Error & Inspiration
In mathematical statistics, an “outlier” is a data point so far askew of the other data points that it’s often assumed to reflect experimental error, and hence excluded from the data set to which the statistical analysis is subsequently applied.
While this practice may be justified in the realm of statistics – if what we’re aiming for is a numerical description of a realm of (human or other) behavior in its most typical manifestation – in terms of subjective experience I find the outliers often to be the most interesting to explore. The subjective experience associated with undergoing general anesthesia, for instance, is one that would seem to occupy a category all of its own: a true outlier! Is this actually the case? Let’s see …
Three times I’ve undergone anesthesia, in the context of surgeries on my left ankle (fractured while playing college basketball). Though this was decades ago, the experience still feels utterly fresh in my memory – presumably because it’s such a unique one: One moment, I’m in the steely-cool surgical suite — masked doctors and nurses with hushed voices shuffling about — and the very next moment I’m opening my eyes in the recovery room.
Experientially, there has been virtually no time elapsed between these two events/perceptions. Yet conceptual-mind can easily infer that all variety of events did indeed “happen” to the physical body (namely: the surgery on the left ankle) within that timeframe that one’s own body-mind seems in no way to have recorded (in the manner of direct experience and memory). It’s not only phenomena — sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts etc. — that ceased to be recorded; but space-time itself ceased also to be recorded/projected during that inferred timeframe.
The anesthesia experience is a radical discontinuity in relation to the phenomenal content of Awareness – even more extreme (to the point of deserving its own category) than that experienced in deep sleep. In deep sleep, phenomenal appearances are few and far between – so much so that the arising of conceptual narrative becomes impossible. (The moment that it once again becomes possible is how we define the moment of transition back into the so-called dream or waking states.)
But in deep sleep there’s still a projection of space-time happening – which allows for a subtle sense of (diffuse rather than strongly linear) temporal continuity. The “screen” upon which dream or waking phenomena appear has not been fully dissolved. The experience of anesthesia is the experience of the space-time screen also being dissolved.
Unplugging The Computer
If we consider the human body-mind as akin to a computer, then deep sleep can be likened to the computer’s “sleep” function – when processing power is assigned largely to “rest and restoration” protocols, rather than to active running of this or that software program. The experience of anesthesia is akin to shutting down and unplugging the computer completely: the recording/projecting device is turned off completely.
Does such an experience undermine the view of Pure Awareness as infinite and eternal? Is this evidence that when the body dies (i.e. the phenomenal recording/projecting device is shut down permanently) Awareness also is no longer?
Not at all – because Awareness as such is not interrupted, but rather remains (a-temporally) continuous. The perceived discontinuity is in relation to two sequential moments whose presumed causal connections no longer appear seamless. And to the extent that mind is in the habit of equating Awareness with Awareness-of-phenomena, the radical discontinuity of phenomenal appearances is automatically applied to Awareness. In other words, it’s assumed that a discontinuity at the level of phenomena automatically equates with a discontinuity of Awareness.
Live-Streaming A Tennis Match
Imagine that you’re viewing a live-streamed webcast on your computer: say of a three-set tennis match. You (as body-mind) live in Colorado, and the tennis match is being played in Florida – so your body-mind’s only perceptual access to the events of the tennis match is via the webcast.
In the middle of the first set, the webcast stream freezes – so images of the tennis match are no longer being transmitted. Twenty minutes later (technical difficulties having been resolved) the stream resumes, and with it the “live” images of the match. But the tennis players now are nearing the end of the second set. So you (as the remote observer of the match) have missed the content of the live-stream – i.e. have been unable to perceive/record its specific events — from the middle of the first set through the middle of the second set.
From your point of view (sitting in front of your computer screen in Colorado) the sequence of perceived events jumped from (1) a point in the middle of the first set; to (2) a point in the middle of the second set – with no-thing (i.e. no phenomenal event) in between. Because your mind has an understanding of the typical temporal unfolding of a tennis match, it concludes that the jump was “discontinuous.” Nevertheless, you – as Awareness — have remained.
The freezing of a webcast – like the experience of anesthesia – creates a very obvious gap between temporally sequential or spatially contiguous objects/events. Much less obvious are the typical “everyday” moment-by-moment gaps between phenomenal perceptions/conceptions: gaps which, in virtue of their smaller size, are much easier to ignore. In other words, we just typically don’t notice the gaps – which get rendered conceptually as the (phenomenal) space between objects and the (phenomenal) time between events. (Even if we allow for parallel as well as sequential processing at the level of the human brain, the parallel processing will never be infinite – and hence will still be subject to gaps.)
Echoes In A Cave
Imagine standing in the center of a large cave. When you shout “hello!” your voice echoes for several seconds afterwards, before the sound disappears completely into silence. If you shout a second time before the echoes of the first shout have fully dissolved, a continuity of sound is generated, creating the impression of there being no gaps (of silence) between your shouts. If instead you wait for the echoes to fully subside before shouting again, the gap of silence between the shouts is more easily perceived, more obvious. And if you leave the cave, and instead go stand in the middle of an open field, your shouts create no echoes at all.
Perceptions embroiled in dualistic assumptions “echo” in a way that obscures the gaps (i.e. openings into the “vertical dimension” of Pure Awareness) between them. Phenomena arising within a “cave” of dualistic ignorance/assumptions generate the echo of conceptual elaboration. Dissolve the walls of the cave, and phenomena are absorbed instantaneously into (i.e. re-membered as never having left) the infinite space of Pure Awareness – as are shouts within an open field.
The Big Bang
In the same way that (according to the laws of physics as we currently understand them) the universe came into existence when it already had an age of 10-43 seconds; so it is that the “universe” of a momentary perception/conception necessarily arises out of a gap at least as large as 10-43 seconds (i.e. a single unit of Planck Time). So there’s at least a 10-43 second window into eternity, again and again and again. This is the metaphor that quantum mechanics provides to our conceptual mind – as a hint of its True Nature.
Inherent in the recording device of the human body-mind (which itself is simply a series of perceptions/conceptions) are limitations to its recording/projecting capacities – limitations which can be made more obvious by exploring deeply the outlier experience of anesthesia.
The Enigma Of Near-Death Experiences
Something we’ve yet to discuss, but which also bears directly on our current topic, are so-called near-death experiences. Of specific interest are those NDE’s which feature direct perception and memory (by someone supposedly dead, in a coma, or under general anesthesia) of specific events in and/or around the operating room, via the functioning of a recording device obviously not effected by the anesthesia. Are these sensory organs – which apparently were fully operational at the time — associated with the subtle body? Or is it a kind of perception directly from Awareness itself, functioning completely independently of the physical body? Interesting food for thought …
Whatever the explanation – and barring the possibility of improperly administered anesthesia – near-death experiences of this sort seem to lend additional credence to the view that Awareness is not dependent upon the physical body.
Like a Pointillist painter, we “connect the dots” of various (gross and subtle) perceptions, to create our conceptual narratives of “self” and “world.” Undergoing general anesthesia provides an experience akin to stepping much closer to the painting – until all that occupies our perceptual field are two dots with a very large space between them. With just the two dots visible, it’s much more difficult to create the illusion of a seamless narrative. And at such a close proximity to the painting, it’s also well-nigh impossible to ignore the open space between the two dots.
The moment immediately prior to succumbing to the effect of general anesthesia is one dot. The moment immediately subsequent to the anesthesia wearing off is the second dot. The space between – made apparent to the mind via the phenomenal discontinuity between the two dots, i.e. the inability to generate a seamless narrative using only these two dots – is an opportunity to re-member Pure Awareness as the only true (non-phenomenal) continuity.
The large gap between phenomenal moments that the experience of anesthesia points to is not qualitatively different from the tiny gaps that exist between moment-by-moment perceptions. What makes it an outlier is the way in which the gap is highlighted – i.e. made much more apparent than it typically is. So in this case, exploring (rather than throwing out) the outlier offers a gateway into noticing something rather important, that we’ve been in the habit of ignoring.