Happy New Year wishes to you all, and here we are, back again with Dancing Past the Dark. The long hiatus in posting resulted from my sense of having reached my limit with the original 100-some posts; in other words, I didn’t know what more to say.
I had not expected the persistence of some readers who declined to just walk away. They, plus the report of a new study out of the UK, have effected this reappearance; so let’s get to it!
* * *
The new study, titled “Meditation-Induced Near-Death Experiences: a 3-year Longitudinal Study” is an exploration of an ancient practice described in Buddhist texts going back centuries. Their straightforward attitude about death and dying is notable for those of us brought up with modern, non-Asian avoidance sensibilities. As William Van Gordon, the lead author of this study, notes in the online publication Mindful:
The practice of using meditation to derive a better understanding of death is longstanding. This is particularly the case in Buddhism where ancient texts exist that describe meditation practices specifically intended to help spiritual practitioners prepare for, or gain insight into, the processes of dying and death.’
The ancient Buddhist texts best known to Westerners are the eighth century Tibetan Book of the Dead and Profound Dharma of Natural Liberation through Contemplating the Peaceful and Wrathful. If you’ve been studying NDEs for long, you have no doubt encountered at least the first of these.
“To date,” writes principal investigator Van Gordon, “no study has sought to investigate the phenomenon of a meditation-induced near-death experience (MI-NDE) that is referred to in ancient Buddhist texts.’
The study team carefully recruited meditators from Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions; all were known to be advanced in their practice and/or to have pursued the MI-NDE routines previously. The study sample consisted of twelve individuals, all Buddhists, of eight nationalities; ethnically, ten are Asian, two white. Their NDE credentials were based not only on their active engagement with the traditional death-related practice but included a meditator’s being able to induce an MI-NDE with a score of 7 or more on the Greyson Near-Death Experience Scale.
What the Derby study reveals is that some advanced Buddhist meditators do, in fact, find the ancient practice spiritually meaningful and worth repeating. They are able to generate events with phenomenology familiar to near-death experiencers: altered perceptions of space and time, and encounters with non-worldly realms and beings. Unlike other NDEs, the study reports, the meditators were able to harness these experiences at will, and to some extent control them. (Only two elements on the Greyson scale did not appear on the MI-NDE study findings.)
At the end of the study’s three-year duration, four ‘master themes’ emerged from analysis of participants’ transcripts:
Phases/facets of the MI-NDE (listed in the chronological order of their unfolding)
1. Reduction of identification with the five bodily elements (in order: earth, water, sun/fire/heat, air/wind, and space)
2. Altered perception of time and space
3. Encounters with non-worldly realms and beings:
a. Undesirable realms (hell, torture, ‘hungry ghosts’)
b. Other realms of humans and animals
c. Realms of inhabitants made all or in part of light
d. Other categories:
i. Recently deceased beings moving between worlds
ii. Demonic beings
iii. Liberated beings not bound to a realm
4. Emptiness: ‘experiences understood as empty of inherent existence, mind-made’, voidness, non-self
1. Awareness of physical body
2. Awareness of NDE and non-corporeal form
Participants described having different degrees of control over the duration and content of the MI-NDE. Five shared the view that without extensive meditative/spiritual experience, a person would be unable to exercise any control over an NDE.
Spiritually meaningful insights
Just as with more generally reported NDEs, the meditators found their MI-NDEs to be spiritually meaningful.
As the authors conclude, “It appears that the MI-NDE referred to in ancient Buddhist texts (i) exists as an empirically investigable phenomenon and (ii) is a valid form of NDE according to conventional assessment criteria.”
Other findings are discussed in the Mindful report, which I highly recommend to everyone reading this blog. It includes considerably more details about the participants, study design, and findings. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-018-0922-3
First and foremost, what will surprise no one here is that what struck me most forcibly was the authors’ casual response to the participants’ universal encounters with “unpleasant realms” with mentions of hell, torture, and such-like. No notice is given that in the wider world of near-death reporting, the presence of such harrowing encounters is rarely mentioned if not outright denied.
The reason, of course, is obvious: these are quintessentially Buddhist experiences being reported by Buddhist meditators whose spiritual cosmology takes for granted the appearance of hungry ghosts and other denizens of realms that send Western experiencers into panic-stricken decades of existential/theological distress.
Equally, the assessment that NDE content is essentially empty—not meaningless, but not to be clutched at–stands in strong relief against Western conviction of its nature as ontological bedrock. There is no swooning evident in the reports of these meditators, and no breathless rush to find a publisher, merely a quiet recognition that during the NDE, “You experience something or someone and you’re fully involved in the experience. But you pull back and recognize that it’s like a dream. It’s dangerous not to do that. If you don’t pull back, you can get caught [in the experience].”
As it turns out, I discover there’s a fair bit more to say. It won’t be next week, but the next post will come along later in January. Thanks to you all.
Happy New Year!