David Sunfellow’s decades of study on near death experiences has led him to some clear-cut conclusions about the purpose of life.
photo by: Skeptiko
Satan: Fallen one, I am Satan, I am your god now. There is no escape.
That of course is Kenny from South Park on his trip through hell.
Satan: Feel the delightful pain.
Saddam Hussein: Hey Satan, did you hear the news? A war just broke out up on earth.
Satan: Meet Saddam Hussein, my new partner in evil.
Saddam: Move over Satan, you’re hogging all the fun. Yeah. Yeah. Man, this is getting me so hot.
The playfulness that South Park creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone show in dealing with hell is truly masterful and it has a direct link to today’s show. Because as you know, beyond the love and light aspect of the near-death experience, which is overwhelmingly the most significantly reported experience, like 80%, 90% of people report that, there are are reports of hellish NDE experiences. And they are significantly under-reported. They’re under-reported by experiencers who are undoubtedly afraid of facing the ridicule and judgement that comes with saying, “Yeah, I was in hell.” People will think, “Yeah, why were you in hell, what have you done wrong that I don’t know about?”
But they’re also under-reported by NDE researchers… if you’re an NDE researcher, do you really want to report the hell thing? What do you do with that? What do you do with the, often very Christian, biblical baggage that comes along with that? Do you, as some do, immediately distance yourself from it, “Oh, that can’t be real in the way that you’re thinking about it… it’s a cultural overlay.” Can we really make those kinds of assumptions? And what is the end game for making those kinds of assumptions for a consciousness that extends into and interferes with the data in the extended consciousness realm.
Well these are some of the issues that we get into on today’s show with the very excellent David Sunfellow.
Alex Tsakiris: …if we’re going to play the game, if we’re going to follow the data, this isn’t the data.
David Sunfellow: Jeffrey Long, his research very much supports the idea that there are these hellish realms. In fact, here’s a quote from him that says, “The most frightening things that I’ve encountered in my life are not from fictional books or scary movies, but from near-death experiences with hellish content.” So he’s not saying there’s no hell, he’s just saying that God is not sending people to hell, which is a common theme among near-death experiencers as a whole.
Alex Tsakiris: I think they’re saying something else. The way I read this data is, “there are a lot of scary movies out there and you may have to watch a scary movie,” that may on your path to help your overall learning and guiding of your soul to where it needs to be, but don’t take the fucking scary movie too seriously. That’s what data comes through, over and over again and says. And that’s what I guess I’m saying about Jeff Long, is yeah, what you said is technical true, but his overall conclusion is that it’s not anything to be feared, it’s part of your soul’s experience. It’s a small movie that you will walk into an walk out of.
This is a deep dive into NDE research and how we might use it to better understand who are we, why are we here and how we should make decisions around those questions.
David is a terrific guest, whose decades of work in this field gives him a unique vantage point to reveal the big picture takeaways from these experiences.
David Sunfellow: My niece one time asked me, “What is it about near-death experiences that you’ve learned something new, I mean, didn’t you already know this stuff?” and my answer was, “I learned two things from near-death experiences that I didn’t learn from the other things. The first thing was a full picture of how all the pieces fit together and the second thing was, the emphasis that near-death experiences give to certain aspects of our life and the main thing that leaps to mind is the idea that the little things in life are the big things.”
Stick around, my conversation with David Sunfellow is coming up next on Skeptiko.
Postscript: David added the following in an email to me:
One thing I wish I would have said during the interview concerning hellish experiences is that the reality of these experiences tends to be reported in the same way that their heavenly counterparts are reported: the experiences that people have in hellish realms feels far more real to them than the reality of this world. Experiencers also typically report that the positive and negative thoughts and actions of their earthly lives are reflected back to them in the afterlife with far more intensity than they experienced them in this world. Meaning, it’s probably a good idea to conduct ourselves in this world with as much awareness as we can.
We probably should have also mentioned that while hellish experiences tend to be very unpleasant in the beginning, over time, as people strive to understand and integrate them, they turn out to be deeply positive and transformative. That’s not emphasized enough. Nor is the over-riding, corresponding lesson: all of the challenges we face in life (including visits to hell) are gifts that are designed to help us become better, deeper, more full-blown beings.
One last point: while I agree with you that NDEs, as a whole, definitely stress the importance of not taking things too seriously; of not getting too caught up in the drama of life (including the drama of hellish realms and experiences), this perspective arises from the first pillar of NDEs that I mentioned: Encounters with The Light. This is a Big Picture perspective. It is absolutely vital that we understand and internalize this. But it is also important to understand and internalize the second pillar perspective, which is championed by life reviews. Cavalier or dismissive attitudes towards life and its challenges, including visits to hell, can also get us into trouble. Strident examples of this include declaring that since the world is a dream, we should cultivate a detached, uncaring attitude toward all the imaginary people, beings, and experiences we have here. My take on this is that the most helpful perspective is one that balances and integrates these two great pillars, which, of course, relates to a bunch of kindred archetypes: balancing the male and female, yin and yang, east and west, light and dark… We apparently need them both to be balanced and healthy.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome David Sunfellow to Skeptiko. He’s here to talk about his new book, The Purpose of Life as Revealed by Near-Death Experiences from Around the World and really to talk about a lot more.
I’ve had a great email exchange with David and I was just chatting one second ago when I first got him on the Zencastr here and we had a chance to talk to each other for the first time and I feel a certain connection with someone who’s really devoted themselves to trying to understand more broadly these big picture questions, who are we, why are we here, where are we headed?
David has done that in just an amazing way. He’s compiled thousands of near-death experience accounts, both written and video. He’s put together a very popular website that is a real go-to for a lot of people within the near-death experience community. Near-death experience researchers know him well and he really tackles things that are sometimes outside of where a lot of people want to go, in terms of the natural controversies that arise when you look at these extended consciousness things.
So, with all of that, David it’s certainly great, great, great to have you on Skeptiko. Thanks for being here.
David Sunfellow: Hey, it’s great to be here too. Alex, thank for inviting me.
Alex Tsakiris: So, let’s see, as much as I sketched out a very brief bio of you, it is very brief, so who is David Sunfellow?
David Sunfellow: Yeah, that’s a big question. I guess I would boil it down by saying that I’m just someone who has spent my life trying to understand the big questions; why are we here, what’s life all about, where’s it going? And that’s been my main focus, along with raising four children and doing a bunch of other things. But the main thrust of my life has been to try to answer these big fundamental questions.
Alex Tsakiris: Why do you suppose that is? I’ll frame it up a little bit because I’ve told this story on the show. I grew up and I was pretty success oriented and that’s how my family kind of raised me and I think there was a good thing about that. So I was after the normal things that our society says, but I always had in the back of my mind that I needed to get past that so I could get to these bigger picture questions.
So, that’s what I did, and I expected to find a lot of other travelers on that road, people who had said, “Okay, I’m going to tackle life but I’m also going to tackle what are obviously these fundamental questions in life.” I found that, you know what, people just aren’t interested.
David Sunfellow: Yeah, right.
Alex Tsakiris: Or they’re interested in a very narrowly defined way, that was like, “Okay, Church tells me that’s how it is, so I just accept that.” Which to me is again, even people who are religious and you’re religious, we’re going to talk about that for a minute, we’ll talk about what that means for you, but for a lot of us there’s a deeper drive, like, “Hey, are they really all of the answers?” I think you have that drive too. What do you think that’s about?
David Sunfellow: Well, for me, the way to frame it would be, I went through a brutal childhood and I basically crawled out of that wondering what happened, why did it happen, how can I put Humpty Dumpty back together again? So that really was the foundation that started everything. I didn’t enter the world with any resources or wealth or anything like that from my family’s perspective, it was all bottom line, just struggling to survive.
So I crawled out of my childhood with a lot of wounds and a desire to understand what this is all about and that eventually led me to Virginia Beach, Virginia and the work of Edgar Cayce. Then I went through a period of about five and a half years of dark soul type experience that took me down the rabbit’s hole to all of these other deeper places and that officially launched me into getting really, really serious for my own personal reasons, of needing to understand what is this all about and how can we learn to live healthy, happy, productive lives in this world?
So that’s a little bit more about my background.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting. What do you think about the Edgar Cayce material? It always has intrigued me. What was it that drew you to that and what did you feel like you came out of it at the end?
David Sunfellow: Well, when I first encountered the Cayce material, I was looking for answers.
Alex Tsakiris: Why don’t we tell folks, very briefly, just in case they don’t know, because it’s a little bit dated now and no one talks about it, although it’s still an amazing body of work. What’s that all about?
David Sunfellow: Well, Edgar Cayce was a man who, through a series of events, he actually had a health crisis, he was hypnotized and during hypnosis, he couldn’t speak at the time, but he was hypnotized and then when he was hypnotized he got his voice back, he was able to tell the hypnotist exactly what was wrong with his body and what needed to be done to correct it.
That started the process with Cayce and he eventually became, what’s called a trance psychic. He would go into these trance states and then, over the course of his lifetime, gave what is called readings, 14,000 of these readings that dealt with all types of topics including big picture topics about purpose of life. But what he became famous for were his health readings and he had the ability to basically, when he was in trance, to go into a person’s body and diagnose everything that was wrong and what needed to be done to correct the problems.
He had a lot of miraculous healings result from the diagnoses that were given from the readings and then he himself would not remember anything when he woke up about what was said during the trance time.
So I came across his work and began studying the readings and eventually ended up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which is where his work is located and was there for 16 years.
Alex Tsakiris: So in Virginia Beach, and I’ve never been there and been to the…
David Sunfellow: Association for Research and Enlightenment.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, awesome. So, I want you to tell us a little bit about what that was like and what it was like to stay there and study, and I know many people have had amazing experiences just being there. But I also wanted to just fill in a couple of the details that I know, and you can elaborate on these or correct me if I’m wrong.
One of the amazing things is, when you say he’s doing these readings, a lot of times these are letters. This is kind of back in the day, and people would just write in these letters and he would go into trance and the kind of medical readings that he would give, give people an example David, but he would do really, really specific things, not like general things, he’d say, “Take this particular root that you’ll find in your back…
David Sunfellow: Exactly.
Alex Tsakiris: And then you healed over seven days. You can’t really make that stuff up.
David Sunfellow: Right, and the A.R.E., the Association for Research and Enlightenment, which is the organization that archives his work and has a library and they do regular conferences, they have all of these readings on file where anybody can go in and study them, including case histories that tell exactly the kinds of stories you just mentioned.
Some of them are off the top wild stories, for example, there’s one where he did a reading about, I can’t remember what the particular problem was, but part of the diagnosis was finding this obscure herbal remedy in this drug store in some distant city, and this was a person that had written into him. So he told them where to go and find it, the pharmacist couldn’t find it, so they did another reading, and then he said, “Okay, go back, it’s on the third shelf in the back.”
That was the kind of stuff that he did. It was just story after story after story.
Alex Tsakiris: I want to put a pin in this because I don’t want to pull it into the interview right now, but one of the things that I really appreciated about the email dialogue we’ve had is that, like take this Edgar Cayce story right there. It already starts to introduce some of the complexity, the contradictions, the impossible to resolve, how does this extended consciousness thing work and what does it mean to transcend space and time and is destiny really destiny, and all of these complicated questions?
So, like I say, I want to just kind of set those up in the background, but maybe in your story, tell us how that roles into the near-death experience science stuff, why you were drawn to it and what that evolved into for you?
David Sunfellow: Right, okay. Well, there are two tracks happening here. The first one is just Cayce providing the basic overview of life. There’s a lot more going on to life and we realize there are spiritual forces at work. There are specific things we can do in our lives to improve them. For example, Cayce recommended prayer, meditation and dream as the three main tools to use in your life. So Cayce was providing a big framework about how to view life in general and how to begin to move through life.
David Sunfellow: I would encourage anyone who wants to know more about the data and the proof that exists in support of consciousness continuing, to visit that page and maybe a link can be included in this video that folks can go to and take a look at. There’s just remarkable, overwhelming evidence. I don’t even talk about that anymore because it’s a moot point in my mind, of what’s the evidence for life after death, it’s a moot point, “Here’s the data, it’s overwhelming. Go and take a look at it.”
Alex Tsakiris: I’ve got to persist on this a little bit further, because one of the things we talked about before this was Michael Shermer and I was telling you, “Hey, here’s a link to the interview I just did rather recently with Shermer and it’s one of, I think I’ve done three with him, and I said he’s one of my favorite frenemies because he does have a certain style about him that makes these kinds of dialogues entertaining and you shot back and said, “I can’t stomach seeing the guy or listening to the guy,” and I get that, I totally get that too.
I just think we need to be, kind of more real about it, in terms of why it pisses us off so much and I can just start with myself and that’s just to say, I feel for people who have been socially engineered, mind-controlled into this biological robot, meaningless universe shit and it gets drummed in from the time they go to school and it gets drummed in every time they turn on the mainstream news. You can trace the history of near-death experience and you can see, every time a significant study comes out there’s this, just barrage of ‘skeptical’ but it’s not skeptical, it’s coming from a different place. It’s coming from, don’t go there, don’t explore what you might really be, kind of thing. And Michael Shermer is either a useful idiot in that process or is a player in that process.
So I think we do need to kind of understand that and provide somewhat of a counter to that that goes beyond just, of course we should love everyone. The way I also look at it is we should be entertained by everyone. Michael Shermer is entertaining. I don’t know what role he’s supposed to play in this, but he’s supposed to play some role in it.
David Sunfellow: Sure, I agree with that. I guess what I would say about that Alex is, what’s upsetting about the Michael Shermer skeptic person is their refusal to look at the data. I mean, I just think that, in my view, if you’re going to be a true skeptic, that means you really look at the data. You’re looking at the data, “Where’s the evidence to support this or that?” You actually have to look at the data to make the decision, you can’t just say, “This data is not in my particular worldview, therefore it can’t come into the room and we’re not going to consider that.” Or, “This doesn’t make sense and I really don’t want to talk about that.”
You actually have to bring it into the room, and you have to have, if you’re again, being a true skeptic, you have to have answers for why you have shared death experiences, for example, why blind people can see in near-death experiences? Why you have these miraculous healings? What is terminal lucidity about? You have to have explanations and you have to know about the data and bring it into the room and be able to discuss it.
So my issue with a lot of the ‘skeptics’ out there today as they don’t know about the data and they don’t bring in the data and discuss it full on.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Why do you think that is? Why does that exist? Why is it so prevalent among a certain group of people and why do people fall for it so easily?
David Sunfellow: My view is that it’s basically people have their own mindsets and worldviews set in and they have a comfortable life or a more or less comfortable life built around that and to bring in some of the data that I’m talking about would completely challenge the materialistic, humanistic worldviews like, that’s just something most of us are designed not to do. After you’ve spent a lifetime building a worldview that allows you to operate in the world, the last thing you want to do is let things in the room that’s going to tear that apart.
So I understand why people are defended about things like that. I can see reflections in my own life of having done the same thing, where I built certain patters, had certain ideas in my life that I thought were true, I built my life around those and I was defended against data that suggested I was wrong about that. In the end, when I did open the door for that new data to come into the room, it did dismantle a lot of the things that I thought, and I did have to rebuild my life in a new way.
So I think that it’s partially that and I think it’s also partly developmental, that it takes a certain kind of flexibility and maturity to be able to enter into the wild west of near-death experiences and spirituality. It’s not a world like this material world is, it’s like there are so many strange and quantum physics like issues that operate in this world that it’s much easier to stay somewhere else where everything is so cut and dried and makes sense.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s hone in on that for a minute David. Specifically, what do you think are some of the challenges to that paradigm shift? Because I think what you described, and you described it really well, is something that a lot of folks go through, and I certainly have gone through it, and in talking to people that have listened to this show, so, so many people have gone through it. What do you think we’re holding onto with this belief system that most of us have engrained and why are we holding onto it so firmly? Because at another level, when you look at what the message is that you’re saying is coming through form the near-death experience science, it seemed like a very attractive alternative. What is it that makes it not seem as attractive to us at that time? Why is it such a huge shift for so many of us?
Davie: Well again, I think it boils down to that we’ve created a world that we’re comfortable in, that our egos are comfortable in, where we can be the gods of our own worlds, the master of our own worlds, and the things that we learn from near-death experiences challenge that whole system. It’s not just about us, there actually are other forces in life that are bigger that we have to contend with.
I’m wondering what you think, after all of the interviews that you’ve done, why do you think people are so stuck or attached to materialistic worldviews? What’s your opinion on that? You deal a lot more with the scientific minded folks than I do and I’m wondering what your answer is to that question.
Alex Tsakiris: Fear. I think it is exactly what you said. I’d spin it slightly differently. I’ve constructed a reality that allows me to avoid the things that I’m afraid of and allows me to hold onto the things that make me feel less afraid and I’m so built around those two, not getting what I don’t want and trying to get what I want, that I just live in constant fear and any thought of just jumping outside of that is just really hard, hard to get in that space.
David Sunfellow: Yeah, and maybe there’s a component there too, of if you have a mindset that’s built on a material universe and you’re the mini god that’s in charge of it, there is a lot of focus on you’re the one that has to maintain control of this whole thing. There are not external forces, spiritual forces, angels, God, Jesus, whatever, that can help you deal with this. You are alone in your universe. So it puts a lot of pressure on us too, I think, that we have to maintain this or it’s all going down the drain.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, we can’t kind of avoid some of the religious overtones, because they keep popping up in a way that is just challenging and interesting. Let’s talk about God. It’s something you talk about in a number of different ways. We should start with what we think we mean by God. But no, let’s start at a different point. Let’s start with Dr Jeff Long, who’s been on the show several times.
You do a beautiful job of representing his work, understanding his work, studying his work and the one data point we can kind of throw in people’s face there is that Jeff Long, of course, is this radiation oncologist in Louisiana. I always love the synopsis of his story. He’s becoming a physician and he’s going through all of his coursework and he’s studying, and he comes across these cases and he goes, “Wow! This person came back from the dead, from clinical death,” and he goes to his colleagues and he says, “What about this?” And they’re like, “Hey man, I’m studying for the test. Don’t worry about that,” kind of thing. He’s like, “What do you mean, don’t worry about it? It’s kind of fundamental.”
He kind of ploughs through and he becomes a very successful doctor, but he has in his mind that this is important. And I love it, because I think it relates to people like you and I who just won’t let go of stuff and say, “No, wait a minute. I’m pretty sure that the ignoring of this is not a good idea.”
So, Jeff Long does that and he writes a New York Times bestselling book, compiles the largest database of scientifically controlled survey of near-death experiencers. But then he writes this second book and in the second book he goes right to the God thing and he doesn’t do it for himself, he does it with these people who have had near-death experiences and he says, “Is there a God? Is there a moral imperative to this? Is there a hierarchy to this extended consciousness that you seem to be placed into after having this near-death experience?” and they say, “Absolutely.” All over the place they say it. And as a matter of fact, he says it’s severely under-reported by near-death experience researchers and that God is actually more highly reported than the whole tunnel thing.
David Sunfellow: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: So the whole association with near-death experience is you go through this lighted tunnel, he goes, “Hey, I’m sorry, look at the data. That’s there, the tunnel is no doubt there in a large number of cases, but God is there even more.”
So, I don’t know what that means and I’m not a religious person, I’m not Christian, but I do think, like you said, following the data with regard to near-death experience does bring us to God, moral imperative, hierarchy of consciousness, however you want to say it. So let that be a launching point for any thoughts you have about the God issue.
David Sunfellow: Well, the first huge thought for me is, how is it that we’re like 40 plus years into modern near-death experience research, how is it that it’s taken all of this time for a researcher, like Jeff Long to come out and actually acknowledge the central role that God plays in these experiences? Why has it been ignored or overlooked by researchers all of these years? I think it has to do with the materialistic culture that we’re in, the materialistic way that science is kind of forced to look at everything that it was just too hard of a topic for a credible mainstream scientist to take up, because there’s such a scientific bias against God and other spiritual things that are just too hard of a topic to engage in, until just the last couple of years.
I think there are other topics like that as well that really have been ignored grievously with serious consequences, and we’re just beginning to come around and try to pick up… In other words, the stories themselves have been here for us all of these years, they’ve been collected, they’ve been analyzed and databased and archived and studied, but we’re just now at the point where we’re beginning to drill into some of the bigger points like Jeff did, on this particular topic, “Hey guys, just to make a note of this, there’s this God presence that’s really dominant in these experiences and we need to acknowledge that and do something with it.”
Alex Tsakiris: Right, and let’s drill into that a little bit more because, as you say, it is under-reported and under-analyzed, if you will. So what these people are consistently saying, in a number of different ways, from a wide variety of different religious or non-religious background, they’re saying, in the term I always slip into to avoid some of the baggage that goes along with God, is a hierarchy of consciousness. So they’re there and they say, “Hey, there was definitely this power, this spiritual force and it was way beyond whatever I’ve experienced as my ego, my self, I am,” however you want to put that in any kind of nondual or religious thing,” they go, “No, no, no, no. It was separate from that and it was higher than that.”
Let me ask you, is there anything as a starter that we need to add to that, because let’s also acknowledge, that is a lot for people to swallow? That statement alone is going to piss people off and really send them rocking because we’ve kind of constructed all of these different spiritual realities that says, “No, it’s just kind of this amorphous kind of consciousness and we’re all floating in drops of water in the ocean,” which may be true on some level too. But I’m just saying, this data comes through and clearly says something different that I think we have to deal with.
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