Heaven in Hell’s Kitchen

"Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn" wrote Harriet Beecher Stowe.   There are many versions of this truth.  Here is Rumi:

“When you go through a hard period,
When everything seems to oppose you,
When you feel you can’t bear even one minute,
never give up
Because it is the time and place that the course will divert.”

The night I was mugged on a street in Hell’s Kitchen, the tide turned, the course diverted, a great shift happened just when it was clear there was no way out.   I was trapped. I couldn’t breathe.  I couldn’t talk.  The screen of my thinking mind went white.

It was then that I saw the light, just a glow at first, but growing brighter, dazzling, welling up in the darkness to fill my whole body and mind, gaining a force and direction unknown to me.  I remember marveling at the building intensity and intention, wondering where it had come from in me, and then it became a column of white light that shot out of the top of my head, arching high into the night sky.

Decades later, a Tibetan Buddhist told me about a Vajrayana Buddhist practice called “phowa,” (He also explained that Vajrayana  means “diamond” or “thunderbolt” vehicle, which felt right to me because everything about the experience dazzled, was charged with force).   Phowa is described as “the practice of conscious dying”,  “transference of consciousness at the time of death,”   or even “enlightenment without meditation.”  I heard stories of Tibetan lamas imprisoned by the Chinese leaving their bodies this way voluntarily—even a story of a great Tibetan master who sought to teach this practice to Thomas Merton shortly before his accidental death.

But this amazing event—happening to someone who couldn’t sit still for a twenty minute meditation, who had a black sheep status in her meditation group–didn’t amaze me as much as what unfolded next  The column of light reached up to join a much greater light  that drew down to meet it. It was as if a curtain was drawn back and all around me there was light– behind the abandoned tenements around me, behind all the forms in this world, there was a luminosity—this light was an energy or vibrancy that wasn’t separate from love.  It was this light was the force that holds up the world, into which all separation dissolves.

Suddenly, I realized that I could see myself and my attacker from behind and above. I could see the top and back of my own head as well as his massive back and head.  I watched myself gasping, watched my knees buckled, watched myself sink to my knees on the dirty street, watched myself looking up at the light.  And then I was embraced by that light

People in all cultures and all ages have reported near death experiences, trips to heaven and hell when the spirit leaves the body.  But science argues that while these experiences feel real they are simply fantasies or hallucinations caused by a brain under severe stress, and certainly my brain was under stress that night.  A choke hold can kill in 20-30 seconds. Someone skilled in martial arts can knock someone out within 8 seconds using such a hold, and brain damage can happen after about 15 seconds because stopping blood flow to and from the brain can lead to brain hemorrhage, and/or the pressure on the heart can cause it to stop.  If only the airway is constricted, someone (me) could reasonably last minutes before death occurs.

But science can’t account for the intimacy—for the extraordinary presence—of the experience.  I didn’t just see the light, I was seen, and not in part but in whole.   I knelt on the sidewalk, looking up at the light that descended to meet me, as if heaven descended.  Although I wasn’t raised in a religious home, I remembered a phrase I read or heard without knowing what it meant exactly, a “community of saints,” an echo of the presence I sensed of many beings, of ranks of beings, of a great witnessing consciousness that was layered, a multitude, an ascending order, all of it greater than my own.

A particular being seemed to draw very close, gazing at me with a grave intelligence and caring that was unlike the love I had known on earth.  I was being searched by the being, and that everything I knew myself by was being brushed aside like clouds–my name, my education, all my labels insubstantial and unimportant.  I once came up with an awkward metaphor for the experience– fire fighters descending a staircase, shining a light through smoke, urgently looking for life— was trying and failing to capture the feeling of concern in this searching light of awareness. It bypassed my brain (no surprise, since it had gotten me in this particular pickle and its analysis hadn’t help get me out) descending to seek something that was unknown to me, unnoticed under all the thoughts and attributes I thought I was.

Finally, the searching stopped.  The light poured through a particular spot in the center of my chest.  I saw that what was real and alive and valuable in me what not what I thought—it was some deep and hidden corner of my being that I didn’t even know.  I was held in the grave and loving gaze of this higher being, this angel of awareness—I had the sensation that my whole life, lived and as yet unlived, was literally being held and weighed in the palm of a giant hand.   Years later, I heard a line in a psalm about every tear being counted.  It was as if I was I was being shown that everything we do and suffer is seen and cared about–that we humans and all beings are loved in a personal way.  That I didn’t “believe” in any of this—that I was too cool, too skeptical, if not exactly scientific—that didn’t count.  What I believed or didn’t believe was a wisp of cloud to be brushed away.

After this “weighing” or reading, I was lifted up into this field of light and love.  It was a bit like lifting off in a plane, rising above the clouds into bright sunlight, except that I was surrounded by an otherworldly kind of radiance, lifted towards a heavenly host and as I was as I was lifted, I felt completely accepted and acceptable, completely known, completely loved, completely free.    Later, I wondered if this could be what was really meant by salvation, being liberated from the illusion of isolation, lifted up out of fog of separation, delivered into the whole, into the reality behind the appearances of the world.

I was soaring, surrounded by radiance, accompanied, carried by a luminous force that was not separate from love, not separate from awareness.  It was clear that this light of awareness, this all-seeing reflective force of love (as opposed to the poor calculations my brain tried to make or the mostly second-hand associations it held) held everything that is.  It was clear that this loving awareness was the alpha and omega, the particle and wave, the unifying force that carries us forward when we leave the body, that accompanies us always, everywhere, that appears in us when we are open to receive it.

I was lifted out of time—this strange and beautiful communion, this sense of being liberated into reality could have lasted a year or a moment.  Yet it had to be brief because I was still kneeling on the sidewalk, still struggling to breathe.  I was detached from the struggle and this ancient posture of humility and awe felt right to me as I watched myself from above, as if I was in alignment with reality for once.  Without words, the being who searched me—the being who seemed to see my life spread out around me, past, present, and future, told me to relax, that this struggle would pass, that I would not be harmed.

It was conveyed to me that I would go on.  The being of light and heaven began to recede.  I relaxed, dropped like a dead weight, forcing my attacker to loosen his grip, allowing me to reach a ten dollar bill in the front pocket of my jeans.  I threw the bill on the ground.  My attacker jerked his arm off my throat, scooped of the bill, and ran off with the two young men who were guarding me.  I stood up.  I had my life back.  I stared down at the ripped grocery bag, wondering why the muggers hadn’t taken the cigarettes and beer.

Stay tuned (yes, again)…and thank you!

4 thoughts on “Heaven in Hell’s Kitchen

  1. Wow Tracy, this is beautifully written. Your experience sounds profound and life-changing. Perhaps the kind of memory that you your heart holds like a diamond, that you can later admire in a different light, at different times, and with different meanings. No doubt that a neuroscientist with an fMRI would have wanted to get a reading of your brain during that experience. . . . what would it have “shown?” The consciousness of the experience? Hah! We are continuously making more advances in this realm of our brain-mapping of our brain-centric way of being but what is it for, what part of our human experience can be explained? Sometimes it seems to me as more of our human experience gets mapped in this way, gets explained in terms of functionality, the narrower it becomes. But we are humans and we are each having our own unique human experience – we don’t need any science to “prove” that or legitimize it.
    Some of us are more sensitive than others, sometimes in ways that are inexplicable and deeply unsettling to others – and others may reject that sensitivity as fantasy because, well, they haven’t experienced it and it can’t otherwise be scientifically explained. A bit like the story about trying to describe a distant horizon to a blind person. Our sensitivities are what make us human, whatever that means. As for the separation and the oneness you describe, it sounds beautiful. In my experience it is the separation in this world that is the illusion, and not withstanding the fact that many of these kinds of experiences cannot really be described in words (they are beyond the intellect) like the the light you describe or darkness (as in dense cloud or infinite possibility) it is an unknowing that is a kind of knowing. A knowing like no other. “We are not alone” is not a childish reassurance for people like us, it is a sensitivity, a multisensory experience of other that is in itself oneness. Life is such a beautiful mystery.
    Thank you for sharing this Tracy.

    1. Thank you for this sensitive comment, Barb. It is like a diamond–and it totally resists explanation and reduction. It’s still brilliant after all these years.

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