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On Gratitude and Amazement, Anesthesia and Starlight.

Updated: May 10





"Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed."

Abraham Joshua Heschel




"Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life".

Rumi





The audio version of this blog post




Note: This is a text I originally posted on Facebook following a hospitalization for surgery on my knee. It has also become a reflection on our abundance and privilege, and on the situation in the hospitals in Gaza that was very present in my heart and mind at the time (November 2023). And beyond that, it is a small account of my reflections during my rest in a hospital room afterwards.



The day before yesterday it finally happened..

The long-awaited procedure, the surgery on my right knee, took place early in the morning.

It all went very well, and it was actually an experience filled with wonder, which again gave rise to a lot of contemplation, and a lot of amazement and gratitude.


I had undergone surgery once before under full anesthesia, a long time ago as a child, when I was about five years old. I still remember that moment when the doctors placed a mask on my face (in those days some kind of sleep-gas was still used I believe) and I remember how I felt the world fall away then. More than fifty years ago, but it is a very vivid memory.

The mere fact that I have never been hospitalized since is cause for gratitude.





And the experience already began with amazement. Amazement at the luxury we have here. The hospital was so very clean and perfectly tidy. All the nurses were super friendly and they all went out of their way to make me feel at ease. Everything looked brand new in those bright white rooms, and there was high-tech equipment everywhere. The nurses wheeled around futuristic-looking rolling carts, each equipped with state-of-the-art computer terminals and monitors. Computers everywhere, complicated-looking equipment whose function I couldn't begin to guess, and so on and so forth.

And then that whole surgical experience. Being wheeled through the hallways in a bed that also looked brand new and state-of-the-art. Being brought into the operating room and transferred to the operating table, under those iconic big surgical lights, with doctors and nurses placing sensors and catheters and infusions in various places on my body. A prick in my right arm as the probe for anesthesia is inserted. And then a voice saying (about the anesthesia) "now you'll start to feel it." And then indeed a fuzzy feeling in my head and then nothing.

The next moment waking up in a completely different room, with other nurses around, who come and ask me how I feel. Fine I say, because I do.

It is interesting that you never experience the moment when you fall asleep. Of course you can't, because then you wouldn't be asleep yet. We are less aware of that fact in bed because we are dozing off, but falling asleep in an announced and anticipated way like that, in a brightly lit room, surrounded by people, is something completely different. But there too: you don't notice when you leave, you only notice when you come back.


What also surprised me somewhat, as soon as I woke up I started crying again, because - as I had already seen coming, see my post on Facebook the day before yesterday - I almost immediately thought of all those people, children and adults, who are now being operated on in hospitals in Gaza, on dirty blankets on the ground, without electricity, without clean water, and without anesthesia, in hospitals that can be bombed any moment. I lay there in my immaculately clean hospital bed, surrounded by the best of care, and tears shot back into my eyes as I thought of the children and adults in Gaza, and by extension all the children and adults in the world who have to endure the unimaginable misery of war and poverty.


I was taken to my room for further rest and observation. Another immaculately clean room, on the sixth floor, with a nice view south, the sun slowly passing through the sky as the morning and afternoon passed.

I had my reading materials with me but I indulged in musings and meditations of all kinds throughout the morning and afternoon.





Gratitude, how important it is. I think it is one of the most important things in life: to be grateful for the gifts we receive, day after day.

And as I lay there pondering, I found myself asking the question again: how grateful are we for what we still experience every day in luxury and material prosperity we have here? We so easily take it for granted. And we are so quick to complain when something goes wrong in this world of ours that is so equipped with every possible comfort.


Would it be possible not to take all that for granted? Every impulse that is permanent disappears into the background of our consciousness. And that is why it is so difficult to keep ourselves centered in wonder and gratitude: what we experience constantly is no longer perceived after a while.  We notice things much better when perceiving contrasts: any contrast makes us perceive each of the poles of that contrast much more clearly. And so perhaps it would be appropriate for us in our rich countries to be much more confronted with these contrasts, to be more in touch with all those people who have so much less. That could be an antidote to our hardening and our cynicism, and our increasing lack of gratitude.

A few days' stay in Gaza, Sudan or Yemen would probably be enough to make each of us feel a lifetime of gratitude for what we can experience here and for what we are being spared.


And how hospitable and generous can we still be? Can we still easily share from that abundance that has been given to us?

I know quite a few people who have lived or worked in countries where people have to make do with far less, but where hospitality and endless generosity are the norm. Almost everyone who has been in such places testifies to that. People who have hardly anything will apparently share what they have infinitely easier with strangers than we think possible.

How does that work? Why does having a lot lead to possessiveness, and to a lack of generosity and gratitude? And how are we going to deal with that when the flood of climate refugees will really get started? Many millions of people are going to have to migrate in the coming decades because of the heating of the Earth, and how are prosperous countries going to deal with that? Are we going to be able to preserve (or regain) our humanity or are we going to do everything in our power to protect 'ours' from 'those others'? Are we going to reinforce Fortress Europe? Walls, barbed wire, and eventually minefields and machine guns? Or are we going to see that preserving what we now have of material abundance is an illusion, and always has been in fact, because we have never factored in its true cost? The cost of exploited lives in the South, the unaccounted-for cost of damage to nature and to the living fabric of our planet?





I pondered on all this in my nice immaculately clean room as the sun glided across the sky from left to right, occasionally hidden by clouds, more and more so as the afternoon passed.

I was talking about consciousness just now, and how any stimulus that is constant disappears from our sensation over time.

Consciousness is a special something that itself is one of the things of which we are hardly ‘conscious’ because we always experience that consciousness as something self-evident. The stimulus is constant, and so we forget over time that it is even there. The experience of consciousness is always present but only partially experienced, mostly unexamined by ourselves, and for the most part still misunderstood.

People who meditate a lot testify about the experience of getting back in touch with the mystery that consciousness actually is, and about starting to experience that consciousness again in a very different way than we usually do. Through meditation we can come home again to the only true home we can really experience, and that is the Self, the center of the experience of ‘I am’. And that experience becomes more and more wonderful the more we dare to pay attention to it again.

Because it is a mystery, and I was reminded of this again because I had just experienced full anesthesia.


Anesthesia is itself still somewhat of a mystery also. Science does know that it works, but science still doesn't know exactly hòw it works. I am happy that it does work. But the how is still a bit of a mystery, just like what happens in the brain during general anesthesia. You would think that brain activity would decrease, but the opposite is true: brain activity skyrockets as soon as the anesthesia kicks in. But why? No one really knows. There is progress, but many question marks remain regarding this particularly pleasing aspect of medical progress.


Not surprisingly, one of the foremost researchers into the nature of consciousness is an anesthesiologist, Stuart Hameroff of the University of Arizona. As an amateur philosopher of science, I have been following the latest developments in the science of consciousness, and the many radical new ideas that are emerging there. Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff is one of the people putting forward very new ideas about that mystery of our consciousness, in collaboration with other scientists including heavyweights like Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose, and even more radical thinkers like Dean Radin, head of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. What many of these new ideas, while still quite different from one another, have in common is that they view consciousness as a quantum process, rather than a consequence of mere electrochemical reactions between neurons. Consciousness as an aspect of the various possible ‘states’ of a quantum uncertainty, also called a ‘super-position’. If that sounds like Chinese to your ears, don't worry. It did for me at first (and often still does), and quantum physics remains one of the most counter-intuitive and incomprehensible branches of science. To say that I completely understand it would be to violate the truth.

I will talk a lot more about these new theories regarding the nature of our consciousness in my blog and project, which for good reason has the caption ‘Consciousness and the Living Planet’. Because in my opinion (well, also in the opinion of many other and greater minds than myself) a lot of the problems we run into, both individually and collectively, have to do with our mistaken understanding of what consciousness actually is, and what the relationship is between the phenomenon of consciousness and what we call ‘material reality’.





So that was also one of the things I was musing about, in my immaculately clean hospital room, as the sun travelled from left to right in the sky.

And that sun also gave rise to another set of musings. For I have also been a lifelong amateur astrophysicist, and the insights that are emerging in the latest developments in astrophysics are no less amazing than those in the science of consciousness. I talked a bit about that in the text ‘A selfie of Planet Earth’ that I recently posted on my website.

It's actually amazing how many people are barely aware that our sun is a star like any other, one of the four hundred billion in our galaxy (which in turn is one of an estimated two thousand billion galaxies in the visible Universe, each of which contains on average as many stars as our galaxy).

It is one of the exercises I do daily to keep wonder and gratitude alive: being sharply aware that our sun is a star.

And what you can do to become more sharply aware of that is, for example, to replace the word ‘Sun’, which is just a label, with the word ‘Star’.

I lay there in my hospital room as the Star travelled from left to right in the sky. The Starlight bathed the room in a bright glow. Later in the afternoon it became cloudy and the Star was hidden from view by the clouds.

And when my son Elias came to pick me up, the Star was already low in the sky, or rather the point on the sphere that is our planet (the point where I was in my room) had already turned a further way away from our Star.

And when my son pushed me in a wheelchair through the corridors of the hospital (which immediately prompted jokes about possible future repeats of that activity), it also gave rise to a lot of other realizations and musings, but I will leave the report here for now.

I was allowed to go home after experience full of wonder, and I felt grateful and amazed at so many things.

Onwards to the next few weeks of rest and rehabilitation, and no doubt further musings and meditations. It's one of the good things about being temporarily immobile: it gives room for thinking and feeling and sensing, space we don't so easily allow ourselves in our race to, yes to where really?

To be continued.




Thanks to the nursing staff and the doctors for the good care, and thanks to all loved ones and friends who constantly inquired how things were going, if everything was okay, and if they could help with anything. Heartwarming it was! Love is all you need. The greatest miracle of all.


Thank you for reading, and all the best to you!

Filip




Earth and our Star (Image: NASA).

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