National Geographic: This month my story and a few other NDE stories were briefly featured in the April issue of National Geographic. Our stories were not the main focus of the article “The Crossing.” This article examines scientific and human experience as a way to explore the dying process. The primary NDE story is the story of Mary Neal, an orthopedic surgeon from Wyoming and author of To Heaven and Back. I liked Robin Marantz Henig’s description of Mary Neal’s response to the first responders working on her body. They called, “Come back, come back,” and Neal found this “really very irritating.”
Consciousness Beyond the Body: I understand Neal’s irritation. Being free of the body and merging with a greater sense of consciousness feels wonderful and not at all like the “brain is shutting down.” It is irritating to come back, and many NDErs report this feeling. I describe returning to my body as being swallowed up by a dark wind. I felt more alive while dead. Most of the magic, light, and beauty disappeared, and my body felt heavy, drugged, and painful. I didn’t want to be stuck in the limited experience of this particular body with her history, her stories, her psychological and childhood wounds, and the limits of her particular mind. Outside of my body, I was both myself and greater than myself, connected to an incredible download of information, and for that moment I knew so much more than I could ever know living in this one perspective. The experience of existing in a more expansive and connected universe made my individual experience seem boring and limited. I had been inside the minds of so many others, and now I only had my mind as a way to process life. When the nurse asked me my name, I said, “I remember her name. It’s Tricia,” and it seemed annoying to have only my brain as a vehicle to process experience and information. Outside of my body, I was connected to a greater knowledge and understanding.
Many people I know have reported having a knowledge or sense beyond the physical, sometimes knowing the very moment someone close to them has died. There is a knowledge beyond the physical that perhaps cannot be explained by measuring brain waves. NDErs sometimes report a great connection to knowledge beyond what they have ever experienced. The moments outside my body seemed nothing like a dream or a hallucination. After my accident, I began to practice lucid dreaming, and even though these dreams were glorious, they were not the same as the NDE.
During my NDE, angels were sent as guides to comfort me and the information given to me in streams of light altered my consciousness. Watching the angels work through the surgeons was an amazing moment because the surgeon’s scientific backgrounds may have made them skeptical that angels could work through them, but the angels were able to work through them anyway.
Scientific Arguments: This article gives a little more time to researchers like Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky who calls what is happening to the brain during an NDE a “REM intrusion,” asserting this is the same brain activity that characterizes dreaming and happens during events like moments when a person might suddenly lose oxygen. The way I see it is that scientists are standing on this side of the veil testing brains and making hypotheses without giving enough credit to the idea that there might be a reality beyond this one that humans are in the process of navigating while in these states.
Pear vs. Apple: To put it another way, say I ate an apple away from the view of scientists, and then a group of scientists tested the bile in my stomach, tested my sugar levels, and the acid forming on my teeth and suggested that I may have eaten a pear or possibly an apple. I tell them I know that I ate an apple, but they continue to believe that a pear is just as possible as an apple because of the chemical reactions in my body. NDErs are repeatedly telling researchers that they experienced a greater consciousness than their own consciousness. They saw people working on their body, and they saw a world beyond the body, but scientists continue to say, “No…this is a dream state or high-frequency Gama waves associated with meditation.”
Even if the brain that is not completely brain dead experiences these states, might these experiences happen because the spirit has disconnected, the essence of that person has gone on and that is the realm NDErs are describing? Maybe during some meditations the spirit takes a brief hiatus the body as well or at least calms down, no longer focused on sensations of this world, sometimes even opening to guides from the other side. Maybe this is why the brain chemistry is similar during meditation.
Science and Religion: Some scientists argue with these NDErs experiences using only data. Some Christians argue with only the Bible. Going back to the apple vs. pear argument, if scientists tell me the apple I’m eating might be a pear, I think they are ridiculous. In the same vein, if some Christians tell me that I ate a demonic pear instead of an apple because my experience isn’t described in their book, I think they are equally ridiculous, perhaps more so for giving a “demonic” explanation to the most light-filled, glorious moment of my life.
Some scientists want to prove that NDErs are only dreaming and there is not an afterlife. Some Christians want to prove that their particular version of the afterlife is the only one that is real. Both camps are afraid to admit that they may not know everything and may not be able to explain everything given their current information. Most NDErs laugh at both camps, preferring the poets, spiritual seekers, and the open-minded, curious folks of the world. Though NDErs don’t have all the answers, they have a few experiences that make them believe that we go on after death. Science and/or religion simply can’t explain everything for us after our particular journeys. I know that I came back with a lot of joy for life, an almost childlike appreciation of the smallest things.
I wish the article had captured our joy and the essence of our experiences. I think we all should have been pictured jumping for joy with a caption reading, “I’m Alive!” I don’t think of death as a traumatic experience. I think of it as a beautiful, peaceful experience, and choose not to focus too much on the physical trauma and instead on the spiritual insights and beauty of those moments outside of my body.