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
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
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
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.