Since the mid 1970s the public has come to learn about an extraordinary phenomenon, the near-death experience (NDE). The NDE, as I see it, is to mainstream psychology what quantum mechanics is to mainstream physics. In both cases, the phenomena take us beyond the limits of ordinary psychic and physical reality. Into a new dimension of reality, we might say.
In brief, the NDE is an experience of transcendent importance, mystical and transformative. It is in fact the kind of experience that religious people might yearn for, and wistfully pray for, and that many mystics, yogis, and shamans spend their lives in pursuit of: disciplining their minds and bodies, hoping to encounter the transcendent reality, however conceived or imagined..
In researching the Smile of the Universe, about one of the great mystic levitators known to history, Joseph of Copertino, I tried to understand the dynamics of his remarkably strange mental life. What I found was that the ascetic practices he pursued amounted to a step-by-step equivalent of a near-death experience. I had the pioneering studies of Dr. Bruce Greyson on NDEs before me as I pored over the mystic’s degravitated existence.
Joseph’s model for the perfect life was summed up in the word nulla. Nothing! His mystical practice consisted of striving to be nothing. Meaning, we would say, egoless. Voidness and Emptiness are equivalent Eastern terms. Joseph wanted to be nothing to make room for the divine influx into himself. His existential style is the opposite to the self-affirming, self-replicating manner of normal life.
The prize may be boundless but getting there is something else. To become nothing, you fast from food and sleep. You are humble and polite without limits. There are stories of Joseph who suddenly became as silent and motionless as a statue. It was understood he was waiting to be told what to do. The man’s clothing was ragged and worn. The idea of owning anything at all was anathema to him. A wealthy lady admirer brought him a new shirt and his superior insisted he accept it. Joseph nearly had a nervous break down, as if the distraction of a woman’s gift could topple him from the soarings of his inner life. The strange thing is that the few miserable garments he left behind and all sorts of things he touched emanated exquisite, unexplained odors for months and even years after his death. Notably, there are accounts of near-death experiences with unexplained fragrances and now and then strains of rare music are reportedly heard.
Now here’s the interesting idea. In the archetypal NDE, we have a model for exploring the entire hidden realm of reality that is our unexplored mind. So the challenge as we plunge into eco-end-times will increasingly come to this. We have to replace our little, cramped, frightened, quasi-paranoid mode of consciousness with a more open democratic consciousness, a consciousness that knows its own depths, is confident of its creative resources, and so is fearless in the face of adversity. We know this transition is possible, and should be alert to any signs of the powers--gods or spirits, if you like--when they show signs of coming to life within us.
But now for an ironic turn. We know that the mystic’s grueling quest to transcend her or his ego can be accomplished in a flash by cardiac arrest. Applause for science and technology! And we obtain a shocking insight. The nearness of death, literally or imaginatively, becomes the prelude to a sudden expansion of consciousness. The classic NDE is telling us that another dimension of reality is close by, hidden by our, everyday consciousness, which is preoccupied with surviving in an increasingly dangerous world.
But we don’t have to be mystics like Saint Joseph nor must we have an NDE to begin to explore the greater reality we’re all immersed in. We can learn to practice turning off our brains and getting out of our egos. And we can do it in all sorts of subtle, idiosyncratic ways.
We can do it intellectually. We can stop or fast from thinking, judging, discriminating, weighing, measuring, explaining, proving, analyzing, denying, affirming, etc. etc. We can instead learn to be present to reality, openly aware, listening and observing with receptivity. Disengaged from all the epistemic clutter, we can tune into what we might otherwise never even notice.
We can do it emotionally. We can get clear and lighten the load of feelings that tend to mob our consciousness. We can do that by choosing to identify all the negative, useless feelings that foul our sense of self. Observe them with cold detachment. Will them to extinction. Watch them float into non-entity. And smile as you wave them away forever.
And we can do it psychologically. But what does ‘turn off our brains’ mean psychologically? To sum it up in a word, concentration. Narrowing, pin-pointing, and holding the focus of attention. That simple notion holds the secret of travelling far. The mind is a wacky monkey, and has to be reined in; if not, it will drag you all over the place. What we need for this project is a laser focus of attention. Otherwise, it’s impossible to escape from our cultural psychosphere: our habits, ideals, expectations; the constraints of our collective imagination.
There is much we have to clear out before there’s room for our greater self to break in. Emptiness, say the mystic explorers, is the secret doorway to the hidden side of reality. Or, to put it simply, turn your brain off and be enlightened.
Finally, there are many books on the subject of the NDE. I will mention two new books, one by Dr. Bruce Greyson, After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Reveals About Life and Beyond. The other by Jens Amberts, see https://lifeafterlife.com/blog/why-an-afterlife-obviously-exists/ . I will also mention my book on life after death, which covers all the types of afterlife evidence, Experiencing the Next World Now.