On the Wholeness of Darkness and Light

The essay below is being posted because it may be useful for newer readers. I wrote it in 1992 for the IANDS publication Vital Signs, so although regular readers of the blog will find nothing much new here, it may be of some mild historical interest. I have edited it slightly to remove anachronisms and simplify overly wordy writing.

A woman has written to say that she had heard about distressing near-death experiences at an IANDS conference. “It sounded weird,” she said. “Are these just nightmares?”

Well, the experiences appear to share something of the same space as the pleasurable NDEs, and they no doubt do sound weird; but then, so does just about everything in this field when looked at from the perspective of ordinary consciousness. Nevertheless, as we come closer to the fortieth anniversary of Raymond Moody’s first accounts of light-filled, love-filled, rapturous consciousness at the edge of death, it is clear that Life After Life touched a nerve that still quivers.

Actually, it seems that nerve has always quivered. We see it reflected in the earliest records of humanity, in the cave drawings and potsherds and funerary remnants of people who also asked, “What are we? What does it mean that we become not-alive?” Some wove their questions into metaphors of darkness and light, death and rebirth, acknowledging their non-physical experiences as real, and recognizing their own need for reassurance. From the sum-total of their human experience, held in poems and story form, came myth and religion and the deep structures of our cultural assumptions (and rebellions) which hold us even today.

If we today know more about the physical structures of life, they were perhaps more open to its visceral depths. It has become a cliché to observe that over the past four hundred years quantitative method and post-Enlightenment skepticism have led to a preference for literal meanings: for prose, not poetry; psychology, not religion. Uncomfortable with metaphor and disdainful of older mythic structures, we want and we value personal autonomy over the patterning strictures of social system and community.

Given the most recent cultural trend of secular thinking, a hidden gift in Moody’s revelation of near-death experiences is that it was not presented in terms of religion; the subject was consciousness, and therefore approachable. Here, it seemed, was proof (today’s bedrock of believability) not necessarily of life after death but that something is going on, and that something appeared very good indeed. Suddenly it seemed that Einstein’s question, “Is the universe friendly?” could be answered, yes.

The very hopefulness engendered by stories of beautiful NDEs was too fragile to bear investigation of an opposite type of experience. When rumors came of experiences filled with terror, no one, understandably enough, wanted very much to go looking for them. For one thing, the reports smacked of an unwelcome reversion to a doctrinal hell. For another, investigators were torn by the same ontological dread that has haunted humanity throughout time; they stopped short of examining the darker side of NDEs.

On the other hand, experiencers were hardly storming the telephones to report dark NDEs. How many might there be? No one knew. Only rarely would such an experience be shared, as Carol Zaleski discovered in researching Otherworld Journeys, her groundbreaking comparison of medieval and modern NDEs. Why such reluctance? Speaking, if I may say, from experience, one reason for the reluctance to disclose a frightening NDE is that a distressing experience is as emotionally and spiritually powerful as a pleasurable NDE: to retell it is to relive it, and the idea of reliving a deeply distressing experience at the level of literal interpretation is unbearable. But the literal interpretation, filtered through the terminology of Heaven and Hell, has been the only one accessible to most people.

Related to this is that the descriptor the darker NDEs wore was “negative.” No wonder no one wanted to go after it! Consider the equations: blissful experience = positive = reward =Heaven; but terrifying experience = negative = punishment = Hell. The presumption that goes with this is valuative: a positive experience indicates a positive person, a highly evolved consciousness, while a negative experience points to a negative person, a lower quality of being and consciousness. Whether the event is interpreted as hellish or as negative, only the words have changed; the judgmentalism remains constant. Would you as an a person with a distressing NDE rush to tell your family, your bridge club, the press?

However, I can say to these tempting simplistic perspectives,, “Wrong.” This does not mean I have answers, only that there are more helpful perspectives. For starters, saints of all traditions have reported experiences of terror and despair; it is untrue that “bad” people have “bad” experiences. Secondly, a terrifying experience has every bit as much potential for being transformative as an encounter with the Light; although the process and the paths will be quite different, the outcomes can be similar. Third, both the radiant and the dark experience contain seeds of temptation as well as transformation. The temptation with a pleasurable NDE is to grandiosity, ego-inflation, the sense of self-admiration for being worthy of an exalting experience. The temptation with a terrifying experience is to despair. The danger of yielding to any of these temptations is that it short- circuits both the message and the journey.

Many people, taking an NDE or any of its relatives as factually and physically true, believe it points to an external place of forces external to us. Others interpret it as a movement inward, to a depth of self and human existence we had never conceived and can only dimly comprehend. Either interpretation can be seen as touching something sacred, the something is going on of our new-found wonder. Taking refuge in the perhaps merely convenient conviction that we humans are just not built for having all the answers, I have found it personally more productive to proceed as if the journey were inward and to deal with what emerges from that search.

As above, so below! As external, so internal!

Reality does not change because we shift terminology. It does not change because we do not like what we discover. The astrophysical cosmos contains both novas and black holes; so heaven and hell exist, whether understood via Hubble, as external realms in a religious cosmology, as the poles of spiritual experience, or as aberrant states of consciousness. What changes, perhaps, is our willingness to hear the words and deal with the reality. We are all of us—physicists, theologians, psychologists, students, accountants, housewives, NDErs—trying to describe the same universe.

The literature of mysticism, from all traditions the world around, is full of the recognition of both darkness and light as aspects of the journey. So is the literature of physics, and of the arts, and of psychology. Francesco B. DeLeo, MD, of Johns Hopkins, wrote some years back:

As above, so below! As external, so internal! Paradise, Hell, Purgation, Mystical Union, God, Evil, Ego-Death, Rebirth, Myths of Renewal, can no longer be dismissed as fantasies ... The mind, at its very depth, appears to connect with the vastness of outer space. Both the inner and the outer universe appear, at first, to be divided into a positive and a negative half. Both halves need to be experienced before the state of duality can be transcended.

The irony of our modern reliance on individual independence and hard data is that it has led us in ways deeper than we ordinarily recognize to forget how to name our existential fears, to deny their existence, repress their intensity, forget that beyond the laboratory there are subtler routes to answers. The invitation of the terrifying NDE is to a retouching of that ancient nerve, a reconnection with the entirety of human experience. Wholeness? It’s time.