Published in Paranormal Magazine, December 2006.
The basics of the near-death experience (or NDE) are probably familiar to most readers of this article already. Many people who clinically die for a short time – when their breathing and their hearts have stopped and their brains have shown no electric activity – find that their consciousness continues. They undergo an incredibly blissful and exhilarating experience, which is so powerful that they may not actually want to return to life and perhaps even be angry with the doctors who have resuscitated them.
These experiences first came to wide public attention during the 1970s, with the research of psychologists such as Raymond Moody. However, examples of them have been recorded throughout human history, beginning with Plato’s account of in The Republic of a soldier who was apparently killed in battle, and taken home to be buried. Fortunately for him, he revived on the funeral pyre, and stated that while unconscious he had left his body and travelled to strange country where he had seen other dead soldiers choosing their next life.
Due to the advances of modern medicine (particularly in resuscitation techniques) reports of the experiences have become very widespread over recent decades. Different studies have found that between 12% and 43% of people who were clinically dead and then revived have had the experience. Typically, it begins with a feeling of separation from the body (in many cases an out-of-body experience in which you look down on yourself from above), followed by a journey through a dark passage towards a place of light. There is often a life-review in which all the events and experiences of your life flash before you. Often people meet deceased relatives or beings of light, who sometimes persuade them that It’s not your time yet (as a friend of mine who died during a heart operation was told by his father), and persuade them to return to their bodies.
However, one of the most significant aspects of NDEs, as I see it, is that they always incorporate powerful spiritual experiences. When the person leaves his or her body and travels through the tunnel towards the light, he or she almost always has an intense sense of well-being, a profound feeling of love, and a sense of the one-ness and harmony of the universe. One heart attack victim who watched from above while parademics tried to restart his heart and then passed through a tunnel towards a light, commented that, There is no comparable place in physical reality to experience such total awareness. The love, protection, joy, giving sharing and being that I experienced in the Light at that moment was absolutely overwhelming and pure in its essence. (Fontana 387) Another person reported that, It was just pure consciousness. And this enormously bright light seemed to cradle me. I just seemed to exist in it and be part of it and be nurtured by it and the feeling just became more and more ecstatic and glorious and perfect. Other descriptions of near death experiences contain phrases such as: a sense of exultation was accompanied by a feeling of being very close to the ‘source’ of light and love ; Time no longer mattered and space was filled with bliss – I was bathed in radiant light and immersed in the aura of the rainbow ; and finally I was one with pure light and love – I was one with God and at the same time one with everything.
These are clearly experiences of the formless Void, the brilliant radiance of pure Spirit. They are practically indistinguishable from the powerful spiritual experiences described by great mystics like Plotinus, Meister Eckhart or Ramakrishna. Most people only rarely experience these states during their actual lives, if at all, although we might sometimes have less intense variants of them as a result of meditation, yoga, sex or relaxation. (And sometimes, of course, for no apparent reason.) But these intense spiritual states are always, it seems, a feature of the near death experience.
But why should the near death experience also be a powerful spiritual experience? To answer this, we need to look at the basic causes of spiritual experiences. As I see it, there are two of these. The first is what you could call disrupting homeostasis. Throughout history people have tried to induce mystical experiences (or higher states of consciousness) by disrupting the normal homeostasis of the human organism. Homeostasis includes such factors as body temperature, blood sugar, salt concentration, and so on, all of which must remain at – or quickly return to – an optimum level. To a large extent our bodies maintain homeostasis automatically, by breathing, digesting food, sweating and shivering, for example. And we also help the process by performing physical functions like eating, drinking and sleeping. But when we don’t satisfy these needs and put our bodies out of homeostasis , it’s possible that we’ll experience a higher state of consciousness. This is why many spiritual and shamanic traditions make use of practices like fasting, sleep deprivation, altered breathing (such as hyperventiliation), drug-taking, pain, dancing, and so on. Our normal state of consciousness seems to be linked to homeostasis, perhaps because, from the standpoint of survival, our normal consciousness is our optimum mode. So when we disrupt homeostasis, we also disrupt normal consciousness. This doesn’t mean that we always have spiritual experiences, of course – we’ve all had many times in our lives where we’ve been hungry, in pain or deprived of sleep without experiencing anything apart from discomfort. But in the right conditions – usually in the setting of a ritual or in the context of a religious tradition – they certainly can occur.
The second main source of spiritual experiences is, I believe, connected to life-energy, or the energy of our being. Spiritual experiences can occur when there is a higher than usual concentration of life-energy inside us, and when this energy becomes much more stilled than normal. This is why meditation often generates spiritual experiences, for example. Normally, in everyday life, there is a continual outflow of life-energy. We expend it through the thought-chatter which hurtles through our minds whenever they aren’t occupied. We expend it in mental effort, when we focus our attention on the tasks and chores which fill our lives, be it driving a car, doing a crossword, building a house or inputting information into a computer. We expend it in information-processing, the effort we make to process all of the sights and sounds around us at every moment, and the information which comes our way from the media, books, the internet or just from other people who we talk to. And finally, our life-energy fuels the functioning of our bodies. Our vital organs and other physiological mechanisms need life-energy to keep working.
But when a person sits down to meditate, she stops (or at least reduces) all of these outflows . She sits in quietness with her eyes closed, and so doesn’t have to process any information. She stops making any mental efforts, apart from maybe the effort of keeping her attention focused on a mantra. As she becomes relaxed her body becomes more still too, as her breathing slows down and her blood pressure falls. And most importantly, if she has a successful meditation, her thought-chatter begins to fade away too. Her mind becomes still rather than full of a chaos of thoughts, which stops what is probably the biggest single outflow of energy.
The end effect of this is that, after a successful meditation, there is an intense inner concentration of life-energy. And this life-energy is also still, rather than disturbed by what Meister Eckhart called the storm of inward thought. Now the meditator’s being is like the still surface of a lake rather than a stormy sea. And this intensification and stillness of life-energy usually results in a spiritual experience – a sense of inner well-being, a heightened awareness of the world, a sense of harmony, oneness and meaning.
This helps to explain why activities listening to music, contemplating nature or works of art, sex, or certain sports (like long-distance running or swimming) can sometimes bring spiritual experiences. They all provide a strong focus for the attention – the music, the beauty of nature or art, the pleasure of sex and the game – which acts like a mantra in meditation, quietening the storm of inward thought and conserving life-energy.
And this also helps to explain why spiritual experiences occur at the point of death. At the moment of death, it seems, our life-energy (or spirit, if you like) departs from the material body. The consciousness and the life-energy which constitute our being still exist, but are no longer tied to the body. There’s an immediate freeing of life-energy due to the fact that the energy no longer has to fuel the body’s physiological functioning. Most people who have near death experiences feel that they still have a body of some form, but a lighter and less crude one (this may be what esoteric traditions have called the energy body, or the astral body), which probably monopolises less life-energy. It’s likely that at the point of death there will be a smaller outflow of life-energy from the ego too. After the experience of dying – perhaps involving periods of unconsciousness, or of pain and trauma – the ego-mind is likely to be much more subdued and still than normal. The process of dying is often a process of detachment as well. In ordinary life, our identity is bound up with a whole host of extraneous things: possessions, status, knowledge we’ve accumulated, hopes, beliefs etc. In the process of dying – particularly if it’s a drawn out process – people often let go of these attachments, realising that they can’t take them with them and that their true identity lies apart from them. These attachments can be seen as psychic structures which also use up life-energy and create disturbance inside our being, and so being released them from them would also create a higher intensity and stillness of life-energy.
The good news is that this intense spiritual experience – of the formless Void which is the radiant and blissful essence of reality – may be waiting for all of us when we die. Many mystics have told us that there’s no reason to be afraid of death, not just because life continues but because the process of dropping off the material body is a euphoric, liberating experience. D.H. Lawrence saw death as the beginning of a great adventure in which – as he writes in his poem Gladness of Death – the winds of the afterwards kiss us into the blossom of manhood. After the painful experience of death there is, he writes, an after-gladness, a strange joy. In the same way, Walt Whitman heard Whispers of heavenly death around him, and wrote that to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. Or as the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes our initial experience of death:
Your respiration ceases, all phenomena will become empty and utterly naked like space. [At the same time] a naked awareness will arise, not extraneous [to yourself], but radiant, empty and without horizon or centre. This intrinsic awareness, manifest in a great mass of light, in which radiance and emptiness are indivisible, is the Buddha [nature] of unchanging light, beyond birth or death.
This spiritual state may not last indefinitely – after a certain amount of time, it seems, we reach a more crude state of existence, which is in some ways similar to our life on earth, although more subtle and spiritual. However, it’s clear that the horror and trepidation which many people feel when they think about death is misplaced.