A Dream Called Hell

by Ted Dace, November 16, 2011

You know you’re in trouble when the clouds turn green and start spinning on a vortex. You really should’ve gotten out of there by now. But you can’t move or sense your body. You can only watch as the funnel drops in fits and starts, bopping about as if feeling its way toward something until all at once ground and sky unite in a screaming twisted rope of air. And that’s when you realize it has a purpose: to seek you out and suck you into the stratosphere.

For this is no ordinary tornado. The landscape around you is you. The twister has touched down in your mind. Does that mean you’re just imagining it? No, not at all. If anything, it’s imagining you. The whirling loco-monster is here to finish the job you left undone in a life you’re starting to wish you’d never begun.

Funny things happen in those few minutes when brain activity intensifies after heart and lungs have given out. Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings tells the story of a patient he once treated, Charlie, whose heart stopped beating in the middle of a pacemaker procedure. Several times Dr. Rawlings had to pause during the CPR to adjust the location of the device. As he recalls, at some point Charlie piped up, “Don’t stop, don’t stop. I’m in hell, I’m in hell.” When a patient responds during CPR, it’s usually to object to the rib-cracking pressure, but not so with Charlie. “For God’s sake, don’t stop. Don’t you understand? Every time you stop I’m in hell.”

When Charlie begged for a prayer from Rawlings, the good doctor made one up on the spot, and Charlie calmed down after repeating it a few times.

A similar story is told by Howard Storm, an atheist whose “near death experience” turned him into a minister. When a perforation of the stomach hospitalized him in horrible pain, Storm seemed to be at the end of his life. It had not been a happy one. He says he’d often exploded into rage and intimidated people to control them and couldn’t be content with holding to his own beliefs but had to proselytize his atheism, viewing each encounter with a believer as an opportunity to express his hostility to religion.

So Storm was understandably upset when, after saying goodbye to his wife, he failed to fade into black. Instead he departed his body, staring down at himself in bed. At some point he realized he had a new body and was standing beside the bed. After enjoying the sensation of clenching his fist, he tried to get his wife’s attention, but she didn’t notice. He yelled at her until voices from the hallway began calling him by name, promising to “fix him up” if he followed them.

He stepped out of the room into a fog filled with shadowy people who were always about 15 or 20 feet away. He tried to catch up, but they kept receding, telling him with increasing urgency to hurry up, that he would soon “find out.”

Storm says the journey went on for hours. The more anxious he got and the more he peppered his entourage with questions, the more aggressive they became in return. They called him pathetic, teasing him over the fact that his hospital gown left his rear end exposed. Worse, the “strange beings” were multiplying into a mob.

“Finally, I told them that I wouldn’t go any farther. At that time they changed completely. They became much more aggressive and insisted that I was going with them. A number of them began to push and shove me, and I responded by hitting back at them. A wild orgy of frenzied taunting, screaming and hitting ensued. I fought like a wild man. All the while it was obvious that they were having great fun.”

After being torn apart and half eaten, he heard his own voice telling him to pray. But he didn’t know any prayers, so he said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God bless America.” This seemed to rile up them up, encouraging more taunts, but they were also backing off in fear. Encouraged he hit them with “Our Father who art in Heaven” and kindred sayings. It was like spraying them with boiling oil.

Recalling a children’s song with the refrain, “Jesus loves me,” he pleaded to be saved. Immediately he saw a star, very distant but cruising closer until he was immersed in its warmth. Overwhelmed by the love pouring in from the light, he told the light he didn’t deserve to be saved and should be returned to the pit. Instead he was subjected to a cinemascape of long-buried memories, reliving awful things he’d done to others, only now feeling the pain he’d previously imposed. He saw in particular how badly he’d treated his father, that his view of his dad as villain and himself as victim had been totally misguided.

On and on it went. Eventually he awoke in his hospital bed, still in agony but glad to be alive. Whereas his previous dogmatic self would have dismissed the experience as an absurd and meaningless dream, he had no doubt all of it had really happened.

The truth lies somewhere between. Beyond the fact that his emotional release was as real as any in waking life, his dream conveyed important information about reaching the end. Far from a simple segue to oblivion, the content of your final experience is conditioned by your treatment of people close to you, the ones you were supposed to love and revere. If you’ve spent your life beating people down because you’re too scared to wrestle with your inner demons, there’s hell to pay.

All the events in Storm’s dream are staples of the near death experience: vacuumed up from the body, visions of hell and heaven, a “life review” in which important events pass rapidly “before your eyes.” All of this is also found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which elaborates on these themes to far greater detail than anything in the Western literature.

The cross-cultural similarity of life-ending experience indicates a common ground of memory. Underneath the conscious mind is an unreflective bundle of memory and habit specific to that person, and underneath the personal unconscious is what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” What applies to personal memory applies equally to collective memory. Just as an unusual scent is likely to trigger a recollection of what was happening to you the last time it wafted by, an unusual event such as your own imminent death is likely to put you into resonance with previous individuals at the end of their tenure. Over thousands of generations, a groove has been laid, and when it’s your turn you’re liable to fall into that groove.

The near death experience usually starts with the dreamer departing the body. Some take flight while others stick around the deathbed. Some are in darkness while others encounter a brilliant light. Some who experience darkness say it’s like a womb, a place of perfect love and contentment, while others are creeped out by how the darkness seems to be alive. Of those who see a light and find themselves drawn rapidly into its embrace, some luxuriate in it while others burn to a crisp. A golden ring, on closer inspection, can turn out to be a ring of fire.

Regardless of the particulars of your dream, at some point along the way you hit a fork in the groove. You will go one way or the other. If you’ve bullied and deceived and manipulated your way through life, you’re likely to go the way of those with similarly poor character. Heaven and hell aren’t just confabulations or hoaxes but reflections of the structure of the collective unconscious.

The dream of death is a projection of the ego, a movie manufactured by mind in which you somehow continue on as an individual despite being dead. The one thing we can say for sure about death is that the individual who once existed no longer exists. The population of death is precisely zero. Yet the idea of death as oblivion is just as hallucinatory as a heaven or a hell peopled with the once living.

Part of the allure of materialism is that life is all about making money and acquiring objects of desire while the social consequences of greed can safely be ignored because when you die, nothing remains. If you’re identical to your body, the end of your body is the end, period. However, while there’s no mind without brain, that doesn’t mean the stuff we’re made of can be found in our heads.

We know there’s more to us because our mental existence is incompatible with matter. Whereas an atom can only be itself, nothing more and nothing less, a thought stands in for something other than itself. The thought of a tomato is not the tomato itself. In contrast, the principle of matter, including the brain, is x = x. If x = y or z or whatever happens to be on your mind, the neurons firing across your cerebrum cannot fully encompass what you’re experiencing.

The words you’re reading are nowhere to be found on the page, which after all is only molecules of paper and ink. Meaning has no existence outside the conscious interpretation of the reader.

To think is to juggle abstractions, and built into every abstraction is a degree of vagueness. The concept of a car is a transferal of something tangible into an alien world of fuzziness and uncertainty. A real car exists in a particular moment in time. The abstraction of “car,” on the other hand, is a blurred overlapping of countless moments of viewing and driving cars. Where material existence is confined to the current moment, mentality is smeared out from present to distant past.

The difference between a human being and a human body is time. The molecules of the body know nothing of the past beyond the causal impact of the previous moment. Mind stretches through time; body just rides the current.

The clock might say half-past two, but the real time is now. It’s always now. Always has been, always will be. We have a fleeting present, which is present only relative to past and future moments, and we have an enduring present, which is absolute and completely indifferent to “the time.” In this and only this sense, time is an illusion. What’s illusory is our commonplace understanding, which limits time to its moment-to-moment flow. The reality is not only temporality but absolute and implacable presence.

Similarly, we tend to think of energy in terms of action, overlooking the role of potential energy. Whereas kinetic energy is always spending whatever power it has, potential energy keeps it in reserve. Time is not only the current but the battery.

The combined effect of temporal flow and absolute presence is memory, the covert continuation of the past. What’s past in the context of matter is still present in mind. Memory is mental because mentality is precisely that part of us that’s rooted directly in absolute presence. Like any material object, the brain is so much flotsam on the surface of the sea. Only mind, made of time, can plunge into the deep.

In space a song is just a bunch of sound waves brushing against an ear drum. It’s not really a song until we perceive it over time. Only when the past lingers into the present is there melody and rhythm. Without the juxtaposition of the song’s past and present, the music dies.

Life is the systematic exploitation of the natural property of memory, every organism a self-contained unit of continual presence informed by a living past and propelled into an undetermined future.

The earth’s biosphere is a branch on the tree of time. There may be other branches as well, but we don’t know about them. The universal self-existence of enduring presence becomes the local self-existence of microbial life, which branches into multicellular life and then out to the animal kingdom, which branches into the vertebrate phylum, the mammalian class, the primate order, the hominid family, the homo genus and finally humankind.

We exist as individuals in the sense that we individuate our species. That the species mind is unconscious in no way subtracts from its claim on life. What gives us life as individuals is precisely the same animating presence that gives our species life and before that our genus and our family and so on. Death is not really death but only deindividuation, a falling back into a deeper form of life, the collective unconscious, this vast memory pool in which we’ve been swimming all along, though we had no idea.

Imagine an ocean where all the waves think they’re distinct and separate from each other. Yet each wave, after it peaks, must fall back into the mass of water. Though no longer individuated, something of its nature carries on.

To remain current our species requires ongoing individuations. Fear of death is thus a trick played on us by our species mind to perpetuate its own life. In reality there’s nothing to fear in that darkness, as we merely exchange one form of life for another. Death is life by other means.

If there’s a true death, a polar opposite to life, it can only be the act of stepping out from the universal flow and becoming a stagnant pool. This occurs nowhere in living creation except the human mind. At the level of unconscious thought, sensory and cognitive data are processed without hindrance. With the emergence of conscious reflection and discrimination, however, comes the ability to stifle the flow of knowledge when it doesn’t suit our preferences.

After undergoing a painful experience, the kind that tells you something about yourself you didn’t want to know, you’re liable to avoid thinking about it, to blot it out as if it never took place. It’s like eating a piece of fruit, and instead of being digested, the fruit is sequestered from the gustatory flow and begins rotting. Pretty soon it gets moldy, starts stinking the place up. People wonder why you have such bad breath. Someone who really cares about you sits you down for a talk. Okay, I get it. I’m stuck on a particular issue, and I need to dredge it up and deal with it. Finally the fruit starts to break down and get processed. Once more you’re in the flow.

Small children are especially adept at hiding inconvenient facts about their behavior, and one of the chief responsibilities of parents is to help their offspring face up to bad things they’ve done while emphasizing that they’re still worthy of love. In this way children integrate both the negative and positive aspects of themselves into their self understanding.

But some people never learn to accept themselves for what they are, never surpass a primitive or regressive stage of emotional development. They never learn to digest the rotten fruit, and the moldier it gets, the more awful the task of confronting it. What regressive individuals fear is not so much dying as re-entering the flow. In other words, they fear life, as they’ve entombed themselves in ego. Regressives habitually bury memories of their own harmful actions. They’re likely to go on the attack when the appropriate emotion is regret or sorrow, and they exploit and manipulate others instead of empathizing and cooperating for everyone’s good.

Hell is a kind of spiritual vomiting. What comes up is only what you yourself already swallowed but never digested. It takes energy to keep it all down, and at the end of your life there’s none left. Rather than being imposed by an all knowing deity, your hell is already being prepared in your own unconscious mind.

If we’re fundamentally separate from other people, we don’t have to face the consequences of our actions. Yet death is the unraveling of precisely this misconception. You find out you weren’t exactly you after all but only an individualized expression of the totality of the human race. We’re all one. If you’ve lived your life victimizing people, a shock awaits you when you discover that your victims were just different aspects of your true self.

When the famously corrupt Republican operative Lee Atwater got slapped with terminal cancer, it shook him to his core. His illusions evaporated, leaving him in a state of sorrow and shame. A very capable musician, Atwater still had “soul” even after all that lying and maneuvering and back-stabbing in pursuit of power. By confronting himself prior to his final moments and accepting the consequences of his actions, he evaded hell. The bad thing — the really bad thing — isn’t the sorrow itself but putting it off until you’re locked in a nightmare you’ll never return from.

When Matthew Dovel was 12, his friends dunked him under water just as he surfaced to inhale at the end of an exhausting swim. Instantly he was out of body. In place of thoughts and beliefs and desires and frustrations, there was only white light, intense in a way that can’t be fathomed. Happy memories came flooding in. But his vision of heaven was cut short when Jesus appeared out of nowhere, grabbed him by the arm and told him he had to go back.

By this point his friends had carried him out of the pool and resuscitated him. How could they do this to him? Heaven was so much better.

Dovel never managed to shake off the bitterness of being snatched from heaven. Whenever the rage and anguish from the deep threatened to surface, he kept his brain busy with alcohol and cocaine. He grew up, married and had a child, but he never learned to look inside and process that disappointment.

So he decided to kill himself. He would simply down a few bottles of sleeping pills with a pint of 80 proof alcohol, and heaven would be his once more. Not surprisingly, he got something else. In free fall over a black pit, he was subjected to a horror show beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Now the memories weren’t so nice. His friends were screaming in his face, returning the pain he’d caused them in his years of sullen selfishness. He saw his daughter years later contemplating suicide as a consequence of his insane action. Worst of all, he’d have no chance to go back and make things right.

The only way Dovel could wake up was to go to sleep, a dangerously deep sleep. To immerse himself in the depths of his memory pool, he had to risk drowning in it. Miraculously, the pills didn’t finish him off after all. Once again he walked away from the brink, only this time a free man.

Aaron Bassler wasn’t so lucky.

Following the murder of Matt Coleman, James Bassler warned the police about his disturbed son. Living alone way out in the woods, Aaron could easily have been responsible for Coleman’s death. But no action was taken until Jere Melo was gunned down, and an eyewitness tagged Aaron.

Mr. Bassler’s report to the AVA provides several clues as to his son’s psychiatric condition, but the schizophrenia, which erupted at age 19, is far from the whole story. Making a living while coping with the psychic onslaught of schizophrenia is no easy task. Yet Aaron, by his mid-20s, was earning good money from marijuana cultivation. Given his functionality and his apparent absence of auditory hallucinations, Aaron seems to have shaken it off. This should be no surprise. Though commonly believed to be a life sentence, schizophrenia runs its course within five years in about half the people who contract it. According to the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, many schizophrenics are actually clinical narcissists with the addition of psychotic symptoms. Once those symptoms pass, the personality disorder remains.

His dad says Aaron was so paranoid he slept in a bunker. He was also entranced by weaponry. Aside from his collection of guns, he drew elaborate weapons systems and even sought to study nuclear physics, perhaps a sign of his interest in the ultimate killing machine. To be diagnosable with a personality disorder is to be stuck at a regressive stage of emotional development. Given his power fixation, for Aaron this could only be the phallic stage. Stranded at the emotional age of a four year old, Aaron needed his gun to feel like a man.

When a clinical narcissist is both paranoid and phallic, it’s called megalomania. This accounts for Aaron’s actions far better than schizophrenia or methamphetamines. However, even this falls short of a causal explanation. Megalomania may have brought him to the edge, but he chose to take that final step.

Though deep inside he knew what he’d done, he couldn’t allow the horror and shame to surface. He was armed to the teeth, willing to fire on his inner voice as readily as the police in his pursuit. Ultimately, he was terrified of his own conscience, though he projected his fear onto anyone he associated with authority.

Finally the cops found him carrying a gun, and they shot him down. In those final moments of frenetic neural firing, Aaron paid a visit to hell, undergoing in compressed form what should have been years of reflection and reckoning. Like a tornado funneling heat into the sky, a lifetime’s worth of pain and learning was processed in the blink of an eye.

The air is warm and heavy, the clouds thick enough to darken the afternoon. The wind has suddenly died off, and the birds have gone mute. Something is stirring from above. This isn’t the forest you spent your life in, but it’s the one you’ll spend your death in.

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