I am going to talk about a Near Death Experience, that is to say, memories from a coma. This is based on Anita Moorjani‘s Dying To Be Me, published in 2012. In my talk, I’ll broach the following points: 1) the life of the person before their illness, 2) the illness and attempts to treat it, 3) the experience of the coma state as remembered, 4) the very rapid recovery after waking up, 5) life and career after recovery, 6) the main lessons taught, 7) why I read this kind of book, and 8) what do I think of the teachings the person draws from their experience.
The Life of Anita Moorjani
Born in Singapore to parents from the Sindh in India, she grew up and was educated in Hong Kong, in English. She tried to resist pressure from her parents, especially her father, to become the ideal family-centered young Indian woman able to contract the ideal Indian marriage. At the last minute, with her mother’s understanding, she backs out of an arranged marriage with a man from the Indian community. She wants a career and the liberty to make her own choices, but she feels very badly about having let down her father. She avoids the Indian community in HK where her reputation is in tatters.
Hallelujah, after just a few years, she meets a man of Indian background, Danny, who has progressive views and much admires a woman who would follow her heart rather than please the norms of her ethnic community. She marries him. But there is a tinge of sadness as her father dies before the actual ceremony, though he knew that his somewhat wayward daughter had found a suitable Indian man to marry. The young couple both work happily at their respective jobs and resist pressures to start making babies.
A very close friend of Anita’s comes down with cancer and dies; then, the husband of her own husband’s younger sister also dies of cancer. During these illnesses, Anita develops a powerful fear of getting cancer herself.
Only a few years into her happy marriage, but after these two deaths close to her, a lump on her shoulder is diagnosed as cancerous. She refuses traditional Western medicine and goes to India for its tradtional holistic medicine, Ayurveda. She seems to be getting better; she feels and looks better.
But returning to Hong Kong, she begins worring about how to continue her healing: with Ayurveda, with the qi-oriented Chinese traditional medicine or with Western holistic medicine? Like HK itself, there are so many traditions, each with conflicting recommendations, and she falls into fear and confusion. Her health goes into a serious decline.
Early in 2006, four years after her initial diagnosis, her husband and mother take her, at last, to a Western hospital. Her lymphatic system is riddled with tumors the size of lemons and her skin is covered with open lesions. Though the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) doctors think it is ‘‘too late to save her” and that she’ll likely die during the night; they hook her up to a chemotherapy treatment. She goes into a coma that will last 30 hours.
Near Death Experience (NDE)
Here, we will look at what or how she remembers her experiences during the coma. Despite her apparently unconscious state and swollen face shutting her eyes, she finds herself more aware of what is going on around her than she could ever imagine.
She can feel the anguish of her husband Danny and wishes to reassure him that she is in a place of peace and happiness. She feels detached from her sick body and even from her emotional attachments to loved ones. She is liberated from pain and sorrow.
She experiences an expansion of consciousness beyond any physical limits and a great joy, being surrounded by unconditional love. A love she had never known but was now given to her without her having to earn it.
The presences of her dead father and her dear dead friend speak to her in love. She is aware of other beings surrounding her and protecting her. Her getting cancer now makes sense; it led her to an awareness of her true self.
She wonders who is letting her now understand all these things? God? Krishna? Buddha? Jesus? Then she grasps ‘‘that God isn’t a being, but a state of being … and I was now in that state of being.”
She sees her life connected to all she has experienced and to everyone she has known so far, as if she was one thread woven into a huge and complex tapestry of life. Her part in life is to be the thread that she is, nothing else.
She has no need to forsake herself, to strive to satisfy others, to beat herself up for failing to meet what she takes to be other people’s expectations.
The presence of her father seems to speak to her more directly, letting her know that she has a choice before her: either remain with him in this place of peace and all encompassing consciousness or to return to the world.
She does NOT want to return to her sick and painful body, but then receives an insight, in a flash, that if she returns to her body, she will be healed as she now has grasped the magnificence of her true self. She feels that she has something to do in the world. Namely, to help people realize their own true selves, their own magnificence.
The presences of her departed friend and father seem to give her the green light to go back into the world and to live her life fearlessly.
Return to the world
After about 30 hours in the coma, she opens her eyes; Danny cries out: ”She’s back.” She astounds family and medical staff by recounting the conversations that took place while she was apparently unconscious. She tells them that she already knew that her brother was flying back from India to be with her.
She mentions the conversation the previous day between a doctor and her brother and mother in the corridor outside the ICU where the doctor was extremely pessimistic about her chances of coming out of the coma. To his surprise, she informs another doctor who she had never seen before in a conscious state that she saw him come in and draw fluids from her lungs during the previous night.
She makes an extremely rapid, almost miraculous recovery. She says to the doctors that if they need to do tests to reassure themselves, go ahead, but she knows that she has healed.
Within two weeks, the lemon-sized tumors have all gone and a bioposy finds no trace of any cancer in her lymph nodes. The surgery originally scheduled to close her large skin lesions has to be cancelled as her skin heals up by itself. After a few more weeks, she is out on town, in her favorite restaurant, celebrating with her family her complete recovery.
An American doctor specialist in Near Death Experiences, hearing about her case, flies to HK and examines her medical records and interviews her. Her experience is written up on his website. He calls it the most sudden and complete remission he has ever seen.
Life and career after the NDE
Anita loses interest in old friends who seem to her caught up in the performance anxieties of a ”fear-based world.” She and her husband Danny downsize their lives to a more modest dwelling near the Chinese border so they can pursue their dreams without money pressures.
She no longer wants a conventional job. She finds a rôle as a consultant on the Near Death Experience to the department of behavioral sciences of the University of Hong Kong.
She starts working on a book which will become the one I have been talking about this morning. Ignoring advice from friends, she doesn’t bother looking for a literary agent. Lo and behold, the American self-actualization guru Dr Wayne Dyer hears of her Near Death Experience and wants to arrange the publication of Dying to be Me. This happens in 2012.
Since then, she has written and published additional books, What If This Is Heaven, and, for children, Love: A story about who you truly are. She has joined the lecture circuit and will be giving seminars this spring in Bristol, England, and in various German cities.
She and her husband Danny have moved from HK to the USA.
The teachings of Anita
She does not remain in the full state of expanded consciousness she knew in the coma. But she tries to keep present in her life this sense of what she calls the Infinite Self.
Each one of us is love; we must recognize the magnificence of our true self. She tries to embody love in a fear-based world. This is her purpose and message. ”We must love ourselves as if our lives depend on it, because they do!”
Somewhat like Father Bob Lemire who spoke to us last October, she tells us that we don’t need to make ourselves lovable, we are loved by the very fact that we were created to be. We need to live our emotions (both positive and negative) and be the person who we are, not the person we believe other people want us to be.
Like Unitarian Universalists, she believes in the inherent worth of every person, even those who indulge in criminal and destructive behavior. Not loving oneself is behind all sorts of antisocial and even violent behavior. Fear is a great driver of illness and crime. Physical and mental illness may be a response to not loving oneself.
Religious and cultural beliefs can keep you from being atuned to your own being. Moral judgments, theological doctrines and even the famous ‘power of positive thinking’ do not help you stay tuned into who you are as being with an inherent right to exist, to love.
Why did I read this book?
Like in Moorjani’s story, I lost a friend to cancer, just last year and quite suddenly. This winter, I started having a very mild but persistant pain in my side and convinced myself that I had a metastasis from my prostate cancer. I was in a huge panic for a couple of weeks.
Well, my psychotherapist tells me that my theory about my pain might be right, but I also might be very wrong. And entertaining fear and assuming the worst would definitely harm me. She had heard of Moorjani’s book and suggested that I might look at it and perhaps it could help my mental outlook.
For the purposes of this talk, it would great if I could say that Anita’s story helped me. But, actually, even before reading the book, I heard what my therapist was saying and adopted an open mind about my pain. I have made appointments to have it looked at and, already, it has almost disappeared.
So my own experience agrees with Anita on the point that fear can do you great harm. And I would say more generally, being fearful has done me much harm in my life.
How do I relate to Anita’s story and philosphy
Anita’s story about her fear of not satisfying cultural norms and parental hopes for a proper Indian marriage resonates with my own life’s journey, much given over to trying to be a good guy who, I hoped, everyone would like.
As the First Nation’s Elder invited us to do in the Blanket Ceremony held here in December, I am still travelling on that longest road from the head, which is, in my case, filled with worries about acceptability, to the heart, where my action could come from what I feel inside rather than from role-playing to live up to what I imagine others want from me.
In a sense, I take from the message of Anita that we have one life to live and it can only be lived joyously in being true to one’s own being. In other words, I take to heart for my own self, the first UU principle recognizing ”the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
However, I cannot stop here with the short and simple message. Life is more complicated than that, because seeing yourself as you are, getting what you are about, is not at all an easy thing.
A conversion experience, say, on the road to Damascus, or a profound illumination, while you are sitting, for instance, under the Bodhi tree, may give one the feeling of being born again to a new life, to have discovered the real meaning of Life. But you cannot abstract yourself from your own life’s journey, from the ways you fashion yourself to survive childhood and make it through adult life.
Having grown up in our culture with each our own family history, we continually tell ourselves stories about ourselves, the kind of person we are and we avoid seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror. This is where others come into our lives, for it is through our exchanges with others, that we get feedback about what we are doing, how we are being. It is not a question of judging one’s self or moralizing but of making sense of how one is living one’s life.
Last year, in giving a talk to this community about the anti-war poet and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, I quoted him: ”We would like to speak to you, each of us in a different way, about our communities; because, you see, it is our conviction that nobody in the world can form his or her conscience alone.”
I would go further in saying that beyond conscience, even our consciousness depends on the mirror that others can hold up to our lives. This community which encourages spiritual growth (third UU principle) as well as my long-term engagement with psychotherapy have helped me make more sense out of my life and come to a better, but yet never complete understanding of who I am.
In conclusion, I think that Anita Moorjani’s experience and philosophy of life do tell us some vital truths. Nevertheless, we are not simply love, we have built our personalities to survive in this world and this complexity has to be acknowledged and not smoothed over by an experience of illumination, however, fascinating and appealing it may be.
Christopher Thomson, 2018-01-14