What Are Near Death Experiences?
NDEs Are Common
Millions of people admit to having had what researchers refer to as a Near Death Experience, or 'NDE'.
Taking into account the stigma attached to anomalous experience in modern culture, that number is probably much higher.
Some people almost certainly keep their NDEs private for fear of ridicule. Other people people have experiences that don't completely fit the near-death pattern but contain major elements of it.
Still others spend years trying to induce such experiences as part of various spiritual disciplines.
Most of the people in the west who talk about their NDEs also go through a period of clinical death in conjunction with the experience, (no brain activity, no heartbeat, hence the name 'NDE'), but clearly, not all experiencers are actually near death at the time the experience is triggered.
On the other hand, many people who do experience clinical death or near-death don't have an NDE.
So what is going on with these experiences?
What are they for?
Why do some people have them and not others?
What, if anything, do they mean?
The Classic NDE
In the classic NDE, a person sustains some kind of major physical trauma, such as a heart attack, an emergency surgery, or an auto accident.
The experience begins at the moment of clinical death, usually in a hospital ER but sometimes at a crash site or other location.
The person suddenly realizes that he or she is hovering somewhere above his or her actually body, watching what is happening as medics try to revive the body. Looking down at him/herself, the experiencer feels no pain or distress and does not especially identify with the body left behind.
At this point, many people would call the NDE an 'out-of-body' experience or "OBE', which can occur independent of any threat of trauma let alone clinical death.
However, unlike an OBE, an NDE experience intensifies. The person having it becomes aware of a brilliant white light, or sometimes, another person who has passed on or a spiritual or religious figure.
As the experiencer moves into this white light (often described as a 'tunnel' of light, but not always), extremely positive emotions flood the experience. The experiencer feels a profound sense of peace and love and loses all interest in returning to life or to the damaged body, which is often referred to as being 'like a set of clothes'.
Often at this point a spiritual encounter occurs, either with a religious figure, God, or a departed relative. During this encounter, the experiencer is told that he/she has to go back, that it isn't yet time to die. This news is received with great disappointment.
Very rapidly, the experiencers is 'slammed' back into his/her body, and now feels all the pain and fear associated with trauma.
As healing progresses, the NDE experiencer comes to see his or her NDE as proof of life beyond death, proof of God, or at least proof that death is nothing to fear.
Many people report heightened sensitivities and new extrasensory perceptions post-NDE. Some make radical life changes and become spiritual teachers or mentors. A few claim healing abilities, or mediumistic abilities, or other psychic gifts post-NDE.
In some cases, people who go through a period of clinical death experience a visit to something resembling hell or purgatory instead of a heavenly light.
Instead of a sense of profound peace and love, these experiencers are flooded with fear and suffering.
When they return to their bodies they often make changes in their lives that they believe will prevent them from visiting these realms again.
People who have negative NDEs do not seem to be significantly different from people who have positive ones. Atheists can have positive NDEs. Devout persons can have negative NDEs.
In another variation on the classic NDE, the experiencer goes through both extremes of feeling. Saint Teresa is said to have ecstatically experienced both hell and heaven, for example.
Ascetics of many religious traditions intentionally 'mortify the flesh' or inflict great suffering and physical hardship on themselves in the hope of triggering an ecstatic visit to the bright light or God.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the process of death is delineated by tradition and experience and is laid out in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Unlike western culture, Tibetans have spent thousands of years researching and understanding the experience of death.
The Tibetan teachings on death are not identical to an NDE, but there are parallels. Just before reincarnation, for example, there is an experience of Clear Light, which is the ground of all being. In Buddhism, however, the aim is get off this wheel of repeated incarnations and free all other sentient beings from it as well, so the focus is very different.
In Indian kundalini yoga, which is often mentioned with western NDE experiences, adepts learn to scale the chakras from the lowest at the base of the spine up to the crown chakra, which is also associated with a loving, all-knowing, eternal bright light.
Kundalini yoga differs substantially from a spontaneous NDE, however. Despite the casual New Age attraction to this paradigm, kundalini yoga is a very difficult practice that usually occurs only in a very strict setting where it is guided by a yogi who has mastered the technique.
The kundalini adept develops total control over which level is experienced and also has a purpose beyond spiritual curiosity. By following this very ancient tradition, the kundalini adept is able to burn off karma while still in this world.
It isn't easy or advisable to try this on one's own.
Spontaneous kundalini experiences are often triggered by trauma and can be profoundly destabilizing, even resulting in a period of madness or psychosis.
Mainstream science views NDEs as dreamlike activity produced by a dying brain in order to make the process of dying less frightening.
Most scientists don't see the experience as anything other than an hallucination produced by misfiring neurons under great duress.
Susan Blackmore, neuroscientist and passionate debunker, has linked NDEs to anoxia, a condition that occurs when the brain does not get enough oxygen.
NDE researchers like Raymond Moody who began their quest by witnessing NDEs in a hospital setting or having an NDE of their own often suggest that the experience proves that consciousness can exist independent of the human body, or even that consciousness continues after the body dies.
When an NDE-like experience is intentionally triggered as part of a religious practice, the religion associated with it provides its own explanation of what it is and what its purpose is. Such explanations differ according to the theology of the religion in question.
The bottom line, however, is that nobody really knows what near death experiences mean, why some people have them while others don't, or why usually they are often associated with clinical death and trauma, but also occur in the absence of both.
While each of these various perspectives contributes a puzzle piece toward solving the mystery, no single explanation sorts it all out completely.
I had an NDE in my 30s that very much resembled a spontaneous kundalini experience.
I was not near death, but the experience did come at the end of a very intense, stressful week during which I had a string of anomalous experiences that grew progressively darker and harder to handle.
Right at the moment I was sure I could take no more and would end up in a mental hospital, I said a spontaneous prayer for help that I knew from my youth, and instantly there was this whoosh--this feeling of wind rushing all the way up my spine from its base out the top of my head and into a brilliant clear light.
Inside this light, there was no time, and although I still could sense my own personality, I was at the same time a part of this light, which was vast. It was everything, basically--all knowledge and perfect love and no time.
Although the experience is not really translatable, it felt more real inside it than this reality that we all inhabit until death.
I don't know how long I was in that state, but at some point, very quickly, I fell back into my body the same way I came out of it. Just, thunk.
Then I feel asleep.
After that, I had no more scary weird experiences. I went back to school to study different religious traditions to try to figure out what this was and why it happened to me specifically.
I also began to heal, with the help of several professional people, from a violent crime that happened years earlier and that I had never told anyone about. Everyone close to me knew about it, but I kept pushing the memory of it away.
At the time of the experience, however, I was nowhere near physical death. And the experience was, in fact, quite destabilizing. But, my life at that time needed to be destabilized.
Over the next ten years, dramatic changes unfolded in my life, and every time I thought I couldn't go on I would think of that light and just keep moving forward. I felt it was the least I could do.
I didn't found my own religion. I didn't discover I could heal the sick. And I never found the answers I was looking for.
I did learn a lot about different religions, magic, consciousness studies, and neuroscience. I was awarded an almost completely worthless master's degree and was graduated from a real college with honors, something which, if you knew me personally, you would know was about as likely as me waking up on the moon after building my own rocket ship.
So I guess that was a big deal--not as cool as levitation or remote viewing, but cool for me. Miraculous in its own way.
Also, for about five years after having my experience I fried small appliances just by being near them.
I am not making that last part up.
NDEs: My Conclusions
Because that was such a dramatic and meaningful event in my life, a good chunk of my life has been spent trying to understand these kinds of experiences. Yet even after all of that searching, I don't have an easy answer.
I have come to some general conclusions:
- These kinds of experiences are way more common than is generally acknowledged.
- They are not purely the result of a misfiring brain. I think the brain is more like a radio receiver than a computer. When a computer or a radio wears out or breaks, does NPR or the internet disappear?
- Light is more mysterious and complex than we know--at least at this time.
- Consciousness can leave the body, but making a hobby out of getting it to do so is ill-advised for 99.9 out of 100 people.
- Death is a transition, not an ending.
- NDE-like experiences can trigger radical transitions with any given life.
- Without love, knowledge is useless.
I also think that imagination is located outside of people's heads, not inside them, and that some people have an easier time accessing imagination than others. Unfortunately, in modern scientific culture this is not always seen as an asset or gift. At best imagination is ridiculed, At worst it is pathologized.
Imagination is not what most people think it is. I am working on a hub about that.
Feel free to share your own thoughts or experiences in comments.
I look forward to reading them.