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The Near-Death Experience as a Spiritual Awakening

Is there life after we physically die? Even with all there is out there in spirituality, it is a question we all ask one point or another.

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Is there life after we physically die? Even with all there is out there in spirituality, it is a question we all ask one point or another. The truth is, we won’t know the answer to that until we experience our own physical death. Death and Dying has been explored and studied by philosophers, scholars, physicians, artists, mystics and the layperson since the existence of human consciousness. Because we are mortals, we can not help but to wonder what happens to us at the point of death. Why are so many of us afraid of death? What happens after death is an unknown for us all here but a select few who have suffered a physical trauma that have resulted in clinical bodily death. Their experiences can give us an idea of what happens to our consciousness or spirit once we die. One of the most striking effects on someone who has a Near Death Experience is that it often leads to a spiritual awakening and emergence.

As a child, I remember my mother sharing a story frequently in churches as a testimony of her own NDE. This changed her life profoundly and permanently, as she was always highly intuitive and spiritually sensitive. As a child I didn’t know what to make of this except to be grateful she was alive. Many years later I asked her to share her story with me again. At the time I was a doctoral student and I was studying death and dying and specifically Near Death Experiences. As she began recounting her story, I was amazed at how clear her memory was of this event. I also noted how emotional she got as if she was re-experiencing it. As I did my research on others who have had an NDE, I found they too had similar, very clear and lucid recall in additional to the emotional feelings when the recount their experience.

My fascination with what I read was what led me to delve in more deeply into this topic while in graduate school. Oddly, this was before my mother got ill and passed away. I titled it, “Death the final frontier…or is it”. I got the idea from the introduction narrated by Star Trek’s legendary captain James T. Kirk. Every TV show episode began with his commanding voice declaring, “Space, the final frontier…” I thought it was a clever semi-humorous way to introduce a topic that is so frightening for many people. Once I began my research on this subject, I soon realized that one of the ways that death has been explored has been through its biological components. What occurs to us physically? Whether through disease, trauma, age, etc., physicians have narrowed the cause of death to its cellular level. But that still leaves us with a million questions. How does it feel? Why does it happen? Can some deaths be prevented? And, does something happen after death or is that the final step in the cycle of our individual lives?

Since the beginning of time, there have been accounts of what is referred to in the literature and in popular culture as a NDE and its effect on the person afterwards. There are literally volumes of literature, so summarizing in a few words what is out there is not a realistic task. However, I will define what a NDE is, briefly describe what some researchers believe the possible physiological explanations are, and describe some accounts of NDE’s as observed by myself in a group of individuals who have had experiences. I have also reviewed what themes appear for the participants and “experiencers”, as they call themselves.

One of the definitions of NDE is, a lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened death, according to the Near Death Research Foundation:

A near-death is said to occur when a person is close to death (or in many cases actually clinically dead where there is no spontaneous heartbeat and respiration), and yet is resuscitated and somehow survives to recount an intense, profoundly meaningful experience. The near-death episode itself is characterized by a feeling of peace, an out-of-body experience, the sensation of traveling very quickly through a dark tunnel, generally toward a light, an encounter with the spirits of deceased relatives or friends or a ‘being of light’, an instantaneous life review, and for some, entrance into a world of light” This is originally from “Reborn in the Light” and quoted in “Within the Light by Cherie Sutherland, Ph.D.

One of the ways to define an NDE is to list the common patterns that appear. The following were compiled from both the Near Death Research Foundation and the International Association of Near-Death Studies. It is important to note that every experience is unique to each person but there are commonalties and parallels that can be outlined as the following, also note the similarities to what a spiritual awakening is:

  • Difficulty in explaining the NDE
  • Ordinary language often seems inadequate to describe these extraordinary experiences
  • Associated life threatening event. The threat can be real or perceived, physical and/or psychological
  • Separation or consciousness from the body
  • Sensation of viewing surroundings from a place other than physical body Some individuals may see their bodies from a distance. As in feeling the “self” is hovering overheard
  • The ability to see and hear details of events (which may be close or distant from the body) while unconscious. These details (which may include a pronouncement of death) are often revealed to those later who are generally astounded and mystified that the experiencer was aware of these events while unconscious.
  • Experiencing intensely powerful emotions. These emotions may include ecstasy, fear, peace and calm.
  • Hearing distinctive sounds. Experiencers may report hearing a variety of unusual sounds or noise. They may be described as pleasant, musical, buzzing or ringing.
  • Passing into or through a dark tunnel. There may be feelings of floating into a cave, enclosure or void. Movement may accelerate in the tunnel. Occasionally, another being(s) accompany this tunnel passage, though usually it is traveled alone. A bright light is usually seen at the end of the tunnel. And is the destination of the travel through the tunnel.
  • Encounter with a bright light. The light is often perceived as a being, either spiritual being or departed loved one. The being is often described as intensely loving.
  • Meeting others. The experiencer may encounter other spiritual beings or departed loved ones.
  • Life review. At times, experiencers are presented with a rapid panoramic review of their lives. The review is very rapid, often extremely detailed, and often includes presentation of how the experiencers actions affected others around them and feel actual empathy without judgment. Some have received previously unknown information about ones life, i.e., adoption, hidden parentage or deceased siblings.
  • Seeing or visiting beautiful cities, libraries, gardens, pastoral scenes and shiny bodies of water.
  • A sense of knowing the universe’s order and purpose. Some experiencers have a sense of deep understanding of the universe and/or life’s meaning and purpose.
  • Reaching a boundary. A boundary may be a gate, cliff, fence, water, or some other barrier which the experiencer perceives may not be crossed if they are the return to the body.
  • Awareness of future life events. Although rare, some experience “flash-forwards” in time to witness themselves and events at a later time in their life.
  • Decision to return. The decision to return to the physical body may be voluntary or involuntary. If voluntary, the decision to return is often made following discussion with spiritual beings, and is often associated with unfinished life responsibilities. If involuntary, feelings of sadness, loss, depression and anxiety may follow.
  • Returning to the body. Feelings of pain associated with the life threatening injury return.
  • Special gifts. Some experiencers report psychic or other paranormal ability after an NDE.
  • Changes in attitudes and beliefs. A belief in God, loss of fear of death and a more loving interaction with others often follow an NDE. Some NDE experiencers establish more loving relationships. Other NDE experiencers find their change in attitude and beliefs may alter previously established interpersonal relationship dynamics resulting in conflict with loved ones, family and friends.

A lot of people want to know, just how many people have an NDE and does everyone that experiences a near-death trauma also have an NDE? According to the Gallup Organization polls, about 13 million people in the United States alone reported having an NDE. However, this was over 20 years ago. If more research is done, children and experiencers worldwide were to be included, the numbers would be much higher.

It is also estimated that up to 30% of all individuals that face a life-threatening situation will have an NDE. However, there are many others that have had a life-threatening experience who reported remembering nothing. No one really knows why it is that some have an NDE and others do not. There does not seem to be any relationship in the backgrounds of experiences. It seems that people that have NDE’s come from different religious, racial, age, economic backgrounds, and yet have all have similar characteristics. Now, I’m not big on surveys such as these because there is no way to get truly accurate numbers but what we do get is that there are many, many people who have indeed had some sort of fundamental spiritual experience.

One of the curiosities about NDE’s is the conspicuously missing information about frightening experiences and that is the one my mother had and changed her life forever. There is however, a rising branch of NDE studies that specifically deals with frightening NDE experiences. The term frightening is used instead of negative because it is believed that whether the experience is pleasant or terrifying, the person is completely transformed and their life changes in quality and meaning, almost always reported for the positive. One of the reasons, one suspects, there is missing information on frightening NDE’s is the unwillingness of the experiencer to share the experience due to being judged.

An ‘inverse’ or frightening NDE contains features common in the blissful, radiant experiences, but the individual is terrified by them, usually because things are moving too fast, seem too unfamiliar, and are beyond the person’s control. In experiences of being in a void, people perceive themselves to be totally alone, in a featureless emptiness and absence of sensation. Some receive a message that the world and what they have assumed to be reality—including themselves—does not, in fact, exist and never did.

In “hellish” experiences, the least often reported frightening experience, people perceive themselves in an ugly or threatening landscape, sometimes, seeing groups of other people who seem to be in terrible distress. Most experience later report they were observes only; rarely, a person perceives himself as being actively tormented.

So what causes an NDE? It is very important to note that it seems as a life-threatening experience does NOT cause an NDE, instead, it is described as ‘a most reliable trigger.’ There are many cases of people describing an NDE-like experience with all its realities, but triggered by something else. Many researchers believe that the nervous system and endocrine system are the primary and in many cases the only cause for an NDE. Anyone who has had an NDE will tell you that the memory of the event is vivid and like nothing else they have ever experienced. Often they have had their lives completely transformed and having a spiritual awakening knowing without a shadow of a doubt that life doesn’t end with our physical death.

This is an excerpt from You’re Not Crazy, It’s Paranormal

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