by Nancy Evans Bush, MA

When my sister Barbara and I were growing up, our bedroom floor was covered by a wonderful linoleum rug. The rug was a map of the United States, each state differently colored, its capitol city marked by a star and a sketch of the state’s principal product. I cannot remember a time before the rug was there. That rug taught us our first lessons in geography and commerce, and something of the romance of place. It established territory: In a desperate sibling quarrel one could scream, “That river’s on my side. Don’t you dare cross it!” The rug was a treasure of our childhood.

Kansas, I remember, was a muddy yellow, marked with a sheaf of wheat. Our mom was raised in  a very small town in that state, considerably southwest of the sheaf of wheat. An intrepid traveler, she thought it important that we discover, early on, the stunning width of The Real Thing. And so, in the summer before I started kindergarten, when Barbara was three, Mother drove her two small girls from Rochester, New York to visit her family in southwestern Kansas—a distance substantially longer than our bedroom.

The time was pre-World War II, when Eisenhower’s highways were not even a dream. Mother packed us into the back seat of the ‘39 Chevy and took off on the sedate two-lane roads with 45-mile-an-hour speed limits that wound through the Main Streets of countless small towns and across the mind-numbing distances of America’s agricultural heartland. For days, Babs and I counted white horses and red barns, looked at books and clouds, squabbled, and ground little bits of Crayola into the upholstery. We lay on the back seat of the Chevy watching telephone wires swoop by overhead, and we whined about the seeming endlessness of it all, and marveled that very brave pioneer children had ever walked so far. America went on tediously, forever. We were experiencing the difference between our bedroom map and the territory it represented.

I often think of the difference between a map and its territory when people ask the inevitable question: “What do you really think about near-death experiences—do you believe them?” I think of that long-gone bedroom rug because in asking about beliefs, we are talking about mental maps. Questioners are unsettled when I ask them to identify their own map: “What do you mean by ‘believe’?” This is not a quibble but a central issue. Like the states on a map, beliefs define each person’s understanding of reality.

For many people—perhaps most people—‘belief’ means taking the experience literally. For them, experience accounts are equivalent to journalism, reports of a physical reality someplace “out there” in the cosmos, a place with a landscape and population. Depending on the experience, it may be heaven or hell. In either case, this literal belief is taken as evidence of a tangible life after death. (“Proof!” scream tabloid headlines.)

Curiously enough, skeptics tend also to react according to a literal view. Trusting only in the demonstrable proofs of scientific method and ridiculing the idea that consciousness could exist other than as an artifact of brain activity, they argue that the NDE is nothing but a biological blip, a response to some physiological stimulus. Assuming “out of the body” to mean the individual must have sailed through the sky like the goat in Chagall’s painting, and certain that such a literal scenario is impossible, they are firm in their belief—not that NDEs point to life after death, but that NDEs have no reality.

Still other sets of belief—other ‘states’ on this map—are that experiences represent a sign of humanity’s imminent transformation to a system of beneficent values and spiritualization, or that the Most High has singled out certain persons for a divine mission—or yet again, that Satan is luring non-doctrinaire experiencers to everlasting destruction. Some people believe experiences to be entirely psychological, signposts to the inner life. And those few who have, over many years, actually practiced the spiritual disciplines of the world’s religious faiths, will perhaps smile and say very little.

The great majority of folk, hungry for some reassurance that life has meaning, long to believe something but aren’t quite certain what is genuinely credible about NDEs.

Before attaching ourselves irretrievably to any one explanation, we might pause to remember the old story of the group of blind men who, following a path through the local forest, encountered an elephant. We can assume that they had been taught the concept of elephant, and had perhaps even handled a small figurine of one; but they had never before been in the lumbering, smelly, enormous presence of the actual article. As no sighted passerby arrived who could name the object sharing their path, they were left to identify it themselves.

A fellow who had grabbed the elephant’s tail cried, “What is this?—The beast is like an immense rope!” But his friend had a hand on each side of the animal’s rear leg and argued, “A rope? You idiot—this thing is exactly like a tree trunk!” Another man blundered against an ear and hooted, “We have come upon a boat with a great sail!” Each man argued on and on according to his own experience of the elephant, each of them partially right as much as each was wrong. And the elephant went its enormous way, unhindered and erroneously described.

It is always hazardous (if not downright wrong-headed) to equate an individual experience with entirety. Like the quarreling blind men, none of us can see clearly enough to identify all of reality, yet we attach ourselves to the part we grasp as if it were the whole. Like a small child’s first understanding of territory described by a linoleum rug, our individual interpretations are the maps of our own life experience, having only a sliver of correspondence to the enormity of the whole.