On one such visit to the National Gallery, I walked into Room No 30 and I was transfixed by a large painting, St Francis in meditation by Francisco de Zurburan. St Francis was kneeling life size before me, oblivious to the people walking past him. Against a plain, unadorned, dark background, the figure was illuminated by a bright light from the side. The contrast between the light and shadow was quite striking. He was wearing a plain, tattered brown robe. His head was raised upwards with parted lips in awe as if he was caught in a moment of redemption and release. From a distance, I was unable to make out his eyes, but when I approached the canvas all I could see was a void. A skull was clasped in his hands with the empty sockets of the skull staring directly into the eyes of the saint. The entire image conveyed an intense psychological experience of confrontation with the unknown, with death, and what must lie beyond.
I must have looked at the painting for a long while, unmindful of people milling around me. It was an immersive experience. Over the course of the next few weeks I returned to the gallery many times just to have a look at the painting. The image of St Francis never vanished from my thoughts.
Why did this painting have such a hold on me?
It is the story of an unwelcome alien and its devastating effect on me! In the early 80’s the place where we were living was right in the middle of a sea of Parthenium plants. Considered as one of the most invasive species in the world, it perhaps found its way as a contaminant of PL480 wheat which was being imported from USA. It is said to produce at least 3000 million pollen grains per square meter during the flowering season, which cause a range of intense allergic reactions. Some of these pollens sneaked their way through my nasal cavity causing a persistent running nose. Over a course of time I also started experiencing retching cough, which was worse during night. I managed to keep everyone awake at night by this unrelenting, hacking cough. Cough medicines were of little help. One night I woke up with severe cough which wouldn’t settle down and I became breathless. Ahalya woke up and the last thing I remembered was lying in her arms. What happened in the next few seconds is something that would remain etched in my memory for ever.
I was in a beautiful, otherworldly realm, feeling a sense of connectedness, suffused with overwhelming tranquility. It was an exceedingly radiant, serene, rapturous moment, the like of which I had never experienced before. I was immobile but didn’t experience any pain. When I opened my eyes, Ahalya was vigorously rubbing my chest, trying to bring me back to life. Strangely cough and breathlessness stopped. I was back in my body, thoroughly exhausted and drained of energy. I felt I was being pulled away reluctantly from a magical realm.
Over the course of next few weeks there were similar occurrences, each one much like the previous ones. Though these brief episodes were personally blissful for me, it was a continuing source of anxiety and concern to others in the family. As the cough continued unabated as also the breathlessness, I consulted a senior ENT surgeon. He took a careful history and said, “Doctor, what you are experiencing is post nasal drip, which is trickling down the respiratory track, resulting in cough and breathlessness.” He advised an ayurvedic medication which proved to be very effective and thankfully, I have never had a similar problem since then.
But that transcendental experience was an eye opener for me. It was the strangest, most beautiful world I had ever seen. Whether I was in the presence of the divine or my brain was merely pumping out chemicals like never before, the entire experience was so intense that it stays with me even now.
To me it was akin to watching a total solar eclipse. In 1980 a few of us traveled to Karwar to have a view of the phenomenon as it was touted to afford the best view. We positioned ourselves on a small hillock overlooking the sea. There was lots of activity on the beach below with children and adults enjoying a stroll in the evening. The sea gulls were squawking noisily and merrily. As the eclipse advanced, the activity on the beach faded away and the gulls were suddenly quiet. Without a prologue, the sun disappeared totally, a black disc covering it like a lens cap. There was an eerie silence and the entire landscape was bathed in surreal colors. Slowly light peeped through like a thin golden ring around the sun. Thought it lasted for just a few minutes, it was an enthralling experience during which I felt an intense sense of connectivity to another realm, a vast uncharted universe. In that brief moment when the all life-giving giving sun disappeared in a behind a black veil and re-emerged, it was a reminder that all things have an end and a new beginning.
There is no shortage of scientific theories about what causes near-death experiences. It’s well established, for instance, that an oxygen shortage, a glitch at the temporoparietal junction, too much of carbon dioxide and a range of neurochemicals might play a part.
No matter how you explain them, near-death experiences are pivotal events in people’s lives. They are a lens through which to gaze at the workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence, even for the most resolute materialist. For a person who has gone through such an experience and resurface again, it can be a profound transformative spiritual experience as in the life of Sri Ramana Maharishi.
The literature is replete with narratives that attempt to capture these moments..
For instance, Hemingway in his famous short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” wrote about an African safari that went disastrously wrong. Harry is stricken by gangrene, knows he is dying and Compie, a bush pilot, arrives to rescue him. The two take off and fly together through a storm with rain so thick “it seemed like flying through a waterfall” until the plane emerges into the light before them; “unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.” The description embraces elements of a classic near-death experience; the darkness, the cessation of pain, the emerging into the light and then a feeling of peacefulness.
Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, begins with these lines: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.”
The quality of our life is determined by how we interpret our experiences, not by the experiences themselves.
For me, these experiences were catalysts for growth on many different levels—psychologically, emotionally, maybe even a tad spiritually. It stripped away uncomfortable thoughts of existential oblivion, ushering in a more compassionate stance about the fragility and precariousness of life. As St. Augustine wrote, “it is only in the face of death that a man’s self is born.” It helped me to cope with fears of death with a greater appreciation of the gift of life both in personal life as I attended to my elders (all of whom who passed away peacefully at home) and professionally in caring for those who are facing the end of their lives.
I am often reminded of the Buddhist meditative practice of Anicca (in Pali) or Anitya (in Sanskrit), in which one focuses on the desiccation and disappearance of leaves from a tree and then on the future impermanence of the tree itself and, indeed, of one’s own body. The transitory nature of our life need not be a source of discomfort. Like dewdrops at sunrise, though lasting for just a few minutes shine with light within, it can be an ennobling experience.
Exploring ways of overcoming our fears of death and adopting a creative approach to the impermanence of life provides us valuable insights to negotiate our lives in a richer and more compassionate manner.
We are not the beginning
We are not the end
We are a link in a chain
At the edge of mystery
Look forward to your reflections here . . .