A soft glowing light at the end of a tunnel. Familiar smiling faces welcoming you with open arms. You're enveloped in a warm blanket of bliss.
Suddenly, you're jolted back to life. You're back in the here and now. Surrounded by paramedics smiling down at you. "Welcome back. You're going to be ok" she smiles as she slips something over your nose and mouth.
You're in pain, your chest feels like it's on fire but the oxygen mask over your face is making it easier to breathe.
Even though you should be happy to be alive - there's an uneasy sense of...disappointment?
The light was so warm and inviting. So peaceful.
There's no shortage of threads on Reddit detailing people's NDEs.
Entire websites, Facebook pages and groups are devoted to experiencers sharing their stories.
The science community has been tentatively exploring the topic for quite some time now. They tend to look at it from a physiological perspective.
The processes of brain-death.
As the senses begin to shut-down, and our heart stops pumping oxygen to the brain, how does the conscious mind interpret and react to that process?
Regardless of your belief system or faith, death hangs over all of us.
As the adage goes: "the only two sure things in life are death and taxes."
One day we will all succumb to the void, the great unknown.
Apart from the old "light at the end of the tunnel" cliché, none of us can honestly say we know what happens after we die. The only way to know for sure, is to die.
Your heart needs to stop. Your functions need to cease. You need to shuffle off this mortal coil.
Is that light at the end of the tunnel our brain's way of coping with our demise?
As our sense-organs stop sending messages to the brain, does the old grey matter go into a state of well-constructed denial to shield us from the shock and reality of our own mortality?
Religious leaders and teachers speak of Heaven and the eternal existence of our souls in the divine embrace of our Creator. Psychics and mediums provide reassuring messages from those who have crossed over.
"They are at peace."
"Your loved ones are watching over you."
"They're with you everyday."
Are they, with no malicious intention or intentional deceit, just telling us what we want or need to hear?
Are we really just looking for reassurance and closure and confirmation that we, ourselves, are not going to be plant-food one day?
There is one person who has a better idea than most of us - Sam Parnia.
Sam Parnia is the director of resuscitation research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in the US.
He has conducted the most extensive study, to date, on revived patients to try to unravel the mental and cognitive experience of death and dying.
In his research, Sam Parnia has surveyed more than 100 people brought back to life after suffering a fatal cardiac arrest. He has found that nearly 50% of people who have experienced death (and resusitation) have some memory of their death experience. Their experiences range from frightening visions of Hell to blissful pastures of Heaven.
There is a more in-depth article about Sam Parnia's research here.
While the research is fascinating, I couldn't help but notice that the experiencers all seemed to share some similarities in their accounts of NDE.
They all experienced, what seemed to be, a very "western, mainstream" idea of the afterlife.
The proverbial bright light at the end of the tunnel. The presence of family and friends (and sometimes even pets) who have already passed over. Being in the presence of the Divine Creator (aka God) of their specific belief system.
Or, on the terrifying end of the spectrum, tales of forsaken tortured souls, lakes of fire, demonic entities, and the presence of evil - aka Hell.
It begs the question: "What if you don't follow a western belief system?"
With that in mind, I set out to explore NDE from different cultures and belief systems to see if there were any common threads with their western counterparts.
I can't guarantee any answers or concrete proof of an afterlife.
I can't tell you what to expect from an NDE.
But I hope that these stories will generate some interesting questions in even the most skeptical mind.
In The Republic, Plato references the tale of Er told by Socrates.
Er, a Pamphylian warrior, was wounded and left for dead on a battlefield.
Assumed to be dead, his body mysteriously did show any signs of post-mortem decomposition.
At Ers funeral (which back in the day involved cremation by fire pyre), he suddenly, and I'm sure much to the shock of everyone attending, came back to life.
Regarded as a metaphorical story by Socrates, some have suggested it to be evidence of an ancient NDE.
Er described traveling with a large group (afterlife posse?) to a mysterious "dazzling field" where he saw two holes - one leading upward and the other down.
Depending on the judgment received, a soul either went up towards a brilliant light or down into a black abyss.
Er claimed he was taken down into the abyss where he saw the tyrant Ardiaeus - restrained, skinned, and dragged through thorns before being dropped in the deep abyss of Tartarus.
After what felt like several days in this Hellish landscape, Er was moved to a new place with a radiating rainbow column.
Here the deceased drew lots to determine their future afterlives and drank from a river to wipe the memories of their previous lives from them before moving on. Is it just me, or does that river sound like some kind of post-mortem roofie?
While drinking from the memory-wiping waters Er was told to stop drinking sent back to the land of the living.
It was at this moment that he woke during his wake - luckily before they started cremating him.
It's easy to disregard the story of Er as a true NDE.
Skeptics will say it's an allegorical tale invented by Socrates. But there are some NDE researchers who take it more seriously.
Er's story includes 7 of the 16 most common characteristics recounted by experiencers in modern NDEs:
- Moving toward a bright light (the dazzling field)
- A supernatural, unfamiliar landscape
- A hell-like experience with eternal torture and suffering
- Meeting with other souls who have passed on
- A review of your life (in the form of judgment),
- The existence of a boundary between worlds,
- A forced return.
Is this evidence that Er's experience is one of the earliest accounts of NDE?
Are the common factors a sign that regardless of time, religion, and culture, we all end up in the same afterlife experience?
If you'd like to read a more in-depth article about Er, you'll find it here.
It's not hard to see the connections between characters like Hades and Satan, or Zeus and the Christian version of God. The Ancient Greek idea of an afterlife seems quite similar to our own mainstream western religious beliefs.
So let's cast our NDE net a little wider.
Hindu and Western NDE have some marked similarities but also some significant differences.
The most noticeable difference is that the Hindu NDE has a more...bureaucratic... tone than Western reports.
The first significant report on the phenomena was by researchers Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson in 1977.
Osis and Haraldsson found that about 80% of incidents of NDE they examined involved encounters with otherworldly beings.
Hindu NDEs report being in the presence of Yamraj, the God of the dead, and the yamdoots, his messengers (dare I say, minions?).
And there is a definite, more specific, recurring theme. Individuals are brought for post-death processing by a clerk.
Enter: Chitragupta - the Administrator of the Afterlife.
Chitragupta consults a book, a ledger of sorts, to determine the "balance" of your positive vs. negative karma. Turns out karmic-debt is a real and recorded concern in the Hindu NDE.
If it is discovered that some grievous clerical-error has been made, you're sent back to the land of the living. Hopefully with a sincere apology on their part for the oversight.
Goes to show that clerical errors can really wreak havoc on a person's life...and afterlife.
Come to think of it, it might even be my own personal version of Hell.
To spend eternity trying to explain to some overworked, resentful clerk that there's been a very unfortunate error.
One Hindu NDEr, Vasudev Pandey, described being hauled away by two individuals to a terrifying black, naked figure.
The ominous black figure flew into a rage, yelling at the stewards, "I told you to bring Vasudev the gardener! Our garden is drying up! You have brought Vasudev the student!"
Vasudev was taken back and woke up in his bed surrounded by friends and family, including the gardener Vasudev, who died the next day (not at all suss).
Pandey recognized the black figure as Yamraj, the Hindu God of the Dead.
Can we all just take a moment to appreciate the fact that the afterlife is not floating on a cloud in a state of eternal bliss. According to Pandey's experience, there's work to be done. Gardens to be tended. And knowing my luck, a lot of laundry that needs folding.
Another man reported being brought to a waiting room and having his legs cut off at the knees when he tried to escape.
As is the (concerning) norm in the Hindu NDE, the clerical-error was discovered. His name was not on the list.
He was told to reattach his bits and return to his family.
Would anyone like to insert a joke about National Health Insurance at this point?
According to researchers Dr. Satwant Pasricha and Dr. Ian Stevenson, there were no bright-light or tunnels and only one out-of-body experience reported in Hindu NDEs.
Instead of the "life review" reported in Western NDEs, Hindus are more likely to meet the dreaded clerk who reads out a record of your life - also known as an Akashic Record.
Disturbingly reminiscent of the annual work performance review.
Unfortunately, the idea of afterlife clerical errors isn't exclusive to the Hindu tradition.
Thai NDEs seem to be heavily influenced by the Theravada Buddhist tradition.
Medieval monk and author of the Book of Phra Malaya was meditating when he had a vision of descending into Hell and entering Yama's Hall of the Dead.
While there, he was told the various options for the deceased to reincarnate back to the living realm.
Some of the choices included being assigned human lives of different social stations (seemingly socio-economic status of influence and wealth) and different levels of attractiveness.
You have the option of coming back as one of a variety of animals.
Or you could be dispatched to one of the 14 Hells or 9 Heavens.
If you came back an unattractive, poverty-stricken work mule you might want to consider what your previous life's karmic credit/debit ledger looked like. (The irony of it is that coming back as a work mule probably didn't leave much cranial room for human-like intelligence and the ability to ponder your past-lives).
Another Thai NDEr - a woman named Pong - was bitten by a cobra and died.
In the afterlife, she was taken before a judge. The judge informed her that she wasn't supposed to die and it was a clerical error.
Before she returned to her body, Pong was given glimpses of the realms of the dead.
She described the Thai version of Heaven as a peaceful place with birds, flowers, and nice houses. Which all sounds very suburban to me.
Hell, on the other hand, was a smorgasbord of suffering and torture. One torture she highlighted was whipping and flagellation for your sins.
A high-ranking officer in the Thai army, Major General Sanor Jintaraht, reported not one but two NDEs.
After suffering a stroke and slipping into a coma, the Major General found himself walking in a crowd of people dressed in white mourning clothes. White is the traditional funerary color in most Asian cultures.
Shuffling along with the white-clad procession, he found himself in one of the 14 Hell realms - this one filled with skeletons.
Suddenly, a woman appeared.
She gave him his favorite food, which he gladly accepted. When he said he was thirsty, she told him that he couldn't have any water because he hadn't donated water to anyone in life.
He was not entitled to any water in the afterlife. Seems a tad harsh, but hey, that's karma for ya.
He promised that he would be charitable to monks if given a second chance to return to life. After a long walk with the woman, he was returned to his body and regained consciousness.
Whether or not he kept his promise about the water is between him and his afterlife thirst.
His second NDE happened while he was receiving treatment for kidney stones.
He heard a voice telling him that he was dying by a yamatoot (a messenger of death spirit).
The yamatoot told him to lie on a glass plate filled with fragrant yellow flowers so that he could be transported to Heaven.
He was taken to a house in the 7th level of Heaven.
It's worth noting that Buddhistm, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and many other Mesopotamian faiths, believe that there are 7 levels or divisions of Heaven.
Once he reached the gate to the 7th level of Heaven, the servants refused to let him in or give him the key.
His life-ledger had too many sins on record.
The servants then turned into large black giants and towered over him, shutting down any thoughts he might've had about jumping the gate or forcing his way in.
He retreated back to the glass plate and spent a bit more time exploring Heaven before an unknown voice called him back to his body.
Once back in the land of the living, he reported that he'd had some difficulty re-entering his body.
His physical body kept rejecting his soul.
But he eventually managed to get back in by leaping in through his head.
He regained consciousness and went on to live the rest of his life - probably feeling a bit dissed by his body for rejecting his soul the first few times.
Sadly, we don't know if he ever did fulfill his promise of being charitable to monks. Did he ever manage to even out the balance of his karmic ledger?
When it comes to Buddhism and Hinduism, a belief in karma, out-of-body experiences, astral travel, and reincarnation are part of the dogma-package.
But what about religions that reject the idea altogether?
Muslims who experience NDEs may be unwilling to talk about it. NDEs oppose the orthodox teachings of Islam.
People who experience NDEs may be somewhat reluctant for fear of being condemned and branded as heretics.
Islam teaches that after the physical death, there is "soul sleep."
Known as Barzakh and suggestive of a kind of limbo, the "soul sleep" continues until the Day of Resurrection and Judgment - or Yawm ad-Din.
What exactly happens in Barzakh is a mystery.
Islamic scriptures say that the dead cannot experience or perceive the events of the living and the living may not know the status of the departed.
But some believe that certain people are given glimpses of their fate during the Barzakh, a preview of "eternal damnation or bliss."
After noticing a lack of information about Muslim NDEs in Western literature, Psychologist Joel Ibrahim Kreps conducted a survey.
Inspired by the story of a woman he had met in Egypt who had been involved in a serious car accident, he recorded her NDE. She explained she had been lifted up to Heaven and had seen the throne of God.
The throne was inscribed with Laillahah illalah, Muhamadan Rasussululah ("There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His messenger").
Another Muslim woman named Suleman experienced an NDE while suffering from acute necrotizing pancreatitis. She spoke of a "multidimensional place of layered existences."
Suleman reported entering the 6th dimension—near the "Absolute Reality of Divine Light"—where she met a whole host of well known, enlightened beings:
There was Noah, sitting by himself. Moses chilling with Jesus. Krishna hanging out with the Buddha. And the Prophet Muhammad, with the luminescent face of his successor and son-in-law, Ali, projecting out of his body, sitting next to the Virgin Mary. Quite the eclectic meet and greet.
The account by Suleman is considered unusual.
She is an Ismaili Muslim. Her beliefs may have affected her NDE and involved rare or absent elements from orthodox Muslim teachings and Muslim NDE.
When compared to other cultural groups, there are notably fewer Muslim NDEs reported overall.
A survey of survivors of an earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir (a predominantly Muslim region) found no cases of NDEs.
But a similar catastrophic event in China had a much higher statistic.
40% of survivors who suffered near-fatal injury reported NDEs.
China and Japan both have recorded examples of NDEs, dreams, visions, and hallucinations going back well into Medieval times.
One early Taoist tale was recorded around 498BC.
Prince Jianzi of the Chao principality had been on deaths doorstep for a 3 days with an unknown but severe illness.
After recovering he had a rather bizarre story to tell. A story that remains on record to this day.
He told his attendants that he had traveled to the "Emperor of Heaven's residence," where he "wandered around Heaven and enjoyed himself."
He was abruptly "attacked by two bears," which he shot.
This pleased the Emperor of Heaven, who allowed Prince Jianzi to return to his body with his blessing.
Prince Jianzi's experience, recorded by his doctor, was compared to similar, earlier experience by Duke Mu of the Qin dynasty (who, interestingly enough, is the guy who started funerary human sacrifice in China and had 66 people buried with him when he died in 678BC)
It seems that NDEs in Chinese culture were later influenced by the introduction of Pure Land Buddhism, which included visions of Heavens and Hells.
Another recorded NDE was a man named Chao T'ai. Chao died (cause unknown) but suddenly revived 10 days later.
He described his experience of being taken to a city in the East by a group of horsemen.
He was presented to a magistrate, required to confess his sins and transgressions, and then duly appointed as the inspector of Hell's waterworks.
No rest for the wicked, eh?
He witnessed the various punishments the dead endured and gained insight into how to avoid suffering the same fate in the afterlife.
As with the Hindu, Thai, and even some Western reports of NDE - it was eventually discovered that Chao's presence was a bureaucratic oversight. The clerical error was rectified, and he was sent back to the land of the living.
You can't help but notice the common threads that link all the accounts of NDEs across cultures and religions. And it's worth again mentioning that they all fit the categories outlined in Sam Parnia's research:
- Seeing animals or plants
- Bright light
- Violence and persecution
- A sense of deja-vu
- Visiting family or other well-known figures
- Recalling events post-cardiac arrest
22% of the people who report NDE experiences seem to have a pleasant enough experience. They see plants and animals, their family and loved ones, iconic religious or influential people, or being embraced by a warm, inviting light.
"Anyone with a relatively objective mind will agree that this is something that should be investigated further," Parnia once told BBC Future in an interview. "We have the means and the technology. Now it's time to do it."
I'll leave you with one final quote from Parnia's research. A recorded account of an NDE:
"I saw nothingness. Black, long empty, but I had a feeling like everything was great and nothing was wrong at all. Imagine how preexistence felt, much the same as post existence."