Can we accept dNDEs as true spiritual experience?
Is there evidence that only light experiences can be spiritual? That only positive experience is spiritually acceptable? No. The altered states of a shamanic initiation may often be psychotic, but there is little argument about their potential for being deeply spiritual. The betrayed and battered Jesus, dying forsaken on his cross, was clearly in profound spiritual crisis. The archetype of suffering/death/ and resurrection is universal as a spiritual reality.
Here is what four contemporary mystics of differing faith backgrounds say about suffering and its relation to spiritual truth:
What is true is, light attracts darkness, and darkness attracts light. It attracts it because they contain each other. They contain each other; you have to understand this.
This is why good people often attract such difficult experiences. This is why people like Gandhi or Mandela attracted dark experiences, but in fact it was contained so light could burst through. It was light and darkness at its fullest being held by these men. This is how a huge light/darkness soul works. If you see clearly, they have to contain both. They have to… how it manifests comes in the shape of the human society as it is.
…The darkness has to humble the light. The light has to temper the darkness. Darkness bats the light into submission, so it does not become arrogant. They require each other, as a force. The light pulls the cruelty out of the darkness. The darkness pulls the arrogance and abuse out of the light. They talk to each other. They need each other; together they evolve, they evolve, they evolve.
Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart, p 14
Reaching our limit is not some kind of punishment. It’s actually a sign of health that, when we meet the place where we are about to die, we feel fear and trembling. A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us…messengers telling us that we’re about to go into unknown territory.
I had believed, with a kind of spiritual hubris, that a deep and committed inner life would protect me from human suffering, that I could somehow deflate the power of the shadow with my metaphysical practices and beliefs. I had assumed, in effect, that it was managed, as I managed my moods and my diet, with the discipline of self-control… Seekers are often led to believe that, with the right teacher or the right practice, they can transcend to higher levels of awareness without dealing with their more petty vices or ugly emotional attachments. It doesn’t work.
It is my judgment that this [insistence on positive attitudes] is less defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture.
How much did their views make us want to argue back?
Wherever we resist most strongly, that’s where we need to look at our thinking.
Jung and depth psychology have given us the concept of Shadow, the concept that all our unacceptable parts are deeply buried so we can avoid looking at them. It is our immature ego which operates solely on the pleasure principle, keeping us mired in what we think is self-interest but which is really our fragmentation. But our deeper Self knows that we must directly confront and reintegrate the repressed contents of our unconscious before we can achieve wholeness.
Of all groups, we had better be paying attention to this, because distressing NDEs are the Shadow of near-death studies.
When we insist on banishing our existential fears and painful ideas, thinking that will keep us safe, they become, ironically, our monsters. The shortsighted attempt at self-preservation turns on us as psychopathologies or other growth-inhibiting mechanisms. We wind up believing that a natural ordeal is really a mythological Fall, totally misunderstanding the function of psychological ordeals and distressing NDEs.
Dealing with nightmares, Shadow, dNDE
Distressing NDEs are not dreams, but they come from the same imaginal core of our deep unconscious. Jung taught that nightmares may arise as a symptom of failed integration, an unhealthy split of the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. This is why his approach to nightmares was to encourage the dreamer to accept the frightening elements as parts of themselves. Jung said to his students, “A persecutory dream always means: This wants to come to me… You would like to split it off, you experience it as something alien – but it just becomes all the more dangerous.”
Instead of fighting against unconscious energies, Jung advocated accepting them. He did not mean acting them out or surrendering to their control, but rather acknowledging their reality within us and respecting their role in the healthy functioning of our minds. The same can be true of NDEs.
Hell lives inside us, burning as the fires and torments of our shadow and the deepest archetypal contents of our psyche.. That is what we meet in a distressing NDE. We have to be brave enough to confront our shadow, our demons, our darkness, and move through it. It is not punishment; it is an invitation to growth, to wholeness.
Any NDE is a rite of passage – it is a temporary state. It has a before and an after. It is not a blanket measure of character. Beautiful NDEs happen to flawed and sometimes mean and horrible people, and painful NDEs happen to wonderful people. We have to stop accepting and perpetrating automatically negative judgments about people who have a difficult NDE—sometimes it’s just that emotional/spiritual bad hair day.
The event does not allow us to go back, we have to go forward. So we have to learn enough bravery to walk into the questions we fear the most. As individuals and as IANDS, we are being called to look deeply at our resistance to the disturbing NDEs.
Rather than looking from the filter of our terror, we must learn to see ordeal as a challenge, as a gateway to other realms, as a source of potential pride of survival and deep achievement .
What does such an NDE mean? There is no global answer in specific. The question is, what is the message of the experience to the person who has it? Always a personal question. The gift at the innermost core of the hero’s journey is not always the same old apple. It is not enough to go on YouTube and cry only, “Oh oh, it was so scary!” What is its gift? What is it telling you about yourself? Ask: What do you want? Why are you coming to me? What is your message? What is your question of me?
Like those people of the late Renaissance, hearing that their earth had come unmoored and with it the institution which had been their rock for a thousand years—we have to be brave enough to admit that our comfort zone has to stretch way wider than we are ready for.
What do we get with this approach? We get to let go of the infantile belief that every difficult experience means we are being punished; we let go of hell. We get to learn courage and look at whatever is our challenge, our monster, our dread. We drop knee-jerk judgments about people who have scary rites of passage and discover new depths of empathy and compassion. We take on more of truth and of strength, which can then be passed around. We discover more about the paradigm of the new cosmology which says there are no separations—that every kind of experience is our own.. And as we let go of the old patterns, we move farther toward our own wholeness.
It is simply time to be brave. If this goes out of here with us today…we can work wonders.
[Ed. note: My sincere apologies to you all, and great thanks to Marion Dixon, who wrote to say, in the most pleasant possible way–‘Please wake up and post Part #4.’ We do get by with a little help from our friends! Thank you, Marion. And for what it’s worth, the reason for my distraction was completing the final draft of book #2, expected to be out by early spring.]