What I’ve Learned From People Who Have Died

“In our Western culture, although death has come out of the closet, it is still not openly experienced or discussed. Allowing dying to be so intensely present enriches both the preciousness of each moment and our detachment from it.”

– Ram Dass

For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I am fascinated, possibly obsessed, by the question: ‘What Happens When We Die?’ Is this not one of the ultimate questions? Does this not go some way as to answering why we are here in the first place, if in fact, we are here. But we’ll save that question for another day.

So how to slice into this particular cake? Lets crack out the party spoons, arrange the spare furniture, don the paper hats and tuck into the subject of Death. I promise it’s not as bad as it seems but the filling is a little hard to swallow.

When I was about 2 years old I had a febrile convulsion. Essentially I overheated and had a fit. It’s relatively common but can lead to complications like choking etc. Fortunately I was in the living room at the time with my whole family. Of course, I don’t remember the event as such but after hearing the anecdotes I can piece together the story.

I stood up suddenly on the sofa and pointed to the sky. My family thought I was being a typical toddler, essentially a small drunk person with no self control. They laughed as I began to jig about, thinking I was dancing. Suddenly it dawned on them that something was wrong and chaos ensued. I believe the event lasted a few minutes, my mum went into warrior mode scraping the vomit from my mouth and hitting my back so I didn’t choke. My lips turned blue and I was gone.

My elder siblings and I, the little one, circa 1991. It was in this very room that I opened the doors of perception. My sister was beside herself.

Readers, spoiler alert; I survived. I didn’t want you to fall off your seat in anticipation. This is supposed to be enjoyable after all.

I have no evidence for the following statement, nor can I fully guarantee its accuracy but just like when you fall in love, sometimes you just know. I know that I went somewhere else that night. I know I’ve been back since. That event seems to have cracked open a door in mind that has since affected to what and to whom I am drawn towards. Where did I go? Let me tell you.

It was night. The distant horizon was a folded mountain range. Before it stretched a vast desert and the sky was black, pitted with stars. As I dig further into this abstract and transitory memory, there seemed to be an electronic quality there. I’m not sure I can describe this in any more detail but the closest relevant visuals are that of ‘Tron’. A desert at night with a vague digital gradient. There was a woman in the sky, completely beautiful. She was like the Star Mother or something. A cosmic princess with vast power.

My parents were huge Beatles fans and I was named after the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Some part of me, again, an impossible part of me, thinks there’s a connection there. Who is this Diamond Goddess? Was this an encounter with my own archetype or simply the feverish visions of a poorly child? Perhaps it is the latter but regardless, this vision has had tangible effects on this material reality. It gave me a glimpse, even before I could properly distinguish between real and not real, into another world and thus steered me towards the iridescent ever since.

I was a sickly child and regularly feverish. One specific and repeating memory I have is the feeling that my body was expanding to infinity and then collapsing in on itself to the smallest unit possible over and over again. Now, when I meditate I can conjure up this experience again. It follows the breath and is fairly weird.

Another ‘memory’ I have is one I’ve never told anyone before in my life. Again, this is from when I was very young but it’s extremely clear in its emotional and sensory resonance. I can’t remember how old I was when I experienced it or even where I was when it happened, only the ‘dream’ remains. Essentially, it was the most glorious and colourful rainforest, impossibly large in every sense of the word. There was a body of water there, a giant waterfall and on the banks of the river into which it crashed there was a house with a porch. Everything had a golden shimmer to it and on the porch sat a bucsom black woman who again, radiated power, wisdom and time but also, love. The specifics of our exchange has slipped through my fingers now but I took something away from it that I can’t formulate into language.

Years later something triggered this memory of a dream and that was reading ‘The Shack’ by William P Young. I haven’t seen the film but by all accounts it’s terrible. Read the book. It’s a deal breaker when it comes to faith and awe. Spoiler alert: God is a Black Woman, or should I say, God presents itself as a Black Woman to the author.

Let’s reel it back a bit, we’re getting too far ahead of ourselves.

Final anecdote. I pass out a lot. I’ve passed out twice in the past few months, one from quite a severe allergic reaction. Every time I pass out I go somewhere else. I only know this because when I wake up, I get the sensation that I’m coming back. I know, vague right? This place is utter chaos. It’s a reticulating and undulating circus of complete insanity. Time loops, carousels and whizzpoppers. I’m not sure whether it’s pleasant or not.

All of these experiences and more, sit in the back of my mind and sometimes they pop their strange little heads into my conscious thoughts. I’m trying to take note of when and why this happens and it’s often at a time when I’m feeling most creative, most in the flow and least resistant to what is. Is this why I paint these colourful and chaotic landscapes of the mind? Am I, like many others, a conduit through which ‘The Other Sides’ are pushing into this world?

Carnival of the Mind (2018) – Watercolour and Pen
Inspired by the visionary journeys I experience when in altered states of consciousness such as – unconsciousness.

Let’s squeeze some science in here before I lose the last reader who’s got this far.

Near Death Experiences, or NDE’s are more common than you think. WAY more common. So common in fact that Doctors and Scientists have been cataloguing and studying them for years. A great source of information about NDE’s is IANDS – The International Association for Near Death Studies. On their website you can find papers, journals and lectures on the subject. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole that to me, is pushing the boundaries of understanding further than most other avenues of enquiry.

This subject is course still utterly taboo and is given no real credence within the canon of science. Despite this, many academics pursue the subject with much vim and vigour and as much scientific objectivity that can be achieved in virtually non-repeatable events. The Journal of Near Death Studies, first published in 1981, is the only peer-reviewed academic collection of articles on the subject. All articles older than 3 years can be viewed and downloaded for free.

Due to the nature of such a transitory and non material subject, scientists often look to Quantum Physics, Mythical Tradition, Shamanism, Psychedelic States and Psychology as a skeleton upon which to flesh out their theories. Recent developments in the use of Psilocybin and MDMA to help with various psychological disorders is encouraging in the movement towards exploring these profound states of consciousness. A statistically significant amount of people are left with a new sense of awareness or a spiritual transformation after a NDE (Sutherland, 1990). This echoes the shift in perspective after the high-dose Psychedelic experience. Similarly, an encounter with a higher power or ultimate reality and a significant and lasting change in life satisfaction and purpose follows these Psychedelic experiences too.

There’s plenty of literature out there to get your teeth into if you are interested in pushing out into the nether regions of the unknown and I’ve included some at the bottom of the page. There’s also a lot of very beautiful videos on youtube telling people’s personal stories from channels like IANDS and Anthony Chene.

A wonderful and moving lecture from Lauren Bellg an ICU Doctor on her decades of experience with patients who experienced an NDE

When I read people’s reports from their NDE’s or their deep psychedelic states I notice a pattern. I also feel like I’m reading Magellan’s tales from the East Indies when the New World was still the unknown kingdom. This mysterious land of inner perception is our frontier. These willing or unwilling explorers travel to the furthest shores that we know of and bring back not tobacco and spices, but shimmering facets of hope that when our physical body has broken, our perception goes on. The part of you that perceives its environment continues although perhaps without the physical network of analytical neurons. Without grey matter our engagement with our surroundings is altered but there’s still a sense of ‘I’. I shan’t quote Descartes but you get the picture.

Jung talks of the varying levels of consciousness, peeling back the onion of self to reveal layers of perception. By letting go of the part of us that relates to the body and self in ‘ego-death’ we are begining to touch the Bardo. Jung was a cartographer. He drew the maps that allowed us to frame our experiences. The Psychedelic revolution of the 60’s had something to grasp onto as each person set sail into the inner realms of their psyche.

This is but a brief introduction into my own personal fascination into Death and how people have historically tried to shine a light into this vast and possibly permanent void.

What have I learned?

This ongoing investigation is nowhere near to a conclusion and perhaps will never be until that day comes where I step over the abyss into permanent physical death. But I get the feeling that in trying to answer this question I may find some purpose, moments of clarification, fear, awe and peace. My intertial momentum towards this broad subject and its many branches began with the lady in the sky. I will continue to snuffle the burrows of history. I will forever be filled with a great sense of peace when I brush my brain-fingers against an idea that fits so perfectly within the jigsaw that is my understanding of the world.

“An era can be send to end when its basic illusions have been exhausted”

Arthur Miller

Let’s exhaust our basic illusions. Let’s not presume that the individual is finite but perhaps look to nature for some clarity:

“”Just as the flame of a candle is never a constant, a flame of a candle is a stream of hot gas. Only you say the flame of the candle as if it were a constant, well it is a recognisably constant pattern. The spear-shape line of the flame and it’s coloration is a constant pattern, but in exactly the same way that we are all constant patterns and that’s all we are, the only thing constant about us at all is the doing rather than the being.”

Alan Watts

We are not a singular being, we are always changing every single moment. Parts of us are dying and other parts of us are being born. And that’s just in the physical sense. We let go of ideas and illusions about the world and add new concepts and thoughts all the time – this is our quintessence. We are a flame that appears to be constant but is actually an ever changing pattern of hot gas that will fade when the wick has no more wax. But you can move the flame, you can light a new candle.

Is it the same flame?

This question is the crux of the point and if I take it all the way back to the beginning, my brain hurts and I have to sit down.

Has anyone else experienced a NDE or transcendental experience? I would love to hear from you.

Here’s some links to some interesting articles on NDE from the Journal of Near Death Studies. I will be digging deeper into some of these ideas in future posts.

Near Death Studies and Modern Physics

An interesting article on the issues that the researchers of NDEs face in the cold light of the physical sciences.

Different Kinds of Near Death Experiences

A report on a groundbreaking survey done in Germany of people who had NDEs.

Near Death Experiences in Patients Undergoing Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

Looking at the frequency of NDEs in a one of the most commonly successful resuscitation procedures

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