In my Voices column of Oct. 24, 2009, I wrote about a conference I had attended on near-death experience. In the process, I made passing reference to my own near-death experience when I was a child. Since then, a number of readers asked me to describe the experience, so here it is.
When I was 7 years old, I drowned in a lake near Branchville, N.J. In retrospect, I was too old not to have known how to swim, but I didn’t. As a result, I waded out to a point where the lake bottom dropped off sharply, and there I lost my footing. I came up once, just long enough to scream, and then I sank to the bottom. Fortunately, my mother heard my yell, and ran out from the cottage in time to see what was happening. Fully dressed, she ran into the water, dived down, dragged me out, and got me breathing again.
What makes the incident more memorable than other close calls I’ve had in my life was the fact that, although my body was at the bottom of the lake, I was observing the scene from the top of a nearby birch tree. I watched as my mother, wearing her red dress, ran down the stairs from the cabin, jumped into the water, and hauled me out. She then invented a form of CPR by throwing me face down over a log, and pressing on my back to force the water from my lungs. That action got me breathing again, and then I was back in my very painful body. I’ve always felt great gratitude to my mother for twice giving me life.
For years after that, I had a recurring dream. I was sinking down, but looking up at a light surrounded by what I took to be dark, swirling water. In my dream, the light was the light at the water’s surface, surrounded by the lake’s roiling darkness. It was not until I was an adult, and swam down into that same lake to re-examine the experience, that I realized the view up to the surface wasn’t like my dreams at all. Still, it took years after that for me to recognize the tunnel and the light were classic aspects of a near-death experience.
Confusion about the tunnel and the light aside, my most important memory has been the sustained knowledge that we are not only our bodies, but a consciousness that can leave our dying body and still maintain our “selfness,” and sustain a point of view. Being 7, I didn’t question the remarkable nature of this discovery. In my naivete, I just assumed that was the way things worked; when you die, your soul continues to live. And my Sunday school training confirmed that belief. No big deal.
My fascination with near-death experiences has stayed with me, however, to the extent that now I’m in the throes of completing a doctoral project on the subject at Bangor Theological Seminary. In the process, I’ve discovered some fundamental truths about the near-death experience:
— Near-death experiences are not rare, as you might expect. With the increased medical capabilities for restarting the heart of someone clinically dead, many, many people have experienced their souls leaving their bodies and the visions that accompany that experience. George Gallup estimated that as much as 5 percent of the U.S. population has had a near-death experience. That would represent about 15 million people in this country alone.
— Many near-death experiencers have gone further than my own experience describes. Those who go through the tunnel toward the light often are met by “beings of light,” who they sometimes describe as deceased relatives, angels, Jesus, or God. They describe, as well, being wrapped in indescribable love. Most are very disappointed to learn that it is not yet their time to die, and they must return to what is often a damaged, pain-filled body.
— Though there are cultural and interpretative differences in the near-death experience descriptions provided by people of different religions and traditions, most reports are basically the same; whether Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, or Christian, the experience is fundamentally the same.
This third point creates, for some fundamentalists, an insurmountable barrier to accepting the evidence of the near-death experience. For fundamentalists of whatever stripe, it’s not the way their tradition teaches that death should happen, and so they reject a window into the afterlife that, I believe, God provides us for a reason. The near-death experience should increase our faith in the soul’s immortality, and nothing less.
Some doctors argue that the near-death experience is a trick of the dying brain, and that the tunnel and the light are merely the narrowing of peripheral vision. They can’t explain, however, the fact that near-death experiencers see and hear from a point of view outside their body — the mother pulling her child from the water, or the paramedics struggling to start the heart again, or the relatives sobbing in the next room — before their soul begins its journey into the light.
Let me add one final thought for those who think the near-death experience resolves doctrinal questions about heaven and hell, reincarnation, resurrection, final judgment, and the like. This experience is only a glimpse of the first step the soul takes after the body dies. What happens after that is an experience reserved for those who have truly died.
But near-death experiences do offer a clue that there may be judgment, or self-judgment, to follow. Many who experience this phenomenon go through a comprehensive life review of what they have done, both good and bad, with their time on Earth. Some report seeing how they hurt others through the other person’s eyes. Needless to say, this can be a very painful experience. There are consequences for everything we do. That, too, is a lesson from the light.
Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.