Using Ring’s system of stages as a guide, I can certify that I have experienced the first one, noting deep sensations of peace and well-being. I won’t place too much emphasis on this, however, as this is not exactly extraordinary. Several times, I have experienced being somehow separated from my physical body, observing the room I was in from a point some feet above the position where my body lay with its eyes closed.
I cannot actually recall having looked at my body while in these states (probably thankfully – I doubt I looked too pretty). On one occasion in particular, I remember travelling through the wall of the room which my body was lying in, through other houses until I realised that I was in another living room about halfway down the block. Upon this realisation, I reflexively activated a sort of retraction back to my body. The way this worked very strongly reminded me of accounts of a luminous thread which is said to connect the spirit to the body in out of body experiences. When I became aware of where I was and wanted to return to my body, I felt myself instantaneously pulled back in a way that reminded me of retracting a vacuum cleaner cord.
On other occasions, I have felt myself travelling through something like a long, dark tunnel. The environment is empty. Blackness doesn’t seem like a strong enough word, as there’s such an absolute void that even blackness is absent. Whenever I have entered this environment, I have always felt myself moving at a very high speed, reminiscent pf a particularly fast elevator. This seems to be quite a contrast to Ring’s accounts of people calmly floating in the blackness. It is also difficult to integrate with my perception that the environment is entirely without dimension. It seems that dimensionlessness and movement should be mutually exclusive principle but somehow this was not the case and there did not seem to be any contradiction at the time.
Although I cannot recall ever having observed a light, I have had encounters with people on the other side of this journey, normally living friends, or figures, which I recognise as having being archetypal in my mind since a young age, such as comic-book superheroes. I understand that some people would seek to discard such accounts as being drug-induced delusions. However, Jansen is actually one of the most cautious writers on the subject that I have encountered. He is not quick to jump to any conclusions and does not seem eager to prove any particular point. He investigates the issue at hand with an open mind and considers psychological and neurological causes for people’s experiences rather than taking the easy option of putting them down to a ‘spiritual’ journey beyond explanation.
In considering psychological reasons for the broad similarity of near death experiences, Jansen develops an idea of Freud’s, pointing out that ‘some near-death experiences may be a re-activation of birth memories or an actual re-experiencing of parts of the process in symbolic form.’ Additionally, ‘psychedelic experiences have led some people to conclude that birth and death are seen as the same process at the unconscious level….
If being born is experienced as dying by the baby, then we are already in the “after-life” and the birth process will have formed our images of what progression to a “next life” is like.’ (Jansen, p108). This is an alluring and captivating idea. One can see how feelings of absolute peace and contentment could be analogous to the state of the child in the womb, wonting for nothing, and how a journey through a long dark tunnel into the light could represent the actual birthing process.
However, while this is a very interesting idea, I am not personally satisfied with it as a complete explanation. For one thing, it does not give any explanation for out of body experiences on an earthly level, such as seeing your own body. On another level, the pain experienced in the birthing process seems entirely absent from the vast majority of NDEs. Maybe an investigation into NDEs of people born by Caesarean section or other non-traditional birthing methods could shed some light on this issue.
Jansen also goes into a discussion about possible neurochemical similarities between ketamine experiences and NDEs, too lengthy and scientific to repeat in full here. To summarise very briefly, ketamine is known to block NMDA-PCP receptors in the brain, receptors that play ‘important roles in thinking, memory, emotion, language, sensation, and perception.’ (Jansen, p115). Jansen points out that similar neurochemical effects may be brought about by ‘a sudden fall in oxygen or blood sugar’ (Jansen, p116), likely to occur in at least some near death states.
I can certainly believe that there may well be some scientific, chemical aspects to NDEs, although I am not convinced that all the answers that we are looking for can be found within that sphere of investigation. I think that the study of these areas of the experiences in tandem with a mindset open to the possibility of the spirit and willing to value subjective experience may be very important for our future.
If we can synthesize our western scientific viewpoint with the magickal worldview of more ancient tribal cultures, I believe that we may all start to learn a lot more from one another. Our beliefs could become complementary rather than conflicting and we could all begin to make great advances of our understanding of the world. Our western society in particular may learn to overcome its fear of death and denial of a world beyond and then our scientific advances may also gain some degree of spiritual balance.