Integrating and Assimilating Near-Death Experiences
"The phenomenon of the NDE, in my view, is not merely an evolutionary catalyst but a teaching about life, love, and the human potential that all interested persons could draw upon actively now in order to enrich their lives and to hasten their own progress toward enlightenment."
—Kenneth Ring, Ph.D
Lessons from the Light:
What We Can Learn from the
Life after near death can be challenging. Integration and assimilation can take time, and typically do. I often make the point that it's not necessary to nearly die to explore the implications of such experiences in everyday living. All of us, I believe, can benefit from the lessons that have been thrust upon those who have had an NDE: everything and everybody are connected, every thought has an impact on oneself and others, and consciousness as independent of brain and body.
Popular books and documentaries tend to focus on the positive changes in outlook on life, religious beliefs, values, and behavior. For instance, many if not most NDErs say they have no fear of death as a result of their experience. Even so, the aftermath of an NDE is invariably a trying time for individuals and their relationships, given the great discrepancy typically felt between the luminous infinity of "there" and the subsequent return to a world ("here") fraught with separation, division, and a pervasive sense of diminished being.
I point to three fundamental dilemmas faced by those attempting to adjust to life after a near-death experience. The dilemmas can be thought of as core challenges that comprise the work involved in integrating the experience and embodying its lessons as suggested above by Dr. Kenneth Ring.
The Existential Dilemma
A near-death experience is an existential crisis, insofar as a person is separated in a stark manner from the sense of reality they consider ordinary because they've never questioned it. You don't return as the same person you were before the experience. "It felt I had become another person, but with the same identity," said one individual after an NDE.
Ontology is the branch of philosophy that addresses the nature of being. My friend, the late Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, coined the phrase "ontological shock" to describe profound life experiences that radically challenge your beliefs, your faith, your sense of up and down, really your whole way of being in the world.
The Societal Dilemma
Precisely because what happens in a life-threatening situation is unfamiliar and indescribable, and lies outside normal frameworks of experience, individuals after an NDE often run into difficulty when they try to put their experience into words. Many NDErs are simply not prepared for the skepticism they encounter from medical personnel, friends, family, work colleagues, and even religious figures. It is typical to discover that others are incapable of listening without prejudice and criticism. Retreating into silence can seem to be the only way to cope with the experience of feeling transformed while others remain the same.
The process of accepting and assimilating the NDE cannot move forward until people feel capable of sharing their thoughts and feelings with at least one empathic listener who exhibits interest instead of scorn.
Life after near death very often involves new and often unfamiliar capacities, such as an increase in cognitive potential, including a sudden increase in cognitive processing (greater access to holistic or whole-systems thinking) as well as capacities such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition, increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli including electrical sensitivity, energetic shifts and "kundalini" activation, subjective reports of neurological and brain changes.
These sorts of phenomena can and often do create a greater sense of distance between an NDEr and family, friends, and coworkers.
The Soul Dilemma
No individual "chooses" a near-death experience. Yet many individuals return from a NDE with new insights about what they sometimes describe as "soul-level choices." These are not insights held casually as if picked up from esoteric literature. To the contrary, the insights are borne of profound encounters with universal questions about life, death, and consciousness.
These are "big" ideas, so let's see if we can unpack them a bit.
At one moment, you are living life on terms that seem ordinary, with your sense of identity as I and me securely attached to a mind-body complex associated with a birth certificate, driver license, photographs with people called mom, dad, brother, and sister, and perhaps numerous educational degrees and achievement awards. The next moment, you find yourself in a dimension where time and distance play no role, where people feel complete and whole, and where infinite wisdom and unconditional love are directly experienced. But then comes the widely reported moment of hearing words to this effect: "It's not your time, you've got work to do, you must go back."
Many NDErs return with a sense that they have a calling, a life mission, but in not every case is the assignment spelled out specifically. It's quite common to strongly sense the call is from Soul or Destiny or God. The sense of calling or mission is seldom announced with trumpets, however. Callings can come in and as dreams, waking visions (apparitions) premonitions or intuitions, recurring symptoms, synchronicities and serendipities disguised as happenstance.
The work of integrating an NDE involves a growing willingness to "stayed tuned" to messages that may come in these guises. I have found it productive to proceed with this willingness: "My commitment in the here-now is to stay vigilant, stay in dialogue, stay ready, and be willing to be seized by my callings, by what comes my way."
As Gregg Levoy says in his marvelous book Callings, a call is only a monologue. A return call, a response, creates a dialogue. This understanding can be very powerful in the work of integrating and embodying the NDE here in this Earth neighborhood, which, yes, so often seems to be a place of seemingly separate beings and disconnected events. I am fond of thinking of our intentions to bridge the gap as essential to forming connective tissue that remains supple and vital through regular stretching.
The Triune Dilemma
I use this term for the sense in which the three dilemmas are not separate but overlapping. Ultimately I view the dilemmas as three facets of a larger jewel, and to my mind dilemma is a synonym for challenge.
A near-death experience generally involves trauma, experienced by the mind-body as a threat to survival. Paradoxically, the near-death of the mind-body is at the same time an opening to a far greater, more inclusive sense of identity. The fruition of this greater self correlates with work to be done in healing and resolving the nervous system's imprint of the past threat.
Many NDErs experience what can seem sn unbridgeable divide between "there" (the luminous realm of the NDE) and "here" (the ordinary world to which one returns). The initial sense of being awestruck by the light so easily seems to morph to longing for the light, a pervasive sense of nostalgia ("how can I get back there?"). This is a profound experiential quandary that is usually only exacerbated by the Social Dilemma: people so often just don't get it.
How does one know this work happens here? Because we are here. And very often that means being with memories of that spectacular NDE "place." How to breathe life into memories of that experience as present-time, lived reality: this is a major part of the work of embodying NDE lessons, in my experience. When I allowed myself to open to the life stance of "present and accounted for," I became open to the guidance of Grace, which manifested very often in "ordinary" ways.
I know of a person whose father's last words were, "I need to go to that place where they teach you things." To my ear, this is an exquisite expression of these issues. As Richard Bach wrote in his book Illusions: "Here is a test to find whether your mission on Earth is finished: If you're alive it isn't."
School's in session—next class starting right here, right now.
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