Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, March 30, 2015

Unrepeatable experiment

I go in today for a medical "procedure" (people seem to not use the word surgery as much now) which will, it is hoped, deliver me from the on-again, off-again agony of kidney stones. There's not much to be said about the pain itself. It's quite unmistakable; brings on a kind of nausea; and though it comes and goes, while it lasts it is intense to the point of being un-ignorable -- every other act of attention is (at best) soured by it. But what I want to register here is a few thoughts that I literally will not be able to think with the same clarity after I wake up from anaesthesia. That's because the thoughts are all about going in.

Once many years ago, before cell phones, I went to the airport to meet my girlfriend getting home from a business trip. The flight arrived, the passengers disembarked, and then a few more trickled off, and then the flight attendants... but not her. Sitting there, wondering what could have happened, trying not to assume the worst, I slipped into a kind of meta-rumination on my worry. That was the first time it occurred to me that there are some affective states that it's very hard to get into on purpose. In the days that followed, after everything had been resolved and she came in on a flight the next day, I kept returning to this discovery: "Wondering what happened," being brought up short by circumstance, is a state that befalls you. You can't intentionally bring it about; you have to be caught by it unawares. That's the very nature of the state in question.

There are other such states. Humility is a good example: very, very hard to intentionally, directly bring about, one nonetheless can cultivate a propensity for it indirectly. Humility is a kind of side-effect. In humility's case, it's even difficult to reflect upon it without dissolving it. Many spiritual writers warn that even noticing one's own humility undercuts it.

Another such state, and one that holds up more robustly under reflection, is really expecting that one will die. The impossibilities here are somewhat different. There are a few ways you could go about really triggering this in yourself; but usually, those bring about death itself, so the benefit of reflecting on it is somewhat diminished. But sometimes, one's life seems to round a corner and you find yourself facing a cliff-edge.

This has been my state for about a week and a half. It doesn't matter that "going to die" is an absurd overstatement of any coolly-evaluated likelihood in my case. I know what the statistics say; I have heard (and I believe) my doctors' reassurances (no cardio-pulmonary red flags, I'm well outside of the age range that gives doctors cause to worry, etc etc.) Trouble is: it isn't my intellect that's worried. I am going into an experience that is new (to me): general anaesthesia. Having no experiential landmarks, my emotions don't know what to do. In short, I'm scared. Not panicked, not petrified; but I have somehow locked onto a fixation that I can only with great patience and care turn my attention from.

Now, I don't mean here that my intellect and my emotions are responding differently to the same data. That may be what's happening, but that's not how it feels, and how it feels is all I'm dealing with here. To say that, while I intellectually "know" with reasonable security that I'll make it through anaesthesia just fine, this information hasn't got through to my limbic system, is no doubt relevant, but what I'm talking about is somewhat different. It's rather that with my emotions, I am processing a different data set than my intellect is. My intellect has evaluated the risks and benefits of a specific course of action. But this same situation has made my emotions -- or perhaps my intuition -- much more keenly aware of "what's really always there," as Philip Larkin put it:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now.
Indeed, I'm not even sure it is my emotions that are chiefly involved. It's like a narrative sense -- I can just see how, if my life did end today, it would make a kind of rounded whole (for all that would be left undone). And under the pressure of the attendant emotions, that sense can loom up into a vision that crowds other stories aside.

I'm not concerned with the "reasonableness" of these feelings. Let us stipulate that, by some lights, they are unreasonable. But I want to note what it's like to have them. This is hard to put into words because, as I say, it isn't primarily my discursive function that is involved. It's more the color of everything. It's not quite that I am irrationally "sure" I will die on the operating table; it's rather that my first sense of anything, what I lead with in any given encounter, is of a kind of quiet poignancy flanked on one side by anxiety, and on the other by a sort of feeling game -- a kind of curiosity to see what's up, even if what's before me is colored by long familiarity. All my small superstitions swarm to whisper into my ear: what if this is -- is this -- the last time I'll walk down this street? Sit in this café? Speak to this co-worker, this fellow parishioner, this friend?

To be clear: I have lots of plans for upcoming weeks and months, things I expect to do and look forward to doing. But alongside this rational assessment of the situation, there's also a kind of third-person view from outside myself, as if I were seeing a film about someone else and knowing, as they don't, what's coming up in the second half.

I'm not continually thinking about death. I'm not "taking leave" all the time (though I have made a few phone calls, sent some emails, and been a little more mindful of saying the important things to people). I am not,alas, much less prone to being unkind or thoughtless or selfish. I'm just as distractable by a sexy passerby or a catchy bit of music. But behind or beside all of that is a strong sense of it being fragile, and also here now.

I suppose I do already reflect upon death more than many I know. (Not all.) This isn't morbidity, and I won't waste time defending it; that would be a different post. It's part of my avocation; I am more with Montaigne ("to study philosophy is to learn to die") than with Spinoza ("the free man thinks on nothing so little as death"), though a full teasing-out of the tensions and secret alliances between these two thoughts would be still another post -- yet one more of the projects I am putting off. My thoughts and my feelings as I approach this new experience are surely colored by my practice up to now. God willing, this will prove to be a practice run for the real thing; and I will be able to take to heart what I have learned, which is: even "believing" that I'm going to die doesn't make me behave as differently as I would have thought.

I've become more aware of all my habits, of how ingrained they are, even in the face of this (imaginary, but very keenly imagined) upcoming deadline. I still waste time; I still function on autopilot. Doubtless, one response to this might be: just shows that you aren't really convinced. And of course I do not know that this is how I would feel if I received a grim six-months-to-live diagnosis, or if I were facing a firing squad in the morning. But it also seems to me to show that this is really how I live all the time, since my mortality is "really always there", and I "know" that nothing guarantees that I won't die in a traffic collision or from an unguessed blot clot on the way to the hospital.

This has made the idea of karma all the more real for me; the notion that the accumulated inertia and trajectories of a lifetime are very likely to keep going and may well determine one's "next life" just as they have determined much of this one, makes a kind of intuitive sense now in a way it did not before, for all my on-again off-again baby-step zazen I've done over the years. I'm not arguing for rebirth here, I'm merely asserting that the feeling of karma has gained more experiential traction for me in the last couple of weeks. The need for frequent confession, often urged by some Roman Catholics, among others, has never seemed so obvious to me. This is not a matter of morbidly dwelling on some kind of unbeatable perverse force in oneself, or spiritual chemotherapy for the dreaded gomboo. It's the cultivation of reflection and consciousness of how vast is the gulf between what we say and what we do; and, importantly, a cultivation whose terms we do not set ourselves. To go into the theology of Confession would be far beyond my point here (one more post, again...); but I see very clearly, not from any huge burden of sins, but rather from a clearer recognition of sin, just how wise are the words of the prayer-book to which my meditation these days keeps turning:
From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord deliver us.
I won't be able to see this in quite the same way when I come out of anaesthesia; this post will be unwriteable then. My irrational feeling will have been proven irrational, and anxiety about death will resume its ordinary shape and size against a horizon assumed to be far distant. But I hope I will have internalized something of a deeper resolution to reflect on what I don't know about my death, and what I do, beyond doubt.


Post-op Addendum, next day:

Thank you too all who kept (and keep) me in heart, mind, and prayer, and who wrote me on- and off-blog. Notwithstanding the stent which temporarily runs from kidney to bladder, I seem not to have moved on to Purgatory yet. Already my apprehension of the future has shifted to the vague middle-distance, confirming that I was right to capture these reflections while I could. There will be follow-up in the next while, once I can operate a computer again without supervision.


  1. My earlier comment went astray to Fred Rogers who I hope is not your present confrere. Be Well.

  2. These three related references provide an Illuminated Understanding of death and what it requires of us.
    The "catholic" confession does not make the slightest bit of difference to ones accumulated tendencies/patterning/karma.