At the tail end of a recent Awakin Circle
I was reminded of a time about ten years ago when I received an unexpected lesson in the miracle of being alive.
Ironically I was driving on my way to see the doctor. To get from where I live in Half Moon Bay to the doctor’s office in Redwood City, you drive over the hill on Highway 92. The narrow two-lane road takes you up to a crest high above the valley below, and winds back and forth in hairpin turns.
It was raining. I was running late, so I was probably driving a little fast. The road was slippery.
I came to a turn where the road goes sharply left. I turned the steering wheel, but the car kept going straight. I tried the brake, but the car kept skidding forward, straight toward the edge of the cliff.
I looked around me. There was nothing I could do to change what was happening. Everything was in slow motion. The edge of the cliff kept coming closer. Then the thought occurred to me: it looks like I’m going over.
What kicked in was a practice in the Hebrew tradition. At the moment of death we want to have our most sacred prayer, the affirmation of God’s oneness, on our lips. And if you die with that prayer, then you're pointing in the right direction for the next stage of your journey.
So I said it. Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eá¸¥ad.
Hear Israel, God is God, God is One.
And off the car goes, over the cliff. Everything is still moving around me in slow motion. I'm floating in the air, looking at the world. Then I close my eyes and take my hands off the steering wheel. There’s nothing further I can do now, except to let go and wait for what comes next. Then I feel the car hit the ground and slide down the steep, muddy hillside.
Suddenly everything is still, strangely silent. I open my eyes. Where am I? Am I alive or dead? I can’t tell.
In front of me I see the valley far below. Then I see that the car is caught on a little tree. That little tree has stopped the slide.
Maybe I'm still alive, I don’t know. But just in case, I’d better be careful how I open this door. I gingerly open it, reach outside with my feet, plant them on the muddy ground, and unwind myself out of the car. It doesn’t slide down. I look at the frail looking little tree that’s still holding it up. How much longer can it stay this way? Thank you, I say to the tree.
Everything is different, as though the world is here, and not here, at the same time. I look up the hill. It’s muddy and the rain is still coming down. I see faces high above, at the top of the hill, looking down at me. Who are they? Are these angels?
What am I supposed to do now? I guess I'll try climbing up. So I climb up the slippery, muddy slope, sometimes standing, sometimes on all fours. As I get closer to the top and look up, I make an important discovery. These aren’t angels looking down at me. They’re people! What are they doing here?
When I get up to the top, there are about a dozen people, all looking at me. Their expressions seem halfway between concern and relief. I can see their cars, all pulled up in random places along the side of the road.
“Are you okay?” someone says. I can’t say anything, so I just nod. Someone gives me an umbrella. Someone else puts a warm blanket over my shoulders.
“We called the CHP (California Highway Patrol),” someone says. “They’ll be here, and they’ve ordered a tow truck for your car. Do you need an ambulance?”
I look down at my body. “No thanks, I think I’m okay.” Then I pause and look at all of them. “Actually, I’m really feeling terrific. Thank you so much!” I reach out my arms to hug these strangers, and they hug me back.
“Please, keep your umbrella and blanket,” I say. “You need them too!”
“No,” they say, “you keep them! You’re the one who needs them now.”
I’m alive! What a miracle! I look at the world around me. The exquisite beauty of it all — the glistening raindrops, the flying birds calling to each other, the trees dancing in the wind, the little rocks covering the ground and the great boulders high up on the hillside. And this amazing group of random strangers who have stoped on the side of the road to help me. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s all so amazing! Everything is so new, the world is so new. It’s like I’ve never really seen this world before. What a miracle! What a miracle to be alive!
Eventually the CHP and tow-truck arrive, and my angel-people-friends say goodbye and leave. The car, which is pretty smashed up but still runs, winds up in a repair shop, and I wind up back home in a rental car.
I hug my wife Wendy, hug the cats, hug the bed, hug everything I can get my hands on. My God — everything is so beautiful! Look at this bedroom where we sleep! Look at the plants in the garden! Look at the butterflies! Look at the snails! Look at the clouds in the sky! Everything! Wow!
And so it was all day, and the next, and the next after that. The world was magic. Everything was new. Everything was an amazing gift.
I promised Wendy I would drive a little slower in the future and do my best to stay under the speed limit — especially when it’s raining and I’m going around hairpin turns! And I'm happy to say that I have.
Going over the cliff and returning unscathed. I wouldn’t recommend it as a spiritual practice. But if it ever happens to you, you’ve been given a priceless gift. Seeing the world, and your life, with new eyes. Being alive with a new heart.