The Night I Died That Changed Everything

Director Jeremy Kagan tells the story of a pivotal, transformative moment in his life using both words and images.

“Who controls the story rules.” A Hopi saying. I teach a course called Media for Social Change at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC. These new filmmakers are studying and making films to expand awareness and potentially change behavior. Can films do this? Obviously the ad industry believes they do, though there was the comment by one of their famed executives that 50 percent of the billions spent are wasted as the commercials don’t work. So what changes us? Our brains defend our behavior. That’s their job. We protect ourselves from change. But sometimes events happens to us, unexpectedly, and then our psyche and behavior change.

For me, this was when I died.

I had been working as a film director, but was troubled about my future.

I had been to a Hollywood party, and on leaving I thanked my hostess, who had written a feature I had directed.

We liked each other, even though we rarely saw each other. That was the way of things for me in the movie business. I would get close to my crew and cast when working on a film. We would be a family, but after the film was done, the relationships would dissolve. If I ran into someone years later, there might be a hug and a few shared memories and then we would drift away to our separate lives.

At that moment, I was going off to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to clear my head; arriving at the location, I got my blanket out of the trunk of my car.

In the midst of the chaos in that trunk were papers about Vilnius, Lithuania, and the Jewish community there that was slaughtered by the Nazis. This was research for a film I was thinking about doing. The subject had disturbed me since I was a kid. Why did some live and so many die?

What would I have done had I been there? Would I have gotten out? Survived? Died? Once in a therapy session lasting some three hours, I saw in my mind a large pile of bones of the dead and I was overcome with grief.

So, with these thoughts, I went inside the lodge where you sweat. A lot.

After a hard hour of sharing prayers in this heat, we all left and as I started to stand up, my legs buckled and I collapsed onto the ground with my face in the dirt.

My mind concluded that this was some sort fainting spell from the contrast of the heat inside and the cold outside. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I was not in control of my body. I tried to say something, but nothing came out of my mouth. Physically, I was completely numb.

My vision itself was changing. The little I did see now had no color and was striated.

And then I lost all hearing and sight itself. I couldn’t feel anything. I surmised, even if I did recover in a while, there was no way I was going to show up healthy and ready to work on a television set early the next morning. What was quite clear to me now was that this indeed was the end of my career.

My head was swirling with thoughts, which seemed all out of my control. What was actually happening to me? I couldn’t see, hear, smell, taste or feel anything. I realized this wasn’t just the end of my career. This was the end of me. I was dying.

And then I began a Near-Death Experience.

One of the encounters on complex out-of-bodiness was an explosion in my consciousness. Everything I had ever perceived, actual or imagined, every encounter and recollection, every piece of information that I had in my brain when alive, everything I had seen, heard, done and read, was in this blastula. And all of it was happening simultaneously. It included what is sometimes called a “life review.” But it wasn’t passing as one event after another, it was all happening at the same time and it was not just my personal experiences.

This explosion of events also included everything I had ever known beyond just my personal life story. It was the world’s life story as I had known it. The history of the planet from the Big Bang till now – all the heroes, the leaders, the avatars, the battles, the soldiers, the victims, the slaves, the martyrs, the lovers. And there were also all the images that others had made – all the paintings, all the movies and television I had watched playing simultaneously, and all this was so speeded up that each entire film took less than a nano-second to play and they were all playing at the same time, thousands and thousands of them. Time was squished into an infinite now.

But what was far more shocking was that all the events I have known about, all the media I had watched, everything I had seen or heard about – all of it – I had made up! Everything known on my path as this particular human being had been of my imagining. All the creations made by others – even the very existence of others – all of this had originated in me, in my “mind.” But whose mind was this? For that individual, that mind, that me was quite dead.

Yet there was someone, some thing, perceiving this. And I was that perceiver now. That witness. But who was this being now? If God created everything, was I now part of the creative force witnessing itself? I was and am. And so are you.

When, to my surprise after other adventures out there, I returned from this journey and came back into my body and my senses were restored, and slowly like a child I began moving and looking around, I became aware that I was totally and supremely happy.

I was filled with an overwhelming joy of being alive. Of everything being alive. The cold. The night. The stars. The rocks. The fire. The plants. And people.

I had been here. And then I had left and gone to all these other theres. And now I was back here. And I felt an overwhelming exhilarating unconditional joy-filled love for everything and everyone. And this experience changed me in diminishing my fear of death and appreciating the amazing gift of life. How lucky we are!

What a remarkable gift is life itself. And this grace reminder continues to change me.

Jeremy Kagan is an international award winning filmmaker whose most recent work is the dramatic movie Shot, about what one bullet does to many lives. It starts its theatrical run on September 22 in selected cities. He has made 10 features, and won an Emmy and ACE award for his television work. He has served as the Artistic Director of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, is Chairperson of Special Projects that provides cultural and educational information for the 17,000 members of the Directors Guild of America, and he is a full tenured professor at the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, recognized five years in a row as the best film school in the world. His books Directors Close Up, volumes 1 and 2, are published by Scarecrow Press, and his near-death experience is recorded in his illustrated eBook, My Death: A Personal Guidebook. Visit his official site for more info.