An open conversation with fellow ‘seekers’
When you are over seventy and especially if you are addressing members of a dementia friendly community, posing this question could elicit a sympathetic but wholly inappropriate response. What I want you all to consider is a new model for understanding ourselves that has recently brought about some unity between both scientific and spiritual researchers.
This is of significance to me because I had a so called ‘near death experience’ when I was four years old, which left me with the perception that ‘I am not my body’. However, as my education and experience of this life grew, I met people who seemed to believe that the universe was the product of chance interactions and our ideas about it arose from within our brain. I also began to realise that the dominant world-view was what I came to know as ‘reductionism’ or the ‘explanation of complex life-science processes and phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry’. For the reductionist “the simple is the source of the complex”. In other words, to explain a complex phenomenon (like human behaviour) one needs to “reduce” it to its constituent elements. Whereas, for a holist like me “the whole is more than the sum of the parts”.
Why science has been of benefit to me and others
My professional and much of my voluntary activities have involved the application of the ‘scientific method’. For me it has been a case of acquiring information, particularly on technology and economic systems, and reducing them to words and figures to help others to get an overview and understanding so that decisions about governance could take place. I have even developed new statistical techniques and written educational courses to try to improve the way this sort of work is done.
Like many others, I like a gadget. For example, I walk around with a mobile phone that not only allows me to speak and be spoken to almost regardless of wherever I and the other party am but also enables me to leave or accept a written message, send or receive a picture, get directions, check the weather, find information so that I can plan activities, carry out several types of measurement and even play games (though mostly it is my grandson who does that). I could have written this paper on my telephone and it has other features I have never used.
When I had a heart attack early in 2015, the collapsed artery was quickly repaired with a piece of tubular metal mesh called a stent and my vital functions constantly monitored for several days after. Of course, the medical professionals did not have to be in the same room to do it. To this day and for the foreseeable future, my body is and will be tested and monitored regularly. Every day, in addition to taking several chemical preparations to improve the performance of my heart, I take pills for three other conditions including, perhaps most importantly, an oral chemotherapy drug to prevent my immune system from attacking healthy parts of my body, which has improved my overall health very noticeably and performed better than even the experts expected. Therefore, I have a lot to thank scientific research for and I meet many others who say the same. You could say that I am here because of it or, at least, my body is!
Quantum theory challenges reductionism
Unfortunately for extreme reductionists, their position has been undermined by experiments to discover the fundamental building blocks that their ideas require. The more research has probed into that which is far too small to be seen the less familiar what they uncover seems to be. Rather than irreducible solid objects there is empty space. The distinction between the observer and what is observed becomes less certain. For example, light can take on the property of either a wave or a particle depending on what the experimenter is looking for. Objects can, apparently, be in separate places at the same time. Instant communication can occur. Most significantly, it seems as if intelligence is a property of creation rather than solely a product of our brain. Thus, one version of quantum theory states that ‘life creates the universe’.
Near death experiences seek scientific explanation
Another challenge to the reductionist position that’ life ends with this life’ has come from the way medical advances have altered the definition of when a body can be pronounced to be dead. There was a time, relatively recently, when, if the heart stopped, people were considered to have died but now patients are regularly revived by having the heart restarted and it can be stopped and its functions replaced by a machine during surgery. ‘Brain death’ has become a more important indicator, especially when deciding when ‘life support systems’ should be switched off.
Penny Sartori, an experienced intensive care nurse working for the National Health Service, became concerned that there seemed to be an attitude amongst some of her colleagues that death was a state to be avoided. She felt that this could lead to unnecessary suffering. To inform and help colleagues face this moral dilemma, she persuaded her employers to fund research into Near Death Experiences or “NDEs”, which led to her being awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. She, in her words, “predominantly investigated NDEs that occurred during cardiac arrest” but also notes that they “can occur in other contexts”. One of her results was a list of nineteen components that can form part of a NDE, some of which would be recognisable to anyone familiar with spiritual experiences or writings.
A random poll conducted in the USA and Germany led to an estimate that up to 4% of the population of the Western World will have experienced a NDE. Some of these people are particularly well placed to cause scientists to take an interest because of the medical circumstances and their own scientific training and status in the profession. One such was Dr Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon in his fifties, who contracted meningitis caused by an antibiotic resistant strain of the bacterium e-coli. He was in a coma for eight days in his own Hospital Department in Virginia in the USA and his condition was carefully monitored and recorded by his colleagues. Because of evidence of severe brain damage and the absence of measurable brain function, his family agreed that life support should be terminated. However, he came out of his coma and spoke to his family and colleagues present on the same day this decision had been taken. Over the following months he made an apparently total recovery and was, eventually able to resume his hospital work. His ‘near death experience’ completely changed his attitude to and acceptance of life beyond death of the body and led to him to write a book entitled ‘Proof of Heaven’. It also caused him to change his model of the role of the brain and consider an explanation proposed by other colleagues within the last twenty years.
The new model postulates that the brain is a receiver or, at best, a transceiver. A bit like a smart television but one that has a limited number of channels and does not show the complete picture.
What this means for us
As we reach the final part of this open conversation, I hope you are wondering how this all relates to your faith and the development of your understanding. I know from personal experience that all spiritual experiences open the door to a reality that is difficult and sometimes impossible to put into words, even for yourself. When you try to describe it to anyone else some people find it weird and disturbing. I learnt to keep quiet about it, even though it was so real and important to me. I was kept in an isolation hospital, without seeing any of my family, for about three months after I came out of a coma, caused by scarlet fever, which was when my experience happened in human time. Afterwards, the only two people with whom I found I could talk about it and how it affected the way I perceived the world were my brother and my maternal grandmother, who always got the job of looking after me when I was ill.
Fortunately, when I was thinking about writing this, the words did arrive because what I have had ever since I was small is the ability to have a conversation with the presence I think of as ‘God’ but others would describe as the ‘Universal Mind’. The reason why I describe it as ‘conversation’ is that answers do come, though getting the brain to understanding them can take longer.
Let me attempt this explanation by using selected parts of the Christian gospel story and related texts that are familiar within the ‘Western Tradition’ but are also known to many scholars who would not describe themselves as Christian. John’s gospel starts “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God”. In the earliest Greek language version, known to us, the key word is ‘logos’, which can be translated into English as ‘word’ but the Greek also incorporates ‘concept’ or ‘idea’. That word or idea was created flesh and dwelt among us. So, everything in heaven and on earth is an idea of God, including us! A ‘near death’ or any ‘out of the body’ experience is then followed by a return to a life within a body and so is, in a sense, a practical demonstration of a second, conscious, chance at the birth to the life we all are currently experiencing. However, this is not usually described as a pleasant experience.
In all four of the gospels we know from the Bible which was adopted by the church structure established by the Roman Emperor Constantine and still used today, Jesus encourages those who follow Him to be open, like young children, if they wish to understand His teachings. People who have had profound spiritual experiences, especially those classified as ‘NDE’s’, report that such events have altered their perception of life and what they perceive as reality so they feel they need to relearn even established patterns of behaviour, as if they had returned to childhood. Because I was so young, that was perhaps less of a shock but it does remind me to remain open.
When Christians talk about the death of Jesus by crucifixion they frequently acknowledge that Christ took our burdens upon Himself to set us free. The one phrase I have retained from the time I was ‘held by God’ is “you can let go”. I have experienced many periods of pain during my life to the present, especially due to illnesses such as colitis, kidney stone, a ruptured vertebral disc, reactive arthritis, heart attack and angina plus the discomfort of treatments for these and other conditions. Fortunately, when things become unbearable, I have always been able to ‘let go’ and become aware that my pain is being carried for me. I know that this is an experience of release and healing that I share from reading or hearing the account given by others in a similar position, such as a fondly remembered friend, who used to talk about “laying her burdens at the foot of the Cross”.
Interestingly for those familiar with the imagery of the Ascension of Jesus when he parted physical company with his followers, many of the people talking about their ‘near death experience’ in the research done for the National Health Service by Dr Penny Sartori “report suddenly being drawn upwards” and she also states that “The most prevalent component of the NDE are feelings of immense joy, peace, euphoria, calm and tranquillity. Any pain that the individual was previously experiencing disappears during the NDE”.
When we read the gospels and other spiritual works, we may imagine what it might be like to be in the presence of God incarnate. What I would like you all to consider is that this is true for you here and now in this life. What you worship is closer to you than you can imagine, has been and always will be because you are an idea of His and share eternity with Him and that is the answer for everyone to the great spiritual question “who I am” and also explains why each of us is here. Thank you for reading this and do not cease conversing with the universal mind either directly or by talking to other individual parts of the whole.