Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Negative And Subjective Side Of Near-Death Experiences

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are often cited as evidence against Christianity and other exclusivistic belief systems. Supposedly, NDEs suggest that everybody or almost everybody goes to heaven. The God of NDEs isn't the God of the Bible. And so on.

Alex Tsakiris recently interviewed Penny Sartori, a prominent NDE researcher. A lot of important points were made during the interview, and I recommend listening to the whole thing. But here are some of the highlights, followed by some comments of my own.

[Alex Tsakiris:] Of course, the “light and love” NDE coincides with the data. If you look at Dr. Jeff Long, he’s collected the data and it’s certainly about light and love 80% to 90% of the time. But, what about those other times? What about the hellish near-death experiences? What about the black void that some people face and fear so greatly?...

But, my real point was, the light and love and positivity thing, because, on one hand I’m all about that, and I’m all about, you know, one of my best teachers all along said, “The secret to the ascent is to always look up,” and I think that also, I don’t only believe that from my personal experience and from what I’ve learned, but the data leads us there too, it leads us towards light and love, being the overwhelming experience that people have, but, (it’s all but coming here), it’s not all light and love. Some people have very dark experiences, some people are broken from near-death experiences in a way. Certainly, some people have a lot of trouble integrating back into their life with their near-death experience. Then, we have the whole other aspect of it, as we were just talking about, we have a medical community that, they have an ulterior motive in the light and love thing as well….

[Penny Sartori:] But, it’s not an easy thing to process, because there’s a lot of adjustments that come after a near-death experience, it’s a total change in the person’s values. So, everything changes, their ethic change, their morals change, and sometimes they change their job because they’re no longer aligned with what they were doing in their previous job, they feel like it’s not right, so they leave their job, and there’s all that angst that goes with it.

There’s a high divorce rate as well. A lot of people no longer recognize their spouses, because they’ve changed that much, so it can lead to that division between them as well.

So, the integration of the experience is crucial, and I think that’s where medical personnel come in, because they can really help with that if they were trained in how to deal with near-death experiences.

But, then you’ve also got the really scary, distressing near-death experiences, which are so much more difficult to research, because no one wants to talk about them, and there’s not many researches want to talk about them either. I had a few of the distressing cases in my hospital research as well.

I can remember talking to this one lady, she’d had a cardiac arrest and when I was interviewing her on the ward, she told me about the beginning of the experience and then she said, “I cold see the flames rising and I was looking into hell, I could feel the flames of hell,” and then she started to cry and she really, really became distressed, and it was to the point where I had to terminate that interview with her.

She was begging me afterwards, she said, “Please, tell me that’s not going to happen when I die,” and the only thing I could say is that some of these experiences start off in a very distressing way, but then sometimes they can change into that pleasant experience, and that was the only thing I could say at the time, to really, kind of, help her, and it didn’t help really.

I went back to see the lady about two days later and she said, “I just really can’t talk about it anymore. It’s too distressing for me.” So, I left it at that and then when I followed her up a few months later, she’d actually died as well.

One thing I remember is, when I was a student nurse, and at the time we had no idea about how to treat this particular lady, because she was terrified of dying and I can remember, every time we used to pass her bedside, she would try and grab onto us and hold us and her nails would dig into our flesh and she’d say, “Please, don’t let me die. I’ve died before and it’s not nice.” We didn’t understand that, so we chatted with her family and the family said, “Well, about five years ago she did have a cardiac arrest, but we don’t know anything more.”

Now, on reflection and having had the benefit of doing this research, I think it’s possible that that lady had had a distressing near-death experience at the time that she’d had that cardiac arrest, so she was really quite terrified as well.

But, of course, there’s a lot of stigma involved with the distressing kind of experiences, because a lot of people feel, “What have I done? Am I a bad person that I had this distressing experience?” It’s not that at all, even people of really good moral character, they can still have an unpleasant and distressing experience.

Alex Tsakiris: But, don’t we have to be careful there, because we can’t say either way. I mean, that’s really the point, we don’t know. I also think that it also speaks to the idiosyncratic nature of these experiences and these accounts and one of the things I always find difficult in talking about this with folks is that both are true. They’re highly idiosyncratic, they just need to be tailored for you, for something that you need, but we can’t say that scientifically, all we can say is, “That seems to be it.”…

Overwhelmingly, it is about light and love. Overwhelmingly, it is about people experiencing God, for lack of a better word, spirit and light, and I guess, I’m torn between, kind of, playing it both sides. I can jump over and argue either side and say, “Hey, you know, it’s not all light and love. Remember that person that saw hell,” and then I can jump over on the other side and say, “Yeah, but 80%, 90% of the time, it really is about light and love, it really is about this transformative, powerful experience that tells us that the deepest questions we have about who we are and why we’re here, are answered in a very deeply positive spiritual way.”…

Now, having said that, what comes to mind is, a couple of shows that I did with folks who had a very intense near-death experience, connected to Jesus, and that was spiritually transformative in a very Christian way, and then of course, they took it in a very dogmatic way.

There was this one guy from Australia, thank god he was from Australia, he was not from the US, with the US Christian thing on him, but he runs around all of these churches around the world and then all of these other people have Christian near-death experiences, and he is very keen and very aggressive with the idea that this experience is fundamentally a Christian experience and it supports the primacy of Christianity, and my pushback was, “That’s just not what the data says. So, you can go out there and blab that all you want.” But this is where we do need science to interface with spirituality. Hey, maybe he’s right and maybe Jesus is going to shake his finger at me when I get up there, but, I look at the data, the evidence, overwhelming, it says that this cannot be pigeonholed into a specific religious experience. But again, back to the negative, here is somebody who’s very much doing that, has a lot of support from a lot of people.

Penny Sartori: Yeah, well these experiences, they occur in every different culture and they’re interpreted according to the culture of that person. So, for example, in India, the cultural kind of experience is meeting up with Yamadutas, which are messengers of Yama, the God of the dead. Instead of the life review, they meet up with Chitragupta, the man with the book of deeds and so he looks in the book to see what they’ve done with their life as well and that is very similar to the life review.

So, I think people can interpret it according to their experience. It’s almost as if they’re tapping into the collective unconscious and they’re interpreting the experience through their own cultural filter, if you like.

So, the guy you were talking about, the Australian guy, if he’s been brought up in a Christian tradition, he’s interpreted it in that way as well.

Alex Tsakiris: But he would say no, Penny. He’s heard all of that, and he says, “No, you don’t get it. It is about Jesus, and I spoke with Jesus and I asked Jesus about that and Jesus said, ‘No, it’s this.’” And here, I think, is the problem, in the interface with science, in that people like you, real scientists who’ve looked at that, we’ve kept you just spinning on, “Prove it. Prove it. Prove it. Prove it. Prove it,” to the extent that we haven’t been able to really look at some of these deeper questions. But there’s some real deep questions here, in terms of, back to the idiosyncratic nature of this, what does it mean that they’re so idiosyncratic? What does it mean that this guy’s experience, he’s not making it up, it is distinctly Christian in a way that, if I’m going to, kind of, defend him a little bit, he cannot get away from the fact that it is distinctly Christian, it isn’t saying, “Ah, you know, it’s Christian but it can be Hindu too.” No, it was purely Christian.

Penny Sartori: That’s a really, really good point, because how do we get to the bottom of those things as well then? Because we, kind of, by focusing on just the scientific, we’re not looking at questions like that either. So, I think that is definitely something that we have to get beyond and to answer those important questions as well….

Alex Tsakiris: You know Penny, we, kind of, skipped past that one question, I really want to get your thoughts on it. What about the materialistic nature of some of this stuff, the biological nature, the science, as we know it, nature? Like I said, the fact that there’s more near-death experiences as we resuscitate people, suggests that there’s a biological component.

My friend Zack had a question that he sent over about, people who don’t have sight have a different near-death experience. There’s all these different aspects of our physical being that then translate into the experience, in a way that’s hard to really, totally make sense of, if it’s completely a spiritual experience. So, what do you think is going on in this interplay between the spiritual and the physical?...

Again, I’ve just got to throw in one more thing. “God really needs our help on this one, right? God really needs our help on this consciousness transformation, couldn’t do it on his own, he really had to pull us in and write these books on near-death experience.” Somehow that doesn’t wash for me.

Penny Sartori: Do you think our consciousness could be evolving to the next level? These are just ideas that, kind of, make sense to me at the moment. I might do more research and think completely differently in a few years’ time. So, it’s just a way of making sense of the data at this point in time, and I think that can change so drastically according to what other discoveries we make as well. So, I have to keep as open a mind as possible and, kind of, explore all possibilities as well.

I want to make several points:

- Tsakiris should be given credit for bringing up subjects like negative NDEs, the subjective nature of NDEs, inconsistencies among them, and the existence of NDEs that support some form of religious exclusivism. Given how critical Tsakiris is of traditional religions and how much NDEs have shaped his view of afterlife issues, it's commendable that he's being so honest and so probing about the more negative aspects of NDEs.

- He acknowledges that negative NDEs constitute a double-digit percentage of all NDEs. He puts it at around 10 to 20 percent. From the research I've seen, and taking into consideration the reluctance of people to discuss negative NDEs they've had, I'd estimate that the overall percentage (combining those who discuss their negative NDEs and those who don't) is twenty-something. Tsakiris' estimate isn't that different than mine.

- Sartori is another NDE researcher who acknowledges that there's a substantial number of negative NDEs. She also acknowledges that those who experience negative NDEs are sometimes reluctant to discuss it. And she acknowledges that her fellow researchers are sometimes reluctant to discuss NDEs that are negative.

- Another important point that comes up during the interview is the interest the medical community has in promoting positive NDEs, whereas negative ones work against their interests. Positive ones are more helpful in encouraging patients, assuring them that there's not much to fear in death, etc. It isn't just the experiencers and researchers who have an interest in neglecting negative NDEs and making positive ones out to be more common than they actually are or more significant than they really are in some other way. Medical professionals have that same sort of interest in underestimating negative NDEs while overestimating positive ones.

- During the interview, Sartori refers to how she didn't have much to say to a person who had experienced a negative NDE. That's one of the downsides to taking a more objective view of NDEs (i.e., that NDEs are highly reflective of what the afterlife is like). What do you say to somebody who's had a hellish NDE, especially if there's nothing in the person's life to suggest that he's significantly worse than the average person or the average person who has a positive NDE? By contrast, somebody who thinks NDEs are of a more subjective nature, meaning the experiences don't tell us much about the afterlife, would have much more to say to somebody who's experienced a negative NDE. If having a negative NDE is roughly analogous to having a nightmare when you sleep, as I believe, then there's a lot that can be said to encourage somebody who's had an NDE that's negative. And as a Christian, I'd have even more to say.

- Tsakiris and Sartori both struggle with the fact that NDEs seem so much more common today than in the past. Tsakiris puts it in terms of a "biological component", and Sartori suggests humans are undergoing some sort of evolution. But the increase in the number of NDEs isn't as problematic for a view of NDEs like mine, nor is something like the different nature of the NDEs of blind individuals.

There's no need to offer one explanation for all NDEs, and I doubt there is one explanation that covers all of them. But I think most of them are paranormal experiences that are largely analogous to a dream or virtual reality. The biological component Tsakiris refers to isn't a problem for my view. If changes in technology allow more people to survive the processes that trigger NDEs, that's not only consistent with my perspective, but even adds weight to it. The same is true of something like the differences we see with the NDEs of the blind. I don't take the average NDE as an effort on God's part to tell us what the afterlife is like, to reveal himself to us, or some such thing. Rather, I think they're roughly like the dreams we have when sleeping, which are sometimes communication from God, but generally aren't. I don't think the average NDE is, in its entirety or even mostly, a foretaste of what the afterlife will be for that person, though some aspects of the experience could be such a foretaste (e.g., what it's like to be outside your body). Just as changes in technology and medical knowledge give us more information about and experiences of surviving a heart attack, for example, those technological and medical changes also give us more information about and experiences of NDEs.

I don't think something like the more frequent occurrence of NDEs today or a difference in the experiences of the blind is fatal to more objective views of NDEs, like those of Tsakiris and Sartori. Something like Sartori's evolutionary explanation can account for the evidence. But, on balance, these factors make more sense under a more subjective view of NDEs, like mine.

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