NDEs and Shifting Psychic Gravity
the sustained psychological peace that follows a near-death experience
It’s hard to imagine an event more compelling than a near-death experience (NDE). I’m sure you’ve heard tales about those rare few who have ventured to this liminal state, those lucky enough to experience a bright light at the end of a dark tunnel, all while emerging safely to the other side. NDE survivors often report a feeling of profound peace after encountering this nearness to The Divine Light—otherwise known as the ultimate space-time transcendence—through which life’s most profound mysteries can be glimpsed in a moment, however fleeting.
Definitionally, NDEs are “profound psychic experiences commonly occurring in life-threatening conditions.” They seem to take people toward the exact threshold between life and death. There, one enjoys the truly unimaginable gift of being able to observe what it feels like to die without experiencing it straight-on. In other words, when you survive an NDE, you don’t just cheat death; you get to watch life’s greatest mystery play out in real-time.
But what I find most interesting about NDEs is the psychological impact they have on those fortunate enough to survive them. Many people who go on these journeys come back happier and no longer fear death. Much like the psychedelic experience, to the initiate, an NDE can feel even more real than real life. The post-NDE anecdotes are, frankly, mindboggling: completely eradicated fear of death, better sleep, higher self-esteem, lower depression, and a more balanced outlook on life. Also fascinating: NDE survivors are more likely to get divorced and often report enhanced psychic abilities, which makes me think that, maybe, the sexy polyamorous witches on Instagram are onto something.
It's no surprise that NDEs, as phenomena, provide more questions than they do answers. Initially, many neuroscientists believed NDEs were simply a way for the brain to prepare for death, a kind of shut-down procedure playing itself out step-by-step. As the end nears, our brains upload a series of “wishful thinking” software to ease the psyche’s transition into confronting the terror of black nothingness at the end.
Rationalist philosophers also love poking holes into the subjectivity of a reported NDE tale: Isn’t it curious, they might say, that the NDE experience seems to map precisely to one’s cultural upbringing? Or, if you’re a devoted Catholic, aren’t you likely to see Jesus, while a Hindu might encounter Shiva? I myself imagine I’d see Ram Dass or Tupac. As humans we tend to confabulate our experiences, don’t we? Unknowingly, we twist our stories to write the narratives we can live and die with, leaving our mark this way.
This psychic skepticism does not just encompass NDEs, however. For years, materialist philosophers have claimed we don’t even possess the “free will” we assume inherent to the human condition. Freedom, they say is an illusion of an illusion, an abstraction on an abstraction. But the scientific studies that formed the foundation of many of these philosophical arguments have now been debunked.As far as I can tell, the tide seems to be shifting within the neuroscientific community in regard to the “free will” debate. One of Ken Wilber’s greatest contributions to the fields of psychology and philosophy is the claim that interior states of consciousness cannot simply be reduced to exterior modes of measurement. Meaning that if a bunch of people report having a subjective experience like a migraine or a blissed-out Jhana—or an NDE—we must take that at face value.
Here I could cite the handful of neuroscientists, like Dr. Eben Alexadner and Dr. Bruce Greyson, whose studies of NDEs radically converted them from scientific materialists to scientific mystics.From their detailed writings and research, I could tell you about patients who were reported to have flatlined and left their bodies, all while watching themselves travel two floors below to listen to an actual conversation in another hospital room. I could tell you about patients blind from birth who report visual data in their NDE they’ve never experienced before. With each NDE instance, comes another account set on defying the laws of physics, continually stumping even the most ardently empiricist doctors. I could remind you, dear reader, that psychic shit happens all the time.
Would you believe me if I told you that I’ve had an NDE? It wasn’t the dramatic kind where I flatlined on a gurney. It wasn’t the kind where I entered a dark tunnel and saw the White Light. My NDE wasn’t glitzy like that. Mine was the kind when you stumble into bed at 2 am and find yourself completely immobilized. Your wife is sleeping peacefully next to you, she somehow didn’t hear you bumbling about. You are on a mixture of uppers and downers, lefters, righters, and those beautiful horse tranqs too. A dose that would make most human hearts take a screenshot and freeze the hardware, with no restart at hand. So, you try and stay awake, struggling and straining to keep your eyes open. Because you know if you close them, you might not wake the next morning. You can barely breathe. Or maybe you’re not even breathing. You can’t tell. So you stretch and reach for your tin of tobacco with all your might and throw four pouches around your gums, hoping the nicotine buzz will keep you awake. Maybe the tobacco will balance everything, you think. Because that’s a thing that happens. You try to keep your eyes open. But you don’t. You can’t. You gave this life thing your best shot, you tell yourself. Then you just let go and float float float awayyy.
Okay, maybe that sounds a bit dramatic. But, for me, there is this singular instance of watching myself almost die. I was thoroughly convinced that I wouldn’t wake the next morning. It took me many years to understand just how dark these nights were, that they weren’t about getting high in the way I might have assumed. But about ending my life, or at least coming as close as humanly possible, as if testing how such a threshold might distract me from the much deeper pain I didn’t want to face: If you’re never enough and never will be, tempting death becomes an interesting idea. Freud would call this my death drive, positing that humans are driving towards death and destruction, and that “the aim of all life is death.” Our drive for death can be seen as a desire to return to our purest state—to whom we’ve always been or could be. Like returning to the Mother’s womb, there’s a pleasure in returning to an original state, to wholeness, to coming close to the essential nothingness out of which we began. Even if this path is one of destruction, there can be immense pleasure in the pain. One might even dub my death drive a type of “existential kink.”
The result? Even in my earliest days of recovery, amid a yearlong taper and detox, I felt the baseline level of “stasis” I depended on to operate had been raised to new heights. The bad could never be as bad or catastrophic as I’d first deemed it, while what I considered “good” before suddenly had the chance to be even better than what I imagined. Because the bar had been elevated to a new level, for the first time I was able feel emotions—I mean truly, actually feel things—in ways that would not have been possible before my NDE.
This feels like a confession, I think, because it feels a bit duchy to share. I almost died, I experienced profound loss in my life, yet somehow it still radically changed me for the better. As far as I can tell, my psychic center of gravity seems to have fundamentally shifted. This all reminds me of the famous ancient Greek inscription: If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die.
But I am not going to bullet-point list a set of death practices to get you there, because that type of writing would never have resonated with my younger self.Instead, consider this a kind of invitation to believe that sometimes what exists among our most painful, indescribable experiences are the same things capable of transforming us.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes certain unspeakable truths that defy the laws of reality can help you fall into the category of whatrefers to as the possibility of Deep Okayness. It doesn’t mean total self-enlightenment or the eradication of self-doubt, but rather a sense of the ego drifting away from the center of the self to make space for the larger unknown of our universal experience. As Sasha writes: “It’s the intuitive understanding that I am merely one of the apertures through which the universe expresses itself, so why would I hate that?”
With a post-NDE sense of deep okayness, the self becomes a smaller attack surface for your inner critics to terrorize. In my case, this does not mean that I no longer have negative thoughts or difficult emotions. Not at all. Instead, it means that when I do, it’s not about me trying to exert control over the civil war that insists on raging inside my mind and body, but rather this deeper knowing that I possess the power to observe the war happening long enough to bear witness to the possibility for peace.
The debunked studies implied that neurons fire in the brain milliseconds before we consciously make a decision, as reductionist philosophers like Sam Harris often used to cite in his arguments against free will. I wrote a basic overview of the free will debate in one of my very first newsletters years ago.
This podcast episode with Dr. Bruce Greyson is a fun and trippy introduction to his work around NDEs.
The Netflix series The OA explores the NDE blindness phenomenon with glorious creativity. It’s a top-five show for me and my favorite pilot episode of all time.
“Existential kink” isn’t just a cool-ass name, but a book that bridges Jungian notions of the unconscious with tantra and meditation: “a method to get what you want by getting off on what you don’t.” Very fun stuff.
Brian Muraresku explores the secret history of psychedelics and this death inscription in his book The Immortality Key.
But maybe you should indeed try some psychedelic death rituals and find out for yourself :-)
Exceptional writing as always, Alex.
The sort of phenomena you describe via NDE is not unlike the sort of psychological experiences that Jung describes in the process of individuation, or more plainly put, individualized religious experiences. Whether the word "religious" appropriately describes this sort of thing is neither here nor there, but nonetheless they are moments of significant transformation. Experiences that tend to have lifelong impacts on one's life, versus the sort of group-induced religious experience one might undergo at church, or a concert, or a football game. Jung explains the reasoning for this as being because the group experience does not reach nearly as deep into one's unconscious as an individualized experience does. (hence why the church wants you back every Sunday for your healthy dose of indoctrination).
Lastly, I have to give kudos for the use of the famous Greek slogan "If you die before you die, you won’t die when you die." That one always gives me chills.
Thank you for sharing sir.
As coincidence would have it, in my role as an Interfaith Chaplain at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles I recently encountered a patient who shared with me his Near Death Experience. I had first seen the patient when he arrived in the emergency room two weeks prior with a Level 1 Trauma following a motorcycle accident. I remember the trauma team working furiously and the patient was rushed to surgery in the hopes of saving his severely injured legs. Old gunshot wounds were visible on his body, and he was covered in tattoos some of which signified gang involvement. During our most recent visit, the patient shared with me an extraordinary near-death experience that he had in the Emergency Room that night two weeks before. He reflected on the experience of seeing a bright white light and human figures without bodies that he described as “pure spirit”. He recalled very clearly receiving the message that it was simply not his time to die. He then shared with me his powerful commitment to focus outward in love and service to others. He shared his experiences about incarceration and as a gang member and vowed that these experiences would be used to benefit others. It occurred to me that this so-called “white light experience” may well have been caused by the high doses of narcotic pain medication in the trauma bay, and I considered the possibility that this could have been just another way to induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness which allowed this white light experience to occur. Whether this was an induced experience or an actual NDE may be irrelevant because, in either event, the result was a deep personal conversion.