- Thomas Kam
A Reminder From Beyond (Article)
This article was initially commissioned by The Friend Quarterly Magazine.
“I stood on the great grand plane of death.
I have felt nothing ever like the ecstasy of that moment” - Rumi
I was sitting up in my folding bed, in room 5 of Cheltenham General Hospital’s leukaemia ward. Dr Robson came in, and sat gently down on my bed. “We’ve got your results back, and I’m afraid it’s not good news. The last round of chemo hasn’t had any effect. I’m really sorry. We don’t know what we can do”.
I left the isolation room where I had spent most of the last 3 months, and walked around Pittville Park. It was an Indian summer, a hot day under a blue sky. Children played in the park. Groups of students my age were spread-eagled over the floor. A strange heat haze covered the scene, and glinted like a mirage. I called my friend, George. “This is it man”, I said, “I’m going to die”. I was 21 years old.
I was sat alone in my bedroom. I felt claustrophobic, as if the space which I could potentially occupy in the limited time I had left was shrinking, until it would eventually reach my body and I would disappear. I was struggling to breathe, to focus on anything except the fact of my impending death. I felt like I was holding my head above the water of a great black ocean, an abyss I was just trying not to look at. Then I looked down.
Suddenly, I was floating in pure light. In total surrender to what was happening to me, everything I thought and believed about who I was drained away. All that remained was light. I felt a sense of total security, a quiet knowing, and a profound sense of belonging. It was like emerging from a tempest into the eye of the storm.
I stayed sat that way for a long time. The sun rose, and its grey light mingled with the light behind my eyelids. As I opened my eyes, I saw the world as if for the first time. All that I had thought about it had disappeared, leaving the world as it was. The person I had thought I was had died, leaving only the subtle aliveness of a simple awareness. I went out into the garden barefoot. Birdsong, dew, berries, mist, a trickling fountain. I had become these sensations.
In 1944, psychologist Carl Jung had a heart attack and “hung on the edge of death”. He described a similar experience: “[I was in] an ecstasy. I felt as though I were floating in space, as though I were safe in the womb of the universe in a tremendous void, but filled with the highest possible feeling of happiness. ‘This is eternal bliss’, I thought.”
I can describe this state as being-before-words. There were no thoughts. There was no distinction between being, doing and experiencing; between the self and the world outside. There was no self acting or being acted upon, simply action, emerging from a spontaneous state of flow.
There was no future, no past, and with it there was no shame, no fear. Everything was “forgiven”, because there was no self and no past actions clinging to me. I felt liberated. These time and ego based emotions were decontextualised.
There was no “should-ness” – the sense that “the world should be this way or that way”, “I should be like this or that”, not even “I should continue living”. I had emerged out of the resistance and conflict I was used to experiencing into a state of union. The fight had become the dance. The argument had become music.
There was no “about-ness” – the world was simply what it was, and was not serving some greater or ulterior purpose. Instead of diminishing each thing by understanding it in terms of my own belief system, my own narrative, I appreciated fully the depth of each individual thing. Life didn’t have to mean anything, it was meaning in and of itself. It wasn’t about anything – it certainly wasn’t about me.
It made me realise how often we view the world in terms of ourselves. I became interested in how we normally view the world, and how it is distinct from what I experienced. According to the Predictive Processing model, our experienced reality is made up of prediction and perception. We perceive reality through a mental model of the world around us, which is made up of predictions of sense-data. This is used to assess actual sense-data. In fact, “the majority of the brain’s free energy is continuously used for the development and maintenance of probabilistic models of anticipated events”. That is to say, we spend most of our mental energy updating and confirming our beliefs about how the world is, rather than actually seeing it. We see the world as it is supposed to be, rather than as it is. Our sensations are often obscured by our predicted sensations, our actual experiences obscured by our expected ones. I will call this model the “world-as-seen” as opposed to the “world as is”.
The predictive model, or “world-as-seen”, is always a reflection of ourselves. Our predictions are based on our memories of previous experiences, as well as what we have learnt to believe about ourselves in relation to the world. Our assumptions and beliefs are almost always about ourselves – this thing will help or harm me, this person does or doesn’t like me, this person is right or wrong in relation to my belief. The model keeps us safe and allows us to interact with others. We accumulate predictions to make a better model of the world, and this allows us to make better decisions. But we can get so lost in the model, which is a reflection of ourselves, that we stop seeing the world outside, the world-as-is.
This model of the world-as-seen is effectively “dead”. The model is made up of finite forms - knowledge, objects, ideas, words, numbers. They are fixed, and thus can be named, suspended in time, and shared. They can be agreed upon because they can be described and defined, creating “the real world”. The linguist and philosopher Wittgenstein described reality as a “picture theory”, that is not so much made of objects but a “vast collection of facts that we can picture in language”. Everyday reality is made up of facts and ideas that we abstract from being-before-words. But these facts, words and images are mental constructs. The description and definition of objects is a mental process. They are not fundamentally real, but are secondary – they are our attempt to make sense of the world, they are not the world itself. They belong to the world-as-seen, not the world-as-is.
These definitions are necessary. They are what give form to the infinite. The infinite has no limits, and without these finite definitions we cannot form a coherent reality, with separate objects. But this finite-ness is a form of death. Knowledge, objects, ideas, words, numbers are all in a sense “dead”. They do not have any life of their own. As it says in the introduction to Quaker Faith and Practice, “the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life”. We create and understand them by their limits. They are binary – they exist or they do not exist. Whilst this “death” is useful for understanding, it can make a “dead world”, a kind of veil to the living reality behind it. Only through silent contemplation, through allowing these words and definitions to disappear, can we let go of the dead world, and replenish ourselves with the life that lies behind the veil.
If the world-as-seen requires the apparent “death” of the world-as-is, we can go further, and see that death itself is a requirement for life. If being-before words is without end, the totality of all experience, that which can be experienced (objects) and the perspectives of all experiencers (subjects), it is in effect infinite consciousness. It cannot have a perspective, an “I”. There is no end and therefore no value, no meaning, no relativity. It cannot experience anything because it is everything. It cannot act. It cannot love or be loved, because there is no lover, nor the action to love.
Therefore in order for it to “become” a self, there must be an artificial limit imposed on this infinite consciousness. There needs to be a limit to the space this perspective point occupies, how much it can experience at once, and how long it exists. We can think of the “I” (or “eye”) as being just such a perspective point. The body is the physical limit of this “I”. The mind is the limit of this conscious awareness. Birth and death are time limits to its existence. So birth itself necessitates death. Death is what allows life to exist.
The individual is carved out of the infinite. There is an “I” that can say “I am only this body, this mind – and for this amount of time”. When I am born, “I” am being defined, being given limits. This “I” is a crystallisation of consciousness into an object which becomes identified with the perspective point. This object can be called “I”, “me” or “you”, by the infinite, referring to the perspective point through which it sees itself. But just like with objects and definitions, as explored above, these limits are secondary. They belong to the world-as-seen, and thus so does the illusion of the “I”.
Paradoxically then, the seer is an illusion of the world-as-seen. We believe we exist because we see ourselves. Just as the world-as-seen, the predictive model, is reliant on my ego, my ego is reliant on the world-as-seen. When you are dying, both disappear simultaneously, because both are part of the same illusion.
When we are babies, we have not fully separated from this union. We are in, as Jung describes it, “the womb of the infinite”. We still feel ourselves to be the whole, the totality of consciousness (being-before-words) from which the individual and their experience is derived. Our mind has no preconceptions. We do not have a model of prediction as we don’t have enough knowledge to make predictions. Instead we use perception to see what is there. We can actually see the beauty that is inherent in nature. We naturally see the world-as-is. This is the wisdom of the child. The older we get, the more we feel ourselves to be separate from the world, the more we learn about how things are supposed to be, the more we get lost in the shadows of the world-as-seen.
Strangely, when you are close to death, you feel the same way as a child. The prediction disappears and with it perception emerges. Perhaps it is because the self is no longer necessary for the future, or because you are once again at the border separating existence from non-existence. The word “exist” literally means to “stand apart from”. When you cease to exist, you cease to stand apart.
Death is the end of the illusion of separation, an illusion which was necessary to feel oneself as a separate agent in the world, but which was always a mental construct, part of the world-as-seen. As the seer dissolves, so does the world-as-seen, but the world-as-is remains. If birth is the creation of a perspective point, then death is the dissolution of that perspective point, the “I” or “eye”. This “I” disappears, but the universe goes on - a universe that we are just as much a part of as apart from.
Is the heart a separate object from the body? Is the apple a separate object from the tree? Only if we separate it using our minds, words and definitions. Only when we remove the heart from the body, or pluck the apple, and in both cases we kill what we have separated in the process. They only truly “become” objects when we separate them from the living thing. In the same way, I only really “become” an object when I die, and am separated from the tree of life. But unlike the apple or the heart, since this tree of life is the universe, is the infinite, I can never truly become separate from it. It is the infinite, the self-contained process which contains everything that can exist.
In fact, as individuals, we are always a part of the whole – a process within the complete system of the universe; a temporary node of self-awareness in a state of flowing consciousness. Alan Watts likens the self to a whirlpool in water. Nothing about it stays the same physically, the water of the river is constantly flowing “through it” – and yet we can see and name a clear “object”. There is nothing fixed about it. It is simply a pattern, made recognisable by the mind and its use of words, its ability to define and name objects. In the same way, nothing stays the same physically about the self, nor are our thoughts, memories or experiences permanent – what we recognise when we see the self is a pattern, a process within the river of the universe.
This is an extract from one of my songs, “Please Don’t Take Me Home”.
I was sitting on a beach a few months later
Feeling sad because the waves appeared to die
I was about to cry
But then I realised
I am the water, and the wave, at the same time,
That no matter where you are, you’re always whole;
That no matter what you do, you’re always loved;
And when it all goes dark,
You’ll remember who you are,
That you’re home, and you always have been.
The “birth” of the “I” is the creation of the illusion of our physical and mental separation. Therefore it is also the “death” of the awareness of our fundamental wholeness, of our being the infinite. When the Sufi poet Rumi was dying, he gathered all his family and friends round for a great celebration. He had expressed his excitement for his own death, which he described as his “wedding with eternity”. If physical birth is the death of being infinite, then physical death, the dissolution of the limited self, is the rebirth of being infinite.
When we see a dead body, it is so unsettling because we see only that which is separate, the form removed from that which is living and whole. One realises that what we loved in that person was not the separate form but the living whole - manifested and expressed in a unique way, a unique pattern called a person.
The word “person” comes from the Latin “persona” meaning a theatrical mask. So when the person has died, all that has really gone is the “mask” that allowed for the sense of a unique separate being. Death is only the falling of the curtain, the lifting of the mask. The audience, and the players, remember that all the characters were only temporary illusions, necessary so we could lose ourselves in the grand drama of life. The living self, which looked out from behind the mask, which animated the character, lives on - the living self that is the actor and the audience – that is you & me, right now. Though we may feel lost, uncertain or alone, we are always the living whole. One day we will take off our disguises, and realise who we truly are, who we were all along.
In 1611 Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, his final play before moving back to Stratford-Upon-Avon. where he died a few later. This is the final epilogue for the play:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd. Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
- Prospero, The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1
Some weeks later, just before lunch, I got a phone call. It was a nurse from the hospital.
“We need to arrange a time for you to come in for more treatment”, she said.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” I replied, “There’s no treatment I can have.”
“Oh! Has no-one told you? We got your results back and you’ve just spontaneously gone into remission!”
How can I describe that feeling?
I had to go back into hospital for a bone marrow transplant, an intense procedure that necessitated another 3 months in isolation. It was the start of a long, hard recovery, both physically and mentally, and of a journey back into the normal world which everyone else occupied.
Having a future again was wonderful! But it also meant that my perspective had to change. I had a future, and so once again had to think in terms of time. I was a person in society with needs, responsibilities and relationships, and therefore needed an ego. I had been blissfully happy in the world-as-is. I had destroyed the veil, or rather it had been destroyed, and all that was left was the light behind it. Now the “I” was being reconstructed. It felt like I was being walled in again.
Once again, I found Jung’s description strikingly similar:
“I thought ‘now I must return to the box system again’. For it seemed to me as if behind the horizon of the cosmos a three-dimensional world had been artificially built up, in which each person sat by himself in a little box. And now I should have to convince myself all over again that this was important! Life and the whole world struck me as a prison… I had been so glad to shed it all, and now it had come about that I along with everyone else would again be hung up in a box by a thread. While I floated in space, I had been weightless, and there had been nothing tugging at me. And now all that was to be a thing of the past!”
For some time I felt unsure as to whether I wanted to return into the normal world, “the real world”, with all its confusion, suffering, trials and tribulations. I could remain here in my ecstasy and enjoy quiet peace. But one night I had a dream.
I was swimming in ether, pure Light. I was trying to hold my breath, until I could no longer do so, and as I opened my mouth I discovered I could breathe underwater. For a while it was blissful, but I soon became bored. The scene changed. I was running down a long dark corridor, being chased by something, when I saw a door. I suddenly burst through it, and found myself in a rice paddy. The water in the paddy was made of ether, the land around me and all the way to the horizon. And yet though it was all ether it was differentiated. I saw the world shot through with Light, both infinite and finite. I recognised that the everyday world we all occupy is just as much the Light as being in the void, on my own. Being alive in the normal world was a chance to experience the Light through other people, who were vessels for the Light just as much as I was. It was a chance to share my own light, and to share in the light of others.
I had realised that what I wanted to live was a normal life. I wanted to be a farmer of my rice paddy– to cultivate a career, a home, a family. If indeed I am infinite, and will return to that infinity, then I have eternity to be the ether, to be free, to be whole. I have only this brief time to be finite, for my life to have a meaning, an end, a purpose. I have this brief time to be myself, to self-realise – realise who I am, who I want to be, and to make that real. I have a chance to experience pleasure and love, to carve out a meaningful life and identity for myself in the world. I decided it was worthwhile to return to the world, even if it meant potentially getting lost in the illusion of shadow, suffering, feeling separated; even if I would die, and eventually everything I am would disappear.
My experience has made me realise that things are most beautiful precisely when they are going away. In Japan, the Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the most important events of the year. The trees only bloom for two weeks. The delicate pink petals that adorn the trees are a reminder of how fleeting life is, but also that it is reborn each spring. They are beautiful because of, not despite, their impermanence.
As we explored earlier, limits and endings are what allow value and meaning. So the closer we are to the end, the more meaningful things become. That close to death, life is ignited with an intense sense of aliveness. It burns like a star that won’t shine again tomorrow night. I understand why people commiserate for me over the difficulty of my experience. But I can with all certainty and sincerity say that the most beautiful moments of my life were when I believed I was about to die.
We can’t spend our whole lives in this state. We need time, we need a self to operate in the world. But we can live in the awareness of death. Buddha talked about the importance of meditating on death in his first sermon. His realisation of the impermanence of life, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism, began with his contemplation of death.
Most of us, however, just try not to think about death. We don’t talk about it, because it’s considered morbid, a taboo topic. It lurks as a fearful secret to be ignored. When you are dying, there is a terrible atmosphere of hushed whispering, of not being honest with each other. You actually feel very guilty, like you are the cause of this awful problem.
Instead, we can recognise that we are dying all the time. Life and death are a continuous process, indistinguishable. One necessitates the other. Each moment dies so it can be reborn as a new moment; the self is constantly changing, just as the body is continuously wearing out and being regenerated. You can resist this, or you can surrender and go with it. You can allow your “self” to die, and realise in the process that much of that “self” is not real. At the threshold of death, you look back and realise how much of what occupies our thoughts doesn’t matter. You realise that there are only a very few things that are important. To me, those things are following my vocation, my family, close friendships, faith, music, poetry and nature.
Most people, when faced with the immediacy of death, do not attempt to tick off their bucket list, to consummate a lifetime’s unfulfilled desires, an ideal future they had made in the past. They want to spend time with their family, with nature. They realise, at last, that what truly mattered was not the imagined self, the imagined future – it was right in front of them, was the everyday, the here & now.
We don’t need to actually die to experience this. As Rumi expresses it:
“Die before you die
even as I have died before death
and brought this reminder from beyond…
This becoming is necessary
for seeing and knowing
the real nature of anything.”
If we can see the world with the awareness of death, we can see it no longer in terms of ourselves, but as the-world-as-is, which is, in and of itself, beautiful. We can allow ourselves to be silent, to stop thinking, predicting, worrying – to become completely lost in an experience, in awe or in another person. Though it can be scary to head into the unknown, to “lose yourself”, this is the only way to find out what lies behind the veil.
If we surrender to the darkness, we will find the light within.
Thomas Kam Meadley
Footnotes  Not of any truth or reassurance, but simply “gnosis” - a spiritual knowledge that cannot be defined or expressed in words, precisely because it transcends definitions and words themselves. See being-before-words  Jung, C. G. (1963) Memories, dreams, reflections. Crown Publishing Group/Random House.  Klarić, Kevin (2019) ‘The World According to My Predictions: Human Brains' Default Mode Network in The Context of Predictive Coding’. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330352370_The_World_According_to_My_Predictions_Human_Brains'_Default_Mode_Network_in_The_Context_of_Predictive_Coding  This is effectively the same as “being-before-words”. The main difference is linguistic, in that the world-as-is sees the world as an object, whereas being-before-words is focused on the individual experience. However they are in actual fact identical, since the experience is that one’s self and the world are the same.  “Meaning is use: Wittgenstein on the limits of language”, https://philosophyforchange.wordpress.com/2014/03/11/meaning-is-use-wittgenstein-on-the-limits-of-language/  This “making sense” is secondary to the being-before-words. It is another way of thinking of the world-as-seen. Ideas, myths, stories, theories, images, diagrams – these are all attempts to make sense of the world. They are not real in themselves. This is why any abstraction, whether a scientific theory, a myth, or a religious idea, is not “The Truth” with a capital T. They cannot be synonymous with reality, though at various periods in human history they have been treated as such.  Quaker Faith and Practice, 1.01  Exist - from French ‘exister’, from Latin ‘existō’ (“to stand forth, come forth, arise, be”), from ex (“out”) + sistere (“to set, place”), caus. of stare (“to stand”); see ‘stand’.  Once again, “I” (ego) and time are connected.  As well as by the people around them.  This is why the predictive model is so wrapped up in our sense of self.  Jung, C. G. (1963) Memories, dreams, reflections. Crown Publishing Group/Random House.  Exist - from French ‘exister’, from Latin ‘existō’ (“to stand forth, come forth, arise, be”), from ex (“out”) + sistere (“to set, place”), caus. of stare (“to stand”); see ‘stand’.  This process is called “analysis”, which literally means to separate – so this age of analysis is all about breaking things down into parts, so we can study the functioning of the individual parts. Yet there is little emphasis on the corollary process of “synthesis”, bringing it back together into the whole.  What is Reality – Pt. 2, Alan Watts (https://www.alanwatts.org/1-4-12-what-is-reality-pt-2/)  Our Death Is Our Wedding With Eternity, Rumi (http://rumi-poem.blogspot.com/2013/02/our-death-is-our-wedding-with-eternity.html#:~:text=Our%20death%20is%20our%20wedding%20with%20eternity.,the%20windows%20of%20the%20house.  Analytical Psychology and German Classical Aesthetics: Goethe, Schiller, and Jung, Volume 1: The Development of the Personality
 William Shakespeare,The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1
 Jung, C. G. (1963) Memories, dreams, reflections. Crown Publishing Group/Random House.  Ecstasy – from Old French ‘extasie’, via late Latin from Greek ‘ekstasis’ (“standing outside oneself”), based on ek- ‘out’ + histanai ‘to place’ [Oxford Languages definition]  https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/tibet/understand/dying.html  Rumi, Mathnawi VI: 754-758; from "Rumi: Daylight" by Camille and Kabir Helminski, Threshold Books (1994).