The recent death of a friend triggered the short story I began to post on Monday. 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 started yesterday and ends tomorrow.
Do we deserve them?
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?
Struggling to make sense of them
Clearly the exact nature of the reality we are discussing has a bearing upon the impact the experience will have on the person who experiences it (1249):
A major reason for reluctance to look at distressing near-death experiences—and it is the source of terror for many experiencers—is a fear of discovering that the hell we hold in our minds may somehow actually exist. But despite the extent of that fear—or because of it—the subject is rarely discussed except in abstract theological terms or in religious circles that insist on a literal interpretation.
She discusses at fascinating length how the Biblical foundations for our ideas of hell are shaky to say the least. She concludes her argument by pointing out that (1443-1462)):
Sheol as a term seems to have confused the early English translators [of the Bible], who proved unwilling to understand it as meaning simply “the place of the dead.” By the time of the King James version the idea of hell as a physical place of torment apart from the presence of God had taken such firm root that for a translator confronted by “Sheol,” the translator’s preconception produced “hell” in place of “grave.” (Hanson, 1) The King James Old Testament translates Sheol 31 times as hell, in several places as “grave” or “pit,” and once even as “dust.” (Thayer, Orr). . . . . Gehenna came to represent anything that was foul and repulsive, deserving of severe judgment or condemnation. Common usage indicated a severity of punishment rather than a duration of time; there was no sense of “forever” about the word. . . . . Modern readers are clearly misled by anachronistic translations.
So, there is little or no authentic Biblical basis for our culture’s original and deeply ingrained concept of hell’s possible reality, something which subsequent corrections in more modern versions of the Bible would appear to have done little to dilute (see the following links for examples: Psalms, Proverbs and Amos).
She then returns to a point we heard earlier about the lack of grotesque detail in most negative NDE accounts (1533-55):
In contrast to the deliberately imagined grotesqueries of the medieval religious fantasy and modern Hell House, most actual accounts of today’s hellish near-death experiences seem remarkably sedate, though they are no less terrifying. The horror and fear are deep and genuine, but their descriptions are primarily emotional rather than visual, internal rather than external. . . . . [M]odern NDEs strongly tend to be visually less violent and significantly less vindictively cruel, though they have lost none of their horrifying emotional power.
She locates the durability of the vivid concepts we hold to of heaven and hell to our innate wiring for ideas of fairness and justice. However, hell breaches aspects of our need in that respect (1657-64):
The idea of hell satisfies the reward/punishment imperative, but it is not without problems. First, when interpreted stringently it violates reciprocity, that basic criterion of justice, that punishment should fit the crime. . . . . [A]ccording to a narrow slice of theological thought, the wrath of God demands that [the guilty] will undergo limitless agony for a limitless duration of time for a finite cause.
The way we as a culture will predispose people to respond to an NDE will depend upon the ‘fundamentalism’ of the belief system of the individual, ie how literally (s)he takes what (s)he believes in order to achieve a firm foundation of certainty. This can be as disastrous for the sceptic as it is for a religious person (1827-1849):
A postmodern metaphysical journey, no less than that of an organized religious tradition, is based on beliefs and understandings, and has its own fundamentalism; a principle difference, is that whereas for most people religion is a search for the answers to questions, metaphysics looks for personal experience around the questions. . . . . After a glorious NDE, it has been too often the case that literalism in this tradition has led to disastrous inflation of the ego and corruption of personality. . . . . Conversely, with a distressing NDE, the risk is to take at face value that same “Law of Attraction” which leads to internalizing the idea that all of one’s life events are one’s own doing. The belief that an individual acted, however inadvertently, as a magnet to attract a terrifying NDE may suggest something evil inherent in that person’s life and self.
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.