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NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES the rest of the story
WHAT THEY TEACH US ABOUT LIVING, DYING AND OUR TRUE PURPOSE
By P.M.H. Atwater
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2011 P.M.H. Atwater, L.H.D.
All rights reserved.
GROUND WORK: THE NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE
"Research is the highest form of adoration."
—Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
People forget that the vast majority of near-death experiences emerge from situations of violence or trauma. A typical experiencer contends with body damage (sometimes severe) and the immediacy of recognizing that "here" (where they are now) is not the same as "there" (where they once were). No matter how ecstatic or terrifying the experience may be, what comes next is usually confusing, maybe angry, as most of us didn't want to come back. We wanted to stay where we were.
The phenomenon captures public attention as none other. It is soulstirring in the way it reminds even the most staid that home, our true home, is not a joke. It exists, and it is real.
"Off-limit" signs disappear when you engage in research. Starkly different versions of reality emerge ... about abortion, suicide, life after death, flow states, brain development, the dead coming back, otherworldly realms, spiritual lights, good and evil, drugs, energy fields, the soul, Deity, biological imperatives, animals, ghosts, religious/mystical traditions, psychic ability, children, evolutionary change, and much more. What was once sacred and taboo vanishes.
No skeptic, medical or otherwise, has ever investigated the entire phenomenon—the near-death experience and its aftereffects—to any appreciable degree or with a research base large enough for informed comment. A number of near-death researchers have "rushed to judgment," without recognizing that it is the aftereffects, both physiological and psychological, that validate the phenomenon—not the other way around. You cannot study one without the other.
As for me, I have spent most of thirty-three years working full-time in the field of near-death studies, not as an academician or scientist but as a cop's kid raised in a police station and taught as a youngster to never believe everything a person tells you—to ask questions, search further, watch, listen, and challenge your own findings. Whatever appears as truth seldom is. Actually, I was a spunky kid who was getting into trouble long before Dad ever became my dad (he adopted me when I was in the third grade, after he married my mom).
I have every intention of saying things throughout the pages of this book that I have never allowed myself to say before. Now that some of my observations have been verified in clinical studies, and my work has passed "the test of time," I feel a certain ease I have never felt before. That ease, however, could simply be a sign of age—I have passed the seventy-three mark.
Having admitted that much, let me warn you that this book digs deep and covers a lot of territory. It is definitely not for the fainthearted or for those who just want to be entertained. I've geared it for courageous, curious folk who demand more from their questions than pat answers. I begin piecemeal with lots of "headers," each section building upon the last, like "maps and models" spread out for viewing. The fact is that the near-death experience reveals more about life than it does death, and what it reveals is stunning! So, let's get started.
COMMONLY ACCEPTED DEFINITION OF A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE
Let's clarify the subject. Yes, I have my preferences on what to offer here, but so does every other researcher in the field of near-death studies. Virtually no two definitions are alike, which drives medical types crazy. So, for the sake of consistency, I offer this definition, originally developed by the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS):
The near-death experience is an intense awareness, sense, or experience of otherworldiness, whether pleasant or unpleasant, that happens to people who are at the edge of death. It is of such magnitude that most experiencers are deeply affected, many to the point of making significant changes in their lives because of what happened to them. Aftereffects often last lifelong and can intensify over time.
WHAT IS MEANT BY DEATH
Who among us can be certain if all near-death experiencers were fully dead? Many revived or were resuscitated after clinical death; some were close to death; others, in a split second of utter fear, were convinced they were going to die but didn't (called a "fear" death). Because of this abstraction, what is meant by the "final verdict" and how a physician or emergency worker makes such a determination are called into question. Over time, though, death criteria has radically changed. Back in "merry old England," for instance, when locals ran out of places to bury people, they dug up coffins, took bones to a bone-house, and reused the grave. Once these coffins were opened, one out of twenty-five was found with scratch marks on the inside, proof that people had been buried alive. From then on a string was tied to the wrist of the corpse with the other end secured to a bell above ground. Someone would sit out in the graveyard each night to listen for bell sounds and hopefully, save a life. The slang phrases "graveyard shift," "saved by the bell," and "dead ringer" all trace back to this practice.
We've come a long way since that time in history in developing criteria more dependable than "bell ringing" to be certain the dead are truly dead. But a surprise finding in 2007 abruptly challenged what we thought we had learned.
We've known for some time that five minutes without oxygen is fatal to brain cells. Yet dying itself takes longer to occur because cell death isn't an event, it's a process. An exception is with humans who are exposed to extreme cold or who drown in icy water. It is possible for them to benefit from hypothermia, a survival response that automatically lowers body temperature enough to slow cell death, sometimes for up to thirty minutes or more.
The 2007 discovery? Brain cells can actually live for hours after vital signs cease. Patients die not because of lack of oxygen, but because oxygen was resumed too fast during what were thought to be lifesaving procedures (a reversal of the scratched-coffin terror). Standard emergency room protocols, as it has turned out, are exactly backwards. A revolution in resuscitation techniques is now under way.
WHAT IS TYPICAL TO NEAR-DEATH STATES
There is little argument among researchers that, on average, most near-death experiencers, adults and children, go without vital signs (pulse, breath, brain waves) for between five and twenty minutes. Amazing as this may seem, considering how quickly brain damage can occur after cessation of vital signs, even more amazing is that usually there is little or no brain damage afterward; rather, there is brain enhancement. You heard me right: Individuals return to life smarter than before. Sometimes this enhancement can be quite dramatic, especially with young kids. In my own work, I discovered so many who had revived in a morgue—maybe an hour, maybe six hours after having "died"—that I no longer came to regard this as unusual. I admit a bias here. Being a three-time experiencer myself, it would take a lot to impress me as concerns "the dead come back," yet impressed I was when I met a man who had revived while being cut open during autopsy after a full three days of being a corpse in a freezer vault.
I doubt that the new resuscitation techniques from the 2007 discovery about brain cells will affect near-death research, as the bulk of cases take place outside hospital environments and the immediacy of emergency treatment. Still, the finding is very important. It proves that what appears to be brain death is not synonymous with cell death. Maybe we ought to entice angels to serve as "cell ringers" with this one (no pun intended).
Data has been downscaled in the last several years to reflect a more conservative approach to statistics (since the majority of surveys done were not scientific). At this writing, countries worldwide that engage in near-death research report that between 4 to 5 percent of their general population has had a near-death experience (this includes the United States). Global estimates jump to between 12 to 21 percent when focused on those receiving critical care when the phenomenon occurs. What we're talking about here are huge numbers—hundreds of millions of people—of every age, size, ethnicity, social status, belief, and intelligence level imaginable.
Unfortunately, none of the statisticians have ever used a separate category to track child experiencers, so we have no overall data on them. The closest to a clinical estimate for the young comes from Melvin Morse, M.D., in his book, Closer to the Light. Morse estimates that 70 percent of children have had a near-death experience. Although his figures show that children are much more prone to the experience than adults during a health crisis, further study is still needed. Why some people undergo the experience and others do not is not understood.
THE CLASSICAL MODEL
Raymond Moody's original work identified fifteen elements of the neardeath experience.
He noted how these formed what appeared to be a scenario (content pattern). Moody's list:
Ineffability, beyond the limits of any language to describe
Hearing yourself pronounced dead
Feelings of peace and quiet
Hearing unusual noises
Seeing a dark tunnel
Finding yourself outside your body
Meeting "spiritual beings"
A very bright light experienced as a "being of light"
A panoramic life review
Sensing a border or limit to where you can go
Coming back into your body
Frustrating attempts to tell others about what happened to you
Subtle "broadening and deepening" of your life afterward
Elimination of the fear of death
Corroboration of events witnessed while out of your body
Two years later, after hundreds more interviews, Moody added four more elements to his list of common components to what experiencers claim to have encountered:
A realm where all knowledge exists
Cities of light
A realm of bewildered spirits
SAME PHENOMENON—DIFFERENT ANGLE
I had never heard of Raymond Moody or his book until Kenneth Ring told me about them and the field of study that had ensued, three years after I had begun my work. Also unknown to me was that other people were doing the same thing I was. My only introduction to even the term "near-death experience" was through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who I met at O'Hare Airport near Chicago in 1978.12 Her plane to Europe was late, so the two of us huddled like school girls on a bench for over an hour. I told her about my own three near-death episodes, and she told me about the phenomenon. She never said a thing about Moody.
Elisabeth called me a "near-death survivor" and validated what had happened to me. I will be forever in her debt for that. Yet what she said gave rise to more questions than answers in my mind. A couple months later, after moving from my home state of Idaho to Washington, D.C., a group of experiencers gathered 'round after a talk I had given and the next thing I knew I was studying them, listening deeply, with a determination for objectivity which I strive for to this day.
Naturally I came to look at the near-death phenomenon, both the experience and its aftereffects, in a different manner than the cohorts I had yet to meet. And therein lies the conflict that later became "a very big deal." CHAPTER 2
THE SCOPE OF WHAT I DID
"If one regards oneself as a skeptic, it is a good plan to have occasional doubts about one's skepticism."
As of this writing, my sessions with experiencers of near-death states (at times simple interviews) number nearly four thousand adults and children. This figure does not include the sessions I had with significant others: parents, spouses, children of experiencers, relatives, health-care providers, neighbors, coworkers, friends. I lost count of this segment of my research base long ago, although an estimate in the range of around five hundred people would be reasonable. The bulk of my findings were obtained between the years of 1978 to 2004, after which the search for meaning took precedence (although some fieldwork continued). The majority of these additional cases were from child experiencers who are now adults. These people sought me out after the publication of Children of the New Millennium, and later The New Children and Near-Death Experiences.
THE SESSIONS I HELD
Knowing that personal bias could jeopardize anything I did, I put my own experiences on a "back shelf" in my mind and played dumb a lot. What I mean is that I asked as many open-ended and unstructured questions as possible, trying not to reveal either my identity or intent. If I did say who I was, experiencers would counter with, "Well, you know how it is."
I'd stand my ground if this occurred: "Maybe yes, maybe no, but tell me anyway. Give me details and don't leave a thing out." Mostly, though, I used simple phrases like "oh really" or "tell me more" or that wonderful all-purpose lead of "and ...?"
I found that voice intonation and inflection, along with easy, nonthreatening body language, netted more information than "arranged" questions. All I had to do was "leave the door open," and the experiencer would willingly "walk through," as if utterly relieved. There's nothing like a nonjudgmental, sincerely interested listener. I did alter my style somewhat with children, though, and in this manner: no parents allowed, same eye-level contact at all times (with little ones that meant I was on my belly), changed body postures to elicit response, replacing note-taking with a gentle sincerity and steady focus, encouraging feelings as well as memories, opening myself to sense the "wave" of consciousness they "ride" so I could see through their eyes. I had sessions with parents, too, as I wanted to explore what they noticed and any opinions they had. This was important, as children can and sometimes do slant their stories to fit the emotional expectations of their parents.
I have used a total of three questionnaires for the purpose of crosschecking previous observations. I developed the first in 1981. It compared random selections from my work with an equal number from the archives of IANDS. No difference in experiencers' answers—all love and forgiveness, as if everything in their life was now perfect—even though I knew folks in my batch were undergoing serious challenges.
None of them, not in the archives of IANDS nor with people I had personally met, recognized the overall impact of their experience or how they had changed because of it. This exercise was proof-positive to me that depending solely on such answers (no matter how cleverly worded a questionnaire might be) is wrong and will distort research findings. Questionnaires can augment, but they can never be a substitute for fieldwork.
My second questionnaire was done in 1994 to test the range of the electrical sensitivity that experiencers reported as part of their aftereffects. The third, in 1999, was designed to further investigate what happened to child experiencers once they reached adulthood. I designed it to "push buttons," and indeed it did, to the extent that some refused to cooperate, saying the information was too personal. One man apologized the following year, after he had overcome his anger long enough to fill it out, and discovered in doing so how he had been hiding things he had not wanted to admit. "What a revelation," he exclaimed. "Answering this thing changed me almost as much as my near-death experience."
STATISTICS FROM MY RESEARCH BASE
All of my findings have been cross-checked at least four times with different people in different parts of the country and with those of other cultures, at differing times. It was as if I was "driven" to explore everything from 360 degrees. The statistics that follow are based on actual sessions:
3,000 adult experiencers
80 percent White (from U.S., Canada, England, Belgium, France, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Georgia, Ukraine—no further breakdowns)
20 percent Black (15% African American; 5% Kenya, Haiti, Canada)
277 child experiencers
60 percent White (from U.S., Canada, France, England, Ukraine—no further breakdowns)
23 percent Latino—U.S., Mexico, Argentina, Colombia
12 percent Black—U.S., Canada
5 percent Asian—Malaysia, China
NOTE: I rejected an additional 15 percent because the session with the child was compromised by adult interference (adult explaining/interpreting for the child). I found that fascination with "out-of-the-mouths-of-babes" reports can mislead more readily than enlighten.
Percentages of how I connected with these people:
60 percent through synchronicity—seven were blind since birth, not certain about two others
30 percent through talks I gave and advertisements and announcements I placed in magazines, newspapers, and newsletters
10 percent from questionnaire participants who had agreed to take part in my research
Excerpted from NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES the rest of the story by P.M.H. Atwater. Copyright © 2011 P.M.H. Atwater, L.H.D.. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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