Months have gone by since my last post. Months, since I confidently promised a conclusion to my answer to Tomas’s question, “Are you afraid of death”? It’s been months.
People wonder (with reason) whether anyone who has had a distressing NDE will be terribly afraid of death. Because the usual response is an uncompromising “yes,” I was really, seriously trying to figure out my answer. In the first responding post I talked about my realization that there are ways in which we are all afraid, because we’re hardwired to repel death. In the second part I went over why I am not afraid of the hell that most people mean when they ask the question, “Are you afraid of death?” Part three was to be my personal answer. I said it would have something to do with Carl Jung. But it’s been months. Why?
Am I afraid of death? I don’t know.
The not-knowing dumped me into a royal case of writer’s block, which had begun to feel permanent. However, perhaps astrological lineups have changed; for whatever reason, today I seem ready to tackle an answer.
Why I think I may be not afraid of death
There is more, now, to my feelings about death than the panicky horror that filled the years closer to my distressing NDE. My understandings about practically everything are far more sophisticated. (Thirty-two years with IANDS will do that. So will an additional five decades of living, with a dedicated attention to Figuring Things Out.)
So, let’s talk about five out of many differences between then and now. I am relating them in terms of people who have made deep imprints, not because they’re the only people to influence my ideas (quite a few of whom are now poking at my thoughts, trying to get equal time); but because their input has marked significant discoveries that made a difference.
Discovering near-death: Jayne Smith, Maggie Callanan,
Among the earliest beautiful near-death experiences I heard, back in the early ‘80s, was that of Jayne Smith. What an introduction to the field! Of countless other pleasant-to-glorious NDEs, hers remains significant, in part because its optimism and serenity reflect the person herself. [Full disclosure: Jayne and I have been close friends ever since.] Such affirming NDEs seem to me foundational in building a sense of trust in the universe, especially for people with a difficult NDE in their mind.
Along with NDEs, the concept that people approaching death might have any awareness of it was a brand new idea to me and just about everyone when hospice nurse Maggie Callanan co-authored Final Gifts. “Nearing death awareness” was the term she coined for a shift toward metaphoric thinking as dying clients began to talk about making travel arrangements, moving, new telephone numbers, reunions, and party planning. (Bewildered family members often tried to discourage such “crazy ideas.”) Although there might be a sense of anxiety about being ready on time, most of the dying did not seem afraid of the rendezvous itself; they simply had something to do, somewhere to go. The whole idea opened new ways of thinking about what dying might be like. Final Gifts has been a gift for countless families, and for me. A huge bonus for me came in the long, long hours of telephone conversations in the months preceding the book’s publication as Maggie was exploring near-death experience and I was exploring…well, everything. What I remember most is the amount of laughter in our conversations.
Discovering energy: Joyce Hawkes, Marian Wurster
I had no idea I was a bioelectric energy field. Likewise, I knew nothing about healing. But someone introduced me to dowsing with metal coat hangers, and then through one of those mysterious happenings which occur when we’re ready for change, my unprepared self was invited to participate in a large healing service. At the conclusion of the ritual, I was approached by my mentor, healer Marian Wurster, who wrapped me in a hug that became … like standing over Old Faithful when the geyser erupts. The sensation was of being shot upwards on an instantaneous tower of blazing white light, like riding the outside of a Canaveral rocket, like being a tourist propelled into the stratosphere or into the special effects of a sci-fi blockbuster. I had discovered energy.
Not long after, on the opposite side of the continent, I was sitting in the living room of biophysicist and healer Joyce Hawkes. I had just been introduced to her Filipino healer houseguest when a client arrived unexpectedly, a young man on crutches, coming to Joyce as his last option before having a foot amputated as the result of an auto accident injury. The foot and ankle were heavily scarred, grey-white and cold (yes, I touched them); he could put no weight on the foot. He sat on a kitchen chair in the center of the room, with the Filipino healer kneeling at his foot and Joyce standing behind him. I was an observer from the couch. For perhaps forty-five minutes there was total silence, while the two healers moved their hands a few inches from the ankle and head, as if brushing away cobwebs. They never touched him. Then a testing, and another ten minutes or so of more brushing gestures. And by the end of the session, when the young man walked across the room without crutches, his scarred foot and ankle were warm and pink. When he had left, I gasped, “What did you do?” Joyce smiled and said, “We were praying.” And the Filipino healer said softly, “Oh, it wasn’t much. Only to move a bit of tissue.”
Something is definitely going on. There is more to the world than what the materialist view tells us.
Discovering consciousness: Carl Jung, and Stanislav Grof
The Wikipedia entry for “Collective Unconscious” includes two of my favorite quotes from Carl Jung. The first is from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious:
“…in addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche …there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”
And from Man and His Symbols, Jung speaks of archetypes:
“…what Freud called ‘archaic remnants’ – mental forms whose presence cannot be explained by anything in the individual’s own life and which seem to be aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind.”
Archetypes are not experiences themselves but templates for mythological motifs in experiences recurring across cultures, across time. How else to explain the presence of Yin/Yang symbols unrecognized in the NDE of a young New England Congregationalist?
And then there was psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, whose decades of research with psychedelic states of consciousness demonstrated convincingly the experiential universality of those archetypal patterns. There they were—the monsters and demons, the angels and gargoyles of NDEs both heavenly and hellish, the heights of human emotional and spiritual experience and their depths. There were all possible types of experience, not as the physical after-death realities described theologically, but truly existing as potential states of human consciousness. Not eternal, not punishment, not damnation; meaningful but simply (though not simplistically!) experiential.
In other words, hell can be thought of as not external, not “out there” but as originating in the deepest levels of our psyche.
You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.
Discovering the sacred: Morris Owen Evans, Matthew Fox, John Shelby Spong
Almost exactly one century ago, in 1915, the University of Chicago published the monumental International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. You can read it still, online. Its managing editor was my paternal grandfather, the Welsh clergyman and scholar, Morris Owen Evans, D.D., PhD. A force to reckon with, he died barely six months before my birth. To the extent that I have any belief in reincarnation, I am suspicious.
From toddlerhood, I have been pursuing the sacred. Together, we have evolved from the raw Calvinism of the vacation Bible school of the Christian Missionary Alliance Tabernacle across the street from our liberal Congregational parsonage, through the increasingly less stringent doctrinal years of United Church in Christ (UCC), to the Master’s Degree in Pastoral Ministry and Spirituality I earned from the Roman Catholic University of St. Joseph so that I could find out about mysticism.
There was Matthew Fox and his Creation Spirituality, pointing out that God had said about Creation, “That’s good!”, replacing Original Sin with Original Blessing.
And then came the Episcopal Bishop (now retired) John Shelby Spong, considered by some to be the “Anglican Antichrist,” but to others of us the shepherd of a new and deeper spirituality:
With Spong, I say, “But the fact is I can no more abandon the literal patterns than I could fly to the moon. I just go beyond them.”
He says, “Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue.”
He says, “…death is ultimately a dimension of life through which we journey into timelessness.”
I have been discovering, as the United Church of Christ says, that “God is still speaking,” in ways that make 21st century sense.
Discovering dying: Mildred Pile Evans and Eleanor Roosevelt
My mother valued responsibility, integrity, civic good works, and good manners. And music, always music. She prayed from her devotional daily. The girl from the tiny southwestern Kansas town of Protection grew up working alongside her dad, the local newspaper editor, in the paper’s shop. She graduated from high school and announced to her startled parents that she was leaving the next morning for a job with a Chatauqua circuit. (Chautauqua road shows traveled from town to town, as vaudeville did; before radio, they were like an early 20th century PBS.) For almost ten Chautauqua seasons she played the piano, sang, did interpretive readings, directed youth programs, acted in plays, and drove endless miles through all (then) forty-eight states. She put herself through college that way, and eventually became the quintessential pastor’s wife in a series of Congregational /UCC churches in New York State, running Sunday schools and youth programs, directing church plays, singing in the choir, keeping the peace in a parsonage of husband and four daughters. In addition, for twenty-five years she commuted into New York City to work full-time as an administrative assistant at UCC national headquarters. Shortly before her death at 87, frail and confused after surgery for a subdural hematoma, she woke from a nap and told me in great mystification about having just had a wonderful experience. She had seen a group of people in a beautiful field across a stream, all of them happy and working together. It was perfect, she said. “The loveliest person” had come to her, and Mom asked if they had a job for her. “Not yet, Mildred,” said the loveliest person, “but we will.” All of my mother’s anxieties melted away, and for a day or two, nursing home staff were stopping by her doorway to see a smile so radiant my sisters and I still cannot describe it adequately. Within a few days she was gone.
My mother held Eleanor Roosevelt in awe, as did much of the world. The icon of my growing up, she wrote: “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
My mother died. Eleanor Roosevelt died. If they did it, I can, too.