When I was just beginning to explore the difficulties and possibilities of self-remembering—I believe I was twenty at the time—I discovered a fundamental truth about the practice of self-remembering that has stayed with me ever since. The truth is this: it is difficult, sometimes next to impossible, to maintain self-remembering at the moment of a shock to the body.
At the time I had a friend whose family owned an indoor swimming pool. It was a heated pool, and so it was possible to swim even in the cold months. So that winter, after a night of drinking—or whatever youthful indiscretions my friends and I were up to—we sometimes capped off the night with a midnight swim. The way it worked was that we had to get a call to the boy whose family owned the pool at a reasonable hour and he would leave the pool door unlocked for us. He sometimes joined us, but mostly he left us to ourselves. The pool had underwater lights, which would be left on. The overhead lights were left off in order to not alarm the unwitting parents of the boy. The pool was large enough to have a real swim. It was fitted with a diving board, and it was possible for us to make a reasonable amount of noise because the enclosure for the pool was built some distance from the house.
On one of these nights I must have been thinking about and experimenting with self-remembering because I observed that I couldn’t remember myself at the moment I dove into the water. My friends must have thought I was crazy, because, rather than swimming, I kept getting out of the pool, walking around to the board, and diving back into the water. What I observed was that I could remember myself while I walking to the board and as I ran down the board and dove, but at the moment I hit the water, I always forgot myself. The best I could do was to quickly pick up the thread afterward as I swam back up to the surface.
At the time I didn’t connect my experiment to the idea of remembering myself through the shock of death; I only thought that diving into the water was an interesting way to test the mettle of my efforts. I hadn’t yet read Rodney’s Collin’s book The Theory of Eternal Life, a book that, when I read it a few years later, would give me a way to imagine what happens to us at the moment we die, a book where I found the same example, of diving into a body of water, used to describe the effort to recover from the shock of death.
Intense preparation must be undergone by the dying man to make him able to bear the intense shock of new states. The quicker he can regain consciousness the higher will he be able to ascend and the more understand and experience. Like a man diving into an ice-cold sea, there is bound to be a momentary blackout of awareness, but all depends on how quickly he can recover and remember himself. ~ Rodney Collin
Montaigne in his essay On Practice tells how Canius Julius while waiting to be executed was asked what he was thinking about. He had been condemned to death by the tyrant Caligula and was questioned by a friend, a philosopher, who wanted to know: ‘How stands your soul at this moment? What is it doing? What are your thoughts?”
He replied: I was thinking about holding myself ready and with all my powers intent to see whether in that instant of death, so short and brief, I shall be able to perceive any dislodgement of the soul.
I like the word dislodgement. Of course in this example to be dislodged implies that the man’s efforts to hold his soul uppermost had reached duration to allow for dislodging. In his case it’s pretty easy to imagine that the emotion of knowing that he would very soon be put to death would provide him with a strong motivation to separate and hold ready the part of his self that he believed could survive the shock of a brutal execution. Montaigne doesn’t tell how he was executed, but Canius Julius was a nobleman, so in all likelihood he was beheaded, which was regarded by the Romans of the time as the most honorable way to be put to death.
As to our question of whether or not we can practice for the moment of our death, Montaigne has this to say:
If we cannot reach it, we can approach it, we can reconnoiter it, and if we do not penetrate as far as its fort, at least we shall see and become acquainted with the approaches to it.
There would be little point to this exercise if we needed a swimming pool (let alone the threat of execution) to practice extending and recovering self-remembering. Luckily our lives are so designed to provide us with many little physical shocks.
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. ~ Shakespeare
And most should be less traumatic than diving into an ice-cold sea.
Usually when we practice, we start off with easy examples of the action we want to master; otherwise we defeat our will and give up the endeavor. There is something in human nature that is energized by success. At the same time we have to be willing to test ourselves with more difficult efforts in order to see where we stand. In In Search of the Miraculous Ouspensky describes how he was walking the streets of St. Petersburg and was irritated that he couldn’t remember himself and so he decided by the force of his will to remember himself until he reach the next street. After he accomplished this, he felt confident enough in his ability to keep the thread of his efforts that he made his way to the Nevsky Prospect, a major boulevard, because as he put it:
I again turned towards the Nevsky realizing that, in quiet streets, it was easier for me not to lose the line of thought and wishing therefore to test myself in more noisy streets. ~ P. D. Ouspensky
In the summer this year I walked at night when it was cooler. I generally walked along a country road that is not too busy with traffic. But it is also a road that is not well-lit, so I had to be particularly careful about passing cars, especially when they came up from behind me. After being nearly rundown one night, I decided that the safest approach was to step off the road and let the car pass. This practice gave me a good opportunity to test myself. On nights when I was able to create a more or less consistent stream of presence, I would stop walking and try to not allow the shock of the passing car dislodge my self-remembering. What I found was that unless I was able to ramp up my efforts to a certain level of intensity beforehand, I almost always lost the thread and would have to take a moment to recover myself. It was a good test because it showed me the level of effort needed to keep my focus and maintain presence.
In any moment where there is a little shock, like stepping into the shower, or shaking hands with a stranger, or puling a sweater over your head, there is an opportunity to test our capacity to maintain self-remembering.
Because moments of shocks contain added difficulty, they have special value. If we remember ourselves only in easy moments, only when we are comfortable, only when there is nothing to transform, we will not progress.
When death comes, as it must, the question is: where will we be? Where will we be placing our identity? Will we still believe that we are the body? Will part of our death experience be the horror and the confusion of being attached to a corpse? Or will we have done the work to transfer our identity to higher centers that continue to exist after death of the body? The answer to these questions is not in what we do at the moment of our death; it is in how we live our lives. It is in what we value, in what we do today, and in how practiced we become in transforming shocks.