As we die we progress through deeper and deeper states of unconsciousness. The ego falls away, layer by layer, and only the clear light of the mind remains. If we fail to recognize this luminosity at the hour of our death, the Buddhists say, we fade into oblivion and re-enter the realm of human suffering. If we recognize the clear light of the mind, and rest in it, we can break the chain of suffering and awaken into a new rebirth.
I'm claustrophobic. When I was a young boy, I was usually pretty meek, but if a group of kids tried to pin me down and sit on me, I'd surprise them with my ferocity. I hate the feeling of being held down or caged in. Walking into one of those small airplanes, I have to collect myself and find my breath when I see how low the ceiling is, how tight the space is. So I was anxious about the MRI.
I refused sedation. I didn't want to spend the rest of the day groggy, and besides, I figured, I've been meditating for six years, and it should be no big deal. And laying on my back on the table, I peeked up at the tube I was going to be slid into, and I thought, "There's plenty of room in there!" I relaxed. "It's gonna be loud, " the tech said, handing me yellow ear plugs. I put them in my ears. This was going to be a cakewalk.
Then she slid me into the tube, and the ceiling of the tube was only a few inches from my face when I entered it. It was tighter than it looked from the outside. Oh shit. I closed my eyes. I was surrounded by a tight tube. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was there. What saved me was the tech saying, "It'll be about twenty minutes." Twenty minutes is how long I meditate each morning. This was just another meditation. This was just another meditation.
I recalled my reading from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying earlier that morning. "The outer dissolution is when the senses and elements dissolve. How exactly will we experience this when we die? The first thing we may be aware of is how our senses cease to function. If people around our bed are talking, there will come a point where we can hear the sound of their voices but we cannot make out the words." Living is practice for dying. Even having an MRI is practice for dying.
A warm light flooded my face, and I could sense it through my closed eyelids. The machines started clacking and whirring. The noises weren't too different from the ambient music I listen to, pleasant actually -- the phasing of Steve Reich, Phill Niblock's drone. I pretended my ear plugs were earphones and I was meditating with music.
My game plan going in was to close my eyes and imagine myself in a spacious meadow, looking up at the open sky, but when I tried that tactic in the MRI, the illusion was undone by the reflection of my humid breath off the ceiling of the tube. I could feel the warmth of my breath pooling around my face with nowhere to go. So much for open sky. I dissolved my awareness into the feeling of the light -- I embraced it -- and the feeling of my body, motionless but for the excursions of my abdomen when I breathed.
They say when you die, if your mind has not been stabilized through practice, when the luminosity dawns you won't be able to recognize it. Your mind will be clouded with anxiety or anger or desire and you'll miss your opportunity for liberation. When you die, it will be as confusing as a dream you don't realize you're in. You'll want to be somewhere else. You won't want to rest in the clear light. When I thought about how close the ceiling of that tube was to my face, anxiety bubbled to the surface, and I rested in the clear light. I tried to at least. But I dared not open my eyes.
I wondered how brave I'd be when my time came. Would I panic? Would I leave the planet peacefully? Would I recognize the luminosity? The table started sliding. I was out of the tube. I asked the tech if that was it. "That's it," she said. "You did good." I appreciated her saying that.
I changed out of my hospital gowns -- the inner one open to the back, the outer one open to the front -- and into my street clothes, then I walked to the Vietnamese cafe across Main Street from the clinic and ordered a Banh Mi sandwich with tears of joy in my eyes.