Thursday, January 8, 2009

Dreams of Eating Mindlessly

"Last night I dreamed I ate a ten-pound marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was gone."
Tommy Cooper

Last night, I had a dream where I discovered I could swallow normally. In this dream, I was in the kitchen of the little Arts & Crafts bungalow I owned in Oklahoma. I really loved that house more than any other house I have lived in and I think it shows up in my dreams when I am longing for something in the past. Anyway, in part of this dream I was making a meal with some friends in the kitchen. There were maybe three or four other friends (in reality, it would have been very hard to fit that many people in the kitchen of that house) and I was cleaning some lettuce in the sink and talking to them about my swallowing problems. It's unclear in my memory of this dream who the friends were. Maybe it was unclear in the dream itself. Just friends.

I was telling them (as I tell people in real life) "I really can't swallow anything that isn't liquid, pureed, or completely smooth and creamy like yogurt. I can't swallow anything that is at all solid, even if it's soft" But,as I said this, I suddenly realized I had been, without even thinking about it, breaking off little pieces of lettuce as I was washing it and putting them in my mouth, chewing them, and swallowing them! When I realized that, I consciously broke off a piece of lettuce, chewed it really well, and swallowed it without effort. I was amazed and delighted and so excited that I could swallow more than I had thought I was able to swallow.

Then I woke up. It took me a few minutes to realize that I hadn't really had a swallowing breakthrough. I hadn't really been eating little bits of lettuce. I was still stuck with liquid, smooth and pureed. It was disappointing. But this struggle has been going on for so long that it was also kind of like when you dream you can fly and then wake up and realize you can't. Waking up wasn't so much heartbreaking as just being brought back to earth.

What interests me, though, is that the dream wasn't just about eating different and better food (I do miss salads a lot however), it was about eating without effort. It was about eating without even being aware of what I was doing. Eating mindlessly. Which I certainly did more than I should have in real life back when I could eat normally. It might be what made the dream seem so vivid and real. The way you can be nibbling at something without thinking and then all of a sudden wake up to what you're doing. Only in this case waking up to what I was doing (that is waking up to what I was doing in the dream) was this delightful revelation that I had an ability I thought I had lost. If dreams are about wish-fulfillment, as Freud believed (and I really don't think that they always are), this dream was not just a fulfillment of my desire to be able to eat more sorts of food, but of the desire to not have to think about it, and consciously work at it, every time I swallow.

There are Buddhist meditations on eating mindfully and they can be revelatory in terms of waking up to the details of eating that most people normally overlook. (see an example of this here: In fact, many people advocate bringing mindfulness to eating in order to overcome problems with overeating. There is even an organization entirely dedicated to mindful eating :

However, I have been forced to engage in very focused and mindful eating every day because my swallowing is so not normal. I have tried to treat it like a gift of a mindfulness practice I can't escape. Instead of focusing on my breathing, I am focusing on the liquid in front of me, how it smells and tastes, where it is in my mouth, whether it feels like it is going down the right way and whether my muscles feel like they are going to do what they need to do to get it down. Actually, it involves focusing on the breathing too because you hold your breath when you swallow. Everyone does this. But since I often have to do a double or even triple swallow to really get something past my worn-away epiglottis, the holding my breath thing is also more conscious. So, in my dreams, I don't want to be mindful, I want to be mindless. I would LOVE to swallow something mindlessly.

Maybe someday I will again. But right now, that would be kind of like being able to fly.

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