Distressing NDEs as Scary Rites of Passage, #3
26 Monday Oct 2015
This is part #3 of what I presented at the 2015 IANDS conference, somewhat amplified by things I wish there had been time to say in San Antonio. If you missed the previous segments, you might want to scroll down to read the two posts below this.
We need a new post-Copernican viewpoint
Copernicus – Loss of stability. Are we safe?
It was six hundred years ago that Copernicus put forward his earth-demoting observation of the heliocentric solar system. It was not simply a great scientific discovery – it changed everything. We overlook the enormity of that shock to the people of the West –the destruction of their ancient and stable sense of How Things Work, their cosmos, their very earth, their central identity, their orderly universe governing orderly social conventions. Our thoughts and language show how we are still clutching at remnants of those more secure times, still struggling theologically, philosophically, and psychologically to adapt to this “new” reality.
It took until the 20th century for the Roman Catholic Church to acknowledge that Copernicus was onto something, and to apologize to Galileo (350 years after the fact of his house arrest!) But it is not only the Church which lagged. There have been more discoveries since Copernicus, and more epochal changes reshaping reality. It is now our turn to notice how we are resisting changes in the way we think. It is time to let go of our own leftover medieval thinking, time to learn a new bravery with which to face unfamiliarity in our universe.
Quantum mechanics – the loss of substance and certainty
Until six hundred years ago, Europeans thought they were cosmically stable. In the same way, we have thought we were physically solid. We still think that, although quantum physics has told us for a century that nothing is materially substantial. From the perspective of our atoms, neither trees and cows, nor we, are as we think, but are buzzy electromagnetic activities, a spatter of particles in fields made up almost entirely of empty space. Quantum mechanics says that we’re built on indeterminacy, that nothing holds still, and that what is invisible may be more important than what we can see and count and measure. Science itself can fall down rabbit holes. We have lost both our substantiality and our certainty.
Rise of fundamentalisms
Sometimes it all feels like just too much. As one NDEr recalls crying out during a vivid out-of-body experience: “Put me back! Put me back!” It is much the same feeling as that of fundamentalists of varying religions around the globe, who want the safety of the Copernican universe and a clearly stratified feudal society, everything with a place and in its place. But no, we do not have that.
In his blog Entangled States of October 26 (a reference obviously being added to this post well after the conference presentation), Episcopal Bishop Nick Knisely quotes Savannah Cox, writing in Salon about the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky:
A closer look at the Petersburg attraction reveals that the questions raised in the museum are deeply existential, and ones which are steeped in — and troubled by — an atheistic logic: If it is indeed true that Adam and Eve did not literally exist, as science says, then there is no original sin. If there is no original sin, then Jesus did not have to die for it. If Jesus did die, but not for our sins, then why is he our savior? If he is not our savior, then what is he? What are we?
Viewed this way, the Creation Museum becomes less of a clearly demarcated home for the irrational, but rather a metaphysical space for individuals deeply troubled by emerging forms of authoritative rationality. … It is a space where the likeminded can physically enter a mindset that they know, and that they worry — if science has anything to say about it — might one day become unknown. … Indeed, the Creation Museum offers itself as a vital, life-affirming buffer against the spiritually weathering effects, and warnings, of coming worlds.[i]
Depth Psychology – old questions in new vocabulary – Who are we?
As a culture, we were still struggling with all of those issues when along came more information about invisibles: Freud’s id, ego, and superego followed on the heels of quantum interconnectedness. And then Carl Jung’s understanding of the unconscious mind led to his describing a collective unconscious, like an archive of all the experiences of all our ancestors, sorted by pattern. Bursting new information on mind and the human brain has continued jostling with reports of individuation and interdependence, announcing radical changes in how we conceive of ourselves relative to the universe. We are slowly shifting focus about our existence: that it’s not about external forces working on us but about our need to go inside, where we find…who am I? It is not only fundamentalists who long for the familiar security of old ideas with which to cuddle up in the dark. Moving on challenges everyone.
The integration of myths
As Richard Tarnas has noted (see Part #2), we in the developed Western nations, who have for a very long time been governed by the two great myths of Progress and Fall, are now being forced by new existential demands to find new patterns able to synthesize the truths of both myths. We all have our fundamentalist weak spots; so, for example, it is no great surprise that our judgmental views of dNDEs are coming out of pre-Copernican thinking about guilt and punishment.
In researching for this presentation, a Google search for NDE plus horror popped up with a prospectus about an NDE game, of all things. But not only a game, this was—in very large letters—a “3D zombie apocalypse simulator with HUGE POTENTIAL, set in a huge open world. To survive, you have to loot houses, department stores, etc. for food, drink and places to sleep. This game will feature an advanced combat system and a fort building system like no other and it has very good potential if pulled off right.”
Sound like any NDE thinking we know? Here’s why I say it’s pre-Copernican: because the developers and their audience are still thinking death = horror = punishment = NDE. It’s one end of a spectrum of dystopian hopelessness, and it’s horrible.
But then comes their punchline. “NDE”: not dead enough. Zombies.
We are on our own.
Further, we are on our own in a culture of highly developed dualism, of binary thinking, of separations and divisions, where Progress continually wars its often glibly positive battles with medieval thinking about judgment and punishment and hell and Fall, a world of zombies and demons-as-creatures, and the imposition of horrors from an external source.
When are we going to put some credence into the cosmology we know to be truer—the cosmology big enough to include all aspects of consciousness and the human psyche, not only the pretty parts? When will we freely acknowledge a riotous and often ugly collective unconscious in which we seem to be embedded and from which we draw our deepest images? We can begin by facing squarely the evidence that just as beautiful NDEs occur in scoundrels and the spiritually anesthetized as well as in people of exceptional character and a worthy spiritual life, so, too, distressing NDEs occur in people of a whole range of character development and spirituality, and do not indicate only those who are by nature wrong—angry, fearful, depressed, guilt-ridden, mean, cold, hostile, unloving, unspiritual, God-denying, sinful, and more–who have been told that the experience transforming their understanding of their lives did not qualify as spiritual and wasn’t really an NDE. It is past time to recognize that in spiritual terms a distressing near-death experience makes more sense as a challenge rather than punishment or finger-wagging judgment, and that it is very likely the equivalent of having the worst possible sort of emotional bad hair day.
[Stay tuned for the final thrilling episode…coming next weekend.]
[i] Savannah Cox, My Creation Museum quest: A skeptic’s genuine search for faith, science and humanity in a most unlikely place – Salon.com, reposted by (Episcopal Bishop) Nick Knisely in his blog Entangled States, http://entangledstates.org/2015/10/26/the-creation-museum-more-about-the-founders-fears-than-their-faith/