I have been watching a rather intriguing series at present entitled “Surviving Death”, an examination of the afterlife in all its forms. The series covers a wide range of topics from near death experiences, mediumship, ghosts through to reincarnation. The people presented were also on a spectrum of plausibility from the wacky to the believable. While it gave no real evidence to suggest we live on after passing and communicate to our earthly loved ones through mediums, I guess that wasn’t really the point. The point, if you were watching closely, was a more general one of how we view death and indeed life while we have it.
As I watched, the skeptic in me was trying to influence what I thought about some of the content. I have always been on the fence about the afterlife and whether it actually exists or occurs, purely because I have no evidence one way or another. The question for me is a deep psychological one that talks to us about our meaning while on this planet for such a short time. Of course, it would be easy to say all mediums are fakes and it is all a set-up and where money is to be made, there will be that possibility. However, some of the demonstrations caught on camera cannot be explained by anything scientific. Food for thought. The one area that resonated with me the most was that of so-called NDE‘s or near death experiences. While we could suggest that any visions or feelings close to death could be brought on by impending fear of the event, drugs or illness, there were vivid testimonies from people, who were not at that time expecting to die, taking drugs or suffering from any illness, describing what they went through as they were suddenly pulled out of their bodies and experienced a “happy” place full of loved ones already passed. They either guided them further or told them that it was not their time. This was consistent across all stories and while you can explain these experiences away as the last throes of life, are we really sure we know everything? Of course we don‘t.
One of the aspects of the experience of an NDE is the altered sense of time. For most people who had experienced one, time went much slower and there was no sense of time passing. Many of them told how they were floating above the death scene with no feeling of time being a factor. We could explain this away with the imminent death of brain function but as an eminent neurologist stated on the show, these experiences appear to also happen when there is no visible brain function. Again a mystery that blurs the line between the scientific and the spiritual.
Irving Yalom stated in his famous book “Staring at the Sun”, that we never truly appreciate life until we understand and accept death as an inevitable consequence of life. He also theorized that those who have had this experience have what’s known as death awareness and can appreciate life more. Does it really mean that facing possible death can bring something to our lives? In my own experience, I would say this is true. In 2010, I had an accident where my initial feeling was that I was about to die. I fell from a great height and smashed the right side of my body to the extent that I have still metal in most joints. While I didn’t have the peaceful NDE described by others (I felt panic, fear and then a shock reaction), I did have this feeling of the time needed to reach the end of my fall being much longer than the seconds it took to hit the floor. Amongst the fear, I found acceptance that I would be dead at the end of this and the last image I saw was my daughter, then three riding a tricycle.
Since recovering (it took one year), I have never seen my eventual passing in the same way and indeed life in the same way. My personality has become much more adventurous and I have taken risks, personally and professionally, that I would never have taken before. I am able to stay in the moment more and enjoy what I am doing. Did it really take a possible death to give me life? I really do believe so.
I learned two stark lessons after that event. Firstly, that life needs to be fruitful and we need to accept that life is limited by time. Irrespective of whether there is an afterlife, we live on in the spirit world or are reincarnated, the most important part of death is what we do with life. In the big span of things, our lives are fleeting moments in the history of all things and we spend much of it worrying about our place in the world and ultimately, how we will get all the things we want to do done in time. We often never see this until it is far too late and we leave this world full of regret that we didn’t allow time for more fruitful things in our lives, more mindful activities and less time on over-productivity and pressuring ourselves.
The one thing we know for certain about death is that it is an inevitable result of life. We live and we die. Whether we live again, is unknown and that is the big issue with death. We have no idea when, how and what happens then. Whole religions and concepts have been created to allow us to believe there is something and if that is a comfort to anyone as they approach their final moments on earth, that is great. Let’s try as well to think about life and what that means to us, how we can make it as fruitful and fulfilling as possible before we happily go wherever it is we go. Could it be that the secret to life is truly understanding death?