Interview with religious scholar Dr. Gregory Shushan on the parallels between near-death experience accounts across cultures.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with author and religious studies scholar Dr. Gregory Shushan. During the interview Dr. Shushan offers his opinion on whether or not there is a universal morality to be found in near-death experiences:
Alex Tsakiris: When you look at contemporary near-death experience accounts, overwhelmingly, what these people say [is that] it’s about love. It’s about this indescribable, but universally relatable, feeling of love. That’s what it’s about. That does seem to come through universally, and I think that has a strong moral kind-of message behind it. How does that relate to what you’re finding cross-culturally. Does it fit or does it not fit?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I think it does in some ways. In a lot of Native American accounts, people were sent back in order to tell others about the glories of the afterlife. There are also many accounts where some kind of traditional ritual has changed, often for the better – against sacrifice for example, because during the experience the person was given a new belief or ritual and told that the old one has to change. There might not always be specifically “love” as an explicit concept expressed in these texts, but there is often change for the better. The afterlife is seen as a place of wisdom, and a place of renewal, where people undergo purification and ritual bathing. So I think it can be related, even if the word “love” or a comparable word isn’t always used.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. Gregory Shushan to Skeptiko. Dr. Shushan is a research-fellow at Oxford’s Ian Ramsey Center for Science and Religion, and the author of the acclaimed Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations. Here’s here to talk about, among other things, what he’s learned about near-death experience from a cross-cultural perspective. Gregory it’s great to have you on Skeptiko, thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Well thanks for asking me Alex. It’s great to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: So you were introduced to me and recommended to me by a couple of different Skeptiko listeners. To kind of fill in some of the gaps and some of the arguments we’ve been having with folks about NDE’s from a cross-cultural perspective. Then when you sent me some of your work and I dug into it, I found that you’re really going much further beyond the kind-of simple “Is there a cross-cultural phenomenon associate with near-death experiences” [question]. So maybe you better back up and tell us a little bit about your background, and really the scope of the questions you’ve examined in this area.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Well I started out in Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Egyptology, and getting into this kind of research – NDE’s cross-culturally – I really just stumbled upon it. I was reading Egyptian afterlife texts – the Book of the Dead, the Coffin Texts, and the Pyramid Texts – and started thinking about them in terms of NDEs, and seeing similarities with them. Then I remembered a book by Carol Zaleski called Otherworld Journeys where she looked at medieval European visionary texts about, usually, monks going to afterlife realms and coming back. And she looked at them in relation to NDE’s. So I thought, if there’s a similarity between the ancient Egyptian texts, and European medieval afterlife texts, and modern near-death experiences – well, what’s going on here, basically? So I did a project comparing ancient Egyptian and Vedic Indian afterlife beliefs, in the context of NDEs. Then that just snowballed and I added ancient China, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, and Aztec and Maya Mesoamerica.
Dr. Shushan further elucidates his transition toward the study of near-death experiences, as well as some of the professional obstacles he’s faced in doing cross-cultural comparison of NDE’s — [6min.02sec-12min.35sec]:
Alex Tsakiris: So then what drove you? You started with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other accounts. What were you thinking as you went from one to the other? How much of a background did you have on modern current-day near-death experience research? Was this kind-of an “AHA it’s all right here in history,” as well? Or how did that kind of evolve your understanding of it?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I had a fairly casual familiarity with near-death experiences. I had browsed Raymond Moody’s Life After Life, and was always interested in that kind of thing, though not on an academic level. I’d been interested in lucid dreaming, and when I was a kid I had all these books about weird phenomena. But the research triggered something. Not so much on the level of: If these ancient texts are describing similar types of things, then maybe that means they’re true. It was more along the lines of: Why were they describing things that were similar to near-death experiences, and were they having these kinds of experiences themselves?
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So where did this research take you next?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I guess I should back up a little bit and make clear that almost all of the texts I looked at in these ancient civilizations are not documentary texts where there’s a specific historical individual who’s referred to as having an NDE and coming back. They were mostly texts about religious beliefs in an afterlife. Essentially I was trying to understand why those beliefs in an afterlife across cultures could have a certain set of similarities, and I realized that the same set of similarities corresponded to nine or ten elements of near-death experience. So that’s when I started thinking, “This can’t be a coincidence.” So I could explain the similarities by reference to a consistent experience. You can’t really look at it the other way around by saying that all of these societies had similar beliefs, and they must have resulted in similar experiences. But it’s a chicken-and-egg kind of question.
Alex Tsakiris: Of course, of course. And then this is kind-of interesting because it gives us a little bit of a window into the world of the kind-of stuff that a person in the department of religion would do; or look at it from these kind-of perspectives then, right? So this gets back to your grounding in terms of being a religious scholar.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Well, one would think so, but…[laughs]. Actually at first I was at the Institute of Archaeology, at University College London, and surprisingly they were very open to my work even though archaeology is more of a hard scientific pursuit. It was only when I moved over into religious studies that I started seeing that this kind of research just isn’t done [laughing]. It’s even frowned upon. I mean in the department I was in, at University of Wales Lampeter, they were very open-minded and they have a research center for religious experience, and things like that. But in the broader field there’s really a lot of theoretical opposition for a number of reasons, the first being that you’re not supposed to do cross-cultural comparison anymore. That’s because of the notion that all religions and all cultures are unique, and religion being a purely cultural phenomenon, there is nothing really objectively to compare. You might as well compare one society’s beliefs to another’s politics – that’s how distinct religions allegedly are.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting; fascinating.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: It’s an understandable reaction to theological studies. Early in religious studies a lot of cross-cultural comparisons saw Christianity as being at the top tier of development, with Egyptian religion down at the bottom, forming a pyramid going up to the “divine truth.” So there were a lot of errors made in cross-cultural comparison in the early days, and a lot of really sloppy methodology and overgeneralizations. For example, that everybody in the world believes in an afterlife and their beliefs are all the same, when that’s just not the case. So because of all that comparison got a bad name, and the postmodernist-influenced reaction is “We don’t compare anymore, we don’t do that”.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. You know that really fills in one of the gaps I had in looking at the very interesting research paper that you sent me that’s soon to be published in Method and Theory and the Study of Religion – a journal I of course had never heard of before you sent it to me. But like we were chatting about a little bit before the interview began, what struck me is that you had to start from the standpoint of defending the idea that there is such a thing as a religious or mystical experience at all. And it struck me as, wait a minute; I would assume it’s the complete opposite of that. That the assumption is yes, of course, we understand that people are experiencing these things and we can call it what we like, but for the most part it’d be commonly accepted that they are mystical, they are religious. And yet, there’s seems like a hostility to that idea. Can you dig into that a little bit for us?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Sure, yes, that’s the other huge methodological error somebody might accuse me of making in my work [laughing]. Not only do I compare cross-culturally, but I’m open to the idea that there can be an experience which, cross-culturally, is commonly interpreted as being “religious” – which is a very roundabout, academic way of saying “a religious experience!” And again, the hostility or opposition to that idea is very similar to that of cross-cultural comparison in general, because if you say there’s some sort of universal experience, which is religious, then that could start leading to the idea that maybe those experiences have some root in a divine reality, or a god, or whatever kind of terminology you want to use. From my perspective it doesn’t. I think there can be experiences that people genuinely believe are religious but don’t necessarily have a divine origin. I’m not saying that they don’t [have a divine origin], but I’m not saying that they do either [laughing]. That’s really a side argument to the work I’m actually doing.
Later, Dr. Shushan offers his opinion on how modern NDE research helps to inform cross-cultural analysis, and also speculates on where various culture’s afterlife beliefs originated — [13min.10sec – 18min.07sec]:
Alex Tsakiris: So how might current near-death experience science and the understanding we’re gaining, help get us out of this mess. Because I think that’s where you’re coming from to a certain extent. You’re kind of pointing back to the current science and saying, “Hey, wait a minute, there’s some real stuff here.”…and say this stuff is real, no let’s figure out how it fits back into our historical accounts. Is that kind of what you’re doing?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Yeah, that’s a good summary. I mean there are two branches of this science. There’s the science of people like Peter Fenwick and Sam Parnia and Pim Van Lommel who are doing these studies where they’re placing symbols above eye-level in cardiac arrest wards and hoping people float out of their bodies and are able identify them. But I’m more on the social science end of things, and I do view what I’m doing as a science, because it’s a scientific comparison looking at historical texts, trying to find out what is actually in these texts and what these people were saying; rather than starting with some philosophical assumption that I’m supposed to have as a 21st century western academic, and then imposing that on the texts that I’m looking at. That’s another unpopular thing – the whole idea that there can be any kind of objectivity to these kinds of texts.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow, your hands are tied every which way (laughing). But it does seem like kind-of a really interesting twist to say, well we can be grounded in what we’re discovering from current accounts. I think Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, and the little things above the bed, are fine. But I think a broader understanding of near-death experience science that includes good solid medical surveying. Which as anyone knows is really the bedrock of medicine, if you want to go study someone’s pain, or someone’s depression, you ask them questions and you say, “What happened,” and we have a very scientific way of doing that. So, I almost think that’s the other part of this, is you have some grounding in that kind-of research, a little bit softer science but the results of that are pretty overwhelming in terms of the reality of a phenomenon being that near-death experience, the characteristics of a phenomenon, we have the Greyson scale which is the near-death-experience scale in which we can measure the depth of the phenomenon. And I imagine that’s just like great fuel for your work to go back and say…how does this match up to these ancient texts? And it sounds like you’re finding in a lot of ways they do.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Absolutely. In my current research on indigenous societies around the world – Native North America, Africa, and the Pacific – I’m looking at their afterlife beliefs in relation to near-death experiences in a much more focused way. Because there are so many [actual] accounts of near-death experiences from these societies, I can look [more precisely] at how they compare to the afterlife beliefs. So it’s almost a reverse process to my earlier work, with a lot less speculation. And the interesting thing I’m finding here is that there are really broad regional similarities in these three different parts of the world. And by the way, I should go back and say that because most of the world’s indigenous populations have now converted to some non-indigenous religion, I’ve limited what I’m looking at to early ethnographies and early explorer and missionary reports, to try and limit the possibility of influence from any other culture. What I’ve found so far is that with American Indians it’s really just a model of the idea that people have near-death experiences and similar kinds of extraordinary experiences and base their beliefs on them. I found around 70-75 Native American NDE’s which hadn’t been noticed before in near-death studies. They’re all out there in the literature but no one’s really recognized them as such. And out of those 70-75 there were over twenty where the people themselves – the informants speaking to the ethnographers and missionaries – actually say, “This is where we got our afterlife beliefs. We believe what we do because this person, so-and-so, died, came back to life, and told us what it’s like on the other side.” That’s a big argument against a lot of what’s going on in the post-modernist-influenced academic world.
Dr. Shushan then talks about the differences between how NDEs were regarded in Africa in comparison to Native America, and those differences help us to understand the relationhip between culture, religion, and NDEs. [18min. 15sec-28min.33sec]
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Now it would be great if that were the end of the story and I could say, “That’s the way it is everywhere in the world,” and I could make this big universalist claim – but that’s not the case. What I found in Africa was a completely different situation. In Native North America shamanism is very much related to soul- or spirit-journeys to the other world, either to get some kind of information from the spirits of gods; or to rescue the soul of someone who is sick or dying, bring it back, restore it to the body and bring them back to life. But in Africa shamanism is more related to possession and to sorcery, especially avoiding or neutralizing the sorcery of an enemy shaman. And what’s interesting about that is that I found far, far fewer reports of near-death experiences from Africa – and that was looking at even more sources [than for Native America] because I was so fascinated with how different it was that I just kept plowing through one early source on African religions after another. I found only 7 or 8 NDEs, and most of these were presented in an aberration context, like it’s something that shouldn’t happen. There are a couple of cases where somebody comes back from the dead and starts talking about their experience, only to be stoned to death because the assumption is that they’re possessed – that something evil is going on and has to be stopped. There’s a case of a woman who was a victim of human sacrifice but she didn’t quite die. She came back and said that she’d been to the other world and was sent back because she was naked, and that they should kill her again after clothing her properly so she can be presentable to the god. And so they did, they “killed her again.”
There are also cases where a near-death experience is related to the foundation of a new religious movement. In Native America there were the Ghost Dance type of religions, revitalizations of traditional religions which were about to be destroyed by Christian missionaries and political and cultural events going on with the white people coming and taking the land and destroying indigenous civilization. Quite a few of these Ghost Dance religions sprung up, where a shaman or prophet would have a near-death experience, come back and relate it, and a religious movement would develop around it. Then people would [ritually] try to replicate the experience the shaman had, either through drugs, or long hours of dancing or repetitive drumming. Again, [the relationship between NDEs and the founding of new religions] was very different in Africa. There are a couple of cases where individuals had NDEs but when they came back they claimed to be possessed, by Saint Anthony for example, and that was the important thing – not the fact that they had died, had an NDE and came back. So possession was a more culturally accepted phenomenon in Africa, whereas NDEs were viewed with suspicion. That’s why there on not many accounts of NDEs in Africa, and why their afterlife beliefs are very different from those in Native North America. An interesting exception are Bantu societies. There are more Bantu NDE accounts than for any other region of Africa, and correspondingly more speculation about the afterlife, together with more myths about journeys to afterlife realms. So they’re the exception that proves the rule.
Alex Tsakiris: That is just fascinating, isn’t it, and it raises so many more questions than it answers – and that seems to be the case, from what I’ve seen, of near-death experience phenomena in general. We spend so much time trying to overcome this incredibly moronic cultural bias and scientific paradigm dogmatism that ties us to materialism, and we can never get to the point of asking the more interesting questions like your answering, like “What the heck is it?” Isn’t that really where the research should begin? Because I think even in the contemporary NDE accounts, it’s always struck me that if you go and look at the NDERF (Near-Death Experience Research Foundation) database of NDEs that Dr. Jeffrey Long has complied, first you dig into it as evidence that there is such a phenomenon, that this is a medical mystery that can’t be easily explained by this mind-equals-brain silliness. But once you get past that and you say, “Okay we have the evidence,” then you have to deal with these accounts and they’re just all over the place. I mean they’re just contradictory, and they’re bizarre in some ways. To try and find some line through that says, this is what this phenomenon means from a “how should I live my life” or “what really is the nature of the afterlife”…. It gets really murky, and it sounds like you’re kind of finding the same thing. I mean, can you find a line to walk through there or do you thing that’s not even something we should try and do? Let me re-phrase that. The average person is saying, “What does this mean? What does this mean for my religion?” Or forget religion, “What does it mean for my own personal spirituality? What’s going to happen to me after I die?” That’s really a question we’re all dancing around, so how can this research help nudge us a little closer to that?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Let me just back up one second before getting to that one. An interesting thing about NDEs across cultures is not only their similarity – and even the few from Africa are similar to those in Native America, the Pacific and elsewhere – but also the differences. As you said, there are some pretty bizarre accounts. I remember one describing Jesus in the form of a centaur riding a chariot; and a man whose heart was beating on the outside of his chest, and with hair in the shape of a bishop’s hat. So among these differences across cultures are different kinds of entities being met, and different identities being ascribed to them, whether it’s a particular ancestor, or the Buddha or Jesus or whoever. Allan Kellehear has done research on the tunnel experience, and showed how moving through a tunnel during an NDE is a very Western experience. Though what is common across cultures is moving through darkness – it’s just that in the West we interpret it as a tunnel. And some people just experience certain elements while others don’t. The life review is fairly rare. Some researchers think that maybe it’s the depth of the experience, that if you’re “dead” longer you’re more likely to have a life review.
And where culture comes in, as I’m trying to show in my work, is that there is this background, essential, universal near-death experience – but while we’re having the experience we don’t suddenly stop being an enculturated, individual human being living in a certain place at a certain time. We’re experiencing the NDE as an enculturated person with certain beliefs, and then when we tell people about it or write it down, and it becomes part of our belief systems, it’s in an obviously culturally-situated way.
Alex Tsakiris: But isn’t that even a little bit tricky, because some of these near-death experiences seem to extend beyond someone’s current culture. They seem to extend beyond someone’s current lifetime in some cases. So isn’t that even a kind of tricky terrain to navigate?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Absolutely, that’s a very good point. There are NDEs of atheists, and very young children, who have either no prior beliefs of totally opposite beliefs to what they actually experience. But we still have all this information and knowledge floating around in our heads. So I’m not saying we’re creating the experience, I’m saying we act as filters for it. I don’t think we can get rid of all of the [cultural] clutter. Maybe there are moments during the experience that are like a pure consciousness event, where there’s no content going on in the mind. But overall when we come back and try to explain what the experience was like, we don’t have any language other than the [cultural] language that we have, basically. So we’re going to use metaphors, we’re going to use symbols – and those are drawn from our culture and language.
Alex and Dr. Shushan then discuss whether there is some sort of universal morality, or consistent message of “Love”, expressed in most near-death experiences — [27min.10sec-34min.05sec]
Dr. Gregory Shushan: To get back to your question of the metaphysical reality of these experiences, and how people should live their lives and what they should believe: I think that the difficult thing about my work specifically, in relation to that question, is that it could actually be used to support either the theory that these are genuine experiences indicating a real afterlife and a metaphysical reality beyond our reality; or it could be used to support the dying brain, physiological hypothesis. And I think that’s the problem in general with cross-cultural similarities of NDE’s; they can be used either way.
Alex Tsakiris: Where I thought you were going to go with that…because I’m not sure I can quite get there from your research, in terms of the dying brain. I mean there’s a physiology associated with a dying brain that just doesn’t match up with these experiences. And of course we don’t know the exact circumstances of the medical trauma [they were] going through in 1700’s or whenever some of these accounts were. But we know from contemporary accounts that doesn’t fit…so we have somebody who experiences drowning, and they have a prolonged kind-of gradual reduction of blood-flow to the brain, and they experience it exactly the same way as someone that jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge, and isn’t in any real physical trauma, and yet they have similar experiences. Then we have cardiac arrest, and people who are under anesthesia, and not under anesthesia. So when you look at the broad diversity of medical conditions, it seems to me that that informs your work and says hey, dying brain would be kind-of the last thing that I’d layer on there.
But where I thought you were going was, I think it can be used maybe to say there isn’t any “reality” to an afterlife that would have any meaning in any religious/spiritual sense; that it’s just kind-of a grab bag. So, something’s happening there, but there’s nothing to hold onto in terms of having any specific religious or even moral kind of beliefs.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I’m not sure about that because I think a really important point about these experiences across cultures is that they are always – I should use that term cautiously, so almost always – interpreted as just what they seem to be; being “this is what happens when you die.” Thereby also apparently demonstrating that when you die you can leave your body, dualism, and that there’s an afterlife.
As far as morality goes, and ethical systems, those are very culturally situated. So in one society people who die in battle, women who die in childbirth, and suicides will get a better afterlife than everybody else because they lived an exemplary life according to that particular culture. So, there are often ethical systems related to NDE’s and afterlife beliefs, even though the “ethics” are situational depending on the culture. There might not be one particular objective morality universal to everyone in the world, at least as far as we can gain from NDEs, but NDEs do seem to have relevance to those kinds of beliefs.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s a very interesting point to me because I think from the contemporary NDE accounts it does seem that you can tease out some kind of morality play there. Certainly beyond the reductionist there’s-no-meaning-to-anything, no good, no bad, it’s all meaningless. I mean there’s definitely meaning there, and going one step further by saying “Is there a morality, is there a universal good there?” I don’t know. What is your take of both contemporary accounts, and then I guess where you’re really pointing to and saying, whether there is or not in contemporary accounts, you’re having a harder time finding that in the kind-of historical accounts across cultures, is that what you’re saying?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Yeah. I guess you can, as you said, tease out a certain kind of [morality], and people obviously lean toward the good rather than the bad. What is good is often similar between cultures, and bad is often similar. Having a good family, for example, and enough to eat, is good. So there are certain behaviors that go along with the desire for a good or a bad life.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it is an important issue because the one thing that does strike me a lot is when you look at the contemporary near-death experience accounts, overwhelmingly what these people say beyond all the scholarly chit-chat is hey man, it’s about love. It’s about this indescribable but universally relatable feeling of love. That’s what it’s about. Forget everything else. Forget about the chariot I was on, and my hair’s shaped as a pope’s hat or whatever. It was about love. That does seem to come through universally, and I think that has a strong moral kind-of message behind it. How does that relate to what you’re finding cross-culturally. Does it fit or does it not fit?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: I think it does in some ways. In a lot of Native American accounts, people were sent back [from their NDEs] in order to tell their people about the glories of the afterlife. There are also many accounts where some kind of traditional ritual has changed, often for the better – against sacrifice for example, because [during the experience] the person was given a new belief or ritual and told that the old one has to change by an entity they met in the other world. There might not always be specifically “love” as an explicit concept expressed in these texts, but there is often change for the better. The afterlife is seen as a place of wisdom, and a place of renewal, where people undergo purification and ritual bathing. So I think it can be related, even if the word “love” or a comparable word isn’t always used.
Toward the end of their dialogue, Alex questions Dr. Shushan on how his scholarship might help improve methodology in current NDE research, as well as how he delineates between NDE’s and psychedelically-induced visionary experience — [35min.05sec-44min.35sec]
Alex Tsakiris: We’ve touched on this a little bit, but I was wondering if we could pull it out more directly. What do you think are some specific implications for your research as it relates to contemporary near-death experience researchers? What can you tell them? How can your research inform their research and future directions that we might want to take near-death experience science?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: That’s a touchy question (laughing). As someone who has done all his NDE research within a mainstream academic context, I’ve really limited the questions I’ve looked at to the relationship between beliefs in an afterlife and near-death experiences (as well as the stuff we talked about at the beginning – such as the philosophical debates about whether an experience type even exists that can be considered cross-cultural). And all that has left by the wayside the question of whether or not these experiences are “real.”
I will say that when someone starts discussing this question with me from a perspective of total absolute belief, I will usually raise some issues that might seem like a challenge to the whole idea of the metaphysical reality of the NDE. But if someone comes to me really, really skeptical and says there’s no way NDEs can be metaphysical, that they’re all in the mind or all in the dying brain, then I will argue even more vociferously that you just can’t say that. As you indicated, all these theories about dying brains, and theories like anoxia, hypercarbia, REM intrusion, or the awakening brain, or any of these things – not a single one of them actually works. None of them really addresses NDEs in all their similarities and all their differences across cultures. So the differences really challenge the physiological theories. I think that’s one of the ways where my research can contribute to the current debate on the question of whether these are real or not, because scientists really need to address why there would be differences across cultures if this is a purely physiological experience, and epiphenomenal of a dying brain.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s kind of an interesting point. I’ve got to push this a little bit further (laughing) – do you have any hunches that would kind of direct people in terms of what cultural markers to look for, or to not look for? Anything along those lines. Let’s say I’m a near-death experience researcher, let’s say I’m Jeff Long and I’m going this survey. You know, it’s a nice survey, it’s got 150 questions, and it’s got all the right controls built in to cross-check and verify and all that stuff. What questions do I want to ask people about their cultural beliefs, their lack of cultural beliefs, religious beliefs… what you finding that are some of the markers than jump out at you?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Those are very good questions. I think a person’s prior knowledge of NDE is important, as well as their previous beliefs [before the NDE]. There’s an interesting distinction to be made between people who believe in an afterlife but are atheists, and people who believe in a god and an afterlife. There are people who do believe in the possibility of an afterlife who don’t believe in a god. So those are good questions to ask, but I also think the more general the question the better. Whether the person had an out-of-body experience is one of the best indicators. There was a study done in the 70s by Dean Shiels on OBEs across cultures, and he found that something like 90% of the 60-something cultures he surveyed all believed in out-of-body experiences. So asking general questions and then giving respondents plenty of scope to elaborate on their answers might help tease out what is objectively broadly similar, and what is more specific to the individuals and their culture.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Dr. Shushan, where do you go from here? Where is this research taking you, and what’s coming up for you in the near future?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Well, I need to finish the current book, Near-Death Experience, Shamanism, and Afterlife Beliefs in Indigenous Religions. Then I’d like to write a book for a wider audience, summarizing all my research in this area. I think a lot of people are interested in this area of work. I mean, it’s a pretty major claim to say that people’s religious beliefs in an afterlife stem from near-death experiences. And I think if it weren’t for the bigger, ultimate question of whether NDEs are evidence of an afterlife, it would draw a lot of attention. So I’m hoping to make a case for that on a wider level, and not restricted to the narrow academic field.
Alex Tsakiris: …One point we didn’t quite get into but we kind-of touched on in the email exchange we had is I definitely see where you’re going there, but don’t you have to broaden it a little bit with…I mean people are having all sorts of different spiritually transformative experiences that…I don’t have any fact-based way to back this up or any archaeological/anthropological work, but that seems to be the commonly accept belief, that people have all sorts of shamanic experiences, hallucinogenic experiences, as well as near-death experiences. And all those experiences are informing the culture and in particular the religious beliefs. Isn’t it broader than just near-death experiences? Or you’re not specifically saying that?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: No, I am. In fact I have come across various accounts of deathbed visions, precognition, and other kinds of so-called psychic phenomena. Even going back to the 19th century, Andrew Lang (who wrote the Fairy Books as well) wrote a book about this very thing – that a lot of traditional societies got their beliefs specifically from psychical experiences. David Hufford, who discovered sleep paralysis as a cross-cultural phenomenon in the 80s, found a very similar kind of thing. People experience a broadly similar phenomenon – feeling like you’re being held down, in a half-awake half-dreaming state, you can’t move, and there’s some malevolent presence in the room. He found accounts or this all over the world, but he also identified it as a physiological occurence that is actually identifiable in the brain. But sleep paralysis is more easily explained than something like an out-of-body experience, or a precognitive experience, where people are said to obtain veridical information [by apparently supernatural means].
Alex Tsakiris: That’s the point that’s so interesting to me. It is easily explained. Just like the psychedelic is easily explained – it’s some kind of biochemical reaction in the brain. Until (laughing) you come along and say well wait a minute, no, there is this near-death experience, there is this genuine mystical experience, and then it causes us to reexamine the whole lot. That’s what’s always been interesting to me about the atheistic/materialistic perspective on psychedelics. They’re like…that explains everything…Indians were walking behind cows, they ate mushrooms, they tripped out, they wrote it down, that’s how they got their religion. And it’s like…that’s great, except it doesn’t explain this whole other experience over here that totally blows that out of the water. Then you have an and/both kind-of thing that no one has really tried to tackle because…what is the relationship between the psychedelic experience and the near-death experience? On a spiritual level, on the level that you’re talking about, that’s the work that we really have to do because a lot of people in the near-death community, or in the spiritual “New Age” community – I hate to say new age, everyone hates that – but in the spiritual community have a hard time with the psychedelic experience…they say no…that’s induced, that isn’t natural. God didn’t come down and actually talk to you because you were eating that root or that mushroom. And that has to be reexamined too as right?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: Yeah, it’s the same with shamanic experiences, especially in Native North America, where taking drugs, or repetitive drumming and dancing, results in very similar experiences to the near-death experience. The shaman leaves the body and goes through various transitions, through barriers, and then to another world – and basically replicates an NDE. So the question is, is that the same experience as an NDE even though it’s essentially culturally induced and deliberately replicated, whereas an NDE is spontaneous? I guess the answer is: who knows? But I do tend to give some kind of priority to the NDE just as a researcher because of the fact it at least begins as a non-cultural event, and then becomes an enculturated experience.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s such a great point. There are just so many research projects here that no one will ever get to, because they’re still hung up on the idea of whether or not there is even such a thing as an experience! Or whether you can experience anything because you’re just a biological robot. So I really appreciate the work that you do and what you’re up against. It is really fascinating stuff, and we’ll definitely want to follow where you go with this….
Photo by Giuseppe Milo
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