At some stage, you will die. You may not know the time, date or circumstance of your death, but you do know it’s inevitable. Contemplating this fact can be uncomfortable. It evokes anxiety and fear in most people.
But not those people who have had a near-death experience (NDE). NDEs are extraordinarily profound mystical or transcendental occurrences, during which the boundaries between space, time and normal perceptual awareness become blurred.
They can include elements such as travel through a tunnel, seeing a bright light, an out-of-body experience, and meeting deceased others and spiritual beings.
They are typically reported by people who have had a close brush with death, or have died and been resuscitated. Recent research suggests they occur during the time period when physical functioning is severely compromised or non-existent.
Not all people who have a close brush with death or who are resuscitated have an NDE, nor do those people, on the whole, lose their fear of death. So, it is rather curious that people who have had an NDE typically report a complete loss of the fear of death.
Why is this so?
Perhaps it is the paradoxically pleasant nature of the experience. Many people report feeling overwhelmingly positive emotions during their NDE, including peace, unconditional love and joy.
In many Western cultures, thinking of death can be so disturbing that unspoken taboos exist. We rarely talk about death, and keep it hidden within the far-reaches of the psyche.
Yet, some people who have had NDEs suggest the apparent experience of death is an altogether pleasant one that should not be feared.
Others say they felt as though they were disembodied, and existed as a state of mere consciousness. Seeing one’s body and resuscitation efforts, or other events occurring outside the vicinity of one’s body, can also happen.
There is a widespread belief in Western cultures that death is the end, but many people who have had an NDE say this is not so – the feeling of having conscious awareness and existing outside of one’s physical body suggests the self does not end. Controversially, NDEs indicate the self may continue, at least for a period of time, after the physical body stops functioning.
Movement through a tunnel, often at great speed, seeing a bright light, meeting deceased others, seeing beautiful otherworldly scenes, and coming to a border of no return, are commonly reported features of an NDE.
Combined, they can cement the belief the NDE provided a glimpse of a world we move to when our physical body dies another realm exists.
There is nobody judging your deeds when you die. Nobody, that is, except yourself. At least, that’s what those who have had an NDE say.
Recent large-scale studies conducted across the US, UK, Austria and Belgium have provided credible findings to suggest NDEs may actually be real phenomena. But the debate about the “realness” of NDEs is likely to continue for many years, if not decades, to come.
Whether they are verifiably real occurrences that can be scientifically quantified or not is, in many ways, irrelevant. What is significant is that people who have had NDEs universally report a complete loss of the most existential of human fears – something even the most advanced psychotherapies cannot achieve.
People who have had an NDE don’t wish for death. They want to live and fulfil their destiny. But when death finally calls, they will not be afraid. And that is quite extraordinary.
The Conversation is currently running a series on Death and Dying.
Editor’s note: Natasha will be on hand for an Author Q&A session between 11am and noon ADST tomorrow (October 30). Post any questions about near-death experiences in the comments below.