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Levi Ben-Shmuel Headshot

God, Science and Open-Heart Surgery

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The expression "let's get to the heart of the matter" is well ingrained in the English language. When it comes to the heart itself, what is the heart of the matter? The question arose while thinking about open-heart surgery. Recently, two close relatives underwent the operation. One needed his aortic valve replaced. The other "only" needed her mitral valve repaired.

The idea that a highly trained stranger can literally hold a loved one's stopped heart in his hands, fix it and then restart it, struck me as something so wondrous that it is difficult to capture the feeling in words. It brought me face-to-face with the miracle of medical science and the Source of life Who makes miracles possible.

If you think about it, it is beyond remarkable that it is possible to sedate someone, cut through the breastbone, hook up a machine to take over the function of the heart and lungs, then repair a stopped heart (it is typically stopped for three hours during the five to six hour surgery). Then, the person is sewn back up, the heart and lungs kick back in, walking starts within days and the patient is usually home in less than a week. Even though physical activity is minimized in many ways, according to the discharge instructions from the Mitral Value Repair Center at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, if the patient is interested, it is fine to resume sexual activity!

Where does the patient go when the heart stops?

Sleep is part of the spectrum of consciousness. If you have dreams, it is possible to remember them (meaning you are conscious of them). If someone tries to cut your chest open while you sleep, chances are excellent you will wake up from the pain and try to stop them. But under anesthesia, something else happens: You are gone. It is as if the patient has left her body and taken a vacation while the heart is reduced to a mechanical object in need of repair. The "you" that is your identity, including awareness of yourself and the world, has disappeared (or has it?). Moreover in open-heart surgery, the stopped heart implies a level of disconnection from the patient's essential self that is mystifying. How is possible to come back from such an invasion of you who are?

Kabbalah, Heart and Soul

Judaism and Kabbalah provide one answer as to how the essence of an open-heart surgery patient (as well as the rest of us) stays connected to the body: each of us has a soul that is transcendent to the physical body and is connected to the Divine. The soul has five levels intertwined with the human body in varying degrees. Nefesh, or vital soul, is the densest level and is most connected to physicality. It can be thought of as the life force, or chi, in the Taoist tradition. Ruach, wind or spirit, is related to the breath and is identified with emotional awareness. Neshamah, also related to breath, can be thought of as a defining quality of consciousness. Chaya, living essence, is a more refined level of soul connected to a transcendent level of consciousness. Yechidah, unity, is the soul in its essence; a spark of God beyond the plane of duality and in some sense is beyond the body.

This perspective of levels of soul implies that even as an indispensable part of the physical body and one's consciousness is out of commission, there is a level of connection to the body that is maintained on planes beyond normal consciousness.

Science, Heart and Soul

From a science perspective, there is an assumption that the brain produces consciousness, yet science has no explanation for how it works. New York Times bestselling author Dr. Larry Dossey asserts, "...consciousness can operate beyond the brain, body and the present, as hundreds of experiments and millions of testimonials affirm. Consciousness cannot, therefore, be identified with the brain."

Dr. Allan Hamilton, Harvard-trained neurosurgeon and author of The Scalpel and the Soul, relates an experience with a patient who was temporarily rendered brain dead during surgery. After she recovery, this woman could reiterate entire conversations conducted during her surgery. According to science, this is impossible. As Stephen Stills wrote, "There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear..."

A Spectacular Success Story

The fact that thousands of people a day go through open-heart surgery with a stunning success rate implies a connection between mind/body/spirit beyond any mechanical/chemical explanation of how people work. There is an intelligent life force flowing through us that accepts and allows the miracle of open-heart surgery. As marvelous as the technology and skill set of a medical team are, there is an even more fantastic Force within us so vibrant and powerful that a person can withstand open-heart surgery and thrive.

I am very grateful for both science and the Source of it. Without them, my loved ones would not have the chance for many more years of healthy and productive living. To life!

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