Near Death Experiences, or NDEs, have always been with us, but in the past 30 years as resuscitation techniques have become much more effective – especially after heart attacks – reports of NDEs have become more widespread. The sheer volume of cases has given rise to significant research by eminent medical specialists and researchers such as Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, Michael Sabom and Bruce Greyson. Their key findings are very helpfully summarised by Pim van Lommel, M.D, in his illuminating book ‘Consciousness Beyond Life.’
Understanding the death process is of critical importance in Tibetan Buddhism, and I’m always interested to learn what well-informed researchers outside the tradition have to say on this subject.
One vital qualification is that the Western definition of death – broadly, the termination of all physical functioning – is not the same as the Tibetan Buddhist definition, which holds that subtle consciousness continues to be present in the body, though in most cases for just a short time after physical functioning ends. It is only once this subtle consciousness is no longer present that a person is considered to have died.
There are interesting parallels between NDE reports of recent decades, and the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of the death process. To use just one example, in his book ‘Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth,’ Tulku Thondup says ‘It is very important to know that not all dying people have the same experiences or have them in the same sequence.’ (Page 51)
Pim van Lommel similarly observes, ‘In summary, there is no such thing as a classic near-death experience or a classic way of dealing with it.’ (Page 69)
The purpose of this blog is not to explore NDEs themselves, so much as the effect that having a Near Death Experience has on a person. What can we learn from this? Pim van Lommel notes: ‘Irrespective of the immediate cause of a near-death experience, its survivors display permanent and fundamental change in their outlook on life, religious beliefs, values and behaviour.’
A study comparing the life changes of 86 cardiac arrest survivors who had had a NDE, with a control sample who hadn’t, two years after their heart attack, provides some startling trends. Fear of death had declined by 47% among those experiencing a NDE, compared to a decline of 16% among those who hadn’t. An appreciation of money and possessions similarly declined by 47% among the NDE sample, compared with a 25% decline among the control sample. Understanding the purpose of life increased by 52% for the NDE people compared to 25% for the control panel. And wanting to help others increased by 26% for NDErs, compared to 8% for non-NDErs.
People who have a NDE show a markedly increased interest in spirituality. Looking at figures eight years after their heart attack, NDErs interest in spirituality had increased by 42%, compared to a decrease of 41% for non-NDErs. Significantly, as Westerners who have experienced a NDE, they did not pursue this interest within their church – NDErs’ church attendance declined by 42% eight years on, compared to an increase of 25% in church attendance among those who hadn’t experienced a NDE.
These are just a few headline statistics arising from one single, if important, study. What they show is that for most people, having a near-death experience is transformative. Having a direct, undeniable, first-hand experience of consciousness continuing after the Western definition of death, profoundly changes the way we view life. Our priorities shift. Material concerns become of less importance than interacting positively with others, and living with greater compassion for those around us. In the words of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of the ground-breaking On Death and Dying (1969), we discover that ‘Spiritual growth is the sole purpose of our life here on earth.’
For more on the Buddhist understanding of death and dying, check out my book Buddhism for Busy People (Different covers in different territories, but the content is the same):
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