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Near Death Experiences – Beyond Belief?

Hieronymus Bosch via Wikipedia

A Near Death Experience (NDE) is a personal experience reported by those who have been revived after being clinically dead or, alternately, by those who have approached the point of death.

Religious and non-religious persons, alike, have reported NDEs.

Although specific details differ, a large number of reports from so-called developed nations could be summarized as follows:

• A person leaves the body and watches a medical team trying to revive them

• A glorious, warm light appears at the end of a tunnel as if a portal to another dimension has opened

• If the deceased person enters the portal, the light grows larger and they are suffused with a profound sense of belonging and love

• Others report being greeted by departed friends, loved ones or spiritual beings

• Individuals are often told (or sense) they must return to their bodies to do more work on Earth

• Individuals often do not want to return to their bodies but of force calls or directs them back

• Others do wish to return for the sake of a loved one on Earth or to fulfill a duty or complete a project

Although NDEs exhibit cultural differences, there are core similarities:

Tribal people may report paddling in a canoe down a long dark river for three days towards the sun…rather than floating down a tunnel towards the light. The experience, whatever the cultural differences, usually have a deep and long lasting effect. It often leaves behind a legacy of profound spirituality and removes the fear of death.¹

Near Death Experience

Near Death Experience: dat’ via Flickr

Many people have reported a NDE. The overwhelming majority report positive experiences, with only about 8% reporting negative, hellish encounters where a portal leads downward to an intolerable, horrific place of suffering.

The depth psychologist Carl Jung had an NDE. Jung said that dying was like “stepping out of a tight shoe.”² After seeing the Earth from space and feeling deeply serene, Jung returned to his physical body.

As with many NDE reports, Jung found the regress to his body disquieting.

A growing body of psychiatrists and neurologists try to explain NDEs by arguing that the brain is oxygen deprived and the individual hallucinates to ease the potentially upsetting transition from life to nothingness.³

This materialistic trend seems to be increasing, which is hardly surprising given the scientific enthusiasm of our times—often involving scientism.

Most people having undergone an NDE believe their out-of-body experience was real and not hallucinatory.

Scientific research has also found a correlation between electrically stimulating specific brain centers and the experience of leaving the body and seeing it from a distance. This finding, however, neither proves nor refutes NDE reports. The issue might remain ambiguous for many years because arguably the best way to know about a NDE is to have one.

Photographic illustration of a near-death-expe...

Photographic illustration of a near-death-experience. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No matter how convincing NDEs are to NDEers, the intensely private character of the experience puts them at the fringe of contemporary science. And scientists seeming to have a definite answer become unscientific the moment they overextend themselves in the discussion of their experimental results.

Sort of a Catch 22 when talking about the afterlife.

I personally believe in NDEs. But I think we have to accept that paranormal phenomena like this come down to belief. As long as we’re embodied, that is.

¹ Danny Penman, “Near-death experiences are real and we have the proof, say scientists”, August, 1 2007. (link has changed since last revision)

² C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, revised, ed. Aniela Jaffé, trans. Richard and Clara Winston, New York: Vintage Books, 1961, pp. 289-298.

³ I’ve seen some weak attempts to square this with Darwinian theory but personally remain unconvinced.

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Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on ...

The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Formally known as the Bardo Thodol (Tbtn: bardo = liminality + thodol = liberation), The Tibetan Book of the Dead is the popular name for a collection of Buddhist texts, coined by their first translator, W. Y. Evans-Wentz.

While some joke about the Book of the Dead as if it were a dark, brooding document, Buddhists would probably say this attitude comes through ignorance and projection.

Believers see it as a kind of spiritual guidebook, designed to direct souls at the point of death to the best possible reincarnation. A lama, friend or guide usually sits over the death bed and reads the book to the dying or recently dead person.

Contemporary readers will likely be struck by the Book of the Dead’s practicality. Deceptive spiritual lights, enticements and other misleading phenomena the departed soul will encounter are described as things to be avoided, not unlike a road map for a large, unfamiliar city or a trekking guide for a tricky mountain pass.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on TBD completely dismisses Carl Jung’s psychological interpretation.

Jung’s introduction betrays a misunderstanding of Tibetan Buddhism, using the text to discuss his own theory of the unconsciousness.¹

It seems that whoever wrote that was pretty defensive about their beliefs. Jung’s archetypes, after all, transcend space and time so a Jungian analysis of this type of phenomena doesn’t seem inappropriate.

In music, the Beatles were apparently influenced by The Psychedelic Experience, a manual based on TBD by Timothy Leary et. al. The line “it’s dying to take you away” from The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour was also based on a hippie mix of drugs and TBD.²


² Ibid.

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