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Direct Awakening and the Near-death Experience

    When the mind closes down and the senses are stilled, mystics describe the sudden effulgence of pure light illuminating consciousness, accompanied by a flood of joy. After this experience, called enlightenment, illumination, or oneness with the Divine, people feel a happiness so unlike and above any other that they try to reach out to those still in the darkness we call everyday life. But enlightenment is not just for the saints, yogis and lamas who achieve it. It can come to any of us at any time-- at the time of death, in a deep and life-changing dream, or in a supreme awakening in meditation. And it is within the reach of us all. We have only to want it and ask for it. As Hamlet says, �The readiness is all.�

    At the time of death

    I myself have wanted it, with deep passion, all my adult life. So in the early �70�s, when I began to hear that ordinary men and women injured in a car wreck, or having major surgery on the operating table, felt their consciousness bathed in a flood of light, I got very excited. Their descriptions didn�t sound that different from the enlightenment I was striving to reach by stilling the mind in meditation. By a lucky break, I got the chance to correspond personally with the guru of the near-death movement, the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. She confirmed my hopes: the experience of light and bliss was indeed connected with something that happens at the time of death, or what our body believes is death. Because I was nowhere near enlightenment despite all my long hours of meditation, Dr. Kubler Ross�s news opened to me a world of spiritual possibilities I had not dreamed of before. And then, the unthinkable happened: a member of my family had a near death experience.

    My mom, stricken with the latter stages of Parkinson's disease, was lying in bed one night. She needed to go to the bathroom but found her muscles would not do as she wanted. In fact, nothing would; every single muscle locked. Not a thing could move, not even her finger. Her lungs refused to draw breath. The heart seemed to stop. Dad was there right beside her, but she couldn't call out. This was it: total lockdown. Nothingness, and utterly desolate abandonment. the end of everything-- death.

    At that time, a surge of life-giving energy came from nowhere, pulsating through the blood, suffusing the heart. Unutterable joy filled her every cell. And she heard a voice in her consciousness saying, "You are wonderful. You have always been wonderful. And you will always be wonderful." My mom knew then that nothing could take away from her what she truly was.

    My mother had been a good wife, mom, and friend. But she was in no way remarkable. Was the experience of bliss flooding her wracked body different in any way, say, from the vision St. Francis had when he said, �if it had continued for a minute longer, I would have melted away�? Literature on near death experiences will tell you that, even if Mom�s epiphany was different in degree from that of great sages and teachers, it was in no way different in kind. Nor is the light that floods the consciousness of that person who nearly dies on the operating table any different in kind from the Buddha�s experience under the bodhi tree 2500 years ago. So is enlightenment indeed possible for all? Here is why I have come to believe that it is.

    The physiological component of the experience of bliss

    Medically, near death experiences like my mom's are caused by air hunger. The person cannot breathe, the heart muscle fails, and powerful substances are released, potent ones to dull and make bearable the colossal pain of the dying process. According to Dr. August L. Reader, an ophthalmologist who had and studied his own near death experience.

    The near-death experience begins with air hunger, which causes extreme fear and panic, with a feeling that death is imminent. When the brain senses that it is becoming ischemic, there develops a protective parasympathetic response called an atrioventricular block, where the heart suddenly stops beating for 8 to 15 seconds. During those seconds when the heart stops, blood drains from the cerebral cortex. A tunneling effect occurs as the blood drains from the parietal lobes and causes ischemia of the optic radiations. As the blood eventually drains form the occipital lobes, a brilliant white light is generated. Simultaneously, there is a massive outpouring of B-endorphins and other neuropeptides to alleviate the pain of death, which elicit the well-known �high� that correlates to the feelings of bliss.

    I am constantly asking myself why this experience is accompanied by such a profound feeling of spirit. The only answer I can give at present is the one that I have received from the experience itself�a love so profound, deep, and unifying that is seems it can only come from a universal presence and from nowhere else.

    (Alternative Therapies, Sept. 1995, �The Internal Mystery Plays.�)

    The feelings of bliss are there to shield and numb us during the dying process, the greatest pain we will ever know. But, as the Sufi mystic Jalal Udin Rumi says, �When were we ever made less by dying?� My mom�s experience remained more real to her than the wrack of suffering and pain Parkinson�s made of her body. So much so, that when the real end drew near, against all medical advice, she chose to die naturally rather than have a feeding tube that may have prolonged her life. That is because she knew, down to a cellular level, that she was wonderful and that all would be wonderful, wherever she was bound, as her experience had told her.

    Meditation, Yoga, and the Mimicking of Near Death

    Does this suggest why, for example, sages would starve the body in fasts, or yogis would walk on hot coals? Or desert fathers like St. Anthony bake in the heat and plunge onto a cactus when thoughts of worldly comforts assailed him, just to keep on the edge of near death? Mystics the world over, from all times in history, tried to bring on a state in which their body, thinking death was near, would release this stupendous, life enriching experience. Sages mimic the near-death experiences by practices which slow and even temporarily close down functions the body is used to having regularity in, like the heart rate and breathing rhythm. But they do not die�they go on to teach.

    Perfecting techniques that the body will interpret as imminent death, they experience the white light and bliss. The Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna, feeling a desperation for enlightenment few of us can imagine, once threatened to plunge a dagger into his body if the Divine Mother did not show herself to him. That is when he tasted the bliss of her appearance before him.

    But why, after such an experience, does Mother Teresa of Calcutta go on to spend the next fifty years feeding and caring for the poor, while someone else will live a fairly ordinary life? The key lies in receptivity and readiness to absorb the unlimited possibilities the experience potentially unlocks. One has to see the gates in opens. In my mom�s case, she happened to have two sons who were workshop leaders in passage meditation and the art of using a mantram, and a daugher who instructed Stanford physicians on caring for the families of dying patients. She thus had these tools to link herself to her inner experience continually and not be distracted away from it. In fact, her last word was her mantram �Rama�.

    For anyone who desires the direct awakening of the white light experience, it is not necessary to head for the desert, practice sleep deprivation, or starve the body in fasts. Means are at hand to mimic the near-death experience. Diligent practice, for example, of passage meditation slows down thought and with it, the heart rate and breathing rhythm. For in this mode of meditation, one trusts the inspirational passage to be the seed of the spiritual experience attained by its author. By memorizing and continually repeating its words silently in the mind, the meditator gradually absorbs this experience. Eventually, passage meditation slows and even stills the mind, and then one perceives what lies in the space between thoughts. When the mind becomes thus stilled, abiding in the interstice between thoughts, a sudden flash can illumine our nature and show us who we are and have always been. We will have in our heart the same love so deep, so profound, and so unifiying as the person who comes back from the gates of death.

    There is no way to obtain just with our conscious will that supreme experience of joy all seekers yearn for. Meditation on the words and experience of those who have experienced the highest truth will drop the seeds of their experience deep into your consciousness. Moreover, they will predispose you to absorb the very most from such experience when the ultimate closedown of the body does take place. This is training of the highest and most practical sort, and for all of us, whether we are young or old, the need for this internal support net could not be greater.

    � Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal

    Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditatio. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran�s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal is an international workshop leader in passage meditation and in courses for those looking for end of life spiritual care and for the spiritual step component of twelve step programs.

    Visit Stephen�s work at www.directawakenings.com