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Posts Tagged ‘near death experience’

Dad in Civil Defence

My father in Civil Defence circa 1940 – fourth from the left

As Frederik van Eeden put it back in 1890: “I am more convinced than ever that the a-priori rejection of and refusal to examine unfamiliar and unusual phenomena is the greatest foe of scientific progress.”

(Consciousness beyond Life – page 264)

In 1898 James wrote that the brain’s role in the experience of consciousness is not a productive but is instead a permissive or transmissive role; that is, it admits or transmits information.

(Consciousness beyond Life – page 307)

Given that I made such a big thing out of a near death experience in Monday’s post on the No-Self issue, I thought the least I could do republish some earlier posts on consciousness and NDEs for good measure before the week is over.  This is the first of three that belong together. The others will come out at the weekend.

Here we go again!

I continue to find myself in the grip of the near death experience (NDE) issue. Exactly why it matters so much to me is not completely clear. It may in part be to do with my sister having died before I was born. She was twelve years old. It was 1939 and the war was just about to start. I was born just before the war ended and grew up in the double shadow of my parents’ grief and a world seeking to come to terms with the experiences of the blitz and the holocaust.

Later, when my father was dying, in an incident that I put down to morphine at the time, atheist that I was, he woke from his sleep when my mother called his name thinking he had died. ‘Oh, Mary,’ he said with infinite sadness, ‘why did you call me back. I was somewhere so beautiful I did not want to leave.’ Being a man of few words, he said no more. However, after my mother died and we sold the house, the people who had bought it said they were rather unnerved to wake one night in the master bedroom to find a gaunt and tall old man leaning over the bottom of the bed as though to see who was asleep in it.

On top of that is a feeling, which never completely goes away, that I am in exile – from where or why I have no idea, though I could fill in the blanks quite easily, but not from memory. Whatever the real reason, NDEs and what they might mean is an issue that fascinates me.

How could I resist reading Pim van Lommel’s book?

I am not concerned to discuss those aspects of this fascinating book which deal with areas that have already been well-trodden on this blog, for example the elements of a typical NDE, the alternative neuro-scientific or narrative-tradition explanations. I want to focus instead on what I regard as his main theme and the mainstream resistance to it, which leads him into areas that previous texts I have read do not deal with in such depth. Also I do not intend to go over his explanation of the studies he and others have conducted, though they are interesting in their own right and confirm the authenticity of the experience in so far as that is possible to do at present.

Does consciousness have a biological basis at all?

I have never been an overly religious person. I am reluctant to tell many people this incident but was compelled to write to you after reading this article. Three years ago also my father was murdered. After three weeks the police came to a standstill and put out a call for help in the newspaper. I dreamed of my dad three nights in a row. Each night he told me to look in the files and gave me specific instructions. After the third night I called the head of the ATF who was working on our case. He must have thought I was a real crackpot. But I had looked in my dad’s files. In my dream he had given me a date and a name. Sure enough, the name was there. The ATF agents contacted that person, and he gave the police the names of the people who were involved in my father’s murder. I really can’t give you any more details on this—we haven’t gone to trial yet and there is a gag order issued. I don’t claim to be psychic. I don’t have any idea why these things have happened to me. But it makes me wonder and curious.    

If this story can be believed, and the thousands of others like it, then the question that inevitably arises is the one at the head of this section: Does consciousness have a biological basis at all?

Van Lommel believes it does not, in the sense of consciousness being created from matter. He marshalls both evidence and theory to back up his position. The next three posts attempt to give a sense of part of his argument.

Making the Idea Plausible

Pim-van-Lommel

Pim van Lommel

He is acutely aware that his case is regarded with profound suspicion by the majority of mainstream scientists. He looks at the impact that this has both on the treatment of evidence and on the way we receive the accounts of those who have experienced an NDE. He quotes Kuhn for a key component of mainstream science’s response (from the introduction):

The American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn claimed that most scientists are still trying to reconcile theory and facts within the routinely accepted (materialist) paradigm, which he describes as essentially a collection of articles of faith shared by scientists. All research results that cannot be accounted for by the prevailing worldview are labeled “anomalies” because they threaten the existing paradigm and challenge the expectations raised by this paradigm.

He argues – and I am not sufficiently expert in quantum theory to judge the strength of his case here – that quantum theory has altered the balance of the argument significantly (ibid.):

According to some quantum physicists, quantum physics accords our consciousness a decisive role in creating and experiencing perceptible reality. . . . . . This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role.

As a result of the implications of quantum theory and supported by his own research and that of others, he strongly feels (ibid.):

On the basis of prospective studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, I strongly believe that consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality. Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time.

To help lame-brains like me to keep up, he brings in a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those of this point of view (ibid.):

Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.

Mainstream Resistance

Even though I find this picture of the mind-brain-consciousness relationship quite plausible now, after my decades of wrestling with the implications of this research, most practitioners of medicine and psychology within the system find it too hard to swallow. Van Lommel describes an incident at a conference on NDEs (page 9):

After a few presentations on NDE and somebody’s personal story, a man got up and said, “I’ve worked as a cardiologist for twenty-five years now, and I’ve never come across such absurd stories in my practice. I think this is all complete nonsense; I don’t believe a word of it.” Whereupon another man stood up and said, “I’m one of your patients. A couple of years ago I survived a cardiac arrest and had an NDE, and you would be the last person I’d ever tell.”

And that is a huge problem for those who have such experiences. The following example is not untypical and should be seen as providing strong though admittedly anecdotal evidence (page 32):

During my NDE following a cardiac arrest, I saw both my dead grandmother and a man who looked at me lovingly but whom I didn’t know. Over ten years later my mother confided on her deathbed that I’d been born from an extramarital affair; my biological father was a Jewish man who’d been deported and killed in World War II. My mother showed me a photograph. The unfamiliar man I’d seen more than ten years earlier during my NDE turned out to be my biological father.

heartsurgery

Van Lommel feels we should treat these types of account with respect (page 44):

I am of the opinion that people who have had a near-death experience and who are capable of putting their experience into words can teach us a great deal about the relationship between human consciousness and the brain. Finding an explanation for the cause and content of the near-death experience is a major scientific challenge.

The consequences of contempt

When we are contemptuous and dismissive, this can impact negatively upon the individual with the experience as well as on the progress of science in this area (page 51-52):

The process of accepting and integrating the NDE cannot begin until people feel capable of sharing their thoughts and feelings. With immense perseverance, often aided by positive reactions from those around them, people learn to live according to their newfound insights into what matters in life. . . . . When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.

The research indicates the scale of the problem (page 62):

Sutherland’s study shows that when people tried to discuss the NDE, 50 percent of relatives and 25 percent of friends rejected the NDE, and 30 percent of nursing staff, 85 of doctors, and 50 percent of psychiatrists reacted negatively.

The impact of this is harsh (page 64):

It is very difficult for NDE survivors to explain to others how and why they have changed so much. What follows is a period of intense loneliness coupled with feelings of depression at the rejection of what they perceive to be the most impressive experience of their life.

This is in spite of the fact that a more positive attitude is immensely beneficial (page 66):

The results also show that the higher the percentage of positive responses to their personality changes, the better the NDErs were capable of dealing with the problems. That said, at the time of the survey, more than half remained incapable of communicating effectively about their experience. The absence of unconditional love in human relationships also continued to be a problem for more than half of the respondents.

If we are to shift from this negative and damaging virtual consensus, with what are we going to replace it? That will have to wait for the next post.

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Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, page 171)

Given that I made such a big thing out of Eben Alexander’s book in yesterday’s post on the No-Self issue, I thought the least I could do, to make it easy to access, was republish my review of his book. So here it is. I’ll also throw in a couple more earlier posts on consciousness and NDEs for good measure before the week is over.

Thanks to Kristine’s comment on my sequence of posts about near-death experiences (NDEs), I have read a compelling book: Proof of Heaven.

Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon with a dramatic conversion experience behind him. Seven days shifted him from sceptic to believer in the afterlife. Experiences he had had as a medic were completely reconstrued (page 87):

. . . . a coma patient was a kind of in-between being. Neither completely here (the earthly realm) nor completely there (the spiritual realm), these patients often have a singularly mysterious atmosphere to them. This was, as I’ve mentioned, a phenomenon I’d noticed myself many times, though of course I’d never given it the supernatural credence [before].

His recovery, his NDE apart, was to be a minor miracle (page 89):

. . . they did not know of anyone making a full recovery from bacterial meningitis after being comatose for more than a few days. We were now into day four.

The fact that he is now talking and walking let alone writing this book was highly improbable, verging on downright impossible (page 92):

The few who survive a case as severe as mine generally require round-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.

I’m not going to include any plot spoilers in this review. Though the book has been sniffed at by sceptics who feel Eben has gone soft in the head, I can assure you his experience was truly remarkable and his account of it sober and convincing.

Well, I would be convinced, wouldn’t I, since he confirms all my biases. I can only say that I do expose myself to the writings of those with whom I disagree, fighting my confirmation bias at least to that extent, but their arguments always seem to fall short of what I regard as measured and weighty (see below for more on that).

Coming out of Coma

Instead of recounting the experience in itself, I’ll pick up the narrative from when he comes back into the body and focus on what his experienceComa could be said to have demonstrated. About his return from his coma he writes (page 117):

My mind—my real self—was squeezing its way back into the all too tight and limiting suit of physical existence, with its spatiotemporal bounds, its linear thought, and its limitation to verbal communication. Things that up until a week ago I’d thought were the only mode of existence around, but which now showed themselves as extraordinarily cumbersome limitations.

He acknowledges that on his return he was also the victim of something (page 118) called ‘ICU psychosis.’ However, he does not agree that this state accounts for his NDE experience (ibid.)

Some of the dreams I had during this period were stunningly and frighteningly vivid. But in the end they served only to underline how very, very dissimilar my dream state had been compared with the ultra-reality deep in coma.

The whole coma experience had been totally convincing (page 130):

What I’d experienced was more real than the house I sat in, more real than the logs burning in the fireplace. Yet there was no room for that reality in the medically trained scientific worldview that I’d spent years acquiring.

This is where he spells out the problem he now has with what I have called ‘scientism‘ in the pages of this blog (page 132):

I can tell you that most skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. To be truly skeptical, one must actually examine something, and take it seriously. And I, like many doctors, had never taken the time to explore NDEs. I had simply “known” they were impossible.

Among the reasons he has for being convinced  of the reality of his own experience and the validity of its implications is his view that the illness he had was as close to death as you can get (page 133):

Given all of this, bacterial meningitis is arguably the best disease one could find if one were seeking to mimic human death without actually bringing it about.

He finds all the usual candidates that sceptics adduce to explain away an NDE, such as anoxia and drug/temporal lobe effects, completely unconvincing. Also, as he was utterly unaware of any of the literature on NDEs, he had no expectations to subtly influence his experience, and in any case, as you will see when you read his account, his experience was untypical in certain key respects. He outlines the explanation which he regards as the most plausible reductionist candidate (page 142):

The final hypothesis I looked at was that of the “reboot phenomenon.” This would explain my experience as an assembly of essentially disjointed memories and thoughts left over from before my cortex went completely down. Like a computer restarting and saving what it could after a system-wide failure, my brain would have pieced together my experience from these leftover bits as best it could.

He find this also unconvincing (ibid.):

Everything—the uncanny clarity of my vision, the clearness of my thoughts as pure conceptual flow—suggested higher, not lower, brain functioning. But my higher brain had not been around to do that work.

This is what makes the NDE which resulted from a coma induced by bacterial meningitis so compelling as evidence. There were no higher brain functions to stitch together the kind of coherent experience he went through and could recall in such rich detail. He is scathing now about this panoply of reductionist pseudo-explanations (page 142-143):

The more I read of the “scientific” explanations of what NDEs are, the more I was shocked by their transparent flimsiness.

There was for him no escaping the probability that what he had experienced was real (page 144):

. . . when I added up the sheer unlikelihood of all the details—and especially when I considered how precisely perfect a disease E. coli meningitis was for taking my cortex down, and my rapid and complete recovery from almost certain destruction—I simply had to take seriously the possibility that it really and truly had happened for a reason.

He puts the basic reason very simply (page 144): ‘Medically speaking, that I had recovered completely was a flat-out impossibility, a medical miracle.’

Consciouness Ground of Being

Source Website

The Nature of Consciousness

This leads him to look at an experience whose true significance he had missed when viewing life through the lens of his sceptical persona (page 146):

Many others have seen that astonishing clarity of mind that often comes to demented elderly people just before they pass on, just as John had seen in his father (a phenomenon known as “terminal lucidity”). There was no neuroscientific explanation for that.

It is a short step from such a perspective to the even more radical revision of his concept of consciousness as a whole (page 150):

Far from being an unimportant by-product of physical processes (as I had thought before my experience), consciousness is not only very real—it’s actually more real than the rest of physical existence, and most likely the basis of it all. But neither of these insights has yet been truly incorporated into science’s picture of reality.

This links in with ideas I have explored elsewhere about consciousness as the ground of being. Which leads us back (page 152) to the core problem of scientism again!

Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.

His point about the astonishing fact that consciousness exists is also one that I have tackled before, both on my blog (see links in this sentence) and in the lion’s den of the Birmingham Medical School (page 154).

There is nothing about the physics of the material world (quarks, electrons, photons, atoms, etc.), and specifically the intricate structure of the brain, that gives the slightest clue as to the mechanism of consciousness.

In fact, the greatest clue to the reality of the spiritual realm is this profound mystery of our conscious existence.

The Great Being

I’d like to close with his carefully worded observation about the nature of God, which describes the sense he had of being closely connected in his NDE with that Great Being while at the same time this entity was nonetheless inherently beyond his comprehension and totally irreducible to anything he could ever comprehend (page 106):

While in the Core, even when I became one with the Orb of light and the entire higher-dimensional universe throughout all eternity, and was intimately one with God, I sensed strongly that the creative, primordial (prime mover) aspect of God was the shell around the egg’s contents, intimately associated throughout (as our consciousness is a direct extension of the Divine), yet forever beyond the capability of absolute identification with the consciousness of the created.

All in all this is a carefully written and rigorously examined account of a truly extraordinary experience whose reality I do not doubt, even though it is just the testimony of one person. I recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in this aspect of life.

Amit Goswami on Consciousness as the Ground of our Being

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Morphine or Mysticism v3

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Levels of Consciousness

Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this next sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The second will be published tomorrow and the other two on Saturday and Sunday.   

When I first read Jenny Wade’s book, Changes of Mind, I was carried away when she hypothesises that the highest possible stage of the development of human consciousness is Unity Consciousness. As ‘unity’ is a Bahá’í mantra, this was enough in itself to guarantee my complete attention and disarm my disagreements.

But there was more. This level of development was the last of nine. In Arabic numerology nine is the numerical value of the word at the core of the name of this Revelation: ‘Bahá.’ I was entranced. I wrote ‘Brilliant!’ inside the front flyleaf after I’d finished the book.

Because my recent reading of Dabrowski (see three earlier posts) has sensitised me to the possibility of categorising levels of consciousness and perhaps even character development, I decided to re-read her book.

I have decided this time round that it is brilliant (for different reasons though) but flawed.

Still brilliant after all these years

Why do I think this? My reasons fall into three main groups for present purposes: near death experiences, lateralisation of brain function, and the IMG_0493drivers of transitions from one level to the next.

The first topic is, in my view her weakest, and why I feel the book is flawed. Her treatment of this topic does not stand up well after reading Mark Fox’s thorough examination of the issues.

Her reflections on lateralisation and its relationship with the development of consciousness are intriguing and will probably prompt me to revisit Iain McGilchrist to check them out more thoroughly, but as it stands I resonate strongly to what she says. She maps out her levels of consciousness against the back drop of lateralisation and mounts a compelling argument for the value but extreme difficulty of achieving a proper balance in our lives between the operation of the two hemispheres of the brain. But more of that in the next post.

Her most interesting observations to me at present relate to the way that her model maps closely onto Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration in key respects. She analyses, in a more close-grained fashion than Dabrowski, which kind of conflict and discomfort spurs us to move up from the comfort zone of our present level of consciousness to the next step up the ladder of awareness.

bohm

David Bohm

It is probably only fair to add that I am completely incapable of properly evaluating the foundation of her thesis in Bohm’s work on the implicate order as I simply do not understand Bohm’s thinking well enough. You may well wish to stop reading at this point if you feel I have totally disqualified myself from commenting on her other lines of thought.

My simple summary of what I think she means in terms of Bohm is this. There is a hidden order and a visible one. Both are inextricably intertwined. The visible, or perhaps more accurately, the accessible order is the material world as we commonly experience it. The hidden order (though transcendent, timeless and placeless) is also expressed in and through the physical world here and now. Our highest self exists fully realised already in the hidden order but remains invisible to almost all of us. The purpose of our lives is to come to a realisation and expression of and identification with that self, consciously in the visible order. When we do so all ego and desire will fall away, and self in any sense we currently understand it fades away completely. If we fail, in her view we are reincarnated again to have another go. Moving up the levels of consciousness is primarily about cleansing the lens of perception so that we can experience in its true nature what is currently hidden from us.

For those of you who have continued reading, we need to look slightly more closely at the first of the themes I mentioned, and later at the other two in even greater detail.

Near-Death Experiences (NDEs):

One of the key problems here is that she fails to recognise, from the evidence available to her at the time, that NDE-type experiences are not uniquely linked to close encounters with death as she contends (page 324) on the basis of evidence drawn from Morse. Fox’s access to the RERC data enabled him to recognise the common elements between so-called NDE experiences and other mystical and spiritual states where there was neither a threat to life nor any kind of trauma. She does though accept (page 239), but more cautiously than Fox, that ‘near-death consciousness . . . appears to share some characteristics of Transcendent consciousness.’

She also rather too uncritically accepts a long list of core elements (pages 225-226), something about which Fox’s critical re-examination has caused me to be rather more sceptical.

Given that NDEs are very much secondary to her main thesis and her treatment of the issue covers a mere 24 pages out of her total of 341, it is perhaps not too surprising that it falls short of Fox’s focused and thorough treatment.

It certainly does not seriously blemish the overall case she is seeking to make. More of that next time.

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Some cardiac arrest patients recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining

Some cardiac arrest patients recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining

A good friend alerted me to a recent article on the Independent website on the subject of work by Sam Parnia on near-death and out-of-body experiences, an obsession of mine about which I have blogged frequently. They refer to an article in the Telegraph which gives more detail.  The paper itself is published on the Resuscitation website. Only the Abstract is available to the general reader. The conclusion, expressed in far more cautious terms than the newspaper article, is:

CA [cardiac arrest] survivors commonly experience a broad range of cognitive themes, with 2% exhibiting full awareness. This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness. This together with fearful experiences may contribute to PTSD and other cognitive deficits post CA.

Below is an extract from the Telegraph article: for the full post see link

Southampton University scientists have found evidence that awareness can continue for at least several minutes after clinical death which was previously thought impossible. Death is a depressingly inevitable consequence of life, but now scientists believe they may have found some light at the end of the tunnel.

The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely.

It is a controversial subject which has, until recently, been treated with widespread scepticism.

But scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria.

And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.

One man even recalled leaving his body entirely and watching his resuscitation from the corner of the room.

Despite being unconscious and ‘dead’ for three minutes, the 57-year-old social worker from Southampton, recounted the actions of the nursing staff in detail and described the sound of the machines.

“We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Dr Sam Parnia, a former research fellow at Southampton University, now at the State University of New York, who led the study.

“But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.

“The man described everything that had happened in the room, but importantly, he heard two bleeps from a machine that makes a noise at three minute intervals. So we could time how long the experienced lasted for.

“He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”

Of 2060 cardiac arrest patients studied, 330 survived and 140 said they had experienced some kind of awareness while being resuscitated.

Although many could not recall specific details, some themes emerged. One in five said they had felt an unusual sense of peacefulness while nearly one third said time had slowed down or speeded up.

Some recalled seeing a bright light; a golden flash or the Sun shining. Others recounted feelings of fear or drowning or being dragged through deep water. 13 per cent said they had felt separated from their bodies and the same number said their sensed had been heightened.

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last judgement

The Last Judgement Triptych (1470) by Hans Memling (For source of image see link)

Do we deserve them?

As we have seen in exploring Nancy Evans Bush’s excellent book on the subject, we are at a point of transition in our understanding of negative NDEs (977):

It was initially believed that troubling NDEs are extremely rare. Later research indicates that as many as one out of five NDEs may be distressing.

Some components of all NDEs are becoming readily recognizable (1015):

Pleasurable or distressing, NDEs are likely to include an out-of-body episode, a sense of journeying, encounters with presences, and the familiar qualities of a transcendent experience described by William James: ineffability, noetic quality, transience, passivity.

There is one key difference between the reactions of others to the two types of experience (1037-57):

Truth to tell, a great many people who disdain organized religion and intensely dislike any concept of a literal heaven, hell, or ‘divine judgment’ immediately leap to an assumption about frightening near-death experiences that echoes the most conservative religious view. The difference is primarily that secular language replaces talk of sin with descriptions of psychological failure, spiritual weakness, or perhaps a characterological deficiency in the person who “attracted” the experience. . . . . Curiously, to my knowledge, no researcher has ever raised similar speculations about whether people who had a blissful NDE deserved it. There is no list of personal characteristics of those experiencers. Only the distressing experiences have drawn observers to such fascination.

Her conclusion is clear (1073):

There is, as of this writing, absolutely no evidence to support the conventional wisdom that deservingness has anything to do with having a glorious or dismal NDE.

None the less (1119), ‘Aversion to the dark experiences runs so deep that even ordinarily compassionate people turn their attention away.’ This turning away from darkness comes at a price (1155):

Greenspan again (26-27): “The world is in vital need of the truth that the dark emotions teach… When we master the art of staying fully awake in their presence, they move us through suffering. We discover that darkness has its own light.”

There are ways in which we will stunt our own growth by this kind of denial and repression (1161).

No Olympic gold medal winner has ever simply strolled to the podium without pain, without sacrifice. Siddartha did not find an end to suffering by sitting in the palace that was his birthright; Jesus did not remain in a small boat on the Sea of Galilee. In pain and darkness, in tragedy and struggle—there is where courage is found, and redemption. That is the path of sacred power. The least we can do is learn to deal with emotions we do not care for.

We are very much in the domain of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with its emphasis upon our need to accept suffering as inevitable if we are to grow beyond it. The authors, in their book of the same title, state (page 247):

Many clients have long-standing and strongly reinforced avoidance repertoires that can be expected to reappear. . . . . . [T]he client’s job is not just to determine a direction but to reaffirm that direction when obstacles appear. . . . . [W]hen we are travelling in a particular direction, the journey can take us across difficult ground. . . . [W]e don’t walk into pain because we like pain. We walk through the pain in the service of taking a valued direction.

However, she has no wish to force us to interpret NDEs as absolute proof of the afterlife. In that respect we are in Hicks’s territory also: the world is set up so we can no more absolutely prove that God and the next world really exist than we can absolutely prove they do not (The Fifth Dimension: page 36-38).

This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.

What are we to make of NDEs then, especially negative ones?

Sheol

For source of image see link

Struggling to make sense of them

Clearly the exact nature of the reality we are discussing has a bearing upon the impact the experience will have on the person who experiences it (1249):

A major reason for reluctance to look at distressing near-death experiences—and it is the source of terror for many experiencers—is a fear of discovering that the hell we hold in our minds may somehow actually exist. But despite the extent of that fear—or because of it—the subject is rarely discussed except in abstract theological terms or in religious circles that insist on a literal interpretation.

She discusses at fascinating length how the Biblical foundations for our ideas of hell are shaky to say the least. She concludes her argument by pointing out that (1443-1462)):

Sheol as a term seems to have confused the early English translators [of the Bible], who proved unwilling to understand it as meaning simply “the place of the dead.” By the time of the King James version the idea of hell as a physical place of torment apart from the presence of God had taken such firm root that for a translator confronted by “Sheol,” the translator’s preconception produced “hell” in place of “grave.” (Hanson, 1) The King James Old Testament translates Sheol 31 times as hell, in several places as “grave” or “pit,” and once even as “dust.” (Thayer, Orr). . . . . Gehenna came to represent anything that was foul and repulsive, deserving of severe judgment or condemnation. Common usage indicated a severity of punishment rather than a duration of time; there was no sense of “forever” about the word. . . . . Modern readers are clearly misled by anachronistic translations.

So, there is little or no authentic Biblical basis for our culture’s original and deeply ingrained concept of hell’s possible reality, something which subsequent corrections in more modern versions of the Bible would appear to have done little to dilute (see the following links for examples: Psalms, Proverbs and Amos).

She then returns to a point we heard earlier about the lack of grotesque detail in most negative NDE accounts (1533-55):

In contrast to the deliberately imagined grotesqueries of the medieval religious fantasy and modern Hell House, most actual accounts of today’s hellish near-death experiences seem remarkably sedate, though they are no less terrifying. The horror and fear are deep and genuine, but their descriptions are primarily emotional rather than visual, internal rather than external. . . . . [M]odern NDEs strongly tend to be visually less violent and significantly less vindictively cruel, though they have lost none of their horrifying emotional power.

She locates the durability of the vivid concepts we hold to of heaven and hell to our innate wiring for ideas of fairness and justice. However, hell breaches aspects of our need in that respect (1657-64):

The idea of hell satisfies the reward/punishment imperative, but it is not without problems. First, when interpreted stringently it violates reciprocity, that basic criterion of justice, that punishment should fit the crime. . . . . [A]ccording to a narrow slice of theological thought, the wrath of God demands that [the guilty] will undergo limitless agony for a limitless duration of time for a finite cause.

The way we as a culture will predispose people to respond to an NDE will depend upon the ‘fundamentalism’ of the belief system of the individual, ie how literally (s)he takes what (s)he believes in order to achieve a firm foundation of certainty. This can be as disastrous for the sceptic as it is for a religious person (1827-1849):

A postmodern metaphysical journey, no less than that of an organized religious tradition, is based on beliefs and understandings, and has its own fundamentalism; a principle difference, is that whereas for most people religion is a search for the answers to questions, metaphysics looks for personal experience around the questions. . . . . After a glorious NDE, it has been too often the case that literalism in this tradition has led to disastrous inflation of the ego and corruption of personality. . . . . Conversely, with a distressing NDE, the risk is to take at face value that same “Law of Attraction” which leads to internalizing the idea that all of one’s life events are one’s own doing. The belief that an individual acted, however inadvertently, as a magnet to attract a terrifying NDE may suggest something evil inherent in that person’s life and self.

nirvana-buddha

Western versus Eastern Models

Her discussion of this issue turns to an important distinction which can be made between Western and Eastern paradigms of spirituality. She argues plausibly that this distinction can account for a large part of the difficulty Westerners have with the negative NDE experience. She begins by looking at Western assumptions (1961-65):

The United States, especially, has lived for three centuries with the great and largely unquestioned myth of the individual: that the very essence of being human is one’s individuality, to be one’s self, to be unique in the here-and-now . . . . each of us is saturated with the sense of individuality, personhood, specialness, selfhood.

Not so with Eastern Traditions (2013-25):

A quite different perspective exists in Eastern traditions, especially those which arose in India: Hinduism and its offshoot Buddhism in its many variations. . . .The task in Hinduism and Buddhism is to recognize that the ‘realities’ of the physical world are ultimately illusory, and to let go of identification with them. . . .  It is not the individual who matters, but the individual’s connectedness to the whole.

This leads her to ask an interesting question (2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

I am inevitably going to be even further simplifying a complex position which she supports with detailed evidence. The only solution will be to read this brilliant book and decide for yourselves. Personally I find her position quite persuasive.

She does not avoid the crunch issue (2061-67):

Western culture is not prepared to deal easily with the Void. Further, between the religious reverence for covenant and the capitalist reverence for things, we are trained into objects. . . . Here it becomes clear why experiences of the Void create such havoc for those who have grown up in Western ways of thinking. . . . . Any NDE is a mystical experience, but with few exceptions, Western people are not educated mystics. The fear in experiences of the Void rises out of profound, fathomless detachment from self and other, for which most of us are totally unprepared.

Margaret Donaldson has mounted a compelling argument in her excellent book, Human Minds: an exploration, to explain how high a price we might be paying in the West for discounting mystical experience as we do, for example in part at least (page 264 – my emphasis):

The very possibility of emotional development that is genuinely on a par with – as high as, level with – the development of reason is only seldom entertained. So long as this possibility is neglected, then if reason by itself is sensed as inadequate where else can one go but back? Thus there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous; but it has the advantage that it is altogether easier than trying to move forward into something genuinely new.

Now we have clearly seen that the cultivation of the advanced value-sensing mode [e.g. in meditation] is not of itself new. It has ancient roots. What would be new would be a culture where both kinds of enlightenment were respected and cultivated together. Is there any prospect that a new age of this kind might be dawning?

Bush is exploring here a further example of this cost. We will returning to Donaldson’s final question in the last post.

It is not that such ideas are absent in our Western mystical tradition: it is that we have turned our backs on them for so long they have been almost completely forgotten (2068-75)

In addressing the fear produced by the Void, Gerald May quoted the fourteenth century spiritual guide, Theologica Germanica: “Nothing burns in hell but self-will.” . . . . [T]he contemplatives proclaim, with a conviction that can be absolutely frightening, that self-image must truly die… A dying image of self, or a dying belief in such an image, must be accompanied by a dying of one’s images of the world as well. It is not an easy business.

She goes on to make links between Nirvana, the Void and astrophysics whose validity lies far beyond my ability to assess but are well worth mentioning. She quotes Brian Greene (2080-82):

‘Empty space is not nothing; it’s something with hidden characteristics as real as all the stuff in our everyday lives.’

She therefore concludes (2088):

. . . [T]here is this curious resemblance among Godhead, space, the Void, and Nirvana—that what seems so empty may be full of everything there is.’

And on that paradoxical note we must leave it for now.

Next time we will be looking at how she develops these ideas further and explores the probability that we are in another Axial Age, one of potentially traumatic transition.

Then I plan to briefly outline her detailed and well-researched exploration of how we might approach these experiences as symbols that could function as pointers to a reality whose roots lie deep in our imagination but are not imaginary.

As I indicated at the start of this series of posts I plan to come back to that theme in far more detail as a topic that needs careful exploration in its own right, so important are her views about it but so distant is it from any conventional view of reality as articulated by our modern faith in pseudo-scientific naturalism.

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White Rose top

Whatever Happened to the Rose Garden?

Nancy Evans Bush’s book – Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences - is a challenging but essential one. Among the many who followed with keen interest the unfolding story of the near-death experience (NDE), I was, as were most of us, happy to view the experience through the rose-tinted spectacles purveyed by the majority of NDErs who, until relatively recently, found their way into print.

This book is a wake up call.

We have moved from a position where (405) ‘of the 354 near-death experiences in eight major studies between the years 1975 and 2005, including the largest in-hospital investigations, there were no unpleasant reports.’

This reversal began slowly (410-11).

But then… “In 1978,” Kenneth Ring would write years later, “a dark cloud of chilling testimony began to penetrate into the previously luminous sky of reports of near-death experiences” (1994, 5). . . . . The “dark cloud” was a startling book published by Chattanooga cardiologist Maurice Rawlings (1978). In Beyond Death’s Door, Rawlings described in grim detail another kind of near-death experience for some of his patients being resuscitated from cardiac arrest. “Doc! Doc! Don’t let me go under again—I’m in hell!”

Bush admits that Rawlings evidence was somewhat shaky but he was not alone (432):

Psychologist Charles A. Garfield reported as early as 1979 that of 36 people interviewed, eight described vivid demonic or nightmarish visions, while another four reported alternating blissful and terrifying features.

Intriguingly, what was described was not some dramatic confirmation of the objective reality of Dante’s Inferno. In terms of the visual effects Hammer films would’ve had created some scarier ones even without computer graphics (456):

“. . . [T]he negative near-death experiences in our study,” Gallup summarized, “include some of the following features: featureless, sometimes forbidding faces; beings who are often merely present, but aren’t at all comforting; a sense of discomfort—especially emotional or mental unrest; feelings of confusion about the experience; a sense of being tricked or duped into ultimate destruction; and fear about what the finality of death may involve.”

Hardly X certificate material, then.

But the significance of these experiences is precisely because they do not conform to our ideas of a conventional hell at all and yet their impact upon those who experienced them and the reaction of those they disclosed the experiences to is completely disproportionate to the relative blankness of the visual canvas. We’ll come back to that point later.

The reluctance of people to come forward with these stories is a key characteristic and speaks volumes (470):

The infrequency of alarming NDEs in the materials then available . . .  is, in retrospect, not because distress does not exist in the modern near-death repertoire but because experiencers were not ready to come forward with them.

We need to unpack this point more fully to understand its true significance (485):

Medical social worker Kimberly Clark Sharp was the first to observe that this is a population that vanishes . . . . For many people with a painful NDE, simply admitting they have had such an experience is as much as they can do; describing it can seem impossible.

Bush’s own gathering of stories was a painfully slow process and (493-95):

It took nine years to find fifty people who could give enough detail to create a coherent sense of such experiences. . . . . [T]he “closeting” was so intense that even when our respondents could bring themselves to write their accounts, few were willing or able to complete the questionnaire, answer questions, or agree to an interview.

For a scientific study to be credible the sample of ‘subjects’ has to be as nearly random as possible to be truly representative. Random, these fifty people clearly were not but, she writes, (504): ‘From what we know about these fifty individuals, they are a representative group of ordinary people who have had an extraordinary experience.’

Though her main focus is on negative NDEs, as she herself states towards the end of her exploration (3226):

The purpose of this book is to provide as even-handed a description as I can give of what is known about near-death experiences and how people of different backgrounds and faith standings make meaning of them, depending on their own point of view.

She is therefore redressing the balance rather than taking the negative experiences completely out of context.

In attempting to review this book, which covers the topic from at least three main angles, I am going to focus mainly on the first two sections of her treatment: the experience itself and the issues relating to how we interpret that experience. These are the least subjective aspects of her treatment, and the rigorous, dispassionate and thorough way she approaches her material means that what she says should carry weight for all of us and deserves our careful attention.

Her third section, which consists mainly of pointers and signposts to help those who have had a negative NDE find a constructive and healing way to understand it, I will explore very briefly in this sequence of posts.

It refers to a mass of material which potentially can help people move past the negativity: it is therefore, for those who are struggling, her most crucial. However I need to return to it more fully later as a topic in itself if I am to do it justice. I will have to draw on other aspects of my reading which need more room than I can spare in this review if it is not to sprawl beyond reasonable limits.

'Void Devouring the Gadget Era' by Mark Tobey

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

What did these accounts reveal?

Those of us who want nice clear lists of typical components are not in for a treat unfortunately (505):

The basic finding of the study was quickly apparent: there is no universal “distressing experience.” In fact, there was greater variety of phenomena within these accounts than among those of pleasurable experiences.

They did, though, fall into certain categories so I began to breathe more easily again (515):

In the most common, the elements of the classic pleasurable NDE were experienced as terrifying. The second type was an experience of nothingness, of being without sensation and/or of existing in a limitless, featureless void. The third type, with by far the fewest accounts, corresponds more closely to the hell of the popular imagination.

I found that last point particularly intriguing as it weighs heavily in favour of the credibility of these accounts. If they were fuelled purely by our culture’s expectations we would find in most of these accounts a world populated by medieval devils and animated gargoyles against a backdrop of fire and brimstone. But we don’t. This argues for the probability that something else more objectively valid is going on here, something not directly subject to, certainly not the product of our desires and expectations as most materialists would contend. And it is experienced by a more coherent consciousness than anoxia, drugs or delirium would permit.

Given that the experiences are so bleak and stark, as against teeming with malevolent culturally influenced stereotypes, what makes them so disturbing – too disturbing to share, quite often? This is where Bush’s analysis really comes into its own. She fully recognizes the nature of the challenge this poses and rises to it admirably.

Her first point is obvious enough and begs the question to some extent (563): ‘. . . . what is frightening in this type of experience is not so much its objective content as the person’s subjective reaction to the content.’

One problem for the Western mind experiencing any NDE is that, according to the prevailing materialistic paradigm, none of this should be happening (568):

Here for the first time we see the conceptual difficulty of encountering a realm that is other. The world of science, remember, does not “do” the non-physical. Few of us are contemplative monks, saturated in the world of the transcendent and well versed in the history of spiritual practice; most of us have no language, no context for this kind of event.

In addition, NDEs press certain panic buttons for us, all the more so when they are not the uplifting kind, though even the latter can be ill-received by some experiencers. She lists these buttons as safety, control and surrender (571-582):

Safety lies in control. Especially for people whose preference in dealing with the world is cognitive, rational, analytical – the preferred mode in Western culture – the perception of chaos may be extremely alarming. . . . NDEs are risky. . . . .  Perhaps one reason that people respond so differently to an NDE lies in their ability to tolerate the radical riskiness of free-fall into otherness. . . . . Ram Dass quotes Mahatma Gandhi as saying, ‘God demands nothing less than complete self-surrender as the price for the only freedom that is worth having.’

It is not a comfortable place to be for a Western left-brain-dominated control freak – forced into a position possibly requiring surrender to the completely unknown.

If the unknown in these negative experiences were a recognizable something, the situation might be slightly less terrifying. The problem is it’s not recognisable at all according to those rare and courageous individuals prepared to talk about what they experienced to someone who was clearly a very skilled listener (598):

What the second type of experiences have in common is some version of the Void, a palpable emptiness, a mental but otherwise non-sensory negation of self and world.

In discussing this she has pointed me back to someone whose book has lain unfinished on my shelves since 1995 – a not uncommon fate for books in my possession, I’m sorry to admit. My pocket has proved much deeper than my appetite for ideas, it would seem. She writes (632):

“The experience of the Void,” says psychiatrist Stanislav Grof . . .  “is the most enigmatic and paradoxical of all the transpersonal experiences. It is experiential identification with the primordial Emptiness, Nothingness, and Silence, which seem to be the ultimate cradle of all existence.

Such a way of thinking about our possible destination raises a crucial question in her mind (651):

Isn’t it odd, as a friend once commented, that we practice guitar and saxophone and piano; we practice golf and gymnastics; we practice aerobics; but we rarely, if ever, practice anything in our inner life. We spend months planning a two-week vacation, but we do not plan to die—nor, for that matter, do we plan how to live. We tend to think it will just happen. And so, although we would not dream of asking an amateur to pilot a mission to outer space, we somehow expect ourselves to encounter inner space without training or assistance.

Grof

From my pile of unfinished tomes

What do they mean?

I’m going to make a small jump now to an issue of particular fascination for me, given my sense that a defining characteristic of human beings is their need to make meaning out of experience. She quotes Miriam Greenspan as saying (815) ‘Meaning-making is a defining characteristic of what it is to be human. Existing without purpose or meaning, for humans, is like existing without air. You can only go for so long before you choke.’ The meaning we make of an experience such as the negative NDE can have a devastating impact upon our lives.

In Bush’s view this impulse towards meaning provokes one of three, possibly four, reactions to an NDE, especially of the negative kind (822-25):

Perhaps the most common is conversion, turning one’s life around. Another is reductionism, replacing an alarming explanation by one that feels more manageable. The third response is a failure of resolution, which can range from bewilderment and a searching for one’s life mission to a lingering disbelief and despair. . . . . To these three types of response, repression might be added in the case of stark terror.

Because a negative NDE is terrifying the most common response is likely to be conversion, but not necessarily in the sense of changing one’s religion (831):

Among people whose NDE was genuinely terrifying and even hellish, it is likely that most fit this model. They understand the message of the NDE as simple: This is a warning; something in your life is wrong and must change, or there will be unwelcome outcomes.

This can make conservative religious movements attractive such as Bible-based Christianity or Orthodox Judaism.

On the other hand (861) ‘Reductionism is common among investigators who deny any spiritual claims about NDEs.’ According to Corbett ‘reductionism is a “defense [that] allows one to repudiate the meaning of an event which does not fit into a safe category.”’

And last of all we find (901) ‘lack of resolution moves [the experiencer] from reductionism to this third group, which has identified no comprehensible meaning in their near-death experiences.’ They are caught in an irresolvable conflict (914):

Conversations and correspondence indicate that these experiencers are typically articulate people haunted by the existential dimension of the event and searching for an explanation that is both intellectually and emotionally grounding. Intellectually unable to accept a literal reading of the event, they also find reductionist explanations inadequate, as the theories assign a cause but do not address the question of meaning or integration.

I need to make this a series of posts, even while treating the last section of her exploration briefly, as every section of her book poses serious questions about an experience that has been discounted for decades and now needs to be integrated into our paradigm of reality. I think that is excuse enough for a series of three posts at this point. I hope that by the end of it you will agree.

No matter how long this sequence is it will not be a substitute for reading this compelling book as I have ruthlessly omitted scores of telling points and moving accounts of NDEs.

Till the next time then.

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