by Fred Wistow
"Habit . . . . cuts off from things which we have witnessed a number of times the root of profound impression and of thought which gives them their real meaning." —Marcel Proust
If every summer you go (as I do) to chill out for several weeks at a no-talking monastery in French-speaking Switzerland, but you don't (as I don't) speak French, and, therefore, during lunch each day, you can neither talk to your tablemates nor understand the meaning of the random excerpts from the local French-language newspaper one of the nuns is softly reading aloud to the room over the gentle tinkle of silverware—a ritual designed to keep the community glancingly abreast of some of the latest horrors sure to be unfolding in one place or another out there in the real world—you'll find yourself with basically two alternatives to occupy your time: either you drift into that familiar default state of barely-conscious daydreaming and worry that constitutes the lion's share of your mental activity or you actually pay attention to eating.
Ah, yes, eating.
That's that thing you do when you bite off a chunk of something, chew it a couple of times, and then promptly swallow so you can resume talking again as soon as possible.
So, as the incomprehensible news update drones on in the background, you decide—just for the hell of it, for a change of pace—to interrupt your anxious stream of "thoughts" and start to focus. Inevitably that means you begin to slow down, and as you do, you become aware of what you're doing. And pretty quickly you realize that, hey, there's something in your mouth. It's called "food." And, amazingly enough, it has not only bulk and texture, but taste. A pleasing taste you wouldn't mind spending some time with.
And what's this flowing out from who knows where? Saliva! You remember hearing about saliva. Saliva is your friend. In alliance with your teeth (which are busy crushing the food into smaller and smaller bits so that the digestive processes soon to be performed down in the stomach after you swallow will be that much easier and more effective), saliva and its constituent enzymes are helping both to liquefy and break down the food you've been chewing. And look! Saliva really is your friend. That solid food you'd ordinarily have swallowed by now? It's starting to liquefy. And, look! (Again.) The longer you keep the food in your mouth, that is, the longer you postpone swallowing, the more the saliva keeps coming and coming, and the mushier and mushier the food in there gets.
Well, you'll be!
And now that you're waking up to what you've habitually failed to notice all these years—now that you're practically studying it, in fact—you see that, once you put food in your mouth, your nearly-irresistible impulse is to chew it for only a moment or two before you hurriedly gulp it down and get it out of there. So, again, just for the hell of it, you come up with something else you've never thought of and immediately try it out: you stop chewing, you let the food rest on your tongue and you . . . do nothing. You don't swallow. You just let it sit there.
And what happens?