Yes, it’s small; but we take what we can get and are grateful. The ‘Sample chapter’ link at the menu bar is now properly configured and includes Chapter 2, “The Other Shoe.” Love those support forums!
Over at the Aciste website, a commenter has observed, “It seems to me a distressing NDE could be the same as the nightmares we have when we dream. The soul projecting its fears.”
This points to one of the basic questions about NDEs in general, and their relationship to dreams. If a distressing NDE could be the same as a nightmare, then by the same token one could say—as many people have–that a pleasant NDE is the same as a happy dream, perhaps the soul’s projecting its hopes.
The response in either case is that the commonality between dream and NDE is limited: both occur during a period of unconsciousness, and both involve imaginal content, that is, content that is not consciously made up, deliberately imagined. That’s pretty much where the similarity stops, for whereas dreaming is a routine and necessary part of sleep for everyone, most NDEs and similar episodes are once-in-a-lifetime events that occur to a minority of people. Whereas the content of dreams is idiosyncratic and personal, NDEs tend to follow a loose pattern of similar elements–out-of-body experience, movement through space, intense emotional quality, and so on. Further, even strongly felt dreams miss the intensity factor of NDEs by several magnitudes; they rarely remain in memory the way NDEs do, typically for a lifetime, and they are not marked by transcendent content. More needs to be said about the dream/NDE imaginal connection, but that must wait for a later post.
Another factor, more difficult to address, is the extent, if any, to which people’s imaginal life (whether dreaming or NDE-like) is a projection of their ordinary mode of functioning in daily life. There is a widespread assumption that a person who has a distressing NDE must either have a guilt-and-fear-ridden past or operate from a state of persisting negativity, controlled by fears and anxieties which are then reflected by the NDE. However, distressing NDEs do not necessarily typify the general psychological or emotional modality of the individuals reporting the experience, many of whom have found great difficulty in reconciling the circumstances of their lives, beliefs, and behaviors with the content of their NDE.
Similarly, on the other side of the NDE world, it is clear from thousands of detailed experience accounts that people who have reported extremely pleasant NDEs had often not been functioning from a positive emotional base that would be expected to attract affirming experiences. Many glorious NDEs have been reported after suicide attempts and/or by individuals who say (supported by family members) that they were angry, repressed, fearful or hostile individuals whose lives were subsequently transformed by the event. The element of randomness in NDE types has not even begun to be studied.
In short, although every type of human experience is felt and interpreted through the filters of an individual’s existing conceptual framework, temperament, and memories, it seems clear that the explanation for any NDE type of event will be a good deal more complex than projection or simple dreaming–as if any dreaming were simple!
We left our researchers waiting for the other shoe to fall. See the “Sample chapter” link, above, to follow the adventure.
My first experience with debilitating arthritis came while I was still working as a technical writer for a software company in Connecticut. I’d finished a document, sent it to the distant printer, and stepped out of my cubicle to go retrieve it. Maybe two steps into the corridor, and WHAM! Excruciating pain, and my left knee buckled, unable to support weight. So there I stood, hanging onto the top of the cubicle corridor wall, wondering how to get back to a chair and how long it might be possible to seem casual out there with my white-knuckled fingers clamped over the top of someone else’s cube, unable to move.
An orthopedist later explained what had happened: “You hit a pothole in the cartilage.”
This is a metaphor with many uses, applicable also to distressing NDEs and their relatives. It’s certainly more helpful than the conventional judgments about deservingness or attraction. The cosmos is a violent place as well as tranquil, terrible darkness alongside glorious light. Neither dark nor light is the whole.
Why shouldn’t the spiritual road have potholes? They’re not forever.
Thanks to RabbitDawg for initiating this post. See his comment under “Swedenborg’s hell” for a full explanation of his question. In brief, having just read Chris Carter’s Science and Near Death Experience, RabbitDawg notes, “[I]t seems like Chris Carter is saying that Bruce Greyson, Ken Ring and you conducted a study and concluded that your NDE was a fairly common ‘type’ of NDE that can be brought on by nitrous oxide, when given to women undergoing a difficult childbirth. In other words, the specifics of what is experienced during this type of NDE is governed by the anesthesia. It also seems to imply that this type of NDE is not a ‘true’ Near Death Experience, and is little more than ‘a bad trip.'”
Here’s my response:
First, I’m pleased to see that Chris Carter, in Science and Near Death Experience, lists three types of disturbing NDEs, as they are those that Bruce Greyson and I identified in 1992 in what is, so far as I am aware, the only actual attempt at a descriptive study specifically about these types of experience. We had numbered them differently, in order of their frequency in our study: 1) Inverted (Ken Ring’s term); 2) Meaningless Void; and 3) Hellish.
Bruce and I did the study, the collection of data for which took ten years; Ken Ring commented on it after its publication in the journal Psychiatry. In today’s terms, it can hardly be termed a “research” study, because of our minimal attention to statistical and even systematic demographic information. The enormous pressures of shame, fear, cultural prejudice, and psychological trauma kept most individuals with frightening experiences tightly closeted at that time (as many are still); they tended to disappear immediately and permanently after sharing an experience account, leaving data collection in considerable disarray (so many unreturned questionnaires and phone calls!) However, the study provides the only first-generation (after Moody) description and initial analysis of fifty disturbing NDEs.
The original article included four accounts related directly or indirectly to childbirth under anesthesia, assumedly nitrous oxide. One is a Type #1, inverted account, the others are Type #2, the Void; another Type #2 account quoted in the article occurred with no known drug involvement during an auto accident. From the original study’s sample and accounts gathered in the years since, it is safe to say that childbirth—especially childbirth under nitrous oxide—seems productive of NDEs. It is by no means the only precipitant.
Further, anesthesia is not the only factor, by any means, associated with experiences of the Void. As Ring himself first said, being close to death is a reliable trigger for NDEs; it does not constitute not the sole meaning or determinant. Ditto, I believe, for both childbirth and anesthesia.
Now, about the reductionist argument that “it’s only” the anesthesia and therefore not a “real NDE,” there are several points to be made.
- Most centrally, is our interest in the experience or in its trigger? My interest, both personally and investigatively, continues to be in the experience and its effects on people’s lives, how they explain it and its meaning to themselves, how they learn to live with its residue in their lives. Whether it was precipitated by a particular drug, a smack upside the head, or being half devoured by a tiger is irrelevant; any near-death or similar experience and its meaning in an individual life are what that person has to live with. Anything else, whether exotic or commonplace, is storytelling background. (As is my mention of the tiger.)
- We need to keep reminding ourselves that in terms of experience, we are like television sets: just as programs can’t reach our living rooms without coming through the hardware, every human experience has to come through our physiological system. For a neuroscientist or electrician, it may be the wiring that fascinates. For most of the rest of us, we don’t say about “American Idol,” oh, it’s only wires; it’s the program that matters, not how it gets to us. An experience, like a program, has its own existence independent of the transmitting components. My focus is on that independent existence.
- There has been a strong and consistent general reluctance (material for any number of future posts) even to look at, much less accept as genuine, the distressing near-death experiences. In 1994, it was Ken Ring who put forward the argument about NDEs involving the Void that “such experiences—though highly real—are not true NDEs as such but are essentially emergence reactions to inadequate anesthesia…further intensified by initial resistance and fear.” However, he did not make a similar claim about blissful NDEs that occurred under identical circumstances. Childbirth itself has been associated with a great many pleasant, even blissful NDEs, as well as some that are deeply distressing. The question remains: If blissful NDEs under anesthesia are not doubted, why the other?
- People tend not to make these same trivializing claims when the precipitating cause of an NDE “is only” a cardiac arrest or traumatic accident; the fact that anesthesia is involved with some NDEs does not preclude their being NDEs. In the early 1980s, when claims were floating around that “negative” NDEs weren’t “real NDEs,” I surreptitiously analyzed my own experience against Ring’s Weighted Core Experience Index, for which a score of 11 indicated a genuine NDE. Out-of-body experience, movement through darkness, intense emotion, light/darkness, encounter with entities, messages and sense of knowingness, I added it all up, not padding anything. My score, obtained conservatively, was 17. So, yes, I consider these experiences of the Void to be true NDEs, just as papillons and Irish wolfhounds are both dogs.
The comments from Jim and Laurie, arriving chronologically close together, got me thinking about similarities in the ideas of Emanuel Swedenborg (Swedish scientist and philosopher, 1688-1722) and Carl Jung (Swiss psychologist and philosopher, 1875-1961). Both were strongly influenced by their Christian upbringings, and Swedenborg’s visions and writings were directed toward interpreting the Bible in what he believed to be a more correct way than that offered by tradition. (It’s continually fascinating to me to realize how much one can discover in the process, not of throwing out one’s tradition, but of challenging it at more than the level of adolescent rebellion.)
I wholeheartedly agree with Jim that anyone with an interest in distressing near-death experiences—any NDEs, actually—really ought to read Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. It is available in online versions, handily divided into paragraph-sized readings; a big plus is that many of today’s writers might wish to write so readably.
The similarities between Swedenborg’s many visions and NDEs are so strong that Raymond Moody devoted a section of Life After Life to them, saying in part:
“Each person…shapes their own eternity to correspond with their real inner nature. Some people become irrational, driven by fear and greed. Such people are in the spiritual condition which Swedenborg called hell…a psychological condition which corresponds to the suffering we experience on Earth when we allow ourselves to be driven by the blind greed of our own egos. There are no devils in hell to inflict punishments because in the hellish spiritual state each person acts out their own malice by tormenting others.”
If it seems that, without devils, Swedenborg’s describes a tame sort of hell, go look at any list of the 50 scariest movies. Or consider the work of any organization dealing with torture. Oh, the kinds of things our minds can generate entirely on their own, no devils required!
This ties neatly but perplexingly with Laurie’s comment about the Jungian Shadow: “It’s the duality of the good we think we are vs. the bad we believe we are NOT—opposites. But it could also go the other way—our Shadow can be something GOOD in us that we are not aware of… Maybe the painful, terrifying NDE is also showing something about us we are not aware of, but need to be. Maybe the positive NDE is too, in some way. Too simplistic or mechanistic a notion perhaps; nevertheless…this experience may not be punishment or reward, but simply a fact of nature.”