A reader asks, “How do you make sense of these experiences?” Ken Ring asked me that question once, and it seemed so totally unanswerable that I gave him a flip retort and absented myself from the conversation. I’ve felt bad about that for years, so, Ken, if by chance you’re reading this, here’s a more careful response (noting that it’s taken another twenty years to get here).
First, this is one of those questions with no single answer. Like learning to swim, making sense of these experiences is something we have to do for ourselves. Secondly, it strikes me that there’s less an “answer” than a chain of realizations. However, not to sound cryptic, let me just wander through some of my observations.
To be analytical, whatever sense is made of any NDE seems to depend initially on whatever vocabulary is available to the experiencer’s thinking. This is most easily explained if we think of an NDE not as a quasi-physical event but as an event in consciousness; from that perspective, what one encounters in an NDE is a series of concepts, to which we fit whatever identities we know of.
For instance, a person who has never heard of Hinduism or its content will not awaken thinking, “Omigosh, there was an elephant in the experience—Ganesha!” On the other hand, a non-Christian living in a Judeo-Christian culture and perceiving a loving, male-seeming. robed guide might at least wonder if the presence was Jesus, simply because the concept of a loving Jesus is so familiar within the wider culture. Likewise, people in heavily infrastructured societies report tunnels; people with no such engineered environment report similarly shaped long-necked gourds or hollow reeds. In short, step one is the hunt for descriptively appropriate labels; this may be virtually instantaneous or it may continue well into awakening. Without labels, there can be no meaning.
Once labels have been found to describe the first impression, I think temperament comes into play. Psychological testing has shown again and again that a considerable chunk of the human population operates most comfortably with definite answers to life’s questions (not a chain of realizations, but answers). They look for certainty, and if that security is not evident, they may invent it. It appears to me that this is where ideological precepts—whether religious doctrines or secular principles—serve as answers to “what was that?” So, depending on the person’s customary belief system, whether the labels applied to a distressing NDE describe it as a warning of hellfire or dismiss it as a hallucination, if the need for certainty is sufficiently strong that interpretation will harden like concrete.
Then come all the “buts.” But, not everyone wakes up with the NDE’s parts labeled. But, not everyone demands absolute certainty. But, what if the NDE and the description provided by my ideology/religion don’t fit? But, what if the explanation given by my belief system scares the wits out of me—what then? But, what if the labels are wrong? But, how do we know any of this? But, (fill in your own question). This is the part that takes a long time.
It is well known in near-death circles that most people’s visual descriptions of their NDEs are almost invariable over time; their accounts of sequence and impressions do not waver. However, except in those cases of rock-hard ideological certainty, interpretation of an NDE—especially a distressing NDE—is likely to develop and mature over time as new information and insights become available, and as integration progresses. This is not to suggest that they necessarily begin “making things up,” as the actual description of the NDE does not change; only its possible meanings shift.
[Note: In cases where recollections of the experience re-emerge over time, discernment will be important, testing the new memory for its validity as part of the NDE rather than a conscious add-on or “false memory.” I believe this is a particular hazard with the NDEs of children whose impressed adults press for more and more information until there remains a kernel of NDE surrounded by sincere embroideries.]
With distressing NDEs, a maturation of understanding can happen provided that the person has not fallen into an irreversible conviction of doom. In my case, what saved me from that was the innate stubbornness that has also been the bane of my life. However real that first interpretation seemed, as years went by I flatly refused to accept it as final; it was not fair, it did not fit, and there must, somewhere, be a better answer.
Others may have different trajectories; but for me, making sense not only of my own NDE but of others, once I knew about them, has gone through a whole range of stages. First, the immediate theological labeling, then terror, then repression, depression, and a great blank of many years. And then came the studying. That was like placer mining, sifting and sifting endless buckets of information for tiny glints of gold. (The list of references in the book Dancing Past the Dark takes up sixteen pages and is incomplete.)
The first inklings came with reading William James, then Arthur Koestler, Laurence LeShan, The Dancing Wu Li Masters. Then learning of Stanislav Grof’s work with the unconscious, and stumbling through the writings of Christian and Jewish mystics. Eventually, psychotherapist Alex Lukeman’s work on dreams. Intensive historical-critical study of scripture. Still later, it was a pastor saying to me, “You do know that for many seekers the Void is the ultimate spiritual experience, don’t you?” (That was a revelation!) As was bending spoons.
And then came a primary conceptual influence: photos from the Hubble telescope. I know, the photos are objective; but my subjective response was to see that the entire universe is made up of glorious light to deepest darkness, peace to unimaginable violence, sudden bursting events and unfathomable time spans. Just like our NDEs. The elements out there are the same as the elements in us. (Astrophysically speaking, we are made of stardust.) Whether one chooses to see this as the work of some natural process or the design of a Creator, the result is the same: This is where we live and the way it’s built, and the way it works is the way it works. Whether or not we have managed to describe those workings, we and our conceptions are drawn from an infinitesimally small pinprick corner of the whole—and that reality is way bigger than our intellectual abstractions.
So, first, I see enormity. And this enormity makes me think of the work of people like James Fowler, whose life work has been to study stages of faith, and Lawrence Kohlberg and his work on stages of moral development, and Jean Piaget and the many others who charted the stages of our cognitive and psychological development. And always, always, human development is discovered to move from the narrowest of views (centered on self) to broader ones (to include, sequentially, parent, family, school, church or other group, community, country, world). Whether involved with religious or secular faith, the path to maturity always broadens. What is restricted becomes stunted.
In other words, when confronted by a mystery vaster than our own understanding, we are challenged to give up accustomed ways of thinking and discover more comprehensive ones, to widen the view. This kind of stretching is always difficult, even when it happens naturally as part of moving, say, from being a child into being a teen, or whenever the first questions come to test authority and one’s basic beliefs.
In situations of trauma, which includes events such as natural catastrophe or an NDE, the slow, natural stretching of the developmental process jerks with shocking suddenness. Alex Lukeman has described this type of “instant revelation” as bringing “the destruction of traditional and habitual patterns of perception and understanding, including religious belief structures and socially accepted concepts of the nature of human existence and behavior.” There is nothing to do but rebuild. If the challenge is obstructed—when questioning is discouraged or doubt forbidden—growth stops; the person stays a conceptual 8-year-old or 12-year-old forever.
Yet as Fowler and others discovered, properly understood, giving up the convictions of one life phase, while it may be painful, is not loss of faith but its transformation; it is a process that leads to growth and deepening of faith, the leaving of childhood for maturity and, perhaps, wisdom. It is like climbing a mountain and seeing the horizon expand: what is invisible from the valley will open to view as the climb progresses. For those who believe that all of truth resides only in the laws of the valley, this can terrify.
For a person with a strongly materialist bent, the challenge may be to begin taking seriously all the inexplicable things that hang over the edges of the box of physical explanations—the “paranormal” that may turn out to be entirely normal but is not yet understood, the unseen workings of spirit that cannot be measured or replicated. For a person from a bounded religious tradition, the challenge will almost surely be to see beyond the edges of any single doctrinal position, to where a larger community of trust and faith waits.
The reader who asked about making sense of distressing NDEs also wrote, “In one of your articles, you write about “finding the gift in the dark”. What was that gift for you? I’m trying to hold on to my deepest experience/intuition that love is at the heart of things.”
I’m so glad she asked, because it has led me to the discovery that this entire process, this series of realizations, has been the gift. It is a destination that would almost certainly never have been reached in my life without that NDE.
A recent observation by the Rev. William C. Green may be appropriate here:
When my son turned fourteen he was puzzled by his inability to enjoy the amusement park where we’d passed many summer days. He kept going on the same roller coasters that had thrilled him. He kept riding the bumper cars he once loved. He again threw balls at moving targets to win the toys he’d been drawn to collecting. But the harder he tried to enjoy himself the more disappointed he felt. Something was wrong. Something had changed. It was time to move on.
One writer said, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another”… God, help us to let go of belief we have outgrown. May we move with you into the new life you have in store for us. Amen.