Been there, seen it, believe it

“Except ye see sights and wonders, ye will not believe.” – John 4:48

I was sitting chatting over coffee with a group of acquaintances the other day when the conversation strayed towards death. One woman leaned forward and said: “Well, it doesn’t matter because when you die, I know there is no afterlife. When your body dies, you die and that’s that. There is no soul.”

I was about to call her out on it, but I caught myself.

It could have been the look in her eyes, or perhaps it was the sheer conviction in her voice. I realised who I was talking to and that challenging her would lead nowhere. When atheists start proselytising, they are frequently worse than religious zealots.

I also happened to be reading a book by Paramahansa Yogananda, the man who is credited with bringing yoga to the West, called Autobiography of a Yogi, first published in 1946.

It’s filled, cover to cover, with very little that has to do with what we in the West regard as “normal” or “rational” occurrences. Instead, it abounds with miracles: gurus, swamis and babas float in the air, travel back and forward through time, are able to be in two places at once, fight tigers with their bare hands and, yes, even resurrect the dead.

Sustained suspension of disbelief required
The Bible is quite staid by comparison; interestingly, Yogananda regards Jesus as a yogi who, like the others he tells of, has transcended the laws of physics through years of rigorous kriya yoga practice, which involves mostly breath work and meditation. It is a book that requires sustained suspension of disbelief, and the only reason I did not lay it to one side was that his first revelation resonated deeply with an experience that changed my life forever.

Some context: it happened at a stage in my life when my belief system was basically limited to an unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

I was providing the services of my motorbike to a cameraman, who sat on the back while I steered and he shot thousands of cyclists during some marathon in Middelburg. After the shoot I headed for the hills of Mpumulanga, where a friend of mine lived, and arrived dead tired.

But when my mate hauled out a bottle of grog I was understandably chuffed, and we were making short work of it when her boyfriend arrived. He was an ageing medical doctor of ill repute: a bearded, grizzled Sixties leftover whose favourite trick was to produce prescription drugs at parties.

On that occasion, he was in possession of ketamine, an anaesthetic that is used little today because of its hallucinatory effects.

He first inquired about my previous history with psychedelics and, when he was satisfied that I had some experience of them, he asked for my body weight so that he could administer the “correct” intravenous dosage.

Correct in this case meant taking me to that exact zone where dreams happen but where you are still awake to see them.

We then went down to a dam on the smallholding and sat on the banks as the sun faded, and he placed some kind of medical apparatus into the crook of my arm that allowed carefully measured amounts of “vitamin K” to seep into my bloodstream through a small tap.

Ego unwrapping
Well, I won’t bore you readers with all the fuzzy, loopy stuff that I saw. It was what I heard that really got me. It was the sound of a giant reel of Sellotape unravelling. Later I realised this was the layers of my ego, built up over years, unwrapping.

Then there was this sensation that there was no “I”. Certainly no body. This was followed by some kind of awareness, more like an “eye” than an “I”, and it was travelling. “I” decided at this point not to panic.

“I” then visited several worlds, some of which were blackened and devoid of all life and some of which were exquisitely beautiful. Even stranger, I was aware that the two people I was tripping with were at times seeing the same things that I was: I could hear their gasps of surprise at the beautiful stuff, their horror at the darker realms we traversed.

Most of all, I was aware that “I” had seen this stuff thousands of times before and that I was an unbelievably ancient being.

So how did this change my life?

It’s never easy to integrate these kinds of experiences into your daily life – there’s a saying “after the ecstasy, the laundry”, meaning it’s hard to get on with daily activities after glimpsing the divine – but I was aware of an immense, profound shift in the way I saw things afterwards. For example, I believe in reincarnation at both a gut level and intellectually: energy never “ends” in nature; it just transforms into something else.

The sceptics will at this point be saying that my going down the “k-hole” wasn’t a real experience: it was the drugs that made me see what I saw and feel what I felt.

But for me it was the opposite: what we take for granted, the world we “see” – this shared, consensual “reality” – is actually the illusion. Perhaps I was given a glimpse behind the curtain of what the yogis call maya.

Granted, I took a short cut, but after this experience I know for sure there is more to this world than meets the eye, and this has helped me to see the bigger picture and be less concerned with petty things, for which I am deeply grateful. These days, I practice yoga almost daily; chemicals are no longer on the “to do” list.

Your experience is the only thing that defines your world. My friend the atheist has seen one side of reality – and I have seen hers, and another. I no longer fear death as much; the transition may be uncomfortable but it is just another state, another world.

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