Journeys to the Light
For the past ten years, I have been teaching a course on the near-death experience (NDE) at my university. Every semester, thirty-five to forty young undergraduates arrive at my classroom on the first day of the new term, usually somewhat nervous about taking such an offbeat course but generally enthusiastic and curious about the topic that has already excited their interest.
Normally, there is one person--and ordinarily no more than one--among these students who comes to the class with a markedly different orientation, and an advantage over his or her peers. This is the student, though I will only learn this later, who has already had an NDE. He or she is there for quite different reasons, and several weeks or even most of the semester may pass before the other students and I learn that there has been an experiencer all along in our midst. By the time the semester is over, however, we have usually been made privy to the story of the NDE of that student, who becomes for that day the real teacher in the class.
I still remember quite vividly the first time one of these invisible NDEr students made himself known to me and my class. Craig, as I will call him, was a trifle older than most undergraduates, being in his late twenties, but he still had a definite boyish quality to his manner that made him seem like their exact contemporary. I had already noticed that Craig seemed especially interested in our discussions and, perhaps abetted by the fact that he was comely in an athletic way, with broad shoulders and a powerful build, he had a very lively and attractive presence in the class. Perhaps I am guilty of a degree of idealization when I recall him now, but I feel quite certain I had even noticed that there was a kind of sparkle his eyes that set him apart from most of the other students. At the time, I'm sure that I attributed this to his obvious involvement with the course, but eventually my students and I were to learn that there were decidedly more personal reasons that explained Craig's almost luminous presence and his infectious cheerfulness.
That was the day, of course, when he, with some shyness, confessed that he had had one of these experiences himself about ten years ago. Naturally, I drew him out and before the class was over that day, we had heard the gist of his story which, once he got into it, Craig told in a very natural, straightforward manner. Afterward, I asked him if he would be kind enough to write out a version of it for me in his course journal, and what follows are some excerpts from this written account, preceded and interspersed with some comments of my own to help place his remarks in context. In reading it, however, I would invite you not merely to peruse his words, but to enter into his experience as empathically as you can by imagining that it was your own. To the extent you are able to do so, his experience will become yours and its power will ramify through you.
Craig's NDE had occurred one summer as a result of a rafting accident in which he had nearly drowned. He had only been on his inner tube for about 30 seconds when he realized he was already in danger. In this moment of alarm, he became aware that
the current was pulling me toward the middle of the river, where there was a small waterfall. There is a sharp drop of about 4 feet or so at this point, and the power of the river is extremely visible. The rocks below had eroded in such a manner that they created a sort of suction hole. ... I tried to pull myself toward the route that [his friend and rafting companion] Don had followed as I paddled with my hands, but my attempts proved to be futile. The current was too strong, and paddling was only twisting me around so that now I was headed toward the waterfall backwards instead of forwards. As I looked over my shoulder, my heart began beating faster for I realized that there was no possible way of avoiding the falls. I tried to get a grip on the tube but it was too slippery to get a hold of. Over the falls I went, the inner tube sinking into the water backwards, and then throwing me back in a forward direction because of the air pressure in the tube. I was propelled headfirst into the falls where the force of the water tore me from the tube with sudden impact and brutal force and sent me crashing to the bottom. I was pinned there by its never ending supply of overwhelming force.
Craig now found himself seemingly inescapably trapped, face down in the sand and could move only his hands, but there was nothing for him to grasp to get any leverage. Quickly, he realized that there was no hope and that, with his air supply already dwindling, he would surely die. Meanwhile, his mind speeded up tremendously, and many things and thoughts seemed to be happening simultaneously. Then, he began to lose his sense of time altogether as the reality of his fatal predicament impressed itself upon him.
I could not believe that this is where my life would end. ... I never thought it would be by drowning, and never thought it would happen at such a young age. ... It struck me as funny that I had been to this area many times before, and never knew that this was where I would die later in life. Scenes from my life began to pass before my eyes at superhigh speeds. It seemed as if I was a passive observer in the process, and it was as if someone else was running the projector I was looking at my life objectively for the first time ever. I saw the good as well as the bad. I realized that these images were sort of a final chapter in my life, and that when the images stopped, I would lose consciousness forever. I thought of how a light bulb sometimes burns the brightest just before it goes out for the last time.
Craig is beginning to have what many people report on nearly dying, a kind of panoramic life review, and went on to describe various scenes from his childhood, beginning when he was a baby.
I was astonished when I saw myself sitting in a baby's high chair and picking up some food with my right hand and throwing it onto the floor. And there was my mom, years younger, telling me that good boys do not throw their food on the floor. I also saw myself at a lake on a summer vacation when I was about three or four years old. My older brother and I had to swim with an air bubble on our backs to help us float because neither of us were able to swim on our own yet. For some reason, I was mad at him, and to demonstrate my anger, I threw his air bubble into the lake. He was very upset and began to cry, and my father walked over and explained to me that it was not nice of me to do what I did, and that I would have to row the boat out with him to get it, and would have to apologize. I relived a boating accident when I was about seven that was very traumatic for me because I had run over my brother by accident and nearly killed him. I was amazed at how many scenes I was seeing but had long since been forgotten. ... It seemed that all the scenes had to do with experiences I had either learned from or were traumatic for me in some way. The images continued at high speeds, and I knew that time was about to run out, for the images were getting closer and closer to the present. ... Then the images ceased ... and there was only darkness.
At this point of seeming finality, Craig says he began to relax a little and to surrender to the inevitable. He is aware, however, of a tingling sensation, beginning in his feet and then spreading over his entire body, which has the effect of making him feel increasingly relaxed. His body becomes extremely quiet and his heart stops beating. He no longer feels the need for air and comments that, paradoxically, he now does not feel uncomfortable in the least. There is a pause, and then suddenly,
I felt myself moving through a dark void. It was like a tunnel but it was so dark that it could have been 5 feet in diameter or thousands of miles. I seemed to be picking up speed and traveling in a perfectly straight line through the void. I felt as if wind was blowing across my face. There was no actual wind though; there were only sensations that would be present if there were wind. I felt as if I were moving at the speed of light through the blackness, and far away in the distance, I could see a small pinpoint of light that seemed to be growing larger. I somehow knew that this was my destination. I sped along until it became a huge mass of beautiful and brilliant white light. I stopped short right before reaching it, for I felt I was getting too far away from the earth to find my way back, and I guess I had a feeling that one could equate with homesickness.
As I sat there motionless, it seemed as if the light began to float toward me as if to take up the slack I had left between us. It was not long before it engulfed me, and I felt as if I became one with the light. It seemed to have knowledge of everything there is to know, and it accepted me as part of it. I felt all-knowing for a few minutes. Suddenly, everything seemed to make perfect sense. The whole world seemed to be in total harmony. I remember thinking, "Ahhh, so that's it. Everything is so crystal clear and simple in so many ways." I had never been able to see it from this point of view.
Looking back at this point, I cannot explain the questions that were answered, or the answers themselves. All I know was that they were on a much higher level of thought that cannot be approached when limited by the physical nature of the mind. ... Within the light, I could still feel the boundaries of my form, but at the same time I felt as one with it. I felt myself expand through the light over an area that seemed like miles, and then contract to my former size, which at this point was like a two- or three-foot egg-shaped mass of energy. I felt better than I had ever felt in my life. It was as if I were bathing in total love and understanding, and basking in its radiance. ... It gives me a sense of traveling a long distance and finally making it home. I sensed that I had been here before, perhaps before being born into the physical world.
At this moment of apparent apogee, which suggests the absolute culmination of the NDE in ineffable union with the light, Craig is astonished to perceive that there are still other revelations about to be disclosed to him.
All of a sudden, I noticed a floating sensation, as if I were rising. I was shocked to find that I was floating upwards into the open air above the river. I remember vividly the scene of the water level passing before my eyes. Suddenly I could see and hear as never before. The sound of the waterfall was so crisp and clear that it just cannot be explained by words. Earlier that year, my right ear had been injured when somebody threw an M-80 into a bar where I was listening to a band, and it exploded right next to my head. But now I could hear perfectly clearly, better than I ever had before. My sight was even more beautiful. Sights that were close in distance were as clear as those far away, and this was at the same moment, which astounded me. There was no blurriness in my vision whatsoever. I felt as if I had been limited by my physical senses all these years, and that I had been looking at a distorted picture of reality.
As I floated there about six feet above the water, I gazed downward toward the falls. I knew that my physical body was eight feet below the surface of the water, but it did not seem to bother me. ... Now, separated from my physical body, I found that I could survive without all the pain and suffering of physical existence. I had never thought of it as pain and suffering when I was in my physical body, but now, after experiencing such total bliss and harmony, it seemed like everything prior to this was like being in some sort of cage.
I felt like I was an energy form that could never be destroyed. I thought of all the handicapped people in the world who could not see, could not hear, and those who had lost limbs or were paralyzed. I realized that when they die, these physical limitations would be cast aside, and they would feel whole again. ... It was such a reassuring feeling to know that all of these people would be set free from their handicapped conditions someday.
Craig then becomes aware of his distraught companion, Don, and tries to communicate with him.
I gazed down the river and could see Don clutching a rock as he looked back at the falls with his mouth hanging open in shock. I yelled to him, "Don, I'm up here. I'm okay, look, up here." He did not respond. There seemed to be no way for me to communicate with him [and] I quickly gave up.
At this juncture in Craig's journey back from the light, he has some further curious experiences, although similar ones have also been occasionally reported by other NDErs. He finds that his bodiless essence now has the power to enter into and experience elements of nature, such as trees and rocks, and amuses himself with these strange sensations. He is, in short, having a ball, and sees limitless possibilities in this new state.
I felt better than I had ever felt in my life. I felt like I could go anywhere in the universe in an instant. I remember thinking about my family, and suddenly finding my energy at home in my backyard, floating above the back porch and looking into the house through the kitchen window. There was a bird sitting on the window ledge, and I was so amazed that I could move so close to it without its flying away. I saw a shadow of someone walking through the kitchen, but I cannot be sure of who it was. Next I found myself floating on a street corner of a busy city. It was exactly like a scene I had seen while visiting San Francisco. After each of these excursions I found myself back once again, floating above the sand next to the river.
I was at the height of my euphoria and looking for something new to experiment with when a voice thundered through my head. It said, "What do you think you are doing? You're not supposed to die yet! You're being selfish. Sure you feel great and you love this new experience, but you must understand that it was not supposed to happen this way. You promised that you would never give up until every ounce of energy was used. You remember that wrestling match in high school when you were pinned, and afterward were disappointed in yourself because you felt you had given up? You just gave up. I am a little disappointed that you did not try harder to escape."
I thought about it, remembered the incident vividly, and the voice was absolutely right. I had given up rather quickly, and certainly had not used all of my energy to escape, but I explained that I saw no possible way out. I said, "And, besides, it's too late now anyway, my body must be filled with water by now." We seemed to be communicating not with words, but with direct thought.
At this point, I began to see a figure of a man, partially transparent, and old in appearance. When I realized that this is who I had been communicating with, I also noticed five other faces to his left. [Further exhortations come from these others and then] I realized that these spirits or souls seemed to know me very well, and seemed like some sort of blood relatives from my past, but I didn't recognize them.
The main voice then explained to me that it was not too late to return, and suddenly I saw a thin orange line appear across a black background. It was horizontal, and seemed to stretch to infinity on either side of a small area that was red and thicker than the rest of the band. The voice said, "This red area is your life." Then, a vertical black line cut through the red area about a quarter of the way of its length. It then said, "If you die today, this is where your life will end, but if you choose to live, you can see that you have the potential to live another three-quarters beyond what you have experienced so far."
The entity then showed me scenes of what would happen if I chose to die. I saw my family in tears, I saw images of police cars, an ambulance, scuba divers, and people from neighboring houses along the shore trying to get a view of what was happening. I also saw an image of Don explaining to the police what had happened. These images were rather unsettling, for I did not want to put my family and friends through that kind of torment. Then, the voice asked me what I liked about life. I told him I loved music. He asked if I had done everything with my music that I had wanted to. I answered that I hadn't, and told him that I had always dreamed of being an opening act for somebody famous. I then said that I would have liked to open up for someone from the Woodstock Festival, like Arlo Guthrie, for instance.
The voice saw how I gave Arlo Guthrie a sort of hero image and explained to me that he was no different from the rest of us on earth, and that if you want something bad enough it can be yours--as long as you realize that once you get it, you may find that it was not what you were looking for in the first place. It seemed to say if only people could see the importance of love and cooperation instead of competitiveness, the world could be a better place to live. It told me to use my senses to their maximum potential, and to gather as much knowledge as I could through them. I thought about the time line again, and how it continued past the point where my life would end, and how it stretched far before the beginning of my human existence. If there was nothing before and after my life, I wondered why I saw the orange line stretching to infinity in both directions, and not simply the red area that was designated as my life in this world. It seemed to be telling me that I existed in some form before this lifetime, and that I would continue to exist after it ended. The voice then said, "This place will always be here waiting for you, and if you want to stay now, I will accept you, but I will be sort of disappointed if you do not take this opportunity to go back--the choice is yours."
All of a sudden, I realized that it was almost going to be a personal insult to this figure if I did not choose to return to my present life. It was as if he was telling me that an earthly existence could be so wonderful if looked at through the right frame of mind. It did not take me long to realize that, deep inside, I really wanted to go back and live my life to the fullest. Even though this place made me feel so good, I felt that I could come back here someday, and that there was no rush. I said, "Okay," and before I could get out the words, "I'm ready," I shot back into my body like a lightning bolt.
In an instant, Craig becomes aware of the heaviness of his body and his physical pain, but at the same time feels a tremendous influx of energy that allows him almost to disregard the pain. Finding that he now was possessed of "the strength of three men," he fights resolutely to free himself from his underwater predicament and, of course, he prevails and manages to swim back to the shore, where he collapses on the beach, utterly exhausted. His mind, however, is still preoccupied with his experience, and while on the beach, he nevertheless remains in two worlds. "I tried to figure out what had just happened to me. I knew that I had a glimpse of a world on the other side of life as we know it, and it felt so good to be back. Even the pain in my lungs felt good."
Ten years later, reflecting on the lessons and impact of his experience, Craig wrote:
This experience changed my life in many ways. For one, I am no longer the least bit afraid to die. I know that I would not want to suffer, but I know that the actual dying process is nothing like what I thought it would be, and that it was probably the most beautiful and peaceful experience I have ever had. I realize now that our time here is relatively short, and it makes me want to live my life to the fullest. I found that among the few things that people can take with them when they die, love is probably the most important. The only things left after one leaves his or her body are energy, love, personality, and knowledge. It seems like such a waste of precious time to become caught up in materialistic modes of thinking. When I hear birds chirping, it sounds so beautiful and makes me feel so good inside. I notice trees and plants and other living things more than I ever had before. I guess I seem to get my happiness more from the little things in life than from things with great monetary value. Life in general seems more intricate and amazing than ever before. I feel that our bodies are the greatest gift of all, and I find that most people take them for granted. Most people do not stop to realize how lucky we are to be alive. I know that I have been given a second chance in life, and every day is so much more precious to me. Words cannot describe the feeling I get when I wake up in the morning and the sun is shining in through the window, and it is the beginning of a new day with all sorts of opportunities to experience new things, and to learn from them. I know now that an existence after this lifetime awaits all of us, and that death is not the end, but simply a new beginning.
In Craig's case, however, there was a surprise waiting for him and an eerie confirmation of something he had been told by the voice during his NDE. In a coda to his account, Craig relates this story:
One ironic occurrence after this experience: Three years after this experience, I decided I wanted to learn how to play the flute. After only a few months, I realized that I could touch people in the deepest parts of their souls with my playing--sometimes, they would even cry. I found that it was my way to reach out to many people at a time. Two years after first picking up the flute, I was playing in a bar, and a man came up to me and asked me if I would like to be the opening act for Arlo Guthrie at the Shaboo Inn [at the time, a local club]. I said, "Sure!," as a rush of excitement and the memory of what occurred during my near-death experience ran through my mind. I had my major dream in life come true. After performing, I had a tear in my eye as I looked back at the stage and said to myself, "Maybe the voice was right. Maybe this wasn't what I was looking for after all. Maybe what I really wanted deep down inside was to feel needed and loved, and to be able to touch the hearts of many."
I've quoted at length from Craig's narrative so that you could have here at the outset the opportunity to project yourself into a deep yet wholly typical NDE. What Craig saw, what he understood, and how he changed as a result of his experience constitute the common testimony and outcome of thousands of near-death survivors around the globe. In a way, it may be enough for you to read and ponder this experience for yourself, for truly it does speak, and speaks most eloquently, for itself. But perhaps, just to be sure we do not overlook anything of vital importance, it might be useful to linger a moment or two before considering our next account and take note of certain features of Craig's experience--especially those that are particularly relevant to us who have not had an NDE ourselves.
Of course, Craig's NDE has many of the familiar elements of these encounters--the feelings of peace and extreme well-being, the out-of-body perspective, a passage through a dark void toward a radiantly beautiful light, a sense of total acceptance, universal knowledge, a life review, meeting others, and being offered the choice whether to return to the physical body. And there were other features of his experience as well that are more unusual, but certainly not unique to Craig, such as his apparent ability to tune into distant scenes and places and to experience directly the creations of nature. For us, however, it is primarily the knowledge that Craig received during his NDE and how it affected his life afterward that are of particular moment. And if we are to begin to internalize these lessons for ourselves, it might be helpful to summarize some of the main ones here.
This, then, is what Craig--who, as we will see, speaks here for so many other NDErs--seems to have taken away from his experience:
1. There is nothing whatever to fear about death.
2. Dying is peaceful and beautiful.
3. Life does not begin with birth nor end with death.
4. Life is precious--live it to the fullest.
5. The body and its senses are tremendous gifts--appreciate them.
6. What matters most in life is love.
7. Living a life oriented toward materialistic acquisition is missing the point.
8. Cooperation rather than competition makes for a better world.
9. Being a big success in life is not all it is cracked up to be.
10. Seeking knowledge is important--you take that with you.
Many of these statements may seem self-evident, and you may wonder cynically, "Is it really necessary to nearly die to learn such bromides?" Of course it is not--that is the whole premise of this book--but what the NDE does for the individual who has one is to convert these propositions from lip-service truisms to living truths. The NDEr does not forget these things because they have been indelibly and permanently infused into his or her psyche, and they have an immediate and longlasting effect on the NDEr's conduct. Therefore, if we are to learn from the same school that NDErs graduate from, we must be prepared to do the work ourselves--we have to strive to internalize what the NDEr is given directly. Reading and reflecting on these accounts--more than once if necessary--is a beginning toward that end, and so is considering the list of insights Craig received from his NDE. They are, after all, his gift to you. You could do worse than copying them down and posting them on your refrigerator door in order not to forget them--or him.
As for Craig himself, he went on to graduate from the university and, the last I heard from him, he was getting ready to move to a western state after having been hired by a major airline carrier. But while Craig was the first of the student NDErs I was to meet in my course, he was scarcely the last. And, in fact, it is the last--that is to say, the most recent--of these to whom I would like to introduce you next.
This past year I made the acquaintance of a young man named Neevon (though everyone calls him Neev, he later told me). Unlike Craig, who was a very lively presence in my class, Neev was quiet and unobtrusive. In truth, I confess that this rather ordinary-looking but stocky fellow, with straight black hair, did not make much of an impression on me, though I did note that he was very faithful in attending the classes. Toward the end of the semester, I invited three persons who had had NDEs to my class in order to discuss the aftereffects of their experiences. As it happened, one of these persons was an undergraduate female who had taken the course the previous semester. As Neev later informed me, he was astonished to see this student there in that setting, for he had known her quite well and never knew that she had had an NDE (and for good reason--while an undergraduate, she had never informed any other students about her experience for fear of ridicule). As a result of hearing her speak in class about her experience, however, Neev was emboldened, finally, to share his with me privately. Naturally, I encouraged him to write out a version of his NDE for the course, and what you will be reading next are some excerpts from a term paper he wrote for that purpose. Again, I encourage you to allow yourself to experience Neev's NDE from the inside by putting yourself in his shoes--or rather his spikes, since his encounter with death took place on a baseball diamond.
In March 1988, when Neev was a high school sophomore, he was severely injured while playing first base for his team. A burly catcher slammed into him violently as Neev attempted to snare a low throw, and, as he put it, "The next thing I knew, the world as I knew it was gone." Neev soon discovered, however, that he was very much present after all--just that he was no longer in his body.
I realized ... that I was not in my physical body. I felt no pain or discomfort. I felt totally at peace with myself. I was standing behind my coach and one of the other player's father. They were both kneeling over me in the infield, where I was lying on my back. The first thing I checked was if the ball stayed in my glove [it had].
Neev then watched--from his out-of-body vantage point, he says--his body being half-carried, half-dragged off the field, his face already grotesquely swollen, and loaded into the car of a teammate's father. He claims to have heard every word spoken, and when being driven to a nearby hospital, Neev writes that he actually felt himself to be following behind the car. He had clear vision of the interior of the car, however, as well as everything else his attention was drawn to during the ride to the hospital.
Once they arrived at the emergency room, Neev's body was placed onto a gurney--again, something Neev states he was aware of from the outside. In his words,
I watched the interns place my body on a gurney and push it through the two big doors that led to the emergency room. The doctors immediately ran toward me in this long, well-lit corridor and checked for a pulse and took my blood pressure. Several doctors huddled around my body. My vital signs were steady but weak and an X ray for my head was ordered. I watched myself get rolled into the X-ray room, where a lead blanket was placed over the rest of my body, and then the lights went out.
I was no longer able to see my body in the X-ray room. I was still out of my body, but now I had no sight. My world was utter darkness. I sensed myself but nothing was there. ... There was an indescribable feeling of love and warmth. It could be like a child before birth in its mother's womb. I felt nothing but peace and tranquility. I never wanted to leave--it was as if I was searching for this place my whole life. This place was perfection in all its aspects except that I was alone. As soon as that thought came to mind, my feeling of stillness amid the darkness instantly changed to a movement of intense speed. It was at that moment that I knew I was not alone.
It seemed to me as if everything that I needed to know or ever wanted to know was available to me. I felt an abrupt stop when I asked, "Why am I here?" I felt as if all this knowledge was coming from inside me, since I did not have to speak to anyone--everything just happened. It was like having an epiphany every time I thought of something.
This time, my question led to my life review. It was like watching my life from start to finish on an editing machine stuck in fast forward. The review took me from my conception, which felt like the blackness I experienced after my out-of-body experience, through my childhood, to adolescence, into my teens, and through my near-death experience over again. I saw my life. I relived my life. I felt everything I ever felt before. When I say "everything," I mean every cut, pain, emotion and sense associated with that particular time in my life. At the same time, I saw the effects of my life on the people around me. ... I felt all that they felt and, through this, I understood the repercussions of everything I did, be it good or bad. This life review was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and at the same time, the most horrifying thing I was ever to experience.
By the time my life review caught up to itself, I posed a thought of my younger sister with a desire to be with her. And at that very instant ... I was returned to the world as I previously knew it, but not as I previously understood it!
At this point, Neev's NDE is apparently over, and he wakes up to find himself still on the gurney. Now, however, he is surrounded by his mother and father. He has sustained a severe concussion and has hemorrhaged internally, and, though he is told by his physician that he is lucky to be alive, he is assured that he will recover in time. In fact, he soon is released and driven home by his father. Upon arriving home, however, he loses feeling over the left side of his body, which soon becomes paralyzed, and experiences a total cessation of vision.
Within two days, his vision returns, but he remains paralyzed for a week and bedridden for eight weeks, his face still monstrously swollen. During the first two days of his recuperation, while he is still blind, Neev, drifting in and out of consciousness, enters into the near-death state again and extracts more information about his life. He says that he continued to see himself in his life review, "and hated what I saw. It was the life review that sparked my desire for change." He also became aware, just as Craig did, that he had a guide.
During these lapses back to the other side, I felt as if I had someone with me. This person was not there in a physical sense but was there more as a mental guide. ... My guide during these ventures [into his life review] felt like a father figure to me. He seemed to ask me all the right questions at all the right times. I was able to pinpoint all the things necessary to change myself. Each time I slipped back into my other world of warmth and answers, it was as if my near-death experience was happening all over again.
As Neev continues to recover, the changes he has already made within himself, with the help of his guide, begin to stabilize--in his words, "They just began to happen." And the changes, occurring seemingly so naturally now, are enormous in their scope, as Neev explained in his paper.
The changes I have come to associate with my NDE seem to be so natural but, at the same time, unattainable without my experience. Before my NDE, my life was totally different. It seems like a lifetime ago [now], but in actuality, it has only been five years. As I stated earlier, I despised myself when I was younger. I grew up very different from everyone else around me. I was born a first-generation American in my family. My parents came over to this country from Israel and preferred to speak Hebrew at home. In doing this, I tended to speak Hebrew to everyone, even though they did not know it. This cultural difference made it very difficult for me to fit in, so I stopped trying. I was a very introverted child who had almost no friends. Getting picked on and teased was a daily occurrence that drove my self-esteem to the point where it did not exist. I was very inquisitive and smart as a child, but expressing my knowledge in school placed me in the spotlight, where I was subject to even more abuse. As a result of this, I became known as the world's greatest underachiever.
By the time I reached the age of ten, I realized I could express myself through sports. I became one of the top soccer players in my county, and the competition kept me going. The only problem I found with being so good was that the other kids were jealous and began to torture me even more. By this time I had reached junior high school. I had created such a thick shell to protect myself from all my social inadequacies that it only made things worse. I was one of the most antisocial people that ever existed. My life involved going to school to underachieve and get only fair grades, and spending every free minute either practicing soccer or staring blankly into the television, and sleeping. I was so scared of everything--especially rejection, public speaking, social events, girls, and so on--that I fell into a very rebellious state [that led to] vandalism and other troubles.
According to Neev, however, the NDE, and the extended reconsideration of his life it provided, changed everything, bringing about a total reversal of his previous tendencies and even ameliorated long-standing physical problems. The extent of his transformation is remarkable and his summary of it is worth quoting at length.
I instantly changed from a pessimist to an optimist. There always seemed to be a brighter side to everything. I knew that everything happened for a reason. Sometimes, that reason may not have been clear at first, but in the end, it would all make sense.
The NDE had a sort of physical healing with me. Physical problems that haunted me all my life disappeared afterward. These problems were chronic migraine headaches, for which I had to take pills for years, cramps, and a terribly anxious stomach, which would act up before school every day, soccer games, tests, and in just about all social situations. Before my experience I was the most klutzy, accident-prone fool you could have ever met. All these problems were solved through my NDE.
[But] it was not only a physical healer--my mental state was repaired as well. My outlook on life was no longer bleak and dismal. I felt like I now had a purpose, which was to help people and share my positive perspective. My dependence on time seemed to stop. I no longer felt pressured by the clock--there was always time to do something else or more. I tried to fit in as much as possible into every day. I experienced everything for what it was--not for what it could do or give to me. I was no longer interested in what "society" had to say about how I lived my life. I was no longer interested in what people thought or how they felt about me, or if I looked good or not. I learned that I am much more than my body.
In doing this, other people around me began to accept me for who I was. My feeling of warmth and love flew through from my body and brought me many new friends. I felt comfortable in groups of people to the point that I needed to be surrounded by them. I had no fears of rejection or embarrassment. These were trivial things that [had] no consequence in the larger scheme of things.
Pain--both physical and emotional--seemed to me to be only a state of mind. Physical pain was a very minor discomfort after my NDE. I realized my mortality, unlike most of my friends. The closeness I had with death kept me from foolishly toying with life, mine and others, like I had before. In learning of my mortality, I also learned to accept death, and in a weird way, I look forward to it. I do not fear many things anymore. Instead, I accept them for what they are and apply them to my life. I tend to try new things more readily, since I want to make the most of my new life without missing a thing.
From this large change in my personality, many of the things I valued previously seemed virtually unimportant to me. Money and material objects were not even a secondary thought to me. I became very generous with all of my time and material things. I joined several school philanthropy groups and spent time working in several soup kitchens. The most major change I noticed in myself was the loss of the desire to compete. Competition was the major driving force in my life before my NDE, but afterward, it seemed foolish and unimportant. Sports were still fun, but I lost that killer instinct that helped me get recruited by several universities.
From reading this extract, you can see that in essentially every department of Neev's life, he has become the opposite of what he had been before his NDE. Although we will review some of these specific changes shortly, it is enough to note for now that his NDE, by turning Neev inside-out as it were, peeled off his false protective mask and allowed a much more authentic and loving face to show itself to the world. And when it did, the world around him changed accordingly.
And there were other changes, too. Neev found that he had acquired the ability to reenter that otherworldly state during sleep, where he could, in effect, rehearse actions and test their effects before actually performing them in the physical world. Like many other NDErs, he also seemed to develop an extended range of intuitive and psychic perception that sometimes permitted him to know or sense the outcome of events before they took place. Perhaps his greatest gift, however, lay in his enhanced empathic ability. About this, Neev comments:
These instincts also allow me to empathize with almost anyone. I feel that when I talk to people, I can physically and emotionally feel what they are going through at that time. It is as if I become them for an instant. ... The gift of insight allows me to help many people with their problems, but sometimes [it] gets to the point where there are so many that I lose myself in other people.
In assessing the overall impact of his NDE on his life, Neev concludes:
I look at it as ... a psychological healing process. All of these changes, as well as many little things that I cannot even describe, have moved me for the better. I feel that my NDE was the best thing that ever happened to me. ... I see my experience as the most important event in my life. Without my NDE I would not be happy today.
In considering Neev's NDE, it is abundantly clear that it wrought a profound, life-changing transformation in his personality and behavior, and in his entire outlook on life, and that, indeed, he was "moved for the better." Perhaps it would not be going too far to claim, if only on the basis of Neev's own testimony, that his providentially timed NDE may have even saved his life by nearly ending it. By doing so, it seems, the very course of Neev's life was changed and his downward spiral into repeated failures in school, self-loathing, and even vandalism was thereby abruptly halted and reversed. Of course, it is certainly possible that had his NDE not supervened at this time in his life, he would nevertheless have found his way out of his travails by some other means. Possibly. But, as we have seen, Neev himself does not appear inclined to think so. For him, it was almost as though the NDE was purposively designed to rescue him from the personal nadir into whose abyss he was poised to fall.
However that may be, our task here is not so much to speculate about the possible meaning of Neev's experience as to learn from it so as to enhance our own lives. From that standpoint, what lessons are there to be derived from Neev's transformation that might be generally applicable to anyone? If you examine his account for such insights, for starters, you will come across the following:
1. There is a reason for everything that happens.
2. Find your own purpose in life.
3. Do not be a slave to time.
4. Appreciate things for what they are--not for what they can give you.
5. Do not allow yourself to be dominated by the thoughts or expectations of others.
6. Do not be concerned with what others think of you, either.
7. Remember, you are not your body.
8. Fear not--even pain and certainly not death.
9. Be open to life, and live it to its fullest.
10. Money and material things are not particularly important in the scheme of things.
11. Helping others is what counts in life.
12. Do not trouble yourself with competition--just enjoy the show.
Again, as with the list we extracted from Craig's experience, many of these statements have the ring of the familiar and, indeed, the obvious. But before dismissing them as mere platitudes, consider this angle: What if you were really able to live life this way? What kind of person would you be?
My answer is that you would be a truly free person. You would be forever liberated from the tyranny of others' opinions, from self-doubt, from the fear of life and the fear of death, and from the demands of time. Instead, you would be free to enjoy life as it is and to find fulfillment and joy in helping others.
This, ultimately, is the gift the NDE confers upon its recipient, though, to be sure, the individual must usually work hard to unwrap it. And, in the same way, this is the promise of the NDE to anyone who makes the effort to assimilate its teachings and make them applicable to his or her own life. Neev's story, remember, is yours if you identify with it. If you do and take it into you deeply, what happened to him should begin to happen to you. You will have taken a step toward your own liberation and finding your authentic self.
Unlike Craig, with whom I have lost contact, I have stayed in touch with Neev and have had a chance to spend a good deal of time with him. Immediately after taking my NDE course, he enrolled in a special advanced seminar on NDEs and carried out a project designed to determine the effects on undergraduate students of hearing about NDEs. In effect, Neev gave a number of talks on the subject, in which he, of course, recounted his own story to various student groups on campus and assessed the impact of his presentation by the use of specially designed questionnaires. During the semester, I had plenty of opportunity to see Neev in interaction with his fellow students, in conferences with me, and I even interviewed him informally at the end of the semester concerning his life review. From my observations of Neev in these contexts, I can certainly attest to the fact that he is very much the person he claims to be. I have found him to be unfailingly cheerful, even under stressful conditions, generous-hearted, wise yet humble, and with a lively sense of humor, too. When I last talked with him, at the end of the semester, he was about to leave for Israel to work as a counselor for teenagers touring the country--the sort of activity, he said, that he hopes will be a large part of his life following graduation.
Perhaps my most enduring memory of Neev, however, is based on the presentation I asked him to make in my introductory NDE course--the very course in which he himself had been a student the previous semester. Appearing with two other outside speakers, Neev spoke last about his own NDE to his fellow students. His account was poignant, funny--the class was frequently in stitches when Neev described his appearance following his injury--and spell-binding. When it was over, a number of students--men and women, both--came forward to embrace him warmly and many others gathered around. Some were in tears. Neev later told me that maybe sharing his NDE in this way was even better than the experience itself. For my part, it was the highlight of the semester in that class.
On the same day Neev shared his NDE with my students, another NDEr whom I had never previously met also came from a nearby town to tell her story. Her name was Laurelynn Glass Martin, and she turned out to be a tall, slender brunette, with a gentle, soft-spoken manner, who related easily to my students. Laurelynn, who is now in her thirties, began by explaining that when she was a senior in college, in the fall of 1982, she was on a tennis scholarship and was planning to go to the National Collegiate Tennis Tournament the following spring, and from there to join the professional tennis circuit that coming summer. But a simple surgical procedure that went awry on December 9 of that year changed everything.
She had gone into the hospital, she told us, to have what was supposed to be a routine twenty-minute laparoscopic surgical procedure. However, her physician, as she learned later, exerted undue force making the initial incision, puncturing her abdominal aorta, her right iliac artery, the inferior vena cava, and her bowel in two places, ultimately hitting her vertebral spine. As a result, Laurelynn lost almost 60 percent of her blood--and her pulse and, obviously, nearly her life. Before another physician intervened to save Laurelynn's life by performing an emergency laparotomy, she had already entered the near-death state and had the experience she was soon prepared to describe for us. There was no doubt, however, about her physical proximity to death. After five hours of reparative surgery, she was taken to the recovery room in critical condition. Afterward, according to Laurelynn, the physician who had saved her told her, "I snatched you from the jaws of death--your chances of living were slim to none."
In recounting Laurelynn's NDE here, I will be drawing on a written account that she had actually furnished me earlier. In it, as she did for my class that day, Laurelynn indicated that without warning of any kind, she suddenly found herself floating above her physical body, off to the right side, observing with detachment, she says, the efforts of the medical team to revive her lifeless form below. As she narrates her story now, enter into it as before, and feel it as if it were happening to you.
The surgical team was frantic. Red was everywhere, splattered on their gowns, splattered on the floor, and a bright pool of flowing red blood, in the now-wide-open abdominal cavity. I couldn't understand what was going on down there. I didn't even make the connection, at that moment, that the body being worked on was my own. It didn't matter anyway. I was in a state of freedom, having a great time. I just wanted to shout to the distressed people below, "Hey, I'm okay. It's great up here." But they were so intent, I felt like I didn't want to interrupt their efforts.
I then traveled to another realm of total and absolute peace. There was no pain, but instead a sense of well-being, in a warm, dark, soft space. I was enveloped by total bliss in an atmosphere of unconditional love and acceptance. The darkness was beautiful, stretching on and on. The freedom of total peace was intensified beyond any ecstatic feeling ever felt here on earth. In the distance, I saw a horizon of whitish-yellowish light. I find it very difficult to describe where I was, because the words we know here in this plane just aren't adequate enough.
I was admiring the beauty of the light but never got any closer because next I felt a presence approaching from my right, upper side. I was feeling even more peaceful and happy, especially when I discovered it was my thirty-year-old brother-in-law who had died seven months earlier. Although I couldn't see with my eyes or hear with my ears, I instinctively knew that it was him. He didn't have a physical form, but a presence. I could feel, hear, and see his smile, laughter, and sense of humor. It was as if I had come home, and my brother-in-law was there to greet me. I instantly thought how glad I was to be with him because now I could make up for the last time I had seen him before his death. I felt bad about not taking the time out of my busy schedule to have a heart-to-heart talk with him when he had asked me to. I felt no remorse now, but total acceptance and love from him about my actions.
Reflecting on her behavior toward her brother-in-law seems to lead Laurelynn back further into her life and, before she knows it, events from her childhood begin to appear to her, all at once, yet in chronological order. She mentions two specific incidents. In one,
I had teased a little girl my own age (five years old) to the point of tears. I was now in a unique position to feel what that little girl had felt. Her frustration, her tears, and her feeling of separateness were now my feelings. I felt a tremendous amount of compassion for this child. This child, who was actually me, needed love, nurturing and forgiveness. I hadn't realized that by hurting another, I was really just hurting myself.
In the other incident that Laurelynn relived:
I had made fun of a boy my own age (twelve years old) for writing me a love letter. At that point again, I experienced his pain of rejection that became my pain and at the same time felt this tremendous amount of love for this boy and myself. He died a few years later from a cerebral aneurysm. I hadn't remembered these events and thought they were insignificant, until I reviewed them with objectivity and love. I now realized how important people were in life, how important it was to be accepting of them, and above all else, love them. I wasn't proud of those experiences, but they were part of my makeup and I was accepting of them.
Other thoughts were conveyed to me, and I remember thinking, "Wow, now I get it. Everything about our existence finally makes sense." I finally got around to questioning my brother-in-law (not with words but more [like] transference) about what was happening and asked him if I could stay. He told me it wasn't my time yet, that there had been a mistake, and that I had to go back. I remember thinking, "Okay, I'll go back, but I know how I can get back up here." At that same instant, his thoughts were mine, saying, "You can't take your own life (suicide). That isn't the answer, that won't do it. You have to live your life's purpose." I understood, but I still remember thinking, I don't want to go back, and his thought came to me, saying, "It's okay, we're not going anywhere. We'll be here for you again." The last thought of his was "Tell your sister I'm fine."
With those final thoughts, I felt myself going back, dropping downward instantly through darkness. I didn't feel that I had a choice. I didn't feel afraid, but rather calm. Then, instantly, I felt myself slam into my body. ... At that point, I felt the most incredible searing pain imaginable in my abdomen, all the way through to my backbone. ... I couldn't believe I was returned to such a hellish environment, but then the beauty of the experience flooded back to me, giving me the most serene peace and calm I could hope for under the circumstances.
Laurelynn was back, but her physical ordeal, as she intimated, was hardly over. In fact, she had to go through additional surgery for a blood clot, and for several days, it was not clear that she would survive. Nevertheless, as is obvious now, she did make it, and afterward, she kept a journal about what had happened to her during this time. About it she says,
I ... left out the NDE because I didn't trust anyone. The initial reaction I got from my family was, "Be quiet, we don't want to talk about it. We just want you to get better." The health care professionals shrugged it off by saying, "You're highly medicated. You're taking shots of morphine every two-three hours."
Years later, in writing up this account, she remarks,
If I had only known that by talking about my NDE, and by acknowledging the event, my healing process would have been easier. However, I obviously had more lessons to learn because the next seven years were filled with rehabilitation (physical therapy), diagnostic tests and reparative surgery.
Laurelynn, however, was not bitter about her NDE, whatever the reactions it may have elicited from her family and those who treated her. Like most NDErs, she remains grateful for her experience, and her reflections on what she has learned from her experience, which concludes her statement, echo those we have heard before from Craig and Neev.
After the NDE, value changes came. I felt that the materialism and external stuff that was a big focus before just didn't matter anymore. My priorities in life took a complete turnaround. I felt there was a purpose for my life, even down to the smallest detail of being kind to others spontaneously and freely, loving more deeply, [and] being nonjudgmental and accepting of one's self and others. I also got a strong message about the importance of always seeking knowledge. I no longer fear death and, in fact, will welcome it when it is the right time--and that's only for the universal, supreme power to decide. Until then, though, I try to enjoy each day like it's my last and live more consciously in the moment. Now that I have acknowledged and am coming to terms with my NDE, I am seeing, feeling, and living through some magnificent changes. I'm finally feeling much healthier: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I no longer take any medications, which was a monumental step, after at one time taking thirty-six pills per day. I have a love for life that is driven by the pure pleasure of appreciating each new day. I know my healing is a process and comes from within. I feel that I've been given a second chance in life and the more I share a part of myself, the more I feel at peace and at one with the universe.
Included as an appendix to the document describing her NDE, Laurelynn had written out a brief statement that itemized the principal aftereffects of her experience. When I first read it over, I smiled to myself, for Laurelynn appeared to be a classic case as far as the effects of her NDE were concerned. In my research for my books, Heading toward Omega and The Omega Project, for example, I had found strong evidence for virtually all of the changes Laurelynn had specified for herself. However, when we went to lunch that day after her presentation, I was in for a surprise. Laurelynn, who had been referred to me by a colleague, confessed with some embarrassment that, actually, she had never read any of my books! So she could hardly be accused of trying to furnish me with merely a warmed-over version of my own findings to ingratiate herself (not that I would have imagined that for a moment, mind you!).
I would like to share this list of Laurelynn's with you now as a way of summing up both the lessons for life generally stemming from her NDE and its impact on her own life. Reading it, you will have a very good indication of what is true for many persons in their lives after an NDE. Indeed, it is as good and succinct a psychological portrait of the NDEr afterward as I have ever come across.
Increased love for all people and all things
Increased psychic ability
Seeing energy--auras, chakras
No fear of death
Lessened fear of many things
Decreased worry--surrendering to the
Major relationship change--divorce