“Birth and death are virtual, but Life is perpetual.”
~ Ron Rattner, Sutra Sayings
~ Ron Rattner, Sutra Sayings
A few years after the death of his father, the famous 20th century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi was suddenly overcome with a powerful premonition that he too was about to die. Though he was then only sixteen years old and in good health, he became so fearful of his imagined imminent death that he felt impelled to investigate the bodily death experience. So he pretended that he was dying and introspectively contemplated his own death experience. Long afterwards in response to a devotee’s question about his “enlightenment” he so recounted this experience:
“The shock of the fear of death made me at once introspective or ‘introverted’. I said to myself mentally, ‘Now that death is come, what does it mean? Who is it that is dying? This body dies’. ….The material body dies, but the Spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. I am therefore the deathless Spirit. … Fear of death vanished at once and for ever. The absorption in the Self has continued from that moment right up to now”.
In 1979 I too had an extraordinary presumed near death experience. Unlike Ramana Maharshi’s pretended death experience, I really believed I was dying of a stroke and decided to observe the death process without resistance. Unlike Maharshi’s experience, my supposed death experience didn’t result in my instant “enlightenment” or permanent absorption in the Self. But, it was an extraordinary and unforgettable event, and it spurred my gradual transformative process of more and more identifying with spirit rather than body/mind, which had begun in 1976 with my post-divorce realization and rebirth experience.
After I received shaktipat initiation from Dhyanyogi in 1978, I began following his practices. But, also, I continued to explore spiritual mysteries by attending various other programs and lectures, with Dhyanyogi’s approval. When asked about our seeking information from other teachers, Guruji would say it was OK but unnecessary.
My near death experience happened in late 1978 or 1979, the morning after I had attended an inspiring lecture and experiential program given by Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. At the program I whole heartedly participated in a Sufi remembrance of God ritual called Zikr, featuring repetition of names of Allah. Fervently repeating in unison with other participants: “La Ilaha Illallah” , “La Ilaha Illallah”, I vigorously rotated my body, head and neck, and became quite ‘high’ and rapturous.
The next morning I awakened feeling fine, and prepared to attend an important Federal Appeals Court hearing. I had put on my grey pinstriped suit trousers, shirt and tie, and was in the bathroom, when suddenly I collapsed and fell onto the tiled floor and into a supine position. On the floor I was unable to move my head or body up or over. Then I discovered that I could inch along on my back like a caterpillar. In that manner with tremendous difficulty, I managed to move out of the bathroom and into my carpeted living room floor, still in a supine position.
I was not then near a phone and couldn’t call for help. Lying on my back, without pain, I said to myself mentally, “I must have suffered a stroke and am about to die. Now I will see what happens when I die.”
I closed my eyes and went into a deep state of relaxed awareness.
Suddenly it seemed as if I was astrally projected into the cosmos, where I was surrounded by magnificent luminescent silver, blue and gold heavenly bodies like in pictures taken by the Hubble telescope. Next, my inner vision shifted from outer space to appearances of beautiful, luminescent and intricate mandalas – like those associated with Vajrayana Buddhism, only more ethereal. As silently I was sensing these celestial scenes, thought returned. First I thought that dying was quite an interesting experience. Then, suddenly, I thought: “I never took Naomi off my life insurance policies. I can’t die now.” The ethereal visions immediately ended and consciousness returned to my supine body on the carpeted floor.
I don’t remember how much time had passed before I so returned to body consciousness. But when that happened I found that I could move easier and managed to slither to a telephone when it rang. Synchronistically, it was a call from my friend Kusuma, who had been one of Guruji’s translators and cooks. I told her what happened, and she dispatched Stan, a disciple of Dhyanyogi then living in San Francisco, to come help me. By the time Stan arrived, I was able to crawl with difficulty to the front door to let him in. He called my doctor who said my symptoms sounded like extreme vertigo from an inner ear problem, not a stroke. Later, Kusuma asked Guruji about my symptoms. He told her that they came from “shakti”, intense spiritual energy activated in my head.
Following my ‘near death’ experience, the vertigo gradually abated. I developed a curiosity about Tibetan Buddhism, and the meaning of their mandalas, which lead to my receiving refuge, empowerments, and teachings from Kalu Rinpoche, a venerable Tibetan Buddhist master, and then from other Tibetan lamas, including H.H. the Dalai Lama – who became a living hero for me. Most importantly my conviction about immortality of the soul and my identification with spirit were immeasurably enhanced, while psychological fear of bodily death diminished.
But I didn’t become “enlightened” enough to transcend the lingering psychological trauma of my contentious divorce. So, long before my dizziness had disappeared, my former wife’s name was removed as a beneficiary on my life insurance policies. And I haven’t yet died – again.
After my near death experience I was quite surprised at how peaceful I felt when then facing supposed death, and began wondering whether I had transcended fear of death. That question was soon answered when a deranged young driver raced his car right at me as I was walking across Broadway, the busy four lane street where I live. Instinctively and reflexively I very loudly screamed “Jesus!” as I fearfully jumped out of the way. I shouted so loudly that I probably could have been heard for a block or two up the street. Thereafter for several hours, I experienced a “fight or flight” adrenaline rush. Moreover, since then I have had several similar though less intense precarious experiences while crossing San Francisco streets.
So, despite my serenity during the near death experience, some instinctive fear of bodily death remains for me. But I now distinguish such normal physical ‘fight or flight’ instinct for bodily self-preservation, from fear arising from ego’s illusionary self-identification with the body/mind and its story, rather than with universal spirit, its eternal Essence. And I accept inevitable – and perhaps imminent – physical death as a crucial condition of phenomenal life on this precious planet.
While yogis in other times and places could attain and maintain elevated states of awareness by taking refuge in the forests, on a mountain, or in a cave – or like Ramani Maharshi, in caves on a mountain, such stress free environments are hard to find for those living in present day US society. For me attempting to live authentically and sanely in our crazy culture has at times been quite challenging. I’ve found that in San Francisco courtrooms and environs midst societal insanity, without some ego I’d would have been metaphorically and actually run over while traversing my spiritual path as well as while crossing the streets. ….
Suzuki Shunryū, Roshi, who popularized Zen Buddhism in the United States, was once asked by a student: “How much “ego” do you need?” He replied: “Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.”
So I wonder what past spiritual masters would have done when suddenly confronted with immediate bodily threat? Certainly they wouldn’t have shouted “Jesus”, with an adrenaline rush. Maybe, like Gandhi, they would have uttered “Ram” while stepping quietly out of harms way. What do you think?
© Ron Rattner – “From Secular Hebrew, to Born-Again Hindu, to Uncertain Undo – An ex-lawyer’s spiritual metamorphosis from Litigation to Meditation – and Beyond.”