Reflections on Near Death Experiences

I recently read an article about Near Death Experiences (NDE’s). The article took a scientific perspective and talked about studies that have evaluated the experiences of hundreds of people.

There are some common aspects of NDE’s. The most fundamental seems to be a sense of being in a place of deep peace and love. Often people feel that they are not “in” their body in the usual way – that they can see their body as though from the outside. Many people experience encountering certain entities or reliving experiences from their own past.

One thing that struck me was that people who had these NDE’s felt them to be very real – in fact more real in a way than ordinary life. For many their own life is transformed afterwards. The article didn’t describe exactly how, though it mentioned increased generosity – sometimes to an extreme – as one example.

When scientists try to describe NDE’s to these people as the result of hallucinations of a dying brain or anomalies caused by brain chemistry, the people tend to reject this as far too superficial for an experience that they found transformative, real, and perhaps healing.

This article brought several things to mind for me. One is the experience of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who had a stroke in which her left (analytic) hemisphere shut down. As a result, she experienced life exclusively through the right hemisphere for a while,  including a radical shift in identity and being. She didn’t feel that she had an individual identity but rather experienced life as one whole, undivided energy, whose main characteristic was love. As she began to retrain herself in left brain thinking, she realized that she was sacrificing some of this beauty of being in order to function in the world. In other words, the left brain thinking somehow covered up or diminished the experience of life as one loving whole.

The article also brought to mind religious conversion experiences, often brought about by a group of people focusing on one person and that person experiencing something larger and more full of love than their usual way of being.

Finally, the article brought to mind stories that I’ve heard or read of people having a spontaneous awakening, without significant meditation experience.

In all these cases the people involved find their experience to be at least as real as ordinary life, and often find it much more real. What do they mean by this?

Reflecting on my own various experiences, I would say that at certain times the filters through which we see life drop away. It may be clear in that moment that life is being seen, experienced, felt, lived, in a way in which something that has distorted our experience of life is gone. This is very different from a drug- or disease-induced state in which something – a chemical imbalance – has been added.

So just as in taking off a smudged pair of sunglasses, one intuitively knows that what is seen now is more real, less distorted by filters of thinking. It’s simpler, clearer, more spacious, more full of love, without division or conflict.

We’ve all had such moments when the usual filters have dropped away for an instant and life is vast, spacious, and complete. We probably had more of these as young children. But as the mind matures, the filters become more and more pervasive. Moments of them dropping away become rare. For many of us, we forget what we had once experienced or remember it in an idealized – and distorted – way, distorted because such moments can’t be represented in memory.

So when an adult experiences life for a moment or some extended moments and is reminded again of the wholeness and vastness of life, of the vast  love that is what we are, of the absence of need for worrying, they are radically transformed. Their life turns inside out. They see how much their life has been based on a fundamentally distorted perception of life.

Unfortunately, in all the cases that I was reminded of, the tendency is for this radical awakening to our undivided nature to fade. As Jill Taylor describes, the functioning of the brain in daily life once again starts to diminish and weaken the ability to live in undivided presence.

What does this tell me about meditative work? First, that these sometimes tiny openings that we may experience in long retreat are vital. They are very brief reminders of something radical. Something with life and death importance. They are tiny moments of waking up from the complacency and seeming safety of our views of life. I say views of life because a moment of intimacy with life is possible when life is not being lived through any views at all. Views have dropped away.

I can’t help but feel an urgency in the need to question this whole way of usual living, which at its core divides life into “me” and “other than me”. And the most powerful tool for questioning this is long retreat. After 5, 6 or 7 days in silence, stillness, dialogue, among other people doing the same work, there may be brief moments of waking up to undivided Presence. Such a moment makes it clear again, for a while, what is real.

If one continues with long retreat year after year, this waking up becomes deeper and more profound and we might say that there is then one more person who is not adding continually to the sorrow of the world.

For myself I feel that what is important is finding the interest and strength to see, feel, be with the dark patterns of enclosure and self-protection that come up so pervasively in us. In other words, the ability to be still – listening, wanting to be with – these reactive patterns as they come up. Not being afraid to come in touch with whatever comes up, no matter how much it  may shake my sense of security. This coming in touch is something still and stable. It’s different from being swept away in reactions.  But even if I am swept away, there is always a moment in which stillness can return and there can be intouchness.

So stillness in the face of the life-or-death feeling of needing to defend myself. Moment after moment. Then intelligence begins to dawn. And love. And compassion. In the midst of suffering.

Doing this work  of being with the craziness as though our life depends on seeing what’s going on (which it does), when a moment of dropping away happens and one finds that the world is one undivided life, there may not be the pull to return to what has been seen so clearly as unhelpful – the world of imagined division, imagined conflict, imagined endless effort to survive.

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