MEETING AT THE EDGE
By Leonard GeorgeA version of this article, entitled "Through the Window", appeared in The Georgia Straight, November 18, 1999
One moment I was sitting in the train, my six-year-old nose pressed against the window, mesmerized by the endless prairie whizzing by outside. Then everything went black. I gradually realized I was falling through an immense void. Beneath me glittered a vast crystal. In each of its millions of facets a different scene flickered – and I was in every one. There I could see myself riding on the back of a big raven. And there I was in a small boat, paddling past the base of soaring purple cliffs. And there I was on a train cutting across the prairie. I had no thought of how I’d arrived in this place, or how long I dropped toward that resplendence. But fear gripped me as the crystal began to collapse, its facets shattering and spraying into space. I knew that the last facet left would be my destination. It was the train. Something told me this was the worst possible outcome.
I awoke on a cot, my parents anxiously fanning me. I’d passed out for several minutes. It wasn’t the first time. Two years earlier I’d tumbled down the stairs and split my head open. After that my young life was regularly visited by fainting spells, brief paralyses, mystical moments, and the occasional convulsion. An EEG scan turned up no striking abnormalities. But, looking back, I think my brain was likely mildly injured in the fall, and my maturing nervous system was struggling to deal with it. By my eighth year most of the unpleasantness had stopped. But I was left with a hunch that things aren’t as they appear in this world. Human consciousness seemed like a tiny smudged window overlooking some inconceivably grand courtyard. Ever since, my nose has been pressed against that pane as I try to glimpse the other side, and discern what it all means.
Critical thinking has proven to be one of the best guides in my quest. As I trained to become a psychologist, I learned how talented we are at deluding ourselves. Perceptions and memories can seem clear and undoubtable. But awareness is shaped by an unconscious framework of assumption, expectancy, fear and desire. Every year many people report a shiny UFO gyrating in the sky around dusk. This craft is often decked with multicoloured flashing lights and portholes and sometimes little men are seen waving. Investigators routinely find that the observers were viewing the planet Venus, moulded by their mental frameworks. Science upholds my early intuition that the average conscious state often misleads.
My scientific interests never conflicted with my other exploratory route - direct experience. I’ve checked out many rumoured cracks and clear patches in the window, plunging into a kaleidoscope of spiritual, occult and otherwise "controversial" zones. Seances and hauntings, Tibetan monasteries and ESP labs, magical ceremonies and prayer circles – I’ve indeed been there, done that. From this vantage too mind’s illusions were evident. Meditation, for instance, helped me spot some of my subtler mental habits. In my passages through the spiritual margins I’ve been struck by how many practitioners have a double standard. Yes, everyday awareness is limited; but embracing unorthodox ideas without holding them to the same fierce scrutiny that uncovered the frailties of normal consciousness may not get you closer to the truth. Just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it’s real.
Last August my quest took me to the annual convention of the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), held this year at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia. The IANDS conference, now in its eleventh year, mainly concerns the "near death experience", or NDE. Accounts of people reviving from coma with strange tales go back as far as Plato. Historical records show that NDEs often reflect society’s prevailing beliefs. Tang Dynasty Chinese met the Buddha, mediaeval Christians witnessed the fires of damnation roasting the wicked. In the western "Enlightenment" following the Scientific Revolution, NDEs and other peculiar phenomena were officially written off as a slough of childish or errant fancies, with nothing to teach us about the other side of the glass. This attitude still rules the halls of academe. NDEs have featured in pop culture ever since psychiatrist Raymond Moody’s Life After Life became a bestseller in 1975. This book set the stereotype dramatized in countless TV shows and movies – viewing one’s body from outside it, passing along a tunnel, seeing magnificent landscapes, meeting a brilliant light, etc.
The first objective study of the NDE was Piet Heim’s classic 1892 paper. Heim interviewed mountaineers who had slipped from various Alps and lived to tell about it. He was amazed to learn that many of the survivors found their "last moments" to be wonderful. It was as if "they had fallen into heaven". Little more happened on the science front until Life After Life. Moody’s book, more a set of anecdotes than a scientific work, spurred a handful of researchers to listen carefully to people who had survived a very close call. They found that roughly one-third of those who’ve verged on death recollect that "something" happened at the time. What that "something" is can range widely from Moody’s standard features. Most common are joyous feelings, hovering by the body, encounters with otherworldly creatures, reviewing one’s entire life almost instantly. But some near death experiencers – about 18 percent, according to surveyor Barbara Rommer – have what are coyly termed "less than positive" trips, or LTPs. In other words, they go to some version of hell. And once in a while someone finds themselves hurtling through an abyss at something like a crystal. I had to go to this conference.
IANDS was conceived as a network for serious NDE researchers like psychologist Kenneth Ring, psychiatrist Bruce Greyson and cardiologist Michael Sabom. But it became clear that many of their research subjects, the experiencers themselves, craved contact with each other. The annual conferences were thrown open to anyone interested in the topic. Experiencers, their loved ones, and clinicians who work in settings visited by death joined the proceedings. The conventions evolved into something more like giant support group meetings than scientific congresses.
On a sunny Friday morning I arrived on campus for my first IANDS convention. I scanned the crowd taking their seats in the auditorium for the opening lecture. Mainly white, middle aged. A couple of flowing robes, a few angel pendants, but dress was predominantly middle class casual. Nine tenths were women. Most looked pretty healthy. If they’d nearly died, they’d made good recoveries. Much hugging as old friends met again – "I haven’t seen you since the San Antonio conference! How are you?" Quick smiles and lots of eye contact, even with strangers. But behind every glance that came my way, I sensed a question: Are you experienced?
The introductory remarks by conference organizers went beyond the welcomes that normally kick off academic gatherings. These speakers seemed to feel that many of the attendees wanted more than greetings – they needed reassurance that this was a safe place to be. IANDS Board member Debbie James, an intensive care nurse from Texas, emphasized the security arrangements in her comments. No taping of the proceedings was allowed. Staff at the door would check every name tag before permitting admission to any session. Media reps were strictly banned from the "experiencers only" meetings. Violations of the rules by the press should be immediately reported to Debbie. I understood I was surrounded by some rather fragile people. Having an NDE doesn’t give you thick skin.
The reason for their vulnerability isn’t hard to grasp. The modern world-view files visionary voyages under "imagination". And "imaginary" equals "false", as nightmare-spooked children learn from their soothing parents: "It wasn’t real! It was just your imagination". Conventional thought has four labels for adults who take their visions seriously – immature, gullible, hysterical, or mad. In some nooks of society a visionary might be esteemed a mystic, but let’s face it: mainstream Canada would be somewhat perturbed if Jean Chretien announced that he could doff his flesh and consort with spirits. (W.L.M. King believed in quite strange things, like communing with the dead through his dog. But he wisely kept his weirdness under wraps.) So those whose lives have been rocked by an NDE are understandably wary about sharing this most intimate and powerful – and by modern definition "unreal" – journey to the edge. Every conference attendee I spoke to said they’d been ridiculed or worse for telling their story to the wrong person, except for Cindy. A Michigan social worker who had an NDE twenty years ago, she told no-one about it until her first IANDS convention last year. She "came out" at an "experiencers only" session. The response was so nurturing from her fellow NDErs that for the first time in two decades she stopped questioning her sanity.
Every talk I heard during the three day gathering, no matter how formally titled – "Developing a Clinical Methodology from Within the Field of Near-Death Studies", "Comparative Analysis of Mystical, Out-of-Body, Near-Death and Death Experiences" – quickly turned into story hour. Usually the presenters first established their most vital credential: "I’ve had an NDE" or other odd experience, which they proceeded to tell. (Hospice nurse Maggie Callanan admitted she hadn’t yet almost died but won over the audience by calling herself an "NDE wannabe". Be patient, Maggie.) Then they would recount the stories of others, often taken from surveys they’d conducted or clients they’d counselled.
And what stories they were. I heard about a woman who nearly died during a stillbirth. She saw her deceased father take the baby’s soul lovingly into the tunnel of light. I learned of a man who was greeted at heaven’s gate by his two long-dead dogs, which leapt and licked his astral face. And of an experiencer who met the shade of her grandmother; the ghost announced that she was about to reincarnate as the NDEr’s nephew and commanded "Don’t let them name me Jacob", her despised ex-husband’s name. (Alas, I met no-one who’d gone nose-diving into a huge crystal.)
Faced with such material, many skeptics reduce NDEs to hallucinations conjured by near-dead brains starved of oxygen, knit into warm and fuzzy themes to blunt the terror of the End. This explanation can’t be proven without conducting the kind of experiment that would be hard to recruit volunteers for – one with a mortality rate. But it’s very hard to disprove, either. The more boorish skeptics can’t resist mocking anyone who takes this stuff seriously. But experiencers are like the rest of us. We’re all trying to figure out our place in this cryptic life. NDErs have the extra burden of outlandish happenings that fit poorly into the secular reality of our time. So, absurd as these accounts sound, bear in mind that their telling is part of a poignantly human drive for meaning. Caught somewhere between fact and fantasy, experiencers are drawn to validate each others’ NDEs. Instead of the weight of evidence they rely on the sheer volume of stories, told and retold until conviction in the NDE’s importance is insulated from the doubters’ scorn.
The sense that the NDE leaves unfinished business in the soul is widespread among experiencers. I discussed this matter over supper with Bob from California, Joan the Calgarian, and Jackie, an Australian. Table talk among NDErs is unique. Joan turned to Jackie: "So, when did you die?" "Back in ’79. Twice." Jackie’s second NDE was self-induced, an overdose. She became depressed after the first brush with death and thought her family would be better off if she was gone. The angels she met during her suicidal coma "let me taste the pain my family would feel if I died, and it was so much worse than I’d imagined that I decided to come back." She also received an important message from the angels, but couldn’t quite remember what it was. Ever since, she’s been looking for cues to jog her memory. That’s why she’d come to the Vancouver conference. So far, no good; she hadn’t recalled anything. But she promised to let me know if she did. Bob and Joan agreed that their NDEs gave them a sense of mission. "The important thing isn’t the NDE. It’s the transformation that follows," Bob insisted. Joan was also a suicide survivor, her neck faintly marked by scars from "when I tried to remove my face." While she wrestles the demons of sadness to this day, she was left certain that everything that happens to her, including her despairing moments, is part of a larger plan, that she has a special role to play. Survey research shows that Jackie, Joan and Bob aren’t exceptions. Kenneth Ring’s studies of NDE aftermaths found that shifts in belief and behaviour are typical. Experiencers commonly lose all fear of death, become convinced of an afterlife, change to less acquisitive lifestyles, have more zest for the moment. Bruce Greyson noted that sometimes an NDE can accomplish in a few seconds what decades of psychotherapy fail to do. But it’s not all roses. NDErs can end up feeling so alienated from their former selves that relationships strain and snap. Their divorce rate is inflated. Their suicide rate stays about the same.
What if the NDE is strictly psychological, a hollow parade of mental images? The American neurologist Ernst Rodin had an NDE which at the time seemed compellingly real. In retrospect he discounts it as a puppet show staged by his brain, and frets that he’ll fall for the illusion again when he dies. This is a rare view among NDErs. Some experiencers are quite happy with the notion that their journey was a transit through the dying mind, not the astral plane, but still value the event; dismissing the NDE as "mere" imagination is like saying a tsunami is only water. Dying, they’ve learned first-hand, feels fine. There’s nothing "mere" about a psychological process that can numb death’s sting. But most experiencers contend that their NDEs weren’t just subjective, that they really, truly touched something out there. And they’re delighted when someone says they can prove it.
The case for the NDE’s objective reality would be strengthened if people returned from death’s door with knowledge about this world that they couldn’t have gotten in any normal manner. Several attendees told me about survivors of surgical near-catastrophes who knew details of events that occurred in the OR while they were comatose. The problem is that human beings don’t need to be awake to process information. We only stop, presumably, when our nervous systems are utterly quiescent. That’s death, not near-death. There’s always a chance that the unconscious patient inferred the OR activities from overheard comments and other sounds. There are also tales of experiencers who perceived distant happenings during their NDEs that would have been past the reach of their senses. But these cases wither under investigation. I haven’t seen any firm evidence that NDEs have a paranormal dimension. Which is another reason I had to attend this conference – the chair of the Vancouver IANDS chapter, Chris Lovelidge, had assured me that one of the presentations would "blow the skeptics away". Enter Harry Oldfield and his video images of the beyond.
Oldfield, an Englishman, was introduced to the packed lecture hall as "a great scientist and visionary". He’s been trying to probe the "human energy field" since the 1970s, when he got involved in the Kirlian photography craze. The Kirlian camera (named after Semyon Kirlian, an early proponent) consists of photographic emulsion placed on an electrically charged plate. Objects set on the emulsion are ringed with radiant auroras in the developed prints. Psychics and alternative healers made much of Kirlian pictures for awhile, proclaiming them proof of a life force unknown to science. The excitement largely died down by the mid-‘80s. The Kirlian effect turned out to be an obscure but well-understood physical phenomenon called corona discharge, and Kirlian devices couldn’t reliably disclose anything about objects but their moisture levels. Kirlian photography is the province of physics, not psychics. Imagine my surprise when Mr. Oldfield started his talk with some lovely slides of Kirlian photos which he dubbed depictions of "the life force". He told how he used the apparatus to measure the nutritional quality of foods, a claim which to my knowledge has no empirical support. Not a promising start.
But the centrepiece of his lecture was the PIP scan pictures. PIP stands for "polycontrast interface photography". To make a PIP image, output from a video camera is processed by software invented by Mr. Oldfield and displayed on a computer monitor. The software converts the video feed into false colour – all the whites become greens and the blues become yellows, for example. The result is a garishly hued world that resembles an old Grateful Dead poster. The human body appears mottled with glowing streaks and blobs. Luminous shapes and waves shimmer through the air. Spectacular. According to its inventor, the false colour processing somehow highlights the way the life energy interferes with light, rendering it visible.
The PIP images Mr. Oldfield proudly projected did look like an unseen reality coming into view. The markings on people’s bodies were "the chakras and meridians of Eastern and alternative medicine". And furthermore, he assured us, PIP can visualize disease beneath the skin. That red region on the chest? That’s angina pectoris. The purple patch in the throat? A blocked salivary gland. An eerie yellow area on a breast was said to be the energy signature of a tumour, visible with PIP before conventional methods detected anything. I waited in vain for the lecturer to share any results from controlled studies to back up these assertions. Instead he went on to show PIP pictures he took in a haunted house. Some green haze in a corner, he said, was the ghost. He took pictures at the Tower of London - PIP processing showed traces of Cromwellian soldiers, and even the scaffold used to dispatch Henry VIII’s wives, dismantled centuries ago, could be seen with this miraculous technology. Finally, the climax: PIP footage shot in a morgue, revealing an iridescent ball drifting above a corpse. That’s the soul of the deceased. And there’s your proof that the NDE is what it seems to be, the gateway to life after death.
Mr. Oldfield received a standing ovation. But I wasn’t blown away. I was saddened. I suspect that all the curious features in the false colour images were ordinary shadows and reflections. In true colour we just don’t notice these details because they don’t tell us anything useful. I want to be wrong. But without any evidence other than a pretty slide show and a pile of testimonials, I may be right. [I checked the massive database of the National Institutes of Health for research citations of either Harry Oldfield or PIP. The database archives eight million references comprising 3800 journals from 70 countries published between 1966 and 1999, including complementary and alternative medicine publications. There were no citations.]
I caught up with Jackie at the convention’s end. She looked shell-shocked. She’d been crying, and she trembled as she dug for a cigarette. "Remember anything yet?", I asked. "It’s all come back. It started yesterday in the experiencers’ session. Then this morning – I already knew everything that woman said!" "That woman" was P.M.H. Atwater, a long-time character on the NDE scene. A multiple experiencer, she’s written several books that she modestly calls the "Bibles" of the NDE movement. And for her it is a movement. In her talk she informed us that NDErs are in effect God’s new chosen people. They’re sent back to life with extraordinary powers to pave the way for the consciousness revolution that will transmute our planet beginning in 2012. And Jackie, pining to assemble the jigsaw of her life, had found her template. She plans to quit her job, move to America and help organize the experiencers. All I could do was urge her to take things slowly, give herself time to digest. But she wasn’t really listening.
If we won’t settle for the surface of things, or if Fate gives us no choice, we’re set on a life-long journey fraught with pitfalls. Good luck, Jackie. I’m worried about you.
I’ve been peering through that murky glass for a few decades now. I think I’ve traced the outlines of something veiled in the blur. A yearning to connect with it, to know it and feel it, lives at the core of the human condition. I’ve found that science helps me to do more than dodge some of the pitfalls. It aids me to know my connectedness with the Big Courtyard, even if its final nature remains unknown. Physics, biology and social science all point to a single conclusion: we aren’t separate from our environments. And all environments are ultimately one - the cosmos. Imagination in every form, from the fantasies of erotic attraction to the sublimities of religion and art, beckons me out of myself and helps me feel this cosmic link. At certain moments our habit-crusted awareness lifts from its daily groove, and imagination might then give us hints of our kinship with the vast and hidden Whole. Such gifts can come at times of peace and calm. But often these moments are the worst in our lives. During the coronary or the seizure. When the midnight telephone rings: "I don’t know how to tell you this…". In the crisis of faith. Trapped in the burning house. When the love of your life grows cold and turns away. At these times the heart is broken in fear or anguish. For an instant or two it might be broken open. And among its shards, Light. The mind can garb this flash of deep connection as an otherworldly voyage or a spirit or a visitor from the stars. Some of us, taking the visions literally, will weave belief systems out of them. Others won’t have that need. But either way, if we can hold our hearts open long enough to savour our profound relatedness, the natural outcome of these glimpses is love. At least that’s how it seems to me.
I confess the rest is still a mystery. But I do adore ravens. And paddling my kayak. I’m not too fond of trains.