Dying man's breathing
When my wife’s grandfather was on his deathbed, the whole family gathered around him at the hospital. The nurse informed us that he had little time left. Earlier, I had seen people dying due to unnatural causes, but that was the first time I was beside a person dying naturally. Despite the sad event and the tears of some family members present, my thoughts focused on how he was breathing; it fascinated me.
He was lying on his back, the upper half of his body elevated at an angle, and his lower jaw dropped, leaving his mouth loosely open. It didn’t seem from his facial expressions or body movements that he was suffering in any way. His breathing was audible, producing a sound similar to that of sucking the last drops of a drink with a straw. As his body systems gradually shut down, his breathing became more shallow and slow, and it seemed he was using mainly his mouth for breathing.
Toward the end, his breathing had a unique tempo characterized by short inhales and sharp exhales, followed by a lengthy breathing pause. At a certain point, I started counting the duration of the pauses in my head to find out how irregular his breathing was. Being interested in breathing, I wondered why his breathing was pulsating and not fading. I expected it to fade, being educated mainly by Hollywood films.
When a slimy brown secretion came out of his mouth, and his chest stopped moving up and down, the nurse inspected him. Afterward, she gave a nod to sign his passing away, and there was a burst of heartfelt crying.
This breathing tempo of the final minutes was in my mind when we returned home and for a long time after. It left a deep impression on me. I felt it could be useful but had no idea what I could use it for. Since I would die one day, and more likely than not of natural death, I might as well get acquainted with the breathing that will probably await me when the time comes, I thought. So, as an exercise, I replicated the breathing for myself. I read about this breathing and experimented with simulating variations of what I saw there in the hospital.
The “D-day breathing” reminds me of my impermanence or, put in less fancy words, that I’m a lighter version of a terminal patient.
In the past, when I had cravings, I usually used my breathing tool to calm down and get over it, and combined it with the ‘good old’ visualization of something unpleasant. One time, unintentionally, I visualized a dying man’s breathing instead, and surprisingly it worked for me much better than my other calming breathing tool. I discovered that a dying man’s breathing could assist me while I was still alive and kicking long before my scheduled ascent in a blaze to the heavens.
In this exercise, I simulate the breathing of a dying person. The exercise familiarizes me with the breath that may await me when my day comes and reminds me that my existence is temporary.
How I exercise ‘dying man’s breathing’:
- I sit comfortably with a straight back, relax my tongue and jaw, and close my eyes.
- Reset my breathing if needed.
- Breathe diaphragmatically and exclusively through my nose.
- Make a quick inhale to reach half the diaphragm’s amplitude.
- Follow with a short rapid exhale; my diaphragm returns to its neutral dome shape.
- Hold my breath until I gently reach the point of ‘air hunger start.’
- Repeat for a few rounds.
The rapid inhaling and exhaling leave less time for adequate amounts of Oxygen to be absorbed in my lungs. This shortens my ‘air hunger start time.’ Though breathing through the mouth is the ‘original version,’ I felt that using my nose in this exercise suits me better.
I use a ‘dying man’s breathing’ sequence as a base for different breathing tools, mainly for reducing cravings and desires. In these cases, shortening the breath-hold duration to be less than my ‘air hunger start time’ has a better effect.
As mentioned, I don’t yet fully and scientifically understand why it works, but I’m quite sure it’s not just the “relaxing into the familiar” or a placebo effect.
If I’m to explore this spiritually, when about to die, we realize what has essence in life, and it’s not the things that we crave and desire.
I have tested this breathing technique as a tool many times, and it works for me well. When I face a strong urge that I wish to control, I breathe like a dying man.