“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, It is not dying, it is not dying” The Beatles, from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
It’s not often you meet someone who’s had a Near-Death Experience(NDE) that matches most classical descriptions of the phenomenon. I first met James Lee at a social gathering filled mostly with educators and young professionals in their thirties. James seemed to stand out from other guests. An affable chap with a wry wit and dark sense of humour, we hit it off quick, bonding over tastes in music, molecules and speculative science. He briefly mentioned his NDE at some point in the evening, but it was only later during a separate outing that he elaborated on the impact it’d had on his life and perceptions, which I found most compelling.
Almost every spiritual tradition has a mythos regarding the afterlife state, one of the most notable being the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with its erudite descriptions of the various Bardo Planes that commence when the process of dying begins. Little wonder then, that John Lennon would sing straight off its opening lines in one of The Beatles’ most sublime songs, etching its place in the head of many a psychonaut.
While still a professor at Harvard University, 1960s iconoclast Timothy Leary used it as the backbone for The Psychedelic Experience, a book he co-authored which served as a structural guide for their experiments with LSD, psilocybin and mescaline. On sufficiently high doses, psychedelics bring on an undeniable shattering of the Ego, experienced as an existential Death of Self. The manual provided context for the chaotic stream of archetypal images and the Rebirth that would later ensue. Within their Egoic death/rebirth framework, the process of dying had much import for the process of living.
I’ve always been fascinated by altered states, mainly for what they have to teach about this state of consciousness. Biological death presents itself as the ultimate negation of consciousness as we know it. Perhaps experiencing death could have much to teach us about Life. The only problem is that no one seems to come back from it alive. Not most at least.
In late 2014 I told James about a writing project I had and asked if he’d be up for an interview about his NDE. I felt it touched on various themes that had more to do with living than dying. He was cagey and reluctant at first. It wasn’t so much a reluctance to share personal details or revisit a traumatic event; he seemed to have no problems with that. Rather he thought that it wasn’t something anyone would be interested in. Convincing him otherwise, what follows is culled from the exchanges we had over a 3-week period in November 2014.
NC: Hi James, thanks for agreeing to do this. Would you care to introduce yourself, maybe tell us a bit about your life, your background, what you do, so we can get on to the good stuff?
JL: I’ll try. I’m James Lee, currently based here in Singapore. My parents moved here from Sydney when I was 4. Singapore has been our home since then. I love music, art, gaming, trekking and computers. I studied Computer Science and Special Needs education. The latter was probably because I had an autistic cousin with whom I grew up. If anything, I was amazed by certain things about him, though I could see how difficult it was for him sometimes. I’ve worked as an industrial designer but got tired of it after a while. After that I started a company dealing mostly in software technology. I have an uncle dealing in educational aids and I suggested exploring the market for products tailored to those with learning disabilities. We market mostly overseas and I’m mainly in charge of software design and programming. Life was alright and normal, up until the accident. So yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m about.
NC: Are you religious in any way?
JL: Not really. I mean, I was born into a Christian family, and I was one till my late teens. I’m not an atheist, not by a long stretch, but I guess common notions of God don’t really make sense to me.
NC: Would you tell us about your accident and Near Death Experience(NDE) then? What happened exactly? And how do you know it was an NDE?
JL: Well, I was clinically dead for starters… Haha.
NC: Oh, small detail. What I meant to ask was, how do you know it was an NDE, that is, an experience that has the characteristics and taxonomy of all that cool spooky stuff we often see in movies and sometimes read about?
JL: To be honest, I don’t know. I mean, I know what I experienced, that I know with certainty. And to my shock, even to this day, it fit so completely with all that, well, cool spooky stuff we read about.
NC: Yeah, so run us through that.
JL: I was in Vietnam on a short vacation riding a motorbike at night. It was one of those long roads where you find yourself overtaking heavier vehicles. I guess I was impatient and tried to overtake this truck. I ended up crashing into an oncoming lorry pretty much head on.
You know, other than it being a miracle I’m still alive, I think it’s a miracle I only suffered multiple fractures and massive internal bleeding. Ok that sounded wrong.I mean, most people who crash the way I did die instantly. No two ways about that. Then I don’t remember what happened, I can’t. I mean, I remember seeing the lorry and before I could go ‘Oh shit’ I crashed into it. Then it was a blank and after that it was fleeting broken images of lights. I suppose I must have been on the road or something. I couldn’t feel a thing and didn’t know what had happened.
Next bit I remember I was in what seemed like an emergency room. It sounded real busy, almost like the market I had been to earlier that day. Again, I couldn’t feel a thing, not even my body. Ok wait, I did feel an enormous pressure on me and this blanket of numbness all around, but it wasn’t like how we normally feel numb. I guess that must mean it was my body, but it wasn’t like anything I’ve felt in terms of my body. I was drifting in and out so all this was quite scattered.
NC: But that wasn’t the NDE was it?
JL: No, but the NDE came soon after. Like, the sound of the market, it got more intense, like people arguing or something, then there was this high pitched sound, like cellophane tearing, and suddenly I was on top. Looking down. And it was very clear. I mean, it was clear and I could see. With my eyes, yet it couldn’t have been my eyes, but it was sight, like my head was in a painting, yet I was looking down from the ceiling. I could see myself. I couldn’t really hear. Everything looked the same, just with the colour kinda sucked out and there was a blueish violet hue. I saw the doctors and there was this guy who was taking what seemed to be a defibrillator from the side. And then the scene changed and I felt like I was sucked backwards further up, like there was this blackness behind me, and the painting got sucked up and the scene changed. And I guess this is where I had what people call the “Life Review”.
NC: Hmmm. What was that like?
JL: Ok I know all this isn’t going to sound logical but I’ll try.
NC: Don’t worry, you left logic once you started being part of a painting…
JL: Haha.. No no, I mean it’s not logical because I actually felt present, like we do when we’re in our bodies, but yet not.
NC: I know what you mean. So you were outside your own body looking down at yourself?
NC: That’s one of the more common things that seems to happen during NDEs.
JL: Apparently it is. I mean things became more familiar, yet what the fuck? Anyway my life didn’t flash before me in sequence. It flashed all at once. I felt like I was blasted with what had to be the sum total of my memories and experiences, and I knew all of it at once, down to the last minute detail. But these memories, they were sequentially discrete yet simultaneously stacked and fused with each other according to what must be…. I dunno, karmic themes? I can’t think of a better way of putting it.
I don’t believe in karma, at least not normally, I think that whole retribution thing is seriously misguided. Anyway, by karmic themes I mean to say that memories, of say, some relationships I had were glued together, certain parts of them at least, and then glued together with a certain memory of my mom, my aunt, my schoolteacher, some friends, that kinda thing. And I felt like I knew what was what. I can’t for the life of me pull it all back, I wish I could, but there and then I knew what my life was about, or had been about, the sum total of my existence, but then again time didn’t matter… it was like, I knew what the purpose of my life had been. There was a strange detachment to feeling that. There wasn’t a past or a future. I hope I’m making sense.
NC: You said you don’t believe in normal notions of karma, what do you believe then?
JL: Ok look, in my experience, karma is action, not retribution. If I had to define karma, I’d say karma is immanent action with as much awareness as one can bring to bear on the ‘why and how’ of the act at hand.
Karma is action, not retribution. Every action we do in life arises from the tension between our ideas of the bygone past against our expectations of the unformed future. In that sense, with every action we send out a reaction, a reaction to what we feel is going on at any point in time, our subjective idea of the flux of the Universe at that particular instant. And the unfolding of events resonates with the totality of those actions and intentions we send out.
I believe that if one does good or bad, there can be a symmetry between what you give and what you get. But that’s not to say that if you do good things you’ll get good things. Say you catch someone stealing something you own, and are in a position to report this person and land him or her in jail, but you don’t, out of what you believe to be kindness. What often happens next is that:
* you lose that thing that was almost stolen
* you gain something else related to the thing that was almost stolen
* you find yourself in a position where you have a chance to steal something
* and for the sake of completeness, all or the above or none at all
so everything can cancel everything else out and the logical ones amongst us will say ‘Shit happens’. Which you know, is true. But my point is that symmetry is preserved even within the shit that happens, but we often fail to see this. It’s not so much ‘What goes around comes around’, but ‘what goes around goes around, and what comes around comes around’, and symmetry is preserved in ways that we sometimes are very able to witness. What do you think?
NC: I think you’re right. I often come across a certain kind of flawed dynamic in the way people use the line ‘Everything Happens For a Reason’. My first response is usually, ‘Causality, schmuck’. And I’ve met many talented ‘reverse engineers’ this way. Haha.
JL: What do you mean?
NC: Well, think of when people actually do use that line? Don’t you notice that more often than not, it’s said AFTER the shit has already hit the fan? It’s like a cop-out, an abdication of responsibility for actually having any part to play in causing that shit to begin with. I take ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ to mean that there are degrees of causality and hidden connections underlying events that are simply beyond us, but which we are intrinsically tied to. I suppose this is what ‘The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways’ could mean. So it becomes a matter of properly acknowledging that, through a kind of active surrender.
I believe there is always a point at which we are required to make a choice, a conscious choice. They’re often moments during which we have to rise above ourselves and our comfort zone. That to me, is the real point at which one should/could say, ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’. You know the gravity of the situation about to ensue and choose your involvement in it, so you say the line, and THEN you make the choice in full awareness, and whatever unfolds after, good or bad, at least you’re in the driver’s seat. If you say it after the shit happens, you likely end up playing the Victim, which is almost a guarantee that the shit will happen again, simply because you haven’t owned it.
JL: Exactly my point! In my opinion, the dynamics of karma operate like that. So yes, there is fate, but we also play an intrinsic role in orchestrating what manifests as fate. We are not separate from things, be they objects or each other.
NC: That being said, I’m with you on that. I think the traditional paradigm of cause-and-effect is what keeps us entrenched in a singular view. It tends to sneak up on us through the cracks found within our way of relating to the self-image. Western Newtonian notions of time as ‘pure duration’ and nothing but a backdrop against which matter and billiard balls swing to and fro, it tends to keep us glued only to the idea that A leads to B leads to C leads to D which makes us think every moment is different, equally meaningless and tied only to the moment that preceded it. The ancient Chinese never had this view.
NC: And what did you feel?
JL: I was there for what seemed like an eternity, and things started to move. I felt like I was being sucked further back, and that’s when things started to get dimmer, like a darkness was enveloping me. It was like a vignette kinda effect. It was growing darker, and the darker it grew, the more serene I felt. That’s when I began to hear voices. I have no idea what they were saying, and didn’t see anything that could indicate where the voices were from. But they felt peaceful and really familiar, like I’d known them for a long time. It didn’t feel that far off from what I’ve felt with my family before.
I’d say it felt like Christmas morning in a higher dimension! I was elated.I dare say it was enjoyable. But soon after that, it was just all black. The next thing I remember was waking up in the hospital bed. That’s when I knew I was alive, and that I had been ‘out’.
You know, before the voices stopped, I felt a strange mix of love and fear. But again it wasn’t like any love or fear I’ve known. There was a certain boundless reverence to it. Don’t expect me to English all of this! But yeah, it was strange. And you know, it took me a while but I finally came to this. If there is a God, he she it doesn’t give a shit. And I mean that about judgement. We carry our own judgements with us, to the grave and beyond I feel. I don’t mean God doesn’t give a shit in a way like he she it doesn’t care. Quite the contrary.
Whatever is out there, it loved me unconditionally. But I feel that God, if there is one, doesn’t give a shit about our judgements. If anything, God can only give a shit after we’re done sorting our own shit. We distance ourselves from God without even knowing it. All our little dramas, our oh-so-important world, the bastion of ME as the center… sigh.
The idea of Purgatory might be just that, the degree of the impediment we put upon ourselves when sorting out our own shit. And from what I experienced, that lattice had a lot to do with the shit-sorting.
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