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When I was 24, I killed myself. I put it that bluntly because it was not an attempted suicide, a cry for help, but a decision to self-murder. Yes, it was a desperate act, a last attempt to escape what my mind feared as lifetime imprisonment in a mental asylum [they still did that back in the early ‘70’s]. It was even, in its own way, logical– to my then agnostic mind at least. I had been suffering a profound clinical depression—the kind where you stop eating, sleeping, emoting, desiring. In time your body begins to break down: I shook like an old man with Parkinson’s instead of the once healthy and robust young man of just a few weeks earlier. I had decided as a teenager that there was no God, no soul, no heaven or hell– all just fantasies for those [unlike myself] not brave enough to accept that death means extinction of not only the body but the personality, consciousness itself. I know many people have that view today, and it does not appear to bother them, Well, why would it, until they’re faced with their own deaths?
Now what I’m about to relate will be believed by some, disbelieved by others, and the rest will probably just shrug their shoulders and give it no more thought. Yet is there really any question more important than the possibility of life after death: That you, your character, personality, memories– your consciousness will continue, not for years or decades but forever. We are the only species out of millions to have a sense of mortality—then too, we are the only transcendent species as well. And I think they are related, because what I was ‘shown’ [the best if rather feeble word I can come up with] is that I am two beings, sharing the same space or life as it were for a time: the one mortal, the other immortal, existing without beginning or end, beyond time itself. The mortal one we all can see, the other one is trickier—though I suspect far more people have experienced something of the ‘paranormal’ than one might surmise, based on accounts I have been told over the years. [Oxford did a study finding that 71% of the population had had at least one paranormal experience—and this in secular Britain.]
I had been attending the London Film School in Covent Garden, London. I have loved movies almost as much as books since childhood. For some reason which I still do not fully understand a ½ century later, I dropped out in my 3rd and final term. The unconscious mind is far more powerful than most people wish to acknowledge—can any of us really be said to know ourselves completely? Again, it’s not surprising that many aren’t aware they have a soul as they can’t even acknowledge they have an unconscious mind which affects their thoughts and emotions, not only in their dreams but in the waking world as well.
Of course if I had thought things through, I might have decided to become a screen writer–I have wanted to become a writer since I started thinking—really thinking—as a teenager. (There too I fancied it would be writing the Great American Novel: I never thought I’d become a published poet in my 70’s.) But I didn’t think of it, and soon after I returned to the States I fell into a profound clinical depression, as it was termed in those days. Day after day I would walk around the dining room table in my parents house, asking myself why I had abandoned my dream—a hard thing for anyone, is it not?
Each day I walked around that table, all day long, eating less, sleeping less each night, asking myself why I had ‘run away’ from my one chance—as I saw it then– to follow a childhood dream. The more I did that the more I wished I could go back in time, back to London and the film school, and stop my foolish self from ‘running away’. That was part of the torment—seeking a time machine to correct my near fatal error as it turned out. My parents were not very sophisticated and thought a camping trip to Vermont with a high school buddy would ‘snap me out of it’.
But each day we were driving through the beauty of that state, things just got worse. I had largely stopped sleeping or eating, my nerves were so shot my hands shook with unceasing tremors, and while I knew that the mountains and valleys we drove through were very beautiful, I did not ‘feel’ that beauty one iota. It was the same when I say a pretty woman: I knew I should an attraction, but I felt nothing.
It got worse. One day we drove up to a scene where a dog had been hit and killed by a car, and the woman who owned it was weeping profusely. I could not understand, at all, why she was so upset. I had no empathy, I had no feelings at all it seemed, good or bad. And in subsequent years I came to realize that all our metal processes, be they thoughts/ideas, or appreciation of art and music and literature, all our human thinking is fundamentally emotional, and MUST BE BASED on an emotion– or we cease being human, alive, transcendent– and soon become the living dead.
And that is not really hyperbole. Depression does not just stop you from relating to other people, but it cuts you off from yourself as well– you feel hollow, empty, a walking shell, very much a living hell. Believing it was only going to continue to get worse until I lost complete control and was ‘put away’ to suffer and suffer, without hope as I saw it then, it seemed logical to end my life as soon as possible. So one night when we stopped at a large campsite by Lake Champlain, I decided that after my friend went into the tent to sleep I would walk into the lake and drown myself (for some reason I had a sense that drowning was a painless death.) But I wanted to leave my parents a good-bye note: I still had that much humanity left in me. But my hands shook so hard that the pen just made scribbles, and at that moment these words—these exact words– came into my head: ‘Just let me write this’.
And almost immediately, as soon as I had uttered this ‘prayer’ to God, the God I had stopped believing in as a teenager, my hands became completely steady—and yes, I mean instantly. It was like going from 100 mph to standing still, without any deceleration whatsoever! Then I looked up from the camp table I was sitting at, and saw the stars of the Milky Way and ‘felt’, for the first time in weeks, their beauty—and I thought to myself, why would I want to die? So I went into the tent and slept, the first good night’s sleep I had had in a long time.
The next morning I woke up, refreshed, happy to be alive (the depression seeming like a bad dream, now over), and my vanity had returned: I would shave and shower. But as I walked towards a large building where the showers were, I felt ‘something’ come from behind me and into me, as it were, and before I got to that building I had begun shaking again, like a dried leaf blowing in the autumn wind, soon to fall to the dirt. I tried to shave but my hand shook so much I knew I would just cut myself.
And now I was desperate. I don’t know why I was so naive the night before when weeks of suffering disappeared as soon as I sought a bit of help from the God I thought I had stopped believing in. It could have been the ‘placebo effect’, my mind did not want to die along with my body so its unconscious part shut down the depression—I‘m pretty sure this is how my shrink interpreted it when I told him about it.
I might have agreed with him, except that it was not logical that my ‘mind’ would then return me and my body to that profound clinical depression, and make it even worse than before!
As we drove into Montpelier that morning I saw a bridge and knowing I had very little time left before I lost complete control, I told my friend to go for breakfast and I would join him after I walked some to ‘calm down’. I walked to that bridge that spanned the spring-swollen Winooski River and hesitated! Not because of fear—I still saw death as extinction and so preferable to the living hell I didn’t seem able to escape. Twice I walked to the ledge to jump but something pulled me back: I interpret it as the ‘life force’ that many writers have alluded to– whatever it is in us (and it is not fear) that wants to keep us alive. But I knew as I walked away the 3rd time that if I did not do it then, I would not be able to later—so I turned and ran to the ledge, and flung myself over.
Because we don’t forget the best or the worst in life, I remember like it was yesterday, and not 50 some years ago, how pleasant it was to fall through the air [I can understand why sky divers love their sport]. I don’t remember hitting the water, but I do see myself going feet first through some rock-strewn rapids (I have a scar on my back from hitting one of those rocks, but thank God it was not my head!). I went unconscious briefly again it seems because my next memory is of finding myself swimming in the river, and as I saw the shore I thought to myself, why am I swimming, I want to die…and I put my arms straight up and sank.
The next part is hard. Not hard to recall—if only!– but hard to relive, hard to accept I suppose. At some point I was conscious, not of having a body, just ‘pure’ consciousness. I have no doubt it’s hard if not impossible to believe if you’ve never experienced it: Even in our dreams we have bodies. And I could see, but what I saw was like an infinite darkness, far blacker than the darkest night. I was utterly alone, and worse of all, in torment. I don’t use that word lightly: it was beyond any imaginable pain and my consciousness was roiled by it. And again, I called out to God, not to end it but with a question: ‘How long will it last?’ To this day I have no idea why I asked that question.
When I regained ‘this world’ consciousness, I was on the bank of the river in a gurney being put into an ambulance—it lasted only seconds until I passed out again.
I spent 4 weeks on the psych ward and had a series of electroshock treatments, which appear to have done the trick in alleviating the depression. I began rebuilding my life, taking college courses for a new career and seeing a very good shrink for the next 2 years. He was a good man who helped me a great deal to explore my ‘unconscious’ side– talk therapy it’s called today. But I’m sure he rationalized away the hellish experience of my unbodied consciousness, my soul, as I was drowning in 12 feet of water.
I wish I could do so as well. Accepting the reality of hell can be terrifying, but I am a big fan of reason [which will surprise the secular minded]. And my reason tells me if things are not a matter of chance, but are directed by some Power or Mystery none of us can really comprehend, then ‘God’ could have as well left me there. The man who jumped into that river to save me was a Vietnam vet riding by on his Harley when he saw me jump. There were about 50 people on the river bank that day (so I was told) and nobody did anything, except for an ex-soldier who drove his bike to save my life.
I know our memories can play tricks on us, but usually it happens for the commonplace: getting a date or name mixed-up, thinking you did something when you hadn’t. But from what I’ve read and have been told by others who’ve ‘dipped’ into the twilight zone’, we don’t forget trauma. And what could be more real than death, or the prospect of death? I wrote a little ‘memoir’ some 25 years after the event, and everything was as real then as it had been when I was 24—and it is all just as real—and yes, perplexing still, 25 years later. But not just for me.
When I started taking some college classes for a new career, I met a young woman in one of the them. The mutual attraction we had was immediate and intense (a few months before when I was depressed I would have felt no attraction.) Soon we were living together, and while we had an inordinate amount of passion for each other, we never developed the friendship that I came to learn was the sine qua non for a long term relationship. if we had an argument we would just go make love to resolve it—and yes, we had a lot of arguments. Passion, especially very intense passion, really does need the ballast of friendship, to temper not its joy but its wildness….
So one ordinary afternoon after our classes, we returned to our rented studio and made love, as we usually did in those heated days. No drugs, no drinking, we intoxicated each other enough. Suddenly I found myself outside my body, that is, my consciousness. I saw my then lean and youthful body between her legs (and 50 some years later I see it just as clearly) and though I could not see her own soul, I sensed it ‘hovering’ near mine—as she told me later she did mine. [I also remember clearly knowing it was my body but not feeling any ‘attachment’ to it—it seemed unimportant to my consciousness then, to my soul.] And then, as suddenly as we had left, we were back in our bodies.
To this day I see that shared experience as a great gift to both of us. I already had proof that I have a soul, but that awareness was gained in a very different circumstance. Over time several people have related their own OBEs to me [people seem to relax with me when I share my own paranormal encoutners and tell me things they say they don’t readily share with others]. In my late 20’s I was teaching ESL in Tokyo and one night having a beer at a bar with an Australian. He was a typical Aussie, friendly, down-to-earth, a surfer as far from ‘mystical’ as one might expect. He told me that one day he had been sunbathing on Bondi Beach near Sydney when suddenly he was about 50 feet up in the air looking down on himself and everyone else. He still seemed freaked out by it, emphasized that he wasn’t drinking or on drugs—I smiled and told him, ‘That was your soul’.
At the other end of life was a 91 year old man I met at my health club a few years ago. I don’t ask people if they believe in God– the question is too emotional, it seems, for both some believers and skeptics. Instead I ask if they think anything of themselves continues after death. He told me he didn’t used to think so, until in his 40’s one Sunday when as usual his wife ‘dragged’ him to Mass with the family. Sitting bored as usual, he suddenly found himself, his consciousness, hovering beneath the nave of the large church, looking down on himself. his family and the entire congregation. As with myself and the Australian surfer, he soon found himself (his consciousness or soul) back in his body. He added as a postscript: ‘After that I got in good with the priests.’
There are thousands of written accounts of NDEs and OBEs and other paranormal events, going back at last as far as Plato’s telling of the NDE of the soldier of Ur after a great battle. I understand why many people are skeptical– I probably would still be an agnostic-materialist myself if I hadn’t gone through what I did. The body-brain is such a complex organism that if you open a closet and something falls off a shelf, your hand will automatically reach out for it before your ‘conscious’ brain is even fully aware. And of course we’ve learned so much about medicine and science, but any good doctor will admit medicine is a much art as science [one question I like to ask MDs is if they know of patients who died who should have lived given their prognosis, as well as patients, whom their doctors had written off, surviving—and every one so far has said yes.]
And while I’m a great fan of science and its myriad benefits [I’m alive and walking because of it], it is important to remember that science is an impartial method, not a ‘god’. Be it hi-def TV or your I-phone or thermonuclear weapons, science reflects our human interests and values, and is only concerned with the natural world, the universe we can measure. If there is a supernatural world permeating the natural one, science and scientists haven’t a clue. We live in only 3 dimensions, 4 if you count time; the naked eye cannot see most of the spectrum of light, nor can the ear hear the full range of sound.
Because I live in a body in a material world, I have no idea how I could see without eyes or think without a brain, but I did—as apparently many others have over time. I know as I know I breathe that my ‘self’, my personal being, in some form or another has always existed and always will [though in what place may be the tricky part.] Can’t prove any of it, but then I can’t even prove I love my wife– but I’m beginning to realize only now as an old man, after being with her the better part of half a century, how much I do love her, though can I or anyone ever know how much of anything we are in this world of birth and death?
So I’ve come to suspect dying—the great universal human fear (and we seem to be the only species to fear it in the abstract)– may be akin to waking up shortly after a dream: You recall the dream, and how real it seemed whilst you were dreaming it, but now realize ‘life’ is reality, not the dream. And what about the tens of thousands of dreams you’ve had and don’t even know you had them? Would it then be so surprising that if we are re-incarnated, as I suspect myself, we don’t recall our past lives—save perhaps in bits and pieces. Like feeling an attachment to certain places, or taking an instant liking—or disliking—to someone you just met. Or perhaps the work you seek or the music or books you love?
The man was right: for the time being, we can only see through a glass darkly….
Copyright 2022 Nolo Segundo. First published by Braided Way.
“So I’ve come to suspect dying—the great universal human fear (and we seem to be the only species to fear it in the abstract)”–What a thoughtful essay.
My husband has Pablo Neruda’s poem excerpt on the mirror:
“If we were not so single minded/about keeping our lives moving,/ and for once could do nothing,/perhaps a huge silence/might interrupt this sadness/of never understanding ourselves/and of threatening ourselves with death.”
I am so glad you wrote this. I haven’t had exactly an out-of-body experience, but I did flatline and found myself very conscious indded in another dimension where all I encountered was unconditional love. And I was assure that all my loved ones (who were rooting for me in the clinic’s cafeteria) were in that same ‘soup of love’, they just hadn’t hit the right ‘floor’ yet. One day they’d all know that that’s where they had been all along. I could also hear them make bad jokes and laughed. And I wanted to share them with the surgeons, but since the operation was in Spain, I wasn’t sure whether in my present state I could relate the jokes in Spanish.
What a great story! Thank you, Rose Mary!
Actually, Rose Mary, that sounds like you had
an NDE [near death experience] where your soul is conscious in another dimension– the first experience I had as I was drowning was an NDE, the second a year later was an OBE, as my body was still functioning. Either one is an irrefutable awareness [at least for those who have had them] that we all exist before and beyond this universe. Vaya con Dios–Nolo Segundo
Such a journey…