Crossing The River: Spiritual Experiences at the Point of Death 
by Steve Taylor  

The basics of the near-death experience (or NDE) are probably familiar to most readers of this
article already. Many people who clinically die for a short time - when their
breathing and their hearts have stopped and their brains have shown no electric
activity - find that their consciousness continues. They undergo an incredibly
blissful and exhilarating experience, which is so powerful that they may not
actually want to return to life and perhaps even be angry with the doctors who
have resuscitated them. 

These experiences first came to wide public attention during the 1970s, with the research of
psychologists such as Raymond Moody. However, examples of them have been
recorded throughout human history, beginning with Plato's account of in The
Republic of a soldier who was apparently killed in battle, and taken home to be
buried. Fortunately for him, he revived on the funeral pyre, and stated that
while unconscious he had left his body and traveled to strange country where he
had seen other dead soldiers choosing their next life. 

Due to the advances of modern medicine (particularly in resuscitation techniques) reports
of the experiences have become very widespread over recent decades. Different
studies have found that between 12% and 43% of people who were clinically dead
and then revived have had the experience. Typically, it begins with a feeling of
separation from the body (in many cases an out-of-body experience in which you
look down on “yourself” from above), followed by a journey through a dark
passage towards a place of light. There is often a “life-review” in which all
the events and experiences of your life flash before you. Often people meet
deceased relatives or beings of light, who sometimes persuade them that “It's
not your time yet” (as a friend of mine who “died” during a heart operation was
told by his father), and persuade them to return to their
bodies. 

However, one of the most significant aspects of NDEs, as I see it, is that they always incorporate
powerful spiritual experiences. When the person leaves his or her body and
travels through the tunnel towards the light, he or she almost always has an
intense sense of well-being, a profound feeling of love, and a sense of the
one-ness and harmony of the universe. One heart attack victim who watched from
above while paramedics tried to restart his heart and then passed through a
tunnel towards a light, commented that, “There is no comparable place in
physical reality to experience such total awareness. The love, protection, joy,
giving sharing and being that I experienced in the Light at that moment was
absolutely overwhelming and pure in its essence.”  Another
person reported that, “It was just pure consciousness. And this enormously
bright light seemed to cradle me. I just seemed to exist in it and be part of it
and be nurtured by it and the feeling just became more and more ecstatic and
glorious and perfect.” Other descriptions of near death experiences contain
phrases such as: “a sense of exultation was accompanied by a feeling of being
very close to the 'source' of light and love”; “Time no longer mattered and
space was filled with bliss - I was bathed in radiant light and immersed in the
aura of the rainbow”; and finally “I was one with pure light and love - I was
one with God and at the same time one with everything.” 

These are clearly experiences of the formless Void, the brilliant radiance of pure Spirit.
They are practically indistinguishable from the powerful spiritual experiences
described by great mystics like Plotinus, Meister Eckhart or Ramakrishna. Most
people only rarely experience these states during their actual lives, if at all,
although we might sometimes have less intense variants of them as a result of
meditation, yoga, sex or relaxation. (And sometimes, of course, for no apparent
reason.) But these intense spiritual states are always, it seems, a feature of
the near death experience. 

But why should the near death experience also be a powerful spiritual experience? To answer this, we need to look at the
basic causes of spiritual experiences. As I see it, there are two of these. The
first is what you could call “disrupting homeostasis.” Throughout history people
have tried to induce mystical experiences (or higher states of consciousness) by
disrupting the normal homeostasis of the human organism. Homeostasis includes
such factors as body temperature, blood sugar, salt concentration, and so on,
all of which must remain at - or quickly return to - an optimum level. To a
large extent our bodies maintain homeostasis automatically, by breathing,
digesting food, sweating and shivering, for example. And we also help the
process by performing physical functions like eating, drinking and sleeping. But
when we don't satisfy these needs and put our bodies “out of homeostasis”, it's
possible that we'll experience a higher state of consciousness. This is why many
spiritual and shamanic traditions make use of practices like fasting, sleep
deprivation, altered breathing (such as hyperventilation), drug-taking, pain,
dancing, and so on. Our normal state of consciousness seems to be linked to
homeostasis, perhaps because, from the standpoint of survival, our normal
consciousness is our “optimum” mode. So when we disrupt homeostasis, we also
disrupt normal consciousness. This doesn't mean that we always have spiritual
experiences, of course - we've all had many times in our lives where we've been
hungry, in pain or deprived of sleep without experiencing anything apart from
discomfort. But in the right conditions - usually in the setting of a ritual or
in the context of a religious tradition - they certainly can occur.

The second main source of spiritual experiences is, I believe, connected to
life-energy, or the energy of our being. Spiritual experiences can occur when
there is a higher than usual concentration of life-energy inside us, and when
this energy becomes much more “stilled” than normal. This is why meditation
often generates spiritual experiences, for example. Normally, in everyday life,
there is a continual “outflow” of life-energy. We expend it through the
“thought-chatter” which hurtles through our minds whenever they aren't occupied.
We expend it in mental effort, when we focus our attention on the tasks and
chores which fill our lives, be it driving a car, doing a crossword, building a
house or inputting information into a computer. We expend it in
information-processing, the effort we make to process all of the sights and
sounds around us at every moment, and the information which comes our way from
the media, books, the internet or just from other people who we talk to. And
finally, our life-energy fuels the functioning of our bodies. Our vital organs
and other physiological mechanisms need life-energy to keep
working. 

But when a person sits down to meditate, she stops (or at least reduces) all of these “outflows”. She sits in quietness with her eyes
closed, and so doesn't have to process any information. She stops making any
mental efforts, apart from maybe the effort of keeping her attention focused on
a mantra. As she becomes relaxed her body becomes more still too, as her
breathing slows down and her blood pressure falls. And most importantly, if she
has a successful meditation, her thought-chatter begins to fade away too. Her
mind becomes still rather than full of a chaos of thoughts, which stops what is
probably the biggest single “outflow” of
energy. 

The end effect of this is that, after a successful meditation, there is an intense inner
concentration of life-energy. And this life-energy is also still, rather than
disturbed by what Meister Eckhart called the “storm of inward thought.” Now the
meditator's being is like the still surface of a lake rather than a stormy sea.
And this intensification and stillness of life-energy usually results in a
spiritual experience - a sense of inner well-being, a heightened awareness of
the world, a sense of harmony, oneness and meaning. 

This helps to explain why activities listening to music, contemplating nature or works of art,
sex, or certain sports (like long-distance running or swimming) can sometimes
bring spiritual experiences. They all provide a strong focus for the attention -
the music, the beauty of nature or art, the pleasure of sex and the game - which
acts like a mantra in meditation, quietening the “storm of inward thought” and
conserving life-energy. 

And this also helps to explain why spiritual experiences occur at the point of death. At the moment
of death, it seems, our life-energy (or spirit, if you like) departs from the
material body. The consciousness and the life-energy which constitute our being
still exist, but are no longer tied to the body. There's an immediate “freeing”
of life-energy due to the fact that the energy no longer has to fuel the body's
physiological functioning. Most people who have near death experiences feel that
they still have a body of some form, but a lighter and less crude one (this may
be what esoteric traditions have called the energy body, or the astral body),
which probably monopolizes less life-energy. It's likely that at the point of
death there will be a smaller “outflow” of life-energy from the ego too. After
the experience of dying - perhaps involving periods of unconsciousness, or of
pain and trauma - the ego-mind is likely to be much more subdued and still than
normal. The process of dying is often a process of detachment as well. In
ordinary life, our identity is bound up with a whole host of extraneous things:
possessions, status, knowledge we've accumulated, hopes, beliefs etc. In the
process of dying - particularly if it's a drawn out process - people often let
go of these attachments, realizing that they can't take them with them and that
their true identity lies apart from them. These attachments can be seen as
“psychic structures” which also use up life-energy and create disturbance inside
our being, and so being released them from them would also create a higher
intensity and stillness of life-energy. 

The good news is that this intense spiritual experience - of the formless Void which is the radiant and
blissful essence of reality - may be waiting for all of us when we die. Many
mystics have told us that there's no reason to be afraid of death, not just
because life continues but because the process of “dropping off” the material
body is a euphoric, liberating experience. D.H. Lawrence saw death as the
beginning of a “great adventure” in which - as he writes in his poem “Gladness
of Death” - “the winds of the afterwards kiss us into the blossom of manhood.”
After the painful experience of death there is, he writes, “an after-gladness, a
strange joy.” In the same way, Walt Whitman heard “Whispers of heavenly death”
around him, and wrote that “to die is different from what any one supposed, and
luckier.” Or as the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes our initial experience of
death: 

Your respiration ceases, all phenomena will become empty and utterly naked like space. [At the same time] a naked awareness will arise, not
extraneous [to yourself], but radiant, empty and without horizon or center. This
intrinsic awareness, manifest in a great mass of light, in which radiance and
emptiness are indivisible, is the Buddha [nature] of unchanging light, beyond
birth or death. 

This spiritual state may not last indefinitely - after a certain amount of time, it seems, we reach a more “crude” state of
existence, which is in some ways similar to our life on earth, although more
subtle and spiritual. However, it's clear that the horror and trepidation which
many people feel when they think about death is
misplaced.

___________________

Steve Taylor is the author of Waking From Sleep (Hay House), described by Eckhart Tolle as ‘One of the best books
on spiritual awakening I have come across. An important contribution to shift in
consciousness which is happening at the moment on this planet.’ He lives in
Manchester, England, with his three young children, and is a psychology lecturer
at Leeds Metropolitan University. His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com

__._,_.___

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