At today’s meeting of Seattle IANDS (International Association of Near Death Studies), we heard from a guy named John, a laser show artist, about a Near Death Experience he had over a decade ago. John is a no bullshit, non-religious guy. He remains non-religious today, because he feels no religion adequately captures the nature or intensity of the spiritual experience he had while dying.
In short form, John had been ill with flu for a week before he took a trip to California to attend a fancy catered party. His appetite had just come back, so he ate a ton of the fancy food without realizing there were slivered walnuts in almost everything, to which he was violently allergic. The party was at a house near Big Sur, right on the ocean, so after eating, he and his girlfriend went down to check out the beach. There he began to have trouble breathing and to sense his muscles “locking up.” He told his girlfriend to go for help and, just before she was out of earshot, added with some of his last breath, “run.”
He sat on a rock and hunched over with his head down – the way he had been taught as an asthmatic was the best way to draw breath. But he could breathe less and less. He got scared. He shut out all else but his efforts to inhale. Then he “heard” a message to look up. He ignored it. It came back more insistently: “LOOK UP.”
He raised his head reluctantly and saw the sunset had transformed to something of overwhelming beauty. The light was brighter, the colors more intense than he had ever seen, and there was an emotional power to these colors and forms. He loved them profoundly, and he forgot his pain and fear. He saw someone far down the beach coming toward him. As the figure got closer, which happened very quickly, he saw the guy had on his same shoes, his same pants, shirt and – it was himself. And yet when he looked into the man’s face, he realized it also looked like his mom’s. And his sister’s. And his best friend’s. Until it began to look like “everyone I’ve ever loved or felt for, all in one. And then I knew it was god.”
He felt toward god as if the two of them were the best friends ever and had missed each other so much. There was incredible love. God showed him his life, not just scenes, not just sights, but the emotional flares and highlights of his life, the moments he had connected, had helped or hurt, hoped or suffered. Yet none of these things felt sad now. They were his life, and both he and god were glad about them. He could express any thought, feeling, or question to god without words, and understand huge amounts of complex response from god in the same way.
But then god shifted the ‘conversation’ to something serious, something grave. He thought to John, “I know you’re having a great time, but there’s something really crucial going on right now.” John realized he had to choose whether he wanted to go back to living or not. God showed him all the possible lives ahead of him. He said it was like a — I forget the name — but like that contraption they have at the Seattle Science Center where a ball dropped from the top can bounce off pegs either way to go right or left again and again; but it was also like looking down the “tube’ of a tree branch that bifurcates again and again — the impact of every decision that would create different courses for his life. He understood then that his life to date was the totality of all the choices he had made in the past, and that to alter even one of them would alter his whole life.
He could choose one of those ‘paths,’ or he could choose death. He sensed – and this is controversial for religious people – that god was equally fine with any choice he made, and any way he lived his life. He thought of all the people who would be inconvenienced by his death. He saw ripple effects around the globe to people who didn’t even know him, but also worried about ruining the party. He told god, “I don’t know why you even offered me this choice, because I am so not choosing death! In fact, I’m going back to that beach trail right now.” He stood up, turned from god, looked back once at the amazing beauty of the sunset that was still there, took two steps, and fell on his face. There he vomited into the sand under him and sucked this vomit-mud back into his windpipe. He aspirated. He died – he knows this now. BUT what he experienced at the time was “like when you sort of almost black out, but you just keep sending signals to your legs to go on walking or whatever until it passes and you can see again,” except that this time he stayed in total blackness. To his left and above, a light began to dilate brighter and brighter, but he assumed it was the party and kept “walking.”
Then he heard people arguing to his right. He thought he was back in the room where he and his girlfriend had been staying, looking down from a balcony to the living room below where his girlfriend and her step mother were arguing loudly. He realized it was about him. The step mother was a CPR instructor but was refusing to do CPR on him because of the amount of sand-vomit in his mouth and throat. There was no balcony, though. They were actually on the beach beside some lump on the sand. He dropped to their level and tried to tell them not to worry about him, that there was really no need to do CPR – he just wanted them both to be happy. At first he thought they were ignoring him, but gradually he realized they didn’t see or hear him. He recognized his body on the beach and began to realize he was outside it; yet he didn’t care much either way, so long as others were happy. Eventually the step mother caved. She scooped as much barf-sand out of the body’s mouth as she could. He watched her get ready, breathe in, and lower her mouth to his. Then SLAM! “It was like a car crash” – he was thrown back into his body.
After a while, he could see again. He knew the people above him were asking him what his name was and how many fingers, but her heard no sound. Instead he heard the pounding of the waves incredibly clearly. And he saw “people behind them who were helping the people that were helping me. Lots of them. And I know this sounds incredibly far out, but I don’t have any other name for them but angels. And yet, it wasn’t about me. They weren’t helping to ‘save’ me specifically, but a part of what we’re all doing here — all of those people, me, the world, all of us.”
It’s about love, he says. It’s about connecting, it’s about feeling those intense emotions of life. John says about love in every form, wistful love, sad love, love of beauty, love of loved ones, love of strangers: “That’s what life is; that’s what we’re here to do.”
He experienced episodes of clairvoyance for years to come that really “freaked me out,” because he had tried to shut down his memories of the experience. “It’s like you’ve been to Mars and met the Martians, but you have no evidence, you have no proof. Even my best friends said, ‘Must’ve been a dream…'”
Until the day he found IANDS, where telling his story gradually became safe.