I was less than five years old when I first underwent a general anaesthetic.
I have a clear memory of the operating room, of being held in my doctor’s lap while he placed the chloroform mask over my face. It burned and I cried. I heard him say, “A bit more”, and I thought, if I stop crying maybe he’ll release the mask. So I stopped and fell asleep.
I remember the dream I had whilst under. I was in a tunnel filled with swirling circles. It’s the only time in my life that I clearly remember dreaming in colour though apparently, we do this regularly. I also remember waking up in small room, in a baby’s cot with the sides up, waiting for my father to pick me up to take me home. Parents were not allowed to stay with their children in those days.
These memories have stayed with me all my life, though I feel no emotion attached to them. I don’t know why I have such clear memories of this event. I feel no trauma, no injustice. It simply was.
But here’s the thing about memories: we never know how accurate they are. Each time we remember a memory we change the chemical structure of that memory ever so slightly, causing the memories to grow, shrink or change. It’s possible (even probable) that I did feel some trauma. I certainly remember feeling trapped and alone and wishing my parents were there with me. If so, somehow the traumatic, the emotional part of that memory has long faded away. How skilful the mind is at healing itself!
There’s a Buddhist saying: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Pain is part of being an imperfect human living in an imperfect world. But suffering is what we cause to ourselves when we rehash and ruminate on the pain. Suffering is caused not by remembering painful events but by reliving them.
As a clinical hypnotherapist I often work with people who have painful memories of past events. I never try to erase or change these memories under hypnosis. Instead I help them to reframe the memories. Painful memories are often about a loss: loss of control, loss of health, loss of a loved one. If we can reframe that loss, we can usually put the pain aside. That reframing might be refocusing the attention on a joyful memory associated with the painful one, like how we often talk about funny or happy events associated with someone we have recently lost. Refocusing on the good doesn’t mean we stop feeling the loss. But it can mean remove the suffering associated with our pain.
Returning to my childhood surgery, somehow the emotions I remember the best are curiosity about the dream, joy when my father arrived and an understanding that the doctor wanted to help me, not cause me pain. Perhaps this was my intuitive way of reframing that difficult event.
Regular practice of meditation is one way of learning how to refocus the attention. When we meditate, we place our focussed attention on one of our physical senses. When the attention wanders to thought, we refocus back on the body. This dance between mind-wandering and mind-focussing is what trains the brain to choose where it places its attention. And if we want to focus on the good, we can.Back to Blog menu