The Near-Death Experience (NDE) may be defined as the approach or felt approach to death, perception of an alternate reality and return to (relatively) normal consciousness. Raymond Moody in his book Life After Life (1975) describes the now well-known pattern of the NDE: peace, tunnel, being out-of-body, the Being of Light, welcoming spirits, life review, return to the body, life changes. In Reflections on Life After Life he adds further elements: a sense of possessing total knowledge, a realm of bewildered spirits, a deep life review in which one encounters all the effects of one’s deeds. (Most of these elements were reported in the 1960s by Robert Crookall in a series of books on astral projection and the death experience, but Crookall’s work remained obscure.)
George Gallup Jr. of the Gallup Poll found (1982) that five per cent of the U.S. population, eight million adults, claim to have had NDEs. Presumably, comparable figures are true for other first-world countries.
Moody’s anecdotal work was confirmed by several controlled scientific studies. Kenneth Ring’s 1980 book Life at Death found that NDEs happen alike to atheists, nominal believers and devout persons and that approximately half of persons who come close to death have such experiences. He sees the elements Moody reported as forming stages of increasing depth and rarity. In later works Ring theorized that the transformations of consciousness which often follow NDEs are harbingers of a new stage (“Omega”) in the evolution of consciousness. He also found that NDEs tend to report unusually high levels of trauma in childhood. He suggests that trauma helped them develop a capacity for dissociation and concentration which enable them to perceive alternate realities during their near-death condition.
Michael Sabom studied NDErs as part of his work as a cardiologist, focusing especially on the out-of-body element. He found empirical evidence that in this state NDErs learned facts they could not otherwise have known or guessed.
In The Final Choice (1985) Jungian philosopher Michael Grosso put NDEs in the context of other human drives toward the transcendent, such as art, ancient initiations, the Christian idea of resurrection and visions of the Virgin Mary. He suggested that such things are manifestations of the Archetype of Death and Enlightenment, the transforming power of cosmic mind.
This initiatory interpretation is helpful in view of reports of distressing NDEs. Cardiologist Maurice Rawlings in Beyond Death’s Door (1978) reported several and suggests that they are as numerous as joyful NDEs, but are generally repressed if not recorded immediately. English researcher Margot Grey also reported painful NDEs, rating them at about twenty per cent of the total. Nancy Evans Bush and Bruce Greyson present a tripartite typology: a) Moody-type experiences that are felt as frightening rather than joyful; b) floating in a dark void in utter desolation and c) entering a pit and/or seeing flames, menacing spirits and the like. Significantly, many persons reporting frightening experiences find them life-transforming in ways similar to those who have had joyful NDEs.
Transcultural studies have shown that whereas Westerners will report Christ, angels and similar experiences, Hindus sometimes see messengers of Yama, while Chinese Buddhists have seen Amida. Yet certain features such as light and welcoming spirits are virtually universal. Rarely, experiencers will encounter symbols and images strange to them but familiar to other cultures.
An example of a joyful NDE is that of Tom Sawyer (his real name), a lapsed Roman Catholic who was almost suffocated in 1978 when a truck he was repairing fell on him. He traveled at enormous speed through a vastly long tunnel into transcendently brilliant and beautiful white light. The light was a being, a “mass of energy” that communicated to him a message of total love and joy. He experienced “absolute, total knowledge” that was also specific; any question he asked, on any subject, was answered. Tom also had a deep empathetic life review — perceived not only the events of his life but their effects on others. For example in a traffic altercation at age nineteen he had struck another man thirty-two times; in his life review he was that other man, receiving the pain and humiliation of the blows. He even sensed interaction with animals, plants and so-called inanimate objects throughout his life.
Another example of a joyful NDE is that of Audrey G. Harris of New York, who came close to death during childbirth. She heard a swishing noise and found herself in a “Peaceable Kingdom” paradise, with many animals including the lion and the lamb; she could hear their voices. Among the trees were flowers and birds, some of whose colors were unknown to earth. The earth was deep-brown with a wonderful rich smell. It was exquisitely beautiful. The Child was there — older than in conventional depictions, perhaps twelve. There were cherubs with long trumpet-like instruments, one of which was being played as if to herald someone’s arrival, but it was not said whose arrival it was (she afterward came to believe that this heralded her own arrival on the other side.)
Harris forgot the experience at first. Ten days later her newborn son made a bleating noise which called to her mind the voices of the lambs and the whole NDE.
Howard Storm, a professor of art, had an experience including both distressing and joyful elements. A determined atheist, Howard expected oblivion when he gave up on life after suffering many hours of agony with a perforated duodenum, but instead he found himself standing beside his bedside looking down on his body. Perplexed, unable to get a response from his wife and his roommate, he became angry. He heard voices out in the hall calling him and promising to take care of him. With some trepidation he stepped through the door into a dim region. The beings led him a long way into total darkness and finally attacked him viciously, even tearing away parts of his seeming flesh. He fought back but got nowhere. Finally he heard his own voice inside himself urging him to pray to God. He had no idea how to pray, but his clumsy attempts to do so had the remarkable effect of causing the sadistic entities to scream protests, back off and finally disappear. He lay for a long time in desolation until the inner voice began to sing part of a children’s hymn, “Jesus loves me.” Howard called out to Jesus for help and almost at once saw a tiny star overhead that rapidly brightened as it approached him. He was lifted up and embraced by a loving being who “knew me very well” his wounds were healed instantly. The being lifted him up into a starlit area where they were joined by other beautiful light beings, all of whom he came to regard as angels. There was a long dialogue, including a life review and many predictions regarding the world’s future. Howard did not want to return to earth, but after considerable persuasion he agreed to do so.
It will be noted that these accounts are consonant with certain theosophical concepts such as the existence of a lower astral realm, the power of thought and the importance of initiatory ordeals. The theme of the soul’s pilgrimage also appears in several accounts. Specifically Christian and Judeo-Christian elements — Jesus, the Celestial City, angels, paradise — are common in the United States where most of the work of near-death studies has been carried on.
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