Another near death experience

Observing the Three Pathways parts 1 & 2

Here’s a little more on the Three Pathways of Suffering. It’s an excerpt from some correspondence I was having with Rafa E. and Mark L. We were discussing time, not the three pathways, but one thing leads to another. For example, the three pathways are sometimes called the pathways of experience. Sometimes, they’re called the three pathways of suffering or the pathways of life. But they are also the three times of consciousness. Sensations take place in the present, imagination projects to the future, memory to the past. I asked them to consider this case  (which I am remembering now as I imagine how you will react in the future to this remembered moment…)

My earliest contact with Silo’s message had been marked by a car summer rain, as were the events I’m about to describe.

It was the summer of 76 or thereabouts, I had been involved with Silo’s teaching only for a couple of years. It was an unseasonably cold day, the sky was overcast, rain clouds were gathering and I was driving my father’s pickup truck along the highway, my former girlfriend Kerri was squeezed in the seat between me and my college roommate. Gary and I had been sharing a basement apartment about 30 minutes from the University of Waterloo where we were both students in a small odd-ball program called Integrated Studies, a vestige of the 60s, driven by notions of student self-determination and the integration of disparate academic fields. It played home to and misfits, high-school drop outs like me and brilliant young scholars like my friend. All in all the program was, and in some aspects remains, a phenomenon worthy of a lengthier description – but I will save that for another time.

We sped west from Toronto, the bed of the pickup truck empty. With the coming of the summer Gary and I were giving up our apartment, we’d fill the truck with our few belongings (mostly books and music), and head back to Toronto looking for summer employment (and/or amusement). I had borrowed my father’s pickup truck for the move. The first drops of rain were just starting to fall as, laughing and joking, we whipped along the highway. Gary’s laughter somehow emphasized the thin horizontal line dramatically traced across his windpipe, the still raw mark of a thyroid operation for which he’d been hospitalized only a few days earlier. I had seen him soon after the operation, lying doped up, looking frail for such an athletic and vital young person. Now that thin, surreal line that stood out so vividly was the only hint that anything unusual had happened to him.

Half-way between Toronto and our destination the occasional raindrops had turned into a light drizzle and the 4 lanes of pavement we were travelling along were glistening.  I didn’t recall even immediately afterwards exactly how the subsequent events unfolded but the story consolidated something like this: Suddenly, as such things always are, a car overtaking us cut into our lane a little too close for comfort. I must have tapped the brakes. The pickup began to fish-tail, all the more unstable because there was no load in the back helping keep the rear wheels attached to terra firma. The wagging of our rear became more pronounced and suddenly we doing donuts down a rain slicked four-lane highway.

Accidents always have that weird “accidental” quality. They erupt out of nowhere into the normal flow of events; surprise, shock and loss of control are built into what it means to have an accident. And so it was, one moment: three happy kids on a summer’s day chatting and laughing as they drove down the road. The most familiar of sites, a snapshot of unconcerned pleasure, the next moment: a chaotic, terrifying vortex of danger, pain, and perhaps death.

I recall thinking quite clearly about what was happening. It wasn’t the “life before my eyes” thing (though that would be a very interesting phenomenon), it was just that the accident was happening a lot slower than things usually happen.My thoughts cool, unconcerned, moved slowly as I considered the unfolding events. Somehow there was more time than could have possibly fit into that short moment before we went hurtling off the road, flipping over, tumbling down the embankment and rolling over a few times. When the truck could fall no further it lay there peacefully. The cab of the cab was crushed in and strangest of all the door beside me hung open — I kept thinking, “shouldn’t that be closed?”

In retrospect, I think what happened is that as the vehicle flew through the air I banged my head on the roof, and unbuckled my seatbelt in order to escape this painful situation. Though I would not draw any life lesson from it, I was the only one who had buckled my seatbelt and I was the only one thrown out of the truck. In any case at this point my only thought, inchoate and primitive though it was, went something like, “this truck hurt me I have to get away from it” and the only goal I had, was to distance myself from the cause of my pain. I found myself lying in the cold, soaked ground beside the truck and tried to get up the best I could do was a sort of wriggle toward the shoulder of the highway and then I lay there on my back, in the cold drizzle.

In that moment I became aware that I was very, very cold, that I had an intense pain in the side of my head and in my lower back. I started to put together what had happened and I started to think about the chain of events. As I went on, vividly, obsessively, compulsively reliving those previous moments I started to feel very emotional and not in a good way.I wondered where Gary and Kerri were. Were they OK? What if they were injured – it was my fault. What if they died from their injuries? I was assaulted by an almost hallucinatory vivid image of Gary with his neck torn apart along what had been his recent surgical wound. I had killed my best friends! The pain in my back and the side of my head swelled and spread through every part of my body.

Then they were there beside me; dishevelled but apparently unscathed, the looked at me with undisguised concern – and all the more so when they realized I wasn’t about to get up. Gary smiled and pointing at me said: “you came to see me in the hospital, now it looks like it will be my turn to visit you.”

Even as I tried to rein in my imagination I began to re-elaborate what had happened, weaving memory and imagination together, I was overwhelmed with images. What if I would have hit another vehicle… a car… full of kids… what if they were killed? I began to elaborate and re-elaborate variation after variation of highway death and mayhem, of what might have been and what might come to pass. And as those images played out, the intensified throughout my body.

What will happen? What will my father say about my destroying his truck? Will I be charged with dangerous driving? My back hurts. What if I broke my back? I can’t move my toes. And we’ve all seen enough TV to know what that means.

There were other people standing around me now. Good Samaritans who had stopped to see if they could help. I was so overcome by the immediate pain and by suffering because of what had happened, what was happening and what might happen (and what might have happened, what might be happening, etc) that I barely noticed what was going on around me, though I’m sure I was responding, apparently coherently, to questions. I don’t know how an ambulance had been called in those pre-cell phone days but I know someone said that one was on the way.

I lay partway up the embankment, the late spring rain felt very cold, so did the ground, in fact everything did. Terrifying memories overwhelmed my consciousness. If the memories ebbed for a moment it was only to be replace by imaginings of my future as a paraplegic, or re-elaborated memories where I smashed into cars packed with happy kids, and round and round…

And as the images took me so did the pain; overwhelmed with regret and fear, my entire body was screaming.

Then it was if a distant voice said “These are the three pathways of experience, the three pathways of suffering: the senses, the memory and the imagination. You suffer because of what you believe has happened, because of what you believe is happening, because of what you believe will happen.” This is what Silo had taught us. It couldn’t have been clearer. I thought to myself, “if this proves itself in this situation I will have something that I know I can rely on”. And so I began to review things: “this pain that belongs to my body is of a different nature than what I’m suffering. I will, for now, accept that pain but I will reject the suffering.” Or something like that and I started to try to observe, in a different way, the images imposed by my memory and imagination. By attending to them from another point of view I could stop them from covering my consciousness. And I noticed that when I managed to do that, the physical pain contracted until it only remained in two very specific points in my body, leaving me feeling not to bad, though certainly somewhat abashed. Though I still couldn’t move my limbs I could banter with my friends, and with the medics when they arrived.

Of course I couldn’t maintain that for long. My attention would drift, and the images of the truck spinning out of control would start again, images of how my friends could have been injured, how I could have killed people, how I’d destroyed my father’s truck… and as those images took me the pain would spread throughout my body and grow in intensity until it almost overwhelmed me. Then I would think “There are three pathways of suffering” and I’d start my meditation again. As I did I’d see the mechanisms at work, the images would recede, the pain, once again I’d be (more or less) lucid, relatively pain free, and in good humour. And so it went.

PS The consequences, good and bad, of this accident stayed with me. A sometimes very bad back, and insights that I have tried to deepen through the years, as well as the certainty that there are tools, even apparently ridiculously simple ones, that can be relied on in dire straights – something worked then and that came in handy at other difficult crossroads.

PPS Don’t worry my paralysis wasn’t permanent. In fact I would guess it only lasted a minute or two in Earth time. No broken spine, just muscles cramped by trauma and cold.

PPS Silo’s teaching about Pain and Suffering is basic to his message. He spoke about the differences and relationship between them from the beginning of his public teaching until the end of his life.

PPPS Recent neurological researchpoints to two circuits that may underpin the biological basis for the distinction between pain and suffering — or not