Interview with author and past president of the International Association of Near Death Studies examines research into negative near death experiences.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Nancy Evans Bush, author of, Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences. During the interview Bush discusses how negative near death experiences are researched:
Alex Tsakiris: On one hand I understand the need to talk about these negative near death experiences, the need to put it on the table and process it. But I don’t think that’s the only thing that you’re objecting to because I think you’re also objecting to the way researchers approach “near death experience hell.”
Nancy Bush: There is so much on every side of this issue — we are surrounded by people whose knees are jerking. There are automatic responses that people make. The convicted Atheists say, “Oh, it’s just these people are deluding themselves with the supernatural,” and the convinced metaphysicians say, “Oh, if only they’d believe then it would be different.” And the doctrinally religious say, “Well, if they’d just believe my stuff then that would take care of this.”
I think the most frustrating aspect of this whole study is simply trying to get people to sit quietly and just listen to the experiences. Let go of their preconceptions for a few minutes, and just sit quietly and think, “Huh. What could this mean?”
Alex Tsakiris: There’s a fine line here because I think we all appreciate that we’re embedded in this materialistic culture that constantly tells us that this is impossible, this is ridiculous, you’re crazy. So I think when people break through that, then there’s a certain need to go just as far as they can with this. But to an extent it leaves us with the question of what can we really say? We can say that materialism is clearly a failed proposition but I’m not really sure what else we can say beyond that. How do we venture forth into this great territory of what lies beyond?
Nancy Bush: I think for me one of the frustrations is the numbers of people who given a little bit of information will jump in and say, “Oh, I get it. I had one of these experiences. I can tell you what it means.” But I think we are still following breadcrumbs through the woods.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Nancy Evans Bush to Skeptiko. Nancy is the former President of IANDS, the International Association for Near-Death Studies and she’s also the author of Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences.
Nancy, welcome and thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Nancy Bush: Thanks, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: So Nancy, this is quite an interesting, fascinating book that you’ve written. I know that it’s caused a little bit of a stir inside the near-death experience community and the scientific community. In broader terms I’ve heard about this book. It’s kind of popped up and a number of people brought it to my attention. First of all, you have to congratulate someone on that. You’ve obviously struck a nerve with this book. Tell us a little bit about why you sought to write it and what you were hoping to do with the book.
Nancy Bush: When I was in my late 20s I had an experience during the birth of my second baby and it was an experience I could not account for; I could not explain; I could not understand, because essentially it was—this was years before near-death experiences were known about. I had no context for understanding what it was or how to make sense of it. It did not fit with my theological life. It did not fit with anything. And because it was an experience essentially of being annihilated there was no place to put it. So I buried it.
Alex Tsakiris: If I can just interject, when you say you were annihilated, there were these little beings you encountered in this deep, dark void as part of your near-death experience. As I understand it your near-death experience starts out as many near-death experiences start. You left your body; you were in the hospital; you flew out of the hospital, and then suddenly you were sucked into this void and you encountered these beings who laughingly told you, “You’re nothing. Your life is nothing. Your baby is nothing. This is all just a joke that you’re playing on yourself.” Fill me in on what I’m missing about that story, but that’s essentially it?
Nancy Bush: That’s essentially it. The entities were circles. I mean, now I would say they were the Yin-Yang symbols because that’s what they looked like. At the time I did not know, I did not recognize them. If I had recognized them I would have had no way of interpreting them.
Alex Tsakiris: Can I ask you, because in reading through the book and some other interviews you’ve done, what kept playing on my mind is what do you think about those entities or that encounter now in terms of its religious or cultural context? What does that mean that these were from another culture and in particular, a Buddhist or Taoist culture? What do you make of that today, now, in 2012?
Nancy Bush: I marvel. I have not the foggiest notion how a Taoist symbol would get into the experience of an uninformed New England Congregationalist. But on the other hand, I don’t know how religious symbols of any tradition cross into other traditions.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I have to say when I was reading your book, I was kind of going through the what’s the big deal here? Other than your personal experience, which I understand is huge and incredibly significant for you, but I kind of felt like aren’t we past this? We know that there’s these distressing near-death experiences and they’ve happened before but then one quote did stick out to me where I felt like maybe I get a sense for where she’s pushing against or what some of the frustration is.
It’s a quote from Ken Ring in 1994. He said, “Frightening NDEs are themselves illusionary phantasmagorias thrown up by the ego in response to the threat of its own seeming imminent annihilation.” Oh my gosh! What a bunch of gobbled-gook! But tell me what you think.
Nancy Bush: I think maybe that’s true but if it’s true of distressing experiences why wouldn’t it be equally true of the blissful experiences? In another place, another context, he has called these drug reactions. Well, women in childbirth under the same circumstances have radiant experiences, blissful, wonderful, fabulous experiences and he never said they were just phantasmagorias. So I think if it’s true in one set of circumstances why not the other?
Back when I first started with the research on all of this, everybody was looking at the radiant experiences. Pretty much everybody still does because they’re the ones that we like to think about. These are much more difficult but it doesn’t mean they are without meaning and it doesn’t mean they are without huge significance, particularly if you look at this in the social context of the numbers, the countless numbers of people who are out there absolutely terrified of the idea that they may go to Hell. Those are the people I am writing for.
Alex Tsakiris: So that’s an interesting point and an interesting perspective in that you’re calling out this glorification of the near-death experience positive experiences that doesn’t allow the full range of these experiences to come through.
What you’re pointing out is how devastating that can be to someone who’s had a distressing near-death experience and yet not only are they being rejected and having a hard time getting through to people from a materialistic background—maybe their doctors or other people in their life. But then when you encounter people in the near-death experience community, they’re also shunned maybe by this idea that Oh, you must have done something wrong, or It’s not really like that. So is that partly what you are getting at, I guess?
Nancy Bush: Yes. But in no way to discount the wonderfulness of the blissful experiences, but simply to say there are other kinds of experiences also and if we don’t talk about them then how is anyone to know how to respond if they have one? It’s like the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which essentially is a manual of what to expect when you’re dying.
Maybe some of it will be pleasant and some of it probably won’t be and Hey, get this into your subconscious now so that when you encounter it you’ll know how to respond. And we just send ourselves out into the experience of dying or near-death or whatever in a way that we wouldn’t send Boy Scouts into the woods. We want them at least to have a compass. I’m just trying to provide a compass.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, but there’s a problem there, too, because on one hand I understand the need to talk about it, the need to put it on the table and process it. But I don’t think that’s the only thing that you’re objecting to because I think you’re also objecting—I’m going to test this out, this theory of mine—but the way that we talk about it. I’m objecting to the way that we talk about it, as well.
I want to read for you another quote that maybe we’ll tee off this other little pathway we’re going to go down. It’s from, of course you know, Dr. Barbara Rommer who investigated these distressing near-death experiences and is a near-death experience researcher. She came to this conclusion. Let me read her quote: “ It appears that disavowing the reality or possibility of the existence of a Higher Power may contribute to the “why” of a Less-Than-Positive Experience: 19.4 percent of my LTP study group labeled themselves as atheist or agnostic prior to their experience.”
I think this is exactly the kind of talking about this stuff that we don’t need to do. What the heck could this possibly mean? I like the 19.4. It’s not 19. It’s not 20. It’s 19.4.
Nancy Bush: Oh, Alex. There is so much on every side of this issue. We are surrounded by people whose knees are jerking. There are automatic responses that people make. The convicted Atheists say, “Oh, it’s just these people are deluding themselves with the supernatural,” and the convinced metaphysicians, of whom Rommer was one, say, “Oh, if only they’d believe then it would be different.” And the doctrinally religious say, “Well, if they’d just believe my stuff then that would take care of this.”
I think the most frustrating aspect of this whole study is simply trying to get people to sit quietly and just listen to the experiences. Let go of their preconceptions for a few minutes, and just sit quietly and think, “Huh. What could this mean?”
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, it makes perfect sense to me. There’s a fine line there because I think we all appreciate that we’re embedded in this materialistic culture who constantly repeats back to us that this is impossible, this is ridiculous, you’re crazy. So I think when people break through that, then there’s a certain need to go just as far as they can with this. And I can appreciate that because it also serves this deep need that we have to answer these questions. We all want to answer them so it’s kind of hard to pull in the reins.
But to an extent it leaves us with what can we really say at the end of the day? I mean, we can say that materialism is clearly a failed proposition and that to the extent that we’re still mired in it we need to consider what lies beyond, but I’m not really sure what else we can say beyond that. How do we venture forth into this great territory of what lies beyond? How do we get there?
Nancy Bush: You think I have an answer for that?
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Yes. I think you do.
Nancy Bush: Well, in one of my favorite quotes from Bruce Greyson when somebody asked him something similar, “So what does it mean?” And Bruce looked thoughtful and said, “As the pre-eminent researcher in this field for 30-some years, huh, beats me.”
I think there’s no single answer. I think for me one of the frustrations, as you’ve just said, and you’re asking a great question, but for me one of the frustrations is the numbers of people who given a little bit of information will jump in and say, “Oh, I get it. I had one of these experiences. I can tell you what it means.” But I think we are still following breadcrumbs through the woods.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we are, too. But I have to say I’m equally frustrated with Bruce’s answer, as well. What you also hear from the near-death experience researchers, particularly ones like Bruce who are fully embedded in our academic community and they have a certain role to play there and I understand that. That’s to say that I don’t know why he says that. Maybe he really means, “It beats me.”
But to me that’s a certain bit of a cop-out in that I think we’re driven to follow those breadcrumbs and to broaden our perspective beyond near-death experience. You allude to this a couple times in the book and it’s interesting in the little bit of pre-interview conversation we had I told you I wanted to bring up Dr. Rick Strassman and the DMT Spirit Molecule thing because I think the whole psychedelics is a whole other interesting aspect to this other kind of experience.
There’s all sorts of these transformative experiences that I think when we look at them across the board, we might not be able to come to these concrete answers but I think we can do a little bit better than “Beats me.” I think there is a pattern here that’s emerging.
Nancy Bush: Oh, hallelujah. I have to say, though, if anybody has been following breadcrumbs for three decades it’s Bruce Greyson, who has both built a foundation and has broadened the expanse of what we’re looking at. When he says, “Beats me,” it doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. It means we don’t have ultimate answers. A lot of folks out there would like to say, “Oh, we understand this.”
We need all the disciplines in this we can get to join us because this can’t be just near-death experiences. It’s biochemistry, it’s the methodological information, it’s transpersonal psychology, it’s sociology, it’s anthropology, it’s all of them because that’s how big the implications are.
I’m sorry—I interrupted here in my defense of Bruce and you were going on to a question about DMT.
Alex Tsakiris: No, no, fair enough. I’m glad you straightened that out and that’s great. So please continue on with a little bit of that cross-fertilization that we can get into and that’s to talk about DMT or psychedelic experience in general and how that might inform our understanding of near-death experience. You know, one of the things I’ve found really interesting in talking to Strassman is that the surprise finding for him was free-standing entities, if you will.
Nancy Bush: Sometime back, for several years, I was studying some mindfulness meditation with the American Buddhist teacher, Shinzen Young, and he tells the story of as you get into advanced meditation you may begin to encounter these creaturely entities and they can be quite frightening. They seem to be absolutely real and some of them are insectoid.
He tells the story of himself encountering in a deep meditation, once encountering things like six-foot-tall grasshoppers. He says, “Don’t worry. Just don’t worry. You’re not going crazy. You’re not being assailed by demons. This is simply your subconscious just divesting itself of some imagery.” The thing that made Strassman stop his experiment was because that’s precisely the kind of encounter that some of his study participants were having.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. You know, Shinzen Young is a very interesting guy. He’s been a guest on this show. I have to say I find that answer unsatisfying. He may be right; he may be completely right. But I don’t know where that gets us. I look at it from this world, from this reality, which may not be a reality at all. I’ll accept that going in.
But I say why would these cross-cultural, cross-time entities appear in all these different situations exactly as they are? Free-standing, free-formed, interacting with these individuals. To say, “Okay, don’t worry. Go past it,” if you’re talking about practical means to advance your meditation, fine. But I’m curious to stop there and say, “Wait a minute. What does that mean in terms of how I’m supposed to understand this reality?”
Nancy Bush: [Laughs] And what a very good question to which I do not have a really good answer. Because would I rather think of these—I mean, if I’m going to–in this world levels–deal with all of these ideas and things, would I rather think of these as actual physical entities or as images from the imaginal realms? Now, experientially I think it doesn’t make one bit of difference whether they’re physically real or experientially real. If they feel real at that level, they are real and what does that mean? I’m back to the Bruce Greyson kind of answer that says, Well, I don’t really know what it means in ultimate terms but by golly that sure is interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs] Right. Maybe that moves us into the last area that I wanted to talk about. Another former guest on this show and someone you reference in the book is P.M.H. Atwater, of course a near-death experience researcher, a long time been at it with many books. One of the things that Atwater said in our interview that I thought really she made an excellent point on is really looking at the long-term effects.
And she’s the first one that I know of who’s really said, “Here’s something we have to really put on the table,” in the same way you’re talking about putting distressing near-death experiences on the table. That is that the aftermath of these near-death experiences isn’t so neat and rosy like we’d like to think it is. People are challenged by these experiences and challenged mightily and they go through some real challenging times in terms of integrating this into their life experience.
Nancy Bush: And she is absolutely right. So much of what people like to think about when they think about spirituality is a kind of Thomas Kinkaide spirituality. It’s all going to be so sweet; it’s going to be cozy; it’s going to be supportive; it’s going to be just wonderful. And in plain fact, Saint Paul was not far wrong when he said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” because yes, it can be glorious. It can be comforting. I can be wonderful things. It’s not always going to be pretty.
It may be glorious but glorious comes at a price, too. And the price is very frequently that you wake up after your radiant experience and you have just been with people you dearly love who had died. You have been in the presence of whatever it is you consider most holy. You have been in the presence of peace and ultimate home and you wake up and you’re lying on the pavement and it’s still Tuesday. Your understanding has been transformed but theirs hasn’t. Let’s put it this way: there is a psychotherapist now out there in California. You understand, I say “now out there” from coastal North Carolina.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes. A true Easterner.
Nancy Bush: Exactly. Anyway Alex Lukeman, who is quoted in considerable length in the book, has talked about near-death and similar experiences as being “the 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.” Now get that. That means your conception of everything has just been blown sky-high.
Alex Tsakiris: Nancy, since you touched on it I want to bring up how you have resolved this or whether or not you have resolved it with your traditional Christian upbringing.
Nancy Bush: Oh, no. Calvin was right. Predestination, which is the idea that God has decided beforehand who will be saved and who will not. And I obviously, coming out of this experience, I was not on the right side of God. So that explains why I am no longer in a Calvinist theological belief because I was incapable of accepting a God who would do that.
Alex Tsakiris: To be honest, aren’t there some deeper doctrinal problems with Christianity? And that’s not to say that as you suggested earlier that there aren’t breadcrumbs, there aren’t morsels that may turn out to be deep spiritual truths. I totally accept that. But I think in the way that it’s constituted and the way that it’s presented, at least down at the church that I go to that I can’t join because I’m not the Christian—I can’t stand up there and say the Apostle’s Creed and say that I believe any of these things.
But I accept the possibility that there is Christ Consciousness; that I might be able to interact with that Christ Consciousness. I’m really at a loss for resolving that with modern American, Western Christianity who claims a primacy, a superiority, or even a historical significance in terms of the Resurrection or anything like that. I think all that stuff just doesn’t make any sense in this context.
Nancy Bush: I hear you loud and clear. As I look I see more and more people wanting out of the theological woods saying exactly those things. It’s an interesting and extremely challenging time to be trying to make it successfully in the great majority of Christian churches because there is this tension between orthodox doctrine and orthodox wording. What some of us look at and say, “This just does not begin to do it.”
But on the other hand, you’ve got increasing numbers of Angelicals saying, “I don’t think I can do this anymore. This is not fitting. This does not feel right. This is not the God I want to worship. Or I can worship. Or I can believe.” And then as you move into the more open structures, you begin to find people saying, “It’s not about doctrine. It’s about how you are living your life. How are you interacting with creation?”
Alex Tsakiris: You know, it’s amazing to me that many folks still don’t see the way out that you’re painting and I always point people to. Again, I’m not a Christian but I’m really drawn to people like Brian McLaren.
Nancy Bush: Oh, heavens yes!
Alex Tsakiris: A new kind of Christianity and just a couple things where he says, “How do you look at the Bible? Do you look at it as an encyclopedia, beginning to end, that tells us everything we know? Or a library where we can go and pull bits and pieces out and use them however we will?” And the other thing I think is part of that progressive Christianity that again, I can’t say I’m a part of but I see it heading in a direction that is certainly encouraging, and that’s to say that we have to fully embrace—fully embrace—our other religions, our other Traditions. Not in a way of, Yeah, you can be here too, but in a way of Yes, you’re just as true or maybe more true than me. So great. Let’s all join in this thing together.
Nancy Bush: It’s kind of like being in a chorus and the sopranos aren’t altos and the altos aren’t tenors who aren’t baritones but without all the voices you don’t have the finished product. I’m a mezzo. Well, I used to be a mezzo. To say we’re the only ones who really have the right voices, well how impossibly narrow and how impossibly crippling.
I’m equally distressed for and by the militant Atheists whose anger at religion is so extreme that it is paralyzing their intellectual functioning.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, the interesting thing about that, and it took me a long time to realize, they’re like the bullies who are really protecting the upstanding citizens that allow the bullies to patrol the neighborhood because it really works to their advantage.
I think the scientific community is standing right behind on the sideline and seeing the Atheist bullcrap that goes on. It totally serves as cover for them because the end of materialism is the end of Atheism. It doesn’t go away; it just gets so marginalized and put over there in the corner they become the Flat Earth Society. But as long as science continues to prop them up and say, Oh, no, yeah, there’s still some validity there, that’s what really ferments the whole thing.
Nancy Bush: For years I have been so fascinated by the fact that if you look way over to the left or way over to the right, you see people saying the same things about near-death experiences, for example.
Alex Tsakiris: Exactly.
Nancy Bush: The scientists say, “Nobody can fly through the sky. They can’t be seeing their bodies. That’s not true.” And over at the other end, the guys are saying, “That can’t be true. That’s just not doctrinal.”
Alex Tsakiris: I think the deeper thing that I’ve found, my opinion, is that what they’re both doing is defending the status quo. I mean, first of all they’re defending their existing beliefs because it’s painful for any of us to change our beliefs. But the consequence is that they’re defending the status quo and that’s why they get fed. That’s why we keep feeding them because we need the status quo to go on. We need the culture of materialism, needs to support the science philosophy of materialism, or the whole thing grinds to a halt.
Nancy Bush: So do you see a way past that?
Alex Tsakiris: No, I don’t. I mean, not in any short-term—one of the frustrations I have is when people talk about the paradigm shift that’s imminent and all that. It’s like, go tell William James about the imminent paradigm shift.
Nancy Bush: [Laughs] It’s that sentimental passionate desire for things to be nice.
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Nancy Bush: And we’ll just have this evolution of consciousness and then the Golden Age will be here and let’s see, it’s Tuesday. If we do this right it should be here by the end of the year.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, Nancy, that’s a very interesting parallel to what you’re talking about with the distressing near-death experiences in that we have to let in, if not fully embrace—maybe we have to fully embrace the dark. But we have to at least let it into the conversation and not pretend that it’s not there.
Nancy Bush: Bingo. Yep, you got it. Absolutely on target. Yes.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, Nancy, it’s been just a delight talking to you. Again, the book for those of you that are interested in finding out more about these distressing near-death experiences and understanding the whole near-death experience phenomena and the history of the research from someone who’s been at it for a very long time and has a very unique perspective in seeing it all evolve, you have to check out Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences.
Nancy, thanks again for joining me.
Nancy Bush: Alex, thank you so much.