Making Sense Of An Out Of Body Experience Through Druidic Theology
by Ritchie Gale
I am a 33 year old Bard in training.
When does a spiritual journey begin and when does it end? Wisdom may suggest that there are no real beginnings and endings, and perhaps time is not linear but cyclical; perhaps you can always trace further backwards from any one moment and all experience collapses into a “timeless moment” (Eliot). But there is a specific and describable event that I think began the Pagan path that I now find myself upon.
When I was ten I left my body and saw it from above as a broken mess. I experienced turning entirely away from the physical world and I saw another world beckon, and was then turned back. As my body healed, my mind lost the potency of the vision that I had received, and it took me two decades to realize that this strange experience would actually be the thing that had set the course of my life. It seems now that a memory of the experience resided in my subconscious, informing my interests and inclinations: a leaning towards spirituality and a hunger to debate metaphysical questions. It would be the tune to which my life has danced, first subconsciously, and now consciously. Due to this experience being my discernible starting point for the path I am now walking, I begin here.
Here, is Goodge Street, central London. It was December the 1st, 1992 and I had already been in the Middlesex Hospital for a few weeks. It was cold outside, but I only knew this due to frosted windows and the comments from nurses and visitors to the other children in the Montgomery Ward on the sixth floor. I had not been outside for about ten days.
I had been resting in bed, slowly recovering from a big trauma. The magicians of the urological surgical team had made me a new bladder out of parts of my intestine – I won’t need to recount the detailed reasons why, save to say that I had been born with a large tumor in my abdomen which left much damage once removed. The road to this particular operation had been paved with countless hospital procedures; failed attempts to control misfiring organs and this was very much part of the “grand plan” to establish some semblance of a viable life.
My memories of life before this are incredibly vague: train journeys to hospital; reading lots of books; a few classroom scenes at junior school; a few friends. I know more from what people tell me happened and I know must be true – but these are constructed rather than real memories.
The visceral sense of true memory begins as the intense pain began a few weeks after the new bladder was made. I vividly remember lying back in the hospital bed and seeing a brown envelope of school work (not that I went there very much!) given to me so I did not fall behind; I remember a ward messy with toys spilling out of cupboards – a state I doubt would exist in today’s hospitals with all kids on their tablets and phones; and I remember the spreading pain – the kind of pain that announces something is gravely wrong.
I was immersed in that pain for more than twelve hours and all the time a violent nausea was building as if a rotten vine was snaking up my throat from the depths of where a disease was growing. After what seemed like days I vomited seemingly vast amounts of poison: foul smelling bile. Kidney dish after kidney dish were filled with a dark haired nurse efficiently replacing them just in time. Gradually the pain subsided. A nasal gastric tube was unceremoniously shoved down my nose – a highly unpleasant memory also – and I lay shivering, gripped in waves of teeth-chattering coldness and then internal heat, as varying doctors of increasing seniority were summoned successively to look on and speculate. By morning my consultant was there and after the briefest examination announced that I would go down to theatre again later on that day.
What had happened seems straightforward now. The handling of the intestine can be a risky process, and mine had objected by gluing itself together and twisting up into a ball. “Post-operative adhesions” is the technical name. When I had begun to tentatively eat and drink after a week or so, what had been a working digestive tract was now an impenetrable wall. The condition is common, but in my case the reaction was extreme. The severity was not apparent to the doctors, even after that long night of sickness. I got the impression they were expecting a simple blockage, easily resolvable. What they found in theatre certainly shocked them, and after eight hours of unexpected surgery, a critical blood transfusion, and the removal of much of what they found as a now useless organ, I was wheeled down the long corridors of the hospital to intensive care.
And this is where the stranger journey begins, because I saw those corridors, not through my physical eyes, because they were certainly closed: my mind firmly sedated by anaesthetic and morphine (which for the sceptic, provides an explanation perhaps). However, the quality of the experience was vivid and sober and what follows now is an attempt to paint it accurately in words.
Firstly, I remember waking up from the darkness surrounded by a very bright light. This gradually faded from the edges of my field of vision until I was left stationary in the gloom of a stark corridor with exposed pipework on the ceiling and peeling green paintwork. I was high up, near the pipes. The sound of squeaking wheels and a metal clanging approached and I saw a bed being pushed by an overweight man with a moustache and thick glasses, with two nurses on either side. The body upon it was wired up to a computerized machine which bleeped intermittently and there seemed to be many drips protruding from the veins. It was a skinny boy, almost as white as the sheet he lay upon. It was me. The trolley actually passed by my vantage point and then I followed it as it proceeded onwards. There was no fear, more an almost playful curiosity. No physical sensations of a body, but an indifferent sense of simply being in that space, disembodied, but still present.
I followed the bed and the procession of nurses through double doors and watched as it stopped for a while at a nurses’ station. I remember watching, still from above, as people talked and one lady wrote things down on a chart attached to a clipboard. To be honest, I’m unsure of exactly what happened next, but I remember growing impatient and bored and simply turning away from the scene.
When that happened I found myself in an astoundingly beautiful scene. Before me I saw a huge wooden ship flying vast white sails that fluttered in a breezy wind. The detail of the harbor was incredible – I was reminded of it again years later when I first watched the harbor scene in the “Kingdom of God”, the film about the Crusades. People were working to load the ship and the course of the water snaked out into a beautiful golden horizon; a late sunlight catching the waves of the inlet in which the boat was resting. Too poetic for a memory? But that was the sense of it – it was like a visual poem and I’m not really sure what I mean by that. Perhaps that to understand the scene was not just to look at it through the eyes, but feel it through the heart.
I was moving forward on a gangplank that was full of other persons who were boarding the ship. They seemed to have bodies, though vague shadowy ones. My experience was that I was still disembodied, but did have some sense as before of being present in a specific space-time location. At the head of the line was a man facing down the line with a long white beard, dressed in a long red and blue robe (as I said, very biblical), holding a long scroll, partially unwound and flowing down to the floor. As the shadowy figures reached him, they were ticked off and passed onto the ship.
As I approached, for the first time since I had become conscious, I became afraid. The shuffling line in front of me suddenly ran out. I had reached the gatekeeper. I stood as he looked down at the list and then he looked straight at me and smiled. It was a kind expression that if I had any skill with a pencil I could draw with exact detail. This was when I began to feel physical sensations creep in. He lifted his left arm and pointed back down the gangplank. I did not get the chance to look around since the ship had become a machine, a pump which compressed and – I realized in time – was breathing for me. The people all faded and I was thrust into sensations of nausea, pain and a fractured sense of being, like being spread out across a space larger than my body. I could not move and became aware of a mess of plastic tubes which seemed to number in their tens or hundreds, coming out of my body. I passed from absolute clarity to the groggy drunkenness of post-operative drugs and the sense that my body was, as I said, split apart over the bed, only tenuously kept together by fraying threads of skin and sinew. The source of this horrible sensation was my abdomen. From there I passed into uneasy bouts of sleep, and then increasingly pain filled awakenings where my situation gradually became clear.
The profundity of the corridor and ship experience stayed with me, but in the days and weeks to come was relegated in significance below simple acts like trying to shift around a bed in order to relieve bed-sore threatened skin; or trying to accept doctors not being able to tell me when, or indeed if, I would ever eat again. What followed was years of reconstruction, further operations, but a growing sense of optimism as the worst was left behind and I surprised myself by becoming someone who increasingly did a full range of normal things.
The memory of my out of body experience remained clear, but its significance was not apparent, remaining behind my decisions rather than consciously informing them. It is easy for me now to see that becoming interested in Philosophy, spirituality and anything which dealt with the non-physical aspects of human experience was a direct result of wanting to make sense of that night in the Middlesex Hospital, but whilst I was choosing what to read, what to study, I remained aloof from the memory, as if engaging with it fully would lead me to say and think things that are very far away from the rational framework in which I have existed within since that day.
So this experience, I believe now, gave a glimpse of a reality that is different to the one our senses normally perceive, or might be measured by scientific equipment. For years my heart was occasionally curious about it, and I have pursued an academic study of religions, spirituality and anything that hints at a “beyond” (fantasy and science fiction literature/film, for example. My University dissertation was on the distinction between “mythos” and “logos” and how the mythmakers deal in reality, not fiction.) But regardless of my instinctive interest in Spirit, my head has always taken charge and stubbornly painted the narrative that the experience (and all spiritual experience) was ultimately “all in the mind” and often “to do with drugs”, but recent experiences through meditation and Amazonian Shamanic practice have made me less sure of this story.
What is certain is that I have placed my quest for the explanation of that experience center stage now, and through the study of the Bardic grade, I feel the shape, if not the sharp words, of an answer beginning to form. Was the light experienced a glimpse of Gwynvid? Or that which is known by other names in other traditions? I cannot answer this, and I do not believe I am supposed to: “That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein) But since my spiritual commitment has grown this last year, and I am finding ways to connect to a deeper self, the power of this experience is at the fore. Perhaps, just as Ceugant intitiates, penetrates and is the final state of Divinity – it seems that what I saw and felt was that which began this life, is ever present and is where ultimately I will return.