Monday, November 19, 2012

Tao of Psychology Part 3: Near Death Experiences

First, some housekeeping stuff. I mostly rewrote "The Sins of Society" and changed "Society" to "Civilization". After I started writing some real articles, it occurred to me that my original list was lacking in many ways, so I completely reorganized it. I've also added a quote to the article on Milton Erickson, as well as some relevant links (and some pdfs) for several articles. I'll probably end up re-writing a lot of things later, or at least do some editing.

Previously I mentioned that I had decided to do some further study into near-death experiences (or NDE for short) in search of the 'holy grail of NLP' that so many have failed to find, or at least some clues that might point the way. NDEs turned out to be a fascinating subject. Although not everyone who has a "close call" with death necessarily has an NDE, those who do report similar experiences regardless of religious orientation or ethnic background. Themes of NDEs also appear in religious texts from around the world, including the Bible and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This strongly suggested a common psychological grounding in the experience and the results of those experiences.

What is an NDE?

While there is no precise definition for what an NDE is (in fact some people have them without having a 'close call' experience at all), there are several common features of the experience which distinguish NDEs from other more common psychological states. NDEers (people who have had an NDE) often report having communicated with a 'higher being' of some sort, who acts as a supportive guide during the experience. They also frequently report having a "life review" (ie "your life flashed before your eyes") guided by the 'higher being(s)'. Finally, most NDEers show clear evidence of profound psychological change. After the experience, they find themselves more optimistic, more connected to the universe, and that their interests change in particular ways. Not only do they change, but in studying NDEers it was found that their positive attitude towards life was contagious; people who spent lots of time around NDEers became like them.

Spirit Guides

One common theme in NDEs is the appearance of 'spirit guides', often described as 'higher beings' with which the NDEer is able to communicate telepathically. Spirit guides appear in a multitude of different forms largely depending on what a given person expects or would find acceptable. Sometimes they appear as an animal, sometimes as a bearded old man, sometimes as a familiar person. Often there is only one spirit guide, but sometimes there are many. Almost always, the spirit guide is described as displaying 'supernatural colors' either in their eyes, or their clothes, or perhaps in the environment in which they appear. Sometimes the spirit guide is never seen at all, just heard. In every case, though, the spirit guide(s) acts as support and helps the person to understand what they are experiencing.

The Life Review

Probably the most well known feature of an NDE is the life review, described as "your life flashing before your eyes". There is much more to it than that, however. Sometimes it's more like a movie showing one thing at a time. Sometimes the events of the person's life are scattered in front of them like an ethereal picture gallery. Sometimes they see their life as a timeline from left to right. Sometimes their entire lifetime presents as a single moment.

In all cases though, they experience their whole life, in the first person and from the first person perspectives of everyone they've ever had contact with, as well as from a third, 'omniscient' perspective. They relive every pain, every joy, every confusion, as well as those of everyone else they've ever met. They see, nay, experience directly, the consequences of everything they have ever done. A spirit guide (or guides) usually acts as support during this process to help the person tolerate the experience and to understand it better. Everyone who has experienced the life review reports that what they saw as most important in the life review were what they would normally have considered unimportant, or hardly even remembered. The smallest look or gesture, the smallest act of kindness or the smallest dismissal. These are shown to be what is truly meaningful.

Although the Bible accounts that you are judged at the time of death, it is not the spirit guide nor any god which 'judges' you. The sort of blaming 'judgment' preached by religion and which you find in courts of law does not occur at all. Instead, you are the judge of your own life, not to judge as 'good' or 'bad', but rather to see how your life as lived versus what was actually possible. You are made to understand fully, and to decide if the life you lived was true to yourself.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead mentions this as being a glimpse of enlightenment, in which the person is finally able to see the truth, for the first time for anyone who does not achieve enlightenment in life. Often at the end of the experience, the NDEer experiences their connection with the universe, which they describe as 'everything being made of love' or that everything is love in its very substance. The life review is probably the most profound experience associated with NDEs in addition to being the most well known. Those who live to speak of the experience report a much greater appreciation for life in general.

Changes in NDEers

Besides becoming more optimistic and gaining greater appreciation for life, NDEers also report changes in their interests in general. They tend to focus more on work they consider meaningful and to lose interest in money, getting laid, or other materialistic or self-serving ends. They lose interest in fiction (except perhaps for masterworks) and gain more interest in non-fiction, especially when it contributes to their work. They also virtually always become interested in helping others in some way, or benefiting humanity and living things in general.

NDE-equivalent Experiences

As I mentioned before, not all people who have an NDE are near death. Generally, however, they only occur during either serious physical or emotional distress. Eckhart Tolle, for example, had an NDE-equivalent experience during an episode of extreme depression, following which he spent a year on a park bench admiring the wonder of life before becoming a spiritual teacher. He reports a deep connection to "The Void", and his theory of psychology also mirrors some others that I'll be discussing in the next two articles.

The author of "The Shack" was suffering from guilt and loss of his daughter who had been kidnapped and murdered. He went back to the shack in the woods where she had been killed years afterwards, had an NDE-equiv in which he saw "god" as a black woman (who was referred to as "Papa"), the 'holy ghost' as an ephemeral woman with a supernatural-colored shifting garment, and Jesus, who was more 'normal' and relatable. They ultimately led him to closure and a greater appreciation for life.

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the "Conversations with God" series, had a more mundane existential crisis, during which he found himself involuntarily writing responses to his questions. The mystery source of his writing identified itself as "God" and of course led to writing all those books. His revelations in that process were obviously a part of his own psyche, but they resonate strongly with other NDE experiences and represent probably the most extensive record of an NDE yet recorded.

Milton Erickson and NDEs

Milton Erickson himself had an NDE, due to a case of poliomyelitis which he contracted when he was 18. Incidentally it was also his first profound experience with trance, and probably influenced his methods of therapy and his view of life. A few of Erickson's cases also displayed NDE-like experiences during trance.

One that I can remember vividly was a woman who met a 'spirit guide' animal (in the form of a peacock) which she described as being of 'supernatural colors', and then later she 'went diving' into an ocean where she dug up 'treasures' and brought them back to shore. Apparently her whole body "shimmered" during the entire experience, although she was rather unusual in general. Erickson also reported that many of his students who worked with him for a long time described going to "The Void" at one point or another and having an experience of profound peace which carried over afterwards.

Many NDEs, and especially the NDE-equivalent experiences, are also clearly hypnotic in character. Neale Donald Walsch, for example, communicated with god via automatic writing, a variant of ideomotor activity which Erickson used frequently for a similar purpose. In "The Shack" (the real author is anonymous) his description of his experience suggests that he hallucinated it, probably with time distortion which could make a few minutes seem like a whole week of experience. Many people who experience a life review in extreme situations (like drowning) also report the experience seeming like hours but occurring in only moments. Time distortion, ideomotor activity and hallucination are all hypnotic phenomena.

Closing Thoughts

While I did find some striking similarities and connections between NDEs and Erickson's work, I was not able to find anything consistent or applicable that could explain what was actually going on or how to repeat it. I was certain that NDEs somehow held the key to psychological health and spiritual integration and thus to understanding NLP from a broad perspective, but extracting that truth would require finer distinctions of the process than what was available.

At the time, I had been procrastinating reading up on Internal Family Systems Therapy, a method of psychology which I had become fairly familiar with from the rantings of Stefan Molyneux. Stefan's theory of morality, which is more logical fallacy and rhetoric than anything else, along with his obnoxious personality in general, had previously put me off of investigating IFS further. After I ran into a dead end with NDEs, however, I decided I had nothing to lose by picking up Dr. Schwartz's book. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did Dr. Schwartz recognize Erickson, Bandler, Grinder, and Virginia Satir, but he also had a brilliant structural theory of psychology which he built solely from listening to what his patients told him about their experience. It turns out, at least in my opinion, that IFS therapy forms half of the key, both to understanding NDEs and to unifying NLP and Erickson's work, which will be the topic of the next two (or more) articles.

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