The In-Between

When we bought our house in 2012, we knew that at some point in the future we’d need to update the interior. Years of dogs and kids took their toll as the kitchen countertops started coming apart, the paint faded, the carpets grew tired and stained, and the hardwood floors began peeling. We’d been planning and saving up and finally, late last year, we went for it.

Those who’ve undertaken a home renovation know what a tornado of anticipation and stress it can be. We did not, which might be why we decided to do it during a pandemic. It was in midst of this, moving kitchen appliances around to get ready to remove our old cabinets, that I felt a painful pressure in my groin that was just like an inguinal hernia that I’d suffered during my junior year in college. The surgeon who repaired it back then was named Dr. Faith, and he told me never to do another sit-up again. I was in Navy ROTC at the time and about 2 years away from commissioning so I, uh, may not have heard him correctly. By the time Navy dive school came around, I’d forgotten him completely. Standing in the kitchen two months ago, I heard him just fine. I remember thinking that his name was pretty appropriate given the 36 years of abuse I’d put his surgical work through.

We are blessed to live in an area well-known for great health care, and I chose a surgeon whose patients I’d cared for myself years ago while working in the ICU. I got an appointment to see him straight away, and it didn’t take him long to confirm what I already suspected. We talked about the risks and benefits of different types of surgery, and decided that the approach with the lower failure rate was worth the slightly higher risk of general anesthesia.

The inguinal canal is an interesting piece of anatomy. It’s a small passage between the abdominal compartment, which contains the the things that we think of as our internal organs – liver, pancreas, stomach, and intestines – and the groin area. An inguinal hernia happens when there’s a defect in that canal that allows something, normally a loop of small intestine, to protrude downward. At best, it’s uncomfortable and physically limiting. At worst, it can lead to serious complications if the intestine becomes strangulated and loses its blood supply. Fortunately for me, the surgeon thought that mine was just omentum, which is the tissue that envelops the abdominal organs and helps hold them in place.

Still, it seemed like a good time to apply some Reiki, so I gave myself a few treatments in the area along with some chakra balancing. Self-treatment is relaxing and very grounding, and is an integral part of Reiki practice. I try to do it as much as I can.

. . .

True love is driving your partner to a 5:15 a.m. surgical appointment. I’ve had a few trips to the body shop over the years related to my sometimes-mulish insistence that I can do anything I did when I was 23 years old, and my wife has been with me through all of them. She’s an early riser though, and was up and ready with a humorous quip while I was still stumbling around with one eye closed and mismatched socks. Thank goodness that coffee counts as a clear liquid.

As early as I had to be there, I knew that life in the OR starts even earlier. The ladies at the check-in desk were as chipper as could be and kept the line of patients (there were other people who had to be there at 5 freaking 15??) moving quickly. The pre-op team was a well-oiled machine. The nurse anesthetist turned out to be the mother of a girl who I’d worked with in the hospital, and I knew she had a great reputation. The fresh-faced student nurse anesthetist went through some final details, injected my IV with what she lightly called a “Mickey” (2 milligrams of midazolam, a sedative and amnesic) and off we went.

The last thing I remember before the surgery is seeing a mask go over my face and the nurse anesthetist telling me it was to help me breathe. The next thing I remember is waking up in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) to someone saying, “There was no hernia”.

“No hernia?!?”, cried my brain, still pretty much baked from the anesthesia. What the heck? My mind went back to my appointment with the surgeon, who saw and felt it for himself. How could there be no hernia where there was one before? As I tried to shake off the fog, a surgical resident came to me and explained that they’d done a full search and found nothing. He offered one relatively benign possibility, but said that they would have had to make another incision to verify it, which wouldn’t have been in my best interest. So, I’d just gone through abdominal surgery for… nothing?

I was left to puzzle over this for the next few days. One thing I kept coming back to was that I didn’t know whether to be happy that there wasn’t a hernia to fix, or upset that I’d undergone a major procedure that turned out to be unnecessary.

Over the years I’ve slowly learned to treat internal conflicts like this kindly, and simply acknowledge their existence without becoming stuck inside them. It’s easy to get pulled into strong emotion when we’re clinging to something or acting based on aversion. Just acknowledging and experiencing what’s going on without assigning some sort of value to it lets us assume the role of observer of our own internal state. It takes us from the raft, riding the whitewater of emotion down the river, to the riverbank watching the raft. It lets us experience life and everything it has to offer without becoming so absorbed in emotion or the stories we tell ourselves that we start to suffer. The wonderful Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes in her book Radical Acceptance: “The two parts of genuine acceptance–seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion–are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.”

So, did I really have to make a choice as to how to view my surgical outcome? What if I chose to hold the experiences of both happiness and frustration simply as they were and treat them with compassion? What if I saw the situation as it was, without judging or attaching some sort of story to it? I was diagnosed with an inguinal hernia. I underwent a surgery to repair it. There was no hernia when they got in there. No clinging to an alternate reality or aversion to the current one.

This isn’t to say that we should be ambivalent about our existence or passive participants in our own lives. But, what if we held all of our experiences with compassion, while at the same time recognizing their impermanence? Would we feel happiness more completely if we were to recognize it, hold it as we would our own child, and then understand that it is by nature transient? Would we be less immersed in anxiety, sadness, or grief if we treated them in this way?

Conflicting situations like my own present a unique opportunity because of their duality. They afford us the chance to explore seemingly opposite emotions, and that exploration itself helps drive home the point that these feelings are impermanent. They help us understand that we can mindfully and actively participate in our lives without becoming servants to our internal states. There is a Middle Way. We can find the in-between.

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