Why keep discussing distressing NDEs?
24 Sunday Mar 2013
Over the past few months, a pattern has been emerging in the comments to these blog posts and in my emails. I have been seeing expressions of discomfort and even anger about this discussion of distressing NDEs, based on the idea that the NDEs represent institutional and/or cultural abuse. The vocabulary includes words such as “falsity,” “manipulation,” “intimidation,” “coercion,” “judgmentalism,” “control.” One respected reader wonders why the discussion even needs to be continued, why it gives the forces of oppression such attention rather than outright denunciation.
Let me say again: “For several months now, these blog posts have been steps on a journey to get down underneath all the preconceptions and assumptions, all the theories and doctrines, and ask, ‘What is bedrock?’ Is it possible to get beyond overlays of supposition to something so simple I am able to trust it? Can we begin to see near-death experiences through lenses other than doctrinal or disbelieving?”
To clarify why I say that dogmatics are the last step in the journey, please bear with me through what may seem a bit of tedium. Like lots of foundational stuff, these next three paragraphs may seem obvious, but they bear specifying.
A person having a near-death experience is registering a real experiential event; that is, it is very real as an experience, with related consequences. NDEs are internal, subjective, and involuntary, the product of the human imaginal system; they are not consciously “made up.” Their content may have observable connection to the person’s culture and beliefs, or it may be thoroughly unfamiliar and without precedent.
Because it occurs at a specific time moment in the life of a person, the instant the time moment passes, the NDE becomes not an experience but a memory. When the memory is put into words, the telling is not the original experience but is automatically organized as a story.
The NDE cannot be known to anyone else as it is remembered by the experiencer, who shapes the story according to the NDE’s original emotional tone and whatever interpretation the person may have perceived during the experience. Additional meanings may be added later, as the story is processed by the experiencer and those who hear it. Eventually, it will take its place either within a local system of cultural dogma or as an outlier having no recognized explanation.
These distinctions matter.
In other words, I see at least five stages in the life cycle of discussion about NDEs:
Experiencing – Reporting– Interpreting – Assigning meaning – Dogmatizing
The first three stages involve only the experiencer, who may participate in all five. Public opinion, especially the promulgation of any ideological or religious doctrine, enters with the final two stages and is limited to them.
My point in these last few posts has been simple, perhaps sometimes infuriatingly so: The existence of near-death experiences and their relatives is not cultural oppression; at their early stages, they are a universal human experience. I want to get as close as possible to an answer. That I do not expect a complete understanding is irrelevant; I need more than what is here now.
Saying that a distressing NDE is primarily an example of religious manipulation or an effort at institutional control puts a very big cart in front of this horse. The recent comments arise from elements of Dogmatism (stage 5) to which they quite rightly object, and read those conclusions, however flimsy or hurtful, back into the Experience (stage 1). Yet we get to dogmatisms only by going through the experience first, and in these blog posts I am parsing out the NDE itself and its very earliest stages. It is like finding the tiger in a photo of jungle leaves and flowers; the only way to find it may be by taking the picture apart one leaf at a time.
Any attempt to explain an NDE comes after the experience itself. NDEs do not originate as words and stories but as images and emotions, the raw materials of experience; they do not originate in religious dogma or cultural ideologies, though their interpretation typically ends there. The original NDE cannot be evaluated in terms of end stages. Manipulation, coercion, control—the whole range of power plays—are effects as much as are post-NDE psychic sensitivities or PTSD. For many of us, this is new information, and powerful. It takes time to soak in.
I put up the post about delogs not to be sensationalist, nor to be critical of shamanic visions in rural Buddhist folklore, nor to say anything about institutional religion. I was not making a post-modern statement about power or human shadow. I wanted readers to meet a close relative of Western NDEs, one with similarities and differences, one with an ancient heritage. It is one step on this journey.
[To be continued.]