In Good Flesh, I wrote about how I came to a new understanding of my body as a fine companion, a capable mediator of my experience of the world, a vehicle for transformation, and a temple of God. It all started when an Antiguan maid noticed that a cut on my scalp had healed remarkably quickly; she said I had "Good Flesh."
I've just had another one of those experiences that make me want to practice gratitude, wonder, and nurturing for my body. This 60+ flesh is still very, very good.
Several years ago, a routine series of X-rays revealed some things that needed watching in my aorta and the iliac arteries that go into my legs. The vascular surgeon was not alarmed but did suggest that I have regular scans to make sure that these tears in the artery walls and enlargements of the vessels were stable and did not turn into dangerous aneurysms. This fall after reviewing the latest scans, he recommended that he repair them. He would sew what he described as a "pair of pants" into both iliac arteries and up into the aorta. This new plumbing would require open abdominal surgery and perhaps a month to six weeks of recovery time.
Fortunately, this was not an emergency procedure so I was able to schedule the surgery for mid-December and allow myself time to recover over the holidays through January a slow period for a film reviewer. And I had time to prepare my mind and my body for this trip into the far country of surgery.
I knew that I would not want either myself or my wife, Mary Ann, to go through this alone. So I sent out a call for prayers to family, friends, colleagues, our church community, our Sufi circle, spiritual teachers and writers we know, and others. As emails began coming in with reports of all the prayers going out for me and energy and light being sent my way, I felt as if an enormous net connecting all these parts of my life was being set up to support me. It was there for the days leading up to the operation and during the week I stayed in the hospital. Mary Ann sent updates to this diverse community and reported back to me their responses.
I've long known about the mind/body connection and believed in the power of the imagination to effect health and healing. So I was open to using a program in the Health Journeys series developed by Belleruth Naparstek for "Successful Surgery." (Read more about these programs and the 15% discount available to S&P visitors here.) The program consists of a guided imagery session to be used before surgery, music for the surgery or post-op, and affirmations for the recovery period.
I began doing the guided imagery a week before the operation. It took me to a favorite place of peace and happiness and then transported me into the operating room where I could see a group of capable and efficient health care professionals preparing for a guest who turned out to be me! I knew as I observed them that they wanted to do their very best to take care of me. And others were around me too family members and friends, smiling, offering words of assurance and love, filling the whole room with their light. I also felt the presence and healing energy of angelic beings and loved ones who have died.
As I lay on a stretcher outside the operating room, I recalled this imagery and replayed it in my mind. I felt a rush of positive energy on top of the support I had discovered through the emails. Mary Ann and I have spent nearly 40 years following the model of St. Paul's tent-making ministry; each year we have had to come up with a budget to support ourselves and the work from a variety of sources in one of the most competitive cities in the world. This sometimes can lead to a keen sense of isolation. That feeling was banished during my hospital stay.
The combination of prayers, love, light, and positive and confident feelings that went with me into the operating room was something I had never experienced before. It struck me that this was the most important spiritual lesson of the operation. So before I went under the anesthesia, I expressed thanks in a little speech to the surgeon, Dr. Gary Giangola, and his team for all the time, talent, and commitment they were devoting to the healing arts. I told them that I had total confidence in their ability to do the best operation possible. I believed what I had been experiencing in the imagery would indeed be how the surgery and my recovery would unfold.
And that has been the case. My vital signs were good within hours of the surgery. I was up and walking the next day. My pain was managed so skillfully that I had only a little soreness. It helped enormously that the doctors, especially the attending physician on the ward, Dr. Larry Difabrizio, explained everything that was happening and kept telling me how well I was doing. My incision healed quickly and cleanly. As my Antiguan friend said, I do have "good flesh."
Prayers and imagery were two lifelines for me in the far country of surgery. Three special nurses tossed me another one during my week in the hospital. Brigid, an Irish nurse, seemed to me to be a Celtic presence when I was in the thin place of the intensive care unit right after the operation. She was a good listener and a strong, unflappable presence who responded to and encouraged my good spirits.
Moved to another ward, I woke up to meet Agatha, a Polish nurse, who turned out to look, talk, and laugh exactly like our dear Latvian friend Ieva, a Lutheran minister in Stockholm. She demonstrated great skill with all the amazingly complicated technology in the room. She was very patient with all my changing moods, and I always knew she was taking me seriously.
The third nurse, Liz, reminded me in a good way of a cheerleader; she was always smiling, very attentive, and even showed me how to find music on my brand new iPod. Nurses are the heart and soul of hospitals, and I am deeply grateful to these three. They were nothing less than the divine presence in a strange and alien world.
Mystics say that love is the pattern that stitches the universe together. I can attest to that truth. Mary Ann, my anchor and soul mate, was there for me throughout this journey. My last image before going under anesthesia was of looking into her dark eyes, which have always been aglow with enthusiasm. During a scary evening when my heart rate was soaring, she held my hand and recited the mantra I use every day to center myself. Joy Carol, a longtime friend and spiritual director who has herself had several close brushes with death, provided many moments of comfort and helpful advice.
The final lifeline that carried me through my hospital experience was the gift of tears. I experienced this again and again and can only describe it as a softening of the heart, a keen sensitivity to the love, beauty, and fragility of life. I cried when a vase of beautiful flowers arrived from my cousin, when a friend called from Minnesota and her voice cracked with emotion, when I had my first solid food after days of no eating, when a friend led me through a meditation and said that as I drifted to sleep, she saw my body covered in a sheet of white light.
The dark times during my hospitalization came with bad reactions to morphine, which was given to me for pain. I must be very sensitive to this drug because it produced hallucinations and nightmares. It was as if every violent movie I had seen in the last ten years was being rerun in my head; the images were fast and furious and garish scenes of bloody murders, beheadings, explosions, and scribblings on the wall. All the noises in the room, the clicking of the monitors, the beep-beep of the IV tree when something needed to be changed, seemed incredibly loud and invasive. (Fortunately, I was spared the additional noise of a TV set in the room.) During the worst of it, I found relief listening to Belleruth's affirmations and her guided meditations for "Cardiac ICU and Rehab." My own images evoked by her words countered the negative drug reactions.
In the midst of all this, a technician came to take an X-ray. I was lying in bed, and she placed a plate under me. Then she positioned the X-ray machine, a towering object, over my body. When she slid open the top of the machine, I saw hundreds of rose petals fall out of it and cover my body. I know roses to be a sign and a symbol of Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, the founder of our Sufi order. I knew, too, that Mary Ann and our Sufi friends had been praying for me and that Mevlana has been known to show up when called. I experienced this vision with tears of joy.
It's late January 2007, and I've been home for a month now and have had a good and steady recovery. From this experience, I've discovered some new spiritual practices to add to those outlined in Good Flesh. I encourage you to use them if you or someone you love is journeying to the far country of surgery.
• Ask for prayers. Don't be shy. Make your call both far and near. People want to help, and knowing you have this network behind you will give you strength for the journey. And when you are given the opportunity to support someone in this way, know that it is a truly valuable gift to them.
• Tap into the power of your imagination. Try guided imagery programs that help you discover your own healing images.
• Think positive thoughts, use affirmations, and remember the supportive beings, living and dead, human and angelic, around you.
• Practice gratitude. Express your thanks to all the dedicated health care professionals who are serving you. See them for who they are carriers of the divine presence.
• Welcome the gift of tears, knowing that tears come when your heart overflows through your eyes. Rejoice as you become more sensitive to the blessings and the fragility of life.
• Finally, be open to the possibility that you may have a mystical experience in the hospital. It is a place where the walls between the worlds are very thin. And, because it's too bad that we often keep the really good stuff quiet, if you are blessed with a vision, share the story.