Between Now and When: How My Death Made My Life Worth Living, a True Story, by Richard House

Between Now and When cvr

Whatever conclusion the reader comes to about this ‘metaphysical memoir’, it is fair to say that Dr Richard House is a most unusual character who has had an extraordinarily eventful life.  Even as a small boy there was something precocious about him; already at the age of 7 he had a foot in another dimension when he found himself undergoing an experience that can only be described as a manifestation of satori, filling him with, in his words, ‘awareness of purest identity’.  On the one hand he was still a grubby little boy, while at the same time he was accessing ‘the ancient, all-inclusive ocean of existence that I would later have reason to call God Almighty.’  Growing up, some sense of difference stayed with him.

Highly intelligent, he qualified in medicine and specialised as an ENT surgeon.  In pursuit of his career he was driven, and while self-centred and enjoying the trappings of his status, was a good doctor by his own estimate, but with a void in his soul that he increasingly filled with alcohol.  At the same time he had problems with relationships – two marriages broke down.  It is clear that he was on a path of self-destruction, to be followed by a standard redemptive arc.  What saved him was an epiphany after nearly dying.

As a teenager, he had heard a voice he took to come from God telling him he would die at the age of 33.  In a literal sense that was not fulfilled, but that year was key in his personal evolution because he was taken ill with bleeding oesophageal varices and a knackered liver.  His miraculous (whether literal or metaphorical) recovery, after it seemed inevitable that he was not going to survive his illness, had to have some kind of meaning.  In a sense he had died at the age of 33 and been reborn.  What he had been through, with the added stress of the breakup of his second marriage, changed his perspective and he saw through his shallow materialistic lifestyle to the possibility of a more mystical existence.  He believed his actions were being guided by a consciousness who communicated with him, which he referred to as his ‘captain’, for want of a name.

Using meditation he glimpsed a reality behind reality, struggling to determine what it meant.  He began to shift between quotidian existence and a beautiful world that he considered had as much validity as the ordinary one.  Acting on what was no more than intuition that he was doing the right thing he gave up his medical career and shed worldly ambition to follow an inner urging to look for a guru, following the ‘captain’ wherever he led.

The rest of the book describes House’s quest for answers as he travels around the world in an effort to find out exactly what his mission is, and who this figure is who seems to have such an influence on him.  His search takes him to Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, India, London and New York.  He feels he has some purpose in life, but needs to work out what it is.  Along the way he suffers physically, experiencing strange bodily automatisms such as finding his head snapping back agonisingly when meditating, or when an external force takes control of his hands, compelling him to do mudras, compulsive ritual gestures that somehow are an outer expression of his inner development.  He is forced to endure these distressing side-effects for extended periods, like a neophyte undergoing a test.  It is as if the body is purging itself of the contaminants with which worldly living has infected it.   Eventually the identity of his captain is revealed to be that of the noted but deceased mystic Meher Baba.

The story ends abruptly with House meeting his next wife, and he has little to say about events that happened after the early 1980s when all this happened, bringing the reader up to date in a couple of pages.  We learn that he doesn’t practise conventional medicine any more, though whether that is through choice or because he cannot get a licence is left unclear; he still calls himself Richard House, MD.  These days he is an acupuncturist and organic farmer in North Carolina.

It’s hard to know what to make of this book because of the air of ambiguity about House’s quest.  Certainly the writing is never self-indulgent and is always sincere, which make him a sympathetic character.  His experience as a 7-year old indicates that either he was marked out at a young age for a special divine mission, or personality defects manifested themselves early in life.  His parents were not convinced it was the former, as when he visits them during the height of his asceticism they find him unmanageable and ask him to leave.  His search took a toll on those around him as well as on himself.

For that reason, although he seems able to access higher dimensions there is always the nagging feeling that he may be having a psychotic breakdown, which seems a more parsimonious explanation.  He talks about vitamin deficiencies from his excessive alcohol consumption, and it is possible that for much of his quest he is delusional.  Yet he himself is clear on the distinction, and sees something profound in his suffering, over and above it being a by-product of Korsakoff’s syndrome.  On the other hand, having invested so much time and energy in his search, it would be hard to shrug and say it was all a fantasy.

Whatever it was, he was probably fortunate not to have been institutionalised at an early stage because if nothing else, the book shows how close the transcendental and the pathological are.  House does occasionally question his mental state, but always concludes that he is genuinely on the track of some truth he can only find by following this particular path.  He is seduced by the excitement of following the hidden messenger that he assumes is external rather than his own subconscious talking to him.

There’s a New Age feel to House’s account, which is rather comforting to my mind, but not particularly illuminating.  It’s in the nature of mystical experiences that they are impossible to describe to outsiders with mere words, and they cannot be endorsed on a purely intellectual level.  House’s road was a difficult one, part of that tradition which finds physical discomfort a prerequisite for enlightenment and you are inclined to admire him more for having survived than for any message he is able to give.  Ultimately it is hard to know what it means, and therefore what this book is for.

Even so, any reader can respect both his toughness of spirit and toughness of body, which he abuses dreadfully, apart from the booze; at one time he restricts himself to a rice diet (shades of the 1970s macrobiotic fad) and unsurprisingly finds his gums bleeding.  The book could in that sense be considered an anti-manual, showing the seeker after wisdom how not to do it.  Even his fellow seekers occasionally consider his schemes – such as walking across India – too extreme and have to rein him in.  His journey is an interesting one, but not to be emulated lightly.

To a large extent the reader’s response is bound to be affected by his or her attitude to eastern philosophy.  Those who think that Meher Baba was truly an avatar will find it convincing; those who think he was a charlatan will be inclined to dismiss House’s insights as delusion, and his determination to slough off everyday superficiality for something deeper  not only a waste of his medical talents (arduously and expensively acquired) but of his life.  The sad truth is that there is nothing here to indicate whether or not he has merely exchanged one addiction for another.

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