One of the more surprising phenomena to emerge in the 20th century was the so-called “near-death experience.” Apart from its claims as pointer to the possibility of life after death, its great value may also lie in its fertility as a metaphor. You can see this in various ways. The first thing that occurs to me, it plays a subtle role in all things dramatic. Every drama entails a conflict where one risks death of one sort or another. The closer the hero comes to death or being vanquished, the greater dramatic value of the final triumph.
I may complain about the inconvenience of being bedridden with flu; but if my heart stops, there is a chance that I confront a being of light that puts all my previous assumptions about reality in the shade. Quantum leaps of consciousness are not free lunches. This old idea is enshrined in the ancient Greek dictum:pathei mathos “by suffering, learn.” Surely, the important lessons of life don’t come cheaply. But with apps nowadays for everything under the sun, one might easily forget that wisdom cannot be shipped overnight from Amazon.
The metaphorical cash-value of the near-death experience is most evident in the symbolisms of religion. The primal idea is the same in Abrahamic, Eastern, and shamanic traditions. The Christian symbol of the cross is code for life in death; crucifixion is the condition for the resurrection; the near-death encounter opens the gate to another world. “Crucifixion” is not to be taken literally. The real issue is metaphoric and refers to the crucifixion of the ego. Saints and mystics like Milarepa and Joseph of Copertino illustrate this idea quite dramatically, especially Joseph of Copertino, who practically killed himself in his ascetic quest to attain heavenly consciousness on Earth.
Now while the Eastern varieties of the archetype are not so dramatic, their core meaning is to say that only by killing off all your normal attachments through meditation and ascetic practice (clearly a kind of practice of death) is enlightenment possible. The death of the normal, automatic attitudes of life opens us to the transcendent influx. Yoga is thus a slow-motion practice, analogous in effect to the near-death experience.
Plato’s very definition of philosophy as melete thanatou, that is, “the practice of death,” incorporates the metaphor. So even in the more abstract discipline of philosophy do we find this perennial metaphor based on paradox that a certain kind of radical loss is the key to achieving the most radical kind of gain. The metaphor forces us to assume a paradoxical stance before life. It prompts us to experience things with a double perspective: all the good with a certain dry reserve, all the bad with a sense of latent benefit.
Shamans are known to gain their vocation from an illness or other near-death encounter; to be initiated into a new and greater life, they must nearly die. Near-death through illness or some ritual setup is the basis of the shaman’s transformation. To gain the alliance of good spirits, the shaman must enter the land of death himself. Not everybody can do this. One needs to be endowed with a capacity for ecstatic (out-of-body) experience.
In light of the current and often very pressing concern with identity--gender, ethnic, or religious—one thing is worth noting: in the shamanic context, identity is the obstacle to transcendence. Or, to be more exact, the shamanic quest is about dissolving one’s established or half-realized identity for the sake of a transcendent identity. Speaking of shamanic tribal initiations, Eliade writes (Shamanism, 1964, p. 64): “All these rituals and ordeals are designed to make the candidate forget his past life. This is why, in many places, when the novice returns to the village he acts as if he has lost his memory and has to be taught all over again to walk, eat, dress. Usually the novices learn a new language and have a new name.”
“Near-death” seems to me a kind of master metaphor of ontological uncertainties, in a way, evoking quantum mechanics, which leaves us befuddled about the very ground of being. William James spoke of a psychological effect he called “ontological wonder-sickness” while the mathematician, Lewis Carroll, smiled and gave us “Wonderland.”
The metaphor we’re trying to unpack is inexhaustible, but there remains the literal fact of the near-death experience (NDE). A large subject, I’ll state what seem a few important facts about these experiences. Entirely unlike what we might expect if minds were just brains in action, what we see in NDEs is an explosion of consciousness, even as the brain shuts down.
In cardiac arrest, oxygen is immediately cut off from the brain, extinguishing the possibility of consciousness—according to the mainstream view. But Pim van Lommel, Dutch cardiologist, has specialized in reporting cases of cardiac arrest in which extraordinary states of consciousness are reported. A spectrum of unusual mental and physical phenomena are unleashed by literal near-death states that are best described as transformative. Meeting dead friends and relatives; the panoramic vision of one’s whole life; the encounter with beings of light--again, in a very strong form, the metaphor transports us to a place we didn’t expect--the transcendent dimension of reality that being near-death is said to reveal.
Near-death is a type of astonishing experience; it is also a metaphor of an entire range of possible experiences.