(Continued from Part I)
Continuing on with our teachings from Nancy Evans Bush on her DNDE (Distressing Near Death Experience), here is a description in her own words about her experience, which happened during childbirth:
It was not a radiant experience; it was an utterly terrifying experience of the void. I had never heard of anything like it. I didn’t know anybody else in the world had ever had such an experience. That left me with a sense that I was walking around with secret knowledge too terrible to tell anybody.
There was a group of circles. They were clicking, black to white, white to black. They weren’t…I didn’t think they were evil, but they were malicious, maybe the way a sibling would be malicious when you’re being really heartless to each other. There was no question: they were authoritative. They knew stuff I did not know. I was the stranger there; they weren’t. It never occurred to me that this was hell, and it never occurred to me that I was dead, only that this was what it would probably be like when I was dead. I just knew that this was a place other than where I thought I had been.
I was told I did not exist. I had never existed. It had been a joke. My life was a joke; my baby’s life was a joke. I had a 17-month-old daughter; she did not exist. My mother did not exist. Hills, trees, robins, Earth did not exist. It was so utterly clear I was being told something true. It’s hard to explain …what would have been the point of arguing? What they were saying was incontrovertibly true.
Most of the people who have written about unpleasant experiences talk about them as happening to people who were sin-ridden, guilt-ridden, hostile, God-denying, love denying, suicidal -– all of that. None of which applied to me. I was far from perfect, but for heaven’s sake, I had been saved twice at Billy Graham crusades! I had been born again…..and again! There was nothing in my background that could in any way help me explain this experience. I didn’t even know where to look for an explanation.
Six years after the experience, I was about to have a cup of tea with a friend when she said, “Here’s a book we just got today. Take a look.” I think the book was Jung’s Man and His Symbols, and I was flipping through it, and suddenly there on the left-hand side of a page was a large illustration of one of the figures from my experience. I got a feeling of just sheer horror, because my immediate thought was, “My God! Somebody else knows about this!” I was so horrified that I simply threw the book and ran. It was not until several years later I discovered the circle was the yin/yang symbol. And this lead to the question, how does a Chinese symbol get into the transformative experience of a New England Congregationalist who has had no contact with Taoism, New Age, paranormal activity? The question would turn my life around.
I was a junior high English teacher when the NDE happened, not a psychologist, not a theologian, not a philosopher, had absolutely no background in psychic anything — nothing useful in that sense; so it’s been like following breadcrumbs through a very dense forest, piecing a trail together one little chip at a time.
(Source: Excerpts from an article on NHNE (New Heaven, New Earth))
AV: Along with Bruce Greyson, Nancy co-wrote and had an article published in the Journal of Psychiatry on Distressing NDE’s. That article can be found at the link I have provided for you if you are interested in reading it. It will open up as an online PDF (no download).
An article on Nancy’s website titled, “Untangling Hellish Visions in NDE’s“, is a very interesting read. In it she goes through concepts of “Hell” in different parts of the world and in different times. Below is a short excerpt from that article:
A distressing NDE, especially a hellish one, can be approached not as an afterlife threat or divine punishment but as a mandate to take a new perspective on life and world.
Even blissful NDEs, like other paranormal and numinous experiences, demolish previous certainties. Psychotherapist John Ryan Haule has written of his profound shock at having an out-of-body experience, with a description that will sound familiar to many readers:
“Such knowledge disrupts everything I have known…from earliest childhood until now…The world cannot be as I have constructed it; it is unimaginably different. It constitutes the death of everything I have come to know and depend upon. I am not who I thought I was and the world is not as I assembled it. I have entered a realm that is Wholly Other, and I have not the faintest idea what it is or how to negotiate it. I have lost all certainties. Nothing is dependable. Anything can happen. …It is as if we suddenly see a rip in the fabric of the universe.”
What these events do is, they dismantle what we think of as normality. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof has observed many times that the experience of extraordinary perception, which includes events like that out-of-body experience and NDEs, can be associated with deep metaphysical fear because it challenges the Western world view of what constitutes sanity.
Another psychotherapist, also a near-death experiencer, Alex Lukeman has identified the phenomenon as “…the ego’s encounter with the underlying unconscious and transcendent dynamics of the numinous [the Holy], and the accompanying destruction of traditional and habitual patterns of perception and understanding, including religious belief structures and socially accepted concepts of the nature of human existence and behavior.” Wow.
In some traditionally described hellish NDEs, the experience itself may contain features of the classic pattern of shamanic initiation and the most profound spiritual events: the pattern of suffering, death, and resurrection. This may felt as if physical, involving a vivid sense of dismemberment, annihilation, and reconstitution. But always, as explained by the late Jungian John Weir Perry, the cycle of suffering/ death/resurrection is a universal pattern which in less metaphoric terms can be read as an invitation to self-examination, disarrangement of core beliefs, and rebuilding.
In the medieval religious view of hell that we have just traced, the primary assumptions are that hell’s constituents and source originate directly from divine action or indirectly by divine decree, that torment is imposed by an external force, that the precipitant of hell is an individual’s guilt (for culturally disapproved behavior), and that hellishness involves bodily pain.
But what if the view shifts from an external force to internal? What if our approach to understanding these NDEs does not ignore religious influence but considers an individual’s psyche as the source of distress, whether as the avenue through which God works or as a non-theistic mechanism? In Perry’s own words, “Stress may cause highly activated mythic images to erupt from the psyche’s deepest levels in the form of turbulent visionary experience. … comprehension of these visions can turn the visionary experience into a step in growth or into a disorder perhaps as extreme as an acute psychosis.”
Today’s presentation can do no more than point a finger and ask a question. What if, as John Weir Perry claimed, the challenge is “to encounter the death of the familiar self-image and the destruction of the world image to make room for the self regeneration of them both”?
The question brings us back full circle to the religious theme of apocalypse: turmoil, dissolution, the end of an age. Suffering, death, resurrection. Self-examination, collapse of assumptions, rebuilding.
Apocalypse is psyche writ large. And so, despite all the end-of-the-physical-world predictions across the centuries, the macro apocalypse does not arrive. Consider the possibility that the non-arrival is because the prophecy is not about the world but about the self. What changes is the individual psyche, the reconstituted perspective that can say the great “Aha!”
“Oh, now I understand. Ahh, I get it.”
And that, properly understood, might change the world.