Most of us have heard or read the above words somewhere. It’s an idea that people find consoling. But rarely is the author acknowledged. It was the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, and the remark is a romantic take on suffering.
I was listening yesterday to Shankar Vedantam’s radio program Hidden Brain where Nietzsche’s idea was under discussion. I thought of a great example of being nearly killed but emerging much stronger from the ordeal. Not just stronger but completely transformed. Can the worst things sometimes turn out to be the best things that happen to us?
There is a uniquely interesting phenomenon in which people nearly die, called the near-death experience (NDE). And indeed for a significant percentage of people who have NDEs, they emerge not only stronger human beings but transformed in their fundamental outlook. They may also discover that they have acquired psycho-spiritual powers they never had before.
Nietzsche’s insight takes on heightened significance in light of the near-death experience. It certainly is a paradox that people who come very close to irreversible physical death should report having truly amazing experiences. For example, many come away from the experience with the conviction that they had entered another world, seen and interacted with deceased friends and loved ones.
There are two other components of the NDE I’ll mention. Something happens that enables the near-death person to have a sweeping vision of his or her life, all the incidents and human interactions, good and bad. In a strange way, one is said to experience other people from their perspective. So, if you remember injuring someone you feel how the other felt. That becomes a profound lesson. The entire experience becomes an exercise in self-knowledge.
But a third aspect of expansion of consciousness is another part of the NDE. Reports exist of persons who encounter what Raymond Moody first called a Being of Light. Extraordinary light experiences are found in many forms of mystical, shamanic and mediumistic experience. But just as one is having the darkest encounter with reality one is suddenly immersed in the most beautiful loving light one could possibly imagine.
So, the near-death experience 1) may connect us directly with the next world; 2) reveal the hidden deeps of our own lives; and 3) open us to possible mystical illumination. This would of course not be what most people have in mind when they invoke Nietzsche’s remark. But the NDE is the most dramatic example of being strengthened in a contest with pain, adversity, and death.
Lessons to be drawn from this train of thought. The NDE points us to the untapped wisdom in Nietzsche’s linking near death with an increase of inner strength and spiritual power. Now I can imagine someone protesting, ‘Do I have to nearly die before I can tap into that extra strength to live well in our difficult, increasingly crazy world?’ No, not at all. But we do need to understand why being “near death” seems to open the gates of the psyche and release such striking spiritual energies.
So what then happens during an NDE? Take, for example, a case of cardiac arrest. In normal life, our sensori-motor apparatus is busily occupied dealing with all the changes and challenges in the external environment. Our consciousness is absorbed in the external world and by the internal play of attention, feelings, impulses. Our minds are distracted by all the fluctuations of the external world and our internal world.
But then something happens and there occurs cardiac arrest; according to mainstream neuroscience, blood is not pumped to the brain and consciousness becomes impossible. But this is not what happens, as we know from NDE research. Far from blotting out consciousness, people have the most vivid, real, and amazing experiences of their lives. The entire stream of sensori-motor consciousness is violently turned off—but not extinguished. The brain has turned off the sensori-motor consciousness and displaced consciousness within where all the wonders of the NDE unfold—somewhere in the outer precincts of Mind at Large.
Now the above account is consistent with the behaviors of shamans, yogis, saints, Sufis, artists, and other who are involved in trying to break free from the tyranny of everyday consciousness. The techniques deployed are unlimited, (from drugs to Daoism)but the aim is always to appropriate consciousness from everything trivial, transient, and toxic, and direct it toward Transcendence. It can be long and tedious, the quest for enlightenment. The NDE does it out of the blue and very quickly, thanks to modern resuscitation technology.
Given the extraordinary benefits of the NDE, we need a movement dedicated to figuring out ways to induce the various components of the experience. Ejaculation out of our bodies would be a good starter. That deep look into our own secret depths. That visit to the next world, if there is one. The sounds of transcendental music. An encounter with a light being that radiates love to us all. Live conversations with the dead. If we could make these experiences possible for large numbers of people, it might well evolve into a collective shift in human consciousness. All things considered, we could use such a change in the quality of our awareness.
I’ll end this hopeful reflection with references to a recent book on the near-death experience by Dr. Gregory Shushan that demonstrates in a powerful way the transformative power of the NDE: The Next World: Extraordinary Experiences of the Afterlife.
Thanks for the kind words about my book, Michael. I never thought about that Nietzsche quote in terms of NDEs, but you're right that it fits. In fact, I like the quote better in that light. It always irked me a little, because it makes me think of people with PTSD or physical ailments that don't kill but certainly don't make you stronger. I'm probably being too literal-minded, though!
And yes, this is the key question: 'we do need to understand why being “near death” seems to open the gates of the psyche and release such striking spiritual energies.' It's one of the questions I have for attempts at materialist explanations for NDEs, which see it as an evolutionary byproduct of the dying brain. What possible evolutionary reason could our brains have for fooling us into believing we're surviving death even as we're dying? By the same token, why do some people have NDEs when they're not physically near death at all? For example, if they fall from a height or almost drown but we're ultimately unharmed.
I also wonder what kinds of teachings or social programs could achieve similar transformations as NDEs. In other words, why do we *need* such experiences in order to bring out the best in us?
I couldn't agree with you more, Gregory What evolutionary value could result from inducing the illusion of survival in a person who's dying?
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