At age 12, I learned that to qualify as a life guard at our community pool, you had to swim a full length of the pool without coming up for air. Being a kid up for a challenge, I wanted to see if I could go two lengths. This breathwork lead to my first “out of body experience” though I didn’t hear of that term until decades later.
It was also the beginning of my journey of breathwork. I heard hyperventilating could help hold your breath longer filling your lung with a higher concentration of oxygen. To extract the most oxygen from the air in my lungs I simulated breathing underwater by alternating expanding and contracting my stomach. Yeah, OK, I wasn’t a “normal” kid. Noticing the urge to surface grew the longer I stayed under, I reached the point where my lungs were hurting. In trying to stay calm and not panic, I discovered this odd experience of floating in the air above the pool and looking down at myself swimming. While observing myself wanting and needing air I somehow removed myself to a place of observer. I distanced myself from the pain and consciousness of desperately needing air.
Breath and Near Death
30 years later, I noticed that the waves I was riding off Carmel were getting bigger. Ducking an exceptionally large wave, I rode the next one in. The big wave was coming back to undercut the wave I was on. It slammed me head-first into the sand and broke five vertebrae, one rib, one collarbone, one shoulder and wrangled my neck. The pain was intense as I was being tossed around under water. The Mavericks movie quote flashed through my head. “Fear is good, panic is bad.” I managed to collect myself nd get my head over water long enough to gasp some air before being swept under in the next wave. The churning ripped a shock wave of pain through my injured body.
Pain and lack of air brought about another out of body experience over the waves seeing at myself below. The intense pain shifted into perhaps the most serene moment of my life looking down at my body about to meet its end. I perceived my unaware parents on the beach about to lose their youngest son. An upcoming hike with my future wife flashed by. Deciding I wasn’t ready to go yet. I fought to get to get my head above water and wave. It was seen both by an off-duty EMT and my friend who was holding her newborn. To this day she remembers seeing the pain in my eyes from the beach. Handing her son to a man she hoped she could trust, and rushing in to pull me out with the EMT.
The EMT’s colleagues from the Carmel Fire Department slid a board under me and off I went to the ER. When I went back to thank them a year later, they were surprised I was able to walk again. At the hospital, they put me on morphine and Oxycontin and something to keep me from vomiting up the opioids. I lay in bed with little entertainment and too out of it to have conversations or watch TV. Despite the drugs, even breathing hurt. I decided to entertain myself by looking at the SpO2 meter next to my bed and trying to see how low I could get my pulse while keeping my oxygen level at 98%. That required calming myself with slow breaths and if my mind ever slipped out of being at peace, the pulse meter would quickly tell me.
With days on end, I could work on this new found way of learning to meditate. Getting my pulse down to 40 (later to 36), I again experienced feeling like I’d left my body and was floating above the bed looking down at my broken, pained and drugged body. I found it interesting later when I read about out of body experiences (OBEs) that they are described just like that. I hadn’t knowingly heard of them before. After some time, I underwent the longest ambulance ride of my life to Stanford Hospital to be seen by a back specialist there. After weeks of lying flat, a physical therapist came to ask me to sit up. That was the last thing I wanted to do. But she did eventually get me to sit up, get my feet on the ground and slowly learn how to walk again.
Working with horses also taught me about breathing among flight, herd animals. Having been prey for generations, the whole herd notices when one in the herd becomes apprehensive. Other animals pick up on that to avoid falling prey to a predator. Horse whisperers learn that horses are very much in tune with your own state. Breathing more heavily when you’re nervous makes them nervous. Looking straight at them causes them subconsciously to wonder if they are your target. They can smell when you break a sweat. Horses hear apprehension in your voice, they see it in your gait, and they notice how you hold your hands. They sense your state of being at peace or not. To arrive at a place of harmony, you become one with the horse or the herd. You discover that by simple, slight movements of your shoulders or eyes, you can move the horse.
Riding bare-back, horses seem to know where you want to go. A slight turn of the head, shoulders, torso can lead to a slight increase in pressure in one knee and decrease in the other. You’ve just communicated the way you want to go. A horse is at peace with you tends to be happy going that way. There are books and videos about horse whispering that can teach you all these things, but each horse and each situation is slightly different. If you’re in tune with the animal, these things come as instinct. Being with my horse in an arena, I remember feeling like we had become one mind and one body. Here too I recall seeing us from above the arena in synchronous dance-like movement.
More of the awareness is still present in grown humans than we typically realize; it’s just typically buried in the subconscious. If we learn to access our intuition, we still know whom to trust and when to be wary. Others know that of us as well.
Being at peace and being one with nature seems to have always come easily to me. I’ve noticed that animals and young children seem to recognize that in me. I’ve also noticed a sense of harmony with elderly that have become aware that death is approaching.
Occasionally, I’ll sense that connection with an adult human as was the case during my first year at U.Va., I always remember walking between classes and turning the corner onto the lawn towards Old Cabell Hall and being face to face with this fellow. I will always remember the peace I felt as he looked into my eyes, smiled and nodded. It was as though as we looked into each others eyes, he could see my soul and my entire life and lives I’d lead before just as I could see his. This was very strange to me as I’d never given credence or much thought to reincarnation and I’d never of the Dalai Lama. It wasn’t until I recognized his picture the next day in the student paper that I realize whom I had encountered on that path.
In the Zone
When “in the zone,” such as I recall once playing in the Ultimate Club World Championships, I also find myself needing to be conscious of my breath and push past pain to persevere. I’ll sometimes find myself seeing the field from above with everything unfolding below. Each pair of offense and defensive player in their own dance of evasion and pursuit unfolding within a larger pattern, and I see plays unfolding before they happen and know how the disc will travel from player to player down the field before the first pass is thrown.
Another Brush with Death
Years after learning to control my heart rate, I experienced what felt like a heart attack. I drove to urgent care, where they determine it wasn’t a heart attack. They ran a d-dimer test which came back way off the scale. An ambulance took me the ER while the pain in my chest increased, and it became harder to breath. While waiting in the ER, I decided it best to slow my breath and heart rate. My meditative state didn’t convey a sense of urgency, and it took some time before they did a CT scan. The doctor then arrived with the scan and held it up to the light box. Turning white, he looked at me saying “I can’t believe you’re alive!” They injected me with heparin to help the blood flow in my lungs again.
The doctor explained I had had a “massive, bi-lateral pulmonary embolism” basically a blot clot breaks off into little pieces which move through your heart and into your lungs where they clog the alveoli and inhibit the blood-oxygen exchange. The doctor said people tend to panic when their heart hurts and they can’t breathe. I asked if panicking wouldn’t be a bad idea under those conditions. His response was well yes it would only make matters worse. I had seemed more prudent to me to remain calm and lower my breath and heart rate. While sitting on the precipice of death waiting for the doctor in a deep meditative state, I felt myself looking down on the ER with my brother standing next to me, and doctors and nurses milling about other patients while I was fading to the edge of consciousness and life.
A New Perspective
Stanislav Grof, M.D. in The Transpersonal Vision:
Abraham a Sancta Clara, a seventeenth-century Austrian Augustinian monk, is said to have remarked,
”The man who dies before he dies, does not die when he dies.”
And if you can change your attitude toward death, it also changes your way of living in the world.
These experiences have provided me with a greater appreciation of life and being able to walk and breath and experience each day and each new interaction with living things with an even greater appreciation than I had had before.
There are now times where it seems I can observe myself from above as being one with nature, not separate from it at the same time as being an observer separate from it all. I do still enjoy meditating above the waves.