Posts Tagged ‘NDE’

I’m not sure if the author had any say in the cover design, or the title, of this book, both of which, to my mind, speak to a different audience to that perhaps intended. Talk of an afterlife is pretty much a taboo subject in polite secular, and even some religious circles. Those expressing belief in it are dismissed as naive, and in thrall to woolly minded thinking. Pastel shades, fluffy clouds, and soft focus apple blossom sums up the popular audience to whom such works as this might appeal. Those wishing for a more sober, scientifically minded approach might be put off, as indeed I was. Had it not been recommended by other trusted writers, I would have passed it by, and that would have been a pity because I think it makes a valuable contribution to the literature.

Many works on this subject deal with anecdotes of the near-death experience (NDE) itself, but, whilst interesting at one level, even compelling, such accounts lack intellectual impact, when taken in isolation. They require us to have faith in the bona fides of the teller, and actually do little to further our understanding of the phenomenon itself. And it is a phenomenon, one very much a part of the human experience, with reports going back to the beginning of recorded history, but more-so in recent years, as resuscitation techniques have improved to the point where we are reviving more and more people who, would once have died. And some of them are telling us strange stories.

Jens Amberts trained in philosophy, and is not an NDE experiencer himself. Philosophy strikes me as a subject in which nit-picking is honed to a fine art, and nit-pick, expertly, he does. In order to explore the subject, he sets up a thought experiment in which he likens the NDE to a sealed room into which people are chosen at random to enter, and explore its contents. They are not able to make recordings of what they find in the room, and must rely entirely on word of mouth in describing what they saw, to others, when they emerge.

Taken at its simplest then, the proposition is thus: how many people do we require, coming out of that room, and all reporting similar findings, for the people outside the room to believe those accounts to be the truth, given that some people are honest, while others are liars, fantasists, attention seekers, easily confused, and so on. Will it take a thousand? Tens of thousands? Millions? As the title suggests, Amberts concludes it is no longer philosophically, or even rationally, reasonable to doubt.

He points out four characteristics of the NDE supportive of the case for their authenticity:

One: in the entire history of the research we can pinpoint nothing, psychologically, sociologically or physiologically that will predict whether a person close to death is likely to have an NDE, or how deep that NDE will be. So, we don’t need to be sympathetic towards the idea, be religious, agnostic or atheist, in order to have one. It’s entirely random.

Two: Of those who have had an NDE, whether they were previously sceptical or not, the overwhelming majority are convinced their experience was indeed what it purported to be, i.e. a glimpse of some form of psychical continuation of life after death.

Three: Those reporting an NDE often describe the experience as “more real” than real life, in the same way that waking reality is more real than the dream state, that the NDE is an experience of being, of cognitive bandwidth, and sensory awareness, that is a quantum leap beyond anything previously known. Indeed, regaining ordinary consciousness after an NDE is likened to seeing the world in black and white, after having first seen it in colour.

And finally, four: We return to how common NDEs are, and the estimates are somewhere between 4 and 15% of the world’s population, or 320 million to 1.2 billion people, have reported an NDE. This means an awful lot of formerly rational, sceptical people are now convinced there is such a thing as an afterlife state, who would never have contemplated holding such a view before.

But for all of that I find myself still very much on the fence, at least as regards what it is we are seeing, exactly, in that room. But this is not to detract from the power of Amberts’ argument. It is more perhaps to illustrate, through my own doubts, the persistence of a perhaps defensive scepticism that will disregard even the strongest logic, and which also lies at the root of human experience.

What is not in any doubt is that something psychologically profound happens during an NDE, an experience that has, as yet, no rational physiological explanation, yet which has a deep and lasting effect on the psyche of the experiencer. What we don’t know, of course – should the experiencer not return to tell the tale – is does the NDE persist? Nor do we know if the 85 to 96% of those not reporting an NDE do so because they were denied entry through the Pearly Gates, and if so, the odds aren’t looking too good for the rest of us, no matter how well we conduct our lives, or swear allegiance to the various religious faiths who profess to be keepers of the gates.

The book was a fascinating, thought-provoking read, and Amberts’ argument will be of interest to believer and sceptic alike, also to students of philosophy who might have no interest in the subject one way or the other, but are looking for a case study in the diagnostic power of a thought experiment.

As the serious literature on this subject mounts, I find myself growing cautious of where the affirmative NDE arguments might lead, I mean socially and even politically. Indeed, it takes very little imagination to foresee societal structures emerging that will precipitate our departure for the next world on grounds purporting to be humane, whether we like it or not – and we don’t know anywhere near enough to be taking risks like that.

If it is true, it may be we’re not supposed to possess any certainty about it. Indeed, I suspect we may be psychologically predisposed to doubt, no matter how convincing the argument, be it religious or secular, and for our own good. Because, again, if it is true, we’re here because we have a contract to fulfil to our own being, and knowing for sure there’s a sure fire get-out clause, if things get tough, well,… that might defeat the whole point of us being here in the first place.

And if it isn’t true, well, it doesn’t matter anyway.

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marshsideFriday 22nd November 2013

Cool this morning, about 2 degrees, light frost. Dropped T off at the bus stop for college, then drove to the Marshside nature reserve and walked out along the old dumper truck trail to the estuary – at least as far as the mud would allow. The skies were a little hazy first thing, streaked with brown and blue grey, but clearing now to a deep blue, a low sun rising behind me and casting long shadows as I look out over the route I’ve just walked. There are a few other cars about, mostly people taking their dogs for a dump, one bearded twitcher standing alone in the reeds, heron-like, with an impressive telescope on a tripod. Across the estuary Blackpool is crystal clear, also Black Coombe, and I can just make out the Lakes beyond, through binoculars, the fells having a light dusting of snow this morning.

I’m probably going to sit here until about 10:00, then go in search of coffee and a new jumper – I noticed yesterday my old lambswool is coming in holes, a bit like me.  I also seem to be scratching about for socks and underpants – so may restock at Matalan.

I’m also trying to think.

I did eventually download that book “Brain Wars” by Beauregard. Hate the title though. Consumed it on my Kindle in one long sitting yesterday. There was nothing new in it for me – a repeat of studies I’m familiar with from other sources – not that this detracts from the importance of the work. Worth the read, but I think I preferred his “Spiritual Brain”. That the mind is separate from the brain seems now all but proven, at least to my satisfaction – only die-hard materialists continuing to deny the evidence that’s been mounting since Myers and the founding of the SPR in 1882. The argument that the mind is reduced by the brain for the purpose of enabling a physical existence in form is also convincing, and further arguments that the mind is freed upon death, back into a greater, non-physical awareness are also compellingly well supported now by an accumulation of evidence from veridical NDE’s. As Jung said, back in ’61, we have to reckon with the possibility,…

Where this leads us I don’t know, what the purpose of the greater mind’s hamstrung foray into physical form might be, again, I don’t know and am probably incapable of imagining. I did get it once, I think, grasped it intuitively, wordlessly, but that was on the other side of an ME, a long time ago. And I’ve slept a lot since then.

The windscreen is misting now, and I’m beginning to wonder what I’m doing here. It’s like this muddy trail in front of me, heading out to the sea. I’ve been passing it for years, decades even, seeing people wandering down it and wondering to myself what was so special at the end of it that might draw them on. Well, I’ve been down it now and it’s just a twenty minute tramp to a muddy foreshore, a couple of stumps and a seemingly infinite plane of yet more mud beyond – nothing that seems very special, in other words,  and always another frontier stretching before you.

The skies are alive with birds this morning, all manner of waders and the plaintive call of curlews and oyster catchers. Great squadrons of geese are moving up the estuary.

Nature is so wonderfully diverse and complex; we look at it and wonder at the purpose of it. But it has no purpose, no meaning, other than what we grant it. The meaning is perhaps what we aspire to, or something we grant it without even knowing we’re doing it. It’s an idea dimly grasped through the fog of an inadequate intellect, and perhaps the full awareness of that purpose will dawn only when there’s been a global shift in consciousness, maybe centuries from now, something that restores us to the perspective of our  immortal selves, temporarily camped out and shivering down here in the mud.

And then what?

But having advanced so far along the trail, I find myself withdrawing from such thoughts now, withdrawing from the mysterious frontier. Life is where it’s at, down here in the mud. Life is where it’s happening, it’s where consciousness lights up if only briefly in form, so with my life more than half over should I not be waking up to the fact of it by now and living it a little more? Should I not be more focussed on simply being instead of sitting here at 9:00 am on a Friday morning with my head up my own ass, ruminating on matters that greater minds than mine have foundered upon?

Okay, time to move on. I need coffee, and underpants and socks.

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We humans are more than physical beings. There’s also a psychological dimension to our lives and both require nourishment if we are to thrive.

Our physical needs revolve around the instinct for survival. We need food, warmth and shelter in order to achieve a basic level of contentment. In the modern world, this equates to money. But once these physical needs are met, and our survival theoretically assured, the business of contentment can become problematic – its attainment and its retention a seemingly haphazard and unstable affair. Even in the lap of great luxury we find human beings who are profoundly unhappy. Contentment, it seems, has as much to do with the mysterious processes going on in the inner life as in the outer.

The nature of both the inner and the outer life are complex. Physical scientists have gone some way towards exploring the remarkable depths of our biological processes, to the extent that they can fix a lot of the malfunctions our bodies are prone to. Yet much of the workings of the inner life, even after a century of analytical psychology, remains largely unknown. Broken minds all too often remain, sadly, broken, and we don’t know why.

What we can say is the inner life, consists of two regions, not clearly divided, and both of them imaginary in that they have no physical component, relying instead, obviously, on the workings of the mind. In one region, the conscious, we can control, develop and play with the images we self-consciously create. In the other region – the unconscious – the origin of the images it generates remains mysterious, yet these images come to us unbidden in dreams, moments of quiet reflection, or creative inspiration. Yet more mysteriously, these images can remain hidden but still have the power to colour our moods as we discover at times startling reflections of them in our behaviour, our relations with others, in the way we view and value our lives, also in the way we react to the physical world.

So, as well as being able to visualise the world around us with our physical senses, we are also able to envision it with this remarkable faculty of the subjective imagination. Thus one person can look at a situation and be uplifted by it, while another is rendered cold or hostile, or depressed.

The unconscious dimension is a thing entirely independent of our personal control. It is a part of us,… yet seemingly also apart. It possesses an eerie autonomy, creating for each of us the complex and highly personal world view only we can know. It is of vital importance to us – as vital as the air we breathe. Without it, even possessed of a physical life, we would be nothing at all.

It’s worrying then, given its importance to our vital selves, how this inscrutable inner world yields so little to rational methods of enquiry. For centuries, professional scientists have given it a wide berth, abandoning it as a playground for poets, mystics and those still enamoured of the multifarious forms religious thinking – fields where some might argue intellectual rigour is notable only by its absence.

Yet it’s via the aegis of this subjective and infuriatingly Mercurial inner world we are granted the imperishable sense of our self awareness, and through it an exquisite view of life which makes us cherish our lives above all other things. But this great treasure comes to us at the price of an acute awareness of the fleeting nature of our lives. It also renders us vulnerable to psychological damage at those times we find the tides of our conscious mind seriously out of tune with the tides of the unconscious.

Maintaining harmony of the inner world, this harmony of the tides has always been, in part at least a task we delegate to the uniquely human phenomenon of supernatural belief. Through the inner life, through an interplay of conscious imagination, magical thinking and mysterious insights, we can construct systems of belief in order to make sense of those parts of the universe that would otherwise remain unknown and perhaps frightening to us. We also do it to ease our existential aches, and to lessen the fear of our inevitable demise. We tell ourselves there’s more, that our lives are not in vain, that we each mean something in the greater scheme of things, no matter how unlikely it seems given all the aeons of physical evidence to the contrary. We want to believe there’s a trick of nature that will render it so, a supernatural charm that will reveal or in some way guarantee the immortality of our souls.

Whether we consider ourselves religious or not, I think there is in each of us a kernel of the psyche resonant to such thinking. And however we choose to express this function, express it we must if we’re not to risk damage by discord between the conscious and unconscious aspects of our inner life and, remaining undamaged, live a useful, productive life, reconciled to the infinite mystery of the universe around us, and to our painfully finite obscurity within it.

Religions can do this for us of course. They provide a variety of serviceable blueprints covering the geography of inner world, and a set of useful dialogues for communing with its denizens. But religion can also be an unwieldy, ill fitting instrument and it’s often been pointed out that among the dogmas there’s many a self annihilating reference. It’s easy to become mistrustful then. Religions preach tolerance, while being themselves at times conspicuously intolerant of dissent. They preach inclusiveness while at times excluding from their communion anyone residing outside of their carefully delineated bounds. And perhaps most fatally, religions find themselves caught in the warp and weave of the nefarious power-structures of the world, contaminated by cultural noise and by the ignorant or the deliberately divisive mistranslations of ancient texts, which render profound truths intended to release the human spirit, more as shackles to bind it. And thereby have too many good men and women fallen to the slaughter of wars and religious persecution in the belief that God was on their side.

Such arguments, though not without their own flaws, remain persuasive to anyone with an enquiring and an open mind. So what’s a simple man and woman to do then, intent on harmonising their inner lives, if they reject the metaphysical mainstream?

Well,… there’s always Paganism.

But we need to be careful with Paganism too. In the strictest definition of the word, Paganism describes any ethnic belief system that lies outside of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. It’s also a word that carries a lot of pejorative baggage, and in the western world at least, conjures up images of flaming pentangles and silly looking naked bottoms, dancing in a circle by moonlight. But beyond this it also includes of course the wisdom traditions of the east, and the rites of the ancient world – the Egyptian hermeticists, and the mystery traditions of the Greeks.

From time to time these old ways reassert themselves in the west. The turn of the nineteenth century saw a resurgence of hermeticism under guise of the “new thought” movement, and from the middle of the twentieth century, Celtic Paganism too found itself reborn under the guise of Wicca, and has been quietly thriving ever since, along with other pre-Christian beliefs that might crudely be huddled together under the general heading of “Modern Witchcraft”.

So, if you’re looking for something outside of the mainstream, and you’re tired of watching the rational world disintegrating after two hundred years of petrification on account of its own arrogant, soulless inflexibility, then you have many contemporary forms of pre-rational belief to choose from. Like any religion, you simply learn the ropes and allow their patterns to inform the shifting tides of your inner world. Then, in Canute-like fashion, armoured with these new contructs you can attempt to stem the tide of your own alarming inner world, only to find the tides rushing in as usual, sweeping before them all bullshit, rendering it as an incoherent tangle of flotsam on the foreshore of your experience, and leaving you as mystified as ever regarding the correct way to tackle the mystical path.

I have to admit to a certain attraction for those who mark the passage of their lives in terms of Esbats and Sabbats. Such things put you back in tune with the turning of the earth, and the cycle of its seasons, make you more sensitive to and appreciative of the natural world – things which appeal to me. There’s also something romantic about measuring the year by counting moons, but I find my moods fail to conform neatly to its waxings and wanings.

And those bare bottoms trouble me.

Perhaps I’m just too much of a misanthrope to be a coven type, but my experience of any group of human beings is that cliques are formed, the noisy ones gather front and centre, while the quiet ones take the back seat, and though equally present might as well have disappeared. Church, school, even the Archery club I attended once – all are the same and I don’t see why witchy covens should be any different.

I’m a solitary then? Yes, there’s a version of pagan witchery that allows for misanthropes, and I’ve explored this possibility, but I really can’t be bothered with the ropes.They slither through my hands as if greased, and I can gain no purchase on them at all. I also find my muse tittering girlishly at them. Her rituals are different, and she’s always fully if somewhat eccentrically clothed when we go about our business.

Much of Buddhism and Taoism and Hindiusm remain similarly misty to me, though I’ve dallied with them for decades and instinctively revere their teachings, but I’ve a feeling all of this is leading somewhere else now, away from any kind of religion, away from the pre-rational and magical thinking of the witches and the geomancers, into a new kind of paganism.

When I come back to the central paradox of my life, I find the journey of enquiry has left me quietly assured of the existence of a dimension beyond – or rather deep within – imagination. It helps that I stepped into it by accident one summer’s day, long ago, mystified at first and then astonished to find references to to it in the accounts of mystics down the centuries. I can’t explain it, or even adequately describe it, but its impact has left me confident of its abiding nature. The tides of my inner life are as tumultuous now as they’ve always been, but I seem to ride them better – touch wood – no need for daily prayer, nor spells, nor runes nor bare bottoms by moonlight, nor even the mysterious glowing alembics of the alchemists.

I find, much to my surprise, science is helping, first of all by having become less scientistic in recent decades, at least around the more dubious of its edges, as it steps back from its hard materialist dogmas. I find myself persuaded by respectable, scientific studies which seem to confirm what the less materialist philosophers have been saying for centuries, that the mind is separate to the brain, and essentially non-local. This makes sense of my own experience, also of the many unexplained faculties of the psyche.

I find I’m also persuaded by similarly sober studies of near death, and willing to accept that the tales told by survivors are exactly what they appear to be. I do this because they appeal to reason, as much to mystical thinking, and the counter explanations by the scientistically inclined, seem the more desperate, contrived and childish by comparison. I’m therefore no longer as bereft at thoughts of annihilation as I have been in the past, at the passing of friends and loved ones. Instead I’m persuaded that we must seriously reckon with the possibility of a journey that continues, that what awaits us at the end of our dream of life might be the greatest and most lucid dream of all, the dream of the universe itself, and ourselves safe within it.

That you can arrive at such conclusions simply through a spirit of open-minded enquiry, and a reading of respectable, intellectually coherent literature, tempts one into viewing all the dancing and prancing and magical chanting of our multifarious religions as merely the decorative trimmings of folklore, a lore from which the underlying meaning has been stripped or rendered so opaque as to be inaccessible to all but a few. I don’t mean to denigrate religion. Any system, no matter how fanciful, that attempts to map out the inner landscape must be respected, and sincere persistence within a system of belief is perhaps still the surest route to any kind of spiritual enlightenment. But my own experience is that you don’t need religion to make your way. You already carry the clues inside your head, and there are a sufficient number of footprints now, crystallising from the fog of intellectual enquiry, to lead us on. We may not find ourselves rocketed into the core of the paranormal, nor even religious enlightenment, but in any kind of spiritual endeavour it is not the destination that’s important, so much as the journey.

It’s not that I can explain any of this, or tell you with any more certainty than the next muddle headed mystic what any of it means. Nor less have I the guile, nor indeed the intent, to persuade the non-believer to my peculiar point of view. Indeed I suspect that for the modern pagan at least the journey and one’s relationship with the inner world must always be a personal one.

And of course the great mystery remains unsolved, why the cosmos would want to take such a limited view of itself, and from the perspective of so many different pairs of eyes – also that since it’s so very, very old, there surely can’t be many lessons it has left to learn through the pitfalls and pratfalls of our small, intermeshing lives. But even Hermes that master alchemist of old, couldn’t, or wouldn’t, answer that one.

For now, this modern pagan shoulders his pack and moves along the trail, curiously and perhaps inappropriately reassured by the journey so far. And if you find any resonance here, sufficient to have reached this closing paragraph in my narrative, I suspect you too are a modern pagan my friend. And not a bare bottom between us,…


Consciousness beyond life – Pim Van Lommel

The Spiritual Brain – Beauregard/O’Leary

Science and the Akashic field – Laszlow

Science and the near death experience – Carter

A course in Demonic Creativity – Cardin

Is there Life after death? – Fontana

Life beyond death – what can we expect?  – Fontana

Randi’s Prize – McLuhan

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