Interview brings ethnographic perspective to discover the meaning of near-death experiences to those who have had them.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Suzanne Gordon author of, Field Notes From the Light: An Ethnographic Study of the Meaning and Significance of Near-Death Experiences. During the interview Gordon talks about bringing Ethnography to near-death experience research:
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: The interesting thing about ethnography is that it’s very time intensive. I spent a decade on the dissertation but there were two two-year periods of full-time field work. I was spending more time with people who had had near-death experiences than I was with my own family.
Alex Tsakiris: Give us a sense for some of these cases. They’re just amazing. Maybe start with the Atheist. I love that one.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Let’s start with Eric. I had everybody choose their own pseudonyms because that’s very informative. This guy chose Eric because he was a guitar player and he really liked Eric Clapton. The interesting thing to me about his account was I think it points to why it’s important for experiencers to become visible.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us about his case.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Well, he was on the sailboat of a friend of his who was a cardiologist, conveniently enough. There was some accident and he ended up falling overboard. It was a cold day. He was burdened by clothing. He died. Then, left his body and watched the resuscitation efforts on the boat below him as he was floating away.
He didn’t see God. He said, “I was very happy wherever I was going. I’m not sure where I was going but I was floating away and I was very happy to do that. I wasn’t struggling to live. I was very happy to keep going and see what happened.”
They kept working on him and they’d give up periodically and then they’d work on him some more. Finally they did bring him back.
He didn’t become a religious guy or anything. The only reason he even knew it was a near-death experience is because his wife had read Ray Moody’s book and pointed it out to him. He kept apologizing throughout the process. “I’m sorry. I’m just really not very interested.” I’d keep reassuring him, “I don’t care, it’s fine.”
Alex Tsakiris: That’s fascinating. On the other hand, there’s a different way to read that account — it’s the ultimate attachment to a worldview. So I’m an Atheist, I have this transformative experience, and now I know that life goes on, right? Because he does say that at the end. He goes, “Okay, I know that…”
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: We go on and I didn’t know that before.
Alex Tsakiris: …and I didn’t know that before, right? So that really blows apart your worldview. But I see somebody who’s not willing to go very far with that. I mean, he’s the ultimate Agnostic like I encounter so often. It’s like, well, can’t know for sure. Don’t really know. We’re kind of in the middle, versus if you look at how our culture defines life. This experience should have completely…
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Blown his mind.
Alex Tsakiris: …blown his mind, and it didn’t. I wonder what thoughts you have on that in general and on this topic of personal transformation and how that’s different for different people depending on where they’re coming from.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I think your previous experiences in life and your cultural beliefs and values are really important. I did talk about this in my dissertation but Eric had a really awful, awful childhood. Had a lot of issues. I think there are probably many, many, many more people like Eric out there that are not going to turn up to near-death studies.
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Today we welcome Dr. Suzanne Gordon to Skeptiko. Dr. Gordon is on the faculty at the University of Maryland and is here to talk about, among other things, her rather amazing dissertation titled, Field Notes From the Light: An Ethnographic Study of the Meaning and Significance of Near-Death Experiences.
Dr. Gordon, it’s a great pleasure to welcome you to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Well, I’m glad to be here, Alex. Thanks for inviting me.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I thought we should start talking about this research because first I have to say that for anyone who hasn’t heard of you or your work, I can give them a great reference point, and that’s a tremendous interview you gave to the folks at Mysterious Universe. It’s Episode 713 if anyone is interested. It really opened me up to a lot of things related to this work you’ve done in ethnographics, that is cultural anthropology and applying some of those methodologies to this topic of near-death experience. So can you give us a high-level view of what you did for your PhD dissertation?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: The interesting thing about ethnography—well, one of them—is that it’s very time intensive. The method of cultural anthropology originated in anthropology of participant observation field work. So I spent a decade on the dissertation but there were two two-year periods of full-time field work so that I was spending more time with other people who had had near-death experiences than I was with my own family.
And my approach was person-centered ethnography or life history narrative based ethnography, to find out what the meaning of near-death experiences were to those who had them rather than to the “experts,” by saying “If you were going to tell someone your life story or write your autobiography, how would you organize it into chapters?”
Alex Tsakiris: I think that was a very interesting part of what I came to understand what you did, and that’s that one of the barriers you found was you had to use this “like an NDE” phrase. Can you tell us about that and how you came to understand that? And I guess more importantly, how that factors into the larger mission that you find yourself on in terms of education from a medical standpoint about these experiences, these phenomena.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: The original thing that happened was the very first informant–I just had assumed at the point at which I started my research–I didn’t realize that the experience I’d had at the age of three years and six-and-a-half months exactly was a near-death experience. So I didn’t even know that I was an experiencer. I knew my mother had been…
Alex Tsakiris: Wait. I have to stop you there, Suzanne, because you’ve kind of wandered into that personal story. It’s fascinating. Why don’t you spend a minute and tell us first about your mother’s near-death experience because that, I guess to you in your formative years, was so in-your-face but then also how you came to understand about your own near-death experience. I don’t want people to run off and go, Oh wow, this is kind of kooky. There are all these connections. When you explain it, it’s really very understandable and ordinary in a way, in terms of the way these things unraveled.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I was ten and my mother miscarried and hemorrhaged and then died on the table when they were prepping her for surgery. So when she came home from the hospital, I was at school. I wasn’t even all the way in my parent’s bedroom when she said, “Suzanne, I’m not afraid of death anymore. I know where we go.” Her mom had died when she was four so she was really just terrified of death. She was one of those mothers that if you were in the emergency room getting sewn up or something, instead of being there beside you she’d be in the hall with her head between her knees. So that was a profound statement.
Then she described to me the beautiful colors and the sounds and everything. She said, “I scared the hell out of the doctors,” because I guess they must have pronounced or they’d stopped trying to resuscitate her and covered her up and everything. She wasn’t looking at me at that moment and she said, “Well, I wasn’t going to come back.” Then she realized she was talking to her ten-year-old daughter. “I mean, I didn’t want to come back but I heard you kids calling me.”
And her NDE was one of those all the bells and whistles, many of the components, so when Raymond Moody’s book got published almost two decades later, I said, “Mom, mom, look. That was a near-death experience you had.” I remember thinking about the experience I had during surgery when I was three years old while reading Moody’s book but because there was no tunnel in my experience like everyone else in my study, I therefore knew that that experience had not been a near-death experience.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. And you say that because you had this strong bias of these fixed parameters that had to exist for it to be a near-death experience, right? So fast-forward to your research and then that becomes this “like a near-death experience” question, right?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: My very first informant, at some point in the research, she had been referred to me by someone who knew she’d had a near-death experience. But like everyone in my research, NDE was not only not her preferred label for the experience, which led me to see that the model was really being problematized by the method that allowed me to get people who weren’t already necessarily self-labeled near-death experiencers. I found people the way ethnographers do, by using my own networks, letting people know I’m interested in people who have had near-death experiences. So the first time I used the term “NDE” with this research participant, she said, “What’s an NDE?”
One thing you do as in ethnography is try to not lead the informant in any way, which is why I chose the life history method where I never ask about their NDE or call it an NDE after that first informant. I would introduce myself to people by saying, “I’m interested in people who have had an experiences like near-death experiences,” realizing that many people like me were unable, unwilling, dead-set against, whatever, using that label. So that became important that I wasn’t finding people who were self-labeled near-death experiencers. Some of my people knew about that stuff. Some of them literally did not know about it.
I started my research in the mid-90s. In the late ‘70s, everybody knew what an NDE was but because the model is flawed for the experience in my opinion, as time went on we began to get this conflation of close brushes with death and near-death experiences. You’d hear things like the Redskins had an NDE in the 4th quarter and stuff like that.
So it was important to find people who were not acculturated into the culture of near-death experience studies. Ultimately what I ended up with were 50 people, 10 of whom I used more of their life histories in my dissertation so they became like my foregrounded informants. But of those 50 I think—I don’t have my tables right in front of me now—but about half of them I found through INs so they became my background group. The other half, on my own.
It became very interesting because the NDE model became very problematized. And as a result of that research, realizing that we needed a separate organization for the benefit of experiencers, two or three of us, Yolaine Stout, Linda Jacquin, at the very beginning began working toward and have now founded ACISTE, the American Center for Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences, to benefit them. The first thing we saw was we need to educate mental health professionals, spiritual guidance professionals, pastoral counselors, of people who have had these experiences so they don’t get mis-diagnosed with some mental disorder as a result of talking about their experience.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, I think that also ties in to another question I want to ask you and that’s about the role that your academic advisors played in your dissertation.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: John Caughey, who’s an anthropologist whose interests, like mine, are culture and consciousness, was my mentor and my committee chair for my dissertation. That was tremendous. Bruce Greyson was kind enough to be on my committee, traveling up for meetings from UVA, which was great because he’s the Dean of Near-Death Studies, and by the way, is going to be our keynote speaker at this October’s conference. And Dan Leviton, who was the founding President of the Association of Death Education and Counseling, who was there early on with that group, people like Robert Kastenbaum, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the early pioneers of the death awareness movement.
When Dan had read my comp—and bless his heart, gave me high honors on it which was a big thrill—he didn’t say a word about “This is good, Suzanne,” or anything. He just tossed it across his desk at me and said, “You need and organization for these people.” So Yolaine Stout, who was a former President of the International Association of Near-Death Studies, and I, when we were early on, drawing up the Articles of Incorporation and everything, we would refer to Dan as the “Father of ACISTE.”
I didn’t want to start an association. I’d actually done a lot of consulting work with associations and I knew a lot about association work and I wasn’t that interested in doing it. But I knew he was right.
Alex Tsakiris: One thing that fascinates me about that is taking aside the health education needs and the needs of the experiencers—I don’t mean at all to diminish that. My tone was being playful there. There’s a huge need and the problem you mentioned about misdiagnosis is just so sad to think that someone could have this completely transformative, life-changing experience and then when they do seek help the person on the other end is so uneducated that they’re completely mis-diagnosed and maybe given a medicine or maybe sent down some rabbit hole that is really going to cause major upset in their life. That is so real and so important.
But I want to pull it back to a completely different level of the Skeptiko angle that we look at things sometimes, and that’s that when I was talking to Raymond Moody a few months back—he’s been on the show a couple times—he said this thing about NDEs are pre-scientific.
I kind of know what he means in one way but the other thing that struck me when I was going through your research is there’s nothing pre-scientific about Dr. Suzanne Gordon’s work. Here is just a fertile area for research and somebody could just dive in and everywhere you reach there’s an opportunity over here for further study and also for helping people. There’s an opportunity over here. These are all methods that are well-established within the educational community. Cultural anthropology, that’s how we look at things, da-da-da-da. There’s nothing pre-scientific about what you’re doing other than the fact that there’s about a thousand research questions here that you could never get into.
I’m wondering what thoughts you might have about how we’ve tainted this field. We haven’t done it but other people have tainted it because it doesn’t fit within their worldview. And how you play with this idea of what role science can really have in overcoming this stigma that is associated still a little bit with near-death experience research.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I’m not sure what Dr. Moody even meant by that statement. I mean, other than maybe these experiences have certainly predated Western science. But let me give you Dan’s fix on this piece I think is interesting. Dan Leviton, before he died two years ago this month actually, I said, “Dan, you weren’t all that interested in the mental health needs of experiencers, were you?” We were estimating maybe 13 million, somewhere between 4 and 8 percent, based on the Gallup polls of the population studied that probably had NDEs. It puts the U.S. somewhere between 12 million and 20 million or something…
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s put a brief exclamation point on that. So there are 10 to 20 million people in the United States, walking around, by our best estimate using the best surveying methods we have, that have had a near-death experience. That’s a significant number of people.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Right. Right. Exactly. And Dan had written a book. He coined the term, “horrendous death,” meaning intentional destruction of human life or biosphere or ecosystem life. He wrote this book called, Horrendous Death, Health, and Social Well-Being. There’s a new edition with a slightly different title. This was a policy book that Dan edited and his whole point was the United States is history’s greatest manufacturer and exporter of the weaponry of horrendous death, both militarily and in terms of “development.” So he admitted it, yeah.
He saw these millions of people in every population where they’ve been studied as sort of this uncalled-up army of global wellness looking at the after-effects of NDEs. He had identified from all these policy experts perspectives the value shifts that we needed to make in order to preserve the ability of our grandchildren to be able to breathe. His concern was look what we’re doing to the planet with this horrendous death machine. Look what we’re doing to the health of the planet.
He identified this set of values that we needed to change, from being materialistic to being altruistic. To having a concern for wellness rather than making money. To having a concern for global wellness, the wellness of the planet and social well-being. And all the values he identified there was this direct match between these values and the value shifts that are among the after-effects of near-death experiences. So he admitted it. He saw that these people needed support and an organizational platform to become visible to culture.
Alex Tsakiris: I tell you what. Let’s jump into it. I think we’re talking around about the research, which is great because I think it’s great to have this background. But give people a sense for some of these cases. They’re just amazing. There’s an amazing variety of cases that you talk about in your dissertation. Maybe start with the Atheist. I love that.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Let’s start with Eric. I had everybody choose their own pseudonyms because that’s very informative about why people choose what pseudonyms. This guy chose Eric because of Eric Clapton. He was a guitar player and he really liked Eric Clapton. The interesting thing to me about his account was I think it points to why it’s important for experiencers to become visible.
But like he said, it didn’t answer all my questions. In other words, it didn’t make him a believer or anything. He was totally disinterested in my research. If it hadn’t been that his son was a neighbor of mine, I never would have had Eric to study because as his son said, “You’ve got to interview my father because he’s the most unlike other near-death experiencers that you can imagine.”
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us about his case.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Well, what happened to him was he was on the sailboat of a friend of his who was a cardiologist, conveniently enough, sailing out on the Chesapeake Bay not far from where I live. There was some accident. He was doing something at the side of the boat and ended up falling overboard and it was a relatively cold day, so he was burdened by clothing. He died. And he watched the resuscitation efforts on the boat below him and then he was floating away.
Some of the funny things were how people will describe the same elements but differently very often. His was really extreme because most people say, “This beautiful, glowing, loving light and these wonderful sounds,” right? Eric said, “The light was too bright. The sounds were too loud.” And then he said as soon as he thought that, it all modulated and became very comfortable.
He didn’t see God. I don’t know that any of my informants identified the being of light in deistic or theistic terms or specific religious terms. He said, “I was very happy wherever I was going. I’m not sure where I was going but I was floating away and I was very happy to do that. I wasn’t struggling to live. I was very happy to keep going and see what happened.”
They kept working on him and they’d give up periodically and then they’d work on him some more. Finally they did bring him back. He didn’t become a religious guy or anything. I think his wife and I both think that many of the choices he made afterwards probably did reflect changes from that experience. It was really funny because his wife fit more. The only reason he even knew it was a near-death experience is because she had read Ray Moody’s book and pointed it out to him. But if it hadn’t been for his son and his wife—he kept apologizing throughout the process. “I’m sorry. I’m just really not very interested.” I’d keep reassuring him, you know? “I don’t care, it’s fine.”
Alex Tsakiris: That’s fascinating. On the other hand there’s a completely different way to read that account that I do and that’s that to a certain extent it’s the ultimate attachment to a worldview. So I’m an Atheist, I have this transformative experience, and now I know that life goes on, right? Because he does say that at the end. He goes, “Okay, I know that physical…”
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: We go on and I didn’t know that before.
Alex Tsakiris: …and I didn’t know that before, right? So that really blows apart your worldview. But I see somebody who’s not willing to go very far. I mean, he’s the ultimate Agnostic like I encounter so often. It’s like, well, can’t know for sure. Don’t really know. We’re kind of in the middle, versus if you look at how our culture defines life. This experience should have completely…
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Blown his mind.
Alex Tsakiris: …blown his mind and it didn’t so I think there’s two way to take that. I wonder what thoughts you have on that in general and on this topic of personal transformation and how that’s different for different people depending on where they’re coming from. Or maybe there’s other reasons why it is different for people.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: No, I think that’s really important. Your previous experiences in life and your cultural beliefs and values. I did talk about this in my dissertation because he had had a really awful, awful childhood. Had a lot of issues. I think there are probably many, many, many more people like Eric out there that are not going to turn up in near-death studies or ACISTE. Do you know what I mean?
That we don’t hear from but I think his case speaks to the need for experiencers to be heard, harking back to your interview with Chris Carter, where he kept talking about the third rail. That we’ve got science on one side and religion on the other? Well, I want the third rail to be the voice of experiencers themselves because I think their interpretations of the meanings of their experiences speak back both to religion and to science. And don’t let us fall into these sort of simplistic either/or versions of what’s real.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but then again they let us fall into this soup of complete chaos in terms of coming to any understanding of this. I go back to the story you mentioned about “I heard you kids calling and I came back for you.” It’s a wonderful story that we all take in and go, oh, wow, isn’t that neat? And the love connection and bond between a mother and her kids. But there are a million questions that fall from that about the nature of this afterlife.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: And just to add on to that before we move on, every woman in my study who had small children at the time of the NDE had some version of that rationale as to why they were back.
Alex Tsakiris: But what does that mean? And men didn’t have that? Why didn’t men have that? What are the cultural differences? Take that one step further. What does that mean about the nature of the afterlife of this other realm, of this higher consciousness? Is it that random that you’re just, well, I could come back, I could not come back. Oh, this is wonderful, it’s great. Oh, but I have the kids. What are my obligations to this life, to this world, to this material existence?
It raises so many more questions that really seem impossible to answer. Even if we use the accounts and try and compile them and sort them and sift them, I don’t know that we’re ever going to get much closer to that. And I think that is what ultimately makes people’s heads spin and they feel a need to grab onto one rail, science, or the other rail, religion or some kind of spiritual belief. That third rail, it’s nonsensical in a lot of ways.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Well, in pre-quantum physics it would be nonsensical. And to religion, unless your NDE happened to align with the precepts of a particular religion…
Alex Tsakiris: Which many of them do. I mean, we can’t gloss over that. We can’t gloss over that many of them do, but even more importantly, almost all of them have this element of a moral imperative of some kind whether it’s just some connection to good or a connection to love or specific instructions to do well. So that moral imperative is another part of this third rail that we can’t really process. We can’t even fit it into the mother who wants to go back to her children. She doesn’t want to go to God?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: No. Nobody I talked to wanted to come back. Nobody wanted to come back. When you were talking about that, why do they come back, it reminded me of this line in a poem. Now I can’t remember if it was Wallace Stevens. I can’t remember the author of this poem. But the line I want to quote is “Love calls us to the things of this world.” And I think that’s what brought people back. Many people articulated that.
One of the men in my study, Neville Johnston, who’s written a couple of books so it’s okay to mention his name, he was 27 and he was offered the opportunity to stay and he was really enjoying it. His was a really interesting account. He was dead for a while so there tends to be more narrative the longer that you’re dead. But he was only 27 when he died. He hadn’t really done anything yet. This was his thinking, that he reported to me, he was mom’s only child, so he too felt obligated to come back.
Alex Tsakiris: But Suzanne, we have the ultimate filter on these accounts, right?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: They came back.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. If they decide not to come back we’re really not going to interview them. The other part that just presents this problem is we hear two completely contradictory things. We hear on one hand that there’s this decision to come back to take care of things in this world. And then we hear equally—at least I have and I’m sure you have since you’ve researched this much more than I have—these accounts of everything here is as it should be. Everything is going to be okay. All those questions you had about human suffering, why bad things happen to good people, are answered for people in this other state of knowing and it all makes sense.
Which would lead us to there’s really no compelling need to do something, you know? It just all works out and you’re just evolving and co-evolving with the process. Aren’t those ideas really—I don’t want to say they’re in conflict—but they appear to be contradictory.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: They do. So why is it that way? Why do people see this other side on some level or from some perspective? It’s all okay? And yet, the way these things change people’s lives—there’s the tendency to have a new or more pronounced sense of life mission, responsibility, accountability to everyone on the planet and to the planet itself, you know? It is interesting, isn’t it?
It is because if you see some place that seems so wonderful and where everything is clearly okay and even a lot of times beings like with Dannion Brinkley? He’s done all these horrific things in his lifetime and yet here’s the Being of Light with its arm around Danny’s shoulder saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s all a learning experience.” And yet you come back changed and wanting to do for others and realizing things like we’re here to learn and to serve and to grow.
Alex Tsakiris: Which are certainly wonderful things but then those lead us back to that spiritual analogy of the rail, back to our spiritual, religious wisdom traditions that put those foremost in terms of how we should live our lives, too. So I don’t know. I think this whole idea of NDE research is very tricky to balance this science objectivity with what seems to me is this inevitable path towards the spiritual. I know that’s kind of a problematic word for you and especially since you’ve started an organization about spiritually transformative experiences. Wander into that territory. Tell us…
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Can I just say that was not anyone’s first choice? Our original idea for the title was the Center for the Integration of Transformative Experiences. That would have spelled “CITE,” right? We all liked how that sounded but that web address was taken.
Alex Tsakiris: It also doesn’t ground you in anything. It’s kind of like…
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Well, true. But I didn’t like that word “spiritual” because I never liked that word. It sounds like there’s spiritual over here and then there’s what? The profane over here? You know, I teach about Native American cultures, right? So I loved your Ardy Clarke interview. But in many Native American cultures, how sociology and religion would describe it is they would say religion is coexistent with the culture itself. In other words, these are cultures that never de-ligioed, or however you use that Latin verb. So they don’t have to re-ligio. So we always struggle over that in studying Native American cultures because people refer to Native American religions and that’s really a complete misnomer.
So yeah, I don’t like the word “spiritual” because somebody who’s had one of these experiences, however they get to have this mindset, it’s all spiritual if you want to look at it that way. My own experience or understanding of my experience is more like quantum physics, you know? It’s consciousness that’s really prime rather than matter. So everything that we take to be outside of us in the material world is actually inside this consciousness that we think is transmitted by our brain. I’m much more of the quantum mechanics perspective, where that perspective takes you that the brain is the receiver of consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m with you on all that. We have two problems in my opinion. One is that we do have a cultural paradigm that is totally against anything spiritual in the broadest sense of what you’re talking about. It is diametrically opposed to that and I think when we avoid talking about the spiritual, we’re ceding the debate to folks who really don’t have a scientific legitimacy in making those claims. I mean, if they had some kind of explanation for what’s going on that made sense, then maybe they have a seat at the table. But they don’t and they reject it, so I think we have that to sort out.
But the other thing I think we have to sort out that I keep coming back to is this little moral imperative thing. I mean, what is going on there? We can process it anyway we want and abstract it to one consciousness and consciousness being primary and not matter and all that, but there’s still this connection with the experiencers on the broadest sense as far as I know and that’s that there is a higher order of goodness, of love, of connection. That, to me, sounds like spiritual in just about any way you want to put it.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Yes, I agree. But here’s something interesting for you that I didn’t really realize until I started teaching courses in sociology or religion. This really surprised me that it isn’t scientists who don’t have any sort of spiritual belief. I had this somewhere on a PowerPoint slide so I’m going to just approximate. But something like 87% of hard scientists have some sort of spiritual belief system. Now, isn’t that interesting? You know the group of scientists who are the lowest in having any sort of belief system?
Alex Tsakiris: Psychologists.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Social scientists. The whole range of social scientists because sociology starts out on Marxist, materialist worldview principles. This tension that we’re always talking about between the spiritual or religious and the scientific, when you look at that statistic, wait a minute. The upper eighties percent of scientists have some sort of belief system. Now, this may not be orthodox belief systems but some sort of faith or belief system related to this, as you put it, higher order of goodness or something. A spiritual something. So it’s interesting, isn’t it?
It’s not science versus religion but it’s the pre-quantum scientific worldview versus the religious worldview, neither of which do I hold. I worry because I can see a new scientific paradigm that’s just as cold and as hard scientists would say, bias-free and value-neutral, which we don’t buy in ethnography by the way. That’s a statement of value that you’re value-neutral. And the utilitarian purposes to which science is being put and have been put which can lead to very evil results, you know what I mean?
Anyway, it’s not as cut-and-dried as it seems to be when we talk about these two rails. That’s why I want the culture of people who have lost the fear of death but are not necessarily espousing orthodoxy. None of my research participants changed religions but, to the last, they certainly have—one of my informants, I think Jenny was her pseudonym, said she had been something like Greek Orthodox. She was something else and she had a good friend who was a Catholic priest who was giving her catechism. She was going to be baptized as a Catholic.
It was her priest visiting her in the hospital who somehow put his face over hers that stopped her movement into the world of light. For 18 months she said she hated him and didn’t know why. She had no idea what had happened to her; none whatsoever. Anyway, after the experience she said, “After I got over being mad at the priest and realized I’d had a near-death experience,” (someone had found her crying in the restroom at work and realized by what she said that she’d had a near-death experience and she connected with that…)
Alex Tsakiris: Just to clarify, she was mad at the priest because he had prevented her from moving into this wonderful realm, yeah.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Yes. That’s exactly right. But she ultimately gets baptized. And she said, “I know that you don’t have to be Catholic to connect with what I connected with through the near-death experience. It’s just comfortable for me, the incense and the candles and the rosary.” She said, “But my beliefs are very different now.”
She changed her whole backyard and made it into like a wildlife preserve, sowing wildflower seeds and no chemicals and all that. And she said, “I realize now I have to take care of nature, even snakes, and I don’t even like snakes.” I thought that was really interesting. So people stayed or went where they felt comfortable.
Another informant, she’s more like me. She’s sort of sampled around all kinds of different religions and paths and everything but religion or spirituality for them is no longer about particular sets of dogma or belief.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s touch on one thing you mentioned, the phrase that always grabs my stomach a little bit, and that’s “fear of death.” I understand the need to educate about fear of death. I understand the transformation that people go through that you mentioned from your research. Many near-death experience researchers have talked about how this near-death experience transforms people and they no longer have this fear of death.
But I wonder at the same time if we’ve elevated this symptom, i.e., fear of death, into something more than it is to obscure the underlying cause which is this worldview that we have that says you are this biological robot. You are here; you are there. Fear of death being the thing that we have to overcome. Doesn’t that obscure the worldview shift that someone has to go through to really totally take in what it means to survive your death?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Yeah. I totally agree. You can’t think your way out of fear of death, I don’t think. You can’t just use logic to walk out of fear of death. Do you know what I mean? That’s apples and oranges or something.
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t know. I think you can to a certain extent.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: According to Ken Ring’s work in Heading Toward Omega and Omega Project that from the studies he did, just exposure to near-death experience studies literature lessened people’s fear of death. So yeah, I think that’s a good thing but I agree with you. I think the experience of finding yourself alive while somebody’s just pronounced your body dead, there’s culture shock for you, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So you have culture shock. I guess I wasn’t being totally clear but you have a fear of death. No, I no longer have a fear of death because I reached this other realm. Okay, well now incorporate in reincarnation into that. Okay, so you’re going to come back. How many times are you going to come back? Incorporate into that karma if you believe in karma. Incorporate into that this idea of moral imperative, that you have to do right by other people or do right by the Pope.
I mean, there’s an endless number of worldview shifts that one can make either one way or another that all would factor into this fear of death question. I understand fear of death because the way we’ve organized our society, our culture, is a big barrier. But it seems to me like the tip of the iceberg. There’s millions upon hundreds of millions of people around the planet who are already past the you don’t die and your consciousness survives, and they still have fear of all sorts of things in terms of their karmic future or their reincarnations. It’s a lot more complicated than just overcoming fear of death, isn’t it?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I don’t know. My experience with this population is that they’re a lot less fearful about a lot of stuff than other folks because they’ve experienced a different—none of the terms fit—planes of reality or dimensions. All this terminology came out of this already material worldview, you know? But they’ve experienced a different reality. For an anthropologist it’s easier to say they have experienced a different culture and they have experienced profound culture shock when they get there. And profound counter-shock when they get back.
One of my informants, Chris, she did the Christopher Reeves thing, as she put it, and when she came back and was back with her family, she kept asking them things like, “Why are you talking to each other like this?” They thought she was crazy because that’s how they’d always talked to each other. But suddenly she was hearing it very differently. She’s one of the people who went for counseling.
And I should point out too that there was no connection made between the experience—but she’s one of the people who to this day says it wasn’t a near-death experience. She knew she wasn’t going to die. So none of the five of my ten foregrounded informants who sought some kind of counseling after knew to describe their presenting symptoms or whatever you call it in a clinical context as related to their near-death experience and none of their mental health care clinicians knew to connect it, either. So there were all sorts of other kinds of diagnoses.
Alex Tsakiris: Which is that whole medical education problem. That leads us back to the association that you formed. Tell us a little bit more about that and particularly about this conference that’s coming up in October. Again, it’s the American Center for the Integration of Spiritually Transformative Experiences. We’ll certainly have a link up in the show notes to it but tell us a little bit about what’s going on.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: It’s ACISTE so you can Google that and we come up first. We’re excited about this conference. Bruce Greyson is going to be our keynote speaker and we have all new speakers this year. But what the conference focuses on are the therapeutic issues connected with these kinds of experiences. So what do mental health care providers need to know? It’s really interesting because we have a lot of people coming to these conferences who are mental health professionals who themselves have had transformational experiences one way or the other, whether it was…
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us about some of the transformational experiences that you’re typically dealing with.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Wow, there’s all kinds of them. There are all kinds of triggers for these experiences. We just realized early on that many of the experiences being studied in near-death experience studies we couldn’t even really be sure of the clinical state of the person being studied.
There are many types and many names for experiences that can share common features and be catalysts for spiritual transformation, not just NDEs but we also say near-death-like experiences, out-of-body experiences, visions, spiritual emergencies, awakenings, Kundalini experiences, enlightenment experiences, exceptional human experiences, rebirth memories, past life experiences.
Nearing death awareness—which is a term that Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley coined for their work with hospice patients where they saw people—they called it “nearing death awareness” because like where a near-death experience would typically happen all at one time, as Maggie said to me once, “Never sit in an empty chair in a hospice bedroom until you make sure Uncle Fred’s not sitting there.” Apparently in the nearing death awareness what they found was people would have many of the elements of NDEs in a natural death trajectory, like in a hospice situation, but they’d be spread out over a period of weeks or months.
So after death communications, empathic or shared near-death experiences. Is it Moody who wrote about that or Morse?
Alex Tsakiris: Moody.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Peak experiences, STEs which include or may be called numinous, noetic, transcendent, transpersonal, mystical, religious, anomalous, paranormal. Some experiences occur after meditation, yoga, drugs, religious practices, dance, drumming, sensory deprivation, prayer. Sometimes they happen spontaneously. Personal trauma, illness, distress, crisis. They can occur during emotionally intense periods.
At one point I read something in the near-death experience studies literature that at some point someone had estimated, based on the incidents of different clinical symptoms in relation to NDEs, that it looked like about 75% of women’s were childbirth related. And about 75% of men’s were cardiac related. Because women who give birth actually come close to death earlier than men, who don’t give birth. I think we don’t realize how close those two things are. So there seem to be a lot of triggers.
Now the thing is, most of the research we’ve done has been on near-death experiences so there’s such a need for research on these kinds of experiences in other contexts. For me, the two earmarks of the near-death experience are loss of fear of death, which in our culture is a monumental thing to realize what dying did for somebody, and that sense of spiritual mission or life purpose. We don’t know enough about that. Even alien encounter experiences. Ken Ring found a lot of the same aftereffect patterns with alien encounter experiences as with near-death experiences, which we talked a little bit about before.
So it’s really a wide-open field for research. Thank God for quantum mechanics. That’s funny. Recent brain/mind research and this whole growing body of knowledge we have from quantum mechanics have both legitimized more that the near-death experiencers’ worldview that there are more dimensions. I think we talked about this last time. According to Elisabet Sahtouris—have you had her on?
Alex Tsakiris: Yes. A long time ago.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Fascinating person. Our culture has the fewest dimensions in its worldview of any culture studied by either anthropology or evolutionary biology. I think that’s really interesting. So now you have quantum theorists coming over here and saying, “Well, we’ve got to have at least 11 dimensions.” And brain/mind research, which as Bruce Greyson points out, we do not have an explanation for people reporting accurately things that have happened when they were flatlined because that does not fit our material model of the brain being the transmitter of consciousness rather than a receiver.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. We keep flipping back and forth and trying to explain things from this perspective of matter.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I want the culture of near-death experiencers to become visible because I can envision just this cold and value-neutral and bias-free worldview emerging out of quantum physics that still allows us to completely trash the planet and each other.
Alex Tsakiris: I agree.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: It really occurred to me last night when I was thinking about the interview today that like yeah, we could develop for ourselves an expanded worldview but that almost lets us trash everything out here with a greater sense of impunity.
Alex Tsakiris: I totally agree and I think it’s something we have to be very careful that we don’t advocate for. I call it “back door materialism.”
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: Oh, say more. I like that.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think unfortunately even very valid, worthy causes like environmental concerns have an element of back door materialism to them because they suggest what we can do. “Oh, we’ve made a mistake but that’s okay. We can fix it just by doing more. Convert that coal to hydro-electric or whatever.” When a spiritual first perspective—and I mean that in a non-religious sense but in a whatever that other meaning of the word is might suggest that it’s not about that.
And this is what near-death experiencers really tell us, right? They come back and say, “No, no, it’s really not about that. If you want to get out there and march and protest that’s okay but this is my understanding. When you smiled at that person when you were crossing the street you don’t know what that did but that made a connection with them that affected their whole life. That’s all you need to worry about anyway because this idea you have about time and about before and after and later is really not the way that it is.” So I don’t know. I think…
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: It hasn’t made me any less of an activist. You know what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: Nor has it made me. It’s made me more of an activist. It’s made me much more humble about 1) what that activism means, and 2) it’s made me reflect on what are the underlying motivations and needs that I have to act. Again, it can get very religious very quick. It can get very Jesus in that the only true act that you can do is when you—I’m not enough of a scholar on that to know—but when you are totally unattached, which is a very Buddhist thing, to the outcome. No one knows your charity. That’s the only charity. Well, who can really do that? But Buddhists say the same thing. When you do and you’re totally not attached to what you’re doing, then that’s the only true doing. I don’t know. I lose it there.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: I hear you. I like that idea that just a little more humility about what we can do or what we think we can do. And it is really true that again and again you hear adult experiencers say that it’s not those big accomplishments that you thought you were supposed to set out to have that matter. It’s what you do every day as you suggested before. The person that you smile at. How you are on a day-to-day basis that really matters.
Alex Tsakiris: Suzanne, this is just an amazing body of work that you’ve compiled and are continuing to compile. There’s a book here so let’s get that book out so we can share that with even more people. Do you have any prospects for writing a book on this?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: It’s just time, mainly. I’m one of the army of non-tenured track faculty that’s now the majority on our college campuses. And I’m so glad that this is receiving attention. Thank goodness the University of Maryland is a little bit ahead of the curve in trying to deal with it. But what it really means is we teach the courses that have the most grading and take the most work so finding time is really difficult.
Right now I’m just working on revising the presentation I gave at the last ACISTE conference because we’re going to have a special edition of the Journal of Near-death Studies for the papers from our first conference. So that’s taken a chunk of time today.
I was just looking for this quote while you were talking. Something I’ve found and shared on Facebook the other day, called “The Case for Hope.”
“If you take the long view you’ll see how startlingly, how unexpectedly but regularly things do change. Not by magic but by the incremental effect of countless acts of courage, love, and commitment. The small drops that wear away stones and carve new landscapes. And sometimes by torrents of popular will that change the world suddenly. To say that is not to say that it will all come out fine in the end regardless. I’m just telling you that everything is in motion and sometimes we are ourselves that movement.”
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Who’s that by?
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: This is Rebecca Solnit in an article called, “The Case for Hope Continued.”
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I tell you what, Dr. Gordon, that might be a great way to leave it. It’s been a great pleasure having you on Skeptiko. Best of luck with all that work. We’ll certainly have a link up to the ACISTE conference coming up in October. Thanks again for joining me on Skeptiko.
Dr. Suzanne Gordon: It was a delight.