Reproduced with permission from Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York
Coming Close to Death
In 1998 I received a letter from a seventy-year-old widow. She had never met me but had read about my work in a newspaper and wanted to tell me of her own experience. This is what she wrote;
About twenty-nine years ago I lived in a small town in Leicestershire. I had very bad legs and back-ache. The local doctor said all women my age had back-ache . . .
Two years later I collapsed (and) after a lot of tests and X-rays it was found I had a spinal tumour.
I was taken to Derby and . . . while I was being operated on I saw some very odd lights flashing and heard a loud keening noise. Then I was in the operating theatre above everyone else but just high enough to see over everyone’s shoulders. I was surprised to see everyone dressed in green and wearing short wellingtons. I remember how everything shone. I looked down and wondered what they were all looking at and what was under the cover on the long table. I saw a square of flesh, and I thought, ‘I wonder who it is and what they are doing. ‘I then realised it was me. I heard someone say, ‘He looks very tired, but he’s going to Portugal on a fishing holiday after this.’
Some months later during a checkup I asked if the man who had operated on me had gone to Portugal on holiday after I had been operated on. I was told ‘Yes’ One day the pain was so intense, I could hear myself talking, what about I don’t know. Suddenly, amidst all this pain (I was still in the dark) I saw a light, very faint and in the distance. It got nearer to me, and everything was so quiet, it was warm, I was warm, and all the pain began to go. When I finally stood out of the dark and into this light, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, soft, warm, translucent. I was finally there, and I felt as if someone had put their arms around me. I was safe, no more pain, nothing, just this lovely lovely caring sensation . . ..
Then my husband was again visiting me with my children. I was only vaguely aware of them, I drifted off, I could again see this light, I couldn’t wait to go back down that tunnel.
My husband bent over me, patted me on the cheek and said, ‘I’ve been thinking things over, don’t you worry about what’s going to happen to me and the kids after you’ve gone. I won’t marry anyone who won’t be good to us’! I drifted off down this passage to the peace and calm, and as I stood there surrounded by all this loveliness I saw my two children’s lovely faces looking at me. I thought, ‘Please God, don’t let my children grow up without a mother,’ and everything gradually faded away. I was back and I never went there again.
This story touched me, as do so many accounts of near-death experiences. Mrs Freeman (as I shall call her) seemed to have gone somewhere she recognised – that wonderful feeling of ‘going home’ at last. Experiences like this affect people deeply; in this case Mrs Freeman wanted to write and tell me about it clearly thirty years later. Does this answer our question: what is it going to be like when I die?
I think it fair to conclude that if we come close to death, or if people we love are going to die, this is how it might be – a reassuring thought. Facing illness and the possibility of death is not so difficult if you know it is likely to involve feeling warm, safe and loved, but can we conclude anything more than that from the near-death experience?
Conclusions can run wild and in diametrically opposed directions. The most common response of experiencers and commentators alike is ‘Why have I been afraid of death all my life? There is nothing to be afraid of in this!'(164). Indeed, most NDErs go further, claiming that now they know there is life after death.
Others wax lyrical about the meaning of the near-death experience. The President of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, recently described it as a powerful paranormal experience that frees experiencers from an awareness of the five senses and moves them quickly to that level of consciousness in which telepathic communication is a norm. Not content only with telepathic communication she went on to suggest that NDErs find themselves in a space/time dimension of different vibrations and higher frequencies than those of the everyday world (58).
At the other extreme are those who dismiss the visions as meaningless hallucinations. Californian psychologist Ron Siegel shows how the descriptions given by dying persons are virtually identical to descriptions given by persons experiencing drug-induced hallucinations (216). He concludes that NDES are nothing more than hallucinations, based on stored images in the brain.
Similarly, after a thorough review of the literature, two British psychiatrists concluded that no one reporting an NDE can properly be considered to have died, that all the separate elements can occur in non-life-threatening situations and that typical NDES can be chemically induced (191).
Are any of these views correct? Can we, by research or by any other method, find out? By reviewing what has been learned about NDES I hope this book will bring us some answers.
LIFE AFTER DEATH OR A DYING BRAIN?
The fundamental choice to make is between two alternative points of view.
The first choice could be termed the ‘Afterlife Hypothesis’. This suggests that the NDE is a glimpse into life after death. There are many versions of this hypothesis but most often they claim that the tunnel is some kind of passageway to the next life, the bright light is the light of heaven or the world beyond, and the people one meets in that world are the real surviving
personalities of people who have died before and with whom one will spend an eternity after death. The traveller is believed to be the person’s soul or spirit, freed from its earthly ties. Paranormal events are only to be expected because the soul is travelling in a non-material world beyond the limitations of space and time.
The second choice could be termed the ‘Dying Brain Hypothesis’. All the phenomena of the NDE are believed to be products of the dying brain; hallucinations, imaginings and mental constructions that will ultimately stop when the brain’s activity stops. If this hypothesis is true then NDES tell us nothing about life after death.
Which (if either) is correct?
The afterlife view is far more popular. Surveys show that over half the population believes in some kind of life after death (15,92,224,226). In fact, the latest Gallup poll in the United States found that 70 per cent believe in life after death, a figure that has not changed much since the Second World War (70) and the common reaction of NDErs is to think they have been given personal proof that they will live after they die (68,79). But popularity is not proof; neither is a compelling personal experience.
An NDE can change a person’s life for ever but it is not necessarily evidence for life after death. To explore what it can tell us about ourselves we can look at the arguments used to bolster the two hypotheses.
The Afterlife Hypothesis
Four main kinds of argument for the reality of an afterlife are often used:
1. The ‘consistency argument’ is that NDES are similar around the world and throughout history. The only possible explanation for this, so the argument runs, is that NDES are just what they appear to be – the soul’s journey out of the body, through a tunnel to another world that awaits us after death. Consistency, it is argued, amounts to evidence for an afterlife.
2. The ‘reality argument’ is that NDES feel so real that they must be what they appear to be, a real journey to the next world. Anyone who has had an NDE knows it is real because they have been there. Those who haven’t cannot know what it is like. In this argument, feelings of reality amount to evidence.
3. The ‘paranormal argument’ is that NDEs involve paranormal events which cannot be explained by science. These are therefore evidence that the NDE involves another dimension, another world, or the existence of a non-material spirit or soul. No purely materialist hypothesis can explain the paranormal so paranormality amounts to evidence.
4. The ‘transformation argument’ is that people are changed by their NDES, sometimes dramatically for the better – becoming more spiritual and less materialistic. This proves, so the argument goes, that they have had a spiritual experience involving another world. For this reason only could their transformation have come about and it is these aftereffects that amount to the evidence.
These arguments have a strong appeal and, in various forms, appear again and again, as much in conversations over dinner or a drink as in the popular and scientific literature. But they are not necessarily either logical or correct.
The Dying Brain Hypothesis
Just two main arguments are most often used for the dying brain hypothesis. Interestingly, the first one is the same as for the afterlife hypothesis but for quite different reasons.
1. The ‘consistency argument’ is that NDES are similar around the world and throughout history. The reason, this argument goes, is that everyone has a similar brain, hormones and nervous system and that is why they have similar experiences when those systems fail.
2. The ‘just like hallucinations’ argument maintains that all the features of the NDE can occur under other conditions, not near death, and therefore can be explained in terms of hallucinations or normal imagery.
I shall tackle each one of these arguments in the course of this book to find out just how compelling they are. We shall find that the answers lead us far beyond either of these two simplistic hypotheses.
Let us begin at the beginning, with the ‘consistency argument’ (in both its forms). We have to find out firstly whether it is really true that NDEs are consistent and, if so, whether this provides evidence for either view.
So are NDEs universal and are they always the same?
The pioneer of the idea, indeed the pioneer of the whole NDE movement, was Raymond Moody, an American doctor and philosopher who began collecting accounts of NDES as part of his clinical practice. It was in 1975 that his ground-breaking book Life After Life was published (133). It was a simple book but dramatic in its impact. It was no more than a compilation of accounts from people who had come close to death and lived to tell the tale. Many had had cardiac arrests and been resuscitated, though some had had their close encounters through other, less medically demanding means. All of them, however, described similar experiences and this similarity became part of the idea’s selling power, with phrases such as ‘startlingly similar in detail’ on the book’s cover. It was also this similarity that enabled Moody to produce his now famous composite account (133, pp. 21-3). Since no book on NDEs would be complete without it I make no apologies to those who have read it before (though I would point out that it could equally be a ‘she’):
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a ‘body’, but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before – a being of light – appears before him. This being asks him a question, non-verbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return, He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.
Of course, not all the accounts in Moody’s book fitted this formula precisely. Some were much shorter and included fewer elements. Others seemed to dwell on some parts of the experience to the exclusion of others. Nevertheless, the pattern was clear and the similarity obvious.
At the time there was something of an outcry, from other doctors and from psychologists and physiologists. This was all too fanciful, they said; after all, the experiences were just hallucinations. Some critics claimed they could not be proved or they were invented or exaggerated. Others said they were just products of Western peoples’ expectations. This last argument is important. Moody was claiming far more than the simple fact that a lot of Americans being resuscitated from cardiac arrests had had similar experiences. He was claiming or at least strongly implying, that the experience he outlined so graphically was common to all human beings; that this is what happens when we die and it is relevant to every one of us.
If this is really true we should expect NDEs to be substantially the same the world over. There are at least three ways of looking at this: the historical, the cross-cultural and the developmental. Have people always reported these experiences throughout the ages or are they just a twentieth-century phenomenon? Do they occur in other cultures or are they a product of Western education, religion or medicine? And are they the same in children who have had less chance to take on religious and cultural expectations?
We can answer these questions with a (necessarily brief) excursion into distant times and places.
TRAVELS FROM DISTANT TIMES
The most famous historical case is probably that from Plato, who considered death to be central in the work of philosophy. Indeed, in the Phaedo Socrates proclaims that true philosophers make death and dying their profession. Plato’s famous story of a return from death is recounted in the Republic.
Er was a Greek soldier who was left for dead on a funeral pyre. Before he was burned he awoke to describe what he had experienced on a journey out of his body. Along with other spirits he travelled to a place where the souls are judged, with openings or passageways to heaven or to punishment. Other souls were stopped and judged for what they had done in this life but Er was sent back to earth to tell others about the life beyond. He awoke back in his body, not knowing how he had returned.
In Tibetan Buddhist literature there are also the das-lok or ‘returned from the dead’ writings. There are hundreds of accounts of people who have come back to life before being cremated or buried. Usually the dead person meets with deceased relatives and friends or famous people of old, and is asked to take messages back to the living. Thereafter the person is often transformed into a wandering prophet or teacher, warning people to avoid evil and cultivate goodness (141).
If it were not for the obvious similarities to Moody’s accounts these stories might plausibly be taken as the kind of useful myth that is propagated in many cultures. Its function might be to ensure belief in life after death and eventual judgement for everybody’s wrongdoings and hence to enforce good behaviour.
The same might easily be said of another such myth, this time intended to enforce the ritual of burning a fire for four days after a person’s death. But again there is a similarity to modern NDEs. The myth comes from a culture centuries and thousands of miles away from ancient Greece or Tibet: the North American Indians of the early nineteenth century. Mr Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was travelling in the Mississippi valley, collecting tales from the Indians he met, aware that, with the encroachment of the white man, these oral traditions might soon become altered or lost. The following tale was told by the Chippewas.
A warrior chief, so the story goes, took a small party and met his enemies on the open plain. Though his warriors were brave and ultimately triumphed, he was killed and his body left on the battlefield. In the usual way it was propped up against a tree, with all the chief’s equipment to hand and his headdress in place.
The odd thing was that while his body was being prepared he felt everything that was happening. Yet he could not make his warriors understand, however much he shouted and yelled. Eventually they left and he struggled with great anguish to follow them. His rage only increased as they travelled the long journey back to his village where the men were greeted with joy at their victory and with questions about his own fate. In answer to those, the men described how he had perished.
‘It is not true’, replied the indignant chief, with a loud voice, ‘that I was killed and left upon the field. I am here! I live! I move! See me! Touch me! I shall again raise my lance in battle and sound my drum in the feast.’ But nobody seemed conscious of his presence, and they mistook his loud voice for the whispering winds (208 p. 406).
Next he went to his wife who was mourning at his death. He asked for food but she only heard a buzzing in her ears. Exasperated, he struck her on the forehead but she only complained of a slight headache. Then he remembered that he had heard that sometimes the spirit is permitted to leave the body and wander about. It took him four long days to return to the battlefield and find his body and then there was a fire in his path. He thought he would never get back, until he leapt right through the flame and awoke, hungry and exhausted. Somehow he walked the long way back to the village for the second time, to the utter amazement of all his people to whom he explained that they must light a fire for four nights after death to save the departed soul from having to do this task itself.
Although its value in enforcing burial rituals is clear, this story is similar to modern NDEs in describing the out-of-body travels and the frustrating inability to affect the physical world. And it comes, long ago, from a culture that can have had little contact with outsiders.
This impotence of the travelling soul to make itself heard appears in another ancient legend, this time from Lithuanian folklore. A man who expressed too much curiosity about life after death got his just deserts when he fell into a coma and awoke without pain. He left his bed to sit near the stove only to see his wife enter and start screaming, ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ He tried to calm her, and failed, finally seeing his own body lying on the bed. But still he did not realise what had happened. It was only when he accompanied his family to the cemetery for the funeral and kissed his own body along with them, that he grasped the truth. At this moment he re-entered his body, sat up, left the grave, and returned home with his family (96).
Is it odd that this Lithuanian traveller was so stupid as not to realise what was going on? Not at all. And here is something worth thinking about. Imagine you are nearly dead. There must be something seriously wrong or you would not be in this state. You are hardly likely to be at your best and brightest. You may also be very fearful of death, not wanting to lose everything you have always worked for, identified with, or taken as the meaning of your life. Now, suddenly, everything is topsy-turvy, you are drifting above the scene, unable to affect anything, terrified of losing everything and everyone you hold dear. I do not think it at all surprising that you would be confused.
This brings to mind a comment by Stephen Levine in his book Who Dies?, a book about preparing for death in life. ‘Occasionally,’ he writes, ‘I hear people say, “Oh, don’t worry, when the time comes I’ll do the proper meditations.” Good luck ! Because when it comes time, the energies you have now may very well not be present’ (117 p.28). Just like the Chippewa chief or the Lithuanian inquirer, you may be too confused, too afraid or in too much pain to have any clear understanding of what is going on.
Is it this that provides the motivation for the manuals on dying? In our culture we are not much used to the idea of using life to prepare for death but many other cultures have developed special training techniques for learning how to die. They teach people what to expect of death and the skills needed to prepare for it so that confusion will not overtake them when the time comes.
The earliest of these is the Egyptian Book of the Dead but the most famous is probably the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Bardo Thodol (57, 7). This was intended to be studied by Tibetan Buddhists during life and read to them on their deathbed to help guide them through the experiences of dying, either to choose an auspicious next life or to escape from the wheel of death and rebirth altogether. Among the experiences described are loud roaring noises, bright lights and personifications of emotions, attachments and desires in the form of Tibetan deities.
The well-known Bardo Thodol is only part of extensive teachings on death in the Tibetan tradition. A central teaching of the Buddha is that of impermanence; everything, including oneself, is impermanent, transitory and ever-changing. Death is the supreme teacher of impermanence and there are meditations on death, inspirational stories about the deaths of great lamas and methods of training the mind for the transference of consciousness at death (141).
The difference between these teachings and the folk-tales we have been considering – and it is a very big difference – is that in Buddhism these experiences are not meant to be taken literally as a topology of the next life, or as a description of actual places to be visited by a real soul departing from the body. Rather, they are products of the mind or expressions of form out of emptiness. To understand this means more than just seeing them, in a Western psychological way, as mental images or hallucinations. The notion of mental emptiness is not merely the opposite of mental fullness. I shall return to this in due course when we look at the transformations that NDErs undergo and what this tells us about the nature of mind.
For now, let us pursue the similarities with modern NDEs a little further and compare the Tibetan Book of the Dead with the other major manuals of dying, the medieval ones. There were many such guides written to help the Christian seeker to die well and also to behave better in this life.
The Book of the Craft of Dying begins by explaining that for those not skilled in dying, death ‘seemeth wonderfully hard and perilous, and also right fearful and horrible’. Therefore the book is for teaching and comforting ‘them that be in point of death. . . for doubtless it is and may be profitable generally, to all true Christian men, to learn and have craft and knowledge to die well’ (36). It then includes a commendation of death and a list of the devil’s temptations of the dying, including loss of faith, despair triumphing over hope, impatience, complacence or spiritual pride and an occupation with outward or temporal things. There are questions to be asked of the dying while they can still understand, instructions to those who are going to die and, finally, prayers to be said over the dying.
I stated earlier that in our culture we are not much used to the idea of learning how to die, but there are signs that this is changing. Today, there are probably more books on death than ever before, including translations of the ancient texts, books from the hospice movement, the study of death and dying, the ‘New Age’ and from modern spiritual teachings.
How do you learn to die willingly? When the trappings of the various religious traditions are stripped away there seems to be one underlying route – and that is to learn to live willingly. What prevents us from living life as it is? Our own desires, our clinging to what we think of as good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, a terrible calamity or great good fortune. For most people, their own death or that of their children or their lovers is a terrible disaster to be feared and avoided at all cost. But really this is only an extension of the fear that we will look old and ugly, that the phone will (or won’t) ring, or the bill be too high, that the party won’t go well, and so on. Learning to welcome any of this as it comes, without the resistance made of judgement, is learning to live, and this in turn will mean learning to die.
This is, perhaps, the simplest way – simple but difficult. It is also a way that comes hard to us because of our biological nature. To stay alive as animals we have to strive to get food and to get on better than other people. From that striving come greed, ownership and fear of loss. The biggest loss of all is, of course, the loss of ourselves because by the time we face death most of us have built up a huge superstructure called ‘me’ that is impossible to dissolve. Some of the teachings aimed at preparing us for death are about ways to let go of that self. The self, they teach, is illusory. Let it go in life and truth will reveal itself in both life and death.
Although the medieval teachings on death were teachings to prepare for a Christian afterlife, they also contained teaching on this more general point. Tower of all Towersexplains ‘Against his will he dieth that hath not learned to die. Learn to die and thou shalt con (learn) to live, for there shall none con to live that hath not learned to die; and he shall be cleped a wretch that cannot live and dare not die’ (36 p. 127).
There are many other medieval writings on death and, as to be expected from within this Christian tradition, many have to do with the judgement or reward and punishment for deeds committed in life. Many also deal with death as a kind of journey; a journey from an enfeebled or dying body to a glorious body in another world.
The many forms this journey took in medieval times is described in detail in the work of Harvard lecturer on the study of religion, Carol Zaleski, in her book Otherworld Journeys (239). What is striking about these accounts is how horrible they are compared to most moderns ones.
In the seventh-century Vision of Barontus, for example, the traveller is struck down by a fever after divine office and is found writhing on the floor pointing at his throat before he chokes into unconsciousness. While the monks around him chant and spread holy water about the place, he is grappling with two loathsome demons who have him by the throat and drag him towards hell. At three in the morning the monks begin to pray for his recovery and it is apparently at this moment that the archangel Raphael starts fighting with the demons for his soul. By Vespers the monks see the signs of death and start praying instead for his soul, Meanwhile the archangel is taking Barontus on a journey to appear before the tribunal of the eternal judge. Finally, at cock crow, Barontus revives, sits up and praises God, much to the astonishment of his companions.
These stories can be as nasty as one can imagine and human imagination can be nasty indeed; sinners are tossed between fire and ice, devoured by dragons, roasted forever on devils’ barbecues, or pinned to the ground with red hot nails. Then there is the test bridge, which appears in many different forms but usually consists of a narrow bridge over some kind of fiery or fetid river or deep dark pit to a beautiful land beyond. For the just and good the narrow path is easily walked but for the wicked it can become as sharp as a sword, or slippery and dark, and after thousands of years trying to cross they eventually fall screaming into the boiling depths.
Although superficially quite unlike modern NDEs this tale does include the idea of judgement. Indeed, this is a recurring theme in the medieval accounts. But whereas in modern accounts the judgement is usually a self-judgement or judgement by a loving being or warm light, in these older tales it is by divine power and the punishment is meted out by the most horrific creatures that the imagination can conjure. Even so, Zaleski concludes that ‘Whatever its guise, the review of deeds is essentially an encounter with oneself ‘ (239 p. 27).
Zaleski sums up the similarities and differences she found between modern and medieval accounts of people who died and were revived again. In both, the first step is a kind of dualistic parting of body and soul, with the separated spirit looking down on its former dwelling place with indifference or contempt, hovering and able to watch the scene with detachment. Then begins the journey proper, signalled by the arrival of guides or by symbols of travel such as paths, valleys or tunnels. The guide interprets the scenes of the journey and emphasises the need for spiritual instruction in this life and the next. The pivotal episode is the self-confrontation in which the visionaries meet their own thoughts, words and deeds, learn the weight of their souls or review their life and bring judgement on themselves.
Both modern and ancient stories, though this is only rarely and briefly found in the older accounts, can include a mystical experience, in which thinking and feeling fuse, unmediated awareness floods in, and the journey is suspended. An instant later the play resumes and the traveller feels compelled to return, sometimes against his will, to life, returning transformed from an ‘ordinary guy’ into a prophet or visionary (239 p. 188).
These few examples from distant times suggest that most of the features of the Moody-type experience have a long history.
The emphasis varies, the experiences can be vastly different in detail, but still the similarities come through clearly. This in turn suggests the possibility that not only have NDEs been similar throughout the ages but that this is why so many traditional beliefs are also so similar (191).
What, then, of the present time? If NDEs are universal, as some have claimed, then they should not be confined to the West but should cross cultural as well as historical barriers.
ACROSS CULTURES TODAY
The answer, for the moment, is that we do not have enough evidence to be sure. There is certainly a similarity in the beliefs most people hold about themselves. A key assumption in most of these travellers’ tales is that a human being is something more than a body; a soul or spirit or some other entity, which can separate at death or even before death and travel about on its own.
This way of looking at ourselves is compelling. In our Western philosophical tradition it was formalised in the seventeenth century by Rene Descartes in what has come to be known as Cartesian Dualism. Descartes distinguished two fundamentally different kinds of things, physical or extended substance and thinking substance. For him, mind and brain were made of quite separate kinds of stuff.
Western philosophers and scientists have long argued cogently and powerfully against this dualist view and the few who still defend it, such as neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles, philosopher Sir Karl Popper (173) or psychologist John Beloff (10), are in a tiny minority amongst academics. However, most other people seem to agree with Descartes. The dualist temptation is so great. Just as we do not like to imagine that we will one day die, so we do not like to think of ourselves as just an ever-changing and perishable body, controlled by an information-processing brain.
Our experience seems to suggest that we have some aspect of ourselves that stays the same throughout our life, that is, if you like, ‘the real me’. If you believe this, it is not such a big step (though neither is it a logical one) to believing that this ‘something’ can leave the body and travel outside it.
It is not surprising, then, to find that most other non-Western cultures share at least this much. Dean Sheils (212) compared the beliefs of over sixty different cultures by consulting ethnographic accounts in the ‘Human Relations Area Files’. He found only three that claimed no belief in anything like this. Of fifty-four cultures for which some information was reported, twenty-five (or nearly half) claimed that most people could travel out of their bodies in this way and another twenty-three claimed that some people (for example, shamans) could do this, even if ordinary people could not.
But what of NDEs – are they also similar in other cultures? Recently a few researchers have started taking this question seriously. Following the consistency argument, they have wanted to know whether NDEs in India, Africa or Mesopotamia are just like the ones Moody reported in the US.
Here the evidence is scanty in the extreme. The largest study was carried out by Osis and Haraldsson who sent out questionnaires to 5,000 doctors and nurses in the USand interviewed about 700 medical personnel in India (155, 156). This was not strictly about NDEs but about the medical workers’ recollections of the experiences told to them by people who were dying. Of course, all the stories were second-hand and often told many years after the events. None the less, the findings are very interesting. The most common visions were of dead people or religious figures: the former more common in the US and the latter in India. Americans most often visualised their mother but female figures were extremely rare among Indians, especially among males. Religious figures were, not surprisingly, in conformance with the person’s own religion. No Hindu saw Jesus and no Christian saw a Hindu deity. Most of these figures had come to take the dying person away. Here another fascinating difference emerged – Americans were quite likely to go along happily with their dead relatives or visionary angels whereas Indians were more likely to put up a fight and refuse to go.
Why this difference? It appears to be based on religious teachings. In Hindu mythology Yamraj, the king of the dead, is a well-known figure, as are his messengers, the Yamdoots. Then there is Chitragupta, the man with the book. In this book are entered each person’s deeds throughout their lives, implying, once again, the belief in a final judgement. In Christian mythology St Peter is waiting at the gate to heaven but there are no messengers to drag the unwilling soul away from life. The difference in experience could be due to such contrasting cultural and religious beliefs.
Of course, these were accounts from people who did die. So what happens to the ones who return from NDEs? Do they, like many Westerners, decide of their own accord that their children need them or that their life’s work is not completed and they must ‘come back’? Apparently not. NDE researchers Satwant Pasricha and Ian Stevenson reported sixteen cases of NDEs in India and a common theme was the story of mistaken identity (163).
A typical case is that of Chhajiu Bania, interviewed in 1981 when he was about forty years old. Some six years before he had become ill with a fever and appeared dead so that his relatives began preparing his body for cremation. He recalled that four black messengers came and seated him near Yamraj. There was an old lady with a pen, and clerks with heaps of books in front of them. One of them said, ‘We don’t need Chhajju Bania (trader). We had asked for Chhajju Umhar (potter). Push him back and bring the other man. He has some life remaining.’ The trader must have liked it there because he then requested some work to do and asked Yamraj, who had a white beard and was sitting on a high chair, whether he could stay, but in vain. He was pushed down again and revived.
Cases like this one seem dramatically different from the Moody-type NDE. There is no tunnel, no bright light and no out-of-body experience. There is no mystical insight and no reported transformation afterwards. Some have argued that this means NDEs are not universal. To test this I set about collecting more cases from India.
I put an advertisement in the Times of India in Bombay asking for accounts from people who had come close to death, but without saying anything about what I was looking for. Later I followed up their letters with a questionnaire. I received nineteen extensive accounts, including twelve who reported some kind of experience during their brush with death. Four had very strange dream-like or hallucinatory experiences, from a vision of a mother hen with chicks to a gruesome fight with a seven-foot monster, while eight reported at least some elements of the classic NDE. One man suffering a serious liver disease and thought unlikely to live travelled to a space of brilliant light where I was being loved . . . I had a feeling that for hours together I was away from this world enjoying the light . . . I was beyond time and space.’ A pop star, playing on an outdoor stage, was accidentally electrocuted and explains that ‘I felt “myself” light as a feather, shooting upwards at an indescribable speed, which can never be measured by the words “speed” or “time” . . . surrounding me on all sides were lights of all colours – shining spots.’ In a third case, a woman who fell suddenly unconscious found herself travelling down a dark tunnel through complete blackness with the tingling sound of tiny bells in her ears.
Of the eight NDErs, one heard sweet music, three reported a tunnel or dark space, four saw bright light, four experienced joy or peace and three claimed effects on their lives or beliefs – in other words, though this was only a small study, the features were similar to those reported in the West.
For the consistent argument this is quite important. We find not a complete duplication of an identical experience but rather similar features appearing in different forms across times and cultures.
Some have argued that there is a kind of core experience that is common to all people and to all cultures but which is overlaid with cultural differences. This theory would account for the variations that occur with time and place but has its own problems. It is tempting to think that if we could somehow delve beneath the surface of the accounts people give we would find the invariant, true NDE underneath. But this is a vain hope. In fact it is the same kind of vain hope that affects many religious seekers and many people who have mystical experiences or NDEs. They think they have glimpsed some kind of truth. They tell the story to others, they try to remember it for themselves in images and words, but images and words cannot capture what it was, how it felt, the ‘real thing’. If there is any ‘real thing’ it is as ineffable as a moment of bliss.
If there is a person there experiencing this ‘thing’ then that person is themselves a product of their culture, language and past experience. You cannot find the ‘real thing’ underneath by stripping all that away. If there is no one there, only the experience, then little can be said about it beyond dealing directly with the accounts of such experiences. So we should not seek to peel off layers of culture and find the core beneath. Rather we must accept that all the accounts come from real people living in different times and places and try to learn what we can of human nature as it expresses itself in these different but related experiences.
One last way of exploring the consistency of NDEs is by looking to children. If culture shapes or creates our experiences then those who have imbibed least of it may have the clearest stories to tell. So what do children have to say about coming close to death and returning to life?
CHILDREN FACING DEATH
The best known examples of childhood NDEs come from paediatrician and researcher Melvin Morse (136). One day, in the course of his work in the intensive care unit, he was struggling to resuscitate a nine-year-old girl named Katie who had been found floating face down in a swimming pool. She had massive swelling of the brain, no gag reflex and was kept breathing with an artificial lung. He estimated a 10 per cent chance of survival but three days later she was fully recovered. What surprised him most, though, and started him on his NDE research, was the story she told. To help decide on her treatment he wanted to find out what had happened in the pool. To his surprise she told him how a tunnel had opened up and through the tunnel came ‘Elizabeth’, with bright, golden hair. Elizabeth took Katie on to meet her dead grandfather, other spirits and the Heavenly Father who asked if she wanted to go home. Katie said she wanted to stay with him but when Jesus asked if she wanted to see her mother again she said, yes, she did, and awoke.
After that Morse began an eight-year project to research childhood NDEs. Many of his findings have contributed to our understanding of the NDE and I shall return to them later. For now I shall only note that from children recalling incidents that happened when they were as young as nine months old, there come stories of tunnels and lights, out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and travels to heaven. Here is another story from Dr Morse’s collection, this time told by an eight-year-old girl called June who also nearly drowned when her hair became caught in the swimming-pool drain.
All I remember was my hair getting stuck in the drain and then blacking out. The next thing I knew, I floated out of my body. I could see myself under the water but I wasn’t afraid. All of a sudden I started going up a tunnel, and before I could think about it, I found myself in heaven. I know it was heaven because everything was bright and everyone was cheerful.
A nice man asked me if I wanted to stay there. I thought about staying; I really did. But I said I want to be with my family.’ Then I got to come back.
(136 p. 32)
Like many of the adults who have had NDEs these children seemed to be changed by their experiences. Some remarked on a new purpose for living; some seemed to change for the better. For them too this was no ordinary experience or dream. It was something special.
We may now return to our question: are NDEs universal and are they always the same? I think, with all the limitations of our research, we can even answer it. We have consistency but not invariance. Yes, the NDE is universal in the sense that something like the modern NDE has been reported in adults and children and in many ages and cultures. And ‘no’, it is not always the same but varies with the individual, the culture and the circumstances.
The big question, however, remains unanswered. Consistency we have, but why? Two possible answers still remain: either we all have a spirit or soul that survives death or we all have similar brains that die in similar ways.