The best way to put it is- death is my ice cream. I suffer from dark moods. Since most folks I know tend to assume I’m generally positive and upbeat they get extra worried when I look gloomy. So whenever darkness invades me, rather than talk to anyone about it, I prefer to slink off like a dying cat and disappear. At least, until I feel ready to be around people again. I used to try to outrun my darkness. I’d drive as fast I could down country roads at night. Or when I lived in the city, I’d bomb San Francisco hills on my skateboard. But I could never truly outrun it. That’s like trying to lose weight by developing a serious cocaine habit. Luckily for me, and anyone who lives with me, I found the best thing I can do, what’s almost guaranteed to cheer me up, is to think about death. I imagine it’s similar to how eating a whole gallon of ice cream will cheer some folks up. Death is my ice cream.
Like, yesterday, I cheered myself up by reading all about near-death experiences. I spent most of the last two days studying them. This may seem rather depressing, but I assure you it’s actually the exact opposite. I’m in a much better mood now.
The term “near death experience” was first used in the book Life After Life by Dr. Raymond Moody. He recorded and cataloged the stories of folks who’d come back to life and from their experiences he developed a framework for the series of events that occurred after death. He was the first to see a general pattern emerge. And he was the first to recognize how these were transformative life-changing events unlike any other, except for pregnancy. Dr. Moody didn’t know this at the time of his groundbreaking studies, but later research by others confirmed the brain etches the memories of the near-death experience deeper than other memories. Which is physical proof there is certainly something special about them.
The first thing you’ll notice about near-death experiences is they tend to be similar, which makes them extra weird and trippy. The second thing you’ll notice is… no one comes back and says, “Fuck the world! I’m gonna go for mine! I’ll stomp any motherfucker who gets in my way!” It’s quite the opposite. People come back calmer, humbled, more purposeful, less selfish, and often, they’re unafraid of life. Also, whatever problems a person had before seem way less critical after they died. The third thing you’ll notice is, NDEs happen to everyone around the world, religious folks and atheists alike. And they still report the same experiences. Which is noteworthy since they don’t like to agree.
Some of my favorite accounts to read were all the celebrities who died and came back. Like, did you know Elizabeth Taylor had a near-death experience? So did Peter Sellers, Goldie Hawn, Chevy Chase, Gary Busey, Sharon Stone, Burt Reynolds, Donald Sutherland, Erik Estrada, Larry Hagman, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, and Ozzy Osbourne. They’ve all died at least once and came back. And then there’s Elvis.
The weirdest celebrity NDE has to be Elvis. Of course, it would be Elvis. The King never reported a near death experience of his own. But apparently, a large number of people who’ve died and passed through the tunnel you’ll often hear people mention, and then as they approached the brilliant white light, suddenly out of that heavenly spotlight stepped Elvis Presley and he welcomed them to the afterlife.
I don’t know if it’s more common to see Fat Elvis or Young Elvis. But I suppose that depends on which Elvis the dying person prefers. Universal as they are, NDEs also tend to have a certain subjective quality. A person usually sees whatever has great meaning to them. Some folks see Jesus, some see Buddha, some see St. Peter, some see deceased family members, and some folks see Elvis. For certain fried food-loving segments of the population meeting the King would be far more meaningful than Jesus or Buddha. And based on how many folks claim they met Elvis in heaven, Dr. Moody wrote a whole book devoted to these sightings called Elvis After Life. If I have a choice of dead Southern musicians, rather than a bloated Elvis blinding me with his rhinestone brilliance, I’d want to meet someone awesome like… Johnny Cash. Then I’d know I was in heaven.
Near death experiences are growing more and more common these days thanks to advances in resuscitation technologies. But not everyone who dies and comes back has a near-death experience. Two different studies conducted on cardiac arrest patients who died and were resuscitated reported findings of 11% and 18% of patients had a NDE.
Scientists tend to be skeptical of near-death experiences and any research of the phenomenon. Modern science is pretty certain these people are deluding themselves. Their opinion is that these NDEs are a product of brain death and entirely symptomatic of what would occur as the brain lost its supply of oxygen. It’s a reasonable assertion based on the current model of medicine. And that’s why the medical community doesn’t officially recognize near death experiences. To them, it’s not heaven. It’s just the last electrical activity of your neurons misfiring. If you ask a neuroscientist they’ll tell you it’s nearly identical to what happens to the brain activity of folks who overdose on ketamine. They tend to believe what a person experiences is like a dream your dying mind tries to make sense of while it’s happening and it creates these experiences as its last act.
There are number of nurses who tend to believe what their patients describe is real. From nurses I’ve spoken with over the years their “anecdotal research” seems to be in favor of the patients’ accounts over the doctors’ reports. Also, there’s Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon at Harvard Medical School. He believed the brain was solely responsible for consciousness. And then he died. He had a near death experience, came back from the other side and he promptly changed his whole life. He’s dedicated his remaining time to researching NDEs. He wants to do credible research. Only problem is, as soon as he started his research he lost his credibility as a doctor since he was going against established medical opinion.
Thankfully, he’s not alone. The University of Virginia has published numerous studies and papers on NDEs. As well, a Dutch cardiologist, Pim van Lommel, has published his twenty years of research in the field in the British medical journal Lancet. However, the medical community still doesn’t recognize that consciousness can exist outside the body.
I’ve yet to die or have a near death experience, so I have no personal knowledge of what it’s like and no way to know if what these people describe is accurate or credible. The only thing I keep returning to is the commonness of their experiences. Whether it’s brain death or your soul leaving your body, an interesting thing that gets overlooked is how near-death experiences not only share the same basic storyline but people tend to drastically change their lives in very similar ways. It doesn’t matter what you believe about the afterlife or consciousness, we can all learn something about living from looking at near-death experiences.
So… other than possibly seeing Elvis, what does a near death experience feel like?
After recording hundreds and hundreds of cases, Dr. Raymond Moody outlined:
1. A strange sound: A buzzing or ringing noise, while having a sense of being dead.
2. Peace and Painlessness: While people are dying, they may experience intense pain, but as soon as they leave their body the pain vanishes and they experience peace.
3. Out-of-body Experience: The dying often have the sensation of rising up and floating above their own body while it is surrounded by a medical team, and watching it down below, while feeling comfortable. They experience the feeling of being in a spiritual body that appears to be a sort of living energy field.
4. The Tunnel Experience: The next experience is that of being drawn into darkness through a tunnel, at an extremely high speed, until reaching a realm of radiant golden-white light. Also, although they sometimes report feeling scared, they do not sense that they were on the way to hell or that they fell into it.
5. Rising rapidly into the heavens: Instead of a tunnel, some people report rising suddenly into the heavens and seeing the Earth and the celestial sphere as they would be seen by astronauts in space.
6. People of Light: Once on the other side of the tunnel, or after they have risen into the heavens, the dying meet people who glow with an inner light. Often they find that friends and relatives who have already died are there to greet them.
7. The Being of Light: After meeting the people of light, the dying person often meets a powerful spiritual being, whom some have identified as God, Jesus, or some other religious figure. (…like Elvis)
8. The Life Review: The Being of Light presents the dying with a panoramic review of everything they have ever done. That is, they relive every act they have ever done to other people and come away feeling that Love is the most important thing in life.
9. Reluctance to Return: The Being of Light sometimes tells the dying that they must return to life. Other times, they are given a choice of staying or returning. In either case, they are reluctant to return. The people who choose to return do so only because of loved ones they do not wish to leave behind.
Personally, I don’t think it matters if near death experiences are real or not. Maybe the person dies and moves toward the light. Maybe it’s a tunnel effect based on the death of their brain activity. To me, it doesn’t matter because the results tend to be the same. The Life Review section seems rather bizarre and unlikely to be a symptom of brain death. But really, who knows? The key aspect of NDEs is that when the formerly dead person returns to life they place a premium of importance on Love. And they recognize the need to overcome Fear. It doesn’t matter if they see Elvis or not.
Apparently, the great wisdom of the universe is already here on Earth.
“All you need is Love.” –The Beatles
“We have nothing to fear but Fear itself.” –President Franklin D. Roosevelt
That’s the sort of wisdom I can get behind. If only more scientists and religious speakers spoke like that, simple, clear and not loaded down with obtuse scientific language or religious traditions of guilt and shame. If this is the great wisdom of the beyond I see why folks who come back from the other side generally feel braver, calmer and make lasting changes in their lives. Life is actually quite simple. You don’t need to die to learn how to live. Just remember… Love yourself and everyone else and you’ve got nothing to fear.