Posts Tagged ‘NDE’

Given that the recent post on the expectation effect hinted strongly at our perception of reality being essentially a simulation, reposting some poems that touch on that seemed a good idea.  

Uncertainty Principle v3

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It seems appropriate to publish this poem yet again, because, in circumstances I’ll be exploring tomorrow, I was triggered into finishing reading Ghadirian’s Creative Dimensions of Suffering, which then shed unexpected light on the nature of creativity.


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My latest sequence of posts concerns itself with the possible nature of a spiritual psychology   It therefore seemed reasonable to republish this short sequence. The second part comes out on Saturday.

Recently Sharon Rawlette left a comment on my blog in response to a link I posted about Emma Seppälä’s book The Happiness Track. We hadn’t exchanged comments for quite some time so I checked out her blog again and was reminded of a piece she’d posted in 2014 titled Evidence for Telepathy in an Autistic Savant about the work of Diane Powell.

This prompted me to see how her work had progressed since then.

In a video posted on her website Diane Powell deals in passing with the notion that autistic savants and others with brain damage illustrate how impaired cortical functioning can seem to give direct access to deep level answers to complex problems/experiences within the mathematical, musical or linguistic fields, with no possibility of calculation involved.

She argues, in the light of this kind of evidence, that the higher cortical functioning on which we pride ourselves seems to be an obstacle between our surface consciousness and its deepest levels.

This really set me thinking. So much so that when I was on one of my brisk daily walks I found myself wondering whether one of Bahá’u’lláh’s prayers that I recite every day contained a phrase I still did not fully understand. There are many such phrases, by the way, but this one resonated particularly strongly right then for some reason.

Bahá’u’lláh writes that in this day, for far too many of us, our ‘superstitions’ have become ‘veils’ between us and or ‘own hearts.’ In the same passage He also uses the possibly even stronger word ‘delusion’ to describe the path along which we walk.

When I first became a Bahá’í and read Bahá’u’lláh’s use of the word ‘superstition’ in this context I interpreted it simply to mean hopelessly primitive religious beliefs. With time and terrorism it became clear that I needed to add fanatical fundamentalisms into the mix. I wasn’t too phased either by the idea that such destructive beliefs bordered on the delusional, as even then I regarded delusions as part of a continuum along which we all are placed.

However, as someone trained in psychology, an essentially religio-sceptical discipline, it took somewhat longer for me fully to accept that scientism was right there with the rest as a front-line superstition, possibly even delusional when held with an intensity sufficient to achieve total impenetrability to all contradictory evidence, no matter how strong. This felt far too close to home but I had to accept the possibility nonetheless: the case in its favour was much too strong to ignore.

Since then, I’ve written a great deal over the years on this topic, both arguing that bad science is built on bad faith and also that our heads block us from hearing what our heart has to say. Most of us, most of the time, are blind to both these realities, and happy to be so as what we believe seems not only obvious common sense but also indisputably useful. Not only that but to doubt science and listen to our hearts looks like a soft-centred prescription for disaster, likely to plunge us back into the Middle Ages, ignoring the fact that some parts of the world never left there, and more disturbingly other parts have been only too eager to return there ahead of us already, hoping to drag us back with them eventually. The second group completed the regression so swiftly and effectively largely by allowing their head to agree with their gut and ignoring their heart completely. And, just for the record, to add credibility to my suspicions, people of a so-called scientific bent are surprisingly well-represented among the ranks of ISIS, but students of the arts and social sciences seem not to be so gullible. But that’s another story.

This conventional wisdom is unfortunately delusional and based on a fundamental if not fundamentalist misunderstanding of what true science is, of how it is in harmony with true religion, and also of what the limitations of instinctive and intellectual cognitive processes are and how necessary it is to balance them with more holistic levels of processing. I am not going to rehash here all I have said elsewhere: I’ll simply signpost the thinking and the evidence to support what, in my view, is this saner view of things.

Master and EmissaryReasons to doubt Materialistic Dogma

Two of the most impressive bodies of evidence I came across of this necessary shift in perspective were, first, Iain McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master & his Emissary, and second Irreducible Mind by the Kellys.

The conclusion McGilchrist reaches, that most matters to me when we look at our western society, is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

Irreducible MindThe Kellys take the critique even further.

For them, the so-called science of psychology is still, for the most part, pursuing the Holy Grail of a complete materialistic explanation for every aspect of consciousness and the working of the mind. It’s obviously all in the brain, isn’t it (page xx)?

The empirical connection between mind and brain seems to most observers to be growing ever tighter and more detailed as our scientific understanding of the brain advances. In light of the successes already in hand, it may not seem unreasonable to assume as a working hypothesis that this process can continue indefinitely without encountering any insuperable obstacles, and that properties of minds will ultimately be fully explained by those brains. For most contemporary scientists, however, this useful working hypothesis has become something more like an established fact, or even an unquestionable axiom.

This is a dogma and as such can only be protected by ignoring or discounting as invalid all evidence that points in a different direction.

The Irreducible Mind points up very clearly how psychology must at some point bring this aspect of reality into its approach. Referring amongst other things to psi phenomena, Edward Kelly writes (page xxviii):

These phenomena we catalogue here are important precisely because they challenge so strongly the current scientific consensus; in accordance with Wind’s principle, they not only invite but should command the attention of anyone seriously interested in the mind.

The prevailing attitude of course in many cases goes far beyond methodological naturalism into the strongest possible form of it (op.cit. page xxvii):

Most critics implicitly – and some, like Hansel, explicitly – take the view that psi phenomena are somehow known a priori to be impossible. In that case one is free to invent any scenario, no matter how far-fetched, to explain away ostensible evidence of psi.

When you look at the evidence dispassionately, rather than from a dogmatic commitment to the idea that matter explains everything, the mind-brain data throws up a tough problem. Most of us come to think that if you damage the brain you damage the mind because all the evidence we hear about points that way. We are not generally presented with any other model or any of the evidence that might call conventional wisdom into question, at least not by the elder statesmen of the scientific community. There are such models though, as Emily Kelly suggests (page 73):

The first step towards translating the mind-body problem into an empirical problem, therefore, is to recognise that there is more than one way to interpret mind-brain correlation. A few individuals have suggested that the brain may not produce consciousness, as the vast majority of 19th and 20th century scientists assumed; the brain may instead filter, or shape, consciousness. In that case consciousness maybe only partly dependent on the brain, and it might therefore conceivably survive the death of the body.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

Others are of course now following where they marked out the ground but we have had to wait a long time for people like van Lommel to show up in his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience with all the perplexities and puzzles of modern physics to draw upon as well as carefully investigated specific examples of Near Death Experiences (page 177):

It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness. . . . . Composed of “unconscious building blocks,” the brain is certainly capable of facilitating consciousness. But does the brain actually “produce” our consciousness?

The imagery Lommel uses in his introduction is slightly different from that of Myers, a 19th Century pioneer of this perspective – “The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness” – but the point is essentially the same. In fact it is remarkable how close the correspondence is. This is Myers’s view as Emily Kelly expresses it (Irreducible Mind – page 78):

Our ordinary waking consciousness corresponds only to that small segment of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the naked eye (and varies species to species); but just as the electromagnetic spectrum extends in either direction far beyond the small portion normally visible, so human consciousness extends in either direction beyond the small portion of which we are ordinarily aware. In the ‘infrared’ region of consciousness are older, more primitive processes – processes that are unconscious, automatic, and primarily physiological. Thus, ‘at the red end (so to say) consciousness disappears among the organic processes’ (Myers, 1894-1895). Sleep, for example, and its associated psychophysiological processes are an important manifestation of an older, more primitive state. In contrast, in the ‘ultraviolet’ region of the spectrum are all those mental capacities that the remain latent because they have not yet emerged at a supraliminal level through adaptive evolutionary processes. . . . . Such latent, ‘ultraviolet’ capacities include telepathy, the inspirations of creative genius, mystical perceptions, and other such phenomena that occasionally emerge.

I recognize that it may not be enough though to adduce evidence, which satisfies me, to support the idea of a non-material reality ignored by the mainstream because of a bias in science that discounts it. I need also to have some sound reasons for my claim that there is a valid distinction to be made between a good science, prepared to accept the possibility of transpersonal explanations, and a bad science, dogmatically committed to ruling any such explanation of experience out of count on the a priori grounds that it couldn’t possibly exist no matter what evidence was brought forward in support of it.

That’s where we’re going next.

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last judgement

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

Given my recent return to the topic of the afterlife it seemed useful to flag up this brilliant book again by reposting the full sequence.

Do we deserve them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her conclusion is clear (1073):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For source of image see link

Struggling to make sense of them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Western versus Eastern Models

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

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

Not so with Eastern Traditions (2013-25):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She therefore concludes (2088):

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

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

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

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

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

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White Rose top

Given my recent return to the topic of the afterlife it seemed useful to flag up this brilliant book again by 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.


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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Given the theme of my next post, this seemed a good poem to republish. 

(freely adapted from Ken Ring: Lessons from the Light pages 286-91)

. . . . . the next thing – I’m standing in this dark room
there’s my body on the bed and a deep darkness
I’m here and I’m also over there
one whole wall in the room a dark forest
the sun rising behind it and a path out through the woods.

I realise what’s happening.
If I go up that path to the edge of the woods into that light
I’ll be dead.
Yet it’s so peaceful.

I move up the path. The light grows massive. I see memories
of all my sadness. I urge, “Stop!”
Everything stops! I’m shocked. I realize
I can talk to the light and it responds!

I am rising into this tunnel of light.
I ask, “What is this light? What are you really?”
The light reveals itself directly, vividly, to my mind.
I can feel it, I can feel this light in me.
And the light unfolds its message in my mind:
“I could be Jesus, I could be Buddha,
I could be Krishna. It’s how you see me.”

But desperate for understanding
I insist, “But what are you really?”
The light changes into a mandala of souls
all our souls, our true selves, are fused,
we are one being,
we are the same being,
distinct aspects of the same Being.
I enter this mandala of human souls
white hot with all the love we’ve ever wanted,
a love that can heal everything, everyone

I’m desperate to know, really know

I am taken into the light and
instantly the world shrinks with distance
the solar system’s pinpricks
without moving I see galaxies upon galaxies
dancing across cold empty blackness
my consciousness is expanding so fast

here comes another light right at me
I hit this light
I dissolve
I disappear
I understand

I have passed the singularity
I have traversed the big bang
I went through that membrane into this –
the Void
I am aware of everything
that has ever been created
I’m looking out of God’s eyes
I know why every atom is

then everything reverses
I return through the singularity
I understand that everything since that first word
is actually the first vibration
there is a place before any vibration was

after the Void, I returned knowing
that God is not only there
God is here
everything is here – no need to search
while we are now God’s always

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