...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.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.
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 (SquatRx #10)
Breathing (The Central Lessons)
Specificity & Posture
Doing Nothing: An Introduction To Meditation