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Two yellow rafts going through rapids

How a Near-Death Experience Put Me on the Right Path

Whitewater rafting in level III rapids in Costa Rica, I was thrown overboard. Despite my life vest, I was pulled deep underwater, and complete darkness surrounded me.

“This is it,” I thought. “I am finally going to die.”

This fear of death was familiar to me from facing cancer during my childhood. And here it was again, front and center.

Then what felt like a bright, radiant white light surrounded my whole body. I heard a voice say loudly and clearly, “Living or dying is fine.”

A deep sense of trust, a knowing, came through me: I was going to be okay, no matter what happened next. I felt a deep reassurance that I was not alone—not unlike what I felt in the hospital as a child when I first turned to prayer and felt the presence of God. Only this time, deep underwater, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die.

A sense of peace permeated every ounce of my body and soothed me. It was like nothing I had felt before. I simply let go and surrendered to it.

Next thing I remember, I was being grabbed by my life vest and pulled on to a boat. I was in shock.

A few days later, I called my mother to tell her I was back home in Minneapolis. She proceeded to tell me a dream she had a few days prior.

“Catherine, I dreamed that I slipped into a river and almost drowned” she said.
“And then and I woke up.” Her dream coincided with the day this happened to me in 2000 in Costa Rica. A chill went down my body.

Was my mother’s dream a coincidence? Or, was it synchronicity that my mother, whom I consider my best friend, can know and feel what I had been through? I believe it was the latter. I understood on a deeper level that we are all interconnected.

What I learned that day in the deep swells of the river in Costa Rica was another lesson in trusting and surrendering. Just as I had as a child, I felt a presence of something greater with me. I call it God, or Higher Power, and I knew I could trust that it was watching over me. I was being called to trust its guidance and let go.

I believe that I was also being given a choice to live or die in that moment. I chose to live.

I look back now and see how this near-death-experience was a turning point in my adult life. Afterward, I felt a heightened sense of being alive and the preciousness of life itself. I also knew with certainty that I was done with my high-paying, glamorous, corporate job. I realized that there are many paths beyond the corporate world, and I was being led down a new path.

I decided to stay open to any signs or promptings that would tell me what the next steps on my new path were. Within a few months, a girlfriend suggested I study theology and spiritual direction at St. Catherine University. I had never thought of graduate school, let alone studying theology. And, yet, this suggestion was perfect, given the obsession I’d had with reading books on life, meaning, and purpose since my teenage years. I requested some materials about the school’s theology program, and when they arrived, my body started physically shaking.

I knew that studying theology at this school was the next step on my path. But I double- checked. I prayed to God: “Is this the right next step?” In response, I heard and felt-yes-I did not look back. I trusted the guidance and moved forward.

I also now see how I had been given another lens to view life through when facing death. I woke up to another way of being in the world. This new lens enlarged within me a deeper sense of listening and trusting the guidance that was coming.

You don’t have to have a near-death experience to learn to trust and listen within. I believe that God is present to us at all times. I invite you to pay attention to openings, nudgings, insights, inklings that you may notice or feel.

The first step is deciding to have an open mind and open heart. The second step is creating space to listen within. For some this space may be found in a prayer practice, meditation, mindfulness practice, walking in nature, or journaling. When we let go of our mind’s focus on the past and the future, and we are present in the moment, we are fully alive and can experience deep joy, peace, and the guidance that is here for all of us.

Catherine Duncan, MA, BCC is a Social-Emotional, and Spiritual Care Provider at Newbridge. She is an ordained minister, a board-certified chaplain, spiritual director, energy healer, and tapping (EFT) practitioner who works extensively with mind-body therapies and aromatherapy.

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