It's easy to forget, amid the hype: not all near-death experiences are about light and bliss. I've been reading a new ebook, Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences by Nancy Evans Bush.
Bush herself had an experience of this kind when she was 28, in labour with her second child. She left her body and saw the hospital and town receding swiftly below her, then had the feeling of hurtling into space. The darkness was immense.
Then this happened:
A group of circles appeared ahead and slightly to my left, perhaps a half-dozen of them, moving toward me. Half black and half white, they clicked as they flew, snapping white-to-black, black-to-white, sending an authoritative message without words. Somehow its meaning was clear: "This is all there is. This is all there ever was. This is It. Anything else you remember is a joke. You are not real. You never were real. You never existed. Your life never existed. The world never existed. It was a game you were allowed to invent. There was never anything, or anyone. That's the joke - that it was all a joke."
The circles felt heckling but not evil, mocking, mechanistic, clicking without feeling. They seemed like messengers, certain of what they were saying, not ultimate authority themselves but with an authoritative message.
Bush argued passionately to prove them wrong, bringing up details of her family and her relationships, historical facts, the fact of other people's existence. But the circles kept up their mocking.
And then I was entirely alone. The circles had moved out of sight, and there was nothing left - the world unreal and gone, and with it my first baby, and this baby who would never be born, and all other babies. Everyone I knew and loved - (but how had I known them, if they were never real?) - gone, and hills, and robins. There was no world, no home, no babies, not even a self to go home to. I thought that no one could bear so much grief, but there seemed no end to it and no way out. Everyone, everything, gone, even God, and I was alone forever in the swimming twilight dark.
Coming to in a hospital bed, her first thought was: Calvin was right about predestination. She was one of the lost. That is what it would be like when she died. She struggled for the next few years, bringing up her two infant children and wondering 'how so much tiredness can exist in someone who does not exist'.
Twenty years later Bush answered an advertisement for a job as office manager at a non-profit start-up in the nearby University of Connecticut. By chance, this turned out to be the International Association for Near-Death Studies, and she has been closely involved with it ever since.
Where positive experiences are concerned it's challenging enough to come up with an explanation. But at least they are satisfying and life-affirming. What are we to think about something like this? And why would someone like Bush - a preacher's daughter with an active life in the church - be burdened in this way?
Within the spirituality movement a popular explanation is based on psychology. If you have a bad spiritual experience it's because there's something wrong with your personality: you're cold, rigid, unloving, fearful, mean. Bush is in a strong position to understand the absolute falsity of this equation, as there's no data to support it. (Curiously, researchers who resort to it never wonder whether a person who had a blissful NDE actually deserved it.)
The conventional wisdom is that one is rewarded for good behaviour and punished for bad. For fundamentalist Christians, it has as much to do with belief. But these ideas were already suspect in the positive experiences, and are further refuted by the negative ones. Even Christian saints had hellish experiences, as a description by Teresa of Avila makes clear. There's no correlation between beliefs and/or behaviour on the one hand and what one may experience in a near-death situation.
When Maurice Rawlings's book Beyond Death's Door about hellish experiences was first published it seemed obvious that he was biased by his fundamentalist Christian convictions. That weakened his credibility in the research community, and meant that the phenomenon was downplayed.
In the 1990s Bush collaborated with researcher Bruce Greyson on a survey. It took them nine years to gather information on fifty cases; that's not necessarily because they are more rare than the positive kind, more likely because people are deeply reluctant to open up about them. The impact on the experiencers had been appalling: several of were still in psychotherapy as long as twenty years later, Bush says.
The survey showed there was no universal 'distressing' experience; in fact, there was more variety than with the positive kind. Three types emerged. The most common was where the elements of the pleasurable kind were experienced as terrifying. Then there was Bush's type - of existing in a limitless, featureless void that creates feelings of emptiness and fatalistic despair A more rare category corresponds to some extent with the hell of the popular imagination - demons and hellfire, and so on.
Bush frankly admits that no one knows why some people have these experiences. But the effort of coming terms with her own has led her into a full and profound reflection on the issue, exploring a spirituality in which the experience of suffering has full expression.
Her thought ranges widely, but in essence it's about integration. She sees the meaningful outcome of suffering in transformation, what Jung calls 'individuation' - the ultimate stage of psychological or moral development (a moralistic view of suffering as punishment seemed to him too to be inadequate and misleading). Interestingly, Bush also recalls the psychic dismemberment of a shamanic initiate, a painful and apparently destructive process which again is conceived not a punishment but as a means of leading the apprentice towards his/her destiny (similar, she also suggests, to the religious significance of the crucifixion of Jesus).
I have to confess, I found the description of her experience so shocking that I too found myself searching for quick rational explanations - a process she rightly considers suspect. I thought for instance there might be some karmic element: the experiencer is being punished for something, if not in this life then in a previous one.
I wondered too about the mocking derision in the 'message' she was given, so similar to the kind of thing directed at believers by atheists and sceptics. By chance blogger Michael Prescott addressed this in a recent post, in which he summarised their point of view rather effectively as follows (I hope he won't mind me quoting it):
None of the key developments in your life was somehow meant for you. No one is looking out for you. No events in your past happened for a reason, and they aren't building up to any future purpose. The story of your life has no continuity and no destination - heck, it's not even a story - and there is nothing to strive for. You were not put here for a reason, you don't matter, and you're deluded if you think you have a "mission" in life. Face facts! You have no calling! The universe couldn't care less about you! Just give up!!!
It's easy to construct some narrative along the lines of a destructive atheist being made to experience, in a future existence, the effects of his/her corrosive mockery on other people. But such facile approaches won't do. However much we want a rational explanation for human suffering and evil - and however much we doubt the materialist explanation - we have eventually to face up to the fact of it, and deal with it in an interior way, not look for reasons to push it to the side. And to ask why a nice young Sunday school teacher would suddenly have her life blighted by an appalling 'truth' is perhaps not so different from asking why innocent people are brutalised by the powerful, why many suffer from poverty and unemployment, why little children are born with painful diseases and disfigurements, and so on.
I agree with Bush when she points out that we have a very skewed perspective on this. As she says, we live in a 'culture of unparalleled privilege at a time of almost obsessive flight from even minor inconvenience and discomfort. Even in a decade of unaccustomed economic hardship, technology and material progress are shielding us from the magnitude of deprivation and sheer physical pain that the majority of others, including our ancestors, have taken for granted.'
It sometimes seems as if contemporary spirituality, too, sees suffering as an irrelevance and an inconvenience. Over the years I've noticed that some of its most enthusiastic advocates are horribly shocked when bad things happen to them, and find that their enlightened attitudes and behaviour offer no protection. But they may gradually discover that dealing with the pain becomes itself a path to deeper understanding.
It's perhaps not well understood that a positive near-death experience itself is hardly free of challenges of this kind. As a veteran official of IANDS, Bush has long experience of dealing with NDEers, and dispenses with some popular misconceptions. The stereotype of the experiencer returning 'garlanded with saintliness and brimming with answers to life's questions' was always a myth, she points out. Audiences want to hear them talking about the spiritually uplifting stuff, but when they get together among themselves all they want to talk about are the life-problems - depression, domestic bust-ups, etc - that they too suffered as a result.
All this said, I'm personally left with a sense about the NDE phenomenon which the distressing variety does nothing to weaken: its apparently didactic nature. These aren't just random experiences that happen to individuals. They're shared with the rest of us. We don't feel the full impact, but they can draw us to ponder and investigate. It's as though there's a deliberate educational process going on.
In Bush's case, there's an intriguing clue embedded in the experience itself: the white and black circles.
Some six years afterwards, visiting a friend, she chanced to look into a book about Jungian symbols and was horrified to see the circles represented in an illustration - exactly as she remembered them. They were the classic yin and yang circles, each containing an element of the other. The message is inescapable: the light and the dark are part of each other.
Added to the curious synchronicity of her getting a job at a research organisation dedicated to investigating the near-death phenomenon - at a time when she did not even know there was such a thing - and the eventual production of a thoughtful exploration that can help others towards a deeper understanding, one is left with the reassuring feeling that this apparently random horror may have some positive purpose after all.