Distressing NDEs as Scary Rites of Passage
20 Sunday Sep 2015
No, we are not dead, nor even really gone. The blog and I simply got overscheduled, overdue, and overtired and had to take a time out.
It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing, mind you. There’ve been substantial family matters to deal with, and facilitating two groups at church, and a stupefyingly advanced college class reunion back in New York State. And then came the IANDS conference, which went so well it has occurred to me that you might like to know what I said in my presentation, which provides this post. Furthermore, over its three-year history, this blog has accumulated 117 posts, most of them articles not published anywhere else, so I am working on revising and restructuring the best of them into book form. (Please stay tuned, as I’m going to be asking your help finding a title.)
The conference presentation was an hour long, far too much for a single blog post, so you will find it distributed over the next four weeks (and, if you wait a bit, as a chapter in the new book). As always, your comments will be welcome.
It feels good to be back.
Scary Rites of Passage:
Accepting Distressing NDEs as Spiritual Experiences
“Near-death experiences as rites of passage” is the compelling theme for the 2015 conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS). Rites of passage always demand change, and so I am taking the theme as an invitation to look at a specific change—not only for experiencers but for all of us.
For decades, the people who struggle with the scary rite of passage we call a distressing NDE have been told there is something amiss about them—that having this kind of experience means that in their very characters they are wrong—angry, fearful, depressed, mean, cold, hostile, unloving, unspiritual, God-denying, sinful, and more, or that the experience they had did not qualify as spiritual and wasn’t really an NDE. Today the change I am going to talk about is a change in our thinking. I will be telling you what I believe we as an organization and as informed individuals ought to be saying instead.
I want to begin with a fascinating observation by cultural historian Richard Tarnas, from his prodigious book, Cosmos and Psyche—and if you’re interested in a good, long read, I recommend this one highly:
Within the timespan of a single generation surrounding the year 1500, Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Raphael created their many masterworks of the Late Renaissance…; Columbus sailed west and reached America, Vasco de Gama sailed east and reached India, and the Magellan expedition circumnavigated the globe, opening the world forever to itself; Luther posted his theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church and began the enormous convulsion of Europe and the Western psyche called the Reformation; and Copernicus conceived the heliocentric theory and began the even more momentous Scientific Revolution. From this instant, the human self, the known world, the cosmos, heaven, and earth were all radically and irrevocably transformed. All this happened within a period of time briefer than that which has passed since Woodstock and the Moon landing.
What does this have to do with distressing NDEs? We are in another such time now, when all our foundations seem to be suddenly crumbling, a time of explosive globalism, of tumultuous new knowledge, of radical shifts in beliefs and mores…and isn’t it interesting that the theme of this conference comes just now! My summary for this hour is: “We must learn to be brave enough to change the cosmology of our thinking.”
In the words of Mircea Eliade, the great interpreter of religious experience and shamanism, a rite of passage brings about “a change in a person’s existential condition,” the very sense of being, which is certainly true of NDEs. I am suggesting that we need to recognize the extent to which all of Western culture is currently going through just that kind of passage, and that it involves our way of being and thinking. We must move from our persistent pre-Copernican ideas to an understanding that fits the present world and its more accurate cosmology. And that means, among other things, that we must change how we think about distressing NDEs.
Rites of passage
In our sophisticated Western world, we tend to think of rites of passage as happy occasions – marriage, baptism, graduation, joining a social club, maybe a retirement. Initiation involves a celebration, a party time. In their original settings, this has not been so.
Traditionally, most initiations have been traumatic. Even today, think of the bris, when an eight-day-old Jewish baby boy is circumcised—a happy celebration for the adults welcoming the infant into his great historic community, but what is it for the baby? Think of the societies in which little girls are ritually mutilated sexually, their labia and clitoris sliced away; or of the puberty rites in which generation after generation of pubescent boys have been slashed, stabbed, scarred, impaled, terrified, sent into the wild alone to survive or not as their skill permits. (And much the same applies to some fraternity hazings.) And of course there are the even more severe initiations such as those which create a shaman, spiritual experiences crowded with demons, nightmarish monsters, dismemberment, encounters which produce cognitive dissonance and PTSD.
Every rite of passage consists of three stages: the ‘before’ of life, with preparation for the change; the passage or transition (the experience itself); and reincorporation into the ‘after’ of life in which a change has been accomplished. These phases operate whether the rite is intentional or spontaneous, pleasant or horrible.
In the first stage, people withdraw from their ordinary status and prepare to move to another – there may be classes, as with confirmation and Bar Mitzvah preparation; or physical changes, like the haircuts of basic training (“cutting away” the civilian self); after an NDE, this stage might be seen as hospital admission and its attendant nakedness.
The transition phase is the actual rite or experience, during which one has left the former place or state but has not yet entered the next. In ordeal rites, such as shamanic initiation and deeply distressing NDEs, this phase has three distinct aspects, represented as suffering, death, and resurrection.
Eliade has claimed, “It is primarily these ordeals that constitute the religious experience of initiation—the encounter with the sacred. The majority of initiatory ordeals more or less clearly imply a ritual death followed by resurrection or a new birth…Initiatory death signifies the end at once of childhood, of ignorance, and of the profane condition.” Thus, the archetypal pattern has been carried for two thousand years in Christian imagery. But what have we lost by not hearing distressing NDEs referred to as encounters with the sacred?
In the third phase (incorporation), the individual makes a reentry into society with a new status. In traditional societies, reincorporation is often marked by elaborate rituals and ceremonies. The Western pattern is to celebrate after a happy rite: there are debutant balls, wedding receptions, and extensive college graduation and new-member ceremonies, with permanent symbols such as a mortarboard, pin, or tie. However, the West has no such ceremonial cultural markers after traumatic ordeals, whether a return from war or from inner distress. In fact, this is where Western culture misses the mark with veterans and all NDErs alike, who are left to muddle through integration alone and without mentors.
[To be continued next week.]