I had some conversations with the Light. The Light kept changing into different figures, like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, mandalas, archetypal images and signs. I asked the Light, “What is going on here? Please, Light, clarify yourself for me. I really want to know the reality of the situation.” I cannot really say the exact words, because it was sort of telepathy.
The Light responded. The information transferred to me was that during your life after death experience your beliefs shape the kind of feedback you are getting before the Light. If you were a Buddhist or Catholic or Fundamentalist, you get a feedback loop of your own stuff. You have a chance to look at it and examine it, but most people do not.
(From the NDE Story of Mellen-Thomas Benedict - for more see YouTube video below)
Two Main Elements
The last post, after looking at the issue of whether there is a real experience here or just a story, paused before looking at two examples of so-called core elements of the Near-Death Experience. Though widely known, their exact significance has been hard to pin down. Mark Fox continues his exploration.
1. The Being of Light
It has long been understood that the meaning people place on this part of the experience is strongly influenced by their background culture and the nature of their religious beliefs. He quotes Badham quoting Evans-Wentz (page 71):
To appeal to a Shaivite devotee, the form of Shiva is assumed, to a Buddhist the form of the Buddha Shakya Muni; to a Christian, the form of Jesus; to a Muslim the form of the Prophet; and so far other religious devotees, and for all manner and conditions of mankind a form appropriate to the occasion.
He accepts (page 106) the theoretical ‘possibility . . . . that there is more than one light.’ However, Badham’s position clearly makes sense to him (page 107):
. . . that some sort of transcendent core being is encountered by everybody but interpreted by them in accordance with their respective cultural backgrounds.
He explores certain problems with that which it would be impossible to deal with at length here but can be summarised by saying that there is quite a degree of variation in the interpretations given to this part of the experience. Some even feel the light has no personality at all. It therefore remains a possibility that too facile a conclusion that it must be Christ or Muhammad or the Buddha needs to be avoided.
Even so the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) data is illuminating here (page 299):
[In previous studies] the light appears to fulfil the function of a judge, divine presence, psychopomp, or identifiable religious figure. This was clearly not the case with the RERC study, in which the light manifested or contained an identifiable presence, personality or role in only two out of the thirteen CE accounts in which it figured. However, analysis was complicated by the fact that whilst the definite and recognisable presence was only manifested in the light on two occasions, a very significant number of other respondents – no less than eight out of the remaining eleven – reported usually overwhelming sensations of love, peace or calm either within or coming from the light indicating that it was the source of a range of identifiable feelings and therefore in some sense the possessor of personality.
The tunnel with the oncoming light has formed a central element in the neuroscientific explanation of the NDE. Even in its simple form, though, the explanation has been challenged by Peter Fenwick and others. The RERC data allows for even more doubt to be cast upon it (page 262):
What should be done with accounts that included descriptions of the seemingly similar – perhaps identical – experience but which words such as ‘void’, ‘whirlpool’, ‘passage’ or ‘shaft’ to describe it? Nowhere here it is absolutely clear that a tunnel is being described. Neither is it clear that in each case the feature is black or dark.
He feels that their sheer variety casts serious doubts on a neuroscientific explanation.
There is another equally interesting dimension (page 276-277):
Before moving on, mention must be made of the curiously high incidence of descriptions of outer space encountered in this phase of the investigation. . . . . . At the very least, however, we have a total of five CE and non-CE accounts out of a total of 24 which describe an encounter with some sort of darkness motif in terms seemingly suggestive of a visit to outer space: more than 20% of the total.
It is for this reason that he feels that his study must part company with previous accounts (page 278), ‘having found descriptions of tunnels to be in the minority, having also found that other descriptors are more frequently chosen as preferred ways of describing experiences of darkness, voids and – in some cases – transitions to other realms.’
Before we consider what all this might mean, there is one other important element to consider: the effects these experiences have upon the lives of those who have lived through them. While a strong effect on the person afterwards does not prove the experience is ‘real’ it certainly adds weight to that possibility.
Starting with Hampe in 1979 Fox reviews the traces of this theme at various places in his book (page 59):
Hampe draws attention to the transformative effects of such experiences and the possible therapeutic application of his discoveries, devoting a chapter to the ways in which exposure to such experiences may have beneficial results of the field of medicine, pastoral counselling, and for the clergy generally.
The close links with other forms of spiritual experience also becomes apparent (page 83):
[Cressy notes parallels with mystical experience] drawing attention to the transformative effects produced in the lives of both mystics and NDErs as a result of their experiences. Here, she notes, changes in the sense and meaning of the self reported by NDErs and mystics are similar, including increased feelings of self-worth and enhanced feelings of love for mankind.
Obviously therefore these after-effects are to be found in the accounts of the RERC archive. There is one particularly beautiful example (page 285):
Since the phenomenon, I have had a sense of belonging, as if I were related to every rock, tree, flower, mountain, cloud, animal and person. I am truly concerned about them and I feel a great love for everyone and everything in the universe. In other words, I am in attunement with my world, which is the whole world.
So where exactly does all this richly varied but closely linked body of evidence leave us. For Fox there is a core issue (page 345):
In the light of the recognition that testimonies to NDEs are all we possess, near-death researcher Robert Kastenbaum is surely right to draw attention to the crucial issue of whether an NDE is, in fact, an experience or a report of experience.
There follows a complex consideration of this question, all the twists and turns of which are too many to include here. Instead I’ll just pick up briefly on two basic threads.
He looks at Kellehear’s theory that NDEs depict a kind of ‘transcendent society’ (page 354). He feels that as such they will appeal to many people in the West.
. . . . in its implied criticism of many of the dominant values of modernity such as competition and selfishness and its promotion of others such as spirituality and humanism, it has a post-modern appeal: it shares post-modernity’s loss of faith in many of the grounding convictions of modernity, including those which have exploited and oppressed the human spirit in the name of greed and the obsession to acquire.
He also considers Grosso’s work, which is rooted in Jungian archetypes and the idea of the collective unconscious (page 357):
NDEs, like archetypes, contain the cross-cultural consistency that the collective unconsciousness bestows, combined with the cross-cultural variation which their location in time and space inevitably creates.
He feels this last possibility has great explanatory power and points the way towards future avenues of fruitful research.
In fact, the main emphasis of his concluding chapter revolves around encouraging researchers to sink their sometimes acrimonious differences and buckle down to a serious and prolonged investigation of this phenomenon, pooling their knowledge as they go rather than each school prizing their own perspective to the exclusion of all others. His most eloquent advocacy of this deserves quoting at length at the conclusion of this series of posts (pages 344-45):
Narrative theology can explore ways in which emplotment turns experience into story. Psychology of religion can make its own contributions to exploring naturalistically the aetiology of the NDE, responding and contributing to the valuable insights provided by secular neuroscience. Sociology of religion can investigate the social and cultural forces that call forth the need for new myths when old myths lose their power. Philosophy of religion can test the epistemological accuracy and phenomenological cogency of the claim that a common core underlies the variety of reported religious experiences across cultures, including, of course, the end NDE. And so on.
I suppose in a way I have copped out here and told you where this all leaves him while remaining silent about where I find myself right now. Perhaps there’s only really time for one brief observation. When confronted by the question ‘Is any of this true ?’ I remember the words of the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, Bahá’u’lláh (Gleanings: LXXXII):
Thou hast asked Me concerning the nature of the soul. Know, verily, that the soul is a sign of God, a heavenly gem whose reality the most learned of men hath failed to grasp, and whose mystery no mind, however acute, can ever hope to unravel.
It therefore seems inevitable that something so transcendent would be experienced by people in many different ways, all of those ways representing an aspect of the reality of that experience. The same would therefore apply to all parts of the spiritual realm. That the descriptions vary while containing a core of common resonance is precisely what you would expect. So for me this thorough and dispassionate treatment of this all-important subject confirms me in my feeling that something real but ineffable is being described.
And I am speaking as someone who found the idea of an immortal soul one of the most difficult ideas to accept when I became a Bahá’í. I simply couldn’t understand why beings so seemingly inconsequential when compared to the awesome glory of the universe as whole should have been gifted with something so precious. It was far easier to accept the idea of God in the Bahá’í Writings as an unknowable Great Being whose consciousness had brought this all into being and was holding it in place. But that is another story for another time, I think.
A comment from Kristine on a previous post pointed me in the direction of Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven. The experience he describes has a bearing on almost all the issues dealt with in this sequence of posts. In the New Year it is almost inevitable that I will write about it.
Extraneous material cut out of interview from Mellen Benedict speaking on coastam with George Noory