NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES

Insight Meditation Houston – April 8, 2024

Last month, I gave a talk here on common elements in widely varying religious traditions, stating that what they share, most basically, was the notion that, in the words of William James, “the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance.” That idea has been almost universal in human history, but as I noted, it stands in contrast to the assumptions of philosophical materialism, which dominates current Western intellectual life. The spiritual outlook implies that embedded in reality is a consciousness, an intelligence, that exists beyond, and far exceeds, human awareness. Materialism, on the other hand, sees all consciousness as resulting from material stimuli, gained first through physical sensations, which then are processed in a physical neural network. It views the highest consciousness as a product of chemical and electrical activity in the human brain.

This contrast leaves us with the fundamental question: Is there a greater consciousness? Is there mind beyond brain—or, in James’s phrase, “a more spiritual universe”? Although materialism asserts that its worldview is founded on science, I suggest that empirical evidence gathered over the last century and a half—even if not admitted into the scientific mainstream—points in the direction of a greater intelligence, and that the idea of a more spiritual universe deserves to be brought back to the table of scientifically literate discussion.     I have in mind a series of talks addressing this question, which I hope to offer from time to time. Tonight’s topic is Near-Death Experiences, in which subjects who have come close to, or even seem to have reached, clinical death seemingly encounter a spiritual universe.

In 1872, a young Swiss geology professor was climbing in the Alps—his name was Albert von St. Gallen Heim. He lost his footing, fell, and in his descent went crashing several times against the cliffs. Before then, he had watched in terror as others fell, but to his surprise, he found his own dive to be a beautiful, experience, without pain or anxiety. In the few seconds of a sixty-foot fall, he felt time expand and saw his whole life pass in review, experiencing past personal conflicts as transformed into love. He saw what he called a “heavenly light,” and a “divine calm,” he said, “swept through my soul.” The profundity of that experience prompted him to seek out other climbers who had survived falls, and he found thirty cases with experiences comparable to his own. His publication of those accounts in 1892 might be seen as the first modern study of what we call Near-Death Experiences.

First, a caveat: we do not call these experiences “proof.” Their subjects have nearly died, but by definition, they have not been beyond resuscitation. Further, the evidence they present is admittedly anecdotal: we do not nearly kill subjects in order to produce double-blind experiments.

Of course, throughout history people have been on the verge of death and recuperated. One of the earliest such accounts that we know of is in Plato’s Republic: whether it’s fact or fiction, it’s the tale of a soldier named Er, who was apparently killed in battle, but who on his funeral pyre, rose up to give an account of the afterlife. In any case, it is only in recent times that these experiences have been subject to systematic investigation.

A movement was launched in 1975 by Ray Moody’s book Life After Life. Moody had been studying and teaching philosophy when he first heard accounts of what he labelled “near-death experiences.” He started collecting these stories, entered medical school, and began getting referrals from medical colleagues who had resuscitated patients. By the time he wrote up his analysis, he had collected 150 such stories.

Despite variations, he found a striking similarity in them, with many elements that, although not appearing in all cases, were repeated frequently. Those included the sense of passing through a dark tunnel or enclosure; finding one’s consciousness outside of the body, observing the body and its surroundings from a short distance away; encountering spirits of dead relatives and friends; communicating through thought transfer rather than speech; seeing a light of unearthly brilliance, then meeting a loving being, described as a “being of light”; undergoing a review of one’s life; being overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love and peace; and finally meeting a barrier or border before being sent back to earthly life—but coming back with the sense that what had transpired, although indescribable, was unquestionably real. They lost their fear of death, seeing it as a transition to another, higher state of consciousness. Moody also writes that a few returned with newfound capacities “bordering on the psychic.”

Since the appearance of that book, numerous accounts of near-death experiences have been published, and other investigators have undertaken systematic studies, particularly since resuscitation techniques have vastly improved. Let’s take as illustration the specific case of a neighbor of yours, someone here in Houston, whom I have met on several occasions. Her experience is detailed in a book she wrote jointly with Rice professor Jeffrey Kripal, called Changed in a Flash.

Just a few blocks from here, in the parking lot of Temple Emanu El, racing with her two young boys to a memorial service for her dead grandfather, Elizabeth Krohn was struck by lightning. She sensed herself running into the temple lobby, and then looked back—and saw herself, her own body, lying crumpled on the pavement. Elizabeth had a classic near-death experience. She saw a beckoning glow of light, followed it into a magnificent if unearthly garden, heard ethereal music and the comforting voice of her dead grandfather, and felt “suffused with an unutterable feeling of unconditional love.” She sensed time not as linear but as a constant present and, after what seemed to her two weeks in this celestial realm, she was given the choice of remaining there or returning to her earthly body. She elected to return, to raise her two boys and the daughter that she then was given to understand, rightly, that she would have in the future. After what may have been only a couple of minutes by an earthly clock, she regained consciousness on the wet concrete of the parking lot. “But,” she wrote, “I was no longer me” (2018b, p. 34). Something within, she said, had “opened.”

That opening included the gift, or curse, of precognition. She began to know of occurrences before they happened—a looming death, visions of plane crashes and earthquakes that shortly thereafter were splashed in the press. She saw auras, perceived apparitions of departed spirits, and even once awoke in the dead of night to a phone call, with her deceased grandfather on the other end of the line, communicating a message for her mother.

Of course, in the materialistic assumptions that govern our intellectual life, much of this is impossible: there can be no out-of-body experience, since consciousness is irrevocably tied to the physical brain; there can be no precognition, since knowledge stems from the physical senses; and certainly there can be no communication from dead spirits, since consciousness cannot exist apart from a functioning brain.

In the short time that we have, allow me to draw a theoretical framework which suggests that these experiences should not simply be dismissed, that they could indeed reflect an ontological reality. In his discussion of Elizabeth Krohn, Professor Kripal refers to a notion that he calls “the Human as Two.” He defines it this way: “Each person is simultaneously a conscious, constructed self or socialized ego”—that’s our normal, waking, rational consciousness—“and a much larger complexly conscious field that normally manifests itself only in non-ordinary states of consciousness and energy….”  

Direct spiritual experience occurs in those non-ordinary states, which can often be precipitated by trauma, including near-death experiences. Those states can of course be approached in less threatening ways, including meditation, yoga, dancing, chanting, music and drumming, manipulation of breath, and psychedelic substances. What they seem to have in common is taking the personal ego—one side of the Human as Two, with its ordinary and rational way of thinking—temporarily off-line, leaving what Kripal calls the “larger complexly conscious field” in charge.

A revealing case of the dynamic that can be involved in an extreme instance is that of Jill Bolte Taylor, whose account of her own near-death experience, called My Stroke of Insight, appeared in 2006. Taylor is a brain scientist, a neuroanatomist, who experienced a sudden, severe hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain, which is associated with rational, linear thought—and, we might say, with ego. Because of her training, she could observe in minute detail the shifts of consciousness that came about. Here are excerpts from her account:

In the absence of the normal function of my left orientation…, my perception of my physical boundaries was no longer limited to where my skin met air.

    I felt like a genie liberated from its bottle….

    This absence of physical boundary was one of glorious bliss…. 

I was not capable of deliberating about past or future-related ideas…. All I could perceive was right here, right now, and it was beautiful….

I no longer perceived myself as a single, a solid, an entity with boundaries that separated me from the entities around me…. My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others.

Now….my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow….

My soul was a big as the universe….

[A]n unforgettable sense of peace pervaded my entire being.

We here might say that an unfettered right hemisphere of the brain allows us access to our innate “Buddha nature.”

Eban Alexander is another neuroscientist, a neurosurgeon, who was thoroughly steeped in a materialistic outlook. But in 2008 a rare E. coli meningitis shut down his neocortex. He plunged into a coma in which, he says, his brain “wasn’t working at all,” but in which he encountered “the reality of a world of consciousness that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain.” He passed through darkness, then met a “pure white light” yielding to a divine presence and a sense of unconditional love and acceptance.”

Much of the imagery he reported was earthly—a glorious landscape, chanting, a beautiful girl who guided him along his way, flying on a butterfly wing. In later writings, Alexander acknowledged the symbolic nature of these images—that fact that they were culturally constructed ways of construing an ineffable reality. But he “understood,” he said, “that I was part of the Divine….” The “world of consciousness” that he perceived, he insists, “was real…in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison.”        Our brains, he concludes, “in particular its left-side linguistic/logical part, that which generates…the feeling of being a sharply defined ego or self…blocks out, or veils, that larger cosmic background.”

Let me give you one more case: that of Anita Moorjani, of Indian heritage living in Hong Kong, victim of a rapidly moving cancer that indeed killed her, or seemed to. In her near-death state, as her medical team lost all hope, she later reported that she “never felt better…. I was more acutely aware,” she said, “of all that was going on around me than I’ve ever been in a normal physical state. I wasn’t using my five biological senses, yet I was taking everything in…as though another, completely different type of perception kicked in…. I was able to be anywhere at anytime…. I encompassed—no, became—everything and everyone…fully aware of every word of the conversation that was taking place, although it was…outside my room…. I was surrounded by the reassuring feeling of a greater tapestry unfolding, where everything was exactly as it should be in the grand scheme of things…. What I can only describe as a superb and glorious unconditional love surrounded me.”.

Moorjani became aware of the presence of deceased family and friends. Time collapsed: she felt “all moments at once,” with past, present and future occurring simultaneously. “I was,” she said, “overwhelmed by the realization that God isn’t a being, but a state of being…and I was now that state of being.” I realized that the entire universe is alive and infused with consciousness…. Everything belongs to an infinite Whole.… We’re all facets of that unity.” Guided by the spirit of her deceased father, Moorjani met the barrier and returned to life. Within days, her “incurable” cancer disappeared.

Systematic investigation of near-death experiences over the last half century have complicated the picture. It is a minority of people on the verge of death who report these experiences. Not all the reports are so positive as the ones that I have given you; a small portion are classified as “distressing,” in some cases frightening. Some suggest that those may be cases in which the ego is still relatively intact, and therefore threatened—although other forms of entering non-ordinary states, too, are subject to encounter with hellish experiences. There are also cultural differences: experiencers in Western-influenced societies, for example, are more likely than some others to report the vision of a tunnel or life reviews. The imagery of divine beings can certainly be influenced by the experiencers’ religion or that of their society—Christians may see the “being of light” as Jesus, others as another divinity or archetype.

Nearly universal, however, is the sense of what investigator Bruce Greyson calls “entering some unearthly realm or dimension of existence,” and demonstrably frequent is “accurate out-of-body perceptions” and “mental clarity when the brain is severely impaired”—all of which pose challenge the materialistic paradigm of consciousness and point in the direction of a more spiritual universe. As one study puts it, “The primary effect of many NDEs is a powerful and enduring awareness that the physical world is not the full extent of reality.” By and large, near-death experiencers lose their fear of death and, in Greyson’s words, “tend to see themselves as integral parts of a benevolent and purposeful universe”—an outlook, surely,  that is compatible with basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy.

In later talks, we’ll look at other such challenges to materialistic assumptions and outline scientifically literate theories that justify our taking seriously the proposition, and the Buddhistic assumption, that there is indeed Mind beyond brain.