September 12, 2013

SCA Family Stories: Jeremy Kagan

Professor Jeremy Kagan is known for his unique and passionate approach to directing and teaching. His new book My Death: A Personal Guidebook tackles a near death experience (or NDE), which shaped Kagan’s approach to life, film and teaching forever.

Jeremy Kagan

SCA Family Stories sat down with Kagan to discuss his book, his philosophy on teaching and how filmmaking is a form of accessing the higher consciousness.

To order My Death: A Personal Guidebook, please visit:

SCAFamily Stories: We always like to start with name and title.

Jeremy Kagan: Jeremy Kagan. Tenured professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

Lets get the name of the book and tell us a little bit what the book is and how it came about. My new ebook is called My Death: A Personal Guidebook and you can find it on Amazon ( It is about a “near death experience” I had which revealed to me that consciousness does not end with the death of the body and ego.

Tell me what happened. This happened 20 years ago, and it has taken me that amount of time to find an affective way to share it. In many ways, this was the most profound experience I have had in my life and I wanted to be able to relate it in a way that would be accessible and hopefully evocative in how the reader both sees and hears and believes it.

What actually happened? The specific event occurred after an evening at a sweat lodge. I had been intermittently been doing sweat lodge work for a few years. These are dark enclosed spaces that get extremely hot and in them you have an opportunity to share and open up and tell the truth.  Heat can do that.  And in these structured ceremonies you are encouraged to be honest.  I don’t like the heat, but this was the night before my birthday and I thought I it was a good occasion to review who I was and where I was heading.  After the ritual was finished, as I was leaving the lodge in the cold night air, I started to lose my balance and fell to the ground. And I lost all my body’s controls and functions.  I couldn’t move.

My initial thought was it had been very very hot inside and I was now outside in the cold, so maybe I was reacting to the temperature change and my body hadn’t adjusted yet. I thought I would get better soon, but soon came and I wasn’t any better.  Not only were my physical capacities not returning, but I was losing my ability to see.  And after my sight went so did my hearing. My throat and breath turned into a kind of gravel. I was supposed to be directing a television show on a studio lot the next day. In this condition I wasn’t going to be there. I concluded that my career was over.

And since I couldn’t communicate in any way whatsoever, I realized this might be the end of my relationships.  Once they called the paramedics I would be taken to some padded room in a hospital and my wife and daughter would come to visit me but wouldn't be able to know they were there as all my senses were gone.

And then it occurred to me that I might actually be dying. Fear overwhelmed me and I did everything that I could on a sort of an interior energetic level to just hold on.

Like holding one’s breath. I tried to retain this life energy but I tired. I couldn't hold on any longer. And I had to let go. Give up. Give in. Give out, which is what I did. And what occurred then to my surprise was the most peaceful release and relief that I’d ever experienced. An absolute serenity and calm as I, or more my awareness, seemed to float out in every direction.

And that was the beginning of a journey that I later found out very much resembles what are called “near-death experiences”. The physiological western scientific explanation for this may have been a form of hyperthermia, which is caused by a contrast between hot and cold.

What is your relationship with or what was your knowledge level of near death experience before this happened? Supposedly in this country over 15 million people have had near death experiences or near death-like experiences. But I’d never heard of NDEs before, so this was all new.

Which did your experience fall under? Well, there’s no way to really know specifically because there was no doctor around to say “My goodness! This person is dead!”

An image from My Death: A Personal Guidebook

The hyperthermia may have in fact stopped my systems for seconds or maybe a minute or more. This was a physical threatening event that caused this particular inner or outer journey, and in that sense, it was indeed a near death experience.

The point is, it’s near death, it isn't death. There are people who flatline and come back to tell similar stories. But currently the most talked about near death experience is that of a neurosurgeon Eben Alexander who was in a coma. He never flatlined, but he had a number of experiences that were life changing for him as a scientist, which shifted the way he looks at science.

What's interesting is that at the end of his book, there’s a summary of all of the possible western scientific opinions of what happened but none of these concepts explained how he could have experienced what he experienced. So, yes, for me as for him, I’d call what happened to me an NDE.

This is a tricky subject to cover. How did you decide to express such a strange experience and were there any particular challenges? My Death: A Personal Guidebook is an e-book with 150 of my colored illustrations. It’s kind of like an illuminated book, like those made in the Middle Ages. It’s not quite a graphic novel, but there are similarities. These illustrations expand the reading experience. I came to that approach over the last 2 years.

Right after I had the NDE, I immediately wrote it up because I wanted to retain everything that I’d gone through. Three days after that writing, I suddenly had a flash of another aspect of the experience that I had not been able to remember, and it was quite profound. It was what people call a “life review” but in my case it was a review of all of humanity, as if I was seeing everything that ever happened, all of human history and creation and all happening in a millisecond and simultaneously.  And instant explosion of everything humanity had done.

When you said that you saw this, do you mean in a visual or comprehension sense? This particular journey had lots of visual aspects to it. And one of the ways I think that various people go through these experiences is through the filters of who they have been up to the moment of the experience.

For example, many people who are serious believers in certain kinds of religions often times in their NDE will encounter beings from those belief systems. If you’re a Christian, you may encounter Jesus or one of the angels or prophets. There’s a personal filter for many people in their narrative.  They return saying “Oh, I met God” in whatever form they’ve been exposed to in their life before the event.

I feel that what happens is that your consciousness and mind, meaning the one that you’ve grown up with, merges into a greater mind, a universal consciousness. When you return from the experience, the “understanding” and retelling of this encounter is affected by the filters that you have. But just as often in these near death experiences, and in mine in particular, what occurs has no references to what was known beforehand. For me, it was all fresh. This was a new experience, at least parts of it were. And in that sense, what happens is you move from your sort of specific ego consciousness and personality into this higher consciousness. And, by the way, it seems that some people can access similar experiences without getting close to death or returning from it. People who are very skilled at meditation are able to reach these kinds of states. They get outside their egos. In fact their experiences are sometimes called ego deaths. And, in essence, they too have out of body experiences. I don't think you have to die to go through this, but in my case as with many others, that’s what I had to do: get near death in order to be able to have this new awareness.

Since these experiences are new, is that the argument against them being purely internal? I think it's fair for skeptics to have criticisms and doubt. Before my experience I would have thought of these as illusions or hallucinations.  Not now.  I had the experience of my body dying and my awareness moving out and on, so that I know there is far more to being than we think.  As Shakespeare observes: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. “

An image from My Death: A Personal Guidebook

I'm not trying to change anybody's mind about this. I just want to share what happened. The skeptics will say : “You can’t have NDEs! The only thing you can ever be conscious of is what you’re already conscious of.” But a good physicist reminds us that what you see isn't actually what is here or there. Many scientists look at a metaphysical approach to existence as possible, because we are dealing with the limits that the human mind and there are times when you break out of time and space.  Einstein talks about relativity of both. This was my opportunity to step outside the normal limits of my mind.  It was a gift.

Ebooks are relatively new. How did you decide on the medium of an ebook? I wanted two things for this book. As I felt that this was the most important experience that I could share with other people, I wanted to find a form that would make it easily available.  And in the process of rewriting, which I did for decades with dozens of approaches; I even wrote this as a 3rd person novel.  Two years ago I started to do some drawings. I’m a caricaturist, so that’s a way I express myself (, and I realized that this approach with my drawings made the story more personal and honestly more fun to write.

And more visual, too.I’m a filmmaker, a visual communicator, it’s what I do. With the aid of the iPad, which has some really fabulous drawing programs, I was able to find a new way of combining my illustrations on various layers and using digital coloring techniques that are fast and expressive.

Within a year’s time, I was able to do over 100 more drawings. I think technology said to me, “Okay, here it is.  Use it.” Twenty years ago, if I had done a version of this, it could only have been a hard cover book and having this many colored drawings would have made the book very costly. The e-books now allows this to be seen on a variety of platforms from Kindles to iBooks and it is easy in digital distribution to have these many vibrant color illustration all for 3 dollars. (

In closing, how has this experience of both the NDE and the experience of trying to express something so complicated affected your approach as a teacher and a filmmaker? One of the things I say to my graduate students studying directing in the beginning of our classes is that I want to get them to see and hear better than they do when they walk in.  This expansion of perception reflects my personal experiences, including the NDE.

Another aspect that I think has affected what I teach is a recognition, in part from the NDE, that everything is interconnected, nothing is separate. That all is really the one manifesting itself in the many. And particularly dealing with actors portraying characters different from themselves, they are accessing a deeper source, which infers a holographic knowledge of all human characters. They courageously seek out inside themselves other personalities that are there in all of us, but we don’t have the training the actor has to bring these characters to life and believability.  Consider this that we indeed breathe the air that was once inside Caesar and Michelangelo and Ghengis Khan.  So everyone is a part of us.

The third aspect, from investigating my NDE, has to do with the ideas of lightening up. Like not letting the weight of your trouble overwhelm you.  Or taking things too personally.  Lighten up!  Be passionate. Show a way for others. Lighten up: discard the baggage of doubt and suffering that in fact often times limits the way we actually see and do.  And as the Buddhist say:  Maximum Commitment, Minimum Attachment.  Lighten up.