During my hospitalization in May (following spinal fusion surgery), I had an “out-of-body experience” that was on the threshold of a “near-death experience.” It wasn’t a dream, though it may seem somewhat dream-like as I describe it:
I’m sitting up uncomfortably in bed, trying to remember how to eat and drink. My partner Holly is feeding me tiny bites of food. Swallowing is painful, exhausting and scary. I’ve choked several times already, but I think I’m managing okay. Holly turns away for a moment while I rest between bites, and suddenly… I’m up near the ceiling. The room is whirling slowly, as if I am on a merry-go-round, or as if I am weightlessly turning in space. Everything looks much clearer than normal—stunningly bright and gorgeously detailed. The upper panes of the tall windows come into view, dazzling me with sunlight and sky. I can’t ordinarily see that part of the room from my bed, but there it is. The pocked surface of the ceiling tiles, the lintel of the bathroom door and the gap of the doorway pass by. The television mounted high on the wall shows a PBS children’s program with Buddy the adorable orange dinosaur grinning and revealing his T-Rex teeth (rounded, cartoon teeth, that don’t look dangerous). The room is fascinating, lovely, as it swings around and around, suspended, like a mobile in a warm breeze. What is happening? I wonder, but I’m not worried. Then Holly is shouting my name, shouting at me to breathe. There’s a a loud buzzing and everything becomes harsher and blurrier than it was a moment ago. I’m back in bed. Holly is leaning toward me, her face desperate. I try to reassure her, though I don’t know what’s going on. She apparently called for help, and now the room fills with people. I try to explain, but I can’t explain. Someone else explains what they saw on the monitor: my heart stopped for seven seconds. My heart still isn’t working right. It feels awful. Now, there are plenty of things to worry about. My heart is in atrial flutter, my blood pressure is way too low… Did I choke? What caused this, and what if it happens again? Soon my bed is jolted into motion by a team of young men and I’m clattering through the halls at high speed on the way to the ICU, leaving Holly behind.
Although the “out-of-body experience” itself had been curiously pleasant, it was soon tainted by the nightmarish days that followed. I kept asking myself the same unanswerable, existential questions over and over, “What happened? How could it happen so suddenly, without any warning? What if I’d died?” My body was a precarious place to be.
I didn’t die, and the separation between my body and me lasted less than a minute, but the experience was so fundamentally strange that I couldn’t leave it alone. Unlike slipping into the alternate reality of ordinary sleep, I’d been catapulted right out of my identity—still in the same room, but no longer in my body, no longer in my own life at all. If the separation had continued, where would I have been? Not whirling around the ceiling in that hospital room forever. There wasn’t enough of “me” to grasp—but the world (even the orange dinosaur on television) was so clear and complete in itself that it didn’t seem to matter what happened next. In the midst of the out-of-body experience, I perceived the world as a puzzling and pervasive sweetness. But immediately after it was over, I started grappling with the mystery: How could I have perceived anything without my body? Who experienced this experience? Certainly not the same helpless, frightened and wretched patient who was tormented by these questions in the ICU afterward.
In the three months that have passed since this experience, the big mystery of “not knowing” has become a lot less traumatic than it felt at first. Instead of being preoccupied with relentless questions, I keep remembering the ease of that sparkling, turning world, where I wasn’t embodied and no questions needed answering. The strain of surgery and hospitalization had triggered some cardiac arrhythmias that briefly disconnected my body from the directed flow of my life and myself—as if I’d been unplugged. Somehow, I was still present to experience the unplugging. But I don’t know whether that was death, or just a glimpse of what it’s like not to be entirely corporeal. We are never entirely corporeal anyway. Our dreams allow us to forget our physical bodies, or at least to perceive them differently, on a regular basis—yet this was nothing like a dream. In a dream, the world is insubstantial (even though the dream seems real), but in this out-of-body experience, the world was acutely manifest, while I was nothing but awareness.
The world I see from my everyday perspective is somewhat blurry, distorted by my well-worn 59-year-old eyes and habitual expectations. Yet somehow, without physical eyes, I “saw” this world with the dazzling clarity of pure vision. My body was confined to the bed, and I couldn’t turn my head (due to the spinal fusion), but somehow I saw—accurately—parts of the room that I couldn’t have seen through my physical eyes. How is this possible? I don’t know. Why was everything going around and around? I don’t know. I was a point-of-view rather than a personality, yet this “point-of-view” had distinct characteristics and a way of experiencing that surprised me. Whatever “I” was, I could be surprised! Not knowing, and not needing to know, made this constantly shifting perspective feel spacious, fresh, and quite easy; in its enchanting impossibility, it was perfectly real.
Having seen the world in this way, there’s an opening for me now. As I recover my strength, resume my work, and see my life from a new perspective with a newly healing body, I’m finding that the easiest and best response to every question I encounter is, “I don’t know.” How has the ordeal of serious illness and major surgery changed me? I don’t know. Where will I go from here? I don’t know. How should I respond to the thousands of tiny, pleasant and unpleasant surprises I encounter every day? I really don’t know. Though I find myself responding, one way or another, to each moment, there’s nothing I “should” do or be. I really don’t need to be certain about anything. It’s delightfully liberating, not knowing. There’s space—like sky—between the cloudy, complicated questions. Instead of defining and redefining myself and my circumstances, coming up with plans and explanations, I often find myself floating, weightless, in slow circles, just looking at the world as it drifts around me. Can I be a point-of-view rather than a personality? When my mind gets snagged on something and starts grappling again, can I remind myself that uncertainty is not a problem? I don’t know. And that’s fine.