Life: A Near Death Experience
“Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past is history. The future yet to come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the practitioner dwells unshaken and free in heart. We must be diligent today, as death may strike tomorrow, for there is no bargaining with the lord of death” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, Majjhima Nikaya)
In the 1960s and 1970s, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and psychologist and medic Raymond Moody played a pivotal role in bringing the phenomenon of near death experience (NDE) to the attention of both the general public and the wider scientific community. The scientific study of NDEs – especially prior to the 1990s – met with a certain amount of scepticism amongst psychologists and medical professionals. However, in recent years, the psychological and medical community have become more open to the possibility that the NDE is a bone fide phenomenon that falls within the range of possible human experience. The NDE is typically associated with a particular set or pattern of experiences that may occur when a person is close to dying (e.g., due to illness), when they believe they are close to dying (i.e., life-threatening situations), or when they find themselves in the period between clinical death and resuscitation.1-3 NDEs often involve one or a combination of the following features: an out of body experience, the experience of moving through a tunnel, communicating with a being of light, observing a celestial landscape, meeting with deceased persons, and/or a life review.1-3 Rather than the traditional approach of viewing NDEs as a phenomenon explicitly associated with death or the imminent threat thereof, here we adopt a slightly different slant and consider whether there is scope to consider human existence and life-more-generally as a near death experience.
According to the US Central Intelligence Agency4, the world mortality rate for 2013 is 7.9 deaths per 1000 people per year (i.e., 0.79%). Based on these figures, an average of 107 people die each minute. This means that if you are somebody that normally goes to bed at 11pm and sleeps for eight hours, by the time you wake up at 7am the next morning over 50,000 people have died. Death is a very common occurrence. There exist no scientifically-verifiable instances of any sentient being – human or otherwise – being able to defeat death. The most common cause of death is illness (especially illness in old age). Other reasonably common causes of death include accident, suicide, and homicide. Less common causes of death are occurrences such as spontaneous human combustion and death by lightning strike (although these could arguably be classed as accidental).
The human body is a beautiful and wondrous entity – but invincibility is not one of its strengths. A small pin prick, contact with a hot pan, a finger trapped in a door – these are just a few examples of how the smallest mishap can cause tremendous discomfort and pain. In fact, there only has to be the slightest imbalance in the external environment and the human body starts to rapidly shut-down. Environmental conditions such as being too hot, being too cold, a shortage of water, or a lack of food can all quickly lead to death. Even such minor things as eating a mouthful of spoiled food, catching a common flu bug, or slipping on ice can lead to death. In fact, at any one time, the only thing that separates us from death is a single breath in or out. It seems that the human being operates a ‘just in time’ survival system which means that the slightest delay in taking in air, water, or food can be fatal. From the moment we are born, every single second that passes by brings us closer to our death. Even being young provides no assurance of life as death can occur at any age. Indeed, some people die while still in the womb, some in infancy, and some in adolescence. Some people die in the prime of adulthood and some in old age. Life is like the sand moving through an hour-glass – some people start with more sand than others but it runs out just the same.
To help explain this in a slightly different way, the Buddhist teachings use the analogy of a prisoner being led to their execution – every step they take draws them closer to death.5 We are born, we live, and we will die. All phenomena are transient occurrences and are subject to decay and dissolution. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence. The human body is impermanent, friends and family are impermanent, the planet we live on is impermanent, and even the universe will ultimately cease to be. This is what the Buddha said about the fleeting nature of existence: “This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”
In general, there is a tendency for people to be complacent about death and to assume that it is something that will never happen to them. However, such complacency quickly disappears when people find themselves at death’s door. At this time, it is not uncommon for people to experience overpowering feelings of regret, anger, and fear. Indeed, at death, people often manifest a fierce clinging and attachment towards their family, friends, possessions, reputation, and life achievements. However, when the last few grains of sand are about to slip through the hour glass – these things count for absolutely nothing and cannot be carried forward. We have to leave life in exactly the same manner that we entered it – all alone.
You might think that it is inappropriate to discuss the reality of death in as direct and open a manner as we are here. However, in our humble opinion, the sooner a person starts to fully accept that at some uncertain point they will certainly die, the sooner they can begin to prepare themselves for death rather than waiting until it is too late. In a paper that was recently accepted for publication in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 we discussed how accepting the impermanent nature of life can actually be a very rewarding process. In fact, the academic literature indicates that impermanence awareness can actually buffer against mental illness. It has also been suggested that an increased acceptance and internalisation of impermanence can assist with post-traumatic growth.7,8
The Buddhist teachings explain that a wise person is someone who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability.5 This awareness of impermanence is believed to help a person prioritise what is important in life.6 Findings from our own research indicate that cultivating a deep-rooted understanding of impermanence can bring great joy and can be spiritually enriching.9,10 By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we can gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the people and things we love are present, we can truly cherish them, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. A useful thing to remember is that every time we do something, we do it for the first and last time. A moment of time never repeats itself. The recognition of this can help to invest the things we do and say with great meaning. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we no longer have to be walking corpses. Based on the consensus definition, near death experiences are not particularly common and typically involve what some people might describe as ‘mystical’ experiences. However, given that life is incredibly fragile and using slightly different defining criteria, we believe that every single sentient being is essentially currently partaking in a near death experience. We would like to finish this post with a brief reflection on death entitled ‘A Bubble in the Wind’:
A Bubble in the Wind
“Life is like a bubble carried by the wind. Some bubbles burst sooner, others later. Some burst of their own accord, others by accident. Some are deliberately burst. However, one way or another, all bubbles burst. The difference between the realised spiritual practitioner and the everyday person, is that the practitioner recognises they are not only the bubble, but are also the wind that gently carries it along. That wind has no point of origin and is without destination. It blows freely wherever it likes. How wonderful!”
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Acknowledgment: This post was used as a platform for developing themes, insights, and elucidations to be included in an expanded article written for the Mindfulness in Practice section of the journal Mindfulness.