Saturday, April 18, 2009

Being and Nothingness, with Terriers

"Johnny Watson's Fox Terriers in a Funeral Tableau"
Found on the blog "Creating Pictures in My Mind", whose blogger's interests include funerals and grave art. Watson and his dogs toured England around the turn of last century.

I. Molecular Realignment of the Spiritual Kind

I've been sitting in the sun every afternoon since I got home from the hospital on Tuesday, healing and feeling that something has changed in me--I mean, besides the absence of my gallbladder and the associated relief of its neighbors. This change surprises me because though I'd never had surgery before, I'd expected this garden-variety surgery would be no big deal. Everybody's cousin has had it and they're pretty ho-hum about it.
But I'm not.

This morning a friend wrote and expressed nicely that of course it would affect me far more than average gardening does:
"It seems like when people go through something profound--a death, the birth of a child, getting taken apart and put back together again--their spiritual chemistry shifts around. Your little spirit molecules realigned..."

She's right, I am feeling realigned.
But not in the least bit morbid: I put up this photo of Victorian terriers, in fact, because dogs are not worried about death or much of anything beyond the present moment. So far as I can tell, their conscious minds do not generate the kind of worries ours do. They aren't thinking, "Does this mourning garb make me look fat?"

But we humans are always thinking that sort of thing.
And that's what I'm sitting in the sun pondering:
how much my problems and preferences are simply the product of my consciousness, which comes with having the brain chemistry of a human being.
Because when I was nonconscious under general anesthesia, I had no problems! Because there was no "I", no subjective self to generate them, they did not exist. My so-called personality has no external, objective reality.

II. I am here.

I illustrate how I am thinking about nonexistence with a disappearing sentence. I start with:

"I am here."

Under anesthesia, there was no place, no location, so take out here, and you get:

"I am."

And there was no verb "to be," so take out am:


And there was no consciousness, so take out I:


Here, I am uncertain. Is punctuation an objective reality, which exists whether there is a being and a place? No, the Romans didn't use punctuation, so obviously it's optional.

Take it out, and we get:

Except not even that, because we interpret the above nonsentence as "emptiness," and we assign that meaning.
As long as "I" am here (even asleep), I interpret incoming stimuli.
But what struck me when my mind snapped out of nonconsciousness in the recovery room is that "I am here." is not a permanent state or place, it is written on water.
I already knew that in theory, but I'd never experienced it.
What a cool, freaky thing!

III. What About the Postop Nurse?

Of course, once my consciousness started up again, immediately I had "problems" again--for instance, the postop nurse who kept bumping my bed. Swamped with nausea, my conscious mind very clearly thought, "I hate her."

There's the rub.
We may become aware that our problems/pleasures are self-generated and subjective, but since we are the subject, they are real.

So what good is this knowledge, that our problems/pleasures will disappear in the twinkling of an eye once we don't exist on this plane?

Well, for me, coming out of anesthesia and realizing with a start that I had not existed for a time--that there had been no "me" to exist--was liberating. It's a reminder that though my personal history, my likes and dislikes are real (the recovery-room nurse really did make me feel even worse than I already felt), and I should of course attend to them (slash her tires? meditate on her reality?), I don't have to clutch onto them as some hard-and-fast, ultimate reality, but could instead float more lightly in the ebb and flow of a shifting reality.

Rather than being like a piece of land I have to stake out and defend, reality seems more like a light show--something flickering and changing all the time. Sometimes I interpret it as beautiful, sometimes frightening, but at any rate, one day, the light switch will flick off.
And that'll be that.

When that time comes, please hire a troupe of terriers to attend me to my final resting place. Or don't, if you don't want. Either way, really, not a problem--I won't be there.

While my spirit molecules still feel a bit jangled, this brush with nothingness was bizarrely and incredibly comforting. If I don't have to hold on to my reality so hard, I can open my hands, relax, and breathe.
At least until I start to worry, Does breathing deeply make me look fat?


Krista Kennedy said...

Larry McMurtrey has a long essay on this very topic in Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen. He experienced a much more dramatic version of what you describe after his heart surgery.

fresca said...

What? You mean a postop nurse SHOOK his bed? That would be dramatically worse!
Naw--I know what you mean--thanks for the tip, Krista. I'll look for the McMurtrey book. I've never read him.

Krista Kennedy said...

I love McMurtrey's essays, but have never had the slightest curiosity about his fiction.

And now that I think of it, there was also a lot of media theorizing about the changes in Clinton's temperament after his heart surgery. And my dad underwent a really interesting transformation after his first round of heart attacks and surgeries about 15 years ago.

fresca said...

Did the changes take the form of feeling they could float more lightly on the play of reality? (Maybe we can talk about this offline.)

bink said...

I was remembering last night that the nurse who was listing off the drugs you were going to get in surgery said that one of the drugs would give you amnesia.

That would imply to me that your mind was aware and taking in a lot of what was going on around you, but the medical staff deem it too traumatic to remember, so they give you something to make you forget.

That would make your angry dreams make even more sense...maybe your brain is aware it has traumatic memories and is frustrated at not being able to recall them.

fresca said...

Weird stuff, bink. I am definitely going to ask the doc about this when I go back for my check-up.
It does feel like my dreams are complaining about something I don't remember, but it could also be the brain telling stories based on my internal nighttime pains that aren't bad enough to wake me up.

Darwi said...

lol, love your comment about the shaking bed!

I did not have such worries after my surgery. To me all looked like dreamless sleep, and after it, no-one bump my bed. They did not wish to give me anything to drink, until I begged for half an hour. (They were right, the moment I took sip of juice I got terrible nausea.) And that was all.