important.

Related Posts:
Breathing (SquatRx #10)
Breathing (The Central Lessons)
Specificity & Posture
Doing Nothing: An Introduction To Meditation
"Hypoxic" Training


Mark Reifkind said...

great story and what grace under real pressure. I read that book very early on too, loved it as well.so glad you survived man,lol!

Boris said...

Thanks Rif. It is a classic.