Clash of Paradigms
With Bush’s help in her valuable treatment of these experiences, we have looked at the various problems people in our modern Western society will have making sense of a near-death experience (NDE) especially if it is negative. Where does all this leave the person who has experienced an NDE, negative or otherwise? Bush puts it well (2133-37):
The Catch-22 for many individuals after an NDE is that they know what they experienced but they can’t believe what they experienced; . . . . In the mainstream of Western thought, the physical world is the only possible real world, and therefore the only sane one.
Interpreting the experience as spiritual is not an easily available option for most of us. She quotes Grof again (2145:
The mystical nature of many experiences . . . . puts them automatically into the category of pathology, since spirituality is not seen as a legitimate dimension in the exclusively material universe of traditional science.
Our culture has a very different model (2184):
Especially in modern times there have developed ‘explanations of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly’ which are not based on a notion of the transcendent, for example atheistic Marxism and secular humanism. Although in every respect these “explanations” function as religions traditionally have in human life, because they omit the idea of the transcendent it is best to give these a separate name. The name often used is ideology.
Bush doesn’t buy this model. She quotes Edinger as saying (2206): ‘There is in the unconscious a transpersonal center of latent consciousness and obscure intentionality.’
In grappling with both the limitations of Kahneman’s two system model of decision–making and what Bahá’u’lláh meant by the phrase ‘understanding heart’ I have been seeking to explore this issue from various angles including dreams. Bush feels that (2208) ‘Dreams, fantasies, illness, accident and coincidence become potential messages from the unseen Partner with whom we share our life.’ She feels that negative NDEs are approaching the same territory from a different and more disturbing angle (2213-15):
Individuals who find themselves in distressing NDEs that involve a sense of transcendence with feelings of awe and terror may be encountering what the German scholar Rudolf Otto (1958, 12) termed the “numinosum,” the Holy. . . . . . . This is not the tame ‘walking in the garden with God’ kind of holy but the original holy terror, ‘the fear of God’ so expertly captured by Old Testament writers as a sense of overpowering awe.
She sees the terror as at least in part derived from the threat to our ego (2290):
Life lived within the myth of the self comes up against the spiritual demand for surrender. We are aghast. What’s worse, we are unprepared.
She attacks the simplistic notion (2309), though, ‘the view that some experiences are terrifying because the individual “should have” given in to it, should have surrendered.’ She explains why (ibid.):
This assumes not only that the person knows this beforehand but that the response can be somehow both imagined and volitional from within the experience. This is a cultural dilemma. It also ignores the real possibility that sometimes one may be well advised not to be taken in by the terrifying vision, not to go with it but to find a different way around.
She argues, rather as McGilchrist might in the same territory, that we need to keep the left hemisphere of the brain on the case here (2335):
Without discernment and common sense (left hemisphere), we become easy marks for spiritual charlatans and crooks. Two halves make a whole brain and a whole person.
Our world is deeply conflicted. She reminds us again of the difference between East and West on this particular subject. She quotes Richard J. Foster (2344):
‘Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it. The two ideas are radically different.’
She argues (2386-2403) that we are in another ‘Axial Age:’
. . . . . in roughly the years between 800 and 200 BCE, something fundamental happened in the thinking and even in the very nature, of people around the world. Humanity discovered morality. . . . . . That same kind of turmoil is with us today, on a larger scale but with the same elements: stunningly new ideas, radical shifts in religion, globalism and a jostling of cultures, and economic upheavals. . . . . . Today we are amid a second Axial Age and are undergoing a period of transition similar to that of the first Axial Age.
I will resist going off into an explanation of the similarity of that view to the Bahá’í understanding of our current predicament, and refrain from recapitulating my reactions to Robert Wright’s Evolution of God and Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s brilliant analysis of this period of ‘parenthesis.’ However, the reference she quotes to our moving towards a ‘Global Civilisation’ should be a big enough hint (2409):
Leonard Swidler (2008), has said of the 20th century’s wars, ‘In fact, however, those vast world conflagrations were manifestations of the dark side of the unique breakthrough in the history of humankind [of] the modern development of Christendom-become-Western Civilization, now becoming Global Civilization. Never before had there been world wars; likewise, never before had there been world political organizations (League of Nations, United Nations).’
She is therefore very aware, as she writes, that she must write in a way that is accessible to a wide variety of perspectives and world views. The multitude of terms that have been applied to the NDE experience scarcely touch never mind overlap. These terms are the filter through which people understand the experience (2450):
Historian of religion Ann Taves (2009, 162) has observed that when people use the adjectives ‘religious,’ ‘mystical,’ ‘magical,’ ‘superstitious,’ ‘spiritual,’ ‘ideological,’ or ‘secular’ to apply to such an experience, it is the preexisting belief of the speaker rather than the experience itself that determines which word will be chosen.
Whatever the terms used (2456) ‘whether religious, mystical, magical, superstitious, spiritual, ideological, or secular, it is the same individual experience.’
The ultimate effect of this has been disastrous for anyone trying to make sense of an NDE, especially a negative one (2502-05):
Experiencers have told many sad stories of going to a professional for help in understanding their NDE, only to find themselves caught up in the medical model, pathologized by a diagnostic label and the NDE dismissed as meaningless. . . . . . . People have also told of being dismissed by their rabbi or pastor as well, for in a secular society much awareness of deep spiritual process is lost or distorted, even within religious institutions themselves.
It seems likely that the insecurities of religious institutions are being triggered, at least in part, by the openness of these experiences (2512):
A great many experiencers have observed, often with dismay at their religious institution, that the message of their NDE was far more open, more universalizing and inclusive than what their tradition teaches.
It used to be well-known and widely accepted that (2542) ‘many dramatic and difficult episodes can occur during spiritual practice and that the road to enlightenment can be rough and stormy.’ Sadly that level of awareness has long been lost in the West at least. Jung’s view was that (2563) ‘After almost four centuries of deepening materialism and the dimming or outright loss of the West’s major religious and philosophical symbols. . . . the energies of the psyche had begun saying, “enough”’
Moreover, in Bush’s view, (2605):
. . . . in the belief systems that were converging in the new broth, there was—not pantheism, “nature worship”—but panentheism, the conviction that God permeates all of creation, that God is in all and all are in God—which means that in some measure each individual person is directly connected not only to every other individual person and the universe itself but is connected to that One, that All… and is in some measure divine.
She contrasts that with the West’s prevailing orthodoxy which is spreading ever more widely (2624):
As opposed to the dominant culture, which has been outward, rational, reductionistic, dominated by the senses, and driven by the letter of the law, this alternative reality tradition has been inner, contemplative, ascetic, and mystical, believing itself to be the true aristocracy of the spirit from which the letter of the law was derived.
Which brings us to the last section of her book, which, as I indicated at the start of the series of posts, I would deal with briefly and come back to at more length later. To begin with she visits some ground previously traveled: attempts to define the NDE, understanding its purpose, the importance of the shock it administers to our world view.
In the end though she feels (2710-12) ‘Whether the events are literally, physically, materially real or not is irrelevant; they are real experiences, profoundly real in the imaginal sense, a sudden, shocking revelation of truths previously unrecognized about the world we thought we knew.
She examines some of the ancient imagery that is possibly helpful to consider in this context, for example, ‘daimons’ (2791):
Daimons were understood to be potentially both good and evil; but eventually the good gods and their destructive qualities were divided from the evil demons and their potential for good, shifting constructive qualities to the gods and destructive qualities onto the demons. It was one of the prices of monotheism, that loss of complexity.
In the end we lost something important. According to James Greer (2801): ‘In the original sense of the word, a monster is a revelation, something shown forth.’
Something like them can certainly feature in advanced spiritual practice (2807):
Shinzen Young (2005), an American Buddhist teacher of mindfulness meditation, has noted that terrifying images—insectoid, grotesquely otherworldly, demonic—may appear in advanced meditation. He teaches that they are ‘best interpreted as part of a natural process of release from the deep archetypal levels of the mind.’
She discusses in some detail the nature of negative experiences and concludes along with Grof that (2878):
‘The experience of extraordinary perception can be associated with deep metaphysical fear, since it challenges and undermines the world view that the Western culture typically subscribes to and associates with sanity.’
More than that even, they may be saying, as do positive ones as well, something about our essential being at the deepest levels (2886):
The bottom line about distressing NDEs in general and the hellish ones in particular seems to be that hell, like heaven, is very real—as a product of the imaginal system that produces experience. It is not a place, not a destination, but a built-in range of ideas that are part of us, and that we must deal with.
They are symbols representing a reality that cannot be accessed except through symbols. There is a catch, however. Bahá’u’lláh is very clear that what He is expressing, as He attempts to communicate to us about spiritual reality, is according to our understanding, not according to the reality He perceives (Hidden Words: 67):
All that I have revealed unto thee with the tongue of power, and have written for thee with the pen of might, hath been in accordance with thy capacity and understanding, not with My state and the melody of My voice.
He also explains that we cannot understand such symbols if we are not sufficiently detached (Kitáb-i-Íqán: pages 68-69):
Wert thou to cleanse the mirror of thy heart from the dust of malice, thou wouldst apprehend the meaning of the symbolic terms revealed by the all-embracing Word of God made manifest in every Dispensation, and wouldst discover the mysteries of divine knowledge.
There is much to explore here.
Bush explains that (2919) ‘NDEs cannot be the territory they represent: they are signposts, arrows; maps written in symbol.’
We have to be careful though to distinguish two different categories of thought when we are talking about symbols (2923):
What is imaginary does not really exist but is made up, pretend, fantasy. What is imaginal, on the other hand, as . . . . . Joseph Campbell . . . . noted, “is metaphysically grounded in a dreamlike mythological realm beyond space and time, which, since it is physically invisible, can be known only to the mind.”
What the logical mind interprets as destructive may not be so at this level of understanding. I will need to return to this again but one example she gives is fire (2935): ‘Fire signifies divine revelation—the burning bush, the ancient sacrifice, the burning lamp, the all-enveloping presence of God. It is a classic symbol of transformation.’ And (2940), ‘As in dreams, a suggestion of death or end times may point simply to change—to the end of a life phase or a major change in one’s awareness, the death of a particular time.’
These symbols have deep roots and should not be dismissed (2963):
Stanislav Grof has observed . . . . , “These mythologies and concepts of… heaven and hell… are an intrinsic part of the human personality that cannot be repressed and denied without serious damage.”
Also, it is worth bearing in mind the possibility adduced by Christopher Bache (2990) ‘that a distressing NDE represents a painful fragment of a potentially transcendent experience that either has insufficient impetus to blast through to the transcendent level or that gets “stuck” in the tunnel so many near-death experiencers describe.’
Basically Bush feels we should avoid simplistic one-dimensional interpretations (3018): ‘The more one knows about symbolic language, the wider the possible understanding of what an experience is about.’
What follows in her book is a deeper exploration of how someone might go about accessing more positive interpretations of what at first sight seem such dark and damaging experiences. She covers a remarkable amount of ground and draws on a wide range of thinkers and practitioners. There is no way I can do justice to it in this review. There is also no way I can resist bringing in more of my own ideas than is appropriate.
What I have tried to do in this review is demonstrate how rigorous and valuable her examination is of a hitherto virtually neglected body of experiences. It is well worth reading and brings this whole area out into the light where more of us can share it.