Back in 2004, when my father-in-law was gravely ill, I happened across a book that I was compelled to buy: The Grace in Dying: How We Are Transformed Spiritually as We Die, by Kathleen D. Singh. I began to read it, and in the introduction the author suggested that if the reader was in the process of dying or reading this because a loved one is dying, to do the following: know that you are safe, all is well, and put the book down.

I took her advice. Four months later my father-in-law died, and I was with him for his last week nearly 24/7. It was a daunting, draining experience. I watched him take his last breath. In the process of his dying, it occurred to me that it seemed much like a labor. And having had a child since, I know it is indeed labor. But what, I wonder, is in the process of happening? Is dying just dying? The lights simply go out? What happens to the entity called “me, myself, or I”; is it really annihilated?

Or is it a transition, a birthing into something else?

I was raised religiously and have traversed a varied spiritual path. In recent years I’ve applied the term “atheist” to myself, though “agnostic” is probably more accurate. I do not need “god” as humans are able to articulate the term; I believe the universe is marvelous, and science is a way to explore it all, and isn’t that miracle enough? I am drawn to Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, although I have not become a practitioner yet.

However, I did have a remarkable experience back in 1996 that at the time, I believed (as much as I could believe, which was really a process of trying to convince myself to believe) was the Holy Spirit. When I left the Christian religion (for the second time in my life), I categorized the experience as an anomaly, as an experience of self-hypnosis or psychological wish fulfillment.

I was a member of a conservative, bible-based, fundamental Christian church. The story behind the path that led me to that after years of atheism can be read here. Anyhow, one Saturday evening I remained after service. It was common for members to remain and pray with each other. This was a church where people sometimes experienced the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” evidenced sometimes by people speaking in tongues (seeming to babble) and being filled with the Spirit, evidenced by joyous, continuous laughter. Not hysterics, not banshee laughing, just a robust laugh as one would do watching a funny show.

One evening a woman sat on the floor experiencing this laughter. I observed awhile, curious. Another woman came over and asked, “Would you like to join and be filled with the Holy Spirit?” I answered yes, but expressed a worry that it wouldn’t “take.” She said, “Just trust. Let thoughts and worries go and just be with whatever is.”

I sat next to the spirit-filled woman, put my hand on her arm, closed my eyes, and waited. To my wonder, I felt a tingling warmth from her enter my hand and flow up my right arm into my body. Whatever words I summon to describe the experience won’t do it justice, but here goes: As I was filled with this feeling, I felt light, both weightless and incandescent. I began to feel a laugh bubbling up in me. I allowed it to come forth. I sat for however long, bathed in this energy, laughing gently, feeling joy. At the same time, I also felt a part of me was still there, observing. I was not generating or creating this. Nothing was forced by me. At the same time, I did not feel “possessed” or taken over; I still felt I had agency. It was an experience unlike anything I’ve known before or since.

At some point I felt satiated, full, and decided I was done. I removed my hand from the woman’s arm and opened my eyes. I felt new. I felt connected, united with myself and with everything. As I walked, my feet connected in a way that felt like I was the earth and the earth was me. I had a feeling of well-being, life, and love. This feeling remained with me for many hours. After the night’s sleep, it had dissipated. I did not seek this encounter again, and one year later I came to terms that I did not agree with aspects of this church’s dogma and no longer wanted to pretend I did. But I remembered this experience and cherished it awhile.

Then life happened, and the incident faded. Whenever I thought about it, I lumped it in the “I’m not certain what that was but it probably wasn’t real” category. Except… it felt real, and it still resonates like an authentic experience, an encounter with the energy that makes up the universe. While I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic god, I do believe there is something that makes the universe go, something science does not explain completely yet, that it is real, we are made of it, and that we can access a connection with it. (As Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.”)

And now I have reopened Kathleen Singh’s book to face the question of dying, of what it’s about and what might follow. The experience I had in 1996 was a glimpse. My hunch is that this connection is possible, is accessible via meditation practice over many years, and that it is our destination at the moment the body dies. As I read her book I will process some of my reactions here.

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One Comment on “Spirit”

  1. Barbara Says:

    I am very interested in reading your thoughts and learning more about your perspective on the subject of death and dying. After living through my father’s short term fatal illness I have become much more aware of my own mortality. At times the thought of death puts me on the brink of an anxiety attack. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.