“Which event has impressed you most?”
I read this question one summer evening in an interview with Dutch philosopher and writer Stine Jensen. Her answer was that she had spent thirty minutes in a coffin in South Korea for the tv-series ‘So I am…’, as part of an intense confrontation with yourself and what you live for.
I was fascinated by that answer and immediately wanted to see the broadcast. It turned out that it had just been broadcasted so I immediately watched it.
What I saw touched me. So I knew that if something like this had such an impact on me as an observer, from my safe living room, that it had to be even more intense as a participant.
The broadcast kept lingering in my mind in the following days. I kept thinking about it. In the past, I had had thoughts of such a direct confrontation with yourself and your finitude here.
I was curious to see how you would experience something like that and especially to appreciate life more. But at the time I found the idea so absurd that I never paid attention to it again.
Until I saw this documentary. So it really existed. Unbelievable. On the other side of the world, of course, but still.
I became increasingly motivated to undergo this experience myself. Even though the communication beforehand, due to the language barrier and cultural difference, was extremely difficult.
I was urged to take along an interpreter, as the entire programme would be in Korean. A concrete appointment and confirmation did not seem possible, it all remained very vague.
Because I already had my doubts about the fact that Koreans are not as tall as the Dutch, I checked beforehand whether I, being 1.93 metres tall, would fit into a coffin.
The answer I got was that the estimated length of the coffins was 1.80-1.90 in meters…
OK, so I went to the other side of the world for a programme with no confirmed appointment, of which I would not understand a word and in which I would be too tall for the climax of the programme; which it what it was all about for me.
‘Aha. Why on earth did I convince myself to do this?’, is what went through my mind.
Nevertheless, I went there a few days later. Because I was determined and had to experience this myself.
I was well prepared when I arrived in Seoul. On the day of the planned seminar, I gave the Korean taxi driver a note with the address in Korean, since they hardly speak any English in South Korea.
After more than an hour in the taxi and after the driver had made many calls along the way, seemingly asking helplines where to go, he suddenly stopped to ask a policeman for directions.
I looked at my watch and saw that I had only five minutes left until the programme was due to start and it didn’t look like I was even close.
So, I had put all my last hopes in this officer, but without understanding a word, he unfortunately did not look very confident in his answer either.
The taxi driver started driving again. Suddenly, he stopped at the side of a busy road and beckoned that this was it. I didn’t believe him. It couldn’t be in the middle of such a busy road.
Using hands and feet I tried to communicate with the driver, but he stood firm. I got out, but immediately thought: ‘this is certainly not the place, this driver was definitely trying to get rid of me; how am I ever going to get out of here?!’
I started walking. Suddenly, I saw a stately building looming behind the trees along the busy road. With a large, steep stone staircase leading to the entrance at the very top. Each step was numbered with the image of a lotus flower.
I walked up the mysterious stairs, not knowing where it would take me. It was all part of the mysterious journey that had started days ago in the Netherlands and had only grown more insane in the last few hours.
There was still no one in sight.
Upstairs I saw shoes and in the open space behind the stairs there was a meditation going on, accompanied by music, I saw two participants: one seemed to be a monk and was leading the meditation.
I left my shoes and walked along the open space on my socks. To the top. It was dark everywhere.
Up the stairs, down the stairs. Wandering through the large building. Apart from the few people meditating downstairs, there was no one to be seen and the lights were off everywhere.
I ended up on a balcony behind the building and, against the backdrop of the green-covered hills, I suddenly saw a garden with a gigantic golden Buddha.
It all felt very surreal. That total desolation in the middle of nowhere, combined with the mysterious atmosphere in the building and the now hours-long search in a country where you as a Westerner cannot read a single letter.
But in the meantime, I saw the whole purpose of my trip slowly falling apart.
The time at which the programme was supposed to start had long passed. Standing on the top floor in an empty and dark building, I thought: ‘Nice try, but I went to South Korea for nothing!’
But I stayed. I kept looking until I found someone. ‘I am here now and have nothing more to lose’, I thought. And when I go for something in life, I go for it all the way and with determination.
Doing everything you can. Something I learned from an early age on the farm where I grew up. Everything within your sphere of power and sphere of influence. Often that’s way more than we think. My father taught me to continue where others have long since given up.
After having been on all floors about three times by now, I suddenly ran into a cleaner in the dark stairwell. I showed him my Korean card with address and he gestured upwards.
But I had already been there. A number of times already. I couldn’t make that clear to him, so I went up another floor. Just at that moment, people suddenly came walking up the stairs. Finally, other people!
Showing my card again. I saw recognition in their eyes. They gestured to me: ‘come with me’.
They turned out to be participants just like me. Apparently, in the vague half-Korean/half-typical English mail exchange beforehand, there had been miscommunication about the time and it started a couple of hours later than I thought it would.
And suddenly it all turned out better than expected. Thanks to an English-speaking participant who translated the questions on paper for me, I was able to follow the programme well enough, and miraculously, a coffin had been brought out especially for me, in which I could fit.
There I was in that coffin. The climax of an intense six-hour seminar. In a foreign country. In a totally different culture. 10,000 kilometres away from the Netherlands. What I had experienced before was already quite bizarre, but this trumped everything.
It was scorching hot, because outside it was over 30 degrees and the sun was shining brightly on the lid in the open air.
My legs and hands were bound together with rope and I had a cloth over my eyes. Not that it made any difference, as it was dark in the closed coffin anyway.
The sound of the lid closing the coffin with a dull thud echoes in my head.
This has impact.
So that is what it is like, when your time has come. There you are. It is over. It is finished. There is nothing left. No more goals to strive for, no more to-do lists. No one to love.
The silence, the emptiness, the darkness, the fact that there is nowhere to go and the realisation that you don’t have to go anywhere either – because you are no longer here – is confronting. No more chances, no hope, everything on earth in the past life is behind me. This was it.
This is intense. Did I do well? Did I make a positive impact? What will they think of me? Will they miss me? Did I even live in a way that I will be missed? Do I have regrets?
Suddenly, the realisation of ‘this was it’ turns into a lightning-fast contemplation of my whole life.
Just like the cliché of the flash in which you see your whole life in front of you.
No, this should have been different. And that too. And I should have said sorry to that person.
Hmm, I have made mistakes. Would I do it all again. ‘Do it again?’ Well, I still have that chance. I hope.
Time seems to stand still.
The normally 30 minutes, which later turn out to have been shortened to 20 due to the great heat, now seem to take an eternity, and the paradox is that I am only just lying here in terms of clock time.
It is very stuffy in the coffin. For a moment, a thought flashes through my head: ‘I’m not really going to die here, am I?’ No, just stay calm.
And slowly but surely, the thoughts start fading and I enter a state of ‘being’. No more thinking, instead a peaceful surrender that it is good as it is.
The realisation that I am more than the tied and blindfolded body that lies here and cannot move. The total connectedness with that which transcends it. As if that ‘being’ has crawled out of the body; the limited vehicle it was locked in.
I feel inner peace and tranquillity; the physical discomforts are still only latent in the vague background.
And then…out of nowhere, as a total surprise, I hear rumbling from above me. Suddenly, the lid opens and I don’t know what’s happening to me: fresh air. What a lovely feeling.
The light already goes right through the blindfold on my face. It is removed and I open my eyes: how wonderful.
I squeeze them together to protect them from the overwhelming sunlight outside. I am helped to stand. I look at my legs and suddenly see that I am covered from head to toe in drops of sweat.
I really need to ‘land’ in my body again. As if I discover that I have limbs.
Yes, it was very hot, but the mental experience was even more profound than the physical one. The fresh air outside remains a blissful sensation. I have rarely felt so alive.
I am still a bit perplexed and am recovering slowly. Just like the other participants. Some are pretty shaken up.
The experience of the programme was very intense and I will never forget it.
The dull sound of the wooden lid closing the coffin above me – while I was lying in it with my robe on, hands and feet bound, and a cloth over my eyes – sometimes echoes in my head.
And I am happy about that, because it reminds me to enjoy and celebrate every day and to live with purpose and focus. Because this earthly life has a deadline.
The Buddhist monk, who led the programme and is the founder of this phenomenon in South Korea, had been under the false impression that I was a journalist because of the language barrier, and only discovered at the very end, to his great surprise, that this was not the case.
That my only reason for coming here was to experience it for myself. Not for a report. He had never experienced that from a non-Korean before.
At first, he could not believe it and then he was so impressed that he immediately wanted to take a photo with me as a souvenir.
I was holding my personal ‘farewell photo’. I found posing a bit uncomfortable and actually even inappropriate, especially after still being under the impression of the intense experience I just went through.
But after spending these few days in South Korea, I had already experienced several uncomfortable scenes. Part of the cultural differences. So by now, I was not really surprised anymore.
Late that same evening, I flew back home. What I took with me as luggage was the insight that such an experience opens our eyes to what we really want to live for.
Without any unpleasant reason. As it often happens.
The experience I had there in South Korea meant the birth of Vita Florentis.
Yet there was also doubt, because would it not be too ‘strange’ to begin with the end, and is the Netherlands ready for this?
Isn’t it a taboo? Wouldn’t people rather hide from it?
Probably, but it didn’t stop me.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it fits perfectly into these hectic times, when we find it so hard to find ourselves and are slowly alienated from ourselves by all the digital distractions that so easily swallow us up.
Becoming alienated from what we really want to live for.
And what is needed for this? Zoom out and take stock.
For this we need to slow down.
But most of the time we are so busy on autopilot that we do not get around to what is most important.
The buzzword is busy. Ask anyone what it’s like, and the answer is usually; ‘busy’. And so it began in South Korea too¹.
But because of this constant bustle, we run past ourselves, and forget the essentials.
Feeling good and being happy.
Enjoyment. Being conscious about how we spend our time.
And that is what I want to put all my time and energy into.
To wake ourselves up and bring us back to the essence. By zooming out and beginning with the end. And by inspiring each other in that process.
That is my mission with Vita Florentis.
Via a digital mirror. The Last Hour Experience. If it is good, it is good. And if something needs adjusting, then that’s still possible.
I participated in South Korea. But you can just stay at home.
Do you dare to experience it?