A near-death experience — or NDE — is a profound psychological event that may occur to a person close to death or in extreme physical or emotional crisis. An NDE may begin with an out-of-body experience, possibly hovering nearby and watching events around the body. An NDE typically includes a sense of moving, often at great speed and usually through a dark space, into a fantastic landscape and encountering beings that may be perceived as sacred figures, deceased family members or friends, or unknown entities. A pinpoint of indescribable light may grow to surround the person in brilliant radiance. Unlike physical light, it is not merely visual but is sensed as an all-loving presence that many people define as the Supreme Being of their religious faith.
The emotions of an NDE are intense and most commonly include peace, love, and bliss, although a substantial minority are marked by terror, anxiety, or despair. Most people come away from the experience with an unshakable belief that they have learned something of immeasurable importance about the purpose of life. Overall, the experience is ineffable and the effects are often so powerful that they create permanent changes in people’s lives.
This phenomenon is as old as humankind itself, and has been documented — and explained or dismissed — in myriad ways for just as long. In the modern world, dominated by scientific reductionism and militant materialism, NDEs are generally viewed as mere chemical by-products of a dying brain, the after-effects and apparent implications derided as wishful thinking and New Age flim-flam. Evidence that NDEs contain a profoundly important message for humanity, however, continues to pile up, and the accounts recorded in best-selling books such as Raymond Moody’s Life After Life and Kenneth Ring’s Lessons From the Light are both fascinating and deeply moving.
A more recent addition to the burgeoning field of NDE research is Dr Penny Sartori, a former nurse and author of The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences and the recently-published The Transformative Power of Near-Death Experiences, co-authored with Kelly Walsh and other contributors.
“I used to work as a nurse in intensive care,” she explains, “and it was early on in my career that I had an encounter with a patient who had a suffering and prolonged death and that made me question what happens when we die. What is death all about? Why do we have to subject patients to such atrocities at the end of their life when we should be helping them to ease gently into death? I realised that we really don’t understand death and I started reading about death. Then I came across near-death experiences and I thought ‘Wow, these are really quite interesting because people are saying that they’ve died temporarily and they’ve had this wonderful experience and they didn’t want to return to life.’ Although it sounded such a lovely experience, my nurse training was very scientific, so I had that bit of scepticism and I thought ‘Well, I don’t know really. I’m not sure. It could be that the brain is just shutting down as we approach death.’ But I also thought ‘Well, I’m working in the ideal place where I can research this.’ So that’s what I decided to do. I undertook my own research study and I gathered detail where I interviewed patients in my care in the intensive care unit for five years and then it took a further three years to analyse the data and to write it up and, at the end of it, I was awarded a PhD. Since then my ongoing interest has been the phenomenon of near-death experiences and I think they’re fascinating and there is just so much that we can learn from these experiences.”
One of the most striking aspects of NDEs is the similarities with the many descriptions of the afterlife (also heaven, paradise, Jannah, Elysium etc.) contained in religious texts and teachings and many other mythologies and ancient wisdom traditions. Then there are the many overlaps between NDEs and OBEs (out-of-body experiences), and psychic phenomena such as telepathy, remote viewing, precognition, and clairvoyance. Even the dream state, which can enable experiences of enormous significance, rips up the rule book of so-called ‘real’ life. Taken together, this evidence appears to point to the existence of a wider, non-material reality behind, below or beyond the 3D world of physical objects and solid stuff that we take to be all there is. Despite the fact, of course, that the most vital, fulfilling, and defining dimensions of our lives — love, beauty, truth, justice, joy — seem to emanate from some place else. Could it be that what we believe to be ultimate reality is actually just an individual, isolated piece of a cosmic puzzle so vast that it defies comprehension? Ironically, cutting edge science seems to be suggesting just such a scenario and in the process confirming or at least corroborating some of the central tenets of the aforementioned ancient wisdom traditions. The suggestion is that time and space, while hardly illusions, are simply constructs or rule sets which apply only to an extremely narrow bandwith of reality. Matter may arise within mind, not the other way round, and thus consciousness itself may be the ground of being. Blinkered by Aldous Huxley’s ‘reducing valve’, the doors of human perception are only just ajar.
“I would agree as a result of the conclusions I’ve come through my research,” says Penny. “That’s a good point about time because time and space just don’t exist in the NDE and if you think about it, some of these people are literally unconscious for a matter of a second, yet what they experience would take a number of days to get to in real life experience. So, it’s fascinating how in a matter of seconds someone can have such a clear, detailed, lucid experience that would run on for hours and hours if it was played in real time. So, that’s quite fascinating especially when you consider the life review as well. You know, that expression, your life flashes before your eyes in seconds. Well, literally, but it’s more than just a flash before your eyes as well because these people are reliving aspects of their life in great detail yet they might only be unconscious for those brief few seconds, but they’ve relieved the whole of their life again. It’s a bit like dreams as well. Sometimes, I can drift off to sleep in the night and I feel like I’ve been asleep for ages and ages, and I look at the clock and perhaps I’ve been asleep for like 10 or 15 minutes. There’s that altered sense of perception during sleep as well.”
Personal transformation aside, the most profound way in which NDEs affect wider society, and the source of their positive potential for our future, is in how they change attitudes and behaviour towards others and towards the planet as a whole. Losing one’s fear of death, discovering a vibrant new zest for life, abandoning attachment to material things, and striving to help others can create ripple effects with potentially global reach. Even simply reading about NDEs can generate these transformative effects in individuals. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow — best known for his hierarchy of needs — once spoke about how simply lecturing his students about so-called ‘peak experiences’ enabled some of them to spontaneously induce such states. Much maligned by materialist fundamentalists and — admittedly — sometimes misinterpreted and misrepresented by certain ‘spiritual’ gurus, this is the ‘raising of consciousness’ that we’ve been hearing so much about.
“Absolutely,” agrees Penny. “That book you mentioned, Lessons From the Light by Kenneth Ring, in that book he talks about the effects of NDEs and likened the NDE to a benign virus because once you engage with these experiences, you can get really hooked on them and they can really inspire you and you can be changed through engaging with these experiences. I know when he did a brief survey with the students that he used to teach in the University of Connecticut he found that his students would change in many of the ways that people who had a NDE had. Certainly, that’s true in my life. Since engaging with NDEs, it has really changed me in many ways, and I feel like I’ve had a spiritual transformation as a result of undertaking my research. It’s completely giving me a different outlook on life, and I think if we can start to engage people on a wider level, more and more will become engaged with these experiences. I’ve seen attitudes change towards near-death experiences. When I started researching them, it was very difficult to find someone who would chat with me face to face about the experience. Then gradually, over the years, I found more and more people. Of course, I came across the ones in my hospital research as well. But then back in 2006, I think it was, there was an article in the local newspaper and then into the national newspaper and they’d put my email address in there and I had about 600 emails straight away. Now, since my last book, The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences, I’ve got over 14,000 emails. I’m overwhelmed by them and I can’t respond to them and that’s about people who want to share their experience. So, I think the more people are hearing about the experiences, the more people are encouraged to talk about their own experience and then more people are beginning to engage with these experiences as well. So, I think it’s really, really encouraging because the ultimate message of these experiences is one of love, peace, and respect, and it’s about doing unto others as you would wish to have done unto yourself.”
Although in recent decades we have been seeing a shift in attitudes towards NDEs, a key crux of resistance remains within the medical establishment. Like science in general, medicine tends to consist of compartmentalised specialists unable or unwilling to look at the big picture. Although the importance of mental health to physical well-being is widely accepted and understood, the mind-body connection — which NDEs glaringly highlight — is perceived as peripheral. The placebo effect is a well-known example of this connection, common in modern medicine, but whose wider implications are simply ignored. One might imagine that any practices or methodologies which might lead to improved public health outcomes would be welcomed, at least for consideration, but reaching beyond the body into the realm of subtle energy and of the mind itself is to go beyond the pale and, for many in the mainstream, into the realms of pseudoscience and quackery.
“It’s something that they just don’t take onboard,” says Penny. “There’s this attitude that they know better, that NDEs suggest some sort of hallucinations, and there’s absolutely no basis in reality for these experiences. But clearly, these experiences have great effects and there’s so much potential of what could be developed. I just think it’s so frustrating because for years, I’ve been trying to get this into the education of nurses and doctors, but it’s a real great struggle to try and do it. But there are some changes with the younger doctors coming through and some of the older ones that I’ve worked with as well. Certainly, when they understand more about the experience, they have become more open to it and I was very fortunate where I worked in intensive care; the doctors all did take these experiences onboard and so they were quite aware of them. If a patient reported an experience they told me about it but they also documented it in the notes as well, which is really quite a big breakthrough. I think we are going to see changes. Perhaps they’re not as quick as I would like to see, but there are changes. The Royal College of Psychiatrists in London have a special interest group in these kind of experiences which is very encouraging. It’s collaboration that’s going to really take these things further forward. So, we should collaborate with more people or scientists of all different disciplines so that we all collectively come up with something. It would be great to work as part of a team rather than in isolation so you get different kind of expertise from different fields and put that expertise into one part so we can really take this work forward.”
One of the more out-there possibilities in all of this is the idea that NDEs, and indeed many if not all of the mysterious psychic phenomena mentioned above, may form an essential part of evolution. If consciousness is indeed the ground of reality — or at least a much deeper level of it — then evolution of mind must be at least as important as the evolution of body. While some believe that the latter has all but come to end, the expansion of mind may yet be on the thin end of an exponential arc. ‘Evolve or die!’ is the clarion cry, and from the life-changing breakdowns and breakthroughs imposed on well-known figures such as Eckhart Tolle and David Icke, to the possibility of a self-induced, species-wide near-death experience in the shape of social and environmental collapse, are we being compelled to climb further up the evolutionary tree?
“I think this could be part of our evolutionary process,” says Penny, “because if you look at NDEs and the after effects, very often people are more altruistic and more loving towards others. You’re putting the needs of others before yourself and that in itself is contributing to our evolution. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker talks about how our society is becoming a less violent society, although when you read the news and hear the atrocious things going on, perhaps it doesn’t seem like it. But if you take the whole of history into view, Pinker believes that we’re actually becoming less violent. So, perhaps we’re evolving to that next level of consciousness to co-create peace on Earth for the future. We’re literally on a balance point. We could either be annihilated or we could progress into a wonderful, peaceful future. I think we really need to have that wider perspective and look beyond our individual beings and look at us in the wider perspective as part of a great whole. If you look at what we’re doing to the Earth and Mother Nature, we’re destroying ourselves, we really are, and we need to take care of ourselves. Look at indigenous cultures and the respect that they have for nature. We really need to get back into that mode of thought as well and I think we’re on that balance point and we could go either way. I’m hoping that we go into a more positive and peaceful future and these experiences will help us get to that level as well. But we are at a very dangerous point as humanity.”
The commonly misunderstood concept that ‘we create our own reality’ does then seem to find some support here. The possible benefits of ‘positive thinking’ or the currently in-vogue practice of ‘manifesting’ aside, many people report that our attitudes and expectations can have a small but measurable effect on outcomes. It would seem that we see what we look for, and we get what we give. NDEs point to possible mechanisms through which this may occur. Thus, it may be that the apparently perilous state of the planet is simply a reflection of our current level of collective consciousness. NDEs suggest that to truly understand life, we must also truly understand death. As the Sufi teaching says, we should strive to ‘die before we die’, strive to learn what we will be shown at death while we still have time to make use of this knowledge. Such precious insights can help us change how we live for the better.
Mass acceptance of NDEs may be closer than at any time in the modern age, but mass integration of their implications continues to move at a glacial pace. However, as growing numbers of people feel freer to talk about their experiences without fear of ridicule, or worse, the message of NDEs will continue to re-emerge within the human psyche. Sooner or later, this may — some would say it must — reach a tipping point and thus become unstoppable. To quote American writer and former surgeon Bernie Siegel in The Transformative Power of Near-Death Experiences, “The wiser we get, the better the future will be for those who follow us.”
Originally published in New Dawn magazine, January / February 2018.