PureInsight | January 5, 2001
The NDE seems to have a profound similarity to some varieties of mystical experience.
The feeling of being at peace and blissfully unafraid can be compared to the joy of the mystic who manages to transcend himself or herself and be in union with God:
The necessity of ego death
An important way of experiencing symbolic death during transformation is the ego death. During the process of spiritual emergence, a person moves from a relatively limited way of being to a new, expanded condition. Often, in order to complete this shift, it is necessary for an old mode of existence to 'die' in order to make way for a new self; the ego must be destroyed before a larger self-definition becomes available. This is known as ego death. This is not the death of the ego that is necessary to handle daily reality; it is the death of old personality structures and unsuccessful ways of being in the world, which is necessary for the advent of a happier and freer existence. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy writes, 'No creature can attain a higher level of nature without ceasing to exist.'
Ego death can happen gradually, over a long period of time, or it may occur suddenly and with great force. Although it is one of the most beneficial, most healing events in spiritual evolution, it can seem disastrous. During this stage, the dying process can sometimes feel very real, as though it were no longer a symbolic experience but instead a true biological disaster. Usually, one cannot yet see that waiting on the other side of what feels like total destruction of the ego is a broader, more encompassing sense of self.
From 'The Stormy Search for the Self' by Christina and Stanislav Grof.
Because many of us are more accustomed to the outward trappings of formalised Christian religion, we often forget that the transcendent state is at its heart. Witness this description by a Christian, the Blessed Jan Van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381) who wrote:
Die to live in God
To comprehend and to understand God above all similitudes, as he is in himself, is to be God with God, without intermediary (but) whoever wishes to understand this must have died to himself, and must live in God, and must run his gaze to the eternal Light in the ground of his spirit, where the hidden truth reveals itself without means. This brightness is so great that the loving contemplative, in his ground wherein he rests, sees and feels nothing but an incomprehensible Light; and through that simple Nudity which enfolds all things, he finds himself, and feels himself, to be that same Light by which he sees, and nothing else.
Quoted in 'The Little Book of Life and Death' by Douglas Harding.
In this selfless state, a number of discoveries can be experienced. Martin Nathanael, who nearly drowned at the age of seven after falling out of a boat, believes that as a result he came to understand in later life:
All creatures one in essence
- that I am not this body; I inhabit a body which exists for my use;
- that my sense of personal identity is not dependent on the body;
- that I have subtle senses which bypass the brain and the physical sense-organs and whose modes of perception are more penetrating and versatile;
- that there is one consciousness, one life, which becomes differentiated through the various forms of life, which makes all creatures one in essence;
- that my essential nature is indestructible, invulnerable, immortal;
- that everything I do and how I respond to events is inwardly recorded;
- that there is a mighty, pure and loving Presence, for whom no words can do justice, who is available to me, especially in moments of crisis and danger.
From the New Humanity journal (subs. £14 from 51a York Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive, London SW11 4BP).
Walter Pahnke has made a comparative study of the transcendental experiences of mystics and religious teachers through the ages:
Characteristics of a mystical experience
Pahnke's mystical categories reflect the most important common denominators of transcendental states. The sense of oneness or unity with other people, nature, and the entire universe is a necessary condition of cosmic consciousness. Ineffability is another important characteristic; the ineffable quality of the experience can be due to its uniqueness, the intensity of the accompanying emotion, or the inadequacy of our language to describe it. The next typical aspect of mystical experiences is transcendence of time and space. This entails a feeling that the experience is outside of the usual space-time boundaries, beyond the past and future, in eternity and infinity, or in a completely different dimension. Noetic quality is another important feature; individuals are usually convinced that they are in touch with a deeper truth about reality and the nature of existence. Experiences of transcendence are always accompanied by a strong positive affect. This can range from peace, serenity, and tranquillity to an ecstatic rapture not dissimilar to a sexual orgasm of cosmic proportions. Accounts of mystical experiences are also characterized by striking paradoxicality. Many of the statements about such states appear to contradict each other and violate the basic rules of Aristotelian logic. One more aspect of these experiences deserves special notice, namely the sense of objectivity and reality. An individual tuned into cosmic consciousness usually has no doubt that he or she is confronted with the ultimate reality, which is in a way more real than the phenomenal world as it is experienced in a more usual state of consciousness.
From 'The Human Encounter with Death' by Stanislav Grof
and Joan Halifax.
Many of these mystical features can be seen in the testimony of Claire Myers Owens, who began Zen training at the age of 74, and after six years had the following experience when meditating:
Zen meditation banishing fear of death
I slipped out of bed and placed the bed pillows on the floor to begin a meditation unlike any other I had know. My body immediately settled itself into a comfortable and proper posture, I sat with a 'sense of dignity and grandeur - like a mountain'.
I sat on and on - an hour? two hours? in full lotus position - motionless. Gradually my hands melted into each other. My knees were pierced by pain. My back was aching. All this was occurring at some far distance. Trivial matters like pain did not concern me.
As time passed my body grew heavier than heavy, like some great rock embedded in the earth, like some great tree strongly rooted in the deep, immovable - indestructible.
I wanted never again to move my body, never again to change anything. Any state into which I might move, a state of power - wealth - fame - love - passion - could not compare with the serene state of being I was in at this moment. It was peace - deep unutterable peace.
I seemed to have arrived at the end of a long journey, the end of a rough road that had offered many inspiring views along the way. It was a beautiful plateau on which I might rest indefinitely, at which I had arrived after years of striving on the path.
I felt no desire, no ambition, no regrets. No words can describe such perfection, such completeness, fulfilment and finality.
I was intensely aware of my body yet I felt suspended bodiless in a new height. Everything within me seemed to vibrate gently in a golden light. Then everything within me was in utter stillness - like an eternal stillness. Nothing anywhere except ineffable quietness and inexpressible stillness.
I did not feel the self fuse with the absolute. I felt that the whole universe - everything that is - the uncreated - changeless, beginningless - everlasting - was in me - was me - for a fleeting forever.
Everything was intangible, invisible, formless, and colourless - beyond the reach of the senses, above the grasp of conceptual thinking, beyond words - yet real as only reality can be. Everything was nothingness. Nothingness was everythingness.
Was it the end of everything or the beginning for me? Was it a glimpse of the bliss of life after death? All fear of death vanished right away - forever.
From 'Zen and the Lady' by Claire Myers Owens, Baratra Books,
quoted in 'A Practical Guide to Death and Dying' by John White.