[This essay started off with an intention to be a highly positive recommendation for Eben Alexander’s just published book Proof of Heaven, but broadened rapidly into reflections on near-death experiences and related aspects of our minds in general. I’m not going to post it as a book review per se, I’ll write that elsewhere, but it should be of interest to readers of this blog.]
It’s been more than half a century since I began studying the deeper reaches of human nature, both professionally as a psychologist and personally as someone seeking more meaning and value in life than just the acquisition of social and material rewards. Altered states of consciousness (ASCs), sleep, dreams, hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), near death experiences (NDEs): I’ve investigated them all and written about them extensively in various scientific journals and books (see my brief bio at http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/brief-bio/). I’ve also been involved in those 50+ years in scientific parapsychology, which led me to the conclusion, focused on in my last book, The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together , that the popular idea that science has somehow proven that all spirituality is nonsense, just imagination and hallucinations, is an invalid scientific idea. That dismissal is scientism, not science, prejudice masquerading as science. Yes, of course, there’s lots of nonsense and craziness mixed in with religion and spirituality, as there are in all areas of human life, but, in point of fact, we have extensive, high-quality scientific evidence to show that the human mind possesses qualities which are the sort of things we would think a genuinely spiritual being would have, and that we would not expect a physical brain to have.
Applying this to our personal lives, no one should be embarrassed or ashamed of having spiritual or psychic experiences. Rather it is perfectly sensible to be both spiritual and scientific in your approach to life.
The conclusion is fine as a basis for having more sensible and spiritually rewarding lives, but where do we go from there? It certainly doesn’t mean that we should believe everything and anything labeled “spiritual” or “psychic,” for, as I said above, all areas of human life have lots of errors and nonsense mixed in with them, not to mention distortions and glosses put on to accounts of spiritual beliefs and experiences for political purposes by those who gain power that way..
Practically speaking, one of the main problems with conventional religion and spirituality in modern culture is that it doesn’t work very well for far too many people. By not working well, I mean it doesn’t effectively lead to strong feelings of understanding and help them become wiser and more compassionate people in practice, so conventional religion tends to become something either rejected wholesale and indiscriminately out of disappointment, or grasped onto with fanatical devotion and blindness, a kind of “blind faith” that goes against intelligence. Given that religion and spirituality are major sources motivating us to care about other people, and thus a key to creating a better world, we need religions and spiritualities that work, and that give people insights that are consonant with our scientific understanding (which is constantly evolving), as well as inspiring. To me, as one of the founders of the field of Transpersonal Psychology, this means that while we can look at existing religions and spiritual systems as sources of inspiration and ideas, we can’t take them as the final word, the Ultimate Truth about anything. Rather I regard them as attempts by human beings, usually well-intentioned but fallible human beings, to share their insights and understandings, but those insights and understandings may be valid only in cultures that have changed enormously or that no longer apply to the complexities of the modern world.
So one of the goals of transpersonal psychology is to not simply respect and spiritual traditions, much less to uncritically accept them, but to take all their teachings as simply working hypotheses, things to be tested, empirically and experientially, to see how they work or don’t work, and to be modified and improved as a result of actual scholarly and scientific investigation. The field is very young, so there’s not much to say yet about accomplishments, but someday we may have solid evidence for recommendations like ”If you do meditation type nine, for people of a certain type, it will stir up their unconscious minds and amplify confusion and suffering rather than growth in wisdom and compassion, so it’s better to discourage them from doing that kind of meditation but suggest some other, specific kind of spiritual practices.”
One of the ways we get new knowledge and refine knowledge about the spiritual is by listening closely to and working with the accounts of people who have what we will loosely call “spiritual experiences.” In recent decades our culture, e.g., has been strongly affected by previously unheard of familiarity with NDEs. When I was first in psychology 50 years ago, I knew about NDEs because I had read a lot of very esoteric psychical research literature, but aside from knowing that NDEs happened and a few of their characteristics, very little was known by anyone, and the average person had never heard of them. When Raymond Moody published his Life After Life book on NDEs in 1976 and it hit the bestseller lists (more than 13 million copies sold to 2012!), it resonated with people’s spiritual needs, and now there is widespread knowledge about qualities of NDEs.
One of the things that most impressed me about people’s accounts of their NDEs back then was that people with very different backgrounds and religious beliefs, including people with no religious beliefs to speak of, described the qualities of NDEs in a very similar way. But if NDEs were nothing but the distorted functioning of a distressed brain, you would think that, like most hallucinations resulting from brain malfunctions, the content of those hallucinations would be very much affected by a person’s life experiences, cultural background, and individual beliefs. That there was so much commonality immediately made a case that people were telling you about something that might be real in some sense. By analogy, I have never been to Rome, but accounts I have heard of what Rome looks like by people who claim to have been there show so much commonality that I have high confidence that there really is a place called Rome.
From my perspective as a researcher, however, there is a major drawback to collecting more accounts of NDEs today that didn’t apply when they were first collected. Back then, almost everyone who finally came forth with an account noted that they had never heard of such things before they had their own NDE. Indeed they usually had never talked to anyone about what they had experienced, or had tried to talk to others and been so severely rejected (you must have been hallucinating, that’s crazy, the work of the devil, etc., etc.) that they remained silent about it, and so there was very little obvious influence from cultural background or others’ opinions creating the similarity in their accounts. Now there have been so many articles, books, TV specials, etc., about NDEs that when you hear about someone’s recent NDE, you have to wonder how much is this an accurate report of something that is “real” and how much their experience has been molded by all their previous knowledge about what NDEs are supposed to be about.
I am particularly concerned with the potentially biasing effects of previous knowledge because a lot of my early research was on hypnosis, and I had it constantly demonstrated in my research that about a quarter or so of the population could have profoundly real-seeming experiences of any arbitrary nature whatsoever suggested to them by a hypnotist. I doubt that most NDEs are in this category of the purely arbitrary, all a product of suggestion, even the ones occurring today, but even if a major part of what a person experiences is “real” in the sense of belonging to some reality external to their belief system, still the way they perceive it may be influenced to some unknown degree by the now widespread cultural knowledge of what NDEs are supposed to be about. This doesn’t mean there’s no point in studying most people’s NDEs, just that we have to be more careful about this possible biasing factor. And there’s nothing particularly novel about this, people’s descriptions of ordinary reality are often biased by what they believe, emotions of the moment, etc.
So one way of getting a less biased picture of what NDEs are like might be to simply give more weight to experiences collected in the early days of research, when most accounts were from people who had never heard anything about what NDEs were supposed to be about. Another way of trying to get beyond such a biasing factor is to study more extreme types of NDEs, NDEs with characteristics that are not all that common or known in our culture, and this is a major reason why I find Doctor Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven book of great value. One of the most common features of NDEs established in the early research, for example, was that at some point the person having the NDE, the NDEr, reaches some kind of “border,” or “barrier,” or “bridge” or “gateway,” and although they want to go on to what seem even more wonderful heavenly reaches of the experience, they are not allowed to go cross this border or go through this gateway, because if they did, there would be no chance of them returning to physical life. Sometimes, knowing this, the NDEr chooses to come back to physical life, sometimes he or she is forced to come back to physical life even though they desperately want to go on.
What lies beyond this gateway?
Doctor Alexander is a neurosurgeon, and he describes a seven days long NDE caused by a usually fatal brain infection that, given our current medical knowledge, we would say totally knocks out all the higher functioning of the brain, everything that makes us conscious human beings. From the outside medical perspective, he’s in a totally unresponsive coma. Inside, at first he experiences his NDE almost like a vegetative state, with no real thoughts occurring in it, and going on “forever,” although no ordinary concept of time or duration meant anything to him in that condition. And yet eventually he rose above this, with assistance that he perceived in a most interesting way – – I won’t give away this very thought-provoking aspect of the book – – and eventually went through a gateway, and reported an exceptionally profound experience.
Because his experience was exceptionally “positive,” a word that hardly begin to convey its power, as a human being I want to believe that his was a true glimpse of the reality of the universe, that we’re all under the care of a loving, alive, intelligent universe, like physician Richard M. Bucke reported in his Cosmic Consciousness experience, described in my The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.