Dr. Gregory Shushan’s research into near-death experience across cultures rankles skeptics and believers.
photo by: Skeptiko
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. Now, most of us at this point accept that near-death experience science provides a unique way for serious researchers to look at some of these deep mysteries of the afterlife, but we also know that that road to discovery is filled with a lot of potholes. There are stuck in the mud academics who can’t bear the thought of having been wrong for all of those years, there are well-meaning Christians, new-agers and spiritual seekers, and I’d have to throw myself in that category, who want to claim NDEs as their exclusive domain.
The barriers to really understanding the deeper implications of NDE science are many and that’s what makes it so exciting when someone like today’s guest, Dr. Gregory Shushan comes along. He’s got a new book, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, and it looks to me to be one of those books that really delves so deeply into one of the questions that has really been central to the ongoing discussion about NDE science. It’s a question that’s interested both skeptics, they’ve picked it up as their cause, and proponents, they’ve picked it up as their cause, and that is, what are we to make of NDE accounts across cultures? And a follow-on question to that is, how might those experiences have impacted those religious traditions that we see and the spiritual beliefs, which we’re going to have to deconstruct a little bit?
So, the basic question usually kind of falls into, does the lack of consistency within the NDE accounts across cultures, do those mean that, as the skeptics would have us believe, and skeptics I’m just using to fill in those people in one camp who then use that to bolster their claim, that maybe this is more of a delusional kind of thing that people are creating in their head.
Or another way of looking at it is, do the patterns, the deeper patterns within these accounts suggest that maybe NDEs have an even more richer, deeper influence on these cultures, all the way to maybe even being the source of the religions we see?
So this is an awesome interview we have coming up, a deep dive. Anthropology, religious history, NDE science, a world-class scholar, a recognized expert in his field, it’s really, really great to welcome you Dr Shushan to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:03:14] Well, it’s just the beginning and I guess that’s what I appreciated about reading your book. I just mentioned off air that I feel like I missed the point in a lot of ways when we talked a few years ago, and I don’t want to beat myself up too bad because I got one point. But I kind of missed the larger point of your approach, your methodology as an academic who is looking at this in a very serious way and there are a lot of issues around that.
So, I’ll tell you what, I’ve been playing this little game I call Skeptiko Jeopardy, as a way of just kind of moving the conversation along and giving you a chance to kind of guide the conversation. But I think it’s only fitting in this case that I pick the first one because it’s where I think we have to start and that’s just the basics of cross-cultural NDE, you know, who are you and then who are the cultures that we’re looking at? How are we looking at them? Why are we looking at them? Just give us the rundown of the basics of your work in cross-cultural NDE stuff.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:04:33] Okay. Well first you shouldn’t beat yourself up because the first book was really pretty different than this book. So I can see how it could throw someone for a loop.
So basically, my background, I started out doing archaeology and Egyptology, Eastern Mediterranean archaeology and I was reading afterlife texts, Ancient Egyptian afterlife texts like the Coffin Texts and Pyramid Texts, which preceded The Book of the Dead, and I started noticing similarities between those descriptions of the afterlife and NDEs. And I had read Carol Zaleski’s book, Otherworld Journeys, where she looked at medieval visions of the afterlife in the context of NDEs. So I kind of started thinking something interesting is going on here and is it possible that Ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs, the origins of them can be found in NDEs?
So I decided to do a comparative study, Egypt, Vedic India, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica and Ancient China, choosing those because they were also diverse and culturally independent, they didn’t have any influence on each other to speak of.
There were almost no actual accounts of NDEs from these cultures. There were a couple from China, one or two from Mesoamerica, a few references in Indian cultures, but for the most part it was really comparing afterlife texts. So there was some speculation there, it was a little bit more speculative than the recent book, which we’ll get to.
But just for the background, that was essentially looking at similarities between afterlife beliefs across cultures and seeing how they corresponded to NDE phenomena, like each element of the NDE.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:06:19] So for example, we take the Tibetan Book of the Dead and say, “That’s a text, let’s study the text,” rather than looking for accounts, however you would get those accounts. The starting point for you, which makes a lot of sense was the text, and now you’ve kind of shifted a little bit in this research?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:06:36] Yeah, because there almost are no text from the ancient civilizations that I was looking at. So yeah, it’s looking at a description of the Otherworld Journey and a Sumerian myth compared to the same thing and a description of the afterlife in a Chinese text or whatever.
So I was finding that in these civilizations there was this set of similar elements, not only across cultures but to NDEs. So my idea was that those similarities can best be accounted for by the idea that people are having NDEs and all of these cultures are basing their afterlife beliefs on them.
So moving forward to the recent stuff, by indigenous religions, the title of the new book, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, that refers to… and a lot of people don’t really know some of the terminology, but it’s basically what used to be called primitive or small-scale society religions, tribal sorts of religions in Africa, Native Americans and Oceania, which is the Pacific region in general.
So the difference there is that with a couple of hundred years of missionary activity, more than a couple of hundred, going back to sort of 16th century missionary activity, explorer reports, anthropology, we have accounts of actual NDEs from these different societies. So in this case, I was able to look at, not just the content of the NDEs, but how people interpreted them differently in each of these different kinds of regions.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:08:19] I guess I would, since you stopped, I would interject that one of the things that I think will come up in this conversation a lot, is that the carefulness and the wisdom that you show as an academic, balanced with the curiosity that’s driving you as someone who’s fascinated with the NDE experience and how profound it is. And I want to make sure that I get that right, that I’m not misrepresenting you, because I’m throwing out something there that I don’t know if you kind of agree with, but I think this is just a profound phenomenon, you know, that people experience the afterlife. It gets at one of the fundamental questions that we’ve had through time; does our consciousness exist?
So there’s kind of this cool headedness and this methodical approach that comes through in your work, that has to be there for you to answer some of these questions. But I think I want people to understand that I feel, from reading the book and looking at your research, you are also just blown away at the implications at every turn of what this means. If it falls one way, I feel like you’re kind of going, “Hey, I’m open to wherever it goes, but if it falls this way, the way it seems to be emerging, this is huge.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:09:50] Yeah, I think that’s definitely the case. I mean it’s such an interesting and amazing topic with such huge implications, that it’s one of the few things that I can see sustaining my interest over all of these years, you know, because I started doing this stuff, I don’t know, 15 years ago or something, maybe more now.
So part of what’s been able to sustain the interest is looking at the different cultures, in all different areas of the world, that’s been great, but also just that central core question, not just how do different cultures interpret and experience NDEs or religions based on NDEs, but underlying all of that is, of course the question of what are NDEs and what do these comparisons mean for the idea that NDEs could be actual evidence for life after death?
And that’s a thorny thing to tackle because, as you said in the introduction, they can be used, cross-cultural NDEs can be used for people on either side of the debate, you know people who want to say that it’s all a hallucinatory dying brain experience, or that it’s just entirely culturally constructed, or it can be used as evidence that this is a universal belief therefore it’s a genuine metaphysical kind of experience.
So I think even skeptics, even angry skeptics that we’ve all run across, because this is like, you know, such a basic human question, survival after death, people have this vested interest in it. Often, they either want to believe really deeply or they really want to disbelieve, and I actually am kind of in the middle still. I mean that might sound disingenuous because I’ve put so much time and effort and energy and thought into this stuff, but but I do have one foot in either camp. I’m totally convinced of the things I wrote in the book, but as far as like the NDE science or whatever, I still kind of keep a little bit of objectivity. And I think keeping a little bit of skepticism actually helps my research because often I think when scholars do put their foot in one camper or another, then their research becomes a little bit less objective
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:18] Great. Well, that’s something we may or may not explore. But I want you to direct us where we should go next, because this book opens up a ton of questions as you read it, if you’re really interested in this field. So I have some categories, Methodology. Shamans and entheogens versus other NDE research (meaning how does your research compare, pros and cons of doing it the way that you approached it versus other ways). Religion (which is kind of your bailiwick, is to look not just at the experience, but what it means in terms of creating new religions, forming new religions, informing religions, changing religions. Very interesting aspects to the methodology come up there). Metaphysical neutrality. That’s where I’m going to get into, kind of, I don’t know, the silliness it seems to me, to even entertain that other position, but we have to go there. And then of course the accounts, the Ghost Dance and then finally my pet topic is, you know, we still, as much as we’re being open-minded and fair-minded, are we broadly looking at all of the data we can, in terms of extended consciousness?
So for the benefit of those who haven’t seen, aren’t watching this video, I wanted to give them an overview of the categories we might cover. Do you have any one that you see there that interests you?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:13:50] Maybe it’s best to get the methodology out of the way because that’s kind of the most boring. I would say it’s a necessary evil, but in academic writing you have to discuss methodology to an extent that’s not really that interesting to most people.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:14:11] I don’t think it’s boring at all, and I certainly don’t think it’s boring to our listeners. You know, I posted in the Skeptiko forum questions that people could post in advance, and a lot of the questions were methodology questions, which I was really excited about because if you think about this field at all, methodology, to me, is what immediately springs to mind, “Well, how did he do that?”
You just said, he took the accounts of missionaries and explorers. Well, we can discount those right off the bat, right? They’re secondhand accounts. And then we have this indigenous thing. So the way that you do that, and a lot of it is good, kind of blocking and tackling anthropology that is really fascinating.
The other aspect that I hope you touch on here, is you lean on a lot of prior research and you’re really generous in acknowledging the work that other people have done, but you also point out where you think some of that research might have taken us in the wrong direction and how we might look at it anew with a different kind of perspective. So please lay into it, I’d love to talk about methodology.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:15:23] Okay. Yeah, I mentioned with the first book that methodology of trying to find cultural independence and there was a little bit of that with this one. You know, African traditional religions, religions of the Pacific and North America are pretty much entirely independent of each other. So if we have similarities of NDEs in each of those regions, we can’t say that it’s because the myth traveled from one to the other. So, that’s a non-starter right there, that gets one whole argument out of the way, one whole reductionist explanation for what’s going on.
But you’re right, the missionary explorer and even the early anthropology accounts, we have to look at them with a skeptical eye, we can’t just accept everything they say is a neutral statement of what really was said. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that they’re all entirely made up by the missionaries and explorers and early anthropologists.
What I found a lot of times is an account will be more or less neutrally recorded, but with a lot of interjections on the part of the missionary. Like they’ll say this person claims to have died and traveled to the underworld and met one of their gods and blah blah blah, and then at the end they say, of course, this is the work of Satan and these people need to be converted or whatever.
Explorers are a little bit more neutral than missionaries, but of course, you know, they had their agenda of wanting to report what kind of resources there were and how to manage or exploit the local population.
So everyone had their agenda, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of these accounts are just being made up by these people.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:17:19] And that’s what comes through in the book, because you start reading these accounts and you can see exactly what you’re saying. You can see an account that clearly could only come from the experiencer, couldn’t have been added to in any way when they said, you know, “I was taken by this coyote and we sailed across a creek, and then I met…” You know, no one’s making that up, that’s just what the guy said.
So it is kind of interesting how you can do this, and as you mentioned, there’s other ways that you look at it, in terms of, does it conform automatically to their prior beliefs? Does it change the beliefs of the group or the religion? This is some of the deeper stuff you get into but it’s fascinating, fascinating stuff.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:18:04] Thanks. Yeah, and there are also a few NDEs that were repeated over time. So one, a missionary would report it and 20 years later an anthropologist and then another anthropologist another 20, 40 years later after that. So it shows that there’s consistency of these accounts over time, that they’re not just being made up. And it’s also the case that you can check some of these beliefs with later anthropological reports.
It’s also important to remember that a lot of these traditions go back hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s not like suddenly the missionary or the anthropologist appeared and they’re getting these stories that they’re randomly reporting to the West. They were already there for a long time, and also a lot of the accounts were supposed to have preceded the arrival of these foreigners and go back dozens or hundreds of years and these NDEs have become integrated into local mythology.
So that’s another methodological conceptual difference with the first book, is with these accounts in the indigenous religions, we have actual verbatim, in some cases examples of people describing NDEs that they had or that somebody in their culture had, and saying outright, “And this is how we know about the afterlife.”
So this is no longer speculation that these similarities to NDE suggest that the beliefs were based on an NDE. This is people actually saying, “Our beliefs were based on an NDE.”
Alex Tsakiris: [00:19:44] You know that lead into another category. So rather than you pick let me bring this up because I wanted to talk about it and I think people are going to clue into this right away too, and it’s kind of an important topic to discuss.
In these accounts you’re open that you can’t always separate the shamanic experience or the drug-induced afterlife experience from the, I don’t know if you want to call it pure NDE experience. So you’re really open about that that, “Hey, this is a problem. We don’t know,” and you go one step further and say, “From the accounts that we have we can clearly see that these are intertwined, intermixed and we don’t even understand exactly what that means.”
So what are some of the challenges that we face, in terms of understanding this from a shamanic perspective?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:20:41] The way I tried to pick it apart was, and this is another methodological issue too, is my definition of a near-death experience, well, not my definition but what I considered to be NDEs in the book. And rather than having a set of phenomenological elements to NDEs that are commonly cited in the West as, “This is a typical NDE,” you know, I didn’t say, “This is an NDE because it ticks all of these boxes,” I said, “This is an NDE if the person within the culture considers it an NDE.” And obviously they didn’t have the term NDE but if the account says this person died, had this particular experience and came back to life, then that counted as an NDE to me.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:55:29] I have to mention to people this book is an expensive book to just kind of pick up casually, we all get that. It’s Oxford University Press, it’s like $70. If you can afford it, if you’re really into this kind of research do it, because it’s really worthwhile and it’s kind of a cornerstone kind of book to have. But for a lot of people they’re just going to have to pass on the book and maybe take a look inside or watch this interview. But don’t let it dissuade you from fully taking in what Dr. Shushan is saying because I think it is this part of this maturing of NDE of science, it’s going beyond the spinning our wheels trying to respond to the, just silliness that’s been thrown in the face of these researchers for the most part.
But I guess that’s where I still see, in your book, I still see someone who is inside of an academic culture that really, to me for the most part, seems completely ignorant of the real science that’s going on in near-death experience. I mean, it just is, they’re not hitting on any of the real stuff. They’re just repeating, “Well this couldn’t possibly be true, last gasp of a dying brain,” or whatever, when all of these things have been addressed and they have problems with it. You know, there are problems with some of the conclusions and over generalizations, that NDE researchers and proponents, more proponents than the researchers, because I think most of the researchers are pretty level-headed.
But when I read this, you know, this is from your book whether the prompting is biological, psychological and/or metaphysical in nature, set that aside. I get that you have to do that, I get that you’re an academic, where that’s the belief that 90% of the folks that you speak to have. But I’d almost say, if we have to set it aside, then that’s not what your book is about. Your book really isn’t about that. You sidestep that and say, “Okay, let’s set that aside, but now let me assume that there is a reality to it.”
And I also don’t like the kind of forced equality here. You know that the biological and physiological, the evidence is really on par with the metaphysical? No fricking way, it just isn’t.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:58:00] Yeah. No, I agree with you there and I think somewhere I do say that no theory has been comprehensively able to explain away NDEs. That’s a big step for an academic book, but at the same time, yeah, it is an academic book and it’s not a theology book, it’s history of religions, anthropology. So there does have to be that neutrality and when somebody comes along and reviews it and says I’m a crypto Theologian, I have a religious agenda, blah, blah, blah, which they say, then I can say, “Well, look at that sentence,” you know, and I actually don’t because I don’t really have a metaphysical stake in it one way or another.
I definitely believe that NDEs have not been explained away and I think that a lot of the evidence is amazing. The Peak in Darien type experiences, where people are seeing people that they didn’t know had died and come back and find out that they did die. How do you explain things like that?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:59:15] The shared death experience is always one that doesn’t get enough attention, where there’s other people in the room and they share the experience. They can’t even pin a biological explanation on that.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [00:59:28] Yeah and you know, another place I went out on a limb in that book is there’s a section on, which is basically, given all of these things about religious diversity, diversity of NDEs, etc., etc., if there is a real afterlife, what could it possibly be like? So what are the implications of all of this diversity for an afterlife? And I think that’s not something that you’re going to come across in the traditional work of anthropology or history of religions. That’s where it’s kind of going into philosophical speculation. But I think, to me, that was treating the metaphysical interpretation seriously and it’s giving it its due.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:00:20] That’s such an awesome point. I want to emphasize that because you know, I almost missed that and when you just repeated it, it kind of stirred up in me again. So I want you to expound on that a little bit. It’s like you’re taking the leap and saying, “Okay, let me play the metaphysical game for a minute and now let me try and speculate as to what the implications might be.” And then your book is like, “Hey doesn’t this look like these could be the implications.”
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:00:51] Yeah, there’s a section on cross-cultural NDEs and the survival hypothesis, where it kind of addresses exactly that. So, it’s kind of back to the question of, you know, certain scholars, there was a big debate in the Journal of Near-Death Studies a couple years ago about how NDEs are different across cultures, there can’t possibly be an afterlife. So I kind of delve into that, because it’s true. If NDEs are evidence of an afterlife across cultures, no single religion is true. We have to face that. The Christian model of an afterlife, not true, you know, Islamic model, Jewish, Hindu whatever.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:01:39] And when you say not true, it’s just not exclusively true, because we don’t know. That’s again what comes through your research, is that there’s all of these overlays, you know?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:01:51] Yeah, but none of these dogmas, let’s say, have hit it 100% correctly. I would say each one of them has elements that are getting towards the truth, whatever the truth might be, and to me that truth is where there are convergences and similarities across cultures. All of these similar things that people are arriving at independently are probably the things that are closest to the truth.
So the idea is, if everyone’s different, how can they all be right? If all of these NDEs are different, even between individuals and that was recognized by Moody way back. He said there are no two NDEs that are going to hit all of these criteria. So even there, how do we explain it, let alone bringing in kachinas and ancestor spirits and whatever else?
So, that’s another thing that, as I said, NDE science researchers have to confront these things but so do philosophers or theologians about the afterlife.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:02:59] But if you bring that around full circle, you could also look at it and turn the question around and say, “Well isn’t that really evidence that there is something deeper going on,” right?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:03:10] Yeah, you could definitely look at it that way. And yeah, that’s where I kind of come to an impasse. The issue of similarity to me, it demonstrates NDEs, it demonstrates their influence on religion, but it doesn’t necessarily, you know, just to be perfectly objective about it, it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate that NDEs are evidence of an afterlife
Alex Tsakiris: [01:03:35] Fair enough, fair enough. I guess what struck me, because I am at this point pretty solidly convinced just by the evidence, because I’ve talked to all of those people multiple times and I just can’t shoot holes in there.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:03:50] Yeah. No, I understand.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:03:52] But one of the things that I liked about what you did and where you brought me to, is speculating, imagining how these experiences may have informed these religions, may have influenced these religions. And someone who posted on the forum made the connection between life review and confessional in the Roman Catholic Church, you know?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:04:00] Right, yeah.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:04:22] And it’s a loose association, but can’t you just see it? There are more clear-cut examples that maybe you can think of, where you can almost see how these consistent themes of the near-death experience do seem to be organically emerging in these religions, and it’s not organic really, it’s coming directly from the NDE. And a lot of times it’s co-opted and maybe not used in a way that we all think is so great. But isn’t that just the history of religion too?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:04:57] Yeah, I think that’s that’s definitely the case. It’s just a case of, again, it goes back to balancing the similarities and the differences and if there really is an afterlife, how do we explain it in light of the diversity? And I think, for me, the model that best explains it is…
I don’t know if you’re familiar with H.H. Price, who’s a British philosopher. He talks about an intersubjective afterlife, where it’s basically like a lucid dream that you’re sharing with other people. And to me that accounts for the cross-cultural similarities of an NDE. It also accounts for the cultural and individual particularities of an NDE, because if you’re creating it as you’re going along, that would account for the thematic similarities, but also the cultural differences.
I think it really addresses a lot and it doesn’t mean that NDEs are just a dream or that the afterlife is just a dream, it’s another state of reality where you have this different level of creation and control involved in it.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:06:11] Well, you know what? So many of the great spiritual masters have been telling us throughout time, and it’s also a very popular topic among people who are interested in studying the paranormal in the present time, is that a better way of looking at it is that our time-space continuum that we experience is a small part of consciousness that we are embedded in, and that would explain it. Yeah, it’s a dream. This is the fricking dream. And that’s what the spiritual masters have told us all along.
So we put it in this nice little box of time-space reality, but when we step outside of that, either through entheogens or any number of other experiences that get us outside of that, it all looks different. We get these downloads of information that tell us, “Oh, okay. I get it now,” and then we have to come back and live our little humble little lives here.
I guess there’s really only one topic left. I appreciate how open you are generous you are in playing our little game here, but it’s been absolutely delightful. But here’s a tough one.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:07:19] Sorry, I just remembered, I didn’t quite answer your previous question about Christianity and confessional stuff. I was just going to add that, and this is like, kind of the wider implications of this book. When we have all of these examples of people in different societies saying our religions are based on NDEs or our afterlife beliefs are based on NDEs, there’s no reason to think that Christianity would be any different, or any other religion would be any different and I think it probably is the case because there are plenty of NDEs in Christian traditions, going back to medieval times. Some people think Saint Paul’s vision was an NDE. It definitely has some similarities to it.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:08:03] Yeah, that’s a great point. I’m glad you brought that up because we kind of just jumped right in the middle of it, assuming that people understand that this is like the next chapter in this book. It’s not assuming that we have to go and look at indigenous people because they are the only ones whose little puny religions have been manipulated by these NDEs. It’s like, no it’s the opposite, because you can get that, like you said, at the beginning because you can get that cross-cultural wide, the myth can’t travel during these periods, kind of thing.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:08:40] Pure Land Buddhism for example, NDEs are very central to that religion. So there are examples that are not just small-scale societies.
Sorry go ahead.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:08:56] No, very good as with all your other ones, a great point. So here’s my last topic and this is going to be way outside of your swing zone, but hey, that’s part of the fun of kind of pushing to other things.
I’ve been doing a lot of research and investigation lately because the claim that human beings are contacting non-human intelligence is reaching the point of something that we can actually talk about without being kind of laughed out of the room. I reference Rey Hernandez, along with Harvard social scientist Rudy Shields, has published the first academic survey of non-human intelligence contact with people. It parallels some of the work of Dr. Jeff Long, radiation oncologist, who’s done a similar, the largest database for NDE research.
And then with the disclosure, you know, I always have to say this because people forget. We have the New York Times coming out and saying, “Okay, UFOs are real. Here’s a video released by the Department of Defense.” For whatever reason, we’re in this mode where we can now put this stuff on the table. I wonder what we might think 20 years from now, how we might consider, almost in parallel with the near-death experience, the role of contact with non-human intelligence.
And this does have more of a direct connection to your book because if we accept the shamanic experience as being not just a near-death experience, but somehow possibly some connection with these extended consciousness realms, well then we’re right in the soup with ET and all of the rest of it, because ET is showing up all of the time there, even from Dr. Rick Strassman in New Mexico who gives his subjects DMT and they say, “Oh, there it is, there’s ET over there.”
So, any thoughts? I know this is really a stretch, but the reason I titled this slide silos is, in the same way that your work moves us forward by kind of breaking down some of these barriers and talking about the stuff that really, we have to address. I think this is another one of those things where we have to try and understand what’s going on in these extended consciousness realms in a broader way, rather than immediately pigeonholing it and stifling it down saying, “Oh, it can only be this or it could only be that.”
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:11:42] Yeah. We were talking about the H.H. Price model of, you know, the lucid dreaming afterlife, collective lucid dreaming. I kind of get tripped up when I think, okay, but what about these divine beings and kachinas and whatever other kind of deity or whatever is encountered? Would those be souls of the dead who have reached a certain stage of transformation or development or whatever?
Alex Tsakiris: [01:12:16] Let me interject right there, because people slide over that. What does that even mean? If it’s a stage of development or transformation, now we’re automatically suggesting that there is a hierarchy to those extended realms. If there’s a hierarchy, is there a top of that hierarchy? Is there a God, for lack of a better term, that we’re not comfortable saying? But the accounts come through just consistently over and over again. But please, keep going with your flow. Don’t bother going back to that.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:12:44] Yeah, if not a hierarchy, at least a… I mean, I think there can be this kind of transformation without there being necessarily, like a system or bureaucracy and it’s when I start hearing things like that, that make me really skeptical about afterlife.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:13:01] Then let me interject there. That is directly what Dr. Jeff Long and again, for people who aren’t familiar with his research, this is not a guy who has a religious agenda. He’s a radiation oncologist who just starts collecting these cases and in his latest book, God and the Afterlife, which has a provocative title that throws everyone off. I interviewed him, anyone can watch it, it’s an extremely popular interview, and he says, “Hey, I didn’t go looking for this. This is just what the data says.” And as matter of fact what he says is interesting from a social science standpoint, like you said, he said, “I don’t know why this is so under-reported. Just go and look at my database that’s online.”
This is much more widely reported than the tunnel, than the travel, all these other things, is an experience of God, an experience of hierarchy. “That being was higher than me, in a way that has been explained to me as God throughout my life. So I’m calling it God.” So that’s the kind of stuff that I think, I’m not saying I’m going there, I’m not a Christian, I’m not religious, I don’t have that agenda, I’m just saying I don’t think we should immediately put that aside if that’s where the data takes us.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:14:16] Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if those kinds of entities would be, like I said, some kind of transformed human soul or something totally different, you know, from an alien or a different type of deity, entity or whatever. I don’t know how that could even be addressed.
My skepticism arises, not just with hierarchies but systems, and when people say there’s a library and there are columns and Greek robes, I shut down. Not that I disbelieve the person who experienced that, but I just believe that that is the objective reality that everyone’s going to experience. So some peasant farmer in Siberia is not going to probably experience something like that, or whatever, you know?
So I just think if there is an afterlife, if these things are true, it’s just a lot more chaotic than we think. I mean, think about reincarnation as well. So many of the reincarnation accounts, Ian Stevenson and other researchers come from India where they happen to believe in reincarnation and Jewish people who believe in reincarnation. There are some very famous ones in the West, but they are exceptions.
So, maybe it’s the case that people steer their afterlife experience, whether consciously or unconsciously, when they die. I don’t know. I just think it’s…
Alex Tsakiris: [01:15:54] Hey, I think it’s great that you went there and that’s a super important contribution in your books. We’ve got to keep emphasizing that that is the difference of this anthropology guy who keeps saying, “Hey explain how there’s this huge difference and this person saw it this way and that way,” but it is interesting.
I have to point out, that that’s the example you bring, which is Ian Stevenson and they were all from India and Sri Lanka. Because most of the people I talk to about reincarnation focus on the three year old boy who was in a fighter jet in Missouri and was walking past the toy store and said to his mom when he’s three, “Hey, that’s the plane I was in,” and then describes in detail the plane, who he was flying with, all this, harasses his parents to death. Then they finally go and do the research and find the pilot.
Or the other guy, you know, the University of Virginia where they’ve studied this more than anyone and Jim Tucker who has… You’re familiar with all of this stuff but I inject it in just to get it into the show. The kid from Hollywood, similar. A very young boy who sees a picture of this 1950’s movie and said, “Hey, I know that guy,” and then they go through this extensive research and they have 54 points of contact where this guy has memories of this past life.
So again, you can explain it away as this, you know… I love what you said about the, “Oh, it’s all in the akashic records and anyone can go there.” Okay, but that’s not what the experiencer says. The experiencer says, “I lived in that body and…” as matter of fact, Ian Stevenson, “here’s the scar on my back where I got shot.”
So I’m open to the shared dream kind of thing, but it is fun to talk about this with someone like yourself who’s really done the work, so we can kind of get to that next level, because that’s what this work is really all about, is getting us into a dialogue about the deeper questions.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:17:56] Yeah, and I think the ultimate summary we have about his first afterlife goes, nature is pretty chaotic, life is chaotic, life is really diverse. Human populations are incredibly diverse, animal populations. You know, it’s a chaotic crazy universe that we live in and there are some rules and there is a lot of random chaos.
So I just think that if there is an afterlife it’s part of nature. I don’t believe that it would be supernatural because if it exists it’s going to be part of nature, right? It’s part of the human experience. So if that’s the case, then there’s no reason why we should suddenly experience order and similarity and structure, you know, when all of these things are basically inventions of humans anyway,
Alex Tsakiris: [01:18:52] Awesome stuff.
So Dr. Shushan, how can people follow your work? I mentioned this is an awesome book. If you can fork over the $70 or whatever to Oxford Press, you’ll enjoy it, you’ll get a lot out of it. If you can’t and people want to follow what’s going on, you have some great presentations out there on YouTube, I’ve seen a couple, and other places. How do people stay connected with this important work that you’re doing? And I guess I should preface that with asking, are you going to continue or have you kind of had it with this?
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:19:27] I thought I had but no, I’m going to put together an anthology of historical and cross-cultural NDEs, so people can read the full accounts for themselves, because these things are just scattered all over the place, like I said, and in this book alone, hundreds and hundreds of sources that I look through, anthropological reports, missionary reports, really obscure stuff hunted down. And in a book like that you can’t provide all of them verbatim, so it’s just a lot of brief summaries.
So I’d like to provide, have a nice good anthology of those accounts, medieval European accounts, Asian accounts from around the world and stuff like that. So that’s going to be the next project.
I’m also going to do a book on NDEs and the afterlife in Greece and Rome. That’s kind of little bit further down the pike.
This book should be out in paperback by the way, within probably less than a year, the current book on indigenous religions. So that will be more affordable at a certain stage. I’ve kind of been pushing Oxford University Press to make it sooner than later. But hopefully it’ll be early next year or something like that.
And I also have a website, gregoryshushan.com and you can find different articles there. The one on African NDEs, I think, or the Native American one is up there. So a lot of stuff that came from this book and also a lot of the theoretical and methodological stuff if any listeners are interested, and these kinds of debates were certain scholars are saying everything is entirely culturally constructed and linguistically constructed. I kind of attack that stuff head on in a couple of articles. There’s one on Vedic afterlife beliefs.
So, you know, I tried to keep this book, keep that stuff to a minimum in this book, the really heavy theory and method stuff to make it more accessible. So hopefully when it does come out in paperback people will enjoy it.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:21:39] Well, it’s an absolutely great contribution, and I really appreciate you joining us today and talking about it. So best of luck with all of that and thanks again.
Dr. Gregory Shushan: [01:21:48] Thanks, any time.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:21:50] Alright, great.
More From Skeptiko
- Andrew Holecek is a recognized expert on lucid dreaming and dream yoga, but is he playing it safe? photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:35] Now I could try and explain how that clip from Step Brothers relates to this …
- Bruce Fenton’s shamanic experience sent him looking for scientific proof of ancient alien contact… and he found it. fina photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:53] That’s a clip from a little Skeptiko movie project episode, kind of experiment that …
- Jasun Horsey has a razor sharp critique of how the occult has become part of our pedocracy culture. photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:09] I have an interview coming up in a minute with Jason Horsley. We talk a …
- Dr. Jeffery Martin seeks to shift our fundamental sense of well being, and his numbers prove he can. photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:59] That’s Will Smith from The Pursuit of Happiness. Boy, I love that movie. And as …
- Charlie Morely is an expert at lucid dreaming, and he’s gone places most wouldn’t dare to go. photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00- 00:00:34] That’s from Inception, a movie that explores a lot of the topics we’re going to be talking …
- Rick DeLano’s movie, The End of Quantum Reality makes a strong case against scientific materialism, but then there’s the Catholic thing. photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00- 00:00:34] That’s South Park talking about what it’s like to go back to Catholic …
- David Ditchfield was pulled under a speeding commuter train, but the spiritual encounters of his NDE left him with new artistic gifts. photo by: Skeptiko [Movie clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:43] That’s Shia LeBeouf from the movie Fury, talking about the …
- Steve Briggs recounts his experiences with Himalayan yogis. photo by: Skeptiko [Clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:18] [00:00:18] That’s Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove struggling with whether to do the right thing. It’s a topic we talk about with today’s guest, …
- Tom Zinser’s clinical psychology practice took a turn when he discovered the difference between darkness and evil. photo by: Skeptiko [Movie clip 00:00:00 – 00:00:23] Nobody plays a deal-making devil better than Al Pacino and no one plays an unsuspecting …