Life Lessons from the Living Dead

Hieronymous Bosch, Ascent of the Blessed

Text copyright Jonathan Zap, 2010

Editor: Austin Iredale

“Our ideas about death define how we live our lives.”
—Dag Hammarskjold

“And Death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the dead could adequately tell.” —-Herman Melville, Moby Dick (LL 247)

If you want to learn about what’s at the core of life, the essential and ultimate universal values beneath all the distractions, deceptions and delusions, then ask the living dead. No, I don’t mean zombies. From my experience zombies have little to offer when it comes to finding the deeper meaning of life. I am referring instead to the testimony of near-death experiencers, people who have been physically dead for short periods of time, glimpsed human incarnation from the outside, and come back to their bodies.

Extensive research has shown that near-death experiences have classic, universal elements and that near-death experiencers are usually profoundly and positively transformed as a result. Research also shows that parallel positive effects can occur in people just by reading about NDEs. As Dr. Kenneth Ring (professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut) put it:

“In general, then the overall pattern of our data here gives us a strong suggestion that merely acquiring knowledge about NDEs can act like a ‘benign virus’; that is, by exposing yourself to NDE-related information, you can ‘catch it,’ because the NDE appears to be contagious” (LL 203).

At the end of this document I will provide my sources and a brief list of the books and one documentary I recommend for “catching it.” This document centers around the first-person testimony of experiencers and leaves out many key findings that can be found in the sources I list at the end. There will also be a much more thorough discussion of NDEs in my upcoming book on the Singularity Archetype.

Although much of the testimony of experiencers that follows will be spiritual in nature, I want to assure you that I have no religious agenda. The NDE material resonates with me because of parallel OBEs (out-of-body experiences) I’ve had and not because of any religious orientation. In fact, one consistent research finding is that experiencers become more spiritual, but significantly less identified with formal, institutional religion after their NDEs. Eight years after their NDEs, the church attendance of experiencers decreased 42%, but a control group of people, who had cardiac arrest but no NDE, increased their church attendance by 25%. (CBL 68)

A woman in her forties who was raised in the South describes the change in her religious orientation:

“I was brought up in the Bible Belt and when I was a child I was very religious. . . . I mean I was taught certain things and I believed them as a child and adhered to them . . . just out of rote. But after this [her NDE], it made me less religious formally but probably more religious inwardly. . . . I don’t think I was in a church one time since [my NDE], but I think I’m spiritually stronger than I ever was before” (HTO 154).

Another woman, a Baptist living in Texas, found that after her NDE “she could no longer relate to what she describes as ‘traditional Christian dogma’” (LL 45).


A Simulated NDE

Before we delve into the ways people are transformed by NDEs, I would like to put this in context by offering a brief simulation of a classic NDE. NDEs usually involve a well-defined series of classic stages, though as Raymond Moody points out in Life after Life, no two experiences are identical. What follows will be a hypothetical composite version of an NDE containing all the classic elements and closely based on actual accounts. I am going to present it in the second person singular to better allow the reader to visualize the experience:

After suffering a life-threatening injury or other sort of medical emergency, you find that suddenly all physical pain is gone and you are feeling a deep sense of peace and well-being. There is a whistling, almost wind-like sound. You feel delightfully weightless and below you there is an injured body that looks just like you. The realization dawns on you that you are seeing your former body lying below you and that you must now be dead. The realization is not upsetting at all because you also realize that you are very much alive and aware. Around your former body there are frantic medical personnel and you wonder what all the fuss and anxiety is about since you are perfectly fine. You can hear every word being spoken and can also sense people’s thoughts and feelings. Your vision is panoramic and spherical and you can see everything with dazzling clarity. You can count the dust particles on the top of the surgical lights and see every tiny crack in the floor. You lose interest in this scene and find yourself rising above it, above the roof of the hospital where you notice an old sneaker lying on a window ledge.

You are delighted to find that you can fly and just by thinking of a place you can journey there. Above the earth you find you are drawn toward a dark space and as you approach it seems to form into a kind of spiraling tunnel, and then you find yourself being drawn rapidly through the tunnel at a speed that feels like it must be faster than the speed of light. Ahead of you is the most brilliant light, brighter than the sun and yet it doesn’t hurt your eyes, it seems to be bathing you in warmth, love and complete acceptance. You hear glorious music and it feels like a homecoming, like you are coming back to where you were always from.

An androgynous being steps out of the light and you feel a deep sense of familiarity with this being, that you have always known each other and you feel completely seen, recognized, understood and loved.

The being communicates with you telepathically and asks if you would like to review your life. You assent and begin to observe your entire life play out chronologically. You see every detail, and so much more than you were able to see at the time the events played out. You are aware of the thoughts and feelings of everyone present and sometimes it is quite difficult when you observe how every little action you have taken has had significant effects on others. The being of light comforts you during the review, assures you that no one is judging your deeds but that it is of great value to witness them and learn from them. As you experience your life unfolding you see how so much of what you thought was important at the time was a sham and a sideshow. You find that many small moments of compassion, a kind gesture to a stranger, for example, were of far greater significance. You become aware of a depth of meaning in even the smallest moments and become aware of the reasons for everything. There was a great purpose in your life you had never recognized before.

After the review, you find yourself with your guide in a beautiful field of wild flowers. Some of the flowers have colors you have never seen before and seem as if they are lit from within. There is a stream running through the field and you are told that you have a choice, if you go across the stream you will be able to stay in this beautiful world that feels like home, but will also miss out on many years you could have had in your former life. You don’t want to leave this place of peace and love but you also feel a deep responsibility to those you left behind. You indicate your choice to return and find yourself hurtling back through the tunnel and into your wounded body and its painful sensations. Despite the confinement of the body you feel a deepened sense of purpose in life, a deeper appreciation of the meaningfulness of life and a will to fulfill your mission.

The Pamela Reynolds Case:

Since the above is a simulated case, let’s take a detailed look at an actual case that is particularly well-evidenced. Pamela Reynolds, aged thirty-five, a working mother of three, received a grim diagnosis following a CAT scan in 1991. She had a giant aneurysm in a cerebral artery close to her brain stem. It was only a matter of time before the aneurysm burst with an immediately fatal outcome. There was no conventional way to operate on an aneurysm so deep in the brain. Pamela’s one slight chance for survival was a high-risk surgery that could only be performed at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, two thousand miles from her hometown of Atlanta.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler had pioneered a high-risk and daring surgical procedure known as “hypothermic cardiac arrest,” or less formally as “standstill.” Pamela’s body temperature would be lowered to 60 degrees, her heart beat and breathing would be arrested, and all blood would be drained from her head. She would be flatlined, in a state that would be consistent with all clinical definitions of death. As doctor Spetzler explained to the BBC, “What we want to do is we want to bring that brain to a halt. We don’t just want the brain to be asleep. We want the metabolism of the brain to stop. Every measurable output that the body puts out really disappears completely so that you have no neuronal activity whatsoever.”

As cardiologist Michael Sabom, M.D. put it: “During ‘standstill,’ Pam’s brain was found ‘dead’ by all three clinical tests—her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain.”

What is also exceptional about this case is that Pamela, who was being worked on by a number of medical teams, was heavily instrumented and under continual state-of-the-art monitoring including EEGs of both her cerebral cortex and brain stem. No brain activity was measured even though her brain stem was being tested via “evoked potentials” in the form of 100-decibel clicks emitted continuously by small molded speakers inserted in her ears.

Despite the lack of brain activity, Pamela had a detailed NDE. Here are some excerpts from her testimony to the BBC and another account recorded by Dr. Sabom:

“I remember seeing several things in the operating room when I was looking down. It was the most aware that I think that I have ever been in my entire life. . . . I was metaphorically sitting on Dr. Spetzler’s shoulder. It was not like normal vision. . . . There was so much in the operating room that I didn’t recognize, and so many people.

“I thought the way they had my head shaved was very peculiar. I expected them to take all of the hair, but they did not. [. . .] I heard the term “saw,” but what I saw looked more like a drill than a saw.

“The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and it had a dent in it, a groove at the top where the saw appeared to go into the handle, but it didn’t. . . . And the saw had interchangeable blades, too, but these blades were in what looked like a socket wrench case. . . . I heard the saw crank up. . . . It was humming at a relatively high pitch and then all of a sudden it went Brrrrrrrrr! like that.”

Pamela provides a highly accurate layman’s description of the pneumatically-powered Midas Rex whirlwind bone saw, which was spinning at 73,000 rpm and did indeed look more like an electric toothbrush or dentist’s drill than a conventional saw. The box of drill bits looked exactly like a socket wrench case. Yet her eyes had been lubricated and were taped shut and she had been under general anesthesia for 90 minutes before the procedure.

Pamela continues:

“Someone said something about my veins and arteries being very small. . . . I distinctly remember a female voice saying: ‘We have a problem. Her arteries are too small.’ And then a male voice: ‘Try the other side.’ It seemed to come from further down on the table. I do remember wondering what are they doing there [laughs] because this is brain surgery!”

While the bone saw was opening Pamela’s head, a female cardiac surgeon had located the femoral artery and vein in the right side of Pamela’s groin. These blood vessels turned out to be too small because a large flow of blood would be needed to feed the cardiopulmonary bypass machine. Pamela’s left femoral artery and vein were prepped to be used instead.

As the surgery progressed, Pamela was brought to cardiac arrest, her core body temperature was 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The 100-decibel clicks from the ear speakers elicited no response and both EEGs were completely flat. At that point came one of the most radical medical procedures ever performed. The cardiopulmonary bypass machine was shut off, the head of the operating table was tilted up, and the blood was drained from Pamela’s brain and body like the oil from a car.

At some point during this time, Pamela’s NDE intensified. As Pamela narrates,

“I felt a presence. I sort of turned around to look at it. And that’s when I saw the very tiny pinpoint of light. And the light started to pull me, but not against my will. I was going of my own accord because I wanted to go. And there was a physical sensation to the point . . . rather like going over a hill real fast. It was like the Wizard of Oz—being taken up in a tornado vortex, only you’re not spinning around. The feeling was like going up in an elevator real fast. It was like a tunnel, but it wasn’t a tunnel. And I went toward the light. The closer I got to the light, I began to discern different figures, different people, and I distinctly heard my grandmother calling me. She has a very distinct voice. But I didn’t hear her call me with my ears. . . . It was a clearer hearing than with my ears. . . . I trust that sense more than I trust my ears. . . . The feeling was that she wanted me to come to her, so I continued with no fear down the shaft. It’s a dark shaft that I went through, and at the very end there was this very little tiny pinpoint of light that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

“The light was incredibly bright, like sitting in the middle of a lightbulb. I noticed that as I began to discern different figures in the light—and they were all covered with light, they were light, and had light permeating all around them—and they began to form shapes I could recognize and understand. And I saw many, many people I knew and many, many I didn’t know, but I knew that I was somehow connected to them. And it felt . . . great! Everyone I saw, looking back on it, fit perfectly into my understanding of what that person looked like at their best during their lives.

“I recognized a lot of people. And one of them was my grandmother. And I saw my uncle Gene, who passed away when he was only thirty-nine years old. He taught me a lot; he taught me to play my first guitar. So was my great-great aunt Maggie. On Papa’s side of the family, my grandfather was there. . . . They were specifically taking care of me, looking after me.

“They would not permit me to go further. . . . It was communicated to me—that’s the best way I know how to say it, because they didn’t speak like I’m speaking—that if I went all the way into the light something would happen to me physically. They would be unable to put this me back into the body me, like I had gone too far and they couldn’t reconnect. So they wouldn’t let me go anywhere or do anything.

“I wanted to go into the light, but I also wanted to come back. I had children to be reared. . . .

“Then they [the deceased relatives] were feeding me. They were not doing this through my mouth, like with food, but they were nourishing me with something—the only way I know how to put it is something sparkly. Sparkles is the image that I get. I definitely recall the sensation of being nurtured and being fed and being made strong.

“I asked if God was the light, and the answer was: ‘No, God is not the light, the light is what happens when God breathes.’ And I distinctly remember thinking: I’m standing in the breath of God. . . .

“At some point in time I was reminded that it was time to go back. Of course I had made my decision to go back before I ever laid down on that table. But, you know, the more I was there, the better I like it [laughs]. My grandmother didn’t take me back through the tunnel or even send me back or ask me to go. She just looked up at me. I expected to go with her, but it was communicated to me that she just didn’t think she would do that. My uncle said that he would do it. He’s the one who took me back through the end of the tunnel. Everything was fine. I did want to go.

“But then when I got to the end of it and saw the thing, my body, I didn’t want to get into it. . . . It looked terrible, like a train wreck. . . . It looked pretty much like what it was: void of life. I believe it was covered. It scared me and I didn’t want to look at it. And I knew it would hurt, so I didn’t want to get in. But he kept reasoning with me. He says: ‘Like diving into a swimming pool, just jump in.’ No. ‘What about the children?’ You know what, the children will be fine [laughs]. And he goes: ‘Honey, you got to go.’ . . . I didn’t want to, but I guess I was late or something because he pushed me . . . he gave me a little help there. It’s taken a long time, but I think I’m ready to forgive him for that [laughs]. . . . I felt a definite repelling and at the same time a pulling from the body. The body was pulling and the tunnel was pushing . . . I felt it chill me inside. I returned to my body. It was like diving into a pool of ice water. . . . It hurt!”

The coldness that Pamela experienced was probably her perception of her chilled body, which was in a state of deep hypothermia. Pamela continues:

“When I came back, and I was still under general anesthesia in the operating theater, they were playing ‘Hotel California,’ and the line was ‘You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.’ I mentioned [later] to Dr. Brown that that was incredibly insensitive, and he told me that I needed to sleep more [laughter]. When I regained consciousness, I was still on the respirator.”

Pamela concludes: “I think death is an illusion. I think death is a really nasty bad lie.”

Neurosurgeon Spetzler observes about Pam’s NDE:

“I don’t think that the observations that she made were based on what she experienced as she went into the operating theater. They were just not available to her. For example, the drill and so on, those things are all covered up. They aren’t visible, they were inside their packages. You really don’t begin to open up until the patient is completely asleep so that you maintain a sterile environment. . . . At that stage in the operation nobody can observe, hear in that state. And . . . I find it inconceivable that the normal senses, such as hearing, let alone the fact that she had clicking devices in each ear, that there was any way for her to hear those through normal auditory pathways.”

Pamela concludes: I think death is an illusion. I think death is a really nasty bad lie.

The idea that death is an illusion is one of a number of lessons that people consistently derive from their NDEs. Dr. Ring enumerates them as follows:

  1. There is nothing whatever to fear about death.
  2. Dying is peaceful and beautiful.
  3. Life does not begin with birth nor end with death.
  4. Life is precious—live it to the fullest.
  5. The body and its senses are tremendous gifts—appreciate them.
  6. What matters most in life is love.
  7. Living a life oriented toward materialistic acquisition is missing the point.
  8. Cooperation rather than competition makes for a better world.
  9. Being a success in life is not all it is cracked up to be.
  10. Seeking knowledge is important—you take that with you. (LL, 19)

It is common to find that all ten of these points will come up in the testimony of an experiencer regardless of what culture or religious orientation (if any) they come from. For example, a young man named Neev summarizes what he learned from his NDE:

“My outlook on life was no longer bleak and dismal. I felt like I now had a purpose, which was to help people and share my positive perspective. My dependence on time seemed to stop. I no longer felt pressured by the clock—there was always time to do something else or more. I tried to fit in as much as possible into every day. I experienced everything for what it was—not for what it could do or give to me. I was no longer interested in what “society” had to say about how I lived my life. I was no longer interested in what people thought or how they felt about me, or if I looked good or not. I learned that I am much more than my body” (LL 24).

The above is just an excerpt from Neev’s extensive account of his experience. Summarizing the major points of Neev’s outlook, Dr. Ring provides a list with many parallels to the universal list quoted above:

1. There is a reason for everything that happens.

2. Find your own purpose in life.

3. Do not be a slave to time.

4. Appreciate things for what they are—not for what they can give you.

5. Do not allow yourself to be dominated by the thoughts and expectations of others.

6. Do not be concerned with what others think of you, either.

7. Remember, you are not your body.

8. Fear not—even pain and certainly not death.

9. Be open to life, and live it to its fullest.

10. Money and material things are not particularly important in the scheme of things.

11. Helping others is what counts in life.

12. Do not trouble yourself with competition—just enjoy the show. (LL 26)

“My outlook on life was no longer bleak and dismal. I felt like I now had a purpose, which was to help people and share my positive perspective. My dependence on time seemed to stop. I no longer felt pressured by the clock—there was always time to do something else or more. I tried to fit in as much as possible into every day. I experienced everything for what it was—not for what it could do or give to me. I was no longer interested in what “society” had to say about how I lived my life. I was no longer interested in what people thought or how they felt about me, or if I looked good or not. I learned that I am much more than my body.” (LL, 24)

The above was just an excerpt from Neev’s extensive account of his experience. Summarizing the major points of Neev’s outlook, Dr. Ring provides a list with many parallels to the universal list quoted above:

1.There is a reason for everything that happens.

2. Find your own purpose in life.

3. Do not be a slave to time.

4. Appreciate things for what they are—not for what they can give you.

5. Do not allow yourself to be dominated by the thoughts and expectations of others.

6. Do not be concerned with what others think of you, either.

7. Remember, you are not your body.

8. Fear not—even pain and certainly not death.

9. Be open to life, and live it to its fullest.

10. Money and material things are not particularly important in the scheme of things.

11. Helping others is what counts in life.

12. Do not trouble yourself with competition—just enjoy the show. (LL, 26)

In the first-hand testimonies that follow, I will try, wherever possible, to introduce each quote with the experiencer’s first name (some testimonies are anonymous). I want to distinguish one person from another because the parallels in what they have to say are such that it could easily seem as if one or two people were speaking throughout. For example, a number of people described having their values reversed by the experience—what was up was down, what was down was up:

“…there were things in my life that I’d come to accept as bad but that were now suddenly deemed good. The same applied to things that I’d always considered to be good and that were now branded wrong” (CBL, 37).

Harold: “…what I had counted in life as unimportant was my salvation and what I thought was important was nil” (HTO, 67).

“Before my [cardiac] arrest, I had my priorities mixed up. The list flipped completely over; everything that was on the top belonged on the bottom” (OP, 177).

Perhaps the strongest consistency is that the NDE causes the fear of death to vanish. I can corroborate this from my many OBEs. Once you have experienced that your consciousness can exist apart from your body and be incredibly enhanced by the separation, the fear of death has nothing to sustain it.

Tom: “As a result of that [experience], I have very little apprehension about dying my natural death…because if death is anything, anything at all like what I experienced, it’s gotta be the most wonderful thing to look forward to, absolutely the most wonderful thing” (HTO, 59).

Andrea: “I now have no fear of death. Let me reassure you from personal experience, no matter how bad the pain gets, it does end, and you will find yourself out of the body, in another dimension, still very much alive, and in no pain” (LL, 249).

An unnamed man: “As a result of going through this experience…I knew that as ordinarily perceived, what is called death is only experienced by the survivors…There is no such thing as death per se. Death in our three-dimensional space/time view of things is simply a biological event that has nothing to do with consciousness, which is continuous both before what we call birth and after death” (LL, 250).

The rest of the testimonies are presented in no particular order and without editorial comment:

“I understood that there’s so much more than we can fathom in our three-dimensional world. I realized that this was a great gift and that I was always surrounded by loving spiritual beings of light” (CBL, 34).

“It felt like a homecoming after an arduous journey” (CBL, 39).

“I feel a strong urge to never lie again. I’d rather keep silent than tell a little white lie” (CBL, 47).

Hank: “…I realized that there are things that every person is sent to earth to realize and to learn. For instance, to share more love, to be more loving toward one another. To discover that the most important thing is human relationships and love and not materialistic things. And to realize that every single thing that you do in your life is recorded and that even though you pass it by not thinking at the time, it always comes up later. For instance, you may be…at a stoplight and you’re in a hurry and the lady in front of you, when the light turns green, doesn’t take right off, [she] doesn’t notice the light, and you get upset and start honking your horn and telling them to hurry up. Those are the little kind of things that are recorded that you don’t realize at the time are really important. One of the things that I discovered that is very important is patience toward other human beings and realizing that you yourself may be in that situation sometime” (HTO, 69).

Belle: “You are shown your life—and you do the judging. Had you done what you should do? You think, ‘Oh, I gave six dollars to someone that didn’t have much and that was great of me.’ That didn’t mean a thing. It’s the little things—maybe a hurt child that you helped or just to stop and say hello to a shut-in. You are judging yourself. You have been forgiven all your sins, but are you able to forgive yourself for not doing the things you should have done and some little cheaty things maybe you’ve done in your life? Can you forgive yourself? This is the judgment” (HTO, 70).

Darryl: “What occurred was every emotion I have ever felt in my life, I felt. And my eyes were showing me the basis of how that emotion affected my life. What my life had done so far to affect other people’s lives using the feeling of pure love that was surrounding me as the point of comparison And I had done a terrible job. God! I mean it. You know, I’d done a horrible job, using love as the point of comparison…Lookin’ at yourself from the point of how much love you have spread to other people is devastatin.’ You will never get over it. I am six years away from that day [of his NDE] and I am not over it” (HTO, 71).

Carol: “I realized that consciousness is life. We will live in and through much, but this consciousness we know that is behind our personality will continue. I knew now that the purpose of life does not depend on me; it has its own purpose. I realize that the flow of it will continue even as I will continue” (HTO, 75).

Patrick: “[After I came back] I was very, very happy, filled with some tremendous energy. The wonder of everything about me. I loved everyone and everything…People were beautiful. This time we have—make the best of it. Don’t waste it!”

“…all you have to do to have a life of great interest…[is] simply to stay in the present moment…If you can stay there, you will live in eternity, I believe. (HTO, 124).

Celia: “I can see the pain in other people’s eyes. That’s why they hurt other people because they really don’t understand…The most important thing that we have are our relationships with other people…It all comes down to caring and compassion and love for your fellow man…It’s the answer to everything. (HTO, 127).

“I don’t really care if I’m laughed at. The few who don’t laugh are the few who will learn” (HTO, 130).

“ I learned that life was to be lived one day at a time. Like the song says, ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ Well, I not only smell them, but I embrace them. I’ve learned that the candle of life can go out at any time and I have too much to do before it goes out…Life is now, not yesterday, not tomorrow, but right now. And right now, this minute, I’m in love with life. I know now that we take nothing out of this life except what is in our hearts” (OP, 177).

Gina: “Love is very important. It is the main reason for our existence as human beings in our physical bodies. We must understand love—and we must understand love in a holistic sense, altruistic love, etc. We can never fully experience love or give love unless we also know compassion. To understand compassion, we must know pain, and loss—not just our own pain and loss, but the ability to feel the pain and loss of others. Love is a complex and powerful force. We must become part of the consciousness of love, for it is an entity in itself. Yet it is part of us, and we are part of it. When we are separated from this force we are not total, we are not whole” (OP, 178).

“These experiences made me cherish all life as I had never done before. I really began to be aware of everything in my experience on a deeper level. I even began to ‘salute’ animals I would meet, recognizing their individual worth, and of course, my recognition of human individual worth began to grow” (OP, 181),

Craig had a conversation with an entity during his NDE in which he discussed his unfulfilled musical ambitions and mentioned how much he admired Arlo Guthrie:

“The voice saw how I gave Arlo Guthrie a sort of hero image and explained to me that he was no different from the rest of us on earth, and that if you want something bad enough it can be yours—as long as you realize that once you get it, you may find that it was not what you were looking for in the first place. It seemed to say if only people could see the importance of love and cooperation instead of competitiveness, the world could be a better place to live. It told me to use my senses to their maximum potential, and to gather as much knowledge as I could through them” (LL, 17).

Ten years later Craig wrote:

“The experience changed my life in many ways. For one, I am no longer the least bit afraid to die. I know that I would not want to suffer, but I know that the actual dying process is nothing like what I thought it would be, and that it was probably the most beautiful and peaceful experience I have ever had. I realize now that our time here is relatively short, and it makes me want to live life to the fullest. I found that among the few things that people can take with them when they die, love is probably the most important. The only things left after one leaves his or her body are energy, love, personality, and knowledge. It seems like such a waste of time to become caught up in materialistic modes of thinking. When I hear birds chirping, it sounds so beautiful and makes me feel good inside. I notice trees and plants and other living things more than I ever had before. I guess I seem to get my happiness more from the little things in life than from things with great monetary value. Life in general seems more intricate and amazing than ever before. I feel that our bodies are the greatest gift of all, and I find that most people take them for granted. I know that I have been given a second chance in life, and every day is so much more precious to me. Words cannot describe the feeling I get when I wake up in the morning and the sun is shining in through the window, and it is the beginning of a new day with all sorts of opportunities to experience new things, and to learn from them. I know now that an existence after this lifetime awaits all of us, and that death is not the end, but simply a new beginning” (LL, 18-19).

Peggy (the Baptist living in Texas described earlier who found that after her NDE “…she could no longer relate to what she describes as ‘traditional Christian dogma’”) describes one of her revelations this way:

“The light showed me the world is an illusion. All I remember about this is looking down [at what she took to be the earth] …and thinking, ‘My God, it’s not real, it’s not real!’ It was like all material things were just ‘props’ for our souls, including our bodies. Heavier things we can see are of a lower reality and are real, but not like we think they are. There are invisible things to us now from higher levels that are far, far, far, more real. I thought, ‘I’ve GOT to remember this!’” (LL, 45).

Dr. Ring summarizes:

“Other revelations poured into Peggy. Time also was an illusion, she learned. Horrific events on earth had an inner meaning that humans, with their limited and parochial understanding, could never hope to fathom.”

Peggy continues:

“I continued to see some other amazing truths…One was when the light told me that everything was Love, and I mean everything! I had always felt love was just a human emotion people felt from time to time, never in my wildest dreams thinking it was literally EVERYTHING!

“I was shown how much all people are loved. It was overwhelmingly evident that the light loved everyone equally without any conditions! I really want to stress this, because it made me so happy to know we didn’t have to believe or do certain things to be loved. WE ALREADY WERE AND ARE, NO MATTER WHAT! The light was extremely concerned and loving toward all people. I can remember looking at the people together and the light asking me to ‘love the people.’ I wanted to cry, I felt so deeply for them… I thought, ‘If they could only know how much they’re loved, maybe they wouldn’t feel so scared or lonely anymore…’

“One of the many beliefs I have formed from this experience is that whenever unconditional love is bestowed upon an individual, no matter what the strength or from what source (a person of the light), it causes a purging of “unloving energy” or self-hating energy (which are all illusions) to come into the consciousness of the individual to be examined and discharged. Thus, the individual’s level of consciousness is raised every time this is done.”

Another lesson that Peggy receives runs parallel to the premise of my essay The Path of the Numinous:

“One thing I [learned] was that we are ALL here to do an ‘assignment of love.’ We don’t have to do it at all, or we can do as many as we like. It’s up to us. Our ‘assignment’ is programmed in at birth and it is the very things we love most. I was such a bozo. I always thought doing what you loved most was selfish. I can remember how amazed and happy I was when this information ‘came into my mind.’ This other source of energy, using my voice, said, ‘that is the most unselfish and constructive thing you can do for the world because that is your assigned energy and you will be happiest doing it, best at it, and most respected for it!’”

Later Dr. Ring points out that Peggy’s realization is an almost universal one for experiencers:

“The Light seems to be telling us, each of us, that we have a unique gift, an offering to make to the world, and that our happiness and the world’s are both served when we live in such a way as to realize that gift, which is no less than our purpose in life. What the NDE does is to help crack the egg in which this gift has lain, neglected and even unsuspected, so that it can begin to emerge and grow to its fullest” (LL, 51).

Tom: “You do have [an] effect on plants. You do have an effect on animals. You do have an effect on the universe. And in your life review, you’ll be the universe and experience yourself and how… [you] affect the universe…The little bugs on your eyelids that some of you don’t even know exist. That’s an interrelationship, you with yourself and these little entities that are living and surviving on your eyelids. When you waved a loving good-bye to a good friend the other day, did you affect the clouds up above? Did you actually affect them? Does a butterfly’s wings in China affect the weather here? You better believe it does! You can learn all of that in a life review!” (LL, 176).

“One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest or a flower or a bird now, and say, ‘That is me, part of me.’ We are connected with all things and if we send love along these connections, then we are happy”

(LL, 177–quoting one of Raymond Moody’s respondents in his book, The Light Beyond).

Nel: “The most profound aftereffect of my NDE is that I now accept myself because of who I am. I am no longer bound by the preconceived restraints and conditions which others impose. I am no longer bound to do what others want; neither do I find the need to seek approval from others by measuring up to their standards. I have found a central core within me, a spirit, which knows what is best for me and which directs me in all that I do. I trust this inner spirit and I listen to what it says, and I act on its directions. While I respect the opinions of others, while I appreciate the concerns of others for my well-being, I am no longer compelled to follow the dictates of others. I am secure with the inner knowledge of what is best for me. I no longer fear rejection because I do not seem to measure up to the expectations of others. I am growing, daily, in the knowledge that I am an individual unto myself and, as such, I am a fully functioning human being with a mind, a body, and a spirit of my own.” (LL, 191)

Ginny: “…there were only two things that we could bring back with us when we died…LOVE and KNOWLEDGE…So I was to learn as much about both as possible” (LL, 296).

Beverly: “There was a reason for everything that happened, no matter how awful it appeared in the physical realm. And within myself, as I was given the answer, my own awakening mind now responded in the same manner: ‘Of course,’ I would think, ‘I already know that. How could I ever have forgotten!’ Indeed, it appears that all that happens is for a purpose, and that purpose is already known to our eternal self.

“…It felt like the universe is all one grand object woven from the same fabric. Space and time are illusions that hold us to our plane; out there all is present simultaneously.

“I felt now as if I had been made anew. I saw wondrous meanings everywhere; everything as alive and full of energy and intelligence” (LL, 298-299).

Then, death, so call’d, is but old matter dress’d

In some new figure, and a vary’d vest:

Thus all things are but alter’d, nothing dies;

And here, and there the’ unbody’d spirit flies.

Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses (CBL, 83)

“What you have perishes; what you are survives beyond time and space.” Death Notice (CBL, 318)

My future epitaph: “On_____Jonathan Zap won his long struggle with mortality by dying.”


(LL) Ring, PhD, Kenneth 1998, 2006. Lessons from the Light—What We Can Learn from the Near Death Experience. Needham: Moment Point Press.

(CBL) Van Lommel, M.D., Pim 2010. Consciousness Beyond Life—The Science of Near Death Experience. New York: Harper One.

(HTO) Ring, PhD, Kenneth 1984, 1985. Heading Toward Omega—In Search of the Meaning of the Near-Death Experience. New York: Quill William Morrow

(OP) Ring, PhD, Kenneth 1992. The Omega Project—Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.

Sabom, Michael, M.D. Light and Death—One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House (Source for the Pamela Reynolds case, pp. 37-51)

Video: One of my sources for the Pamela Reynolds case is also the best documentary I’ve seen on NDEs: The Day I Died produced by the BBC. If you have time for nothing else, you should at least watch this hour long documentary currently available for free on You Tube.

Reading Suggestions:

Some primacy must be given to Raymond Moody, Ph. D., M.D. since he is the great pioneer who broke the whole field open. Dr. Moody has Ph.D.s in philosophy and psychology as well as an M.D.. Dr. Moody is an extremely careful thinker and his training in philosophy keeps him from making unwarranted assumptions. His approach to experiencers, however is anecdotal and he does not use the rigorous scientific research methodologies employed by the other two authors I recommend.

Kenneth Ring, Ph. D, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut, is the greatest visionary pioneer working in the field as far as I can tell. He combines careful research methodology with penetrating insight and is a very articulate writer.

Pim Van Lommel, M.D. is a Dutch cardiologist who has produced the most authoritative, comprehensive and scientifically rigorous book on the topic. His research methodology sets a gold standard for the field and his findings were published in the renowned medical journal, The Lancet. Van Lommel also integrates the latest findings in neuroscience and quantum mechanics in his study of what NDE findings mean about the nature of consciousness. If you are going to read only one book on the subject, and especially if you come from a scientific and/ or skeptical background, Consciousness Beyond Life is your best choice.

About a week before his death at age 18 on Christmas day, 2011, Ben Breedlove made a two part six minute video about some near-death experiences he had. Here are the links to his final Youtube video: Ben Breedlove Part I Part II

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  1. Kevin Whitesides

    Hi Jonathan,

    I just have a simple request. I was wondering if you could include the date of recording of the podcast on the pages that the podcasts are posted. I find chronology to be helpful. Thanks. 🙂

  2. I’m listening to this podcast for first time and I like the way you are presenting this field of study. I grew up in the South and I had this experience twice in my life and due to a number of other related experiences years ago…I felt the comfort and empathy of your understanding. I will not try to adjust my dial at htis time, but i hope that I am able to return. i must leave home now to shop for supplies_We have some snow coming in. It is nice to make your acquaintance Mr. Rob_Congrats on your generous heart. I feel a sense of familiarity. Hope to comment again and facebook friend your site.Ulric(seattle)

  3. I meant to say Thank You_ VeryMuch Jonathan Zap