Shadows: Perceptions of Near-Death Experiencers

I recently came across a You Tube video of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) which I was quite impressed with. I decided to embed it as it is relatively short at 42 minutes and apart from the opening sequence, is not overdramatised like some NDE videos are. It reminded me that it was a book about an NDE that gave me my first intimations that my light experience 18 years ago might be something meaningful and not just a freak event. The book was called Saved by the Light and it was the story of Dannion Brinkley, a man who had been struck by lightning and pronounced dead. The incident occurred in 1975 when Dannion was 25 and he has since had 2 more close brushes with death, also accompanied by NDEs and is still going strong.

 In the years following my initial exposure, I read countless books, both first person accounts and studies by researchers but as fascinating as the topic was, my interest gradually petered out. No doubt this was due to the fact that I had not actually had a real life NDE. Eventually dreams, Jungian psychology and A Course in Miracles converged to become the path I seemed destined to follow but because the NDE phenomenon was essentially my introduction to spirituality, at least as an adult, I retained a keen eye for interesting stories.

One such story I saw was a couple of years ago when Conscious TV, an internet show I had been following for a few years, aired an interview with Anita Moorjani, a woman who’d had a remarkable NDE when she was admitted to hospital with multiple organ failure and a body ravaged by cancer and went into a coma. When she awoke, she told an amazing story of meeting with deceased loved ones and gaining knowledge and understanding about her entire life, including the factors that led to her getting cancer. She was also told she had a choice about returning to life and that her body would be healed if she did so. She chose to return, made a speedy and complete recovery and now lives a very rich and full life, dedicated to helping others live more meaningful and purposeful lives.

Anita’s book, Dying to be Me is a page turner and a very articulate account of the complex cultural and personal factors that she felt led to her illness. It is also full of spiritual wisdom delivered in a down to earth way borne of her varied religious education before the NDE and the knowledge gained during it. Her story eventually came to the attention of an oncologist with an interest in spontaneous remissions and his assessment, after examining the medical records, was that she should not have survived given the condition she had been in when she was hospitalised.

A few months after learning about Anita’s NDE, Eben Alexander, a Harvard University neurosurgeon made a big media splash with his book Proof of Heaven which recounted his extraordinary NDE experience when he was in a coma for 7 days due to a severe bacterial meningitis infection. His experience was particularly compelling because of the fact that he was an established expert in the functioning of the brain and knew that the fantastic adventure he went on should not have been possible with the severity of the brain damage he had sustained. He too, made a full and miraculous recovery, in spite of having a very slim chance of survival with a high probability of severe brain damage if he did. Although his experience was somewhat different from Anita’s, the outcome was essentially the same and he too has now dedicated his life to spreading the word about the reality of a spiritual dimension and the healing potential of a life lived from a spiritual perspective.  

Eben’s adventure in particular provides an interesting parallel with an experience Carl Jung reported in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (MDR) and recounted here in detail on Kevin Williams’s excellent website. Jung’s experience occurred in 1944, when he suffered a heart attack at the age of 58 and after detailing his experience, he said:  

I would never have imagined that any such experience was possible. It was not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real; there was nothing subjective about them; they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”  

He is not alone in this. Many people who have NDEs claim that their experiences of the non-physical realm felt more real than the physical plane they return to and have trouble re-adjusting to the mundane world, as Jung himself also did.

He went on to say:

After the illness a fruitful period of work began for me. A good many of my principal works were written only then.”

Quite a claim for somebody who had dedicated his entire adult life to understanding the human psyche and who had already made significant contributions to the establishment of the field of psychology. In his book Answer to Job which was written in this “fruitful period” Jung states:

“What most people overlook or seem unable to understand is the fact that I regard the psyche as real.  They believe only in physical facts…”

Although he’d had many visionary experiences and encounters with the non-physical world throughout his life, his otherworldly travels when in his near-death state appeared to be in a category of its own. This super lucidity of an alternate reality state is reported by many people who have mystical experiences of all kinds (including the ‘pharmaceutically assisted’ kind). They say that once free of the constraints of the physical body, the perceptual capabilities seem to be radically sharpened rather than diminished. For example, people who are blind in real life are able to see. For Jung, it apparently consolidated his conviction in his destiny and strengthened his confidence in the unfolding individuation process that his psychology involves. He writes in MDR:

“It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then to experience defeat is also to experience victory”

This is one of the insights that Anita Moorjani had gleaned, although worded somewhat differently. In her book Dying to be Me, she states:

“Always remember not to give away your power – instead get in touch with your own magnificence. When it comes to finding the right path, there’s a different answer for each person. The only universal solution I have is to love yourself unconditionally and be yourself fearlessly.”

Two very different individuals, living in very different eras and cultures, whose experiences were separated by more than 60 years but both saying essentially the same thing. For Jung, who had always followed his own path, albeit not without considerable challenges, his experience was confirmation that he was on the right track. For Anita, whose life prior to her NDE had been torn between trying to adapt to her familial and cultural expectations and her own inner longings, what she received was permission to be herself and that is her primary message.

Jung’s book was published in 1962, the year following his death but it was still many years before the term ‘Near Death Experience’ was coined. That didn’t occur until 1975 when Dr. Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life came out. Nowadays, the familiar ‘Near Death Experience’ has been augmented by the term ‘Near Death-like Experience’ and is a closer approximation to the types of experience Anita Moorjani, Eben Alexander and Jung had. 

Since the advent of You Tube, these stories of crossing over into the spiritual realm and returning to tell the tale has risen to a whole new level, as it is possible to see the individuals telling their own stories in their own words and these first person accounts are much more compelling than reading about them. While many of the experiencers undoubtedly interpret their experiences within the context of their pre-NDE belief systems, a great many return with a new, or clearer, understanding of their former beliefs or attitudes. Where they didn’t have any prior spiritual or religious affiliations and were atheistic or agnostic, a complete transformation of themselves and their worldview often occurred.

A significant number return with a mandate to share what they have learned and have endured many trials and tribulations from the medical establishment, their religious orders and even family and friends in doing so. Thankfully things are changing due to the sheer weight of numbers and the dedication of researchers. The NDE phenomenon is not something that is going to go away and because those who have them come from such a wide variety of backgrounds, it is shaping up to be a quiet revolution in the way religion and spirituality is understood and practiced.

It is fascinating to observe how the field of NDE studies has evolved. My interest was sparked in late 1996 and though the first book had been published 21 years before, at that point bookstores and media reports were still the only sources of information. With the internet, the whole field has opened up and acceptance has been growing to the extent that only the most closed minded materialist would dismiss what has now occurred to literally millions of  people. The rising incidence of NDEs due to increasingly sophisticated medical interventions and the greater freedom experiencers now feel to tell their stories, has led to closer study of the evidence and ever increasing acceptance of the phenomenon. This is due in no small measure to the organisation called IANDS – the International Association for Near-Death Studies, which was started in the late seventies and has grown into a very respectable and influential organisation.

Recently, I came across an internet radio show produced by IANDS and was very impressed with it. It is a weekly show, started in September 2013 with all the episodes archived and downloadable.  It is a very high quality show presented by an open minded hospital chaplain, Lee Witting, who had a near death experience himself as a child, which had a positive influence on his subsequent life. Many of the episodes have a guest, either someone who has had an NDE, or a researcher or investigator discussing various aspects of NDEs and their context within spirituality and religion in general. There are also discussions of related fields such as After Death Communications – ADCs – which is a particular interest of mine, having had many personal experiences.

From a current Internet Radio show to a video that was produced before the internet became a household commodity as ubiquitous as television and radio, the fundamentals of the knowledge and messages received haven’t changed significantly over the years. This video was produced in 1993 and apart from the obviously slightly dated appearance of the film, it could just as easily have been made today.

I have watched it several times but I’m not sure exactly what ‘Shadows’ in the title refers to. In Jungian psychology the shadow is what contains the unacceptable or unacknowledged parts of ourselves, both positive and negative, that surreptitiously drain our energy. Looked at symbolically, a shadow is formed when a solid object blocks the light.  Perhaps what the filmmakers are implying is that the fear of death is the ultimate shadow – that which blocks us from expressing the light within, which is our true essence. One of the most powerful and common messages that experiencers bring back is that our life has purpose, direction and meaning and continues on in some form and that is a message worth spreading. Dannion Brinkley‘s mantra is: “You are a great, mighty and powerful spiritual being with dignity, direction and purpose.”

That’s a much more palatable message than that we are all born in original sin and are destined for heaven or hell depending on what kind of mood the Almighty is in when you stand before the pearly gates. As much as our rational selves reject these archaic notions, they live on in both the personal and the collective unconscious and it takes some work to change the programming.

At the end of the video, Ann Horne, who had an NDE when strangled by her enraged husband, states:

“One of the things that bothers me so tremendously about the metaphysical movement, in lieu of my experience and in lieu of what I was shown, which I think if there’s any message that I can give, it’s not about meditating and leaving your body and taking your light being out of this earth – indeed not.  It is about bringing the light into this earth. Stay here.  Be an anchor, let the light come in through you into this world.  Don’t abandon this world.  We need you.  We need you here.  We need you to be present and we need you to be open with an open heart.”

Easy, huh?  I take heart from NDEer Mary Jo Rapini who was asked in her near death experience if she had ever loved any person the way she had been loved there.  When she protested that she couldn’t as she was only human, the reply was, “You can do better.”