Changed In the Blink Of An Eye: Exploring Near Death Experiences and Transformations of Consciousness
August 3rd, 2015
Bill was a mean person, selfish and vindictive. That is, until he died of a heart attack. He was clinically dead for five minutes then resuscitated by the paramedics. Family and friends report that after the incident Bill seems like a completely different person; warm, generous and forgiving.
Carrie was born into an Episcopalian household, however she was not particularly religious. One night in college, during finals week, while on a study break she happened to pick up her roommate’s Bible and read a little bit. In spite of herself she felt an overwhelming loving presence and found herself weeping uncontrollably. The next day she sought out a church. Five years later, she’s a missionary in Ecuador.
James had a relatively carefree youth. He was well read but also loved to party and was open to new experiences and ways of thinking. At a music festival, a friend offered him some “magic mushrooms” and he obliged. It took a while but once the hallucinogenic effects kicked in, James experienced what he describes, with some difficulty, as fundamental shift in his perception of reality. This marked the beginning of an earnest spiritual seeking for him. Two trips to India, a guru tutelage and several books later, James now runs an organization dedicated to spiritual growth and charity.
Many of us know or know of someone who has had an experience similar to one of the stories above. Bill’s near death experience, Carrie’s conversion, and James’ drug-induced mystical experience, the narratives are different but they all have a commonality. These individuals had experiences that altered their previous perceptions of reality and changed them profoundly. The term used to describe such experiences are spiritual transformations.
The Oxford Handbook of Psychology and Spirituality defines spiritual transformation as “a dramatic change in religious belief, attitude and behavior that occurs over a relatively short period of time.” These are altered states of mind different from everyday consciousness with the particularly striking feature of having long-lasting or even permanent effects on the experiencer. They also have an element of transcendence to them, often leaning towards a universal inclusive view.
From mystical experiences that spawned countless religions, to Francis Crick discovering the double helix structure of DNA while on LSD, and numerous art masterpieces, altered states have inspired a great deal of humanity’s greatest scientific, artistic and spiritual achievements. This is a clue that these forms of consciousness are not simply anomalies but may serve practical purposes, yet there is a tendency to dismiss such experiences or view them in a pathological light. In the Oxford Handbook the analogy of classical physics with its Newtonian laws versus quantum physics and its different set of laws is used to describe the discrepancies between ordinary consciousness and altered states. In order to truly understand these phenomena and possibly utilize them, we would need to relax our current assumptions of the workings of the mind.
During my internship here at the Institute of Spirituality and Health, I have been investigating this topic and in the weeks to come, I will present several case studies, draw comparisons and go over some of the most prominent explanations and perspectives of these experiences. I will also discuss the possible implications these experiences may have for humanity as a whole in everyday life and existentially, how we define ourselves in relation to the universe. In these posts I hope to make the case that these transformative experiences are not mere curiosities but potentially powerful catalysts for more meaningful and fulfilling lives for everyone.