The near-death experience has the wonderful power of transforming people's lives. Most of those who reported the experience claimed to have had significant changes in their lives such as a less materialistic, more spiritual, less competitive view of life and overall a reduced fear of death (Moody 1975; Greyson and Stevenson 1980; Fenwick and Fenwick 1995; Fox 2003). They seem to be convinced that we never die and that the human soul is immortal.
The greatest change is usually found in those who had the most profound experiences, as in the case of those who believed they were going to die and in those who reported a 'life review-type' of experience (Greyson and Stevenson 1980). Positive changes have also been found in those who had an NDE as a consequence of a failed suicide (Roberts and Owen 1988), in children who had an NDE (Sutherland 1995) and in those who came close to death, but did not report or had no memory of an NDE (Kellehear 1996).
The fact that there is a sudden change in the lives of those who had an NDE supports their view that the experience was real and not a hallucination. In this respect, Mark Fox gives a positive suggestion by arguing that:
Rather, having an experience which may appear to the subject to point to the possibility of immortality - such as an OBE whilst resting or sleeping, leading to the conviction that the soul can function independently of the body - may suffice to instil in him or her an often strong and permanent belief that personal death is not the end . . . whether or not such a dualistic view of personhood is correct or even philosophically or psychologically possible is not the issue here. Instead, the conclusions that subjects themselves draw from their experiences are what really matter.
As Paul Badham has pointed out, the after-effects of an NDE are not very different from those reported by spiritual or religious experiences in a broader sense (Badham 2005a). The argument has been explored at length by David Hay, who argued that the after-effects of the spiritual experience can be seen as a 'dynamic force leading to social change, to concern for both others and for the environment and to a far more caring and unselfish style of life' (in Badham 2005a: 202). Melvin Morse, in his book entitled Transformed by the Light (Morse and Perry 1992), noted that some of his patients came back to life with 'an increase in the amount of electrical energy, their bodies emitting acceleration of intellect and/or psychic abilities, and even the power to heal themselves'. He gave the example of Kathy, a 45-year-old woman, who suffered from an incurable thyroid cancer and had been given six months to live. It was at that difficult moment of her life that she also developed pneumonia. She was taken urgently to hospital and her heart stopped beating for a while. When she regained consciousness she told others about her wonderful journey on top of a beautiful ridge overlooking a beautiful valley. A being of light came to greet her and touched her 'spiritual body', which was 'filled with light'. Mysteriously her pneumonia had disappeared. A few weeks later, her cancer, too, had inexplicably left her. According to Morse, Kathy's NDE had a direct influence on healing the cancer. He also studied instances in which near-death survivors had returned to life more intelligent than they had been before the experience (Morse 1990; 1994; Morse and Perry 1992).
Atwater in Beyond the Light (1995), and it is not a coincidence that most of the NDE books have the term 'Light' in the title, similarly quoted the case of a truck driver who had survived a near-fatal crash and who subsequently began to display advanced mathematical abilities. Literally overnight, he demonstrated a gift for higher mathematics. He was able to write down complicated mathematical equations about which he had no prior knowledge. Gradually, the man began to understand his new abilities and was eventu ally able to use them in practical applications. In those cases in which near-death survivors claim to have been left with after-effects, Atwater (1995) indicates that 80-90 per cent show a large number of after-effects.
Despite a large number of well-documented positive after-effects, some negative after-effects have also emerged. Among these there is the frustration of not being able to communicate the significance of the experience to others. As has been argued earlier, people who have experienced an NDE may be sure about the authenticity of their experiences. By contrast, especially for those who do not have similar experiences, these are mere hallucinations induced by a dying brain, or by the effect of a certain drug, of no more interest than an especially vivid dream. The fear of being ridiculed or seen as insane by others, has led some people to keep the event private or to share it only with a few family members or friends, even if the experience was very positive (Orne 1995). It has also been observed that how well they were able to integrate the experience into their everyday life can depend on the quality of these relationships (French 2005). Another negative after-effect is the despair at being returned to ordinary life after having experienced such bliss or divine love. Those who knew the person before the event might also experience some problems in accepting and dealing with him or her after the change. It has been claimed that there is evidence of this in a high divorce rate after the NDE (ibid.). Negative long-term after-effects following distressing NDE can include heightened fear of death, flashbacks and other symptoms of traumatic stress disorder (Greyson and Bush 1992).
In our Western culture when someone dies, we tend to believe that there is little we can do for the lost loved one. In contrast, Tibetan Buddhists developed a quite different tradition. In Eastern Tibet, especially during the first 49 days after death, the Bar do Thodel11 is read through repeatedly to the deceased along with other practices.12 Although based on an oral tradition, this text was originally written in the eight century AD and attributed to the Great Guru Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism into Tibet. Metaphorically speaking, in Tibetan tradition the 'mental body' that enters a Bardo state is conceived like 'a horse, which can be readily controlled by a bridle, or to a huge tree trunk, which may be almost immovable on land, yet once floated in water can be effortlessly directed wherever you wish' (Sogyal Rinpoche 1992: 299). For this reason it needs to be trained.
Various studies have been made in the past 30 years in the attempt to draw some possible parallels between the near-death experience and the Bardo Thodel, known in English as The Tibetan Book of the Dead.13 Probably, the most recent analysis has been published by Sogyal Rinpoche in his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992). In his view, the Bardo state, like an NDE, is characterized by extreme clarity, mobility and clairvoyance, which he beautifully relates to a 'body of the golden age' (ibid.: 326). According to him, there are some major commonalities between these two kinds of experiences. These can be summarized as follows:
1 Vision of a Light. In the first part of The Tibetan Book of the Dead called the Chikhai, Bardo is described as the moment of dissolution, which occurs at death. This stage represents the passage from form to formlessness. Here a vision of what is called the primary 'Clear Light of Pure Reality' occurs. If the dying are able to recognize it, they become liberated. Nevertheless, if they don't recognize it, they will have a second chance to see the Secondary Clear Light, which will dawn upon them. The description of the vision of the clear Light in the Bardo presents a striking similarity to the 'Light' and the 'Beings of Light' frequently described by NDErs.
2 Encounters with other beings. In the second state, the Chonyid Bardo, or the 'Bardo of Experiencing Reality', the deceased meet different deities: the Peaceful Deities enveloped in brilliant, colored lights, the Wrathful Deities, the Door-keeping Deities, the Knowledge-Holding Deities, and the yogins of the four cardinal points. As Leary has noticed:
With the powerful vision of these deities, the departed perceive dull light of various colors, indicating the individual lokas or realms into which they can be born: the realm of the gods (devaloka), the realm of the titans (asuraloka), the realm of the humans (manakaloka), the realm of the brute subhuman creatures (tiryakaloka), the realm of hungry ghosts ( pretaloka) and the realm of hell (narakaloka). Attraction to these lights seems to thwart spiritual liberation and facilitates rebirth.
3 Negative experiences. A third, probably less explored parallel between the NDE and the Bardo Thodel is the description of 'hellish' experiences. As Sogyal Rinpoche commented: 'Some people report terrifying experiences of fear, loneliness, desolation and gloom, vividly reminiscent of the descriptions of the bardo of becoming' (1992: 328).
Was this article helpful?