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As I stood at the doorway to his room, it was as if he looked straight into my eyes.  His eyes were still open and blue as ever. I couldn’t quite tell if he had a smile on his face, but he looked peaceful. I felt heartened and found solace in this last expression of his. I also felt sadness that I would never encounter him in the hallways again nor would I be able to say, “Hi” to him. I will miss that.

Over the months, volunteering in hospice, there had been numerous struggles (tears, fear and anger) over what lie ahead for him. I tried in what seemed like an endless exercise in futility to provide some comfort to him during these months, to help him process his impending death. However, he fought me every inch, railed against his own understanding of his impending death and forced me to take him on his own terms, regardless of whatever agenda I had for him.  He was a skillful teacher for me. Over time, I abandoned this agenda of mine and let him take the lead. I often found myself serving his need to be distracted from his understandings of his impending death. It perplexed me at the time and forced me beyond my confined understanding of what I was doing as a hospice volunteer and my own understandings of death, that’s what made him such a good teacher for me.

In looking at my own remembrance of encountering death, I began to see the teaching. Trying to understand the experience of death, trying to wrap one’s head around it is an exercise in futility. We cannot know. If we make up something frightful about death we suffer more intensely. If we make up something pleasant about death we suffer less intensely. If we make up nothing about death, we suffer not.

Personally, I don’t remember dying almost 2 years ago and it’s almost as if it didn’t happen at all (see previous posts, “The Paradox of Death and Deathlessness”). In a way, it was much ado about nothing for me and yet for my rescuers and family, way too much happened. I can’t say it was much ado about nothing for them! My point is that death is a concept, an understanding, and concepts or understandings are not the thing itself. Whatever we think, whatever understanding we have, whatever label we give, tis not the thing itself. Then, there is the understanding of absence or oblivion which is really no different than any other kind of understanding, it just an understanding that parades itself as a nothing.

In the Zen tradition, there is a story of a monk that would carry a pail of water from a local stream to his humble abode nightly. This monk would admire deeply the reflection of the moon in this pail of water as he walked home. It seemed so beautiful to him. One night, as he walked home, the pail fell from his hand hit the ground and shattered. The water dispersed and the thirsty ground soaked it all up. No pail, no water, no reflection that he had gained such pleasure from. In his anguish he turned his head to cry into the sky, only to see the real moon, for the very first time shining bright in all its glory high in the night sky above! What a pale imitation the reflection of the moon in the pail of water was!

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Our understandings are these reflections in a pail of water they encourage us to look beyond the understanding to the direct experience, but we are so enthralled with our understandings because we think that that understanding is all we have. We mistake that the absence of understanding is nothing in a while it is described as emptiness from the perspective of understanding, it’s absolutely not empty! The point of practice, be that meditation or inquiry, is to break the obsession with this “pail” understandings and to begin to perceive directly the non-conceptual wisdom.

All our understandings in this life, including our understanding of death, are “pail” understandings. They are pale versions of direct perceptions. What my teacher (in this hospice resident) here reminded me of, was that death need not be processed through our “pail” understanding. Whether our final months/moments here involve existential inquiry or living as if there is no death, matters not. I am reminded of the truly unimaginable ground of existence!

Whether I think I know what I’m doing, or not, in how I am serving hospice residents or living life in general, matters not. My job is to be present, open, and compassionate. It’s okay to make up frightful things about death. It’s okay to make up comforting things about death. It’s okay to make up neutral things about death. It’s okay not to think about death at all! It’s an awful lot of work to make all these things up and sometimes I can just feel lazy and let it all go! Besides, I don’t think that the universe really concerns itself much with our understandings. It seems to me that on an ultimate level, existence is perfect as it is and the universe is completely independent of any of our understandings or judgments, mine, his, or anyone else’s.

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You, teacher, taught me this most pointedly as your lifeless body gazed into me and pierced my “pail” understandings of you, me, life, and death.  Thank you for the reminder that understanding is a virtual playground, feel free to play in the infinite number of pleasant and unpleasant creations and remember that they are unnecessarily confining! Go ahead and pretend that these “pail” understandings are in any way real, to your heart’s content if you must!  Ultimately, we must leave our confinement of pail understandings, this playground that we play in, and when we do we will never want to return to such limitation and confinement for it will seem like a prison to us.

In the meantime, play in them until you’re no longer interested.

QUIETNESS

Inside this new love, die.

Your way begins on the other side.

Become the sky.

Take an ax to the prison wall.

Escape. Walk out

like someone suddenly born into color.

Do it now.

You’re covered with thick cloud.

Slide out the side. Die,

and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign

that you’ve died.

Your old life was a frantic running

from silence.

The speechless full moon comes out now.

~Rumi

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I remember the weeks following my cardiac arrest where my experience of life was really quite different. I was much more present for each moment of each experience that I had. While my mind was much less cluttered with the thoughts that typically tumbled one after another like an endless line of circus clowns, I was much clearer about life.

It’s not that I knew what life was all about, as far as having it in a nice neat little pigeonhole; it was just that I wasn’t making up all of the extra crap that I had been used to making up about it. I was so much more sensitive to each individual experience, each individual person, and awe-inspired by each of them! It was really the simple things in life that were most amazing (love, connection, presence) and the absurdities that typically characterize human relationships were simply unintelligible gibberish that was easy for me to simply ignore. The precipice of death has this uniquely clarifying quality that is rather compelling. I have found myself drawn towards this space, wanting to return ever since. Secretly, I can even be defiant at times, taunting death in my own mind, pushing limits, rather unconcerned about my mortality and the temporary nature of this life (not that I put myself at mortal risk, really).

but, what a peculiar a thing to say!? To want to return to this edge between life and death!? What is this paradoxical attraction? No, I’m not afraid of death and no, I don’t want to leave this planet either. And yet I also long for this freedom from the absurdity that characterizes most human interactions! How is it, that we human beings have turned this precious and amazing existence into a funhouse hall of mirrors? Hiding from each other, posturing, and getting our highest priorities completely wrong!? How is it that I find myself entranced by this, yet again, after such a profound clarity? Swept up by utterly inconsequential interactions!?

A friend, a fellow SCA survivor, recently said, “I want to die again. Just so I can remember how unimportant all of these trivial day-to-day emotions/feelings/experiences really are. I mean, I don’t really want to die, but…” As someone who has been to this edge, I completely understand this compelling attraction, but unless one has stepped onto the precipice of death, it is difficult if not impossible to understand. Some of us (SCA survivors) remember having what could be called Near-Death Experiences. Others, like myself, don’t remember having such experiences. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I nevertheless had such an experience, but simply don’t consciously remember it! Otherwise, why would I feel this way?

How do you explain to somebody, who has not been to this edge, the compelling nature of it? It would seem crazy to them, but to us it was so much more sane than the insanity of what everyone else seems to call “normal life.” To just about every SCA survivor that I have met, “normal” life is absurd and incomprehensible and even though most of us eventually, reluctantly, become re-entranced by its illusions and absurdities, we also remember the clarity of being beyond the fray. We long for that clarity again and worst of all, find ourselves perpetually in a neither-land, stuck between the two. We no longer live in the land of clarity of presence and yet we can no longer completely buy into being “normal.”  We are left with having a foot in each world and yet at are at home in neither. It’s a purgatory, of sorts, that we now live in. I don’t see how those who have never died could possibly understand the depth and breadth of this paradox that we live each day.

I have a special affinity for Daniel Ladinsky’s translations of Hafiz because of his ability to speak certain truths that resonate with me.

For your consideration:

“Listen: this world is the lunatic’s sphere,
Don’t always agree it’s real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

My address is somewhere else.”

~ Hafiz

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I wrote this three months after my cardiac arrest.

On March 1, 2011, at the age of 42, I was about 20 min. into a routine two-hour run around Lake Merritt in Oakland when I collapsed from Sudden Cardiac Arrest (V-Fib). To my fortune, there was a runner, Andy Hill,  who happen to be close enough to help break my fall and provide immediate aid.  Additionally, three other bystanders rendered CPR and contacted 911. While under the care the paramedics, they continued CPR and used a defibrillator 2x before getting some semblance of a life-sustaining rythm from my heart. They took me to the hospital where I was put into a drug-induced coma and put in a therapeutic hypothermia for 24 hours in order to protect my brain as my heart stabilized.   I spent three days in the intensive care unit and a total of 10 days in the hospital.  All I remember of this event is beginning my run that day and then waking up in the hospital, days later.

While in the hospital, they ran numerous tests including: a cardiac MRI, and did an EPS (Electro-Physiological Study).  Unfortunately, the doctors were never able to determine the reason for the deadly arrhythmia that I had and, in the end, they implanted an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD) in my chest  just in case my heart ever goes into a similarly deadly arrhythmia. I hear that it’s not particularly comfortable to be shocked, but I haven’t had that experience yet. I have since learned that I now belong to a rather exclusive club of survivors given that only about 8% of people survive sudden cardiac arrest.  I consider myself profoundly lucky to have had good Samaritans that quickly stepped up to care for me when I could not care for myself by providing CPR, impressively high quality medical care, as well as having previously invested in my own physical health.

Currently, I am back to running under some limitations set by my cardiologist and have largely resumed normal life except for the fact that I’m not allowed to drive for six months following my loss of consciousness.  As I write this, it is almost 3 months to the day since my sudden cardiac arrest. I still can’t wrap my head around what happened to me and may never be able to, but I am grateful beyond words to everyone that has shepherded me through this experience and feel strongly that we (as a society) should do more to save each other. It’s been quite a surreal and mind blowing existential experience.

I continue to maintain contact with the bystanders and the paramedics that saved my life. This is both good and sometimes challenging as there is a part of me, somewhere deep in my subconscious, that actually remembers the trauma of what happened to me on that day. I know this because of the subtle anxiety/dread that I feel in their presence sometimes our when thinking about spending time with them. Sometimes it can feel a little like opening a Pandora’s box.  Some the feelings are rather uncomfortable. Also, as I have reintegrated myself back into normal life, I have had a few examples of pretty classic post-traumatic stress responses to things such as hearing sirens or like on the day that I went on my first run around the Lake where I had my cardiac arrest. While, I’ve been surprised by the subtle triggers that can bring a very visceral sense of dread or impending doom, I’m also determined to recognize any discomfort for what it is and have not let it dictate the terms of my life!

Additionally, there is a way that this experience helps me understand why many survivors do not seek out or maintain contact with their rescuers.  Contact with one’s rescuers can also trigger a post-traumatic stress response.  What an unfortunate irony! There will probably always be a part of us that remembers exactly what happened, whether were conscious of the experience or not that we were headed, very quickly, towards our own death before we were so miraculously rescued by such earthly Angels!

Life is indeed precious and fragile. May we step up to the plate MORE for each other!

May success stories like mine become more common!

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While I don’t remember what happened during my cardiac arrest (if I had an NDE like many of my SCA friends), I have had a variety of non-ordinary experiences in my lifetime prior to my sudden cardiac arrest.  This is a list of my non-ordinary or “spiritual” experiences that I have had in my life before my cardiac arrest. Each of these events have been profound openings and are precious to me.  They are gems that are close to my heart and I have never publically disclosed them. They have each required translation into verbal language as they didn’t occur originally in that modality. This could give you a little bit of a better picture of where I’m coming from and why I am the way I am.

Title: May the Force Be with You

Category: Void Experience

Age: 16 or 17

One night, when I was a teenager, after a long day of work I came back home.  I lie on my bed and closed my eyes to rest for just a moment.  Suddenly, I found myself walking slowly down this hallway which seemed to be made of a polished black steel.  The walls of the hallway, however, appeared to have depth.  It was as if I could see into a vast darkness.  While I couldn’t quite see anything in particular this vast darkness did not seem empty.  As I continued to walk down the hallway, it branched into two directions at right angles in a “T” shape.  Right in front of me were a set of double doors with simple gold handles.  Curious, I grabbed the handles and opened the double doors.  Inside was a massive vertical cylindrical cavern that seemed to have no bottom to it.  As I stood in front of the double doors looking into this cavern, I could see many thousands or hundreds of thousands of white dots in row after row for as far as the eye could see both up and down.  Although it was too small to actually see, I could tell that each white dot was actually a large window and on the other side of the window were people staring longingly into this cavern.  It was as if out of a Star Wars scene.  All these people were looking into the cavern window after window grow after row from countless windows.  Inside this cavern I could feel, I knew, was infinite wisdom, infinite knowledge.  I wanted to enter this cavern as well because I wanted to have this infinite wisdom/knowledge.  I knew, however that if I did step into this cavern that it would be the end of my life as I knew it.  Forever!  I would lose much, but that wasn’t important.  I wanted, with all my heart, to step into the cavern and to find, to have, that infinite knowledge/wisdom.  Unlike the rest of the people looking out of their windows, I had access to this beauty and wonder.  All I had to do was step in!  So, as I went to step in, I was suddenly back in my room lying on my bed only to be denied what I long for so greatly.  I was annoyed for days after this experience.

Title: Shattered

Category: Void/Unitive Experience

Age: 24

I had been experiencing an extremely unsatisfying and frustrating day.  In the afternoon, at one point, I had decided that the only thing there was left to do was to meditate, that there simply wasn’t anything else to be done of any value.  So, I sat on my meditation cushion facing the wall in the style of Zen meditation practice that I was going at the time.  The meditation was uneventful other than the fact that I was unusually disinterested in any of the sensations, thoughts or desires that typically occupy my consciousness.  At one point, late into the 30 minute meditation, I simply found myself in this vast dark expanse.  I was this hollow, smoky-dark, glass figurine sitting in a meditation position amidst this vast expanse.  In the distance, there were some subtle swatches of color and before me was a light source that looked like the sun or some star that glowed yellow.  After some time of this, an object that looked like a shooting star rapidly moved towards me, from behind, hitting me between the shoulders right where I was feeling a twinge of pain That I had been experiencing.  It shattered me, The glass figurine, into a million iridescent pieces of glass shards!  Suddenly, there is no difference; no separation between me and the rest of this vast expanse.  I was everything!  I felt a sigh of relief.  It’s all perfectly okay.  There’s nothing to protect.  Tears came to my eyes as a result of the depth of relief and intimacy that I felt; the joy that I felt.  Then, something seemed to open up and I felt a coursing of light, of energy moving up through me.  As if I were sitting on a volcano and it erupted through me!  The sensation was so intense that I was immediately jolted out of the experience that I was having and I was in this body, back sitting on the meditation cushion in front of the wall.  My eyes were wet with tears.

Title: The Place Where Joy and Sorrow are one

Category: Soul Retrieval

Age: 23

It was an ordinary Saturday evening in September of 1992 in Goleta, CA.  I had participated in the Sage Experience nine months before.  I was antsy because I did not have plans for the evening and I didn’t want to be at home by myself on a Saturday night.  Inspired by what I had been learning from The Sage Experience and the community that had grown around it, I decided that I would choose to stay home and experience what I felt completely.  I had been recently drawing pictures using my left hand.  These pictures represented drawings done by Stephen, the name that I gave my inner five-year-old because it was my name when I was adopted at five.  Of the many drawings that represented the many different feelings and experiences that I/Stephen had, one picture was a particularly angry and violent one.  As I lay on my bed, candles lit in my room, soft music playing and a pleasant smelling stick of incense burning; I looked at that picture and found myself feeling sorry for pain that I had felt and how I hated that part of me.  I knew he only needed love, somebody to care about him and somebody to value him enough to keep him.  I let myself feel compassion for him, for his pain, for my pain.  I allowed myself to fall into this pain with a heart full of love and compassion.  After a while, it was as if I was falling down this cavern with no bottom to it, no grasping, no second-guessing, no controlling.  Just loving.  Then, I seemed to fall into this space where joy and sorrow were incomplete without each other, where they were complementary to each other, where they completed each other, where they were one.  A more sweet sorrow, I have never felt before!  Neither then or after.  I slowly drifted off to sleep amidst this bliss.  When I awoke the next morning, there was definitely something missing!  There was actually a lot missing, but I couldn’t figure it out immediately!  It was my mind!  It was empty of all the thoughts and longings that had been there for so long as to not even recognize their presence.  Instead of all these thoughts and longings racing through my mind at light speed, I found that my senses were heightened.  Everything was very vivid and alive to me!  I felt so calm and my body my mind empty of thoughts and I felt joy, joy, joy.  This was the start of a profound month, where I felt more present, where I felt complete, where my heart overflowed with love and compassion and it was all I could do but to share it with everybody that I ran across.  In my conversations with people I did not feel the need to use unnecessary words and I often said very little.  When I did speak I used essential words and use them as seeds that would grow over time and allow this person to know that no matter what they too were perfect and beautiful and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them even though they were completely convinced to the contrary.  I was overflowing with unconditional love!  During this time I felt as if I could hear the heartbeat of life itself, of the universe itself.  I seemed to have the ability to manifest what I wanted with virtually no effort.  And I had so much more love than I could hope to contain and so gave away as much as I could.

Title: Zen and the Art of Washing Dishes

Category: ?

Age: 23

I was washing dishes while living in Goleta, CA.  I made a special effort to simply wash the dishes with all of my attention that day.  Towards the end of washing the dishes, one of my roommates came into the kitchen.  As I listened to her talk it was as if I could see the layer of self-misunderstanding that she was speaking from.  And it was as if I can see all the layers of the mistaken beliefs of her imperfection has she spoke.  Yet, it was her perfection that I can see shine through most clearly.  I recognized that even though she had many misunderstandings about herself and others that she was in fact perfect and there was nothing wrong with her at all.  I further recognized that even though she didn’t know this, that the truth of her and everybody’s perfection is the only, and inevitable, conclusion that one can come to despite however many years of misunderstandings one may have.  You can run, but you can’t hide, forever!

Title: The Return

Category: ?

Age: 42

I woke up in the hospital. My mom, sister, stepfather, and biological mother were in the room. Initially, everything was still pretty fuzzy and I would realize that it was because of the drugs used to put me into a drug-induced coma for the hypothermia treatment that I had received after my cardiac arrest. Over the days, my awareness sharpened, but it would be some time (weeks) before I would become re-entranced by the stories that I tell myself about life. Often, thought required an effort that I simply wasn’t interested in and the stories that I could tell about life seemed arbitrary and an important relative to perceiving what was right there. So, why bother? It thoughts and feelings would occur. They seemed to be like an isolated billowy cloud in an otherwise completely clear blue sky. I would watch them with a measure of curiosity, even recognizing them as somewhat odd. I realized at this time that hope was also suffering, attachment to life or preferring life over death was suffering, that death was not a problem, and if I had not returned, I would have never be the wiser for it. I was very aware of what people did not or could not say. If someone came in with openness, compassion, presence, I could feel it and it was more important than anything they said. If, however, someone came in who was unkind, annoyed by me, incongruent, or simply didn’t care, I could feel that to and that was louder than any of the words they said. I have always been this way to degree, but during this time my perception of the nonverbal was profoundly heightened. Slowly, I have become re-entranced by the stories that I make up about life with one important difference. They seem that much more absurd to me now and while they play themselves out, it’s hard to believe in them anymore.

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