What happens to us when we die? Is there a Heaven? Is there even a soul within these mortal coils? And if so, what is its purpose here on Earth? All throughout my life I’ve asked these questions and the answers have come through ancient texts but also modern ones, both retelling and analyzing the stories of people who had returned from the dead with their Near-Death Experiences, also known as NDEs.
I profess that, although I have studied meditation and practice various types of yoga, I am also only human and as such, am skeptical about things I cannot demonstrate empirically. My faith aside, I am a researcher, and as such I search for answers. To qualify my research, I have tried to find answers only through peer-reviewed and scientific sources as best as I could.
A quick internet search will reveal thousands of people claiming to have had an NDE and that it changed their life forever. How do we separate the truthful ones, if there are any at all, from those only seeking a cash grab or a fleeting moment of fame? Let us start with a brief synopsis of the biographical account of a neurosurgeon who was clinically dead for over 10 days…and returned to talk about it.
Dr. Eben Alexander is an American neurosurgeon and now, author. He wrote a best-selling semi-autobiographical book called Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife, in which he asserted that his out of body experience and near-death experience while in a meningitis-induced coma in 2008, suggested that “consciousness is independent of the brain and that death is a transition phase into another realm… Hallucinogens affect the neocortex, and my neocortex wasn’t available to be affected.” He continues: “This earthly realm is, I believe, where we are meant to learn the lessons of unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance. Our knowing of our eternal spiritual nature is not meant to be as clear to us as the moon rising in the sky at night. Our ability to fully learn the most important lessons of life depends on our being partially veiled from that more complete (yet finite) knowing that our higher souls possess between lives.”
Alexander said in a New York Times interview “that he had preferred a title of ‘An N of One’ (a medical trial size of one patient) instead of “Proof of Heaven”. He said those who believed in heaven were not happy with the title because “This is not scientific proof.”’ Alexander provided a slightly more technical account of the events described in his book in an article, “My Experience in Coma”, in AANS Neurosurgeon, the trade publication of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. A few skepticts attempted to discredit Alexander, but therein lies the eternal debate over near-death experiences: when is there enough proof to say that what the person witnessed wasn’t some part of their own brain function? Scientific American explains the debate simply: “NDEs are not fancy flights of the imagination. They share broad commonalities—becoming pain-free, seeing a bright light at the end of a tunnel and other visual phenomena, detaching from one’s body and floating above it, or even flying off into space (out-of-body experiences). They might include meeting loved ones, living or dead, or spiritual beings such as angels; a Proustian recollection or even review of lifetime memories, both good and bad (“my life flashed in front of my eyes”); or a distorted sense of time and space. There are some underlying physiological explanations for these perceptions, such as progressively narrowing tunnel vision. Reduced blood flow to the visual periphery of the retina means vision loss occurs there first.”
As we shall see, there have been accounts of near-death experiences as far back as Ancient Greece, the Norse People, Indigenous Tribes and hundreds of thousand accounts in the last century alone.
HOW LONG IS FOREVER?
As a young child I would lay in bed at night thinking when we die…how long is eternity?
What do 1,000,000 years feel like? What about 100 Billion years…how long does that feel like? I watched in horror as the darkness of that empty forever-ness surrounded me in the dead of night. A place that as a child I found some solace in these terrifying thoughts was in Autobiography of a Yogi by Parahmahansa Yogananda, my mother’s teacher who although no longer living became my guru as well. I was 16 when I first read his book which chronicles his extraordinary life. He accounts that his own guru Sri Yukteswar came back to visit him after he had died and there are over 5 pages solely dedicated to his descriptive narration of what awaits us on the other side and the different levels that exist there. My curiosity had peaked and my research into what lies beyond had begun.
Sri Yukteswar states: “God encased the human soul successively in three bodies – the idea, or causal body, the subtle astral body, seat of man’s mental and emotional natures; and the gross physical body. On earth, a man is equipped with his physical senses. An astral being works with his consciousness and feelings and a body made of prana.” “the astral world is infinitely beautiful, clean, pure and orderly…unlike the variable climates and seasons of the earth, the astral planets abound in opal lakes and bright seas and rainbow rivers. The ordinary astral universe is peopled with millions of astral beings who have come, more or less recently, from Earth and also with myriads of fairies, mermaids, fishes, animals, goblins, gnomes, demigods and spirits, all residing on different astral planes according with their karmic qualifications. Various spheric mansions or vibratory regions are provided for good and evil spirits. Good ones can travel freely, but the evil spirits are confined to limited zones. The astral cosmos is more naturally attuned than earth to the divine will and plan of perfection. Every astral object is manifested primarily by the will of God, and partially by the will of the astral beings. They possess the power of modifying or enhancing the grace and form of anything already created by the Lord. On earth, a solid must be transferred to liquid or other forms through natural or chemical processes, but astral solids are changed into astral liquids, gasses or energy solely and instantly by the will of the inhabitants…everything is vibrant with God’s creative light…whole gardens of fragrant flowers are materialized, returning later to the etheric invisibility. The earth-liberated astral being meets a multitude of relatives fathers, mothers, wives, husbands and friends acquired during different incarnations on earth as they appear from time to time in various parts of the astral realms…”
We all can hope for a life after this one: our ego does not want to surrender itself to the idea of its own destruction and mine was no different. The account by Sri Yukteswar brought me peace as it offered a different vision than a stark and lonely grave as a final resting place after I died. But my research into the afterlife had just begun.
SIGNIFICANT PATTERNS IN NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
My first discovery of Near-Death Experiences was a book by Dr Raymond Moody M.D. PhD called Life after Life in which Dr Moody documents 150 different cases of “clinical death” that were followed by a near-death-experience. The stories are similar and here are the salient points that are common to ALL of them:
Out of Body: The experience begins with one seeing one’s body from above and hearing and seeing what is happening around the body. “I was still in a body – not a physical body, but something I can describe as an energy pattern… …” I still felt an entire body form, legs, arms everything – even when I was weightless” – Life after Life
“In recent NDE studies, cardiac arrest patients have reported veridical perceptions of unfamiliar medical equipment in the emergency room and specific actions by doctors who were performing resuscitation procedures”
The Tunnel: The experience continues going through a tunnel (variations are with a ringing sound/super-fast/funnel shape or dark valley…)
Meeting Others: the person meets relatives or friends who greet them. “He was there, I didn’t see him as his physical body, I could see things, but not in the physical form, yet just as clearly, his looks, everything. Does that make sense?… another account states “one man was told by the spirit who greeted him: I have helped you through this stage of your existence, but now I am going to turn you over to others. Communication happens telepathically.”
The Being of Light: Many accounts speak of a Being that emanates indescribable love and warmth and asks questions such as “are you prepared to die? Are you ready to die?” What have you done in your life to show me? What have you done in your life that is sufficient? …these questions are, however, never felt as coming with a sense of condemnation.” – Life after Life
Positive After-Effects: frequently reported by NDErs is that their “fear of death is greatly diminished after the experience, while their appreciation for life is greatly heightened.
Regardless of their prior beliefs, many NDErs became more spiritual, although not necessarily more religious” – (Grof & Grof, 1980; Ring, 1980, 2000b)
Moody in his own words: “I don’t mind saying that after talking with over a thousand people who have had these experiences and having experienced many times some of the really baffling and unusual features of these experiences, it has given me great confidence that there is a life after death. As a matter of fact, I must confess to you in all honesty, I have absolutely no doubt, on the basis of what my patients have told me, that they did get a glimpse of the beyond.”
Another fascinating read, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation describes, “by 2005 dozens of studies involving nearly 3,500 subjects who reported having had NDEs had become material for some 600 scholarly articles. Many of these articles are in the Journal of Near-Death Studies—which, the association proudly notes, is peer-reviewed. But many others are in mainstream medical publications. A search in February on PubMed, a database that is maintained by the National Library of Medicine (and that doesn’t include the IANDS journal in its index), turned up 240 papers mentioning near-death experiences.”
As a studied researcher, words like peer-reviewed and citations from established medical journals elicit a sense of comfort as they tell me I’m on the right course if all these distinguished persons already walked in my footsteps in investigating these experiences that all share such significant commonalities.
IN ANCIENT TIMES
The idea of an afterlife has ancient roots and so it was essential that I investigated people in ancient times
To the Norse people, the soul had four parts to it:
- Hamr – Our physical appearance
- Hugr – Our personality which comes with us after death
- Fylgja – Our animal totem which would match our Hugr
- Hamingja – Our protective spirit which was informed by our Hugr
“There is evidence that the Norse believed in reincarnation where one’s hugr would pass into the body of a newborn relative while one’s hamingja continued on in the family at large and one’s fylgja seems to have just ceased to exist at the person’s death. There was no judgment by the gods involved in a soul’s final destination; for the most part, it seems, a soul went wherever it went.” Says researcher Joshua J. Mark.
As one researches further into the Norse mythology of the afterlife, we find the Bifrost, a rainbow bridge that joins Asgard, the realm of the Gods, with Earth, known as Midgard. It is said to be used by both Gods and the souls of men alike. Andy Orchard, a researcher in Norse legends, claims that the best translation of Bifröst is just “shimmering path”.
We find stories of a similar “path to heaven” in the vision of Er, told by Plato: the oldest known direct account of an NDE. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates speaks of the account of the warrior named Er, son of Armenius, who was left for dead on the battlefield only to be awoken on the funeral pyre and told everyone what he had seen. Er said he found himself at a large meadow with a large group of people and they were to rest and play there for seven days. On the eighth day, they were to ascend a light pillar that resembled a rainbow but lighter and purer.
It is quite astonishing that a near-death experience over a thousand years apart from the Norse people would describe their Bi-frost or “stairway to heaven” in such a similar fashion.
A second account of a near-death experience was reported by Plutarch in his Divine Vengeance in ancient Greece is Aridaeus from Soli, Cilicia. He has been hit in the head with a rock and was laid to rest but three days later awoke and told his story: “his intelligence was driven from his body, he had risen somewhat and was breathing with his whole being and seeing on all sides, his soul having opened wide as if it were a single eye.” He met various souls that he had known and was taken by a guide to visit various regions of the afterlife: dark places of suffering but also “marvelously rich open country and meadowland filled with sacred music.”
In the next episode we will continue into more historical accounts of NDEs from ancient Egypt to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but also look at how thousands of documented accounts of childhood reincarnation may prove not only the existence of an afterlife but how and why we seem to return here time after time.
END OF PART 1 of 3
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