One of the delights of blogging is the openness of readers’ questions. And because the questions here have been so good, to an astonishing extent (at least to me) I have responded by publically dissecting the deepest slam to my psyche, my NDE and the issues that came with it, both for me and for the field of near-death studies. Most recently it was Tomas, seconded by others, who came right out with the big question: Are you afraid of death?
I sent an immediate reply—“No, I don’t think so. For a more satisfactory answer, watch for a post in the next week or so.”
Hah. Wrong. Oh, so wrong!
Weeks have passed since Tomas’s inquiry and my blithe reply, and day after day I have sat at my computer with nothing happening except an alarming amount of Candy Crush. That can mean one of several things, none of which is that I actually enjoy Candy Crush. That kind of stupefaction means either that I actually have nothing to say and should make a quick and apologetic getaway; or that something is bubbling away in my subconscious, which will make itself known in due time; or that I really, really don’t want to go to wherever the topic is. This time, I suspect it’s a bit of all three.
Why has it taken me so long to write what might have been a one-paragraph post but that has developed into a full response? Why all that Candy Crush? Because I didn’t really want to look hard enough at the question to know my genuine answer. I simply didn’t want to think about it. A snappy one-liner is easy enough, but I realized it short-changes people who ask sincere questions—so the price for me of giving an honest and adequate answer is that I’ve had to think, and for you, that you’ve had to wait. And you will probably have noticed that even now, when I am trying to write the blasted post, I’ve been dragging my feet with an over-long introduction. Tomas and the rest of you have been remarkably patient long enough. So, here goes.
Am I afraid of death? Of course. At least in part—though likely not in the expected way—I am afraid of death, as is every sentient creature. Only for the most mystical-experience-gifted is this possibly untrue, and I suspect that even they, in bleak times, have some quavers about what lies across the line. Why? What is it about death that is so implacably disturbing?
What I discovered, part 1
Anyone who has spent time with people who have had a near-death experience or with the literature of near-death studies knows that the overwhelming majority of reported NDE accounts are of transfiguring events—at the very least pleasant and often glorious—that leave their participants fearless at the thought of death. The experiencers may still feel apprehensive about the process of getting there, but they are convinced by their own subjective knowledge that death itself will be indescribably beautiful. They know this with such certitude that is almost unshakable, so strong that one experiencer I know seriously berated a grief-stricken friend (also an NDEr) who was mourning the death of her husband of forty-plus years: Rejoice! the other experiencer demanded.
For the rest of humankind, there has never been such sweet certainty. Those of us less NDE-privileged, hearing of such loss of fear, tend to think ourselves somehow inferior, as if we had unwittingly failed a test of character or faith. Yet fear of death has abided, a constant presence across all of human history; and even one-celled organisms, although they have not written about their perceptions, retreat from life-threatening situations so promptly that we are assured they, too, share our aversion. Perhaps we anthropomorphize when we think that paramecia are afraid of death, but they, like us, certainly do not go out to welcome it.
It was the thought of paramecia that helped crystalize my thinking about this post. I have a very clear memory of watching one-celled creatures through my high school biology microscope, and realizing with awe that they were aware! When approached, they retreated; when poked, they fled! They resisted a threat to life. The more I thought about that recently, it became clear that there are different levels to what I believe is the general fear of death, though at least three do not involve actual death at all but are anticipatory.
Anticipations of death
Instinctual avoidance of death
If in the tiniest and least-brained of living creatures, there is an immediate reaction against death, who do we think we are, to make such a big deal of our own? At the instinctual level, whether or not the impetus is actually fear, we share the generic avoidance of death. Bolstering this notion is this quote, just discovered, by the great transpersonal psychologist Charles Tart (my hero); “If you’re a human being, you’ve got a nervous system and body with built-in functions and limitations. Fear of death is one of those, it’s ‘preprogrammed,’ as it were, from the ‘factory.’”
Why should there be such an instinct? It occurs to me that out of all the billions of galaxies with who-knows-how-many potentially life-supporting planets, we know of only a single miniscule spot in the entire universe that sustains physical, conscious life. Is the function of our recoil really about death, or is it about the importance of safeguarding that life itself, like the tiny green shoot in the movie Wall-E, the only one from which to rebuild a world?
It seems to me that our recoil stands as a recognition that behind our intellectually developed moral and legal arguments and religious commandments, there is a deeper principle protecting the very fact that life Is. That Is can be interpreted as the ultimate miracle.
Despite the consume-or-be-consumed nature of existence on this planet, where death is essential, natural, and inevitable, life is. We share with every bean sprout and paramecium the instinct to pull away from extinction. The instinct may represent, not fear but the affirmation of life itself. “I am that I am,” said Yahweh to Moses. Apocryphal or factual, as may be, all Being shares in that.
Fifty-three years ago this August, I had an experience that would reshape my life. It was not a pleasant experience, and it did not eliminate my fear of death. In fact, although it included nothing like demons or physical torment, and although it never occurred to me then or later that I had died, the event left me with a horror of a negating something that was “out there,” and that would be waiting for me when I did die.
In the moments of that experience, there was an “I”—the ordinary sense of myself—being told that my life—which was mine but in some way distinguishable from the “I”—did not exist and indeed had never existed as the “I” believed. My self, my reality, were not real. (The idea that the “I” was simply consciousness was not part of that conversation nor of my interpretation until years later. It’s hard, now, to explain that the word “consciousness” was not part of my ordinary thinking as it is today; but then it was a term far in the future.)
What was most tangible about the event itself was what I would later call the “instant Holocaust,” information that everything I knew and loved was not real, that my babies, my family, grass, robins, ice cream, peaches, Earth itself, were not real—and my belief that if they were not real, they had been obliterated and there was no home to return to. God was nowhere in evidence, though was perhaps hidden over by the horizon; nothing existed but the infinite Void, and the circles which had moved on, and my sense of floating, or being somehow suspended, utterly alone in immensity.
More than twenty years later I first recognized that “holocaust” as an experience of what actual death involves, a totality of leaving-behind. So, though to this day I do not believe I died, I know first-hand how death may involve not fear but overwhelming, incapacitating grief, not only of those left behind. The question is whether in actual death enough of personal consciousness remains to do the grieving; for if so, that is reason enough to fear.
Here again, NDErs report no such sense of painful separation, no longings to return, only joy at being wherever that elsewhere may be. I lean heavily on their words.
I won’t really be too surprised if I regain consciousness. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ‘I’ regain consciousness.
In a Psychology Today column a few years back, physician Alex Lickerman wrote candidly, “Whenever I’ve tried wrapping my mind around the concept of my own demise—truly envisioned the world continuing on without me, the essence of what I am utterly gone forever—I’ve unearthed a fear so overwhelming my mind has been turned aside as if my imagination and the idea of my own end were two magnets of identical polarity, unwilling to meet no matter how hard I tried to make them.”
Makes me wonder if he played Candy Crush at those times.
The terror is palpable and recognizable, but it is not fear of death but a fear entirely this side of the line. It is the personalized, self-directed version of the previous bereavement issue, the despairing cry of ego. The notion of releasing all claim to self as the ultimate spiritual endeavor is what makes Buddhism so difficult for most Westerners to comprehend. (See my extended discussion of this in Chapter 9 of Dancing Past the Dark, “Widening the Horizon: East and West, thinking the way we do.”)
Another observation on afterlife and the release of self, more nuanced, comes again from Charlie Tart, whose work on states of consciousness has been foundational, and who knows better than most the persuasive evidence of some kind of continuation after death:
“After 25 years of studying this, I have come to two conclusions. One is that, as I die, after a period of confusion and fear, I won’t really be too surprised if I regain consciousness. On the other hand, I will be very surprised if ‘I’ regain consciousness.”
Tart is Western, has spent most of his long academic career studying such things, and has been studying Vispassana mindfulness meditation for years to reach that conclusion. For those of us less well prepared to let ego diminish and dissipate, there seems nothing for it but to endure our anxiety. It’s not an easy matter, one way or another.
None of this so far has addressed what I recognize as the question behind the question: “What about hell? You had a really disturbing NDE; are you afraid of hell?” As this piece is already very long for a blog post, and I have sworn to myelf to put it out tonight, I will undertake that answer in Part 2. It is already in process, and my goal is to get it to you in days rather than weeks. And no Candy Crush this time!
When I was a small child, I was petrified of death. I remember crying at night and screaming “I don’t want to die”. The thought of dying completely overwhelmed to the point that I felt almost paralysed and sick. After a serious accident these fears returned. I was recommended the book “Heaven is for Real”. Grasping at something to allay my fears, I hang onto the belief that there is an afterlife and that we will meet our loved ones in heaven. The conforting thing about these beliefs is that since there is no proof one way or another, my beliefs cannot be mocked.
Nan Bush says
Barb, one of the things I love about the people who read this blog is that they NEVER mock! Thanks so much for commenting.
Rhondda Hardy says
It’s nice to unite with others thru your Blog as we put thought to a scary topic. Going forward, I’m glad my Bible Lesson this week begins with John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” (Good News Translation in Today’s English Version – Second Edition)
Keep up the good work. Love you,
Nan Bush says
Rhon, and I love you, too. Topic's gonna be okay, not scary, really. Stick with John, honey girl.
First of all – thanks so much for answering such a difficult question. I’m eager to post a comment, first of all to encourage you that your thoughts and insights are valued, and second to express my own concerns and feelings. I think I can understand in part your difficulties in putting together this post as I have started this comment and deleted it a number of times! I’m hoping to put together some coherent thoughts (when I’ve organised my own mind) and post those – but to get the ball rolling and say something (anything) here’s some first thoughts.
Like many I’m sure, when the nde first became known I was hugely optimistic and constructed a world view based on these positive experiences. “Phew – thank goodness. It’s all (life that is) FOR something – someone’s in charge” could summarise my response. However – we all know what happened next – not too positive stories started to emerge. Since that realisation I (and many others I think) have been trying to make sense of the seemingly conflicting “versions” of the afterlife landscape. That there is an afterlife I’m in no doubt, but how to understand and navigate it. My own strategy is to try to integrate all versions of this landscape (if I can call it that). The distressing version (like your own) must fit in somehow with the radiant. You mention in passing that God was maybe over the horizon in your experience.
Many radiant ndes state that forgiveness is available for all deeds and (so we can conclude from that that the distressing nde is not a punishment) and that the life we are all given to live is a learning process for the soul’s advancement. Perhaps this applies also to some aspects of the nde.
It seems to me that some nders seek to apply their own experience to all, as if their experience describes the cosmos. Books have been written stating more or less – “this is how it was or me – this is how it is for everyone.”
I think I’m getting a bit tangled up here so will leave it there for now, and hopefully post some more comments/questions when I’ve given it all some more thought.
Thanks again Nan – this is the only place to go to for answers/thoughts on the full range of experiences. Keep going.
Nan Bush says
Many thanks. And I just used your last line as a Tweet!
“The experiencers may still feel apprehensive about the process of getting there, but they are convinced by their own subjective knowledge that death itself will be indescribably beautiful. They know this with such certitude that is almost unshakable, so strong that one experiencer I know seriously berated a grief-stricken friend (also an NDEr) who was mourning the death of her husband of forty-plus years: Rejoice! the other experiencer demanded.”
I won’t say that death is what gives life value, but it dang sure has a way of punctuating, underscoring, and putting that value in bold typeface. It’s almost as if the fear of death is The Divine’s way of saying “Hey! Wake up! Pay attention!”
The great tragedy of war-torn countries is that death and its ensuing grief becomes so common, a collectively protective numbing mental illness sets in. This life loses its value, and compassion becomes a liability.
Radiant near-death experiencer’s fully appreciate life at a level non-experiencer’s can only dream of, and their assurances of an afterlife are absolutely inspiring for those with ears to listen. I know their accounts have totally rocked and reshaped my world for the better.
But daggumit, I’m in no hurry to die. My wife will be alone. She has family for support, but we understand each other in a way that only we share. If she dies, forget the wind, the whole sail gets ripped off my ship. Death sucks.
I wonder if these little glimpses and clues of an afterlife are evidentially ethereal for a reason. They give us hope, but they are not meant as a substitute for living this life.
Obsession over the afterlife by the non-actively grieving can be an unhealthy distraction. We can talk about life as an illusion, multi-universes, Other Worlds and Heaven-is-for-real all we want, but right now, we’re HERE. We’ve got work to do. Fear of death is a life affirming position.
In addition to distressing experiences, there’s the other NDE topic taboo – suicide. As in, encouragement of the act by reassurance of a Better Place.
In Sam Parnia’s book, Erasing Death, he all but flat-out states that people who commit suicide have distressing NDE’s. I don’t believe that, and I don’t know if he actually believes it either, but I understand why he says it. He’s writing one of the best books defending the continuation of consciousness, but he has no idea whose hands it will land in. He’s a doctor, and he obviously stands by the creed “Do no harm”, so I suspect he is trying to discourage clinically depressed people from perverting the purpose of his message of hope.
On the other hand, maybe his publisher told him to put it in for legal liability purposes, I dunno.
It’s a catch-22. Suicide victims have come back reporting transcendent experiences, and continue on to live life at its fullest, but I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t at least a few cases of folks who gave up their struggle with this life, encouraged by positive near-death experiences.
By no means should NDEr’s be timid about their experiences, in fact, I want them to shout it from the rooftops. People are always going to find reasons to do what they wanted to do to begin with.
But the fact is, when we look at the whole spectrum of evidence, we really don’t completely know what happens after this life. I don’t even think we’re capable of it.
The best we can do is find encouragement where we can (it’s abundant if you look for it), and be here. Now.
Nan Bush says
According to Bruce Greyson’s decades-long study of suicides and NDE, Parnia is flat-out wrong. Suicide-related NDEs are NOT all distressing, by any means. Unless Parnia knows of a serious suicide/NDE study other than Greyson’s, I don’t know where he is getting his data. I have spoken with people whose NDEs originated in a suicide attempt, and those conversations also do not all support Parnia’s position.
To repeat: it is UNTRUE that all suicide-related NDEs are distressing, even though the conventional wisdom would expect that to be the case. Certainly some suicide NDEs are distressing, but it is by no means all and may not even come close to being a majority.
What is statistically true is that people whose suicide attempt includes an NDE are significantly LESS likely to make another attempt than those without an NDE. The reason seems to be the sense they got from the experience that they and their lives have value and are supposed to continue. This is not a distressing NDE!
Furthermore, I wonder if Parnia has considered the effect of his blanket categorization on the families and friends of true suicides. He leaves them nothing but his conviction that their loved persons have all either died in emotional agony or that they are in hell. That is an additional burden they should not have to bear.
Donald H H Cooper says
I really enjoyed this article.
Nan Bush says
I’ve read again your post Nan and I have to say that it’s a couple of short asides that are most interesting (to me.)
“NDErs report no such sense of painful separation, no longings to return, only joy at being wherever that elsewhere may be. I lean heavily on their words.”
I’m assuming that you try to understand your own experience in the light of these others (?)
“So, though to this day I do not believe I died”
Do you think that your own experience was not a true experience of death (maybe it would have been different if it had been or would have progressed differently) or do you think that all nders have not really died.
You describe at length the dissipation of the ego and all that involves – but – again that is not a universal experience. Do you think it is a part of a universal experience but perceived in different ways. Sorry to interrogate you but I’m really curious.
I know you’ve said in the past that you’re no expert just because you’ve had an nde, but in a way we (all us non-experiencers) feel that you (all nders) are privy to privileged information. You’ve been where we haven’t been.
I feel that the answers to the big questions are to be found there. It takes some digging as they vary so much.
It’s frustrating that so many experiencers have all their question answered (to their satisfaction) and have the sense of understanding everything (though not able to bring back these answers.) I wish someone would ask why are some experiences are so distressing.
Re Sam Parnia and his take on suicides, he is another one who is in denial about the nnde.
Also thanks to rabbitdawg for reminding me that this life is to be lived fully. Sometimes I get so bogged down with issues of death that enthusiasm for life suffers.
Nan Bush says
Such marvelous points and questions! I would love to jump right in on them…but I’m trying to keep my promise to get Part 2 of this series up by this weekend. Maybe I can incorporate responses to you into the post. If not, later. Now I’m back to work. Thanks so much for this, including your thanks to rabbitdawg. He’s earned lots of thanks!
“It seems to me that some nders seek to apply their own experience to all, as if their experience describes the cosmos. Books have been written stating more or less – “this is how it was or me – this is how it is for everyone.”
Good call, MDD. I got so carried away on my last comment, I missed giving this point my “Amen”. Although sharing the exuberance resulting from an encounter with The Light is well intended and charismatic, it can just as easily drive people away.
For instance, look at Heaven Is For Real. It’s essentially an evangelism tool, and it’s not even founded on a particularly strong case. As pop-culture cases go, the unfortunately titled Proof of Heaven is much better. At least Eben Alexander has documentation for his brain’s catastrophic condition at the time of his NDE. But then, Eben isn’t pushing a religion, and he openly recognizes distressing NDE’s.
I believe he attracts a lot of flak because he doesn’t have an ulterior New Age or religious agenda to marshal supporters around. Which brings me around to a segue…
Why is it that so many deep near-death experiencer’s have encounters with a Light or celestial being that tells them, in no uncertain terms, that giving love and compassion is the most important thing in life –
Then they come back and devote the rest of their lives trying to figure out what their “mission” in life is. *sigh*
Hello there, am new to your blog.
This quote from your post seems compelling.
“In the moments of that experience, there was an “I”—the ordinary sense of myself—being told that my life—which was mine but in some way distinguishable from the “I”—did not exist and indeed had never existed as the “I” believed.”
By chance are these concepts (including “instant holocaust”) described in more detail elsewhere on your blog? Or were these revelations subsequently rejected or abandoned?
I have not conversed with another who had an even remote clue what I might attempt to describe, either death/life-destruction related, NDE, or the numerous subsequent indescribable experiences and revelations — including experiences through (what I would only call) the bottomless pits of hell. So will read more soon. Best.
Nan Bush says
Michaela, this is actually the first time I have tried to describe the sensations of the experience in this kind of minute detail. However, here is a post from last year that may be helpful. It’s mostly a long quote from a woman, now deceased, named El Collie, and includes a link to her simply spectacular article.
I’ll rummage around my memory and see what else pops up. In the meantime, I hope you’ll stay with us here. Look for the email signup form on the home page.
Hi Nan, great, and will need a few passes to absorb these posts. From a quick pass, it seems our paths are similar in some ways, yet also quite different. (surprise surprise)
And to mention, it appears the El Collie site is now defunct, so may dig further. Have not heard her story before. Best.
Nan Bush says
Michaela, Google either of these – Branded by the Spirit – Kundalini Awakening Systems 1 or
– El Collie Awakening to the Self
Either of those should get you to a search list where that first title is the third url down. Click on it, and it will download a PDF file. The article I wrote about begins on page 23. Depending on how it strikes you, you might also want to download her PDF book.
Hope this works for you.
Hi. I think I was on here before, as “Hierax”. Just wanted to throw it out there, but I think maybe the thing that REALLY scares people is that they don’t know what comes next. I’ll say more on the next blog post when I’ve had time to chew over it properly.
“The experiencers may still feel apprehensive about the process of getting there, but they are convinced by their own subjective knowledge that death itself will be indescribably beautiful. They know this with such certitude that is almost unshakable, so strong that one experiencer I know seriously berated a grief-stricken friend (also an NDEr) who was mourning the death of her husband of forty-plus years: Rejoice! the other experiencer demanded.”~NEB
Ya know, I mad at times when I get this attitude from blissful NDE’rs of berating someone who’s lost a loved one or expresses fear of death. It may seem that they know something that would relieve anybody. But what they fail to realize is that permanent or not, when a loved one dies, that means the mourning person has to be separated from the loved one. And its that separation that even bNDE’rs must be mindful of and sensitive toward!
Me, I’ve long been afraid of the absolute loneliness of the “otherside”. But over the years, I’ve taken efforts to strengthen my spirituality. Now, I’m not as afraid of going into the otherside. But that doesn’t means my fear of the PROCESS of death (ie. being shot, stabbed, or otherwise violently killed) has lessened any!
Dave Woods says
Death is the ultimate adventure of life. I for one am looking forward to it. This is not because I’m tired of life, giving up, or suicidal.
This view encourages me to live life. I’m good to others, and my family, and try to do the right things. Not because I’m supposed to, or fear not to, but because I find it fulfilling to do so.
I’m having fun trying to create the most fulfilling death experience for myself that I can enjoy earning.
I’m also acutely aware of all the pain I inflicted on the life around me when i didn’t know any better, and I’m so sorry. How…..could I have done.. that.
I see my life review every day, here, now. Because of this, I forgive, try to understand, help, and don’t judge others. I know why, from the very core that I have no right to do so.
I’ve fought death three different times in the hospital. I fought not because i was afraid of death. I fought because I knew how bad off my loved ones would be without me. I fought for them. This was my strength.
I’m living my 80th year now, and when I leave, They’ll know I did my best for them, such as it was, and they’ll know that I embraced death, and did not die in fear.
Most other dark NDE’rs I know are afraid of death, at least initially. Yet Angie Fenimore (whom I understand is a dark NDE’r) isn’t afraid in the least.
Linda Seay-Skaggs says
Death I do not fear and hope I go to Heaven!
After experiencing a distressing death…geesh, I do not know for sure.
About suicide: My son took his life and shortly after he appeared to someone with a message for me. A relief for me for him! I know he is OK.
My dear wife who became mentally ill after a disagreement with a co worker, committed suicide in 2012 after 3 prior unsuccessful attempts stretching over 5 years. Now at age 65, still in mourning, and with no foreseeable prospects to find any reasonable degree of happiness in this life, I not only do not fear death, but I very much welcome the prospect, and the sooner the better. Am I suicidal ? Haven’t made any attempts to date although i think about it every day. What I do fear, is the prospect of the ‘afterlife’ being a reality. As my username implies, I’ve had enough, and would prefer extinction to any form of survival .
Nan Bush says
I am so sorry for your long, difficult ordeal. At two years, grief is still young in this kind of pain, and healing seems endless, though that is a cruel deception. A line from Edna St.Vincent Millay just came to mind: “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll.” I hope you will keep on, and will find your kinder time. You are in my thoughts.
Guillermo Garcia says
Do not give up. I know perfectly how dense is the fog that death generates about; but a painful death in the family is not necessarily a stumbling block, it can be a stepping stone from which to view Life from a broader, wiser perspective, a point from wich to start again. Do not close the door to Life, you have good health, can walk, see, write, etc., You have a treasure that no money can buy, dont throw away that treasure. Make a new covenant with Life and start again, is never to late. Use the treasure of being alive and in good health to help others and you´ll find a new meaning for the Word happiness, certainly very different to the meaning You had years ago, but that is to evolve and is in our deep nature to evolve and keep existing, being a new versión of ourselves specially when misfortune strikes us. Embrace the cause of Life and You will find a new bright day ahead. Paraphaising the wise words of Nancy, do nothing else for death, we must live until we die do not hurry, death will not forget to call Us and when death call we will have to answer whether we like it or not and that is to do more tan enough for death, meanwhile do not give up.
We are kindred spirits from losing loved ones through suicide. I understand that grief. And I am so very sorry you are having this experience. I could not save my son and it took time to accept that.
Give yourself the gift of time to heal from such grief. I’m glad I did. To take my own life would not bring back my son.
“This too will pass.” I know.
You will not be “extint” upon death. No one is. Always, there is life. You can’t escape your self so it is far better to work things through here.
Start dating! Life is short so enjoy yourself. Love your self!
Thank you for the replies and words of encouragement. I won’t be throwing in the towel anytime soon, although I have given emotional recovery my very best shot over the past 2 1/2 years with my various volunteer activities, vintage car restoration, successful physical endurance challenges, travel etc. The thing is, these were all activities that gave me immense enjoyment back when my wife was still with me, but although i put the same energy into these pursuits, there is very little enjoyment or sense of accomplishment.They are mere temporary distractions that give brief respite to the endless feelings of loss and the memory of that horrific day back in May 2012. I’m afraid that I have fallen into the trap that I was warned against by an experienced lady that I had a brief affair with when in my late teens. ” Never depend on someone else for your own happiness “. The source of my happiness is now gone, and try as I do, nothing feels worth doing .