Glimpses of the Afterlife?

Richard Brooks – USA

[This article was previously published in The Theosophist, 120 (February 1999): 668-673]

Nearly all the world’s religions proclaim some form of conscious existence after the death of the physical body. But it has become fashionable in recent history to question the truth of such beliefs. After all, there is considerable divergence of opinion among the religions — and among theologians expounding those religions — as to the nature of this post-mortem existence. In fact, the beliefs are sometimes referred to by debunkers of theology as “mythologies” in an effort to discount them, to suggest that they do not warrant serious attention from scientifically minded people. All human behavior, they say, including our mental life with its religious beliefs, can be explained in terms of neurophysiology. This is a form of “reductionism.” When the neurons stop “firing,” life ceases, mind ceases, consciousness ceases. Hence, there is nothing after death. The optimistic religious beliefs may be comforting, may even have some social value, but they aren’t true. Or, so they say.

Death, they argue, is a fact of life. It should be calmly and objectively accepted. As a former biologist colleague of mine once put it, “We are all programmed to die.” That is, the body can regenerate itself by cell division only up to a certain point; after that, there is a gradual decline until death sets in. This inevitable end could be delayed — that is, one’s life could be prolonged — by eliminating disease, lowering one’s body temperature a degree or two, eating a sensible diet (he recommended vegetarianism), breathing more slowly, etc. But it cannot be avoided, and therefore should be rationally and dis­passionately accepted.

But then what? Most of us have certain beliefs, but we would have to admit that we do not really know. And what we do not really know, we fear. It is difficult calmly to accept something which we fear. That fact, as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, is what “makes us rather bear those ills we have, than to fly to others that we know not of’”.

So we attempt to stifle this fear with various theologies. But is this attempt mere foolishness, as reductionist scientists and philosophers claim? Consider this: can you imagine a blank nothingness after death, a cessation of consciousness? Think about it. In fact, it is logically impossible to do so. Imagining is a conscious act; one can’t have a conscious idea of non-consciousness, of non-ideation. Therefore, the claim that there is no consciousness after the death of the body and its brain is not based on any experience. It is a hypothesis based on certain assumptions — that eventually scientists will be able to explain all mental activity solely in terms of brain activity. Reductionism. It is not possible, they admit, to do so now; but they claim it will be possible “sometime” in the future. In other words, it is a belief, a hope. As such, it is on equal footing with the beliefs of survival. How would one adjudge this conflict of opposing beliefs? Here is where experiences like the near-death experience (NDE) come in.

In contrast to the contemporary cynicism of most scientists, there are a number of other scientists who have challenged reductionism by pointing to and investigating certain phenomena which, if taken at face value, would seem to support claims of the survival of personal consciousness after the death of the physical body — “life after death,” as it is usually termed. And it is not merely the NDE upon which they base their conclusions, but also on consideration of a wide variety of other phenomena as well: the so-called out-of-body experience (OBE), apparitions of various sorts, purported communications with the deceased, past-life memories, and psychic phenomena such as extrasensory perception (ESP) and psychokinesis (PK). Of course, each of those phenomena must be subjected to careful scrutiny. One does not want to be gullible — nor to be dogmatically skeptical. One wants to examine and weigh all such claims critically — that is, fairly and objectively — to determine what, if anything, they really amount to and what, if they withstand scrutiny, they indicate about human nature.

It is my conviction, after more than forty years of study of those phenomena, hearing and reading papers about the investigation of them by competent scientists, and an examination of various alternative hypotheses to account for them, that the simplest hypothesis which explains all of them is that the human being is something more than a physical body. In other words, attempted reductionist explanations either (1) cannot account adequately for the phenomena, (2) are much more complicated theories, or (3) are nonempirical ad hoc hypotheses devised solely to protect the reductionist dogma. But if we are more than just a physical body, it is an open question as to whether this “something more” might not survive death. It would be impossible in a short article like this to justify my conviction completely. Let me, instead, focus only on the near-death experience (NDE).

There is some suggestion that the NDE may have played a role in shaping the theology of Pure Land Buddhism in fifth century China (Carl B. Becker, “The Centrality of Near-Death Experiences in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism,” Anabiosis: The Journal for Near-Death Studies1.2 [December 1981]: 154-171). Many cultures believed in the possibility of, and claim to have had shamans capable of, an out-of- the-body experience (OBE), one of the reported stages in most NDEs (D. A. Shiels, “A Cross-Cultural Study of Beliefs in Out-of-the-Body Experiences, Waking and Sleeping,” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (1978): 697-741). But it is mainly in the latter part of the twentieth century that reports of NDEs occur, simply because that was when the technology was developed to resuscitate a person who had, according to all normal criteria, died. And even then, it was not until the publication of Dr. Raymond Moody Jr.’s book Life After Life in 1975 that the phenomenon caught the attention of believers and debunkers alike. Since then, a number of books and articles have been written on the subject; my personal favorite is by a cardiologist, Dr. Michael Sabom, who began as a sceptic and turned believer as a result of his personal investigation (Michael B. Sabom, Recollections of Death (NY: Harper & Row, 1982), Kenneth Ring, Life atDeath [NY: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1980] and Heading toward Omegcu in Search of the Meaning of Death [NY: William & Morrow, 1984]). An association of investigators into this specific phenomenon has been formed and a journal dedicated to the subject has begun publication.

Before discussing the phenomenon, however, it is necessary to make some distinctions. Both critics and enthusiasts sometimes fail to do so, thus lumping together phenomena which are quite distinct, even though they may possibly be related in some general way. These are what could be termed the out-of-body experiences (OBE), deathbed visions, the expected death experience (EDE), and the actual near-death experience (NDE). The OBE, as previously mentioned, is an aspect or stage of the NDE, but more frequently occurs quite independently of any imminent danger to the body.(It is sometimes termed bilocation and sometimes autoscopy, since it usually involves seeing one’s own body from a point outside of it. It is often “explained away” as similar to a dissociated state of meditation or as imagination based on our experience of seeing ourself in a mirror, etc. I once had an OBE unexpectedly in full waking consciousness; I also have meditated regularly for over forty years — and, of course see my image in a mirror daily — and neither of these hypotheses can adequately explain my experience. There have also been some ingeniously designed experiments to distinguish the OBE from “traveling clairvoyance” and other phenomena.) The EDE occurs when one is in the midst of a serious accident or is falling to what one predicts will be one’s death. It has some overlap with the NDE, but since no death (or near death) has yet occurred, it must be classified as a separate phenomenon and cannot be used in any attempt to explain away the NDE. Deathbed visions are also very dissimilar to the NDE and occur when terminally ill persons, in full waking consciousness, apparently perceive previously deceased friends or relatives whom they interpret as coming to take them away. These are, therefore, often called “take away visions” (Karlis Osis and Erlander Haraldsson, At the Hour of Death [NY: Avon Brooks, 1977] and their earlier report Deathbed Observations by Physicians and Nurses [NY: Parapsychology Foundation, 1961]). In fact, the person who has such a vision may not actually die until hours or even days later. Obviously that is not like the NDE.

In the “classic NDE case, if one may call it such, the heart stops, breathing stops, and the body may begin to feel cool. There are even reports that in a very few cases in which brain activity was being monitored during a hospital operation, the electroencephalogram went “flat,” i.e. showed no brain activity. Of course, many — probably most — of these cases occurred outside of hospitals, so the reports of “death” are based on informal observations (trying to take a pulse, not seeing any obvious rise and fall of the chest, etc.). And most EEGs record only surface electrical activity of the brain, so “going flat” does not necessarily mean all brain functions have ceased. Later, the patient is resuscitated, often by a heart defibrillator. It is the reports of experiences the patient had during the time he was determined to be “clinically dead” that form the basis of the NDE. These reports vary somewhat from person to person, but they have certain commonly recurring features, the number of them depending on the duration of the “death.” The patient must be resuscitated within a few minutes — some physicians say as little as two; some as much as twenty if mouth to mouth resuscitation is performed — otherwise lack of oxygen to the brain will cause its cells to die so that, even if there is resuscitation, memory will be severely impaired. Perhaps it would be simplest to describe an “archetypal” case.

The patient who “dies” (during an operation, in an accident or drowning, or as the result of a heart attack) hears someone say “Oh, my God, he’s dead” or some such thing, and he tries to reply that it is not true, but cannot make his vocal cords work. (I use the masculine pronoun here merely for the sake of convenience, so as to avoid saying “he or she” everywhere or trying to put every sentence in the plural. But it should be remembered that the experience is reported by women just as often as by men.) He may momentarily feel a sense of alarm or panic as a result. This is often followed by a kind of buzzing sound, whereupon the person finds himself outside his body, watching efforts to attend to it. At this point, the person realizes that he is not in pain and gains a calm feeling of being a detached observer of the scene. Frequently, after resuscitation, the person will describe aspects of the scene that it is impossible to account for by normal means (e.g., by hearing, which persists as a sense for some time after the other senses stop functioning). The person subsequently has the feeling of going through a dark place — often described as a tunnel or valley — and then coming out into a bright area of indescribable beauty where everything is suffused by a light utterly different from earthly light. In this place he is met by a friend, a warm presence (which Moody calls a “being of light”). This personage or “being” reassures him by some telepathic means that all is well and then helps him review impersonally and objectively his past life very rapidly but in great detail, neither condemning him for mistakes he made nor extolling his virtuous acts. The “being” offers him the opportunity to “go back,” but the experience of the place is such that the offer almost always is rejected. Then at some point, the person finds himself at a kind of barrier — a wall, a lake, a stream, a line — at which point the “being of light” informs him that his “time” has not yet come and that he must “go back.” Some report a feeling of falling back into their body, but most just suddenly find themselves in the body, and for the first time feel the pain of the accident or heart attack or trauma that caused their “death.” But the experience is so powerful that it has a transforming effect on the person’s life thereafter. (As I was writing this article, a friend happened to come in and described his NDE during World War II. It was still vivid in his mind more than half a century later!) He loses all fear of death, but also realizes the importance of life and becomes quite impatient with the trivial things on which usually we waste our time, energy, and money. He also feels that the experience is so precious that to talk about it indiscriminately somehow degrades it. In any event, he has no language to describe it adequately. And when he does try to share the experience with medical professionals, family, or friends, he is usually met with such disbelief that he quickly stops talking. It is, in fact, a great relief when he finds someone — a professional like Moody or Sabom, another person who has had a NDE, or a Theosophist — who takes him seriously.

Those are the typical characteristics of a full-blown experience. I have personally met quite a few people who have had it or who know someone who has. Their reports in conversations with me show the same general pattern outlined above. I am convinced (I would even be so bold as to say I know) that they are not lying. But that is not the same as saying their reports are accurate descriptions of a life after death. After all, they didn’t die. Theirs was a near-death experience. That means something was still going on in consciousness — and, as we know from neurophysiological investigations — in the brain. So, why could not all that be just some sort of brain-induced fantasy, the result of the release of morphine-like opioids, the brain’s natural response to stress?

First of all, there is the similarity (though not identity) of the NDEs. This is precisely what one would expect to find if several people were, say, witnessing the same scene or hearing the same music. We do not interpret those brain states as fantasies. To claim that the NDEs are fantasies assumes that all reality is physically intersubjective, that is, accessible to normal sense perception (or its extension via various kinds of instruments, such as electron microscopes). But where are the senses located? In the physical body! If one permits only physical sense experience as evidence, naturally one will find only physical objects and events.

Secondly, during the OBE part, there are frequently reports of events, equipment, persons, etc., which the “dead” subject would have no way of knowing unless he were actually witnessing the scene. These aspects of the NDE reports are usually carefully ignored by reductionists. Thirdly, researchers have shown that the NDE does not correlate with previous religious belief — indeed, it seems most frequently to occur to people who are irreligious, or at least agnostic, and who previously disbelieve in a life after death. It is hard to understand, then, how such a curious “defense mechanism” should arise. I heard a symposium years ago in which several researchers had tried to see if there were any physiological, psychological, or socio-economic factors that correlated with persons who reported having the NDE. They investigated more than one hundred such factors and found none correlated. It sounds, then, like we have to take the experience seriously as at least partial evidence for survival.

But that, as I stated earlier, is not the whole story. When one looks at the entire range of evidence (discarding that which cannot withstand scrutiny, like most mediumistic phenomena), one is forced to conclude that survival of personal consciousness after the death of the physical body is a fact. Exactly what is the nature of this post-mortem state is a different matter and requires a separate investigation. On that subject, Theosophical literature like The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett or Life after Death by C.W. Leadbeater as well as Hindu and Buddhist texts, have a great deal to contribute. But it is the height of arrogance to dismiss the survival hypothesis out of hand on the basis of neurological evidence. Naturally neurological events are happening during the NDE. If they were not, people would not remember it — or it would not be a near-death experience. It would be, if I may call it such, a far-death experience. And, as such, would not be communicated to those of us who are still incarnate. So, neurology explains nothing.

Now, none of this in any way minimizes the important fact that we must focus our attention on the immediate moment. That, after all, is the only moment we actually live in. If we carry with us in our psyche the “baggage” of our past, it inhibits us from acting freely and creatively in the present. And if we create images of the future (hopes, plans, intentions), we often fail to realize them since they do not deal with present realities, with “what is,” as J. Krishnamurti termed it. They are mere projections of our mind.

Nevertheless, one of the emotions that can afflict us in the present is a fear of the future. We could, as Krishnamurti and Zen would have us do, examine it and by that means come to understand its illusory nature and thus dispel it. Not everyone can do that. Another way to deal with the kind of fear which is based on uncertainty or ignorance is to dispel it with knowledge. That is the value of investigating the NDE and other such phenomena. But it cannot be dispelled by replacing it with another illusion, which is what reductionism is.

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