I first died in this lifetime when I was three years old. My great aunt the opera singer saw this in the tea leaves but didn’t talk about it until long after. What she did not see was that – as a doctor at the hospital in Hobart, Tasmania told my parents – I “died and came back”. That is still the term I prefer to use of these experiences. I don’t remember much of what happened when I left my body at age three, only that it was very hard to live in a body in this world after I came back, and that I felt that my home reality was somewhere else.
At nine, I died again during emergency
appendectomy in a Melbourne hospital. This time I seemed to live a whole life
somewhere else, among a beautiful people who raised me as their own. I came
back remembering that other life and that other world. It still wasn’t easy for
me to live in the ordinary world, and I was nostalgic for that other world. The
gift of these experiences, and my
persisting illness (I had double pneumonia twelve times between the ages of
three and eleven) was an inner life that was rich and prolific, and an ability
to move between states of consciousness and reality at will.
We did not have terms like “near-death experience” in Australia in that era.. The first person who gave me a model for understanding what had happened to me was an Aboriginal boy. He told me, “When we get real sick, our spirit goes away. We go and live with the spirit people. When we get well, we come back.”
At age eleven, I had the vision of a great staff of
burning bronze with a serpent wrapped around it that seemed to fill half the
sky. Right after that, I came very near death for a third time, back in
hospital with pneumonia. But this time, I came back healed, and was able to
live a relatively normal life – except that in my mind, the dream world was my
I can’t remember a time when I did not understand that our personal dreams can take us into the Dreamtime, which is about more than the bargain basement of the personal subconscious; it is the place where we find our spiritual kin on a higher level and remember the origins and purpose of life. That’s the way the First Peoples of my native Australian see it. The Aboriginal boy who befriended me did not think it was extraordinary to dream future events, or to meet the dead in dreams, as I did all the time.
I had to be fairly quiet about these things, growing up in a conservative time in Australia, in a military family. But as I grew older, I was able to do more and more with the gifts of dreaming. My dreams of ancient cultures led me to my first job, as lecturer in ancient history at the Australian National University. My dreams of possible future events enabled me to avoid death on the road, quite literally, on three occasions.
In the mid-1980s, I left the fast-track life of a bestselling thriller writer and moved to a farm 130 miles north of New York City, thanks to a hawk and a white oak. I found myself drawn into trans-temporal dramas and the spirit world of a Native American people. I became deeply engaged in issues and dramas from the life of an 18th century Irishman, a major historical figure who knew the Mohawk very well.
My engagement with him opened a link to a woman of his time, an extraordinary dream shaman, the Mother of the Wolf Clan of her people, who tried to influence him and most certainly succeeded in influencing me. She reminded me why dreaming is central to healing and to living our bigger and braver stories, and I cherish our continuing relationship across time and dimensions. I learned what it means to be so deeply involved with a personality from another time that your lives turn together. I was eventually required to undergo death and rebirth in the mode of a shaman.
Borrowing from Jung, I sometimes describe this period in my life as a protracted "confrontation with the unconscious." I see now that, as with the years Jung recorded in his Red Book, all the important work of my subsequent life has flowed from this stormy period of spiritual emergency and emergence.
There are few subjects more important than how we navigate the big transitions in life. A transition is more than a change; it is literally a “crossing over” from one state into another. What happened to me in midlife was another experience of dying and coming back.
that when you change your life, your true friends are those who will support
you through that change and your worst friends are those who try to keep you in
the frame of past expectations.
Dreams showed me how to find my way in my new life as a dream author and dream teacher. When I still thought I had to return to writing thrillers to pay the bills, my dreams told me that it is never a good idea to trade the soul’s calling for a bag of groceries, or even a truck full.
Young children, especially my own daughters, became my most important mentors in ordinary life on what dreams require from a family or community. Time among children confirmed and renewed my understanding that dreams are for real, that there is magic in making things up, and that we change the world when we tell a better story about it.
I started teaching what I had learned, and
learned through teaching. I found, as Emerson counseled, that “there is one
direction is which space is open to us.” When I followed my calling, doors
opened in astonishing ways. When I slipped back and away from my path, doors
stayed resolutely closed. I am grateful for that.
I was now able to give people who were willing to share dreams and other experiences of the larger reality the confirmation and validation I had desperately needed as a lonely boy. As I developed my practice, I found I was able to offer more: safe ways to travel into the deeper reality, have adventures, and return with gifts of guidance and healing. I developed an original synthesis of contemporary dreamwork and primal shamanic methods for shifting consciousness and operating in the spirit worlds, and called this Active Dreaming. I found people everywhere were hungry for this. The more I gave them, the more happy and fulfilled I felt. I knew joy every time I saw more of spirit shining in someone’s eyes in one of my workshops.
There is no better confirmation that you are on the right track than a secret handshake from the universe, one of those meaningful coincidences you simply cannot dismiss. I got a bisou, or kiss, from the universe in a delightful and entirely unexpected way, on the day I told my editor I was going to write a book titled The Boy Who Died and Came Back. My last action that morning, before rushing to the airport to catch the first of a series of planes to France, was to send her a couple of sample pages about what happened to me as a young boy.
I was traveling to southern France that day because I had a date with Death. I was going to lead one of my favorite workshops, titled “Making Death Your Ally”, at the Hameau de l’Etoile, a restored seventeenth-century village near Montpellier that is now a retreat center. On my last short flight from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Montpellier, I took out my in-flight reading, a book in French titled Les portes du rêve. A flight attendant immediately asked me if she could see the book. Leafing through it with mounting excitement, she saw that one of the driving themes is using dreams of the departed and conscious dream journeys to the Other Side to gain first-hand knowledge of what happens after death.
"This is my favorite theme," she told me. "I am passionate about it. I am going to get this book!"
I now confessed that I was the author. I explained that I was reading myself in hopes of brushing up my French prior to opening my workshop. Les portes du rêve is the French version of my book Dreamgates.
Cabin service at my end of the cabin was now suspended while the flight attendant proceeded to fire a volley of questions. "To write about these things you must have had a near-death experience, yes?"
People around us did not seem to mind that the coffee and juice was not being poured. An older couple next to me wanted in on the conversation. Violette, the wife, said, "We are all so hungry for first-hand information about what happens after death. I want to know what I can expect in the afterlife, and I don't want to hear it from priests or psychologists. I want to hear it from people who have been there! And I want to know how I can find out these things for myself."
I quoted Montaigne. Puisque nous ne savons pas où la mort nous attend, attendons-la partout. I had forgotten that I don't speak good French as I quoted this wonderful counsel in the original version. "Since we do not know where Death will meet us, let us be ready to meet it everywhere."
There was a stir of agreement from folks around us. I realized I now had an audience of at least a dozen people.
"I can't think of any subject as important as what you are discussing," a man across the aisle contributed, writing down my name and the title of my book. A male flight attendant joined us, wanting the same information.
I observed that we have two main ways of gaining direct knowledge of l’au delà, the Other Side. We can communicate with people who are at home there, and we can make the crossing before death, to see for ourselves.
This led to an urgent series of fresh questions, again centering on my personal experiences.
"Do you have no fear of death?
"Do you talk to many people who have died?"
"Are there many different places where people go when they die?"
The short answer to those three, of course, is Yes, Yes, Yes. I gave highest marks to this question: "Were you happier in the life when you died, or the life you are living now?"
That was a tough one. I confessed that I was so in love with the people of the other world who raised me as their own when I went away from this world at age nine that I had a hard time living in the body of a nine-year-old boy when I came back. "I suppose I was in love with Death. I have learned to make Death an ally rather than a lover. I want to be ready to meet him anywhere, everyday. I also want to use him as a counselor who can help me to make my life choices with the courage and clarity only Death can bring."
The flight attendant had returned to her regular tasks, but kept coming back to rejoin the conversation. When we landed, she was waiting outside the baggage claim with some of her colleagues. They were all very interested and wanted my website and book information.
"You see, we are making you some good publicity, so you will have to keep teaching us about l’au delà, here in France."
Her lips grazed my cheek. I felt a bisou from the universe, a little kiss from Death.
Adapted from The Boy Who Died and Came Back: Adventures of a Dream Archaeologist inthe Multiverse by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Drawing: "Stormbird Brings Me Back" by Robert Moss