Out of Body Experience - From Atheist to Spiritual (but not Religious)
In November 2013, I was working at a breakfast restaurant in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada and living with my girlfriend at the time. It was the weekend and she was away, so I had the place to myself. Returning home from work, I walked through the front door and randomly thought, If people meditate, it must be for a good reason.
That was the first time I’d ever thought about meditation. I was curious, so I walked into our living room, took off my backpack and decided to listen to a guided meditation. I found a 15-minute video on YouTube by Deepak Chopra and pressed play. I sat on the hardwood floor facing the TV leaning back against the couch. I bent my knees to put my feet flat on the floor, rested my hands in my lap and closed my eyes.
The video guided me to pay attention to my breath saying, “Your breath might speed up, it might slow down, or it might pause.” The word pause struck me. It might pause? I thought. I suddenly became very curious about my breath, wondering what it was doing.
All my attention rested on my diaphragm. I’d never really paid attention to my breath before. It was soft and shallow not doing much at all. The more I paid attention, the more I noticed my breath slow down. Eventually, it stopped, and I sat there wondering when I would breathe in next.
The words, “Your breath might speed up, it might slow down, or it might pause” fueled my curiosity. I sat there, waiting, watching, curious. My breath had paused, but what would it do next? Eventually, a voice in my head shouted three times, “You have to breathe, you have to breathe, you have to breathe!” My breath must have been stopped for minutes by that time, but I was genuinely curious about what would happen next, so I kept on waiting, watching, curious.
“You have to breathe, you have to breathe, you have to breathe!” the voice in my head shouted again urgently. Then another voice said, “Your body will do that for you.”
Suddenly my diaphragm contracted, pulling air down into my belly. Like surfacing from a life lived underwater, it felt like the first breath I had ever taken.
In that instant, I separated from my body. “I” was watching “my body”, completely autonomous of it, still in it, but not of it.
I’ve searched for words to describe what I experienced, but like trying to describe what a fruit tastes like, the words are much different than taking a bite for yourself.
A deep sense of peace – a profound feeling of all is well pervaded my entire being. No words can touch that feeling because it’s beyond words. Maybe I wasn’t feeling peace, maybe I was peace. I can’t say. I imagine it’s the peace we’re all searching for that comes from not needing or wanting anything, free from all learned limitations, whole, full, complete, not separate…
Next, for no apparent reason, I became curious about my mouth. All of my attention shifted to my lips, then a smile began to rise on my face. It was the kind of smile you can’t fake, that comes from somewhere deep inside of you. I watched as a smile beamed wide on my face that reflected touching this wellspring of happiness within me.
Still, with my eyes closed, a pinhole of white light appeared directly in front of me. Slowly, it started getting bigger and brighter. As the feelings of peace and happiness amplified, so did the white light get bigger and brighter. There was no limit to their depth or breadth. With a smile from ear to ear now on my face, my head slowly tilted back, this must be nirvana I thought. That was the first time I’d ever spoken the word or thought about it.
Eventually, the white light spread out 180 degrees in front of me and some uncertainty about what would happen next popped into my awareness. I knew I could end the experience whenever I wanted to, so I waited a little longer before I opened my eyes eager call my girlfriend and share what happened.
The next day I went into work and recounted my experience to one of the servers. She said it sounded like I had a spiritual awakening. I had never heard those words before, so I went home that night and Googled them. That’s when I found spiritual teachers Eckhart Tolle, Allan Watts, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Ram Das. They all helped me to make sense of my experience by speaking words that I knew to be true but didn’t have yet.
During my out of body experience, I felt connected to everyone and everything. There was no separation between me and everything else. It was an experience of unity that was limitless and timeless.
Raised in a Catholic School, I threw out spirituality with religion. Religion felt restrictive and had me feel bad, wrong, guilty, and shameful for being who I was. I still remember in ninth grade when a classmate raised his hand in religion class and asked, “If we masturbate do we go to hell?” The answer was a definitive, “Yes.” I couldn’t understand why so many intelligent people followed religious commandments without question. I didn’t believe a judge in the sky would condemn me for not living by rules that didn’t feel good to me. At the time, everything I’d experienced told me religion was for the weak, the unintelligent, the lost, and the brainwashed.
After my spiritual awakening, my spiritual nature was undeniable. I had left my body and experienced myself as pure consciousness. I realized I could be spiritual without being religious.
To this day, I’m still integrating and making sense of what I experienced. So much wisdom was downloaded to me through those few short moments that are far beyond my age.
I remember my mom, my sister, and my girlfriend at the time all saying something like, It feels like Brian died. I was a very different person after that experience because what I had never even imagined to be possible happened. I had an out of body experience. The fundamental nature of reality shifted for me from material – believing we’re born then we die, and our life is meaningless – to anything is possible.
The experience shattered all my concepts and beliefs about what I thought was possible. I might as well have levitated. What else had I learned to be impossible that wasn’t really? I started questioning everything I knew, including the script of life.
Thanks to my spiritual awakening, I realized that was not the life I wanted to continue living. A part of awakening for me has been realizing that I was suffering and that I was the cause of my own suffering. No one is responsible but me for my life’s circumstance and direction. I was dealt a hand, but it was up to me how I chose to play it. This realization was bittersweet because it connected me with the pain that was caused by my unconsciousness. In other words, when we’re unaware of how we neglect, dismiss, or suppress our truth, emotions, needs, or desires they pile up like dirt under a rug. Out of sight and out of mind, yes, but we’re bound to trip over what we ignore or avoid - eventually! A story from one of my coaching clients highlights this realization well:
It's taken me a long time to realize how many decades worth of underlying pain I am carrying. For the longest time, I didn't even want to believe that it is true because I saw the mere act of acknowledging it as a sign of weakness. I also had fear and shame about visiting some stuff. Maybe it would put me in a state of despair I might never come out of. Maybe I'd realize I'm just as messed up as the next person. Maybe, I don't know what. But what if I realize that I am actually not the exception? That was the story that allowed me to "ignore" what I really felt or shove it down to an inaccessible place. It turns out that I might be in just as much pain as those who feel their circumstances justify their pain. For a long time, I let other people deem their needs, wants, and problems as more worthy than mine. But now I see that my needs, wants, and problems are no greater or lesser than anybody else’s. I’ve unconsciously pushed them down for too long. I have no capacity left to cover stuff up. I've gone past the maximum. I can’t ignore my truth, my expression, my emotions – the pain caused by putting everybody first but myself – anymore. The pot is full and officially leaking. Enough is enough. I just heard a definition of depression by Dr. Gabor Maté as the act of pushing down emotions because they are too difficult to experience, which later creates dysfunctions. Based on this definition, well, I've been depressed a good portion of my life. Not acknowledging it doesn't make it be less true. So, I want to heal this pain. I'm done performing for the sake of everyone else while I'm dying inside. I'm also hopeful, for the first time in a long time, that I actually have the potential to be truthfully better. I’m ready to put myself first without the guilt. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. My heart deserves to be happy.
I couldn’t heal because I kept pretending I wasn’t hurt. – Timothy Heard
We don’t have to be Buddhist to find value in the Buddha’s teachings. The 4 Noble Truths provide us a basic path to freedom: suffering exists; it has a cause; it has an end, and it has a cause to bring about its end. I enjoyed the way it was explained by the child in training to be the 14th Dalai Lama in the movie Kundun:
First one understands that he causes most of his own suffering needlessly. Second, he looks for the reasons for this in his own life. To look is to have confidence in one’s own ability to end the suffering. Finally, a wish arises to find a path to peace for all beings desire happiness, all wish to find their purer selves.
I am continually realizing how I am not living a life true to myself which gives me the power to change. It’s often painful at first seeing how I’ve been living unconsciously, but at least now I have a choice and opportunity to end my suffering and create a life for myself of my own design. Living a life true to yourself is a constant practice in every moment. The nature of realization is continually discovering more deeply what we already know. So, even though I wrote this book, it’s a constant practice for me to live it every day.
The First Step
The path of freedom Has no markers, yet leads to fulfillment; The path of confusion Is crowded with signs, Pointing in all directions The Great Way is a humble, solitary path Leading home; Follow it closely and be guided. How do you know you are on your way? When your map no longer serves you. – Unknown
Let’s pretend you’re in Toronto, Canada, but you’re using a map of Melbourne, Australia to try and find your way around. You use the wrong map for 40 years of your life. You’re frustrated but you keep trying. Finally, someone comes along and tells you you’re using the wrong map. You tell them to stop being ridiculous. They try and give you the correct map of Toronto, Canada, but you refuse, insisting they’re wrong and you’re right. Why? Because to accept a new map would mean you just wasted 40 years of your life using the wrong map! What’s more important, being right or changing your life?
I’ve never seen any life transformation that didn’t begin with the person in question finally getting tired of their own bullshit. – Elizabeth Gilbert
Anytime we become aware of something we weren’t before, it disrupts the way we’re currently living. Balance is not static; it’s constantly changing, so it takes readjusting every time we gain new awareness. Even though we desire change, we also unconsciously protect ourselves from the change we desire. Our ignorance or lack of awareness causes us suffering because we can’t change what we’re not aware of, and what we’re unaware of controls us. The awareness we need to make the change we want often takes allowing ourselves to be humbled and forgiving ourselves for not knowing better in the past. From a higher-level perspective, we tend to judge and blame ourselves looking down at where we were before thinking I should have known better. But we couldn’t have known better. That’s like saying, I should have known how to walk when I was crawling. For this reason, I invite you to be gentle, patient, compassionate and forgiving as you gain new awareness and take the first step towards real long-lasting positive change.
Change is inevitable. Growth is optional. – John C. Maxwell
I see many coaching clients struggle to align their actions and thoughts with their new awareness. But new awareness tends to correct for itself. We’re so used to doing something about a problem, that relaxing and letting it take care of itself is counter-intuitive and foreign. For example, let’s say you suddenly realize you’ve been angry and condescending in your love relationship. You never saw yourself as an angry person, but this time you allowed yourself to see how you’ve been behaving out of alignment with who you truly want to be, with your best self.
The natural reaction to becoming aware of this blind spot for many people is to worry about it and pressure themselves into instantly changing their behaviour, I was this way and that’s bad, I don’t want to be that way anymore, now I’m going to be this new way. The same goes for receiving a new piece of information about our health that makes us want to change our diet. We engage in black and white thinking and try to go from zero to 100. But this strategy usually results in boom and bust enthusiasm and failure typical of new year’s resolutions. We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short-term and underestimate what we can do in the long-term.
To alleviate self-generated suffering, we can practice giving ourselves the permission we need to take the pressure off ourselves to change quickly and focus instead on making progress, and small wins that make the biggest differences. What permission to do you need to support you in alleviating pressure?
If what you seek is Truth, there is one thing you must have above all else…An unremitting readiness to admit you may be wrong. – Anthony De Mello