The Book of the Dead according to Science - a Psychologist's Exploration of Near Death Experiences (NDE)

An Interview With Roger Woolger
Author: Jaime Leal Anaya

“So many cases of 'incurable' depression, phobias, anxieties, and physical illnesses find complete resolution when the cause is healed from beyond the current life.” — R. Woolger

The recent unexpected news of the passing of famous singer Amy Winehouse, a 5-time Grammy Winner, shook many around the world. She was only 27! In fact it was the exact same age other famous rock stars left the stage for good, such as Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Jimmy Hendrix. The mystery surrounding Jim Morrison’s passing immortalized him in some way as it appeared he had prepared himself as an initiate in a ritual to meet his own death. Of course we know, he did not make his return. These are some famous examples that still linger in our memory. But beyond that, we all remember when we heard the shocking news of someone close or famous, someone we loved, who died early in life and unexpectedly. In those moments we cannot help but wonder what awaits us on the other side of life after death. We wish someone would come back to tell us about it without having to rely on faith alone. There are many such cases, actually, of people having a close encounter with death who have come back to tell their story, people who suffered a tragic accident, heart attack, or underwent a critical medical procedure. There are thousands of cases of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) clinically recorded and studied every year by professionals in medicine, psychology, and religious studies. Most of these accounts generally agree on many of the details, regardless of religious or cultural backgrounds, and the people who survive the NDE all show drastic changes in their personality and outlook on life — for the better. SuperConsciousness had the opportunity to learn from one of the top experts in this field, Dr. Roger Woolger, PhD, a trained Jungian Psychologist from Britain who has treated thousands of patients who had a close call with death and survived to tell us about it. Here is what he shared with SuperConsciousness about NDEs and what we may expect beyond death.

SC: Can you tell us a little about who you are and the work you do?

RW: I am a psychotherapist trained in Jungian psychoanalysis and various other modalities and my current practice uses what is called “regression” to early childhood, past life, interlife and other transpersonal or “spiritual” experiences. I also hold degrees in the comparative phenomenology of religion, a subject that greatly illuminates the kind of areas which today are called “beyond death.”

Our starting point today has been the quite extensive documentation of so-called Near Death Experiences (NDEs). It will already seem apparent that the scientific paradigm that seeks to fully explain these phenomena in materialistic terms is stretched beyond its limits. Not long ago I saw a tape of a major British television program where a woman suffered a clinical NDE during an operation and reported, while “out of her body” seeing an instrument in the operating room she could not possibly have seen while in her body and alive. Interesting and provocative as the discussion was, it was entirely limited to interviewing medical staff; but no informed authorities on parapsychology (except a materialist skeptic), spiritualism, religious phenomena or metaphysics, specialists in thanatology, or experts from religious traditions were interviewed. Later I was told this is a policy decision of the television company! It was like a political discussion where only one party is invited to participate.

There is a vast amount of information about the phenomena of death, transition and “otherworlds” available to us that is much more sophisticated than most people realize. Not just the widely known studies of Kenneth Ring and Raymond Moody on actual Near Death Experiences, but detailed cross cultural comparisons of how different cultures experience and envision the afterlife, reports from shamans of “journeys” to the spirit realms, or realms of the dead, elaborate accounts of the soul’s post-mortem encounters and movements from the Tibetan Buddhist and Indian traditions, as well as from my own field — past life regression — where thousands of accounts of death transition phenomena have been recorded.

SC: Which studies in this field would you regard offer strong supporting evidence that NDEs and reports of life after death are real experiences and not figments of the imagination or brain chemistry?

RW: Two important and influential books I would mention especially are “Otherworldly Journeys” by Carol Zaleski and Sogyal Rinpoche’s “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” Zaleski, a Harvard trained historian of religion, compared medieval and other accounts of post-mortem journeys of the soul with the contemporary literature of NDEs and showed compellingly that visions of the afterlife are based on experience not speculation. Sogyal’s book demystifies the obscure symbolic language of the ancient text called the Bardo Thodol, translated usually as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He shows clearly how the Tibetan “wake” or post-mortem prayers to the deceased person are actually addressed to that person’s disembodied consciousness to help him or her navigate through confusing or frightening visions created by his/her own consciousness — a consciousness that goes beyond the body eventually towards further incarnations.

The first and most important observation to be made from these two books and the many that they have inspired is that experience beyond the body, either before or after death are of a much greater order and significance than mere energetic discharges and “hallucinations” generated by the brain — a claim that appears increasingly trivial and narrow in its reductionism when evaluated from a religious phenomenological perspective. The disembodied consciousness in these many reports actually encounters other realms, other dimensions, other beings and other states of being. These states include mystical, expanded and often “cosmic” consciousness commensurate with those described in classic texts like Richard M. Bucke’s “Cosmic Consciousness” and William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.” This is further underlined by, “Dreamtime and Inner Space” by cultural anthropologist Holger Kahlweit. Kahlweit writes that “as far as I am concerned there is no difference between a near death experience and an out-of-body experience”. For him they both are versions of the encounter with “other” or “higher” dimensions” described by shamanic practitioners as “journeying".

Because of the split and downright antagonism that often exists between those trained in science and those professing particular religions there is often little study of each other’s accounts of religious and psychical phenomena, so books like those mentioned are often not known outside a narrow circle of experts or academic authorities.

SC: How did you get interested in exploring NDEs in your patients and life after death?

RW: My first realization of how important it is to follow a person’s consciousness into other realms, in whatever way possible, came when during a psychotherapy session some twenty years ago with a woman who had survived a major car-accident and had gone through a classic NDE during subsequent surgery to save her life. She was still suffering from manifest PTSD symptoms when she consulted me and I decided to regress her to the memory of the accident. Not only did she relive the accident and release much buried trauma held in her body but she also proceeded to re-play the experience of watching herself from above as ambulance men pulled her body from the wreckage. She then saw her body taken to the hospital and undergoing surgery. Next she felt herself drifting up to a higher realm and meeting with beings of light whom she recognized as deceased members of her family and who told her that her work on earth was not finished and that she must return. She remembered the pain of coming back into her body. Prior to the regression she had not “remembered” any of this. The session profoundly altered her attitude to death and dying. Indeed what most deeply struck her was the continuity of her consciousness both before and after her “death” and both in and out of her body. Later I was to be reminded of this when reading Sogyal’s remark that “birth and death are all in the mind and nowhere else”.

“If there was once a widespread shamanic or spiritual tradition enabling contact with higher realities and the spirit realms in the West it was lost long ago. Some say it disappeared when the Roman Church threw out the Gnostics and the Mystery Schools.”

I have deliberately avoided using any one received picture of other dimensions whether Tibetan Buddhist, Christian, spiritualist, shamanic or other in trying to understand and classify the NDE experiences of my clients, those reported in the clinical literature and my own personal “journeys” into “other realms.” My approach has rather been simply to collect and compare these different descriptions and claims in the spirit of data gathering avoiding rigid or exclusive systems of classification. This is traditionally how the science of religion proceeds: it uses the phenomenological principle of reserving judgment as to the ontological status (i.e. which realm of reality) an experience actually belongs to and simply puts brackets or parentheses around the descriptive terms to indicate that it is too soon to decide upon what kind of reality to attribute to it. This way we can make comparisons and tentative attempts to fit it into different schemas. For example: is a vision of a “demon” a projection of a person’s personal unconscious or a transpersonal denizen of an “otherworld” or “hell”? In other words does this psychic entity that has a “demonic” appearance have an autonomous existence or ontology of its own? We cannot know for sure without addressing all kinds of questions about its origins, context, and behavior. Taking a tentative approach like this avoids what biologist Sir Peter Medawar once called the arrogance of “nothing buttery” — it’s nothing but imagination, it’s nothing but a hallucination, it’s nothing but the misfiring of a neural circuit. Reductionism of this kind rarely ventures out of the prison of the closed mind I regret to say.

Marginal decorations of "des vaudoises" in Le champion des dames, by
Martin Le France, 1451

Once we start to study, reports of NDEs, mystical journeys, past life reports of meeting higher guides between lives or shamanic accounts of journeys to the Land of the Dead, etc., with the open minded attitude of phenomenology, numerous questions start to present themselves, not the least of which is whether these states and beings are “real,” which is to raise the issue of their ontology. We also find we have to look carefully at our language, which now seems to be booby-trapped with what may be symbols, codes or slippery metaphors. What does “beyond” the body or “beyond” death mean? Is this a spatial picture of another place? How can it be a place if it is not physical? Does that make such a word usage metaphorical? Is it a symbol? If so, then a symbol of what? Here we might consider the tantalizing little dictum of a Sufi master, Al Ghazzali: “The visible world was made to correspond to the world invisible and there is nothing in this world but is a symbol of something in that other world.”

The fact is that one of the first assertions that almost all visionaries, mystics, journeyers and NDE survivors make is that their visions are without question of actual existent places or worlds, indeed places or worlds that are manifestly of a non-physical order. It is here that the terminology of “other” or “invisible” or “higher” worlds seems inescapable in describing such experiences. To summarize their claims we have to say that they are positing a referent that is non-physical and yet real. This upsets the Materialist, for whom there is only one reality, namely this one, and at this point he/she must either withdraw from the game or recognize that the greatest minds in the Western tradition have had to face this issue and forgo their assumptions of one-dimensional reality. When Aristotle, following his master, Plato, tried to summarize the knowledge of his day, he was obliged, after writing the Physics, to add another volume, “beyond” (meta) the realm of physics, which in Greek became the Metaphysics. Plato had already designated a metaxy or intermediary world of subtle spiritual forms that were not physical. Indeed, according to the eminent Indian scholar Ananda K. Coomeraswamy, Plato had already been influenced by the teachings of ancient India, for we find Plato’s idea clearly expressed in the Hindu Upanishads.

SC: How would you describe this “in-between world or realm” where NDEs occur in modern terminology?

RW: This transcendent or intermediary world has been noticed in almost all cultures and traditions in one form or another. Buddhists from Tibet talk of the “bardo” realm in which many states of the spirit/soul — that is, bardos — exist between lifetimes on earth. The Spiritualists in their teachings call it the Spirit World, following the great visionary Swedenborg who reported visiting its many dimensions. In his terminology, its “heavens” and “hells” were “states” corresponding to different post-mortem spiritual and moral conditions. Swedenborg’s work has so many parallels with Mahayana Buddhism that it led the Zen master D. T. Suzuki, to call him “the Buddha of the West”. In Celtic tradition the intermediary realm is often called the Middle Kingdom or the Faery World. Australian aborigine’s call it the Dreamtime, the Sufis of Persia called it the alam al-mithal or Mythic World, which Henry Corbin has dubbed the mundus imaginalis. Jung called it the collective unconscious, though this term tends to be grossly misunderstood.

In surveying reports of such journeys in the world religions and innumerable tribal practices, scholars have described a common pattern of “ascent,” which is to say an ecstatic — from the Latin word, ex-stasis — mystical or out-of-body experience wherein the spiritual traveler leaves the physical body and travels in their subtle body — or dream body, or astral body — into “higher” realms. Here it is common to meet beings of light, ancestors, the Dead, etc., exactly as in NDEs.

For reasons too complex to discuss here, we in the West have mostly lost touch with these “other” or intermediary worlds. The Christian churches only pay them lip service or retail simplistic formulae they don’t understand. It is naively thought that we “go somewhere” after death, though descriptions of how and where are mostly stereotypical and ignorant. If there was once a widespread shamanic or spiritual tradition enabling contact with higher realities and the spirit realms in the West it was lost long ago. Some say it disappeared when the Roman Church threw out the Gnostics and the Mystery Schools. Others maintain that in persecuting “witches” in the Middle Ages the Catholic church successfully suppressed the last folk remnants of indigenous shamanic tradition in Europe. Fortunately today more and more ministers and priests are taking note of NDE reports and working directly with the realities of “spirit” in transition.

SC: How have the traditions of Shamanism and the Ancient Mystery Schools helped you explore and understand NDEs?

RW: In the ancient world the Mystery traditions focused on the stories of divinities such as the Demeter/Persephone, Isis/Osiris, Cybele/Attis diads, or on Mithras or on Dionysus, all of which depict in their stories a momentous death and re-birth through the archetype of the Cosmic Mother. Much was made of these sacred cosmic dramas as models of, and preparations for, an individual’s eventual death and transition. In fact it seems that the initiates were given a kind of rehearsal of their death by being taken to a dark place — usually a cave or underground chamber — that symbolized the realm of the dead or the womb of the Great Mother. In the darkness of the mystery the old self died and a new self was reborn with the secret knowledge that it had a spirit or subtle body that was immortal. “He who has seen the Mysteries will not taste death” said one initiate. The ritual “entombment” vouchsafed for the initiate a vision of the “otherworld” into which they would be reborn. Such “descents” into the Underworld were no doubt preparatory for a hierophany, or showing of the divine in the form of an “ex-stasis,” an out of body experience or “ascent” that enabled an encounter with the transcendent realm of divine being.

The reports of NDEs collected by Moody and others show again and again that the disembodied consciousness meets “beings of light” on the “other side” we are calling the intermediary realm. These are frequently ancestors, recently deceased family members who often counsel them and reassure them that their sufferings are over or else, like my client, counsel them that they still have important work to do on earth. How far these encounters are determined by the beliefs and expectations of those who have “died” has not yet been fully explored, but our knowledge from NDEs is amplified by thousands of past life reports of dying in a previous life and making a similar journey. My own findings and those of colleagues suggest that encounters with ancestors, while being very common are by no means universal. We have also observed thousands of past lives of warriors on battlefields and seen them re-group in the spirit world not with their families so much as with their bands of comrades or councils of warrior elders that they knew on earth. Members of religious communities are more likely to meet with their fellow monks, nuns or sacerdotal communities or with teachers or gurus than return to their spirit ancestors. Of course NDEs report numerous encounters with “guides” or wise beings of light, which is confirmed by past life therapy. Souls who died in some rebellion or were identified with some cause or movement will realign with their leaders.

The practical importance of these findings, especially for those counseling the bereaved and working with those approaching death is enormous. If only based upon report and not absolute ontological certainty, the overwhelming majority of these reports is that there is a world of light or a subtle world beyond this, that in many ways it is a continuity or an extension of this one, but in a non-physical form, and that in it we will encounter beings in their spiritual form usually of a loving and wise nature. We know that this other world has many dimensions corresponding to one’s state of spiritual attainment on the earth high or low.

Because of their facility in travelling through and between these “other worlds” shamans describe quite sophisticated pictures of the spiritual geography they encounter; this is also true of yogis and great spiritual masters, like the Buddha, with whom they share these powers. Such voyagers tell, when they move between the various inner worlds or bardos, of dark and light forces, of hierarchies or different planes of heavens and hells. In my own practice of regressing clients and students to lost childhood memories, to buried traumas, as well as to their many past lives, I have been greatly helped by the cosmographies of the shamans, yogis and the heroes of myth. Their maps of “inner space” have proved invaluable aids in navigating to and from various “otherworld” realities.

Nearly all voyagers in the inner realms, whether in shamanism, meditation or past life regression have encountered beings of light, whether they call them the ancestors, the Old Ones, angels, Wise Ones or simply the eternal archetypes. These entities belong to the “highest” plane of Pure Light, a mystical light of dazzling beauty that pervades and illuminates all Being. Encounter with this Light, as many of the more elaborate NDE reports attest, can lead to a total transformation of the personality. When it occurs in past life regression it usually marks a phase of the realignment of the psyche with its spiritual dimension and the opening of what Jung would call the process of individuation. Others have called this self-realization or self-actualization. It is the end point of the mystical journey of the soul.

*Interview adapted from the content of a talk given by Roger J. Woolger, PhD to the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ One Day Conference: Beyond Death; Does Consciousness Survive? At the King’s College, Herne Hill, London. Used with permission.

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