2016-06-30
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.

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.

As my mother later recounted to me, a surge of life-giving energy came then 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. Physically she was not cured; Parkinson's disease continued to wrack her body. But the power of that experience nevertheless made her feel she was floating in bliss for a full five days. And even after that, she told me, no matter what pain her body suffered or indignity her condition subjected her to, that wonderful glow never left her. When, near the end of her life, we taught her to say the mantram "Rama" as continuously as she could, this formed a continuous link with her own deep inner experience. She knew she was wonderful, life was wonderful, and even death would be wonderful. As in the case of Mahatma Gandhi, her last word in this life was "Rama."

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.

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.

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.

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 replicate 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.

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. Safer and much less radical means are at hand to replicate the near-death experience.

Diligent practice, for example, of passage meditation slows down thought and with it, the heart rate and breathing rhythm. In this particular mode of meditation, one memorizes then repeats in silence the words of a great saint or sage (click here for examples). In the process, one trusts the inspirational words of this 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 unifying as the person who comes back from the gates of death. In yoga and other traditions, aspirants seek this experience under the guidance of an experienced guru or teacher who can guide them through any pitfalls; however, in such countries as Japan, ordinary people in all walks of life have glimpsed their real nature in the effulgence of the white light and gone on to live happy and productive lives in the family or workaday setting.

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.

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