When I was 20 years old I was living on my own and working full time while in college part time. One day while walking in downtown Seattle with a close friend we saw a travel agency advertising tickets to Costa Rica at what seemed like a cheap price… So we both bought tickets right then on a whim. I could barely afford to travel at all but I was so excited – this would be my first real trip somewhere exotic on my own. No family to watch over me – just my friend and me for 3 weeks in the jungle and on the beaches. We didn’t make a single plan for our trip till we got on the airplane and opened our guide book for the first time. I felt free.
About a week into this trip I took a boogie board out into the ocean and started swimming out to catch some waves. If you have never been boogie boarding before, it involves a smaller version of a surf board which you lie down on your stomach instead of standing on – but you swim out and catch a wave which sends you back to shore. As I was swimming out waves would crash over my head and the board – these were smaller waves but for someone inexperienced like me they were big and powerful. Maybe about 5 feet high waves – and to me they were a bit scary because I could feel the intense power of the ocean behind those waves and just the day before I had been scuba diving with sharks nearby. I loved the feeling though – the open expanse of the ocean, the humility taught to me by the power of the waves, and the rush of speeding across the water. My board was pretty cheap and flimsy, but seemed good enough for a beginner. Sometimes I would get knocked off the board by a wave but there was a strap attaching the board to my ankle which always pulled me up to the surface and kept my board close by.
So there I was having the time of my life out in the ocean of Costa Rica – not knowing my life was about to change forever.
A large wave knocked me off of my board and pulled me under the water. Apparently my boogie board was too old and cheap because the safety strap on my ankle came off and the board left me. I felt this current sucking me down further into the ocean and I was disoriented – I couldn’t see much under the water and I was spinning with the force of the waves. I was a great swimmer and in excellent shape though so I wasn’t worried yet – I knew I could get back up to the surface and I would just have a long swim back to the shore if I couldn’t find my board.
I underestimated the power of the ocean though. I was stuck in an undertow and it kept pulling me down to the oceans floor. My body kept twirling with the waves even as I tried to right myself and figure out which direction was up. Soon I was pushed into the sand on the ocean floor – I think I must have been about 30 feet below the surface. I tried to push myself off of the ocean floor so I could swim back up, but every time I pushed more waves would just pummel me across the sand and rocks twirling my body around like a rag doll. I felt so powerless because I couldn’t even get an inch off of the ground. The waves were so strong it felt like I was getting kicked and punched from every direction at once while the rocks and sand kept coming up to hit me as I rolled over and over with the waves.
I had never felt so powerless in my life. And I was so confused – the force of the waves and my bodies spinning was knocking my brain around and I was so disoriented from rolling over and over myself. One second I was having fun riding waves and suddenly I was fighting for my life. I started to realize I was in real danger and I needed to do something. I thought frantically for any way out but I was alone under the ocean and no one even knew I was down there. I only had minutes of breath available to me and as the waves tumbled me over and over my time was quickly running out. I had never felt so hopeless before.
I fought frantically for my life and a deep fear came over me. I was getting weaker and weaker by the second – my arms and legs burned and my muscles started to feel like jelly. My lungs ached and my body started trying to gag – but if my mouth opened the ocean would rush in to fill my longs so I fought against the gagging of my body as well as the waves of the ocean now. My vision was starting to go dark around the edges and I was seeing stars before my eyes. My vision got darker and darker and I got weaker and weaker. For the first time in my life I thought I was truly powerless in every way and I was going to die here – there was nothing I could do about it.
It only took a moment to accept my death – there was no denying it. No fighting it. My life was over. And suddenly I thought to myself – maybe it didn’t matter anyways. Life was full of suffering. Maybe I didn’t need to suffer anymore. I didn’t think I was going to heaven or going to any afterlife – I was an atheist and thought the end was just the end. But that seemed okay – an end to the suffering. A rest. I suddenly for the first time in my life admitted to myself that I was depressed. I had no dreams or real goals in my life – I was just going through the motions. Work, make money, spend it all on bills and be poor no matter how much you work, wishing I could be with women who had no interest in me, wishing I was important but feeling like I was just another nothing in a long line of people who didn’t matter… I hated modern culture and felt like I couldn’t relate to all the people living in denial about reality who thought money would buy them happiness. I never admitted to myself I was depressed before – I just thought everyone felt the way I did and it wasn’t depression if the whole word was depressed right? Then it’s just normal? Dying suddenly seemed like a gift – I could leave all the pain and suffering behind without the shame of suicide.
In that moment I gave up. I gave up because there was nothing else to do, but I also gave up because I wanted to. Death seemed easier. I stopped struggling for life and suddenly I felt this deep peace – a feeling I had never known before. As the feeling of peace and comfort and acceptance washed over me I experienced something strange – I left my body.
Suddenly I was no longer in the ocean and no longer aware of any body. I was racing through a tunnel like I had never seen before. At the end of the tunnel was light and as I entered into the light I became the light and all I knew was light for an eternal moment. Then I started to see things. I saw every single moment of my life in review – but it was like watching a movie and I saw everything different this time. I had the same thoughts and emotions, but behind those thoughts I was observing from a new perspective. Things I had never cared about before seemed more meaningful, and things that had seemed so important before didn’t matter. I watched my whole life, and as I got back to the moment in the ocean my perspective shifted again. I saw my family without me there. I saw my funeral and all the people I loved missed me. My family. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t just a person, but I was a part of something larger then myself. I knew these people more deeply and was suddenly aware that I was a part of something with them – in some strange way I even was them because together we were part of a greater whole. I felt so horrible for giving up and I wished that I could help them. I saw all these other people I never knew suffering and I wished I could help them as well. I felt their suffering and while I knew life had to include some suffering I also had this realization that by working together and loving each other we could ease our suffering in some ways. People could help each other, and living wasn’t just for yourself – it was for everyone and everything.
I realized in that moment how many people had sacrificed so much so that I could have a life. Everyone that came before me sacrificed so that I could be born and live. And there were more to come after me. Life was eternal, but my moment in life was so short – maybe it wasn’t such a burden to spend a few decades on this earth to be a part of this miracle called life. Maybe there was more to life then I had thought before, and maybe I had something I could offer to others – maybe we all had something to share together. I felt a sudden urge to honor my loved ones, honor the ancestors, and honor life itself – by living till my last breath and participating in this experience with creation.
Suddenly I remembered myself and remembered my body in the ocean and I felt this tug… Things blurred as I felt something pulling me. I became aware of my body slowly and suddenly realized that there were hands under my armpits lifting me up – I wasn’t kicking or swimming at all but being pulled to the surface of the ocean. I was heading towards a light again – but this time it was the light of the sun!
I broke the surface of the ocean and took one breath before another wave crashed over my head. I managed to stay close to the surface though and didn’t get sucked back under. I had a second to look around as I took a second breath – no one was around. Had I really felt hands carrying me up? I saw the shore but it was so far away. I was exhausted and weak and confused – I didn’t know if I could make it back. I struggled to swim in my weakened state as the waves kept coming over the back of my head and temporarily pushing me back under or tossing me around. Somehow I made it back and climbed onto the shore again to lie down and catch my breath.
Shortly afterwards my friend who I was traveling with found me and asked where I had been – he had been searching for me for an hour he said and couldn’t find me. I just told him I had been boogie boarding and he must have missed me – I said nothing about drowning. I was too confused to explain my experience, too ashamed to admit my depression, and too attached to my atheist worldview to admit I might have had a spiritual experience. In fact, the world had become scary in a way, as I felt that there may be a whole side of reality that I know nothing about.
~ an excerpt from my book How The Earth Saved My Soul (copyright 2017)