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Posts Tagged ‘Nancy Evans Bush’

Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

I realise that my current sequences of posts are very much focused on the individual life and its traumas, only incidentally bringing in the context of our lives as a consideration. To redress that imbalance I am republishing a sequence on ‘The Empathic Civilisation.’

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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O SON OF THE SUPREME! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendour. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom?

(Bahá’u’lláh – Arabic Hidden Words No 32)

worm-coreIn the last post, looking at Solomon et al’s treatment of death in The Worm at the Core, I came to the conclusion that, in spite of my dislike of diagnostic language and of their tendency to overstate their case, I had to admit they are making an important point.

They argue that all of us tend to create destructive solutions to the existential problem of death. This comes in two main forms: meaning systems/world views and self-esteem.

Let’s take world views as an example of their case (page 131):

It is deeply disturbing to have one’s fundamental beliefs called into question. Take our meanings and purposes away, characterise them as juvenile, useless, or evil, and all we have left are the vulnerable physical creatures that we are. Because cultural conceptions of reality keep a lid on mortal dread, acknowledging the legitimacy of beliefs contrary to our own unleashes the very terror those beliefs serve to quell. So we must parry the threat by derogating and dehumanising those with alternative views of life

The same kind of process applies if our self-esteem, as they term it, is threatened.

Because their book is focused on proving the nature of the problem they don’t say much about the solutions. They make a strong case that death denial is ultimately destructive leading to problems ranging from mindless consumerism through mental health problems to outright fanaticism. They spend less time contending that a constructive acceptance of death and its integration into a viable pattern of life bears the fruits of a common sense of humanity and a desire for positive purpose. Destructive terror-reducing purposes can be avoided. They share my liking for the existential therapy model, but don’t go far enough beyond that for me.

Perhaps because they lack a spiritual perspective, they seem blind to the possibility that, for example, there are positive aspects to psychosis (I will be exploring this more deeply in later posts).

Richard House (in Psychosis and Spiritualitypage 94) quotes Levin, who ‘finally, succintly and beautifully sums up [this] position:

[S]eemingly psychotic experiences are better understood as crises related to the person’s effort to break out of the standard ego-bounded identity: trials of the soul in its spiritual journey. The modern self is nearing the frontier of a historically new spiritual existence… It is time for a real paradigm shift. (Levin, 1987)

This idea of a paradigm shift or tipping point is something I have explored at length elsewhere so I won’t dwell on it again here. A summary of one aspect of the Bahá’í position will have to suffice here.

We urgently need a sense of the transcendent if we are to be able to answer the challenge issued by the Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, when the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were completed. The following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

The Bahá’í perspective shares Matthieu Ricard’s awareness of the need to link the local through the national to the global (Social Action):

No matter how essential, a process of learning at the local level will remain limited in its effectiveness if it is not connected to a global process concerned with the material and spiritual prosperity of humanity as a whole. Structures are required, then, at all levels, from the local to the international, to facilitate learning about development.

What might death have to do with our connection with the transcendent?

In a recent documentary on Down’s Syndrome, Sally Phillips, the presenter, exclaims towards the end, ‘Cracks are where the light gets in.’ What if death itself is some kind of light, as Bahá’u’lláh suggests, and not simply an intolerable crack in the fabric of our world view?

I’d be the first to admit that this is not an obvious option. It certainly hasn’t been for me.

I was studying for my ‘A’ levels when I heard about what someone from our school had done. His father was a farmer. He took his father’s shotgun, so they said. All we knew for sure was that, after his girl friend had dumped him, he turned up where she worked and with the first barrel killed her before turning the second on himself.

A few of us who knew him left the library and went to the nearest coffee bar in shock. The conversation settled nothing, least of all our nerves. Nothing we knew of him before explained his final acts. In the end, we shrugged it off and went back to our books.

Five years later in the second term of my first teaching job the common room was stunned after the Christmas break. Even the bridge fanatics stopped their game. A young man who had started at the school the same time as me last summer wasn’t coming back. He had thrown himself under the wheels of a tube train. Again none of us had seen it coming.

We knew he had been struggling a bit keeping his classes under control. No big deal, we thought. But we were obviously wrong. A mixture of shame and guilt now stopped us in our tracks at least for a short time. And again it was too late. The bidding at the bridge table began once more. Newspapers shuffled, teaspoons rattled in our cups, and piles of exercise books to mark took our minds off what could not be undone or understood.

In my second teaching job there was the sister of a student. On leave from hospital she booked into a hotel, where staff found her dead the following morning of an overdose. This was harder to understand. She had been in hospital for depression, and they knew she had plans to kill herself sometime. They clearly didn’t think it would be now.

Mary poem

These were not the only times in my life up to that point that I’d had to deal with death. There had been others – my sister’s mainly, whose lungs gave out before I was born, but the shadow of whose passing hung over my childhood. Also the war dead, like those in my father’s book – black and white images of uniformed corpses spread across the mud – and the victims of the concentration camps everyone was talking about as I grew up.

In addition, as the youngest child of youngest children, for me relatives were scarce. I knew more family graves than family members. And even some of those who had survived, were scarred by life or war. One uncle had had his right arm damaged in the First World War so he carried it rather than used it, and another had a tumour on the brain, whose pressure, they told me, had been eased by a plastic flap they’d cut into his skull. It would wear out one day, they said, and when it did he’d die. They couldn’t operate again, it seemed.

Every time I went to see him, because my mother asked, I looked anxiously at the deepening bowl in the side of his head, worried in case it wore out when I was there. I don’t remember my mother ever seeing him either with me or alone. I was her unwilling surrogate. She’d had more to do with death than she could stomach. And sometimes, to be honest, I was beginning to feel a bit the same.

It was much later that other more positive ways of seeing death became available.

dancing-past-the-darkNancy Evans Bush asks an interesting question in her masterly exploration of distressing near-death experiences (NDEs) (Dancing Past the Dark – Kindle Reference 2046): ‘What if the Void and heaven are not opposites but differing perspectives of whatever is ultimate?’

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.

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.’

My childhood death connection obviously draws me to exploring this dimension of death, spirituality and mental health. The culture I’ve grown up in does not help, nor does my training in mainstream psychology.

Neil Douglas-Klotz (Psychosis and Spirituality – page 49) explains exactly why:

Beginning with the imperialisation of Christianity under the Roman Empire, European culture extracted a limited language concerning [spiritual & psychotic] states from an underlying Middle Eastern context, but without fully understanding the language or worldview involved. Because of this, Western culture developed a massive split between ‘inner’ psychic and ‘outer’ normative consciousness, as well as splits between cosmology and psychology, body and soul, and humanity and natural environment. . . . . . Whether by following an orthodox religious interpretation or by reacting against this interpretation in the form of the Enlightenment and the Western scientific revolution, Western culture evolves without a language or worldview that can conceptualise expanded states of consciousness in a healthy way.

Most cultures have been blind to some degree. Sadly we are both arrogant and powerful as well as blind. Still, there are hints to be found in many places, most of them off the beaten track of the market place and the hustings. I hope to follow the trail they promise towards a more satisfying truth about death, psychosis and spirituality.

I feel as though all the pennies still have not dropped. Even I though I have been so slow to see the relevance to one another of the Death Cafe and psychosis, maybe it’s not too late to get closer to the bottom of the problem.

Perhaps at the end of this sequence it will be more uplifting to confront the issue of death with a song, such as this one, powerfully rendered by June Tabor and Martin Simpson.

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White Rose top

Given my recent reference to this brilliant book it seemed worth reposting the full sequence.

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 distressing 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 distressing 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 distressing 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 distressing 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 distressing 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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. . . . psychotic symptoms exist on a continuum even in healthy individuals (Stefanis et al., 2002). This, too, seems to be explicable if psychosis is a way to cope with existential distress – as psychosis would be quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, different from normal.

(Psychosis as Coping by Grant S Shields – page 146 in Existential Analysis 25.1: January 2014)

There is growing interest in the idea of that ‘psychotic’ crises can sometimes be part of, or related to spiritual crises, and many people feel that their crises have contributed to spiritual growth. A number of clinical psychologists have also explored the interface between psychosis and spirituality. Some believe that at least some ‘psychotic’ episodes can be transformative crises that contain the potential for personal, including spiritual, growth. Many people who believe that there is a spiritual element to their experiences find support from others with similar beliefs invaluable, for example within faith communities.

(From Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia published by the British Psychological Society – page 55)

In the last post I began to look at a paper (pages 41-49, from the British Journal of Clinical Psychology – 2012 – 51, 37-53) by Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters on the subject of what they call Out-of-the-Ordinary-Experiences or OOEs.

Where their findings became even more intriguing from my point of view was when their discussion used terminology with clear spiritual implications that are held in common across NDEs, mystical states and meditative practices. They write:

Another subjective phenomenon reported by both [clinical] and [nonclinical] participants was the sensation of ego loss, what essentially seemed to be a breakdown of the normal psychological relationships between mind-body and/or self-others.

A fear reaction was frequently reported and ‘is likely to have largely come from the unfamiliarity of [the] experience . . . . It is possible that more prolonged absorption was caused by the emotionally fulfilling roll of the OOE in a psychological problem-solving process.’

This was followed in their report by more of a spiritual nature concerning the discovery of deeper meaning:

This symbolic, deeper meaning perhaps reflects the quality of awareness that is not filtered or confined by the conceptual boundaries of ordinary day-to-day experience… If the ego breaks down, then it may be that perception of the world becomes unbounded and limitless . . . .

This, in their view, paves the way for a shift in consciousness:

Following on from the previous theme, which conveys an awareness that is free from the influences of a ‘conditioned’ conceptual framework, this theme suggests the implementation of a new conceptual framework, or a new way of looking at the world.

levels-of-consciousness v3Where their work maps onto that of Jenny Wade is in the idea that, when our old models of reality cease to work in new situations, a state of uncomfortable dissonance is created that leads to a breakthrough to new levels of understanding:

It could be that the initial psychological crisis arose in many participants due to an inadequacy of their existing conceptual framework in making sense of their emotional experience. . . . . . It may be that a new way of thinking was the necessary, adaptive ‘solution’ to the crisis; that the old conceptual framework had to be replaced by a new one for the emotional experience to become integrated.

Dabrowski's TPD diagramWade’s 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. Dabrowski, as I have explored elsewhere, correlates this most strongly with an intensity best described as suffering.

The next point the paper makes is crucial:

[T]he fact that, apart from existential questioning, there has been no notable difference up to this point in the OOEs of [clinical] and [non-clinical] groups implies that this problem-solving process is neither pathological nor indicative of clinical psychosis.

The real issue lies somewhere else altogether. They explain in a particularly important passage:

More of the [nonclinical] participants received validating/accepting responses from others, and more of the [clinical] group received invalidating responses, as these quotes illustrate:

‘[I] relayed this experience to psychiatrists in the [hospital] and was sent for EEG tests, was told that I was hallucinating – this guy just didn’t listen to, just obviously haven’t heard anything really that I’d said . . .’

‘Somebody came up to me and said “well, you know, we really need to hear from you. That’s a very powerful message to people, and they need to hear that message.” And that did matter to me.’

For the individual who is, perhaps, already slightly hesitant about how best to incorporate their experience into their social worlds, the difference between these two social interactions could be immense.

All non-clinical participants demonstrated some prior understanding or interest in their OOEs, which are generally described as ‘life-enhancing.’ Furthermore, ‘These life-enhancing qualities, which were reported by the majority of participants, add further support to the psychological problem-solving hypothesis. Not only did the OOEs provide many participants with relief from emotional suffering, but they also added a dimension that enriched other life domains. . . . . The medical (illness) explanation clearly presented barriers to similar reflections in the clinical population . . .’

The blame for why some people’s experiences are eventually experienced as dark, negative and ultimately inescapable seems to lie with the negative approach adopted by others, especially the medical profession:

More [non-clinical] than [clinical] participants viewed their experience as a temporary stage or process. . . . . . [I]f the causes and subjective nature of OOEs are no different between [non-clinical] and [clinical] groups, then it seems misleading for professionals to inform one group that their OOEs signal ‘the end,’ [ie they are stuck with them] while the other group continue with their (enhanced) lives.’

dancing-past-the-darkThis has echoes for me of how the reaction of others determines how the experiencer responds to distressing NDEs, which also has an impact on their future mental well-being. Nancy Evans Bush writes (Dancing Past the Dark: Kindle reference 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.

Stephanie Beards and Helen Fisher, in a 2014 paper (Social Psychiatry Psychiatric Epidemiology 49: 1541–1544), shed further light on the dynamics of this. They write (page 1542):

It has been proposed that negative core schemas [ingrained patterns of thought or behaviour that affect experience] are formed early in life and may result from adverse experiences in childhood. If an individual experiences further trauma later in life, these schemas could become (re)activated, leading to emotional changes which may not only cause the development of psychotic experiences, but alter the appraisal of these anomalous occurrences, further increasing distress, and preventing a benign explanation from being concluded.

Even so, such experiences do not need to cast a shadow over the rest of a person’s life. The experiences themselves, as the current British Journal of Clinical Psychology study demonstrates, are not significantly different between the two groups, nor are the potential explanations they develop. Nearly all participants gave some acknowledgement of the link between psychotic and spiritual experience.

Because the OOEs of all participants seemed, at some level, to fulfil a psychological purpose, they were interpreted as being a part of an adaptive psychological problem-solving process, which frequently involved the breakdown of conceptual ego boundaries, and the formation of a new conceptual outlook.

However, regarding group differences (my emphases), they write:

[T]here was a sense that [non-clinical] participants were better able to incorporate their OOEs into their personal and social world. This was partly due to more [non-clinical] participants having prior conceptual knowledge of, and in some cases, open attitudes towards, there OOEs; however, the more prominent reason seem to be that more [non-clinical] participants received validation and acceptance from others.

The saddest point of all perhaps is this:

It would seem that the more OOEs are associated with clinical psychosis, the less chance people have of recognising their desirability, transiency, and psychological benefits, and the more chance they have of detrimental clinical consequences.

They draw some very strong conclusions from this:

An important clinical implication is that psychotic experiences should be normalised, and people with psychosis should be helped to re-connect the meaning of their OOEs with the genuine emotional and existential concerns that preceded them. . . . . . However, the current findings suggest that the argument for normalisation goes far deeper than just its clinical usefulness; they imply that a more ‘radical normalisation’ approach is needed, when normalising OOEs becomes an intrinsic formulation and treatment principle.

During my decluttering, I also came across a number of journals which describe current approaches to creating psychological descriptions of a patient’s problems, known as formulations in psychobabble. Nowhere, for any patient group, did I find reference to any kind of spiritual dimension, though the word ‘cultural’ was thrown in from time to time, and might have concealed an entrance through which such considerations could possibly have infiltrated the consultation process.

When it comes to psychosis, where the default first-line treatment is medication rather than therapy (or meditation), there is an additional problem:

Unlike antipsychotic drugs, which can suppress the emotional expression, this approach [of accepting the validity of the emotions underlying the OOEs] would validate and encourage the emotional expression, whilst working on building a more helpful conceptualisation or narrative about the emotional concerns.’

The authors do not regard their paper as definitive. They are all to aware of its possible limitations, shown, for example, by their reference to methodological caveats concerning small sample size and possible confounding variables not having been picked up at screening and thereafter controlled for.

I do not think those caveats constitute reasons for ignoring or minimising the significance of their findings, but rather they should be a motivating factor for the generation of further work on this issue. In the meantime, even in advance of further findings, we should be spurred to introduce into the clinical setting a far greater sensitivity to the emotional and spiritual meaning of such experiences.

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Swirl

Another example of where deep conversations can lead.

More faith in honest doubt?

Any reader of this blog will know I’m really into NDEs – sorry, near death experiences for the uninitiated – and accept the validity of the basic experience as proof that consciousness is not reducible to the brain. Though I try hard to give the sceptic within a fair hearing, life sometimes has to send me a hint that I should sift at least some of the evidence more carefully. I got one of those hints just the other week.

I had a visitor, a good friend, someone I’d not seen though for quite a few years. He hadn’t changed much. Stocky, square-faced, with a confident stride, he came in through the front door as though he’d never been away.

Always when we meet our conversations go deep – the kind I like as I’ve already explained on this blog. This time was no exception.

He sat on the sofa opposite the window, his compact frame looking ready to spring into instant action as though, even after all this time, his years in the army had still not worn off. For someone so apparently on standby, he spoke slowly, with a Northern twang and with relatively little expression in his voice. Even so, from time to time he would scrunch up his eyes and open them again as though trying to clear his vision.

It was obvious that he felt strongly about what we were discussing.

Over the tea that I had made for him, which stayed untouched on the small table by his knee for what seemed ages as he spoke, he brought me up-to date with his state of play. The steam from the coffee in my left hand spiralled between us across my gaze.

He has a combination of problems, mainly high blood pressure and sleeplessness probably caused by the constant pain from old injuries: this also prevents him functioning at full capacity most of the time, though there are days, he said, when he can dig for hours with no discomfort. He keeps positive mentally by drawing on what he had learnt from reading Krishnamurti over the years, and from the one time they had met and spoken together for some considerable time.

‘As soon as I began to feel important because of this attention,’ my friend explained, ‘Krishnamurti walked off.’

The hours we had spent in the past repeatedly revisiting Krishnamurti’s teachings came flooding back. His explanations when they happened, as they often did, had tended to last an extremely long time, the teachings meant so much to him.

I dunked a ginger biscuit into my coffee at about this point. He hadn’t touched his tea yet. I stood up and offered him a biscuit, which he took and began to drink his tea.

Then he made a knight’s move into unexpected territory, possibly under the influence of the biscuit or maybe the tea. Perhaps he had said all he needed to say about Krishnamurti for now.

To my surprise, we had moved into my home town – the NDE. Well, at least, I thought we had, until he mentioned electronic beds in the context of altered states of consciousness. This was news to me. He’d brought this into the conversation because he thought such an invention might be a possible cure for his physical ills by enabling him to draw upon the higher powers of his mind.

He said he’d found out about this after reading a book called Saved by the Light by Dannion Brinkley and Paul Perry. The title sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t remember anything about it.

‘This guy was struck by lightning,’ he explained. ‘He was an engineer and had the skills to make this kind of bed. He had an NDE. He was sent back to produce this bed. Only he didn’t do so straightaway so he had another NDE and was told to get on with it. I call them e-beds for short. You’ve probably read it and know all this already.’

He added that Brinkley claimed the beds were able to induce out-of-body experiences (OBEs) such that two people could communicate telepathically with each other. He seemed to accept these claims as valid.

‘I’ve read about someone who was struck by lightning but he was an arms manufacturer. Doesn’t sound like the same guy, and I’ve heard nothing about an electronic bed.’

Anyway the conversation began to fizzle out shortly after this. I made him lunch and we walked to town together afterwards. We agreed to meet up again soon and went our separate ways. But the connection I’d made with the man struck by lightning kept crackling and sparking away in my mind as I walked on.

I didn’t get the time to follow up on it till the next day.

Initially, when I looked the following day, I couldn’t find any reference to any kind of ‘e-bed’ on the net. Then I thought I’d check my shelves for the book. It had sounded so familiar I might just have read it and lost track.

Good grounds for not buying the package?

NDE books

All my NDE books are in one place and sure enough, it was there – I’d read the book. The familiar account unfolded as I read it. My conviction that it must have been in Ken Ring’s book Lessons from the Light bit the dust. I had thought he was an arms manufacturer but in fact he claims to have been a soldier and, post-discharge, in special ops. My mistake has even found its way into one of my poems. My unchecked memory at fault again! How could I have forgotten what I actually read, and transmuted it into something so different. I’ve explored that question before so I won’t go over that ground again, though it is disturbing to realize that I don’t even listen to myself.

Basically, I respect my friend’s integrity – there are few people with more – but I don’t trust his judgement – I’ve come not to trust my own judgement so why should I not question other people’s? The fact that my friend had been in the army and not retained this part of the story and recreated Brinkley as an engineer mirrored my mistake as a retired psychologist in missing evidence of psychopathology in his younger days and morphing him into an arms dealer.

More than enough cause to give full rein to my inner sceptic about e-beds and OBEs at the very least.

The description of his history prior to the NDE makes him sound as if he might have been some kind of sociopath. He may have chosen to present himself that way to make his transformation all the more dramatic. (There were other suspicious aspects to his account as my subsequent researches would show and I’ll discuss in a moment.) Here’s a quote from his own description of himself in case you don’t believe me about the possible pathology (pages 12-13).

Once in sixth grade, the teacher asked me to stop disrupting class. When I refused, she grabbed my arm and began marching me towards the principal’s office. As we walked out of the classroom, I pulled loose and hit her with an uppercut that knocked her to the ground. As she held her bleeding nose, I walked myself to the principal’s office. As I explained to my parents, I didn’t mind going to the office, I just didn’t want to be pulled there by a teacher.

We lived next door to the junior high school I attended, and I could sit on the porch and watch the kids in the playground on the days that I was suspended from school. One day I was sitting there when a group of girls came to the fence and started making fun of me. I wasn’t going to take that. I went into the house, got my brother’s shot gun, and loaded it with rock salt. Then I came back out and shot the girls in the back as they fled, screaming.

He also claims that he went on to act as a sniper for the US military – an army hitman. His worst outrage, according to his account, was blowing up a hotel, killing 50 innocent people in order to take out one target person.

What was I dealing with here? Did an NDE really change a sociopath into an empathic caring individual, if so that was amazing in itself, e-bed or no e-bed. Was he creating a myth for his own advantage to sell his books and readings, psychopath or no psychopath? Or maybe this was another example of what more and more people are claiming, that there is a positive side to psychopathy, and the lightning strike brought it out in his case, NDE or no NDE.

I really needed to investigate further.

First of all, I found the e-bed via an account of Ron Moody’s (see post):

Dannion claims that during his near-death experience, otherworldly beings showed him a design for an electronic bed with healing powers. They instructed him to build this device and to install it in his healing centers. I have seen several models of this bed from beyond. They are comfortable recliners with built-in headsets that play tape-recorded music through the body by bone conduction. When I tried one of the beds, I found its effects indistinguishable from hypnagogia.

The most he accuses Brinkley of is sensationalising his story the better to gain the credibility that helps his good cause, hospice care. He sees it as harmless.

To sum up, Dannion Brinkley’s story appeals because it tries so many colorful threads of popular paranormality together into one entertainment package.

I want to make it clear that I am writing in the abstract, and that, personally, I find Betty and Dannion to be lovable and endearing people who do good things for others. I understand, for example, that Dannion recruits volunteers for hospice during his dramatic and exciting talks with large audiences, and gets quite a few of them. I don’t question either of their motives for a second. I am merely pointing out here what makes them listened to.

Problems with the Core NDE

Waking in morgue

Waking in the morgue (for source of image see link)

Others, I discovered, were not so forgiving.

For a start there is this more scathing scepticism from Roy Rivenburg with help from Paul Dean in the LA Times:

[Dannion] Brinkley says his life review covered “at least 6,000 fistfights” that he had between fifth and 12th grades. That averages out to two brawls a day, nonstop for eight years, making Brinkley the Wilt Chamberlain of schoolyard pugilism.

He also says he was a Marine Corps sniper during the Vietnam War, dispatched to Cambodia and Laos to assassinate enemy officers and politicians. But military records show that Pfc. Brinkley was never a sniper, never saw combat, indeed never left the United States during his 18 months in the service.

He was a truck driver stationed in Atlanta.

Brinkley declines to offer any evidence of overseas duty, saying the government is covering up his record because it is classified. But several sources inside and outside the military (including ex-Marines involved in the same covert operations Brinkley claims a role in) say his tale is full of holes and that the so-called secret files are all public.

To be fair, I can’t find the 6,000 fights quote in my copy of the book so maybe Rivenburg is overstating his case as well though in the opposite direction.

There are further questions though (see link) about the facts around his physical ‘death.’ This is far more damaging to the whole issue of establishing the validity of NDEs as a whole. I will quote at some length from this article.

In his book, “Saved By the Light,” Dannion recounts his story and embellishes upon the details [of his NDE]. He claims that he was dead for 28 minutes. During this time, he floated above his body, watching as his wife attempted to revive him in the moments after the lightning strike. He says he heard a paramedic pronounce him dead. . . . . And then, he woke up in the hospital just before being taken to the morgue.

It is an incredible story; one that saw his book at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, as well as spawning a highly rated television movie. Dannion has since used his notoriety to become a psychic, charging $250 for a half hour reading [link], . . . . But if his story were true, we can reasonably expect that he would have told a similar one in the days following his injury. But it’s not, because he didn’t. . . .

Carl Langley was a newspaper reporter for the Augusta Herald at the time of Dannion’s ordeal. He interviewed him, and in the September 19th 1975 edition, published a story about the incident titled “Phone Call Almost Cost Him His Life.” The story as Mr. Brinkley told it then is dramatically different than the one he tells now in his books and interviews. Remember how Dannion said he was dead for 28 minutes, and the paramedic pronounced him dead? Langley’s newspaper article says otherwise:

“Frantically, Mrs. Brinkley began pounding away on her husband’s chest, stopping only to grasp his tongue and pull it away from his windpipe so he could breathe.

“‘I was out for a few minutes, and she saved my life,’ Danny said. With breathing restored, Mrs. Brinkley called the paramedics.”

But there’s more. Remember, Dannion also tells people that he woke up in the hospital later, after having traveled to heaven and talking to angels. . . . Dr. Gilmore Eaves says he was at Dannion’s side within an hour of his brush with lightning. . .

“When I saw him he was completely lucid,” Dr. Eaves said. . . . Nor did he ever tell him about seeing a light or seeing a cathedral.

When Brinkley was filmed being confronted with this evidence by a reporter in the video ‘Dr Death’ he laughs it off, explaining that he was young and embarrassed and, “wasn’t gonna start ranting and raving about a near-death experience.”

Later still he responded in a video to these doubts. The report deals with these also and makes a particularly telling point at the end. For the point-by-point commentary see the original story.

But the film “Reverend Death” came out in 2008. It is three years later now, and Dannion has had some time to make up a new version of what happened. In a video posted on his website on May 18th of 2011, Dannion now claims to not remember much about the days of the events in question, which is funny since he has never had problems remembering in radio and television interviews before. . . . . It is also interesting that he has waited until after Mr. Langley and Dr. Eaves have passed away to say all this.

The report comes to a clear conclusion.

He has invented a fictional story about an Out-of-Body experience to sell books. He has given people false hope about heaven, angels, and crystal cities, and has made a fortune doing it. . . . .  When confronted with his fictions, he changes his story or infers that everyone else is lying about what happened.

Where does that leave us?

light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel032111Since I don’t have access to his medical records (nor does anyone else as far as I can tell) there’s no way I can come to a definitive conclusion on this matter – an endemic problem with much NDE research except prospective studies, I’m afraid. Whatever the exact status of his NDE story is, all this undermining background noise would make the uncritical quoting of his NDE experience in any piece on the subject somewhat unsettling.

For example, though Fenwick, in his excellent book, is sceptical of the prophecies Brinkley claims to have been given he accepts the core account as valid (The Truth in the Light – pages 240-241):

As the book was published in 1994 is difficult to comment on predictions reported in it about events which happened before this date, events such as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the Gulf War. The dates of these events – 1986 and 1990 – and many other pre-publication happenings came into Dannion’s head with pinpoint accuracy as he saw them on his spiritual tele-screen. But, as tends to be the way with prophecies, those events due to take place after 1994 are foretold with less precision.

Interestingly he speaks as Moody does of Betty Eade and Brinkley in the same breath. He does so in a way that brushes to one side the reservations and focuses upon what he believes is the core of truth (page 241):

. . . . if we pare are away the more extravagant aspects of these two experiences we are left with a great deal that the rings true – the tunnel, the light, the feelings of joy and tranquillity.

The books I trust the most do not mention Brinkley at all, as for instance with Mark Fox and Pim van Lommel, or at least only in passing as in the case of Nancy Evans Bush.

So, where does this leave me now?

I still feel the balance of the evidence is in favour of the validity of the NDE in general even if we do not yet know exactly what it is telling us about life after death. My faith in that has not been shaken. Mario Beauregard allowed the posting two years ago of a clear and coherent summary of the current state of play. Fox and Bush, in particular, convincingly address the difficult issues surrounding the NDE with rigour and clarity. Pim van Lommel bases his conclusions on a rich wealth of prospective data. Charlatans can be found in all walks of life, though perhaps more so where the paranormal is concerned, and often profit at the expense of a dispassionate investigation of the facts: this should not be allowed to cloud the truth completely.

My view concerning Brinkley is that, if his account is in anyway spiced up or fundamentally incorrect, the honourable thing for him to do would be to set the record straight before he dies. After all, the main thrust of his first NDE concerns being forced to experience the pain his actions had caused others. If his NDE account is in anyway valid, he must therefore recognize the imperative of coming clean as his distortions of the truth would otherwise continue damaging many people, both those who believe them because they will have based at least some of their important decisions upon a fairy tale, and perhaps more so those who don’t because the doubts created by his fabrications will have kept them away from the truth.

If he never had any such experience and simply invented it for profit, then I don’t expect that argument would hold much water and he’ll carry on regardless. If his account is true in every detail, which seems doubtful, then he need do nothing more than carry on as he is.

As for me this post is a different kind of wake-up call.  I need to take care myself not to use dubious evidence to support my views for fear of discrediting my own case. It’s hard to remain so consistently vigilant but it looks like it’s a necessary precaution.

Footnote:

I have found references that suggest there is a genuine account of an arms dealer’s NDE in no way related to the one referred to here. I am still searching for the original version.

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White Rose top

The recent death of a friend triggered the short story I began to post yesterday. Also many recent posts have been republished ones on the subject of near-death experiences, mostly of the comfortable kind. I felt it only fair to republish my sequence of posts on the much more difficult topic of distressing NDEs as explored by Nancy Evans Bush in her rigorous survey of the subject. So here is it. The sequence starts today and ends on Thursday. 

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 distressing 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 distressing 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 distressing 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 distressing 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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Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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