One month after my prostate operation I discover that I’m not my body after all.
I’m getting better.
This time last month I was lying in a hospital bed with my left thumb on the trigger of a morphine pump, ready to self-administer the drug when the pain of a seven-inch long, two-inch deep abdominal incision became unbearable; yesterday I rode my bicycle to the doctor’s surgery. I am amazed at the body’s ability to heal.
Yet I am amazed that my sense of identity, of who I am as a person, is still so closely linked to my body. Take last week for instance. I went to the hospital for a check-up, to have blood samples taken and to have my open wound attended. Lingering wounds which appear along the surgeon’s main cut can take weeks to heal. If the wound is cleared of detritus then healing can be accelerated. So I am lying there and my doctor is clipping away with scissors, tweezing with tweezers, placing absorbent gel pads under the skin of my abdomen and, in doing so, touching the raw, red muscle beneath. I can’t feel a thing. The main prostate operation cut through the nerve and now I’m watching my body being operated on with no pain at all. It is like watching someone cut a piece of meat.
I am, quite literally, detached from my body. Completely transcendental to it in fact. Well, alright, I am only detached from a piece one inch long, and for just a few minutes, but the feeling is quite remarkable. Its not me. I am just the observer. The only thing that connects me with that part of ‘me’ is the nerves: tiny grey strings coming and going to and from the brain. In fact, my entire sense of identity, my sense of pleasure and pain, and the reason I make choices of action throughout my life – all tied to numberless grey strings. Amazing.
Patanjali Muni – the one who wrote the Yoga Sutras – said that we’re all affected by different types of influences that cause our consciousness to lower to the point where we think that the body is actually the self. We entirely forget that we are the soul within, the passenger on the vehicle of the fleshy body and the astral mind. The final influence is known as rasasvada, the fear that death of the body will take away our identity and our happiness, and the consequent struggles we make in order to avoid that happening.
Parts of me have already been cremated, incinerated without even a prayer or a mantra. All the other organs will follow in a few short years. And yet I still want to live forever in this body. Amazing.
It’s very subtle, this identifying with the body and the mind, very subtle indeed. A lady doctor asked me a few days ago how I was coping emotionally with all that had happened. She asked because most men have difficulties adjusting to the new reality of impotence. They feel they are no longer men. I replied, quite genuinely, that my main emotion was relief that I no longer had cancer. I spared her the Vaishnava perspective.
Yet while my inner vision of the world – the way the soul sees things – is fortunately philosophical and therefore relatively peaceful, my ego has never been so worried.
The ego or ahankara is that part of the covering of each soul which effectively binds the soul to a particular body and mind. It’s the very subtle matter closest to the soul proper which lowers our spiritual vision sufficiently so that we can identify with a set of material designators such as male, female, young, old and so on. Because this identity that we assume is false, Srila Prabhupada always translated ahankara as ‘the false ego.’ The mind when polluted by ahankara is the worst of enemies, and when freed from it is the best of friends. Part of surrendering to the reality of one’s spiritual identity is the phenomenon of the rebellious mind; the many ways in which the egoic mind screams in protest.
Anyway, although while I’m awake I find certain new realities acceptable, its while I’m asleep that my oldest enemy/friend cries out in anguish. Srila Prabhupada taught us that dreams are the mind’s digestion and excretion process. Just as all the food we eat gets churned up in the stomach, so all the many thoughts and emotions generated by the mind’s contemplation on matter during wakefulness get mixed up and processed during the night.
For several nights now I have had dreams where I am sitting with attractive women as fellow passengers in a public vehicle. I smile or talk to them in order to establish a rapport, and then look down at myself to discover that I am old and feeble. Then I understand that the smiles they return to me are from sympathy. Last night I found myself feeling rejected in a wheelchair on a high cliff top drawn towards the edge. Although I wheeled myself away with what strength I had, the wheels brought me closer to the edge… And then I woke up. Like Mr. Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, I am happy on these mornings to be have been given a second chance, and far more determined to do all the right things from now on.
As Vaishnavas, such futile struggles of the trapped and challenged egoic mind serve to hone our determination and adherence to the process of rising above the workings of the material energy, the existential ‘gravity’ that keeps the soul chained to the mundane. Through our sadhana – our daily spiritual activities such as japa, studies of the scripture and our practical devotional service, we can taste the bright side of reality; the absolute truth just the other side of a thin curtain of maya. And once tasted we can never be really satisfied with anything else.
I feel better already.