No, we are not dead, nor even really gone. The blog and I simply got overscheduled, overdue, and overtired and had to take a time out.
It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing, mind you. There’ve been substantial family matters to deal with, and facilitating two groups at church, and a stupefyingly advanced college class reunion back in New York State. And then came the IANDS conference, which went so well it has occurred to me that you might like to know what I said in my presentation, which provides this post. Furthermore, over its three-year history, this blog has accumulated 117 posts, most of them articles not published anywhere else, so I am working on revising and restructuring the best of them into book form. (Please stay tuned, as I’m going to be asking your help finding a title.)
The conference presentation was an hour long, far too much for a single blog post, so you will find it distributed over the next four weeks (and, if you wait a bit, as a chapter in the new book). As always, your comments will be welcome.
It feels good to be back.
Scary Rites of Passage:
Accepting Distressing NDEs as Spiritual Experiences
“Near-death experiences as rites of passage” is the compelling theme for the 2015 conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Rites of passage always demand change, and so I am taking the theme as an invitation to look at a specific change—not only for experiencers but for all of us.
For decades, the people who struggle with the scary rite of passage we call a distressing NDE have been told there is something amiss about them—that having this kind of experience means that in their very characters they are wrong—angry, fearful, depressed, mean, cold, hostile, unloving, unspiritual, God-denying, sinful, and more, or that the experience they had did not qualify as spiritual and wasn’t really an NDE. Today the change I am going to talk about is a change in our thinking. I will be telling you what I believe we as an organization and as informed individuals ought to be saying instead.
I want to begin with a fascinating observation by cultural historian Richard Tarnas, from his prodigious book, Cosmos and Psyche—and if you’re interested in a good, long read, I recommend this one highly:
Within the timespan of a single generation surrounding the year 1500, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael created their many masterworks of the Late Renaissance…; Columbus sailed west and reached America, Vasco de Gama sailed east and reached India, and the Magellan expedition circumnavigated the globe, opening the world forever to itself; Luther posted his theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church and began the enormous convulsion of Europe and the Western psyche called the Reformation; and Copernicus conceived the heliocentric theory and began the even more momentous Scientific Revolution. From this instant, the human self, the known world, the cosmos, heaven, and earth were all radically and irrevocably transformed. All this happened within a period of time briefer than that which has passed since Woodstock and the Moon landing.
What does this have to do with distressing NDEs? We are in another such time now, when all our foundations seem to be suddenly crumbling, a time of explosive globalism, of tumultuous new knowledge, of radical shifts in beliefs and mores…and isn’t it interesting that the theme of this conference comes just now! My summary for this hour is: “We must learn to be brave enough to change the cosmology of our thinking.”
In the words of Mircea Eliade, the great interpreter of religious experience and shamanism, a rite of passage brings about “a change in a person’s existential condition,” the very sense of being, which is certainly true of NDEs. I am suggesting that we need to recognize the extent to which all of Western culture is currently going through just that kind of passage, and that it involves our way of being and thinking. We must move from our persistent pre-Copernican ideas to an understanding that fits the present world and its more accurate cosmology. And that means, among other things, that we must change how we think about distressing NDEs.
Rites of passage
In our sophisticated Western world, we tend to think of rites of passage as happy occasions – marriage, baptism, graduation, joining a social club, maybe a retirement. Initiation involves a celebration, a party time. In their original settings, this has not been so.
Traditionally, most initiations have been traumatic. Even today, think of the bris, when an eight-day-old Jewish baby boy is circumcised—a happy celebration for the adults welcoming the infant into his great historic community, but what is it for the baby? Think of the societies in which little girls are ritually mutilated sexually, their labia and clitoris sliced away; or of the puberty rites in which generation after generation of pubescent boys have been slashed, stabbed, scarred, impaled, terrified, sent into the wild alone to survive or not as their skill permits. (And much the same applies to some fraternity hazings.) And of course there are the even more severe initiations such as those which create a shaman, spiritual experiences crowded with demons, nightmarish monsters, dismemberment, encounters which produce cognitive dissonance and PTSD.
Every rite of passage consists of three stages: the ‘before’ of life, with preparation for the change; the passage or transition (the experience itself); and reincorporation into the ‘after’ of life in which a change has been accomplished. These phases operate whether the rite is intentional or spontaneous, pleasant or horrible.
In the first stage, people withdraw from their ordinary status and prepare to move to another – there may be classes, as with confirmation and Bar Mitzvah preparation; or physical changes, like the haircuts of basic training (“cutting away” the civilian self); after an NDE, this stage might be seen as hospital admission and its attendant nakedness.
The transition phase is the actual rite or experience, during which one has left the former place or state but has not yet entered the next. In ordeal rites, such as shamanic initiation and deeply distressing NDEs, this phase has three distinct aspects, represented as suffering, death, and resurrection.
Eliade has claimed, “It is primarily these ordeals that constitute the religious experience of initiation—the encounter with the sacred. The majority of initiatory ordeals more or less clearly imply a ritual death followed by resurrection or a new birth…Initiatory death signifies the end at once of childhood, of ignorance, and of the profane condition.” Thus, the archetypal pattern has been carried for two thousand years in Christian imagery. But what have we lost by not hearing distressing NDEs referred to as encounters with the sacred?
In the third phase (incorporation), the individual makes a reentry into society with a new status. In traditional societies, reincorporation is often marked by elaborate rituals and ceremonies. The Western pattern is to celebrate after a happy rite: there are debutant balls, wedding receptions, and extensive college graduation and new-member ceremonies, with permanent symbols such as a mortarboard, pin, or tie. However, the West has no such ceremonial cultural markers after traumatic ordeals, whether a return from war or from inner distress. In fact, this is where Western culture misses the mark with veterans and all NDErs alike, who are left to muddle through integration alone and without mentors.
[To be continued next week.]
Hope Kiser says
You’re writing a new book?! I want to read it. Please reserve a copy for me.
Nan Bush says
If you’re not careful, I might ask you to be a beta reader!
Thank you for this powerful post.
I haven’t personally experienced an NDE, but I know several people who have had NDEs. Most were considered “positive” and one was considered by the experiencer as so horribly “negative” he refused to ever talk about it again. It seemed especially difficult for him as he has always been a good, caring, loving man and believed in God. I so wish I had contact with him as I would like to have shared this with him.
I am currently reading your book, as well, and finding it extremely helpful. I have had “fainting spells” where I experienced an “altered state” when I lost consciousness, but can’t seem to find anything on that.
I have PTSD, and know others with PTSD (some are Veterans and some are not), and while this post is written with NDErs in mind, I can’t tell you how much this post has helped me.
Nan Bush says
DME, thank you so much for the encouragement! I am glad to know the work is helpful.
“However, the West has no such ceremonial cultural markers after traumatic ordeals, whether return from war or from inner distress. In fact, this is where Western culture misses the mark with veterans and all NDErs alike, who are left to muddle through integration alone and without mentors.”
How true Nan! I look forward to the next post.
As an aside, I have a signed copy of Tarnas’s book, having heard him speak at an Atlanta Jung Society conference. I’ve felt so ambiguous about the book’s premise, but now feel I’d like to go on reading it.
Nan Bush says
Jan, I’d love to hear him in person! I found the book fascinating, though with the ambiguity you mention. Still, such insights!
Oh boy! A new book! While reading the reviews of Richard Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche on Amazon, I was a bit taken aback by his apparent leaning on Astrology. So were most of the reviewers, before they read the book.
I’m not completely hostile to Astrology, but I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around the idea that planets and stars could have a significant effect on anyone’s life. I mean, gravity can’t possibly explain Donald Trump.
But after reading the second reader review of Cosmos and Psyche, a concept was presented that described Astrology in a way I had never thought about before. It’s all about synchronicity, not causality. Duh!
I’m a big believer in synchronous events. Sure, there’s a lot of woo out there when it comes to correlation and causation, but I know for a fact that I see synchronous events all the time that are distinctly meaningful to me, yet difficult to describe to others.
For instance, after reading this this blog entry, which ends by mentioning how Western culture offers “no such ceremonial cultural markers after traumatic ordeals, whether a return from war or from inner distress” on my phone, I switched over to a movie I had downloaded on my Kindle Fire. It was paused on the middle of an episode of a British TV series called Global Spirit. The narrators were discussing how soldiers returning from war in the Western world have no ritual reintegration like warriors of the past have benefited from. Essentially the same point that you were making.
Nothing dazzling, just one of life’s many little synchronicities.
I’m holding comment on the main blog entry until it further develops, but in the meantime I’ll be checking out Cosmos and Psyche. Also, it looks like Richard Tarnas has another great book called The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View.
Thanks Nan! We can always count on you to steer us out of the same old ‘Truth is Forever and Always Sweetness and Light’ rut.
In other words, thank you for keeping it real. 🙂
Nan Bush says
Another classic RabbitDawg comment! So many thanks, Henry–especially for the gem of a “synchronicity, not causality” summation of astrology.
Rabbitdawg, I was just going to respond to your post on synchronicities and how for me, I am constantly seeing the number 11, all the time. I sit down to post this to you and notice in the corner of this blog, is an 11, (for 11 comments) …(for me there is a great significance to this number).
I just received a package from my mother the other day, it is stamped 11, 11, but this number sees to pop out at me all the time.
Dave Woods says
I’m glad you’re back. Don’t shoot me for saying this, but this Blog is the “Face Book” of the truly inquisitively spiritual people. All I can say about secular Face Book is, “if this! is the mind set of the human race…..we’re lost….forget it. I have also been exploring and reading revealing books by Chris Hedges, and Bill Sill. These are frighteningly revealing historically, and also in the here and now about power and corruption in the human condition. It seems that the same thing has been going on all throughout human history. Don’t worry, I won’t be interjecting any of this into our truly spiritual blog. The human condition itself is a scary rite of passage even before you die. I’ve thought about it as an “Earth School”. Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, and our sold out Congress wear spiritual dunce caps.The Occupy Wall Street people were those who had the courage and spirituality to face them. This in itself was a great spiritual victory….. even though materially, they lost. They will take this spiritual victory with them when they die.
Nan Bush says
And I’m glad you’re back, too. The human condition is, indeed, a very scary challenge. Best we hang in together.
Dave Woods says
I don’t think we have a choice.