What Death Is Like
SOME years ago I visited a friend who was at a sanitarium. Not until my arrival did I know that the physician in charge was employing hypnotism as a curative agency. That evening he gave a parlor exhibition of his skill. He asked those present — eighteen in number — to form a circle. He passed from one to another in quick succession, pressing his thumbs lightly between the eyes of each person and saying, ‘Sleep, sleep; deep, deeper still,’ and so on until each went off in a state of hypnosis. With the suggestion to sleep he added other suggestions, such as: ‘When I count three you will awaken,’ or ‘In three minutes you will come to.’ And sometimes he added, ‘You will not experience any ill effects from what you are about to do.’ As he approached me, I motioned him aside, indicating emphatically that I did not wish him to attempt to hypnotize me.
The feats these persons performed while acting under his suggestions seemed to me remarkable and extremely interesting, but I could not think it ethical to do some of the things he did, more especially in one case where the individual was a lad of sixteen, his nephew. I could not think it good, either physically or mentally, for the boy to be subjected to the great strain he was forced to endure. The last thing the hypnotizer did was to give a lady of my acquaintance a heaping teaspoonful of red pepper with the suggestion that it was ice cream. She ate it with apparent enjoyment and wanted more. A moment later she came to herself, and I said: ‘Do you mean to tell me your mouth does not smart? Red pepper has a physiological effect; there must be some of that red pepper in your mouth and throat yet; how does it feel?’
She answered: ‘Oh, I know, from what you say, the Doctor has been up to his tricks, but honestly I would n’t know it otherwise.’ Then she added: ‘I can hypnotize people, too; I tried it yesterday. My roommate started to yawn and I said, “Open, open; wider, wider still,” and I added, “You can’t close your mouth till I tell you to” — and she could n’t! And there she sat, waving her arms at me and trying so hard to close her mouth! She was cross with me about it afterward. Come on to my room, and I will show you how it is done.’
I went with her.
She said, ‘I’ll hypnotize you; that will show you more quickly than any other way. Just lie down on that bed and relax; make yourself receptive to my thought.’
‘You can’t do it,’ I said; ‘ I know you can’t. But go ahead and convince yourself of the fact.’
So she went through the formula of ‘Sleep, sleep; deep, deeper still,’ and so on. At first her words had no effect. Then I responded. Then she made the startling affirmation, ‘You are now going to leave your body; you are leaving your body; you are entirely free from the body; you are not held to it by the faintest tie.’
Because she was a novice in this strange art, she neglected to say, ‘In three minutes you will awaken,’or something on that order.
In obedience to her words, something very remarkable happened. I felt as if an inner spiritual body were being dragged out of my physical body through the head — and with intense suffering. I could compare the process only to tearing out a firmly embedded plant by the roots from the ground. I seemed to have a light, ethereal body, floating in a horizontal position directly above my physical body, perhaps three feet away. And this is what I thought:—
‘How strange! How wonderful! I am here, and my body is there! Now I know I have never believed in immortality. I have thought I believed it; I have wanted to believe it; but my astonishment shows me I have never really believed the mind could exist apart from the brain. I have never really believed that the self, the ego, could go on thinking and being, apart from the physical self. This must be death. Never again shall I be afraid of death. How free I feel! How delightful it is to be unhampered by all the limitations that are a part of the body!’
Then I found there was a new state of consciousness; I was aware of the objective world and also of what was going on in the mind of the hypnotizer. Also I was aware of spiritual presences about me; and I wanted to go on with them, but felt I was not ready. These words came into my mind: ‘Why — I am an unfinished thing, an abortive thing. I am not ready to go on, and yet I don’t want to go back to that dry-goods box’ — as I scornfully called my body.
Then my attention was attracted to the behavior of the hypnotist and to her mental attitude. At first she felt only exultation. She exclaimed, ‘I’ve done it — I’ve done it! I’ve always wanted to do it and now I’ve succeeded.’ The minutes passed and suddenly she remembered she had not given the all-important suggestion to awaken at a given time. Then she became anxious, at first commanding me to return, to which I paid no attention. Then the thought passed through her mind, ‘I shall have to summon Doctor X, and I don’t want to; they will all have to know what I have been doing.’ Then a swift and deadly fear took possession of her as she recalled the words of her command, and she thought, ‘Why, perhaps she is dead; perhaps she will never come back! Oh, what have I done! What have I done!’
In thinking about it afterward, I noticed that all her thought was selfish. She thought of the situation solely from the standpoint of how it affected her. Presently she knelt at the bedside like one crazed with grief, weeping, wringing her hands, and imploring me to return. A wave of compassion passed over me and more out of goodnature than anything else I determined to return. I distinctly did not wish to return to the body I had been freed from, but with the words, ‘I will go back,’ with the act of will that those words implied, my spiritual self sought entrance into the physical body, and as I had emerged I entered, and with similar great suffering — agony, I called it at the time.
Then I awoke and found myself weeping bitterly, uncontrollably; then laughing hysterically, — something unknown to me normally, — then crying again and struggling to gain self-control. When I had succeeded in gaining the mastery, I said, ‘Don’t be disturbed; that’s my body; that’s not myself! ‘
‘What happened? Oh, what happened — tell me,’ she cried.
‘Not now; I can’t talk,’ I said. ‘I am going to my room.’ So I left her. The next morning early I took the train for New York. I never saw her again and never wanted to. I felt that she had done a most daring and reprehensible thing and that it might easily have ended in death. I was not blameless in the affair, but I was wholly ignorant of such matters when I went there, whereas she had been a patient there for six months and must have known considerable about hypnotism.
I am perfectly willing to answer questions about this experience. There may be points about it that some one would like to know. Nothing that has ever happened to me in actual life is more vivid than this experience, or more far-reaching in its effects.