A number of years ago I had surgery for which I agreed to a spinal, rather than a general, anesthetic. In the recovery room I lay on a bed looking at my legs. I had the strange feeling that I was alive, warm, supple from my waist up. Below that there was a sense of something like stone. The lower half of my body was dead weight, There was no sensation other than a sense of extreme density and immovability.
A nurse now stood at the end of the bed and asked me to wiggle my toes. I looked at her. Then I looked at my toes. Then I looked back at her. “How do I do that?”, I asked. I had no idea how to move my toes! I could not move my toes! But if I had no idea how to move them now, how had they ever moved before? “Don’t worry”, she said. “When you can move them, call me.” Then she left.
I continued to stare at my feet. I could feel a first stirring of anxiety carrying the potential to grow into panic. This must be what it is like to be paralyzed! No! It isn’t like being paralyzed. I am paralyzed! Now I truly understood the term “dead weight”. How could something so incredibly heavy be moved at all, much less by a thought or a wish? Or does it move itself and I only imagine I am doing it directly? I can’t make the chair move by itself by asking it to, but I can move my body by intending to do so But right now, I could not move my body regardless of wish or intention. What would life feel like, immobilized in a wheelchair, unable to lift myself, totally dependent on others to move and care for my body? It would feel just like I was feeling now! I knew the paralysis was supposed to wear off, but this taste of a different, potential reality was truly heart-stopping and mind-freezing. I was, for a short while, sharing the world of others much less fortunate than myself in this way.
I intentionally relaxed … at least the top half of my body … and directed my attention away from the fear, back to this interesting question. “If I don’t know how I move my body, then how has my body been moving? I knew enough anatomy to understand how the brain, spinal cord and the rest of the body were wired with nerve pathways ferrying electrical currents throughout the machinery. I knew the anesthetic had interfered with the signal between my lower and upper half. Was the electricity no longer flowing? That did not seem likely. Were the signals not being received at their appropriate locations? Was the wiring, and current, operating correctly, but “I” was blocked from interacting with them? If “I” were blocked from sending and receiving signals from my lower body, then what was “I” in relation to my body? I thought in this way as I waited for sensation to return.
In time, my legs began to feel warm and I sensed a stirring in my toes. They moved! I now tried to direct my intention for them to move … and they moved again. Had I made that happen? Had I only encouraged them to move? I could not see a connection between the intent in my and the movement down at the far end of my body. Had I made a non-verbal suggestion to my toes? How would a suggestion work? Are my toes separate entities that can listen to and choose, or not, to obey my wish? Are other parts of me, like my hands, separate entities? They clearly seem to have a life of their own, moving all day without my attention or direction … even talking for me through gesticulations that I am usually oblivious to … although they do perform most of the movements I wish for them to perform when I want them to.
My body obviously has a life of its own for which it does not require my participation or even awareness. My organs function, my blood components stay within required limits, food is digested and eliminated, lungs breath, heart pumps … and perhaps tens of thousands of other metabolic and maintenance activities down to the cellular, the molecular, the atomic, and perhaps, the quantum level, carry on their responsibilities in a near infinitely complex, interactive, multi-dimensional programmed system. Where am I in all this?
As I lay in the recovery room, experiencing life returning to the missing half of my body, my meditation continued.
Feeling out of control …. Realizing I had no influence … … I have no personal control over what will occur … I will just have to wait and see what fate brings to my doorstep. All this applied to my mental-emotional state during this event. Realizing I had no control over my body at the time, I relaxed and watched the drama unfold, with interest.
Up until this moment, I could “control”, or influence, the movement of my large muscles, if the signal from my brain was not interrupted. I could walk and talk and perform activity within the parameters of my body’s capacities. But for all the internal mechanisms … I could indirectly influence them for good or ill with diet, exercise, relaxation, meditation, positive thinking, good maintenance … but much more was beyond my influence, much less, control. I could only act responsibly towards my body and hope for a long run of good luck.
Writing about this memory today, I am now, by association, recalling an event that happened many years later. I awoke early one morning and went to the bathroom sink. Suddenly, I felt really, really awful in a way I have never experienced. I have no words to describe it. I stumbled out to the hallway and began to tell my companion that I did not feel well. I was aware my body was stooped and at an odd angle. My next awareness was of lying on my back on the floor. I had no memory of falling. I realized that if I had fallen to my right instead of my left, I would have gone down the stairs. An ambulance was being called. I did not, or could not, move. I clearly recall my inner state at this time. I was relaxed, unafraid, curious, amazed and philosophical. I understood I had no control over what was happening in my body. Nor did I have any intention at this point in trying to influence what was about to happen to me. I surrendered to the experience.
At the emergency room I was tested, hydrated and a few hours later sent home. Apparently, my kidneys had been “damaged”. This was my first warning of a medical condition that, so far, has been well managed. What was most interesting to me was how effortless it was for me to collapse and need medical care. It had happened on its own, on its timetable, indifferent to the needs or schedule of my personality. I realized, with interest, rather than fear, how easy death could be in the end. It is its own process and occurs in its own time frame. Previously I had known, with my intellect, that this was so. Now I understood it with all of me. The emotional taste was sobriety and interest. In a strange way, there also appeared a sense of freedom. Death was something I need not worry about. It was not my responsibility. My responsibility was to help my body stay as healthy as possible as long as possible. Nevertheless, it would decline, either through time, illness or accident. Over the process of life’s trajectory, I had some influence but no ultimate control.
This memory now reminds me of another. I was talking to a dear friend, and the great spiritual mentor of my life, who had recently returned from hospital after a coronary incident. He said to me, “There is nothing to dying. I’ve died a couple of times already and they brought me back. It just happens. Nothing to be concerned about. I didn’t even know I was dead.” He maintained this impartial attitude until his last breath. The day before that final moment, which I was privileged to share, he had said to a small group of us, with some difficulty as breathing was now exhausting for him, “Pay attention! Remember … all of you will someday be where I am at this very moment!”