NDE's and the after-life reality
Across the ages, people have reported amazing stories derived from their experiences of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Though the underlying themes of these stories seem very consistent – as argued, for instance, by Dr. Richard Bucke (in Cosmic Consciousness) and Aldous Huxley (in The Perennial Philosophy) – the metaphors used tend to be enormously varied, culture-bound, and contradictory across reports. The stories of people who underwent Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are no exception to this: while there is an unquestionable similarity and consistence of themes, the stories vary wildly in details and metaphors. This way, some report, for instance, to have met the Buddha, while others were in the arms of Christ. Such variety and lack of consistency motivate skeptics to claim that NDE reports are mere hallucinations of some sort. After all, if these people had witnessed a real, valid after-life realm, one would expect their reports to be consistent across the board and not so bound to particular beliefs and cultures. In this article, I will argue that such expectation is wrong, motivated by mere assumptions about the nature of reality, and that many NDE reports, despite being inconsistent with one another and highly culture-bound, may still be entirely valid.
Let us first look at the similarities of themes underlying NDE reports. In the video above, several testimonies are shown. A cursory analysis of these testimonies identifies the following common themes:
- Association between a perceived light source and the feelings of unconditional love, acceptance, bliss, serenity, and peace;
- The feeling of being back 'home,' to the place where one's primordial self originates from;
- Interactions with what is perceived as entities of some sort, variously described as angels, dead relatives, or undefined, abstract 'presences;'
- The sensation of knowing (or rather, remembering) everything there is to be known about reality and one's true identity, even though one cannot articulate that knowledge later in words. This often includes the idea that ordinary life is a kind of dream;
- A life review and excursions across the universe that transcend linear time or space constraints, as if everything happened 'here and now;'
- Transcendence of all dichotomies, like good/evil, positive/negative, past/future, I/you, subject/object, etc.;
- The notion that there is an important purpose to ordinary life.
The first line of explanation is simply to notice that there is most-likely a difference between how people report an experience and what the experience in itself looked like. Even in the ordinary world, when different people witness exactly the same events, they describe the events sometimes in different ways, owing to particular interpretations, misunderstandings, and to the use of different descriptive metaphors.
Yet, this idea does not seem sufficient to explain the differences and contradictions across NDE reports, particularly given the level of passion and certainty conveyed by the people who report them.
Here is a clue to another explanation: we tend to extrapolate certain particular characteristics of our ordinary waking world as if they were necessary characteristics of every conceivable realm. Since the ordinary world seems to be very objective, autonomous and independent from our thoughts or beliefs, we extrapolate this objectivity and assume it to be intrinsic to any conceivable realm. In other words, even if you believe you can fly, our ordinary world is such that you will likely die if you jump from a tall bridge. The ordinary world doesn't care about what you think or believe; it appears to be very separate from ourselves as subjects. And then we assume that all conceivable realms must be equally autonomous and separate from ourselves as subjects. So reports describing these other realms, if valid, should all be very similar, regardless of our cultural background or personal beliefs.
Now try to suspend you disbelief for a moment and think about the possibility that the ordinary waking world is itself a kind of dream; a product of the imagination. This way, there would be no fundamental difference between your nightly dreams, your daydreams, and your waking reality; there would be just a difference of degree: the degree of consensus across individuals and the degree of momentum a certain storyline acquires. Your nightly dreams entail little or no consensus with other individuals, being your private storylines instead. Similarly, your nightly dreams have little momentum: people don't return to last night's dream to continue the story, but instead dream of something else entirely. The waking world, on the other hand, seems highly consensual: different people report relatively consistent stories about what they witness together when awake. Similarly, the waking world has a lot of momentum: the story keeps on unfolding with tremendous continuity and self-consistency regardless of one's efforts to wish a different storyline into existence. It is these two characteristics that make the ordinary waking world seem so autonomous and independent of our will or beliefs. It is as if the ordinary world were like a persistent, collective dream we share with other individuals, and then can no longer control by ourselves.
What I am suggesting is that the only reality that exists is the reality of the imagination. But just as light can assume different colors and intensities while still being light, the imagination can take on different degrees of consensus and momentum while still being imagined. I work this idea out very explicitly and carefully in my books Dreamed up Reality and Meaning in Absurdity, so you can look those up for more details (updated in May 2017: see this paper for a technical summary). Here, what I want to explore are the consequences of this model for the interpretation of NDE reports.
Perhaps the realm people witness during an NDE – while being imagined in much the same way as the ordinary world – simply has less momentum and entails less (if any) consensus. In other words, the imagination is less constrained in the after-life state. What one witnesses there may be a realm more acquiescent to idiosyncratic beliefs and expectations. Although the underlying core of the experience – in the form of the common themes listed above – seems to be always present, different people 'dress' these common themes with the metaphorical 'clothes' that render them most evocative and recognizable to them. For a Christian, little can be more evocative of the underlying theme of unconditional love and forgiveness than the figure of Christ himself; so it is through the Christos archetype that such reality will make itself cognizable to a Christian. For a sincere atheist, perhaps a dead relative is the most evocative alternative, which then determines the atheist's particular experience of the same reality. An so on. In the after-life, our imaginations are perhaps less bound to consensus constraints or on-going momentum, so we are freer to project, and live, the metaphors that are most significant to ourselves. A similar interpretation of the after-life realm was interestingly portrayed in the film Lovely Bones (see trailer below). It is also similar to how Buddhists describe the Bardo state after death. If anything, such interpretation only enhances the meaning and validity of the after-life in the broader matrix of the imagination.