The last post looked at some of the additional insights Penny Sartori’s book contributes to the field of NDE studies. Particularly intriguing for me were the insights relating to the field of Chaplaincy, some of the threads of which also appear in what follows.
Given that NDEs happen and they are not hallucinations what are the implications that she suggests flow from that realisation? It’s easiest to divide these into several categories:
- How do we improve the care we provide for those who have had a close brush with death or are actually dying, so as to take account of the reality of the NDE? These are the most relevant to Chaplaincy obviously.
- What are the after effects? I will deal with those she refers to which took my understanding further than previous accounts.
- How can they change our culture’s destructive attitude towards death?
- And lastly, how might they change the way we live now?
Improving Care for the dying:
People who have experienced an NDE have a clear idea of how we can improve the way that such people can be responded to in the aftermath (3053-58):
Following a retreat to help further understand their experience, a group of NDErs suggested ways of improving support for future experiencers:
• Understanding, well-informed healthcare workers
• Information on research, comparison with mystical traditions, historical perspectives, personal experiences and after effects
• Time to meditate, process the experience, pray or be in nature
• Spiritual counsellors, trained clergy, informed marriage and family counsellors, guides and mentors
• Workshops, retreats, conferences, support groups, classes, on-line support • Self-help material
• Heightened public awareness of all that the NDE entails
• Venues to learn, speak, network and integrate the NDE into careers
• Retreat for childhood NDErs
Certain simple practical steps became clearer. Routine medication may not always be the best thing, for example (3235):
When analysing the results of my research, one thing that I discovered was that the painkilling and sedative drugs we give patients appear to have an inhibitory effect on NDEs.
Her own painful personal experience during the death of her grandfather fuels the intensity of her concern with this issue (3258):
We nursed him in his own home and in my discussion with the palliative-care team I requested that midazolam be omitted from the infusion (I had found this to contribute greatly to confusional experiences in my research), which was agreed unless he became unmanageable and it would then be reviewed.
When the nurses visited that evening and moving him caused significant pain as the painkiller prescribed earlier had not fully kicked in, unknown to Satori they administered midazolam. Her grandfather (3064) ‘never regained consciousness and died the next day, not having had the opportunity to say things he may have wanted to say to his daughter’ who had just arrived there from France.
She argues (3266) for ‘greater awareness of the dying process’ so that ‘many individuals faced with terminal illness [can] decide to complete a death plan or complete an advanced decision to refuse treatment (ADRT) form with regards to their wishes as their condition deteriorates.’
The impact of an NDE
Given my earlier comments on the possible relationship between NDEs and suicide, it was interesting to read her rather different take on the issue. She first of all quotes Greyson (3276):
Professor Bruce Greyson found that patients who had had multiple suicide attempts but then experienced an NDE during the attempt were far less likely to attempt suicide again.
The evidence points strongly even further in that direction (3279):
In fact, those who had an NDE during a suicide attempt felt that suicide was not an option. The NDE empowered them with a sense of purpose in life and prompted an overwhelming realization that they took their problems with them even when out of their body – there was simply no way to escape their problems, so to attempt suicide was futile.
There are other aspects of the aftermath. The most important for me is the emphasis she places on our interconnectedness. This comes out more strongly here than in most accounts of the evidence (3309).
The overall message of the NDE is that we are all interconnected and we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.
She also places it interestingly in the unlikely context of evolutionary theory (3346):
. . . Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, highlights how in Darwin’s Descent of Man the word ‘love’ is mentioned 95 times and the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is mentioned only twice. Despite not having great strength and agility, or large fangs, etc., the human race has survived and greatly evolved and Darwin believed this to be due to our ability to co-operate and to have sympathy for others. Darwin considered sympathy to be the strongest instinct in nature – there are deep reasons why we have evolved to be good to others: it’s wired into our DNA.
This also has ecological implications (3358-89):
. . . when we see ourselves as interconnected this is conducive not only to our survival as a species but also to our survival as a planet. . . . . . Another important way in which NDErs are affected is that they become more ecologically aware. With the rise of industrialization, humans are currently destroying nature for short-term gain. NDErs report an increased love for nature and the understanding that all people and things on the planet are interconnected.
Changing our attitude to Death
The book contains a powerful analysis of the problems with our culture’s attitude to death. (3427):
The avoidance of the subject of death was recognized over 32 years ago by Hampe, and it now persists to an even greater extent: ‘Anyone who has ever been in hospital, or still more in an intensive-care unit, has found that there above all the subject of dying and death is avoided, benevolently and persistently, though this is the last place where one might expect this avoidance.’
Our mechanistic and materialistic default position have contaminated our ways of dealing with death (3442):
Many people of all ages spend the last few weeks or months of their lives hooked up to machines. During the last few days or hours before the life of the patient is extinguished, relatives are distanced, as the visiting of loved ones remains controlled by the routines of the nurses and doctors.
There is though here a wonderful opportunity to respond to the spiritual aspects of experience (3448):
Healthcare workers are in a unique position of being able to provide both physical and spiritual care; as death approaches, addressing the patient’s spiritual needs is crucial. I regard nursing as one of the highest jobs, on a spiritual level, that can be done and I believe that being at the bedside of a dying patient is an absolute privilege.
Give that we are what Sartori describes (3452) as a ‘death-denying, materialistic society’ it may not be easy for us collectively to support those who are at the front line so that they can be of the greatest help and make the best use of this priceless opportunity.
More and more people, it is true, are coming to believe (3477) that ‘[t]here truly is no such thing as death. What many see as the end is really just a change, like a change of clothes, or a change of vehicle, or a change of residence.’ We are coming to recognize in increasing numbers that (3502) ‘. . . materialist theories [are] not supported by . . . research and, if anything, drugs appear to inhibit the NDE as opposed to create it.’
We are still a very long way indeed from agreeing, as Bahá’u’lláh writes, that death is ‘a messenger of joy.’ This is because the downside militating against this way of seeing things is still remarkably formidable (3518):
Unfortunately, the belief that consciousness is created by the brain is so thoroughly ingrained within our current belief system that anything that suggests otherwise is immediately discounted or dismissed because it poses such a threat.
NDEs do offer some hope that the balance is beginning to shift (3658):
NDEs have previously been considered unworthy of science but, now that these experiences are being seriously acknowledged and are a valid area for scientific study, it seems that we are on the threshold of expanding our current knowledge about the meaning of life and death. There is no denying that they occur, we simply can’t explain them yet.
This changes our attitude towards living
More than 200 years ago Wordsworth wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .
In the 21st century Sartori quotes Jules Lyons as saying (3577):
When I look at the world, it seems that more and more, humans are living out their lives as if their sole purpose is to ‘get’, rather than concentrating on living their soul purpose . . . which is to give.
Sartori then goes on to argue that NDEs are of evolutionary benefit in the way they encourage those who experience them, and many of those who hear about them, to balance their lives better in terms of the material and spiritual aspects. NDEs are a wake up call (3605):
An NDE is an accelerated spiritual transformation – these people have literally encountered death in a totally unexpected and sudden way. It has taken something to shake the foundations of their being and to experience life in ways other than what they have been conditioned to believe.
The resulting realisations and the changes they bring in terms of the way people live are helpful to both humanity and the planet (3607):
The spiritual transformation resulting from the NDE instils qualities that are highly conducive to the evolution of our species and the planet as a whole. We are continuously evolving. When things are considered from a global perspective, spiritual development will lead to a reconsideration of how we live alongside our fellow humans, animals and plants in the world and result in a balance which is necessary for our survival as a planet.
A key piece of learning from the NDE frequently concerns our connectedness with everything and everyone else (3632 -41):
Imagine if everyone changed their perspective on life and saw each other as interconnected and valuable people, all part of the same underlying consciousness. What if everyone put the needs of others before their own needs? How radically transformed the whole world would be. . . . . During the NDE there is an overwhelming understanding that everything is interconnected. Coupled with the message from the life review, this points to the notion that what we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves.
Sartori recognizes that for this insight to be truly effective there has to be a change in (3681) ‘mass consciousness.’ Where can this change begin, though, except with individuals. As Bahá’ís we have a model for how that individual change, once begun, can be expressed in communities so that our civilisation can be ultimately transformed.
In any case, reading her book is one good place to start. Soon I will be looking at how even so-called ‘negative NDEs,’ looked at in the right way, can also be a force for good.