Sunday, April 06, 2008

Perchance to Dream

"For in that sleep of death what dreams might come ..."

Just recently I had my first experience of anesthesia during a medical procedure (a colonoscopy, if you must know). Part of my reluctance to go through with this -- I had put it off for ten years -- was that I didn't like the idea of being forcibly put to sleep. I suppose I had always imagined it as a kind of suffocation, like in the old days when people had to inhale ether. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Besides being more pleasant than a visit to the dentist, the experience actually taught me something about consciousness and about life itself.

As the nurse prepped me by painlessly inserting an IV into the vein on the back of my hand, she let me know that the doctor liked to listen to classic 1950's rock, shoo-be-do-wop style, while he worked, so that I wouldn't be surprised when the music started. The doctor greeted me during my short roll to the OR, then my nose was fitted with an oxygen tube, and I came face to face with the anesthetist. Far from being intimidating, she struck me as a careful, introverted technician who was more comfortable monitoring her instruments than confronting a real person -- which of course is exactly how I would wish for her to be.

"You might feel a little burning," she murmured as she attached her potion to my IV. The lights dimmed a bit and I heard the opening strains of an ancient rock tune trickle from the speakers in the ceiling. I'm not feeling anything yet, I thought to myself.

"Stephen?" The nurse again. "Time to wake up."

And that was it. I awoke as if from a pleasant nap, less groggy than the way I usually feel when my alarm clock goes off in the morning. Absolutely amazing. I never knew I had an off-switch before, but it's true, and there are people who know how to throw it. I had shut down and rebooted as efficiently as any sci-fi robot. Not even a dream to mark the lost time.

And here at last we come to what I learned.

Lying in wait before the procedure I had ample time to harbor thoughts of mortality. Surrounded by medical paraphernalia in the kind of environment that lab rats must be familiar with, it's hard not to reflect on the certainty with which we will all end up there someday with Something Serious -- that unknown thing that is going to catch up with us eventually and bring us to The End. This frightens us of course, as it should, so that we will avoid it as long as possible and get in as much living as we can. (And by the way, I'm perfectly fine for now.)

But what if it turned out not to be frightening after all? What if it was no more than having that same off-switch thrown, and just not coming back? Now you see me, now you don't. In short, suppose it was no big deal.

In light of this experience of induced unconsciousness, I find I can now contemplate the end of life not as a suffocating trauma, but as a mere sleep at the end of a hard day. Naturally we all hope not to suffer too much, but that is part of living rather than dying. The dying will be a letting go of suffering.

Will we dream then, as Hamlet wondered? Or will there come a voice calling us to wake up? Will we find ourselves in a future cradle, squalling over being born again?

Those are the things we will never know. But isn't it just as amazing to think about the miracle of consciousness? We experience this every day, just as we did at the start of our lives. Somewhere a switch is thrown, we awaken, and look around. How incredible is that? And this frail thing, this mere point of view as insubstantial as a shadow, is everything to us, is life itself.

To quote Shakespeare again, "O brave new world, that hath such people in it!"

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