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The longer people live, the more confused they become,
because their anxiety to avoid unavoidable death becomes more and more acute.
So much sorrow! People live for what is always out of reach!
Their thirst for survival in the future makes them incapable of living in the present.
-- Chuang Tzu
Imagine you are wide awake when your breathing gently stops. I had the good fortune to be lying in the emergency room when this happened to me some nine years ago. Like yourself, perhaps, I expected to gasp for breath, panicking, but instead felt entirely calm -- despite the doctor's quizzical look.
Imagine you are wide awake a few moments later when your heart stops beating. Up to that moment, I suppose I would have expected to be afraid, desperate to hold to life, but instead felt oddly amused -- despite the doctor's rushed call for the defibrillation cart.
I became acutely aware of a greater sense of purpose following my near-death experience. - William Horden
Imagine you are still wide awake when a part of you -- a part both strange and familiar -- whispers reassuringly that this is not an ending. Like yourself, no doubt, I had periodically attempted to experience a deeper sense of self distinct from the personality of my body but this was the first time that I was fully conscious of its presence -- despite the fact that my euphoric inner experience was seen by those in the emergency room as my seizuring in an arc from heels-to-head.
I have written elsewhere about my experience and its spiritual implications for the dying. What I would like to address in this discussion of the near-death experience are some of the implications I believe it holds for the living.
The Personal Is The Universal. As medical science continues to advance, there will emerge an ever-growing class of survivors of near-death experiences who will bring into the larger culture their urgent questioning and re-prioritizing of social values and accepted ethics. In this sense, the sheer number of those surviving near-death experiences will impact culture at large, as their certainty of life's purposefulness is increasingly expressed in words and deeds. For my part, I became acutely aware of a greater sense of purpose following my near-death experience -- however, even nine years later, I have no idea how to define or describe that purpose. It seems to be an effect of coming face-to-face with the deeper sense of self, which has its own over-arching purpose for our lives. I don't know that it tells us where to go or what to do as much as it tells us when we are stepping off our path there.
The Courage Of Starting Over. Perhaps the most common and least explainable effect of the NDE is the profound emotionality it evokes in its survivors. People come back to their day-to-day lives with an overwhelming sense of the value of human life and the inviolable right of each to individual happiness. This brings a deep-felt poignancy, a kind of immediate nostalgia, to the moment, that sweeps away every justification for human-caused suffering with a single gesture of unconditional forgiveness of past wrongs. Far from an intellectual position, this most heartfelt emotional stance demands universal reconciliation. Although the mind can, of course, understand the cause of resentment, revenge, and hatred, the heart can no longer fathom the willingness to perpetuate the cycle of violence when the cycle of peace and prospering for all is within reach. Such an attitude of universal amnesty is based on the determination to start over, to forgive and be forgiven -- it views the knee-jerk position of anger and violence as the coward's way out, the opposite of the hero's path of trusting that the human heart is learning and evolving.
Habits Are Not Priorities. The way we come to see the world, how we feel about ourselves, the kinds of reactions we adopt -- all these develop out of early childhood experiences and are added to over the years, forming habits of thought and feeling that keep us from taking in the world, and our relationship to it, anew each day. Our sense of what is truly important gets lost as we adapt to the demands of our roles and responsibilities -- to the obvious detriment of our fundamental, ongoing, happiness. And to the detriment of the open-hearted and deep-seated companionship we wish to share with others. Our love of life, love of others, and sense of being loved, in other words, is subjugated to trying to create a sense of security in a world governed by unpredictable events. In my case, there were no warning signs of a massive heart attack -- a genetic flaw in an artery just gave out in my fifty-third year. People who survive near-death experiences universally report a fundamental shift in their life-priorities, away from rationalizing "lives of quiet desperation" and towards one of experiencing directly the magic of everyday life as expressed by our American Chuang Tzu, Henry David Thoreau:
'Talk of mysteries! -- Think of our life in nature, -- daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, -- rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?'
Every Moment Is A Defining Moment. Certainly, the near-death experience marks a defining moment in the lives of its survivors. It breaks through the encapsulation of habit thoughts and habit feelings that distance us from fully immersing ourselves in the awe-inspiring mystery of the present moment. Rather than encouraging us to live the "unexamined life" of unquestioning consumer-citizen -- what we might call the "Near-Life Experience" of alienation from nature, our fellow humans, and our deeper sense of self--the near-death experience encourages us to touch every moment with all our senses and to allow ourselves to be touched by the grandeur of the ongoing creation of the universe. In an unpredictable universe, then, every moment is a near-death experience. Every moment holds the secret key to unlock the personality from its cell of preconceptions, biases, and preferences. A defining moment is really a "re-defining moment", one that determines the true course of our character, purpose, and response to life. With the right concentration on the present moment of the miracle of creation, every moment becomes a defining moment in the evolving heart that is the seat of our deeper self.
The examined life is one that considers how things might be different, how we ourselves might be different than the blind habits into which we have fallen. In that light, as a final consideration, imagine you are waking up in the intensive care unit with tubes and wires sticking out of you like a porcupine and a nurse leans close to explain that you were dead for two minutes but the doctors were able to bring you back and that you have been unconscious for the twenty-four hours since then. Imagine what new thoughts and feelings ran through me upon hearing these words. And imagine how you might begin the task of expressing those thoughts and feelings for the rest of the new life you'd been given.
For my part, I have come to express it in this way: Humanity will not have reached its first stage of maturity until the light in every infant's eyes still shines as bright in the eyes of every elder.
The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications. It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams. Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World, hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.
Click here to go to the main site to see sample chapters, reviews and the link to Larson Publications for ordering the book.
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