A New Focus for the Future

With modern accounts of near-death experiences and the wealth of world religious traditions at our disposal, we are now in a position to propose refocussing our attention on spiritual experiences themselves, not just specific religious interpretations of them. This is not to minimize or attempt to make redundant the differences between traditions; without differences, human expressions of spirituality would not be nearly as rich. However, the differences are abundant and often readily apparent. The common thread, the truth that binds, is more elusive and difficult to define. The thread is there, though, and this is where humanity desperately needs to direct its efforts now.

This approach is necessary because the modern Western preoccupation with materialism has left the present generation increasingly devoid of spiritual meaning. This sounds cliché by now, but it is more true than ever. And why not? Material reality appears to be so real, so consistent. Spirituality in the form of religion or even philosophy changes drastically from tradition to tradition and from person to person. What makes one tradition or spiritual philosophy better than the other? The purely materialistic world view, on the other hand, does not need to prove or demonstrate the existence of any truth beyond that which we can see, hear, touch, taste or smell. It is no wonder, then, that such an obvious world view as materialism has gained so many adherents.

Spiritual world views still exist, though, and in many forms. It is this author's contention that these persist, and will continue to persist, because of spiritual experiences. Such experiences come in a variety of forms, but typically are enough to transform one's view of reality. The mystical experience, in particular -- of which the near-death experience is one form -- is the one that we have examined and will now use to "sew the thread" of a common human spirituality.

Mystics often say that the mystical experience is extremely rare. That very well might be true, if we expect to find exactly the same experience, let alone exactly the same interpretation of the experience, in every reported instance. Viewed more broadly, however, the mystical experience in all its forms might very well be much more common than is generally assumed.

Mystical experiences range from a feeling of elevated spiritual joy to visions of Divinity to oneness with the universe. In this book that we have focused more specifically on the mystic encounter with light and ecstasy. We have seen that this aspect of mysticism is directly parallel to the kinds of reports of an encounter with a "being of light" in the near-death experience. This demonstrates that the same experience can be found across cultures and throughout time. It also suggests that with the growing number of reports of near-death experiences, the phenomenon is not as rare as some might believe.

An even more common form of the mystical experience is that of spiritual ecstasy alone. If we just look at the component of ecstasy recorded in this book, the parallels with modern Christian revivalism are hard to ignore. In the latter movement, the experience of joy in Christ or the Holy Spirit is a cornerstone of the movement. Revivalist, 'born-again' or 'charismatic' Christians report a depth of religious feeling that has to be considered at some level a form of mystical experience. Given that this form of religious expression is quite common, so too then must be this aspect of the mystical experience.

The interpretation of exactly what that experience means for that category of Christian is often, of course, at variance with the interpretation of others who have undergone the same kind of encounter. Nonetheless, reports of the phenomenon are found well beyond the Christian fold. Again this suggests that the experience itself is not so rare; it is more likely that specific interpretations of the experience that make an individual or a movement seem so unique or special.

One of the most common forms of the mystical experience, then, is the joyful encounter with a loving spiritual being -- the kind so often reported in various forms of religious revivalism. Related to this, although not quite as common, is the encounter with Divine Light, as we have seen throughout this book. Probably the least common is the complete union of the soul with the Divine, of which we have seen some notable examples in this book.

Other phenomena, such as the perceived separation of the soul from the body, might very well be included as aspects of the mystical experience. These are all part of a journey toward a single end: spiritual communion with the Divine. The vision of spiritual light and the feeling of ecstasy lets us know that the Divine not only exists, but exists in resplendent and loving glory. Union allows us to catch a glimpse of what very well might be the final resting place of humanity, the soul's ultimate destination.

This leads us back to the concept of the self which was brought up by Susan Blackmore in the previous chapter. In the final analysis, there might very well not be an "eternal" human soul, as Blackmore suggests. If we become truly and fully immersed in the Divine, this could not leave much room for personal identity. Blackmore was arguing in favour of a more immediate extinction of the personality, but since she raised Buddhist philosophy in support of her contention that "there is no self," then we will examine that concept in the light of the larger Buddhist tradition.

Blackmore was, consciously or otherwise, quoting the views of the Theravada ("the school of the elders") sect of Buddhism. This an ancient but minority view in the Buddhist tradition. The majority view is found in Mahayana ("greater vehicle") Buddhism, who also agree that ultimately, there is no "self" as we perceive it in this life. Meanwhile, however, we do have perceptions in this life which not only seem real but which we have to work with, regardless of ultimate reality. One of these present realities is the concept of personal identity. The concept of self is perfectly acceptable as long as we are making any distinctions at all between ourselves and other things.

The extinction of the self in Mahayana Buddhism is very much like the identification of Atman and Brahman in the Hindu tradition, and similar to the union of the soul with God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Mahayana Buddhism, it is perfectly legitimate to worship God or the gods -- this will help draw us closer to the Ultimate Enlightenment. Once we do achieve enlightenment, however, both the gods and the self disappear, because we realize that all is One.

Blackmore was therefore making a "quantum" leap to that tenet of Buddhism that holds that ultimately, there is no self. This is a far cry from the conviction of the majority stream of Buddhism that says that as long as we are in this life and not One with the highest reality, the concept of the self is perfectly legitimate. Considerable qualification is needed, then, before we can accept Blackmore's contention that the Buddha would support her claim that there is no soul to survive bodily death.

That being said, Blackmore does raise an interesting challenge to her opponents in the field of near-death phenomena because those who have undergone a near-death experience have not been "dead" for very long. What happens after this initial process? Does the perceived "disembodied soul" continue to exist in a separate existence, either in heaven or (heaven forbid) in hell forever? If we accept the doctrine of reincarnation, does this mean that we are going to be born, die, and be born again forever? Or, as Blackmore and others would have it, do we simply cease to exist the moment after we die?

An analysis of the mystical experience can help us understand and perhaps even reconcile the near-death experience with the major religious traditions of the world. Even in its most elementary form, the mystical experience is awesome, to say the least, as is the near-death experience. If we can imagine what it would be like to be as awe-struck as the experiencer, it is easy to see why someone might view this as some spiritual being that is much greater than and separate from oneself -- i.e., God. On the other hand, one might conclude that since this happened within oneself, then there might just be much more to oneself than previously assumed -- even to the point that Divinity resides within oneself.

Those who have a mystical experience while they are members of a given tradition are more than likely to interpret the experience within the doctrine of the tradition concerned. This often leads to an identification of the experience with the interpretation, e.g. "God's Holy Spirit has come to me," or "I have experienced nirvana." Unfortunately, too strict an adherence to an all-encompassing interpretation of such a deeply felt experience can lead to fundamentalism, intolerance, and even cultism. The near-death phenomenon is particularly refreshing this way, because the focus is still on the experience itself, and the interpretations generally make reference to the pure experience. Such a focus would be very helpful in breathing new spiritual and intellectual life into religion.

After all, if profound spiritual experiences do not have relevance in religion, than what does? All major religious traditions have plenty of examples of these occurrences, both historically and more than likely even within their own memberships. Further, by looking at the religious experiences of traditions other than one's own, we would see how others could develop different ways of looking at a common spiritual source.

Clearly some religious experiences exist other than mystical ones. Some are downright terrifying, others visionary without any relation to the mystical vision. The mystical experience is only unique because the language used to describe it is so similar from tradition to tradition. Near-death experiences are largely consistent with mystical accounts, which speaks well for the continuity of the phenomenon. If we can broaden near-death research to include more fully the religious mystical experience, then we can deepen our understanding of both fields. And if we keep both fields focused on the experience itself, then we might very well come up with new and better interpretations of it.

Meanwhile, recognizing a common human spirituality has great personal and social value. For the individual, this might very well be the sense of spiritual meaning that so many find lacking in a materialistic society. For society, it means a removal of the veil of bigotry that has characterized too many religious movements for far too long. Society would grow to appreciate our common spiritual heritage as we share our experiences, while being able to respect the various ways that we interpret them.



Divine Encounters
A New Focus for the Future


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