On Coast to Coast AM on Sunday night, they finally featured a topic that I was really interested in: Near Death Experiences. I can't remember when I first became interested in this subject, but it was sometime in the late 1980s. The interest was further encouraged by the film Flatliners, which came out in 1990 or 1991, starring Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, and William Baldwin. That movie is about a group of medical students who decide to push the limits of consciousness by "flatlining" their heart rate so they could experience what happens after death, before being electroshocked back into consciousness. The intriguing thing about the movie is that instead of some beautiful paradise or pleasant experience, each are forced to face an issue that they are avoiding. A sort of "life review" with the opportunity to make amends to the people they've harmed or to forgive those who have harmed them.
The "standard events" that a Near Death Experiencer (NDE) goes through include: being in a dark tunnel with a light at the far end of it that grows bigger the closer they approach it; meeting loved ones who have passed over or souls they did not know on earth but felt a strong spiritual bond with; having a life review where they experience exactly what the other person(s) felt being in contact with them (to see how our actions impact other people for good or bad); and being influenced to return back to their bodies to "fulfill their mission" despite strong desires to stay in the spiritual realm.
There are some variations in accounts that I've read, particularly reflecting the individual's spiritual beliefs. Thus, a Christian feels as though the being of light is Jesus, while a Buddhist believes the being of light is Siddhartha "The Buddha" Gautama. During the radio program, a typical Christian called and preached his belief that Jesus was "the only way" for a person to be admitted to heaven. There's always going to be one of those in a radio program like this. The argument is tired and pathetic. I really despise the viewpoint of Jesus as lottery ticket. Its offensive to who Jesus was all about. In case anyone needs a reminder, if one really believes Jesus is all knowing, I think he would be able to sort out the authentic spiritually minded people from those who merely believe because they have an obedient mind that accepts indoctrination or a fear of going to the other place if they don't pretend to believe what they are taught to believe by their conservative church. To any evangelical Christian out there...newsflash: God and Jesus are much more intelligent that you (or I) will ever be, so I'm glad that they are the ones who determine who "gets in" and not you!
As I listened to the narrow-minded Christian evangelical talk his little dogmatic spiel, a thought occurred to me. Perhaps the reason why they insist that their beliefs are the only possible reality is because they feel that they have sacrificed their personal freedoms to an authoritarian and conservative religious leader, they deserve special privileges for that sacrifice, damn it! Why should someone who doesn't follow the same strict rules I've had to obey be allowed into the country club version of heaven? It would be interesting to see what these people would think in the spiritual realm when they see people of all sorts of beliefs being "admitted". It would render all the threats of hellfire and damnation irrelevant. They sacrificed their personal freedoms for NOTHING! Its outrageous!
Well, get over it, bee-yatches. Another person's spiritual birthright has nothing to do with you. We're all eternal beings, here on earth to live out the mission we planned and agreed to. When the mission is complete, we return to the spiritual realm to see how close to the mark we got. If the original definition of "sin" means "to miss the mark", well, that's a lot different than how evangelical and fundamentalist Christians think of the word "SIN." Missing the mark is pretty bad, but not the automatic ticket to hell that fundys make it out to be. All "sin" means is that one got sidetracked or detoured off of the path (of one's true destiny). I'll fess up right now. I'm "off the path"...desperately trying to find my way back on to the path. You know you're off the path when there are few synchronistic flow in your life. When you're on the path, you definitely feel the flow. I haven't felt the flow in ten years. As the Oracle said to me last week, when I decided to leave D.C. a decade ago, I blew out the light on my candle. I've been wandering in the darkness ever since, trying to find my way back on the path.
Before someone reads the above and sees in it an opportunity to "witness" to me, let's just save time. I'm not interested in your narrow-minded version of Christianity. I was exposed to it as a teenager and found it lacking. The truth is...if a guy like me could admire an atheist (as I did as a teenager), be friends with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Druids, Mormons, and all other diverse faiths, why wouldn't an all loving and all knowing God be able to accept them as well? After all, God created all of us. If I am able to accept people in whatever religion or non-religion they participate in, a God who could not accept such diversity would be less perfect than I, and we all know that is not possible. So, I'm not interested in narrow-minded, dogmatic thinking. I'm all about universal spirituality. I could not imagine a spiritual realm without the presence of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, humanists, Mormons, and other religions.
According to people who study NDEs, those who have had these experiences generally change how they view the world and how they behave. There's a general disinterest in religion and an increase in being spiritual. I think its because people who have transcended death and experienced the presence of a loving being, surrounded by passed over loved ones and other souls, its difficult to return to the mindset of "my religion is the only true one." That's the ego's belief: this need to make oneself always in the right religion while anyone who disagrees is in the wrong one. These are the wrong discussions to have with people (the futile attempts to convert someone else to your way of believing).
Ever since I started reading about NDEs, I've actually wanted to have my own experience. Seriously, I would LOVE to experience this. But I don't want to risk a one way ticket in order to have an NDE. Some books teach about how to have an out of body experience, but it sounds like a lot of work. Perhaps when I have more discipline, I'll experiment with a kind of deep meditative practice that leads to this possibility. The one aspect of NDEs that I believe would be the most painful is the Life Review. None of us perfectly handle every situation we come across. There's always going to be some moment when we did not treat another person the way we should have.
In a Life Review, we experience the feelings of everyone we ever come across, and since we don't have an ego filter that's good at denial, it would be very painful indeed to experience such a thing as a Life Review. However, the purpose of a Life Review is not to punish us because of our "sins" (missing the mark). Its to give us a greater understanding, which is this: we are all connected; if I hurt you, I ultimately hurt myself. The fact that EVERY religion on earth (and even atheistic science, the Church of Satan, Wicca, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency) has its own version of the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Science's version is: "For each and every action is an equal and opposite reaction"; the concept of karma is rooted in this belief; and the CIA has its own word for the same thing. They call it "blowback").
In our ideal, spiritual state of being, we would only act after deliberation about how our actions would affect the other person. The Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path brilliantly describes eight ways of being to keep one in alignment with the Golden Rule (such as "right speech", "right action", and "right livelihood" to name a few). Ever since I learned about the Life Review, I have found it to be the most brilliant "system of judgment" that a perfect being such as God could devise for our spiritual development. The problem with most evangelical / fundamentalist types is that they are about authoritarian (some might say totalitarian) control and obedience. Therefore, its natural to assume that this is how they view God: a totalitarian dictator with a large ego that takes pleasure in punishing humans for our various sins. What's the point in that?
From the perspective of a guy who believes in evolution, reincarnation, and "eternal progression", the Life Review is a perfect system of judgement, because God has us experience our behaviour from the standpoint of other people so we can see how we affect other people for better or worse. As painful as some of these lessons might be, it actually helps us learn compassion, patience, and unconditional love. Isn't that a better way to teach us, to help us grow towards spiritual "perfection" than the punishment-based system of the fundamentalists? In their view, we have no opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to become better. We're punished for eternity for "missing the mark." I feel sorry for people trapped in such nightmarish theological viewpoints. Their fearmongering of a wrathful God has no affect on me, because I'm not the insecure and ignorant teenager I once was. Fortunately, though, I was able to see through the hypocrisy during those times of indoctrination by protestant youth group leaders of the Army base where my dad was stationed in Germany. I grew up in a loving, close-knit church that never spoke ill of any other religion, even of our "Mormon cousins." Its hard to replace unconditional love with a judgmental, condemning belief system.
The best book I've read about NDEs is by Betty Eadie, Embraced By the Light. I had happened to see her describe her experience on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1993 or 1994. This was actually amazing that I was able to do that, because I was living in Italy at the time and didn't watch a lot of TV. After I saw this show, I made a mental note to pick up her book the next time I was in Naples (the Navy base had an American-run bookstore with a decent selection). When I did buy it, I didn't read the whole thing all the way through. I skipped around. However, on my vacation to South Africa, this was one book that I happened to bring along with me. Weird!
After being robbed at knifepoint on my second night in Johannesburg, I had four or five nights left during my stay and because everyone advised not to be outside after sunset, I decided to play it safe for the rest of my vacation. Since it was the Southern Hemisphere winter, the sun set around 6 p.m. or so. What was I to do for several hours in the evening? I was confined to my lonely hotel room. Many of the TV channels were either in African languages or Afrikaans. That book kept me company as I read through the whole thing for the rest of the evenings I was on vacation. I'm glad that I had brought it along to read. It was actually the most appropriate book to help with the healing (and forgiveness) process. One thing that kept coming to my mind as I read the book was, "Would I trade places with any of my robbers?" After my tour of Soweto, where I had never seen such poverty before, I knew that I lived like a king compared to most of the people who lived in South Africa. I would not trade places with any of the seven men who robbed me.
To this day, I consider my robbery experience in South Africa to be my "rebirth" experience. Evangelicals and fundamentalists like to call themselves "Born Again Christians" and I can understand the sentiment. In this violent criminal act, I questioned the very nature of evil. I was able to transcend the inconvenience this event caused for me personally and see how decades of entrenched poverty by an evil economic and segregated political system led these men to a desperation that causes them to resort to crime in order to live. A year or two ago, I saw the excellent South African film Jerusalema, which is about a criminal warlord in the slums of Johannesburg. As I watched it and saw similar scenes to what I experienced personally, I felt like God was giving me a glimpse into the brutal life of the men who robbed me. Some of them might not have lived very long. I returned unharmed back to my command in Italy. When word got around my ship about what happened to me in South Africa, many shipmates said things like, "It sucks to be you!" or "I'd rather die than have them rob me of everything!" It was the ignorance talking. It was difficult to convey what I actually felt about my experience.
I knew, though, that I had a new lease on life. Those robbers could have taken my life. I could have been murdered on the streets of Johannesburg at the age of 22. My parents would have been devastated, particularly my mother who did not want me to vacation there. Had my life ended that August 1994, I would not have met one of my best friends, Nathan, bought my first car, lived and worked on an aircraft carrier, gone to college, intern in Washington, D.C., and all the other events that have happened since then. Sometimes I wonder if the men who robbed me would experience a good or bad life review when it concerns how they acted towards me. During the brief few seconds that the robbery happened, it was the most terrifying experience of my life. But in the years since, the incident actually plays in my mind as a "spiritual baptism by fire" sort of event that feels destined to happen because of the man it made me become. I like the man that I became in the aftermath of that event. I'm still committed to economic equality and closing the disparity gap, towards racial justice, and restorative justice (a big fan of truth and reconciliation).
I know that there are those who believe that people who have NDEs are experiencing a chemical reaction in their brains from the lack of oxygen, but I find that explanation too trite for what happens in the lives of people who have come back from the spiritual realm to share what they saw and experienced. As I told one friend who's a skeptic, these descriptions display a remarkable consistency among diverse groups of people. Its different from a dream, because dreams often don't make sense after you've waken up and analyzed them. Its all about symbols and metaphors. NDEs is pretty straight forward. Basically, the ultimate message is that we are here to learn and grow. We will experience how we treat other people and it won't be a pleasant experience (especially for School Marm!). We can make it a pleasant experience if we strive to live each day with the Golden Rule in mind. I know that I try to live up to this ideal in my day to day life. I'm not perfect, but I'm striving to hit my mark.