Sometimes – Near-Death Studies Meeting, San Diego, 2009

Sometimes I feel that the Universe is toying with me, rattling my cage, waking me up a little. Something happens that is delightfully ambiguous. I can easy feel justified in dismissing it as meaningless coincidence, or I can feel like a Higher Power is reminding me of something. Sometimes I feel both ways at once.

A few hours ago my wife and I caught a door-to-door shuttle from the San Francisco Airport to our home, along with a couple of other passengers, one already on the van. We were returning from the annual meeting of IANDS, the International Association for Near-Death Studies, held this year in San Diego. You can learn more about this wonderful organization at http://www.iands.org/. This was a powerful and moving weekend: you can be moved by reading about near-death experiences (NDEs), but the psychological impact of hearing an NDEr tell about their experience in person is special.

My wife had told me several times during the meeting that I should write something about it for my friends and my mailing lists, and I kept muttering yes, that was a good idea, but I didn’t know if I could find any time…

So what was the first stop of the shuttle? The Marriot Hotel in Oakland. What’s special about that? We’ve only been to that hotel once in our lives, thirteen years ago. What for? To attend, for the first time, and for me to speak at, the annual IANDS conference, held in Oakland that year….

Hmmm……

I guess I’m supposed to find the time whether I think I have it or not and write something!

IANDS was founded in 1978 to provide support, both intellectual and emotional, to people who were NDErs and to researchers studying the NDE. Besides many local groups, IANDS holds an annual conference where people can share their NDEs and researchers can report on their latest findings. They also publish the professional scientific journal, the Journal of Near-Death Studies. The support function is very important, for while NDEs are much better known today than they were back in the 70s, people who have NDEs (and there are a lot of them!) usually feel very isolated and often rejected. People who haven’t had the experience can’t understand them, and they are struggling with changing their lives, often against the forces of mainstream culture and of their friends and loved ones, to incorporate the profound epiphanies about love and spirit that they brought back from their NDEs. I don’t have the words to convey this vital function of the meetings very well, so I’ll focus on my small part. Fortunately my wife Judy wrote a description of the conference for my grandson Aidan, who has just entered college and is quite interested in things like this, so I’ll append it for a fuller look. One of my ITP colleagues, Ryan Rominger, also presented a fascinating account of his research on how just hearing about NDEs can strongly affect people, and an article on his findings will appear in the Journal of Near-Death Studies soon.

When I spoke at the Oakland IANDS conference 13 years ago I was tremendously moved by the stories of various NDErs, but professionally it wasn’t too hard to give my talk, as I functioned in my persona of research scientist. I reported on half a dozen studies of out-of-body experiences (OBEs), a common component of NDEs, that I had conducted over the years. This invited address was very different from any I have every given, though, and I worked on it for months before the talk and kept changing it right up to the last minute. The conference organizers wanted me to talk about meaning, to talk about the hope of an evidence-based spirituality for the twenty-first century, an idea I had opened up in my recent The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together book. I needed to talk as a human being, as a spiritual seeker, not just in my scientist role.

What concerned me even more, and made me anticipate that this would be the most “difficult” audience I had every spoken for, was that I knew at least half the people at the meeting would be NDErs. NDEs almost always involve meeting and communicating with a high spiritual being, often identified by the NDEr as God, and receiving the deepest possible answers to their questions about their purposes and missions in life. What in the world could I, a mere human being, say to people who had already, as it were, “talked to God?”

I can’t attempt to reproduce my hour’s talk, but fortunately I and the audience was pleased with it, despite my limitations. They were wonderful, rather than “difficult!” A major theme I shared was that the too common dismissal of NDEs as nothing but brain malfunctions, as illusions and hallucinations, by people identified as “scientists” was, in point of fact, not real science but scientism, a dogmatic commitment to a philosophy of materialism that did not actually deal with the data of various human faculties, especially psi abilities and NDEs. Psi abilities show that we have qualities that are what we would expect spiritual beings to have. This is the major theme of The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together. So it’s not dumb or neurotic or “unscientific” to be interested in or have experiences of the spiritual, it’s perfectly reasonable to be both scientific and spiritual. Sure, there’s lot of nonsense under the labels “spiritual” and “scientific,” and we need to keep sharpening our discrimination and expanding our knowledge, but there’s nothing per se wrong with concern with the spiritual as something real and important.

The other major theme was based on the fact that we were all idealists, wanting to make the world a better place, but while having an NDE or other deep spiritual experience was usually enough to convince the experiencer of the vital importance of living with kindness and love, and making the world a better place, personal experience was not enough. NDErs and others with deep spiritual experience know too well that trying to share that experience with others may just make them defensive and hostile, rather than open them up, for example. More is needed than having personal spiritual experiences, and a major part of that more is finding ways to have genuine science (as opposed to scientism) and genuine spirituality (as opposed to rigid and dogmatic religions) work together to not only improve our understanding of realty, but to test and refine traditional spiritual practices, such as meditation, so that they work more effectively for people today, thus leading to more direct personal spiritual experience of the sort that makes people wiser and kinder. That is, we not only need to stop the damage scientism does to too many people, by wrongly invalidating their spiritual longings and experiences, we need to move on to greater spiritual knowledge and effectiveness, a multi-pronged approach to opening people up to and helping them with their genuine spiritual sides.

A call for a huge undertaking? Yes. A necessary task? Yes! We are ruining our planet and our lives, and while it’s fine to tell people they should be kinder and wiser and care more, that kind of intellectual exhortation too often doesn’t have much weight compared to factors like greed, fear, and insecurity. But when people have the kind of deep spiritual experiences that NDErs and some other people have had, working to be kinder, wiser, and more useful to others does not remain just one of those good things we ought, but somehow fail, to do, it becomes a natural way of living.

A huge undertaking to make this practical on a planetary scale, but we’d better do it.

For most, if not all, of the IANDS conference attendees, my talk was just one part of the conference, and it was rather abstract compared to the sharing of NDEs by participants, but I hope that I planted a small seed which will help….

OK, Universe, have I written enough for now?

Judy Tart’s Impressions for Our Grandson:

Aidan, you asked me to tell you about the Near-Death Conference.  If there is something more or different you want to know about it, tell me and I will try to answer.

Around 150 people attended this weekend conference in San Diego on the topic of near-death experiences, put on by IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies).  At least 2/3 of them were people who had personally gone through the near-death experience, and there were a couple of panels where several people talked about what had happened to them and how it changed their lives.  There were some other speakers, mostly researchers who have been studying this experience and trying to understand it.  Charley was one of the speakers and the title of his talk was “Evidence-based Spirituality for the 21st Century.”

Skeptics tend to dismiss this experience as “just some funny happenings in the brain” which are brought on by anoxia, drugs that may have been given to the person, or even “the god area” of the brain which is set up to give us a shot of endorphins and good feelings when we’re dying to make us happier.  And of course, these skeptics claim that none of this could happen if the person were really, really dead, and so the experiencer must be just hallucinating or re-framing what happened while they were losing consciousness as something that happened later in the resuscitation process when, from all possible clinical and scientific measurements, they are really dead.

More and more meticulous studies and reports are showing these skeptics’ theories to be completely inadequate.  All the evidence collected from numerous accounts of doctors and patients who have been successfully resuscitated points toward the idea that each of us has a conscious awareness that is not dependant on a functioning brain in order to perceive and remember events.  Though our consciousness, brain, and body are usually tightly bound together, the NDE shows that our consciousness is ultimately separate from it.  This is why people who have had this experience no longer fear death – in fact, most of them did not want to return to their body and felt even more alive when separated from it.

So what is the experience they have?  In general, following a horrendous accident, heart attack, drowning, overwhelming illness – the victim finds himself floating above his body (which seems to no longer be very important), then being drawn toward an overwhelming light, possibly through a tunnel.  They may meet long-dead relatives, or beings of light who seem incredibly loving and full of transcendent knowledge – or the light itself may radiate this overwhelming love, comfort, and wisdom.  They usually want to stay with this light or these beings forever.  Usually they are told they have a choice as to whether to go back to their body or not – or they may remember that they have young children or someone dependant on them – or they may be told that they have a task on earth that is yet to be accomplished.  Obviously the ones who make the choice to come back are the ones we are hearing from.

Usually their lives are profoundly transformed by this event – in general, they become more loving, try to find some way to be of service to others, no longer regard the usual goals of material life to be very important, become more spiritual – often resulting in a complete upheaval of their relationships with spouses and other people who can’t deal with the deep changes that happen to them.  It isn’t easy for them, and it make take years for them to come to terms with what has happened to them, especially in a society which is not welcoming of this kind of experience.  That’s why this organization is so important to them as a source of support.

I found being around these people to have a deep effect on me – I felt more centered, more aware, more open and loving.

Hope this is helpful…

4 comments

  1. The IANDS website is very helpful. I was shocked to find out that many of the things I went through as a NDEr were common occurrences. I had been so worried that the reason I became such a different person was because I had been somehow damaged in the accident that caused my adult NDE. I felt a lot better knowing that the changes were normal and that other people have gone through similar experiences.

    I wish that NDEs were something that could be talked about more openly. I’ve never actually sat down with anyone and described the whole experience. I’ve talked about aspects of it with my counselor and a few other trusted people. I’ve also talked about being an NDEr with a close friend who was terminally ill, but in that case there was no need to tell her all the details because as she got closer to death she was having her own experiences of it. Mostly it was nice to have that common language of what we had experienced.

    I think there is a need to express these experiences. I’m not sure if anyone needs to listen, but I feel a need to talk about my experiences. I wrote about my NDE and posted it in my blog, since I don’t really have anyone I can tell about it outside of counseling sessions. I would really like to go to an IANDS conference someday to meet others and share experiences.

  2. More is needed than having personal spiritual experiences, and a major part of that more is finding ways to have genuine science (as opposed to scientism) and genuine spirituality (as opposed to rigid and dogmatic religions) work together to not only improve our understanding of realty, but to test and refine traditional spiritual practices, such as meditation, so that they work more effectively for people today, thus leading to more direct personal spiritual experience of the sort that makes people wiser and kinder.

    Dr Tart, I think the work you are doing with meditation is very important both for the people wanting to better understand NDEs, but also for the NDErs themselves.

    When I first tried meditation, I really thought it’s only possible use would be to calm me down so that I could cope better with having anomalous experiences. I was in bad shape at the time. I desperately wanted a cure for whatever it was that made me open to having unusual experiences. What happened after I started meditating regularly was that I didn’t constantly crave a cure. But any time I stopped meditating for a few days the craving would come back.

    Recently I found that the craving didn’t come back when I stopped meditating. So something in me has changed somehow. I do go to counseling, so that probably factors in to how I feel about things, but the craving for a cure has always felt like a physical need rather than an emotional or intellectual one.

    I didn’t meditate at all for just over a week. I had the flu and was just barely functional, plus I was also struggling to keep up with my TA job and my thesis work. I didn’t get the craving back, but there were changes. I suppose they could be blamed on the fact that I was so ill, but it was when I started feeling better that I really noticed the changes the most. I’ve been overwhelmed by anomalous experiences in the past few days. Like I just can’t say no to having them. They aren’t terrible experiences. I’m used to seeing a few ghosts now and then. But this was way overboard to what I’ve been used to. It got so bad that I really wanted it to stop. I wanted the ghosts to leave me alone, no matter how nice they were being. I didn’t feel that physical craving to be cured, but intellectually I needed a break. Badly.

    I was finally well enough to go for a walk in the park yesterday and I did meditate while I was there. And I finally got some peace from my experiences. I was able to just sit there quietly and enjoy watching colored lights flow between some little chickadees that I was feeding sunflower seeds to.

    Meditation is more than just learning to relax. It is changing me in ways that I don’t quite understand. I think that this is really important stuff.

  3. @Sandy:
    Meditation is more than just learning to relax. It is changing me in ways that I don’t quite understand. I think that this is really important stuff.
    When I spoke to the near-death experiencers in San Diego last weekend, I raised the question of why was I there, why would they want to hear me after “talking to God.” For symmetry, I raised the question of why they were there in San Diego, at the meeting of the International Association for Near-Death Studies – and showed them a slide of a draft certificate.
    This got a lot of laughs, but illustrated a good point. Life, Spirit, the Universe, whatever you wanted to call it, had drafted them.
    Sometimes people are “drafted” to move along the spiritual path, and just have to try to make the best of it…..It looks like – my best guess, I don’t really know – you can slow the process down and/or customize it for you, but can’t really stop it….

  4. @ Dr Tart

    You’re right. It must have been a draft. Because I’m pretty sure that I would have remembered volunteering for such a thing.

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