Twice I have died, once in Florida and once in far off India.
Yet, like old Abraham and Moses who, before the Almighty, declared in Hebrew, hineni, “here I am”…here I am. Even in death. I exist, still. To God and the universe, here I am. I—a meek teacher of world religions—am quite alive.
At the risk of becoming a scholar who is accused of going beyond objectivity and verging into imprecise flights of fancy, I am ready to tell the story. It’s a real risk professionally, but something in me now needs to tell. Years of simmering have led to a boiling in my soul. The objective study of religion has given way to a need, my need, to tell my story of directly experiencing the divine.
The way it all happened is almost unbelievable. Even at the risk of not being believed and putting my career in jeopardy, please be patient as I lay it all out—background, thoughts, and the events themselves—all a bit tangled and interwoven. Forgive me as I try to weave in sometimes-obtuse insights and concepts from thinkers and mystics from around the world and through time who have helped me sort it all. I can’t help it. It’s what I’ve studied for decades and it’s who I am.
Many of those rare few who have lived through near-death experiences say that the words are hard to find. Well, hopefully the wisdom of the world’s mystics and thinkers and poets can give us insight. Indeed, their words may be perfectly suited, if we take them wave upon wave and let the waters build. They have helped me to make it all make sense. I implore their mighty grace to help me tell the story.
Twice I have died—once surrounded by family in a park in Florida as we celebrated my son’s baptism and once in an Islamic mystical Sufi community in India. These events didn’t happen on any ordinary day; they happened on the day my son was baptized and again in the house of a Sufi healer in a sacred tomb complex in India. Why those extraordinary settings? Don’t know. It’s either serendipity or a terrible curse. Either way, I feel I should tell the story.
My son, Micah, is seventeen now and the very embodiment of my need to write this. This is for him and for my two other beautiful sons, Jonah and Levi. After more than a decade and a half, it is time to share my journeys to the other side and back—for my family, for my kids. Maybe others will gain from the telling, too. I pray ‘tis so, but this is fundamentally for my kids. To say that I live for my kids and family doesn’t even capture it. They are the very how that I have lived these last seventeen years in the first place. Their love powered my revivification and my revenant life—and therein they showed me the ocean of love that lies beneath everything by which it happened; by which it all happens.
So, how should I begin? I should begin with this: an act of love and immersion into love.
Let me explain. On May 16th, 2004, in Clearwater, Florida, we baptized my middle son, Micah, according to the Lutheran rite—an act of pure love. Within a few hours of that transcendent event, I lay unconscious on my back in a nearby grassy park with my heart stopped. The experiences I had for those forty-five minutes while I was under were profound and almost unspeakable. Like my infant son, I was plunged into an ocean of divine love on that day, though of a different sort.
But it also happened again about a month and a half later. I died again. This time my heart stopped in far off India, on June 27th, 2004. Halfway around the world, as a part of my doctoral studies, I happened to be researching life, death, near-death, mysticism, and healing rituals that take place in Islamic Sufi communities in Hyderabad, India. Having been revived and having healed enough from my first collapse, I was in India and I was in the home of the resident Sufi healer having tea. I was asking him questions especially about his Hindu patients. I felt my heart begin to race again, just as it had happened before. I plunged into the watery abyss again. I had profound oceanic experiences again—immersion into pure love. An act of love and immersion into love.
Who has this happen to them?! Twice?! Me, apparently. I have a defibrillator/pacemaker heart machine implanted in my chest and an EpiPen at my side to prove it. They are a constant reminder that I have died twice; yet I live. Here I am…to tell the story. I died once on the day my son was baptized, and then again in a tomb in a Sufi community in India. Oceanic immersion both times. Surrounded by the waters of life. Life and Death and Life Again. The mysterious veils fall away and the really real is revealed. Love IS. Love is the primordial ocean that underlies all, and then the world is draped over it. I have seen it and bathed in its warm ebullient embrace.
Leading up to my Near-Death Experiences—How death became an old friend
“The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. They're in each other all along.” -Rumi
Childhood, College, and the Military
To understand my Near-Death Experiences, it feels edifying to tell the story about how I came to study from afar the very thing—the divine—that I came to experience in such a near and intimate way in my NDE. I wasn’t raised like this, as a person interested in the religious. My mother was a non-practicing Catholic, and my father was an agnostic, and so I had little idea what religion was all about. Honestly, I didn’t much care then. All those buildings with those pointy spires on top and all those crosses adorning them were a total mystery to me. Religion was a mystery to me. I looked past them all with rather callous indifference.
The closest I came to religion as a secular young man in the mountains of Colorado was walking the cathedrals of the Rocky Mountains. Such beauty up there; one can glimpse and feel the transcendence of the universe. Each peak is replete with granite supports stronger than the most spectacular flying buttresses in all of Christendom. Each is bedecked with perches overwatching creation below in ways that even the most ornate pulpit pales away as shotty and inadequate and profane. Each is adorned with astoundingly beautiful emerald lakes more stunning than even the finest baptismal font. The innumerable and brilliantly bright stars hanging up there in the boundless pitch black of the night sky are more stunning even than the majestic vaults of the Sistine Chapel. My childhood church, suchwise, was up on the green and misty slopes of those old craggy mountains. But I didn’t think much of God, at least explicitly—at least until I started to grow older. Those majestic peaks and azure skies called me, in time, to want to know more about the universe in all its beauty and majesty. It’s funny how the universe calls to us, each in our own way.
As I broadened into adulthood, I decided on both the U.S. military and to go to college. Army basic training first…at Ft. Dix, NJ…and then aviation training at Ft. Eustis, VA. This was followed by a return to Colorado and time in the Colorado Army National Guard, along with matriculation into Colorado State University. As a member of the military and as a student at C.S.U., I was fortunate that I had many paths laid out before me so I could discover what the universe had to teach.
I had an early skirmish with death at this time, at least in the abstract. It was the reckoning with death made by every solider who faces war, and I had to do it. While at C.S.U. in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a member of the Colorado Army National Guard. This was during the time of the first Gulf War—Operation Desert Storm. I’ll never forget just hitting my stride as a college student, but also standing in weekend formation at Buckley Air National Guard Base in Denver and being told by my superior officers to “get your affairs in order.” It looked likely that we were going off to war. I remember my family and the girls at my work crying as it looked like I might have to go to “the mother of all battles.” I knew that I might not return. Still, I was ready to go live up to my commitments and give myself for my country.
Even as my unit readied to go and we all meditated on the dangers inherent in facing the fourth largest military in the world, I remember resolving that I had a sense of duty and would go. But I also realized that my being a helicopter crew chief meant that I might have to spend time as a door gunner on medivac missions. I knew that being a door gunner in Vietnam was one of the least survivable duties to have in all the military. Yes, death seemed a real possibility for my twenty-one-year-old self. Perhaps perdition in a desert was to be my young fate.
Yet the universe giveth and the universe taketh away. Within a few weeks of standing in formation and being told to make a last will and testament and to get my life affairs in order because we are going to war, I stood in formation again and was told that we were being stood down. The air war in Iraq was going so well that our aviation unit was not needed after all. Bless all those who flew on the front lines and did their job so mightily, for it meant that I could go home to my family, to my friends, to those crying girls, and back to college to study. My more intimate skirmishes with death would have to wait.
Back to classes I went, yet these early brushes with my own mortality left an impression on me, no doubt. Perhaps it shaped what I ultimately studied. I don’t precisely know. At the beginning of my time at C.S.U., I started studying Art and Astronomy in college, but I eventually came as a wayward pilgrim into the ancient realms of Philosophy and World Religions. Who could have known where this would lead? I’ve now travelled the world studying religions, other cultures, wisdom traditions, death practices, and all things mystical, poetic, and profound. I guess I always sought beauty and depth and experiences of something ineffable and something celestial. So, maybe it was meant to happen. It’s not a big leap from Art and Astronomy to Philosophy and Religions, I suppose, but I didn’t know that I would be plunged in in this way. As a Professor of Religion now, I study this, and have always tried to do so with objectivity and dispassionate precision—but I have also lived it now. I have plunged into the cosmic ocean of love. But, the story of graduate school first.
Graduate School: Seminary Study of Christianity and Islam
“Every thing shall live whither the river cometh.” -Ezekiel, 47:9
Bachelor’s degree in hand, military service behind me, it was time for graduate school. The thirst for exploring the divine grew and grew. The call to make the study of the world’s wisdom traditions my career I could not ignore as I graduated college and discharged my military career, and I contemplated what to do next with my life. I yearned for a voice from the universe, and it came, and I heard the whisper. I decided to make the pursuit of the divine front and center in my life and to make religion my vocation. The journey into the transcendent, into the celestial, took me off to Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the Fall of 1992 so that I could be immersed in what I had been only studying. I could be this and not just study it.
Seminaries use language of call, and I felt called, indeed, to study the Bible and to study theology and world religions. My vocation became walking in the heavens, but also working with people in the backwaters of the world. I had fallen in love with religions and mystics and those who immerse themselves in life and death and all the depth dimensions of existence, and I was moved to live this out. I learned to worship, and to walk a life of faith, and I learned to learn and reach out and unfurl my soul.
So often learning is not closing in on knowledge, but is, rather, opening up to experiencing the vastness. I was taught the wisdom of silence, and the place where the mind leaves off and the heart takes us further—intuition beyond intellect. The great Hindu philosopher and statesman, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan has said, “silence is more significant than speech regarding depths of the divine.” Awe is the beginning of wisdom; so teaches the writers of the Hebrew Proverb and wider Jewish wisdom traditions. My Master’s study of Christian Theology allowed for immersion into the Greek and Hebrew languages of the Bible and a sneaking peek of the very countenance of God as Love, but I knew I had more to hear and learn and experience.
I have always wanted to fly or to dive. I have always sought out the world’s religions at their highest or deepest, but I’ve always longed to climb out of the classroom and into living religious communities beyond the shores of this great country. The world calls. We have but to heed it. A second Master’s, this time studying Islam also at Luther Seminary, begun in 1998, has taken me not only to the heart of Islamic Sufi love traditions, but has whisked me off to countries around the world, and most especially to India more than a dozen times. Not bad for a simple country boy from the mountains of Colorado.
Doctoral Studies: Hinduism, Islam, Mystical Healing and Death Traditions of India
“All is change in the world of the senses,
But changeless is the supreme Lord of Love.
Meditate on him, be absorbed by him,
Wake up from this dream of separateness.” -Shvetashvatara Upanishad
During my Doctoral studies, begun at the University of Iowa in the Autumn of 1999, I happen to have chosen areas of study that focused on death, near-death, life, healing, bodies, corpses, liminal mystics with a foot in each world, and even graveyards, tombs, and mausoleums. In other words, I spent lots of time with dead people. I had begun to hang out in graveyards even before old grim reaper nearly drug me into one. Before I met death up close—twice—in 2004, I was already drawn to the tombs of India, years before that. The celestial song calling the beleaguered home, I suppose.
On one trip to the South Indian city of Hyderabad…one Thursday night in early 2000…a little more than a year before the 9/11 attacks, and four years before my NDEs…I ended up in a centuries-old Sufi tomb complex. In certain Sufi tombs called dargahs, Thursday nights come alive as devotees gather around the tomb of the main Sufi saint buried there and they sing songs of spiritual longing called Qawwali music. Turns out that Sufi dargahs sometimes develop into pilgrimage and healing centers. The Sufi saints buried there are seen to be members of the divine royal court. Being intimates with God, they can help take supplicatory and curative prayers through the veils, into the heavens, and straight before God’s throne.
Sufi saints’ spiritual powers and gifts (karamat, like the Christian word charismatic) amplify upon death. The descendants of the saints buried in the tomb complex, tapping into the enduring powers of the saints buried there, serve as powerful living healers in their own right. These healers, as the embodiment of God’s oceanic love, perform exorcisms for cases of spirit possession, treat mental disturbances like depression, psychoses and malaise, and heal physical sicknesses like cancers, gastrointestinal issues, and even various heart problems. Sufi tombs, dargahs, often serve as hospices for the very worst cases as the patients slide toward death. The cadre of these tombs serve with the loving hands of Sufi communities taking care of their patients’ final needs—truly embodying divine love in this world, regardless of religious affiliation. Dargahs are purely liminal spaces that exist between The All-Loving God and the world, light and darkness, health and malady, hope and despair, and even life and death.
Meditations on My Near-Death Experiences After My Son’s Baptism and In a Sufi Tomb in India
Won't you spare me over 'til another year?
Well, what is this, that I can't see?
With ice-cold hands taking hold of me
Well, I am Death, none can excel
I'll open the door to Heaven or Hell.” –Appalachian Spiritual
I was halfway through my PhD studies, and it happened the first time. A lightning strike in my life. The second time was in a dargah in India. The thunderclap. The first time, on the day of my son’s baptism, and the second time, a few months later as I was doing fieldwork in a tomb complex in Hyderabad. The first time was on one of the most spiritual days in the life of my family. During the second occurrence, the very healing rituals that I had been observing and studying for years—well, now I was the patient laying on my back lapsing in and out of consciousness yet held in the capable hands of a venerable Muslim healer.
Thoughts about my NDE on the day my son was baptized: The first lightning bolt plunge for an instant terrified me and shook my very existence, despite my background. If anyone should have been prepared for death, it should have been me. But I was not quite ready to be drug away by the grim reaper—especially at first—even if it was to kiss the face of God. What was happening to me seemed so incongruous with how the day had begun in such serenity and hope, thus the terror, yet I quickly realized as I plunged under that I had nothing to fear.
May 16th, 2004—the day of my son’s baptism. How does one count the most significant days in a person’s life? The baptism of my precious second-born son is surely among them. It started as a day of pure joy. It was immersive in love, and I felt it from the moment I woke.
My wife and her father—second and third generation Lutheran pastors—would perform the rite. Loved ones were in town, including my father and my dear cousin, Amy. My son’s mother, Cindy, and I, my father, and the rest of the family, and even the congregation in Clearwater, Florida, would be overplussed with joy and love and the desire to hug this beautiful baby in pledges to raise him washed from sin, and all that that means. We felt the oceans of life in the divine waters.
Lutherans generally believe that baptism is not some magical transformation that somehow unlocks the pearly gates one day. Baptism is, instead, God becoming manifest—manifest in lifegiving water—manifest as a sign of already having been saved, already having been adopted, already having been loved from times immemorial. The waters of creation are found in the baptismal font, and life—and the defeat of death—is found therein. God flows into creation. God flows to us. God’s love is an ocean, on a cosmic scale, and is also experienced in the most-tender bath of an infant—witnessed and lovingly affirmed by parents, by family and friends, and by the congregation of believers and the cloud of witnesses.
I wept as I held my toddler first born, Jonah, and looked down at that font as my infant second born, Micah, was bathed of all sin by his mother and her father. Love flows down. The Greek word baptismo, the practice of which is drawn from the ancient Jewish ritual cleansing practices of mikvah, refers to a profound cleansing immersion in pouring, living waters. Baptismo is an overwhelming, a holy drowning—a death before true life. We lowly humans are saturated in holiness. This echoes and recreates and remanifests early Genesis when primordial waters (Hebrew, tehom, the Abyss) are stirred by the divine spirit (Hebrew, ruach, “breath” or “spirit”) on the move in creation. Beneath all that exists, beneath that very baptismal font, there is an Abyss with an ocean of cosmic waters and the very breath of God moved over it and brought it and all the universe to life.
The wonderfully enigmatic Jewish Rabbi and mystic, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his sublime masterpiece, The Sabbath, teaches that, “According the Talmud, the Sabbath is me’en ‘olam ha-ba, which means: somewhat like eternity or the world to come. Lutherans see the waters of baptism in this way. In baptizing my beautiful Micah, we all glimpse the goodness of creation, the holiness of our time in this world, and the grace of life already given to us in the world to come. Grace, indeed! God flows down to us and the world goes away and we are left embraced in a living ocean of love.
In Turkish and Persian, life-giving rain is sometimes referred to as rahmat, a divine mercy. Surah 30 of the Qur’an bespeaks the clouds as harbingers, messengers of God’s mercy. Rain and grace are the same thing. God is ar-rahim, the all-Merciful, who rains down grace upon our heads. We are more water than anything. Water upon water upon water. Mercy upon mercy upon mercy. Grace upon grace upon grace.
My beautiful son being baptized in holy waters and then an hour or two later I found myself immersed and buoyed in a divine ocean of love—how can they not be connected? The day dawned with such hope, and the baptism smiled my heart as deeply as joy can manifest, and yet, within a couple hours, I was gripped by horror as my heart began to pound out of my chest. I had about forty-five seconds as my conscious thoughts descended into dread and a sense that something serious was happening. I was failing. I had just enough time to sit and to say a couple times, “something’s not right…something’s not right.” Yet even as this was happening, a peace overtook me as I slid under.
As the world closed in around me and the veils began to rend and I felt the terror of what I knew was my death, I suddenly awoke in an oceanic realm so peaceful and luminescent and loving and connective that my horror quickly gave way to a sense of being held in a plane of overwhelming, unconditional love. More on my actual experiences on the other side shortly, but suffice it to say that I knew I was being bathed in the same waters in which we had washed my son not two hours earlier. To say that an ocean of divine love underlies all of existence does not even capture the reality of it.
Such are some of my meditations about my first NDE. I next offer a few meditations about my second NDE. I will then finally describe my actual journeys on the other side. I hope that my wave-upon-wave-upon-wave telling has not offended. An act of love and immersion into love.
Thoughts about my NDE at a Sufi Tomb in India: The second thunderclap plunge was halfway around the world, which, one might think, would be quite distressing, especially being 9,000 miles from home and family. Yet, to be pulled again before the face of God was only a little distressing, but mostly tranquil and exhilarating. From a park in Clearwater and now to a Sufi tomb in India. As I lay on my back, this time in a grave complex in Hyderabad, I felt strangely connected to loved ones, and strangely at home and relatively serene. Perhaps it is because there is much love in India, too—love that transcends religious confession or affiliation.
India is a land of ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, and Sikh spiritual traditions but is also a land of Muslim communities for more than a thousand years housed in mystical paths of love. One can learn much about divine love—even Christians can—by spending time in the old cultures and religious communities in South Asia. The universe has smiled on me as I have gone beyond my Hebrew and Greek training and have had the good fortune to study Sanskritic and Islamic mystical traditions, to study Arabic and Urdu and a little Persian, but to do so living among my many Muslim and Hindu friends in India. I have learned so much about what religion really is at its core, and what it is not. Among many friends there, I have a lifelong Muslim friend in India named Salahuddin, and a lifelong Hindu friend named Romil, both of whom have taught me as much about my own Christian God of love as all my years in Seminary and in Christian congregations put together. India is a good place to learn about love, and, therefore, is a good place to die.
Kabir declares, “The river that flows in you also flows in me,” and, “As the river enters into the ocean, so my heart touches Thee.”
I have come to know in profound ways that the idea of God as love is found in every major religion around the world. Truly this is so. I John 4:8 in the Bible teaches that God is agape selfless love…theos agape ‘estin. Likewise, in the Qur’an one of the 99 beautiful names for God is Al-Wadud, “The All-Loving.” Surah 11, verse 90 declares Allah as Merciful (rahman) and All-Loving. For Hindus, in the Bhagavad-Gita and elsewhere, the divine is Prem, selfless Love in Hindi—the love that flows through all and binds us one to another. We are immersed in love, my friends. Already immersed. An ocean of love underlies all. These traditions have so much to teach about life and death. The divine flows. God is a torrent, and we are soaked. The Bible is saturated. The Qur’an drips. The Hindu texts are deluged with divine floods everywhere. The Dao De Jing says, “Supreme good is like water. Water greatly benefits all things, without conflict. It flows through places that people loathe. Thereby it is close to the Way.” In Buddhism, Loving Compassion, maitra karuna in Sanskrit, is at the core of Enlightened existence and is reflected in all things and is used to calm the frothy waters of our minds. Not only have I experienced all these directly, in as penetrating a way as a person could, I have been able to come back and plunge back into the world’s religions that reveal these aspects of the divine. Oh, the languages come alive, if you let them—if you have eyes to see. Be hungry. Search this out. The universe smiled on me further through my PhD focused on further study of Islamic spiritual traditions, but then also eight years of study of Islam and Hindu mystical and healing traditions in South Asia.
The mystics call out their secrets, but it is the beyond that calls out all the more. The sounds are deafening, but it is only in stillness that it is really heard. Love has a sound, but we often miss it. There are religions and then there is Love. Love is religion beyond religion. It is a frothing shoreless ocean. Religion is a verb and not a noun, if it is done right—it should defy all-too-easy classifications. God is love and love is more. The Sufis and the other mystics are correct. Rumi teaches:
“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion or cultural system. I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul, I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to know…first, last, outer, inner…only that breath breathing human being.”
The second time I died was while having chai tea with a Sufi healer in a thousand-year-old tomb complex in India. In such places, the lines between religions, between life and death blur. It was why I became so interested in these precincts of the dead. They are of two worlds at once. They are betwixt and between, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz used to say. They are liminal spaces, halfway between this earth and the heavenly court. There are tombs and graves and skeletons and corpses all around, but the very place where the veils are the thinnest next to the realities that lay beyond this world. They are rips in the thin fabric of death that repair and revivify life and that connect beleaguered souls to the heavens. These are places where death becomes an old friend.
At the risk of droning on like a verbose scholar, let me explain a little more about how these tombs work, and how the dead Sufi saint laying in the grave blurs the lines between death and life, illness and health, chaos and order. I think it bears on how I understand and experienced my NDE there. The 12th century Sufi saint, ‘Abd al-Qadir Al-Jilani, wrote about Sufi graves in his Malfuzat, saying that: “…the grave is a pathway to the Lord of Truth, a corridor (dihlīz). You must die before you die. When this process is complete, along will come the life in nearness of Allah (Almighty and Glorious is He).” Muhammad once said that true believers never die. Jilani also wrote, “the Prophets and the saints pray in their graves, just as they pray in their houses.” Adam and Jesus and Muhammad and the Sufi saints existed in the cosmic royal court of Allah prior to creation and well prior to din (religion). Now that orthodox religions have been established, they provide a way of contacting sacred power outside of religious affiliation. They provide straightaway access to the healing power of God. The saint takes a vow to come into the world for the sake of the world and “puts on the shirt of the body,” to quote Rumi. The saints’ royal courts are established around India and other areas of the Muslim world in a collective sacred geography. These divine-royal-court tomb complexes can serve as little Ka’bas, centers of pilgrimage, or places to meet the divine. The transcendent Sufi saint does not see a Hindu or Muslim or Christian in his or her royal court, but sees only subjects, suffering humans, in need.
It was in this setting that I died the second time. The first time was when my son was baptized, and the second time in a Sufi graveyard in India. The first time I was a part of Christian rituals of cleansing for my son; the second time I collapsed right in the healer’s tea room and I then had several healing rituals performed on me. I had been the scholarly observer and then suddenly my heart began to race again and I plunged into darkness and now-recognizable oceanic experiences with the cosmos, yet, at times, I revived and the healer and his helpers performed all sorts of prayer, anointing, cleansing, and holy water rituals on me. I lived to tell the tale. I walked out of there alive after several hours. Here I am. Bless the saints.
You Must Die Before You Die: Life, Death, and the Veils of Love
“You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the entire ocean in a drop.”
“We are the night ocean filled
with glints of light. We are the space
between the fish and the moon,
while we sit here together.” -Rumi
Pray, now I have been graced with right words to describe what I experienced both times I died. Simply put, oceans of divine love await when we perish. Death itself should not be feared, at least as I experienced it. We pass into realms that are just beyond the physical reach of our loved ones. That is sad and should be mourned. I have led funerary rituals for my grandmother, and my mother and brother. We rightly lament their passing from this world. But death can be a beautiful experience, too. It can be intensely connective and vivifying for the experiencer, and maybe that can help a little those who mourn and weep. Death is just another life. The veils are much thinner than we know. Maybe that can bring some comfort on both sides. It is really just the tiniest of steps there, barely a nudge. We are surrounded by death and saturated in it, and it is gorgeous. Death is in us already. We are not a drop in the ocean. We are the entire ocean in a drop. We are the glints of light in that same night ocean.
Why do we pretend that death is the enemy and is so far away and so mysterious and taboo? Our mythologies and Freud have ruined us. Thanatos, indeed. Don’t we die in each moment to become the next? I perish and perish and perish all the time. It is liberating; or can be. Buddhist meditations sometimes speak of sitting very near a rotting corpse and returning often. This is so that we realize that every cell, every muscle, every sinew, every fluid in our pus-filled bodies, even our hearts, even our minds, and even every bone is ever decaying and changing and impermanent, and that certainly we are more.
Death is not the grim reaper. Death is us. We bring it with us. “Behold, I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” says the Bhagavad Gita. Death is life, or at least another life. The two are not antonyms and we aren’t alive one moment and dead the next. We flow between the two, all along. The “me” that I call me isn’t a static thing that exists in the realm of life and then is suddenly expired—declared dead, timed down to the second, by some ER physician. In fact, I am one and the same with life and death already. I am not some untouchable, Marlboro-man, rugged-cowboy individual. According to my PhD advisor, I am not individual at all, but rather quite “dividual”—as he used to put it. I am liminal, in-between, porous, only thinly veiled, an ever-changing convergence of energies that lives and dies, and dies and lives. The “I” that exists is always a verb, a happening, and not a noun. I already do not exist, in the strictest sense. I passed, just a moment ago. We must die before we die, and then die again after that. Therefore, why should death be such a stranger and not an old friend and guru when we are already in it all along?
A Grassy Park In Florida On The Day My Son Was Baptized
Death happens quicker than one might think. For me it did, anyway. It happened both times in about 45 seconds or a minute. It happened in well less time than it takes to read this paragraph. The first time was around midday on May 16th, 2004, in a verdant grassy park in the St. Pete area of Florida. I held my three-year-old son, Jonah, and looked down at my beautiful infant son, Micah, who had been washed in life-giving waters not much more than an hour or two prior. I had just arrived and set up the barbeque grills so we could all celebrate Micah’s baptism. My heart was overflowing with feelings of love and joyful anticipation of the get together that was about to unfold. As chairs were being set up and I set Jonah down so he could run off and play with my father, I walked away from Micah and looked around with affection at my family and friends who were arriving and assembling the party. My heart began to flutter. It is a feeling we all know—the feeling in a person’s heart as it skips a few beats and races a little when something big is happening. I thought that I was just excited and fulsome and lovesick and feeling it in my body. Only it didn’t stop. After ten or fifteen seconds, I realized that my heart was pounding like a bass drum. I felt engorged and I could feel it in my flesh and eyes. My vision on that otherwise dazzling and colorful sunny Florida day quickly pixelated and began to wash toward more monochromatic sepia old-time-photograph brown and dull-red and gray hues. I had flashes of terror at what was happening. My mind crashed to a shambles as I saw through a narrowing tunnel my wife approaching me with concern. I could only stare at her blankly and disintegrate into the chair that was luckily right behind me. I barely had enough wherewithal to say to my panicked wife and my father-in-law, “something’s not right…something’s not right.” I knew it was something big. I knew I was perishing. My heart was beating out of my chest, blood surging all around, and yet my body and my mind utterly failed. I plunged into an abyss of darkness.
As I was submerging under, I sensed a welling up of deep primordial emotions. What terror I felt in those initial few seconds quickly gave way to an overwhelming sense that things would be ok, especially as these profound emotional states surged over me like tidal waves. There was no desire to resist what was clearly happening. There was an acceptance and a stillness and even a kind of placid equanimity. There was an immediate whisp through one veil and the next, and each drifting advance brought less cleaving to my bodily self and more light effervescent floating along into new emotional vistas. Even as my thoughts failed, my feelings did not—my emotions endured and emerged all the more. It felt like my body was ripping away and sloughing off, and yet something remained, but it was beyond consciousness. It was clear that I was no longer seeing or listening or feeling in a physical sense, and yet I perceived; I felt; I participated; I opened up to a new reality, or, perhaps, an ancient, primeval reality.
With starry dome above and all about, I found myself buoyed in an inky nighttime ocean that was at once an Abyss, but also celestial and paradisical. It was luminescent and comforting and intimate, and I was more embraced than I was floating. Glowing and lights were all about me, but these were more than mere lights. They were love itself. They were luminescent souls. They were maybe angels or celestial beings or humans in our highest, purest forms. They were somehow intimately familiar and nurturing. What I have realized I was experiencing, or, better, participating in, immersed in, was the emotional connective convergences we all share on levels about which we are only barely aware in our bodily existence.
The poets and mystics and prophets implore us to realize that we are already in one another all along. The best word we have for this is love. But it can just as well take the form of hope, or empathy, or joy, or charity, or humility, or awe, or happiness. Isn’t love at their core, especially insofar as one of the highest truths is that everything is intensely, deeply, and even cosmically interconnected?
What I experienced—that profoundly connective love—and all the related states of emotional existence, is described well in an Asian text called the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka Sutra). Important for Hindus and Buddhists, this text bespeaks of the cosmos as it is fashioned by the old Vedic god, Indra. The universe hangs on a matrix referred to as Indra’s Net. Imagine an infinitely large net in every dimension that is centered on Mt. Meru, the home of the gods. This net is joined at each vertex by a perfectly reflective pearl. Every action, every being, every reality, therefore, is reflected in each other action, being, and reality. This is what this parable means: that our underlying connective selves, in abiding love with one another, is the really real, the deepest of realities. Love and hope and joy and awe and all the rest are at the core of who we really are. These emotional levels of existence are the ground of being itself. They are the primordial waters that underly all that is. This physical world, our bodily selves, are mere sketches on whispy veils that flit and flutter about with the winds of the cosmos over the watery Abyss. The world of our life on Earth is merely draped over Indra’s matrix, the foundation of which are intimate emotional connective convergences. The ocean of love in which all is immersed is the ground of reality and our Earthly existence is but a moment on a fluttering veil that is draped over the primordial Abyss. We are not a drop in the ocean, but, rather, the entire ocean in a drop. Indra’s net is primarily our energetic emotional spiritual selves that we share with, in, and through one another. If we think that Indra’s net is about our butterfly-effect Earthly physics and our intertwined physiologies, we are mistaken, or at least incomplete in our worldly thinking. It is about our souls, but our souls are at once dynamic locations of energies in what we call the self, but, even more, we are our underlying shared existence, our shared consciousness, and our underlying emotional blisses in which we are bathed.
How do I know this? Short answer: my sons and their love. As I died and passed into the beyond and as I found myself buoyant in that ocean of divine love, I sensed, I felt, I knew that I was still deeply connected to those I love. Death severed nothing. In my experience, dying did not excise me from them. Rather, death intensified the experience of the reality of my loved ones within me and me within my loved ones. We are each that energetic pearl that is reflective of all this is around us. I know that as I lay in that park and the paramedics were shocking my quivering fibrillating heart, that my family was praying hard for me. I tell you that I felt it. We are our feedback loops. We are the love that we share. Isn’t that love divine, also? And don’t we all also participate in it, immerse ourselves in it, and share it with one another? The mother or father who just knows when something bad has befallen their child who is miles away, the more intense longing love that dwells in the burning hearts of separated lovers in Tamil love poetry, or St. Augustine who writes, “You have made us, O Lord, for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You”—none of these longings should be a surprise. We are in each other all along, no matter the distance or realm of existence. Death as separation holds no sway here. The grim reaper does not hold a sharpened scythe. Old death is a welcome fellow. Death is not a cleaving from, it is a cleaving to. It is an immersion into God. It is an ocean of divine beings and loved ones all around us.
As I was suspended in the luminous ocean of the afterlife, most vividly I felt my sons so near to my heart, as if to be internal to it, and I knew that I had to live for them and to be there for them. I am well aware that some who experience NDEs return and speak of meeting past loved ones or meeting divine beings who welcome them. Like them, I felt so utterly and warmly welcomed there. These beings also sometimes let the person know, however, that their time is not yet up and that they must return to their bodies. I felt this in no uncertain terms. I felt the soulful lights all around me urging me to return for the sake of the love of my beautiful sons. How can a three-year-old and an infant, and even a soon-to-be-born son five years later, call to a father to return to his body? I do not know. It is something of a mystery, but it was utterly true and what I experienced. Isn’t this what the cosmic ocean of love and life ought to do…to call a father back to his sons whom he loves more than life itself? And I knew that my body still endured, so I determined to make a go of returning. Love was the key. The love of my boys was the very how that I am alive now. Here I am. The best way I have been able to describe this is that I was able to tap into the feedback loops of love that exist between me and my friends and family, and especially the love I share with my sons to revivify my dead body. I knew that my body had expired, and yet I was able to employ this energetic, invigorating, animating love to reboot. Just as I was not sad when I entered that oceanic realm of the afterlife, once the initial moments of terror had passed, I was also not sad at all that I was to return to my body and to my family and friends.
I was aware somehow that my body had failed and was laid back in some other realm. I guess that is the very definition of an out-of-body experience. Yet I knew that I had to reboot the system. I had to re-enter and revivify and reanimate my flesh, for the sake of my children especially. My loved ones called—my children, my wife, my father, my family, and my friends—and I had to journey back through the fluttering veils of love. My work was not accomplished yet.
I experienced the self as an energy—with all that that means. Likewise, I experienced the afterlife as an energy, yet categorically more fundamental. A return to this life was like a dramatic funneling back down, a movement of expenditure back toward this opaque, veiled, paley world. The cosmic ocean of love, as I experienced it, is the cosmic ocean of pure being. It is that from which all is fashioned. It is the really real. This life is all channeled and tapered and pacified—clothed in flesh and loam and round-about molecules and cells. As energy emanates from the source—three, five, seven, ten times—each realm is naturally more diffuse and, while still participating in the source, it is ensconced in further hiddenness. Only the wise or the dying can find it.
Like a waterfall in seven or ten steps down, the surging, dynamic and frothing head waters are a mere trickle by the time they reach the meandering stream below that stretches lazily across the pastoral landscape. There are elegant systems of emanationism that envision our world as five or seven or ten worlds removed from God and the divine source. They form the foundation of mystical and poetic systems all over the world—Jewish kabbalah, Christian mystical, and Islamic Sufi seven-or ten-fold cosmologies, or Buddhist or Hindu or Jain cosmic-egg worlds of Brahmanda with seven heavens above and seven hells below…and there are so many other cosmologies like these! The numbers vary, but they nearly all describe emanating realms founded on a cosmic foundation and source that stretch toward our meager little world in which our whole civilizations, our whole philosophies, and even our whole lives and lineages are planted and lived out. In II Corinthians 12: 2-4, Paul teaches that:
“I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.”
Naturally, there is a third heaven for Paul, and, naturally, there should be others, too. I hope that I am permitted to repeat in these paragraphs secrets about these heavens, notwithstanding the Bible verse above. In my brief foray into the hereafter, I experienced at least one of these higher levels, although it felt like more than that—that I had passed through several. Perhaps I can one day write about those other experiences elsewhere. I full well expect that others who have had NDEs might have experienced other levels as well, whether heavenly or, rarely, hellish. When I died, I was able to ascend the onrushing waterfall, like some newly-ethereal being freed of a heavy load who is then able to flit up the most finely-wrought and perfectly balanced beautiful mobile which had been hung from the heavens themselves, and I did so without disturbing the perfect balance of each lovely piece. I peacefully floated there, but after all-too-short a time, I was called to return to my flesh.
I was able to perceive the light of the love of my children. It was more than vision, though I saw it. It was more than outside me; it was also within. It was more than an embracing of it; it was an immersion back into it. This love amplified me, energized me, revivified me, and helped me to take breaths once again in my body, sent as I was back to this world. Curiously enough, this light was expansive, immersive, boundless, and limitless, but I felt it becoming more pointed and more singular, even as I gradually became aware that I, the bodily me, was staring at the light in the ceiling of the swaying ambulance in which I was being transported. It was a gradual coming to, and as I re-entered my body and took my breaths again, I was aware that I was sobbing. I was sobbing tears of pure ecstasy and joy and love. These were the tears of someone who has gone on a long, long journey and has finally returned home to those he loves, realizing that they are the very reason for and purpose of his existence. I would like to think that these tears were a little trace of the cosmic ocean of love running down my face in this world, and a small but powerful sign of God’s grace for us given as the gift of life with those we love. Not a drop in the ocean, but the entire ocean in a drop.
After I came back to life—that phrase has new meaning to me now—I lay in the hospital for two weeks and was poked and prodded and tested in every way conceivable. The doctors told me that a healthy, relatively fit, ex-military man doesn’t just collapse in a park one day at the age of thirty-five. Turns out that tough-as-nails me has two disorders that were discovered as a result of my collapse on May 16th, 2004. After much testing, it was determined that I have Brugada Syndrome, otherwise known as Sudden Cardiac Death. 5 in 10,000 people have Brugada. We have seen the horrific scenes of athletes who fall over almost instantly on the court or the soccer pitch and sometimes they can’t be revived. Fortunately, sometimes they can—like me. That is the major disorder I have. From Rare Diseases Database: “Brugada syndrome is a rare inherited cardiovascular disorder characterized by disturbances affecting the electrical system of the heart. The main symptom is irregular heartbeats and, without treatment, may potentially result in sudden death.” My heart that day suddenly, as out of the blue as a lightning bolt, went into ventricular fibrillation. The paramedics, fortunately, were able to revive me, but I am also sure that I had the power to let go and pass into the beyond, were it not for the love of my kids and family and friends. After my diagnosis with Bragada Syndrome I was fitted with an ICD—Implanted Cardioverter Defibrillator/Pacemaker—that is still in my chest to this day. But, there’s more. Besides Brugada and the ICD, there was further fallout from May 16th, 2004. Turns out that tough-as-nails me also has a severe allergy to fire ant stings. This, too, was discovered after my collapse that day. A single fire ant sting—about .03 microliters of venom; for perspective there are 29.5 million microliters in a fluid ounce—a tiny, tiny amount of fire ant venom in the side of my left foot set off an anaphylactic chain reaction in my body that sent my heart into an arrhythmia. Rotten luck, I’d say, to have two disorders that stack up so severely. Also, ironic, I’d say, that tough-as-nails me can be taken down by a tiny little old ant. Butterfly effect, indeed. The ant and bee sting allergy I have—unknown during my entire childhood even as I poked at beehive after beehive in the mountains of Colorado—is so severe that I had to go once a week or so for a couple years to get tiny shots of fire ant venom so that the deadly effect in me would be muted. I also have a perfect matched set: my defibrillator/pacemaker and a lovely Epipen to go with it. I am almost a Tony Starke. Strange happenings in a strange world in a strange cosmos, but I am alive to tell the tale. Here I am.
A Thousand-Year-Old Sufi Tomb in India
Death happens in places one might not imagine. After May 16th, I was alive and somewhat healthy enough within the next month or two to be cleared by my family practitioner, my cardiologist, my allergist, and even my wife to go to India to continue my Ph.D. studies. Back to the thousand-year-old graveyards in Hyderabad. I certainly saw them in a new way. It was not difficult at all to imagine myself laying in some or other such graveyard one day soon beginning my eternal repose. After I arrived back in Hyderabad, I settled back into the house of my friend, Salahuddin, and back into my India routine.
Salahuddin is often my companion and protector as I travel around India working on my research. Not long after I arrived back in Hyderabad, we found ourselves back in the familiar confines of one of the most well-known Sufi tomb complexes in South India, the Shah Musa Qadri dargah. I was greeted warmly, as an old friend, after my months of absence by the main Sufi healer there. It wasn’t long before we were sitting in his parlor sitting room—baithak in Hindi—sipping tea together. I was back to asking him about his patients again, especially his Hindu ones, and what sorts of ritual treatments he was using to care for them. I tell you that these ritual healings that I study are acts of pure love. Islam is a religion of love. It is all inspiring to study and be around. Truly, as I described earlier, dargahs are between earth and heaven, between death and life, between darkness and light. With Salahuddin, the ever watchful, and with this Sufi healer, I felt very safe as I continued my exploration of the wonders of the place. And, yet…
It happened again. One might be surprised to discover that South American fire ants are in parks in Florida, but also happen to be in various places in South India. Despite Salahuddin insisting that I travel around India in long socks soaked in insect repellant under my sandals, I let my guard down in the healer’s tea room one afternoon. It is standard courtesy and custom in India to remove one’s footwear upon entering a house. I did, of course. Not good. In another unlikely twist, Shah Musa Qadri dargah, in the Old City precinct of Hyderabad, has fire ants, even inside some of the dwellings. What are the chances? What are the chances of all this happening: my two serious maladies that stack dangerously, the fact that I lived where one population of fire ants were prevalent and then did research halfway around the world were another population of fire ants was flourishing, and even that the first time it happened was on the day my son was baptized, and then the second time was in a holy Islamic shrine in India less than two months later? And, that I survived all this? The world is a queer and wondrous place, I have found. Both times I was stung on the outside of my left foot, incidentally.
As I sat having some of the best chai tea in the world on that June day in 2004, there was an all-too familiar burning in my foot. I told Salahuddin, much to our common dread, that it was about to happen again. Sure enough, I had about 45 seconds, like the first time. Death does come quickly, after all, like a thunderclap. Salahuddin leapt up and told the Sufi healer what was going on. Within that 45 seconds I had just enough faculties and strength to stand and lie as the healer wanted me: oriented toward Mecca while lying on his wife’s prayer rug that was there in the parlor. The tea room of a Sufi healer in a thousand-year-old Islamic tomb complex in Hyderabad is a lovely place to die, I have found. As the Islamic healing rituals began on me, I was quite peaceful, as though I was picking up right where I left off a couple months prior. On June 27th, 2004, I died a second time.
As the same tunnel closed in all about me and my conscious mind flew to pieces once more, I felt far less terror and far more tranquility than before. My old friend death was coming to pay a visit. My heart beat out of my chest once again, and my eyes filled with blood. Dear Salahuddin kept vigil over me as I plunged under. I knew that I was in good hands. Peace washed over me yet again. How can death be a return home? It is. Or, it was for me the second time.
That same inky night Abyss of an ocean with the same vault of brilliant stars above buoyed me within her adoring arms again. God welcomes home best of all, doesn’t she? Such is love. Those same lights were all about me, caressing me like. They were intimate again, like before, as if inside my heart. Perhaps that is why my heart beats so boldly from time to time. It may kill me one day, but I would have it no other way. That is how we are most real, after all; when we are in love. Think about that small two-word phrase—in love. We are in it, despite our muddy encasements and wispy veils of this world. We just forget. We have it backwards, actually. We think that the deepest oceanic love is in this world, and that death severs us. Not so. We are in love all along. That is the really real, the categorically-different sense of what is foundational to existence as experienced in a near-death experience. This world is wondrous and queer, and I love all in it, especially my kids. They are the very how that I am in the first place. Laying there dying in the tea room in the Sufi healer’s house, with dear Salahuddin by my side, I felt just as near to my children even as I was 9,000 miles away from home. We are in the divine ocean of love already. Death teaches that. It is barely a nudge from here to there, but also a short trek back here. Death drops in seconds. It is with us all along, too. After a couple hours of lapsing in and out of consciousness, that Sufi healer, the ICD, and even Salahuddin watching over me preserved me and brought me back. I walked out of that tomb with Salahuddin, and eventually back to the US, to the waiting arms of my loving children once again.
The veils whisp about and we think we are separated at death, but we can almost touch heaven in the meantime. We can almost dive in. That ocean awaits, and it is gorgeous. We all have to die at some point, even Father Abraham and the mystics and poets, and even obtuse old scholars. I will go there again one day, and will go willingly, without fear. Death is a friend now. I will go forth in my ending hours soaked in love, children and family and friends in my heart. Whether in acts of love by our own hands, like the baptism of a beautiful child, or immersion into divine love, like a healing grave complex in Hyderabad, India, it is all the same and all from God. The same ocean of love underlies all that is. It is all just life, death, and the veils of love.