I feel I need to give some background information for my experience to make sense. I had a difficult childhood and my relationships with my parents and siblings were strained. I left home abruptly at 18 following a really ugly family fight. I was totally ill prepared to stand on my own two feet and spent the next few years as an emotional basket case, reeling from place to place and relationship to relationship. Things didn't settle down until I married my husband some 5-1/2 years later. I was still a neurotic and anxious person, but my life was more stable.
Since childhood and especially during adolescence, I had also been plagued with existential questions about whether God existed, was there any meaning to life, and why was there so much suffering in the world? I had pressing practical concerns too. I was totally confused about what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Even as a child, I had always felt a strong sense of mission or purpose, but I had no idea what career or life path to pursue.
In the fall of 1983, I took a course on the philosophy of religion. My professor was a man of both intellect and faith whom I admired very much. One day in a lecture when we were going over arguments pro and con the existence of God, he remarked that if a person really wanted to know the answer, there was a well-worn mystical path for them to follow and find out the truth for themselves. This was a turning point for me. I decided I was going to stop worrying and wondering and walk that path to discover the truth for myself.
As a result, I took up meditation and by the fall of 1985, I was a lay student at a Zen temple. In January of the following year, I attended a weekend "sesshin" or retreat and meditated continuously for several days. The pain in my knees from sitting cross-legged for so long was awful, and by the end, my mind did feel clean and laundered, but I had had no major insights. Even though many people meditate for years and even decades without having a major spiritual insight or experience, I was still disappointed.
Easter came and I had several days off work. My husband was still a student and would be away most of that time studying at the library for exams. I decided I was going to hold a mini-sesshin of my own at home. Over the long weekend, I spent every spare moment I could in meditation. As I went to sleep one night, I decided that even in sleep I would not stop meditating. I would continue to focus my attention on my breath in the area of my hara, or solar plexus, as I had been taught to do.
I do not know if I fell asleep or not. I just know that suddenly, I was plunged into a very dark place. I realized I was out of my body, in total blackness. I felt terrified. I tried to scream but no sound came out, and I realized it was because I had no vocal chords to scream with. I felt trapped and claustrophic and suddenly wondered if I would spend all eternity in that awful void, alone. At this thought, I cried out desperately in my mind for "Help!"
Immediately, I was engulfed in a vast sea of brilliant white light. I had the impression it danced and moved just like waves on the sea, and it felt alive, like there were millions of other beings dancing and swimming in that sea, connected in joy to me. I still had no sensation of having any kind of body at all, not even a body of light. I have no idea how long it lasted. It seemed to go on forever as I felt surrounded and one with an incredible, intense, unconditional love. Suddenly a male voice spoke to me and I had the sense it was the voice of God. He said to me, "You are a mystic. You are going in the right direction."
I don't remember anything after this. I simply woke up in my bed the next morning with my husband beside me, as usual. But the experience was still vivid in my mind. I was sure I was a totally changed person, and I ran to the bathroom to look in the mirror. Thoughts of Moses and the burning bush went through my mind. I wondered if my hair had turned completely white overnight! But when I looked in the mirror, it was still me. I looked exactly the same.
I expected to be a changed person on the inside, at least. But as the days went by and I went back to work in an office job I hated where I felt completely out of place, I realized I was still as neurotic and unhappy as ever. This was a huge disappointment to me. I had hoped the spiritual experience I longed for would bring me inner peace, as well as point the way to my true life purpose. I often found myself thinking, "You can't eat mystic," i.e., nobody is going to pay me to be a mystic. I was still stuck in a rut as an office worker, in a job I considered unimportant, meaningless, and full of drudgery.
With hindsight, I should have told my roshi about my experience. But after having read all the stories of Zen students telling their teachers about their marvelous experiences only to be told they were "makyo" (illusions) or worse, to have their experiences completely derided, I kept it to myself. We moved away some time later without me ever sharing it with him or finding out if it might have been considered a Zen enlightenment experience or not.
Over the years, I only told the odd person about my experience. I did tell my husband fairly soon after it happened, and despite being a skeptic, he was accepting and supportive. I told a religious friend who accused me of blasphemy, which I just laugh about now, but I felt quite deflated at the time! I told another good friend who even today still thinks "what a nice little experience I had", like it was some kind of pleasant dream. I was happy when I started to come across books and websites on NDEs like this one, which have given me a better context for my experience.
As time went by, I realized my experience had changed me after all. In the months following, I realized I had lost my fear of death and all my doubts about the existence of God. I now knew that unconditional love and joy lie at the core of reality, despite the awful suffering we sometimes experience as physical beings. I still have difficulty reconciling the two. But over the years as I reflected on my experience, I became more accepting of my life circumstances and was able to forgive my parents and siblings. I also feel love and gratitude for God because He responded to my confusion, suffering, and need for answers.
I confess I have continued to drift along in the kind of jobs that I thought I would just do until I got my act together. This has been a disappointment, but reflecting on my spiritual experience and also reading other NDEs has helped me to see that what is really important in life is how much love and kindness we express to others, and that small acts of kindness are important too. Because of my lifelong love of animals, a lot of my efforts have focussed on helping them, first by not eating and trying not to exploit them, and second by giving ownerless animals a home. At one point, I owned as many as 17 cats and 3 dogs, and in caring for them I felt like I was doing God's work, because I know intuitively that He loves the animals too.
I have never had another experience so profound, but I also have not felt the same desperate need for one. This experience answered the existential questions that were plaguing me and allowed me to get on with my life with less fear and anxiety. Although I still meditate, I am content to wait until I die (or maybe nearly die!) to have another such experience.
I know I don't have all the answers and that I am far from being a perfect person. But I feel I continue to grow in spiritual understanding by reflecting on my experience and by studying the NDEs and NDLEs of others. I would like to conclude by expressing my gratitude for this site and the work done by IANDS so that we can all learn from each other's experiences of the light. Thank you.