Mirror of Zen Blog

Anästhesia and Don’t-Know

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In a few minutes, they will put a mask over my face, and I will experience an absolute nothing-state: the Kelvin zero of anaesthetized consciousness, the closest thing to death in a biologically “living“ continuum. Whenever this happens, of course I am doing mantra practice just as whenever I enter sleep, and therefore, I still have the trust that there can be some sort of “awareness”, however vague and filamental in the dream state that sleep provides.

But there is no such experience here. Once the mask comes down, I am not even one chanting-book’s half-stanza into The Great Dharani before I am immediately waking up in pain in an unfamiliar hospital bed several hours later, with absolutely nothing in between, not a single shred of anything.

Anaesthesia is the complete experience of erasure, void, pure abyss. You would be seriously mistaken to call this non-experience experience “don’t know“ in the true sense, since in “don’t know” the before-thinking state is vast, vast continuum that subtly “vibrates” with all substance, which is continuity in all directions, in all time and space. While “don’t know” is not a “thing”, or even really an “experience“ in the truest sense, and has no “objectness“ — still, there is a light “on“. Something manifests “itself”. The borders of “self” and all conceptualizing activity simply melt into a mist of perfect universality (without any concepts, formation or ideation – – pure, limitless, borderless energy, absolutely devoid of any description or measurement, not even the least space for any expression of “it” anywhere, pure shapeless Infinity).

Unfortunately, when this vast experience of our before-thinking mind needs to be pointed to or expressed in words for some teaching or explanatory situation, the inevitable go-to word is classically employed as “emptiness“. But this is such a mega-mistake, as anyone who experiences/recognizes “don’t know” to be. And yet here we always are, in the hungry trap of words: “Opening your mouth is already a big mistake”, as Zen Master Seung Sahn would often say. “Be still [silent], and know [that I am] God.”

And so therefore, with anesthesia, although terms that are employed can cross over – – “it’s a no-thinking state”, or “it’s emptiness”, a “void” – – they are definitely not the same experience. The anesthetized state should never be considered to be a form of don’t-know, although there is simply no mental “knowing” there, for sure.

Having had general anesthesia some 3-4 times in the last 10-12 years, I can only express the difference these ways, and also say: It is voidness as chemically-induced lifelessness, as something purely inert, having the consciousness-mirroring of a chair or an old shoe. But no one should ever take this to be the condition of “don’t know“ that we experience in Meditation, an experience that is always “happening“ for us but for the stickiness of the thoughts and feelings and images coming and going across the empty space of mind, otherwise unhindered but for our magnetic habits of mind’s attraction to and repulsion by them.

When I met with the anesthesiologist several days ago for the pre-op interview, I had already been advised by several medical professionals to encourage him to give me a higher dosage than my body weight or the “normal“ parameters would suggest or indicate for other patients. He nodded his head at the information, and said, “That’s good to know that. Thanks for telling me.”

In several minutes, I will enter a world where no one else can ever “be”, even (I believe) those who might be dead with “me”. When I experience “don’t know” in meditation, at its most intense and unobstructed I am so profoundly connected with all things that it is almost biologically overwhelming to sit still with. There is a soft-tsunami upwelling of joy and gratitude, and all sorts of beneficial neurochemicals flood the system, leaving an enduring experience of bliss and connectedness, even liberation from anything that has burdened me before.

Anesthesia, for all its liberation from thinking, is definitely not don’t-know mind. There is no “experience” there, as “don’t know” has. It seems important to use today’s “special meditation” as an opportunity to reflect again on this matter, for anyone who thinks that such an experience of the “lights off” of anaesthesia is what we seek or experience through our meditative study of the nature of consciousness. Too often, it seems, the words of spiritual adepts can be terribly misunderstood by those who might use these overlapping terms or descriptions for each experience to express that we are experiencing the same thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Going Under

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Leg surgery happens in less than two hours. They need to relieve pressure in my lower leg by removing a growing fibroid in my left calf. It is located deep in a sensitive area filled with nerves, directly behind and below my left knee. Hopefully, this will take away some of the extraordinary pain I have been experiencing in that leg during meditation for the last few years. I hope to be back on the cushion within a few days.

Having opted for a general anesthetic over the local – – who wants to be awake while a team of doctors slices through your calf while you are upside down with a catheter inside? – – it means a complete complete and total shut-off of consciousness. I am actually more fascinated about this part of the experience than anything else. Some disciples with knowledge of medical procedures have told me to inform the anesthesiologist that the “usual” amount of mind-altering substances (coffee, or other things, certainly alcohol back in the day) never really has the same effect on me as it does on others, due to all of these years and tends of thousands of hours, staring at the floor purposelessly, and that his medical cocktails in the standard dosage might not be sufficient, and that I should inform them of a need for a higher threshold.

Duly noted, and locked in.