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In an earlier Course Meets World piece, I discussed the many commonalities between near-death experiences (or "NDEs") and A Course in Miracles. Since writing that piece, I have continued to be fascinated by this phenomenon. Recently, I read an excellent new book on NDE research entitled The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. This book includes a chapter on the aftereffects of NDEs — the life changes and life lessons these experiences bring to those who have them. These experiences permanently change the experiencers; the effects are so profound that in many cases they essentially become new people. As I was reading this material, I was struck by just how much the new person that the NDE produces has in common with the kind of person the Course aims to produce. That is the focus of this piece.
But first, what is a near-death experience? In a nutshell, the term "near-death experience" refers to a distinct phenomenon that many people have experienced either when they nearly died as a result of accident or illness (some have even been clinically dead before reviving) or when going through a traumatic event that made them think they would die. Near-death experiences have many common features, though few people experience every single one of these features. (A minority do report distressing NDEs; one researcher suggests that the percentage of distressing NDEs may be in the mid- to high teens.) Here is a composite description of these common features from the article my previous piece was based on:
A classic example would begin with a person in an accident or medical emergency having a sense of physical death accompanied by an out-of-body experience — feeling like he is floating, possibly seeing his own body and surroundings. The sensation is not alarming and generally is peaceful. Some senses, such as hearing, become heightened.
A period of transition, many times described as moving swiftly through a tunnel, follows. The individual enters a realm of indescribable radiance, where he is met by deceased relatives and friends. A central being of light, often interpreted as a deity, emanates profound joy and unconditional love. The individual then undergoes a life review, where the actions of a lifetime unfold in a vision. He is told or decides that it is not time to die and returns to his body, not always willingly.
The power of the experience often is life-altering. Fear of death vanishes. Love of life blossoms. Spirituality strengthens. Compassion and connectedness become central principles.
We can already see from this description some of the life-altering effects of NDEs. But now I'd like to turn to that chapter in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences, which summarizes thirty years of research into NDEs and their aftereffects. As I've said, near-death experiencers (or "NDErs") are often so transformed that they essentially become new people, with changed perspectives on life that are deep and lasting. With that in mind, I will very briefly list some of the common NDE aftereffects researches have reported (the quoted non-Course lines in this section are direct quotes from the book — specifically chapter 3, pp. 42-51). In these descriptions of aftereffects, I'll also draw from other NDE books I've read. My aim here is to show what I see as some of the commonalities between the effects the NDEs have on those who experience them and the effects the Course aims to produce in us.
NDE aftereffects and their commonalities with the Course
"Loss of the fear of death." This is the most common aftereffect reported. Though NDErs often still feel fear of the pain and suffering associated with the process of dying, they no longer fear death itself. Why? Because they feel they have now experienced death, and have lived to tell about it. In that experience, they not only continued to exist outside of their bodies, but in many cases experienced a "joyous union with their creator." They now know that their life continues beyond death, for who they are is eternal. Some have even said that death is an illusion. Why, then, fear death? This has clear commonalities with the Course. While the Course doesn't teach that simply dying will automatically awaken us to God (and I don't think the realm described by NDErs is identical to the Course's Heaven), the Course does want us to recognize that there is no death, we are not bodies, we are already united with our Creator, and therefore have no reason to fear death of the body.
"New or enhanced spirituality." This is another extremely common aftereffect. NDErs often report an encounter with "a Godlike presence, often described as a 'being of light'" which "often showed great care for, and favor toward, the individual." Indeed, "great care" is almost an understatement; most people describe the absolute love coming from this being as infinitely greater than any love they have ever experienced. This encounter forms the basis of that new spirituality, a spirituality that often runs counter the traditional religious beliefs they may have had before, which emphasized a judgmental God. The Course, too, wants to awaken a new spirituality in us, rooted in the experience of a totally loving God.
"New sense of purpose or mission." NDErs frequently come to believe that they have a special mission in life, a mission that is "an important part of a godly plan." Indeed, they often report that either they were sent back here or decided on their own to return in order to fulfill this mission. In like manner, the Course teaches that we have a special function in God's plan for salvation, and it exhorts us to devote our lives to the mission we have been given: "I am making His plan perfectly explicit to you, and will also tell you of your part in it, and how urgent it is to fulfill it" (T-5.VII.4:4).
"Heightened self-esteem." This heightened self-esteem stems both from the great love showered upon NDErs by the being of light, and from the heightened sense of meaning that comes from having a "divine mission." The Course, too, wants us to feel authentic self-esteem, an esteem based not on the usual list of ego-based traits and accomplishments, but on the recognition that we are eternally beloved of God and our meaning comes from sharing His Will in Heaven and on earth.
"Altered perception of the body." Many NDErs experience a sense of being disconnected from and disidentified with their bodies, even a sense that they are "imprisoned" in their bodies. True, the body is still useful for fulfilling that divine mission, but it is an extremely limiting residence after experiencing the freedom of basking in the light. The Course, too, while it regards the body as a useful tool for fulfilling our special function, wants us to recognize the imprisoning nature of identification with the body, and fully take in the truth that "I am not a body. I am free" (W-pI.199.Heading). This is an idea it wants us to "hold…very dear" (W-pI.199.3:1).
"New appreciation of, and zest for, life." NDErs come to believe that every moment of life is precious, and they take greater pleasure in "little" things like being with family and friends. While the Course doesn't teach that life on earth is inherently wonderful, it does want us to constantly remind ourselves that every moment is a precious opportunity to contribute to salvation (especially when we are with other people). Therefore, no moment should be wasted: "Every minute and every second gives you a chance to save yourself [by saving others]. Do not lose these chances" (T-9.VII.1:6-7). It even tells us that there is an urgency to this, as we see in the above quote about fulfilling our part in God's plan. As the paragraph from which that quote is taken says, "The time is now" (T-5.VII.4:1).
"Living more fully in the moment." In part because the current moment is so precious, NDErs are not so obsessed with "planning for the future or concerned for the impression they might make." While I think the Course's version of living in the moment is different from the usual notion of being in touch with the world of the senses, it has its own version of the present: the holy instant. It wants us to "live forever in the holy instant, beginning now and reaching to eternity" (T-15.IV.6:3). In addition, the Course discourages our own planning for the future, as we see especially in Lesson 135.
Physical and mental healing. Although some NDErs report distress after their NDEs (even in some cases when the NDE itself was pleasurable), the majority report that their lives are positively transformed. Some report miraculous physical healings. Others say that psychological problems like depression and anxiety have abated. Those who were formerly suicidal have reported that their suicidal tendencies have been reduced or eliminated. Needless to say, the Course also wants us to experience miraculous mental and physical healing.
Increased paranormal phenomena. Though none of them regard this as the most important change they experienced, NDErs report a variety of ongoing psychic experiences. These include things like "clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, intuition, guidance, out-of-body experience….awareness of dreams, perception of auras, and contact with spirits." The Course, too (especially in Section 25 of the Manual), assumes that we will likely develop psychic abilities as we progress on our journey to God: A person on the Course's path "may well develop abilities that seem quite startling to him" (M-25.1:4). Yet while "Certainly there are many 'psychic' abilities that are clearly in line with this course" (M-25.2:1) and in the Holy Spirit's hands such abilities "can be very helpful" (M-25.3:1), the Course also counsels us to be wary of placing excessive importance on them, since they can be easily abused by the ego.
Increased ability to hear spiritual guidance. One extremely helpful ability many NDErs report is an enhanced ability to connect with an "inner source of wisdom" which gives them "a sense of being guided." This of course is one of the main abilities the Course wants us to develop: the ability to access the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
"Enhanced…appreciation for nature." NDErs often report a deeper connection with nature, a more heightened and vivid experience of the natural world. At first blush, this may seem to have no parallel in the Course, since the Course regards the physical world as an illusion. Yet the Course does regard the beings behind the forms of nature (even grains of sand — see T-28.IV.9:4) to be Sons of God, and speaks glowingly of how we will see them when we behold them with the eyes of Christ: "All this beauty will rise to bless your sight as you look upon the world with forgiving eyes….The smallest leaf becomes a thing of wonder, and a blade of grass a sign of God's perfection" (T-17.II.6:1, 3).
Increased communication with deceased friends, relatives, and spiritual beings. NDErs often develop a deeper connection with beings beyond this world and are able to communicate with them both during and after their NDE. This dovetails once again with Section 25 of the Manual, which tells us, "Communication is not limited to the small range of channels the world recognizes" (M-25.2:2). While again the Course warns against placing an undue emphasis on this, certainly it expects that as we progress on the journey, new communication channels will be opened, just as Helen's mind opened to Jesus.
Reduction of judgment toward others. NDErs often find that they are "more accepting, tolerant, and understanding of persons they might have tended to judge in the past." This is very much the kind of person the Course wants us to become: a person who has let go of his harsh judgment of his brothers and looks upon all with the gentle eyes of forgiveness.
Loss of concern about "material gain, recognition, or status." NDErs report a shift from a primary concern for their own personal gain to a primary concern for the well-being of others. They often lose the desire to compete with others for material rewards, because competition is "contrary to their post-NDE outlook." The connection with the Course is obvious: The Course wants us to leave behind the competition for specialness in its myriad forms — "power, fame, money, physical pleasure" (M-13.2:6), etc. – and shift our focus from self-concern to caring for the welfare of our brothers.
"Greater compassion toward others…a desire to serve them." This follows from the previous point. The primary concern of NDErs for the well-being of others expresses as compassion and a calling to be of service to others. "Based on a sense of oneness with humanity arising from their NDEs," NDErs become more sensitive to others' needs and want to meet those needs. Indeed, many have to reassess their employment and their relationships in light of their newfound regard for others. This regard for others and desire to serve them is a major focus of the Course, which has us repeat in one of its most famous lines: "I am here only to be truly helpful" (T-2.V.A.18:2). It wants us to devote our lives to being truly helpful to everyone. The importance of this devotion can hardly be overemphasized, for in the Course's view there is "one way alone" to awaken to God: "Hear a brother call for help and answer him" (P-2.V.8:2, 4).
More openness and freedom in expressing our feelings. NDErs tend to be more open to others, especially when it comes to "caring for those whom they encountered." While the Course isn't big on simply expressing feelings for the sake of expression (especially negative feelings such as anger), it does want us to express our feelings of caring in our words and actions, as the Holy Spirit directs. It wants us to make every encounter with another person a holy encounter, in which we extend our caring to that person and experience it returning to us. We are to spend our days engaging with others in "the holy in encounters which salvation can be found" (T-13.IV.7:7).
Increased healing abilities. A number of NDErs report increased psychic healing abilities, and some begin actively using their abilities for the purpose of healing others. Developing healing abilities and using them to heal others is the crowning fruit the Course wants us to glean from our work with it. After all, it is a course in miracles. It is a course intended to develop miracle workers who extend miracles of healing to their brothers. It wants to get us to the point where the very first line Helen Schucman heard in the Course dictation (yes, even before "This is a course in miracles. Please take notes") is true for us: "You will see miracles through your hands through Me." This is the way home for us.
The kind of person NDEs and the Course produce
Now that we have looked at a list of NDE aftereffects and their correspondences with the effects the Course wants to produce in us, I want to paint a broad picture of the person I see depicted here. (This is an idealized portrait; of course, actual NDErs and Course students alike are still quite human and have a long way to go before they fully embody this exalted state.)
This picture has two main strokes. First, I see a person who has a new center of gravity that is beyond the world. This person realizes that she is not merely a body battling with other bodies on planet earth, and therefore winning the rat race is not where her happiness lies. She is no longer so focused on worldly things. Instead, this person realizes that she is something far greater: an eternal being beloved of God, a being who will live on beyond the illusory barrier we call death. She is, as the saying goes, a spiritual being having a human experience. Spirit is her reality. The Light of Love she has encountered in her NDE is where her center of gravity lies.
Second, I see a person who, while she has a center of gravity beyond the world, is also lovingly engaged with the world. One might think that a person who has experienced the Great Beyond might disdain the world, and be eager to leave it behind as soon as possible. But instead, this person finds deep meaning and joy in life on earth. She is not content to simply escape to the Light herself; she wants to bring everyone with her. After all, everyone is joined, so she cannot go alone. Therefore, out of her love for her brothers and sisters, she devotes her life to egoless relating with others, being of joyous service to anyone and everyone she encounters. She becomes a miracle worker. The Light of Love she has encountered in her NDE leads her to become the light of the world.
I'm reminded of a statement by psychic Jeane Dixon that Jesus himself (in the Urtext) regarded as a miracle: "Feet on the ground and fingertips in the Heaven." I find this a beautiful combination, because it seems to me that human beings have a tendency to overemphasize one side or the other. On the one hand, many people (especially those who don't believe in anything beyond the world), overemphasize the worldly part, and devote themselves either to looking out for number one or (at best) to making the world a better place on its terms. On the other hand, many people who discover spirituality swing to the other side and disdain the world. We see this, for instance, in Course students who downplay the Course's huge emphasis on extending to others because they don't want to "make the error real." In the words attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Some people are so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good."
But the perspective of NDEs and the Course, it seems to me, gives us the best of both worlds. NDEs and the Course produce (or in the Course's case, aim to produce) people who are simultaneously aware of their true spiritual reality and fully engaged in the earthly mission of helping everyone else find that reality. This is such a loving vision of what life is all about: a vision in which the loving children of a loving God help one another return to God. How wonderful!
I want to become a person like this, a person who is genuinely good, kind, and loving, a true light to the world. How about you? If you feel as I do, the good news is that we don't have to wait until we are at the brink of death to begin to bring these changes into our lives. NDErs, in fact, insist that you don't have to have an NDE to produce these changes; you simply need the desire for them and the willingness to devote yourself to the task of bringing them about. For those of us who are Course students, this means walking the path of the Course with as much desire and diligence as we can. If the changes in the lives of NDErs are any indication, the results are certainly worth it.