NDEs, OBEs – What Did I Experience?
Charles T. Tart
I recently received a note from P. M. H. Atwater, an authority on near-death experiences (NDEs), about the vague and confusing way people were starting to talk about NDEs. This struck a chord of sympathy in me, as I’ve had similar problems in my work, and I thought I’d share my response to her here. It might help some of you figure out what happened to you. Although the reality of your experience and its meaning to you is, of course, much more important than some intellectual classification put on it.
I empathize with your frustrations over the way people (mis)use terms like NDE’s. If I were trying to clear things up for them, I would start by pointing out that the word experience is an inherent part of an NDE, so if you want to have a useful term, you have to say that certain experiences cluster together often enough that you can define that, ideally, as an NDE. I say ideally, because in the real world there will always be various extras missing from some accounts, and some will be ambiguously reported enough, or maybe the actual experience was somewhat ambiguous, that you won’t feel happy giving it any particular classification. That’s okay. For research purposes, it’s fine to have a category of “Hard to classify, we’ll ignore these for now.”
I also note that advances in science and understanding generally are often triggered and facilitated by really clear definitions of what we are talking about. Even though, of course, NDEs typically involve altered states aspects that are hard to grasp or explain in ordinary consciousness…
When people start applying it to experiences people might have simply when they came medically close to death, but perhaps had no special experience at all, they are confusing the possible induction method of an experience with what the experience was like. Like you, I would emphasize that there is a cluster of experiences that go together to form an NDE, and if you want to talk about the induction method, or, since we’re not always sure, the likely induction method, that’s fine but we have to distinguish that from our definition of an NDE itself.
I’ve had the same problem with out of the body experiences, OBE’s. I don’t count an experience as an OBE simply because during it the person had a thought, “I’m out of my body.” I can have that thought right now, but my headache is still pounding along, and my body feels oh so real… :-)
So I define an OBE as (a) experiencing yourself at a location other than where you know your physical body is at the time and (b) experiencing the quality of your consciousness as pretty much like your waking consciousness. That is, you can think clearly, you know who you are, you can have fun “logical” arguments with yourself that you can’t possibly be out of your body, even though you obviously experience yourself that way, etc. Although I don’t usually make it explicit, I could add that usually you don’t change your mind about it later. There’s something rather real about an OBE or an NDE such that very few people will downgrade it into some kind of dream or illusion later. With the possible exception of some people so desperate to maintain an ordinary belief system that they push away the obviously real qualities of their experience.
Note here that like what I’ve said for NDEs, I’ve said nothing about how you got there for defining an OBE. It’s the experience of being out while in a clear state of consciousness. Whether you have no idea how you got there, or were asleep, or had a dream transform into an OBE, or almost died, that’s all very interesting, but a separate issue from defining the OBE.
Anyway, good luck on trying to get people to use their terms more clearly! I may have influenced a few people to be clearer about OBE’s, and distinguish them from NDEs (I usually note that an NDE may or may not include an OBE, and may start with consciousness feeling quite ordinary, but moves on to a clearly altered state of consciousness (ASC). I’m sure there are some NDEs that are so short they only start with an OBE and don’t really go on to the ASC aspect.
An amusing historical note: When I first wrote about OBE’s, I coined the abbreviation OOBEs, which created heavy semantic karma. It never occurred to me that people would pronounce that and tell me about their Ooh bees! ;-)