What I Saw When I Died
My heart stopped beating six years ago, I died, and it changed my life. I call life after that experience "Life 2.0". In my TEDx talk about it, I give voice to the power of twenty seconds of insane courage and feeling the hard things (and the good things) and taking time to reflect in the sunrises and sunsets, and the power of Team Us.
But there is one part I haven’t talked about, except to a few, and mostly in passing: what I saw when I died.
I usually joke around in order to avoid that topic, because it has so many religious implications for those who look for them, and I am not one to talk often about religion, especially in mixed company. I find that people ascribe their own religious beliefs to the experience with great certainty, making my personal experience a complete reaffirmation of what they already believe to be true. I have been loathe to discuss it because it also leads to judgments (intentional and unintentional), and commentary about me, my life, my choices, etc., and I don’t know many people who sign up for that lecture voluntarily. Regardless, it is something I have not discussed much and only in close company—until now.
Yes, I had an experience and it was profound in what it both said and what it didn’t say about this life and what comes after. It was something to behold, but not much to look at. It seemed to be a creation of my own mind, although I had never “seen” this place before. But that all changed less than a month ago.
Recently, we returned from a “bucket list” trip to New Zealand which I can accurately say was the best trip I’ve ever taken, and amongst all the little, gritty details that make up the substances of our best memories, there was one moment unrelated to that amazing trip that stopped my soul, and unexpectedly demanded my undivided attention: I came across the landscape of that afterlife world...
It was similar to a vast desert landscape with no vegetation and with diverging and converging paths that crossed a vast sea of brown and reddish terrain. In the distance were mountains shrouded with storm clouds and a fiery hue emanating behind the mountains that reflected off the clouds. It was dark and cloudy, but there was no lack of light. While it may sound threatening, it was not. It was not hot or cold. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. The place had a sense of intense calm, as if the air muffled the sound, but moved lighter than ever. Ethereal.
In every direction there were what I can only describe as “nomadic tribes” of people, men and women, dressed in similarly drab and unremarkable robes, wandering with shuffling purpose through this desert afterlife. People were marching in different directions and would occasionally switch to different tribes, and head in different directions, as these groups crossed at intersections. In that sense it was like the traffic flow of our afterlife, following one another in a pack of traffic but heading different directions to get where we were going at intersections. I remember changing tribes a few times as well.
I did see people that I recognized, but I cannot recall who I saw; just the awareness that I knew them when I looked at them. That might be because your soul is recognizable and familiar, even if your body is not. Faces were completely recognizable in their detail, but not memorable, as if that was part of the power of this place. The majority of the time, however, I spent in the company of unfamiliar souls. That may seem like an odd thing to say because in “regular time” I was only there for slightly over 20 seconds, but it felt like four days.
There was no hunger, and these nomadic tribes were marching along quietly, and if there were words spoken, I cannot recall hearing them. Things seemed to move with a sense of unspoken understanding and calm. In fact, the first time I remember hearing someone speak or break the silence was when a bright light came, the sky split open and there was a face larger than the entire scene before me: It was a doctor saying “he had me” and I remember asking “is this real?” as the light enveloped me and pulled me from the scene. It was real. Life 2.0 was ahead.
But the landscape, as vivid as it was in my head, did not replicate any desert scene I had personally come across. And for some reason, not having ever seen that scene in real life has been a mental barrier on some level, and consequently I’ve struggled to give much voice to this part of the experience, instead focusing my voice on changing my life, and helping others do the same.
It’s as if the true essence of that entirety of that moment was eluding capture in anticipation of the landscape being seen and experienced. On the Tongariro Alpine in New Zealand, at the foot of a volcano (“Mount Doom” from Lord Of The Rings no less), there is a landscape that is the stage of my experience in the afterlife. And I have now seen it. And there is something powerful in that. And while the air was different in feel, and the sun was out, and the mountains were closer during this hike, and there were far fewer people, I came across the scene. And that experience somehow makes my time “in between” or my time in wherever you believe I was, to be more real.
And maybe there is some power in this story for you as well, so I share in the hopes that it makes you think about how there are things that are bigger than us all, and beyond our complete comprehension. About how experiences can shape us profoundly without having true form, and that there is so much we do not know or understand, no matter your religious proclivities or universal certainties. That this life is bigger than our day-to-day politics, stresses and trials. I know that this might not be much of an ending to this story, but it is not the end of the story. In fact, that seems fitting and similar to my experience in the afterlife. Just one more important story on the path of my journey, without an ending.