Thursday, June 14, 2007

Lucid Dreams as One Method of Replicating Components Commonly Associated with Near-Death Experiences

Lucid Dreams as One Method of Replicating Components Commonly Associated with Near-Death and Other Ecstatic Experiences

This brings us back to the question of whether it is possible to have the equivalent of a near-death experience without nearly dying. That the answer is “yes” should now be evident. From the point of view of dreaming, death and transcendence are the same thing.

Stephen LaBerge
Lucid Dreaming 
If the most well known of ecstatic episodes is the near-death experience, the most easily accessible method of entering into the ecstatic state for most people is learning to have lucid dreams. As I pointed out in the previous section, entering into ecstatic state consciousness requires that we somehow untether ourselves from our egos. This ego death occurs quite naturally each night.
As we fall asleep our internal dialogue slows down and finally stops. The body relaxes and our senses stop taking in most of the external input from the world around us. During the period of sleep during which dreams occur, almost all of the body’s muscles are not only relaxed, but actually paralyzed. The ego both physically and psychologically has now been effectively neutralized and, not surprisingly, it is during time that we are most likely to experience ecstasy.
      Most people assign dreams to a category of experiences that are less real and, therefore, less important than other experiences that occur during the course of our everyday lives. This is easily done because during dreams we are less conscious than during our normal waking life, and it seems to follow that the dream experiences we have are also less real. But what happens when we have dreams during which we are as fully conscious as we are during normal waking consciousness?
     Ecstasy during sleep most often occurs during a lucid dream. A lucid dream is one in which the dreamer becomes conscious during the dream that he or she is, in fact, dreaming. The person continues to dream, but now fully conscious, is able to intentionally act within the dream in any way they choose, just as in waking life.
     During lucid dreams, one becomes aware that conscious awareness has been taken into a different, higher state of being. The body is unquestionably asleep and in the dream state. But for the individual involved, the experience is that of one’s conscious awareness being located beyond the physical body. During my own lucid dreams, I almost always find myself fully conscious in a dreamscape that appears for all intents and purposes to be real. I also almost always know that my body is somewhere peacefully sleeping, although I can never remember exactly where it is.
     For many years there was a great deal of controversy among sleep and dream researchers about whether it was actually possible to be conscious during the dream state. Many scientists discounted reports of lucid dreams altogether. Many believed these reports were nothing more than episodes during which the sleeper woke up briefly, fell back to sleep and misinterpreted the experience as a "conscious dream.” But there were others who were actually having lucid dreams and, based on their own experience, were convinced that it was possible to be fully conscious within the dream state. It wasn’t until the late 70's, when two researchers, acting independently and unaware of each others work, were able to demonstrate conclusively that it was possible to be dreaming and fully conscious at the same time.
Keith Hearne in England, and Stephen LaBerge in California, both devised what has to be considered a brilliant blend of the best of hard science and consciousness research. LaBerge and Hearne, both accomplished lucid dreamers themselves, realized that to convince skeptical colleagues they would need to demonstrate that they were both dreaming and fully conscious at the same time. To do this, they would need to become lucid and somehow signal from within the dream state, thereby proving that they were conscious, in a manner that could be detected using physiological measurements.
The problem they faced was that most of the body’s muscles are paralyzed during the period of sleep in which dreaming occurs. The eye muscles are one of the few exceptions to this. In fact, it is the rapid back and forth movement of the eyes, called rapid eye movement (or REM), which signals that people are dreaming. Because of this, both LaBerge and Hearne reasoned that it would be possible to become lucid within the dream state and perform a series of predetermined eye movements that could be detected by monitoring devices. They were both able to do this and other researchers have since replicated these experiments with other lucid dreamers. Faced with this evidence, even the most skeptical scientists were forced to accept that lucid dreams are, in fact, conscious dreams, as well as a very interesting altered state of consciousness.

The Transcendental Nature of Lucid Dreams

My own fascination with lucid dreams began while reading LaBerge’s book Lucid Dreaming. In Chapter 10 of Lucid Dreaming, LaBerge discusses the transcendental nature of some lucid dreams:

"The fully lucid dreams we have been discussing are instances of transcendental experiences, experiences in which you go beyond your current level of consciousness. Lucid dreamers (at least during the dream) have gone beyond their former views of themselves and have entered a higher state of consciousness. They have left behind their former way of being in dreams, no longer identifying with the dream characters they play or thinking that the dream world is reality. In this way, fully lucid dreams are transcendental experiences."

LaBerge went on to discuss Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring’s work into NDEs in connection to transcendental lucid dreams and then posed a profound rhetorical question. If NDEs are transcendental experiences that occur at the point of physical death, and if lucid dreams are also transcendental experiences, is it not possible to have the equivalent of an NDE during a lucid dream? LaBerge's own conclusion is that this is, indeed, possible. As I continued to read the literature on lucid dreams, I was amazed to find that almost everyone who studied or experienced lucid dreams had, at one time or another, experienced something which they recognized as being similar to NDEs.
British parapsychologist, Celia Green, in her study of lucid dreams, wrote: “It is not possible to discuss lucid dreams without considering their relationship to another type of experience known as an ‘out-of-the-body experience.’ Experiences of this kind occur in a wide variety of settings, the majority of these being associated with conditions of stress, accident or illness.” She went on to illustrate her point by describing an account of a person who was involved in a traffic accident and reported an OBE. It’s important to remember that she was writing before Moody's work had been published or the term "near-death experience" coined. Because of this, she didn’t distinguish between OBEs that occur spontaneously, or during dreams, and those that would now be considered as one component of an NDE. Regardless, this shows that leading authorities in this field have made the connection between, not just lucid dreams and OBEs, but also between these and NDEs. If these observations are correct, then the possibility exists of utilizing lucid dreams as one method of inducing ecstatic, otherworldly journeys that are similar to NDEs. And there are a number of anecdotes in the literature that clearly demonstrate that this happens spontaneously.
Kenneth Kelzer, author of The Sun and the Shadow: My Experiment with Lucid Dreaming, described aspects of his lucid dreams that took on transcendental qualities. In a lengthy lucid dream he entitled, "The Gift of the Magi,” Kelzer dreamt he was one of the three magi on his way to present gifts to the Christ child. He described following the star for days, visiting Herod's court and finally coming upon the infant Christ. As the dream ended, Kelzer experienced a tremendous rush of emotion that caused him to cry uncontrollably. He seemed to have experienced a remarkable catharsis, one aspect of which was a review or flashback of the entire experience:

In the flashback, the entire journey, in every single detail flashed through my memory in an instant. The absolute pregnancy and fullness of this moment were clear and unmistakable. This complete flashback reminded me of certain descriptive accounts that have been given by people who survived near-death experiences and reported that at the moment in which they realized they were about to die, they saw their entire lifetime rush before them in a single instant. 10

Kelzer made the connection between his lucid dream and NDEs. He then went on to mention that he had been quite skeptical of these accounts prior to his own experience. He questioned how so much material could pass through some one's mind instantaneously. But after this episode in his own lucid dream, he became convinced that “in an altered state of consciousness, such as a lucid dream or a near-death experience, such possibilities are quite real. In this incredible dream moment thousands or perhaps millions of thoughts and memories flooded through my mind as one giant torrent, with each individual image flowing in its proper sequence.” 11
The life review, the telepathic communication with a spiritual figure, the feelings of joy, ecstasy and love and the desire to be one with the light suggest that this experience, if occurring at the point of death, would be considered a moderate to deep NDE. The only difference? Kelzer was safely asleep in his own bed throughout the experience.
Finally, psychologist and veteran lucid dreamer Patricia Garfield has written about how the development of her lucid dreams resulted in ecstatic experiences. In the following quote from her book, Pathway to Ecstasy: The Way of the Dream Mandala, Garfield implies a developmental trend which begins with dreaming, continues with lucid dreams, and ends in OBEs:

"Meanwhile, I had been experiencing yet another level of dream consciousness. More and more I found myself having lucid dreams--dreams in which you become aware that you are dreaming during the dream. In this incredible state, anything becomes possible: flying at will, orgasm with partners of choice, calling forth creative ideas, projecting oneself into distant lands, visiting with long-dead people, and so on. Then after months of lucid dreaming, I found myself automatically, on occasion, experiencing what people call out-of-body experiences." 12
If NDEs are the most well known of ecstatic experiences, lucid dreams are the most easily accessible for most people. Especially for those people who have good dream recall and rich dream lives, lucid dreams may be the most convenient doorway into the transcendental. Dreaming is a naturally occurring event and there are no known dangers or negative effects of learning the skill of lucid dreaming. Most importantly, lucid dreaming has been shown to be a teachable, learnable skill. Anyone who is able to recall his or her dreams and who has sufficient motivation can learn to experience lucid dreams. And my own experience should be of encouragement to those who have little or no personal experience with altered states of consciousness.

Mastering the Art of Lucid Dreaming

I will start by saying that, when I began, I did not consider myself in any way more gifted or talented than the average person in being able to have lucid dreams. In fact, many women who I have worked with have an easier time entering into ecstatic dream states than most men, including myself. (This is actually a very interesting observation in itself that deserves a more thorough discussion and consideration than would be appropriate here. However, I will say that, in general, men’s more rigid ego structure which interfere with their ability to enter into ecstatic states, while women’s ego's are more permeable allowing for easier access).
Regardless, after reading LaBerge’s work, I became determined to learn to have lucid dreams. Besides reading everything I could on the subject, I formed a group of colleagues and friends who expressed an interest in lucid dreams in order to have ongoing support and encouragement. The group met in my office twice monthly for more than five years. Since that time, I have taught lucid dreaming to various groups. What follows is a description of how I was able to master the art of lucid dreaming.

The first step to becoming conscious in your dreams is to become more conscious of your dreams. To do so, it is important to record as completely as possible as many dreams as you can remember. Nonlucid dreams are very fleeting, and if they are not written down immediately they are easily forgotten. In contrast to normal dreams, lucid dreams are much more easily remembered. Many people put a pad of paper and a pencil beside their bed at night and write down their dreams when they awaken. I prefer to keep a tape recorder on the nightstand next to my bed. Each night before going to sleep, I simply record the date and put the tape recorder where I can easily reach it in the dark. I have learned how to turn it on in the dark and I simply record as much of the dream as I remember. The next day I write the dream out in full on my computer. At the end of each year I simply print out my dream journal, have it bound and another year of dreams are neatly documented.
I began recording my dreams nightly and developed excellent dream recall quite quickly. Despite all my efforts, three months passed and I had yet to have my first lucid dream. Going to sleep that night I recall thinking that lucid dreams were just another fascinating state of consciousness that I would read about, but never experience myself. That night I had my first lucid dream.

In it I found myself driving through a neighborhood I lived in as a child. I went through an intersection and a policeman on a motorcycle followed and stopped me. I thought he was going to give me a ticket, but instead he got me out of the car, put me down on the ground and handcuffed me. As he did, he asked me how long it had been since I’d had a speeding ticket. I thought for a moment and realized that it has been more than ten years since I've been ticketed for speeding. At that moment, I realized I must be dreaming. I became so excited when I woke up, which is not uncommon among first time lucid dreamers.
I must point out that my taste of lucidity was preceded by a small, but significant, ego sacrifice. I had put an enormous amount of effort into trying to have a lucid dream. On the same night I gave up the effort, when I concluded I would never experience dream consciousness, it suddenly occurred for the first time. However subtle, the mental attitude of giving up, of dying to the hope that I would have this experience, paradoxically created the necessary conditions for it to occur, and again demonstrated the connection between ego sacrifice and transcendence.
Analyzing the content of the dream is also interesting. A policeman stops me for speeding and, rather than giving me a ticket, handcuffs me and puts me on the ground. Clearly the message here is that I am going too fast and, since that time, I have found that when I am busy I tend to have less lucid dreams. And finally, for whatever reason, being asked the question of when I had my last speeding ticket caused me to self-reflect for a moment. Self-reflection is a very close to self-consciousness and any time we self-reflect within the dream state we are a half-step away from becoming fully conscious.
I have continued to have lucid dreams since than. At times, I have had as many as four in one week. At other times, I have gone more than a month without having any. As I experienced more conscious dreams, and became more familiar and comfortable with this fascinating state, I began to explore and test different scenarios.
Many people begin to experience lucidity as the result of some aspect of the dream that is so strange or different from normal waking consciousness that the dreamer realizes that he or she must be dreaming. For myself, the most obvious example of this is that I almost always fly during lucid dreams, something that I have yet to master in my conscious waking life without the use of an airplane. One night I dreamt that I have just returned from a long voyage. The dream seemed to be set in the eighteenth or nineteenth century and as it unfolded I found myself disembarking from a whaling ship somewhere in New England. I began walking down a dirt road towards a town. As I did, I was holding both hands over my chest, my right hand over my left. Suddenly, I began flying and, as I did, I realized I must be dreaming. I continued flying higher and higher into the sky, completely blinded by a white light. As I reached the highest point, I slowed down and started to plummet back towards earth. I was unable to see anything which scared me and I suddenly woke up.
Many people use what are referred to as dreamsigns to help become conscious. A dreamsign is a reoccurring symbol in one's dreams. For instance, I frequently dream of policemen. Because I know this symbol is likely to occur in my dreams, I can use it as a cue to become lucid. To do so, during my waking life when I see a policeman, I simply ask myself whether I am dreaming. Over a period of time, the questioning becomes automatic and, when the symbol occurs in the dream, I find myself asking whether I’m dreaming.
In another lucid dream, I found myself in my grandfather's house with my younger brother sleeping in a bed next to me. The scene then changed and I found myself on the sidewalk outside of the house. I saw two policemen walking towards me and I asked myself whether I was dreaming. I immediately realized that I was and started flying. As I did, one of them tried to grab me, but I was able to fly through his arm and escape. I seemed to have a number of adventures, and a long time passed, although I cannot recall what occurred. The dream ended when I found myself back in the bedroom where my brother was still sleeping.
Although in this dream I was able to use a dreamsign to become conscious, most of my lucid dreams occur spontaneously. There is what I can only describe as an "opening" in the area of my forehead and I am suddenly lucid. In one dream, I found myself walking onto the lawn of a house on a corner. Everything was very brightly lit and I suddenly felt the opening and became lucid. I began flying in a sitting position about ten feet off the ground. I was having trouble controlling my position and struggled to maintain it. I continued flying at the same height, but was flying fast which frightened me. I tried to slow my speed down. In the distance there was a small hill and on top of the hill what looked like a barn. Finally, I tried to stop my flight and turn around, but in doing so, I lost my lucidity and woke up.
This dream illustrates something I have experienced repeatedly during lucid dreams. Although lucid dreams can be changed or altered, I usually get better results by going with whatever is happening rather than trying to alter the dream too much. Too often, my attempt to change the dream has caused me to lose my lucidity and wake up. On the other hand, I’ve learned that if I set a firm intention to perform a specific action prior to going to sleep, not only am I able to do this, I seem to remember to carry out my intention automatically the next time I become lucid.
After having a number of lucid dreams, I was reviewing my dream journal and realized that I had never spoken to or interacted with another dream figure while lucid. I set a firm intention that the next time I became lucid I would find someone to talk with some one. The following night I dreamt I was on a college campus. I became lucid and began flying above the campus when I remembered my intention to interact with another dream figure. I flew back down, walked over to a bench and sat down next to a man. I waited for a moment and then turned to him and asked if he knew we were dreaming. Without looking at me he rather nonchalantly said that he was “unconvinced that this is a dream.”
Many people who have lucid dreams comment on how real they are. I’ve had dreams that seemed so real it didn't occur to me to test whether or not I was dreaming. For instance, one night I was staying in a hotel in San Francisco while attending a workshop. In the bathroom was a urinal, and in front of the urinal, a wall. That night I dreamt that I was standing at the urinal and as I looked up, I saw the most beautiful full moon through a window. I was awestruck by the beauty of the scene and it occurred to me that I hadn’t realized that it was a full moon which, in fact, it was at the time. The next morning I woke up and for a moment I thought there actually was a window in the bathroom. However, I quickly realized that I had been dreaming, had failed to realize it and had lost a chance to become lucid.
This type of dream is called a false awakening. A false awakening is simply a dream in which one dreams they have awoken. Only later, when they actually do wake up, do they realize they were only dreaming of being awake. False awakenings are probably best understood as a type of prelucid state in which the dreamer has some level of awareness, but lacks complete consciousness. For anyone learning the art of lucid dreaming, having a false awakening is clearly a sign you’re making progress. My experience has been that false awakenings often occur on the night prior to my having a lucid dream, and if I have a false awakening, I redouble my efforts to have a lucid dream the following night.
Since my father’s death in August, 1995, I have had a series of lucid dreams in which we were together. Although my father and I had few major areas of disagreement, when he died there was one issue on which we had not achieved complete closure. Because of the personal nature of the issue I won't say more about the specifics, although I will say it involved a feeling on my part that he had never forgiven me for doing something he felt was wrong. A few days after his funeral I had the following dream:

I am with Dad and we are very high up. He tells me he knows I feel badly about this particular issue and that it is all right. I start crying uncontrollably. Suddenly, I find myself farther down, closer to Earth and, although there is some distance between us, we still are communicating. I tell him that he knows exactly what I need.

In a somewhat similar dream, my first image was of a man who was lighting a haystack on fire. I immediately thought that this was wrong when suddenly:

The scene changes and I am out in space looking back down at the earth. My entire family is with me: my deceased father, my mother, three brothers and sister (alll of whom were alive at the time) are all there. We are not in physical form. Rather, we are all what I can only describe as presences hovering out in space looking back down at the earth. I feel my father’s presence to my right. We are looking for points of light like the fire made by the man who lit the haystack on fire. Gradually, I see a number of lights far down on the earth. Then we all slowly float down to earth and land in a place that is very familiar to me, although I don’t recognize it in ordinary reality. I slowly wake up.

Shape-shifting is a term used by students and practitioners of shamanism to describe the experience of changing form usually into that of an animal. This occurs in shamanic trance states but it also occurs spontaneously during lucid dreams. The following dream is one in which I experienced myself as a bird:

I dream I am flying over a desert area when I suddenly become fully conscious. I am aware I am traveling south or southwest in the dream approximately 20 to 30 feet off the ground. At one point, I suddenly dive to the ground and pick up what seems to be a small insect in my mouth. This seems strange and I realize this must be what it is like to be a bird. I continue flying for a long time and finally land in what appears to be the outskirts of a small Mexican town. I change form into a man and walk down the main street. It is nighttime, although everything is lit up by a soft luminous light. There are some men standing around as I walk to the end of the street. I return to the main street and walk to where I first landed and immediately take off flying in the direction from which I came. As I do, I again change form into a bird and the dream slowly fades.

As Patricia Garfield pointed out, after having a number of lucid dreams, many people report having OBEs during the sleep state. This has certainly been my own experience. Eighteen months after having my first lucid dream, I had a series of dreams in which the legs and the trunk of my body were floating in the air detached from the rest of my body. This occurred three or four times when one night I had the following dream:

I become lucid and I am in my bed with most of my body detached like in the other dreams I have recently had. I think to myself that I can "project" at any time. In the next moment, I become interested in something going on in the next room. Suddenly, I detach from my physical body at the head. I let out an audible groan as I do and there seems to be some pain involved, although I don’t actually experience any pain. I slowly float over to the door and through it. I am in a house I don't recognize. I look to my right and there are two people embracing and kissing on a couch. As I look at them, they both turn quickly to look at me and I realize one is my younger brother. I turn to my left and my older brother is sitting at a small kitchen table. He is smoking a cigarette, lets out a puff of smoke and says something about a baseball--he wants to play baseball with me. I float by him and into a kitchen area. There are some women sitting at a table playing cards. Next, I find myself in a hallway. At the end of the hallway I see two women walk into a room together. Now I am standing in a doorway leading to a bathroom. As I stand there I am thinking that for years I have heard accounts of out-of-body experiences and now, for the first time, I am having my own conscious out-of-body experience. The dream slowly fades and I wake up.

Although I identified this as an OBE while in the dream, most of the content of the experience had the quality of a lucid dream. Nevertheless, following this I began having episodes during the dream state which were clearly different than typical lucid dreams. There is a distinct qualitative difference between many lucid dreams and OBEs which occur during the sleep state, and it is clear that lucid dreams are a prelude to OBEs. In fact, there is a natural progression that begins with dreams, continues with lucid dreams, proceeds to OBEs, and finally to transcendental OBEs, which is precisely what an NDE is. I have also noted in many people I work with a progression from having OBEs during sleep to having them from the waking state.

The following dream occurred shortly after the one described above:

I feel myself rising vertically out of my body, going through the wall of my bedroom and out into the night sky. As I do, I become fully conscious. I look towards the horizon and see light as if it is dusk or dawn. I say to myself that I want that to be my destination. As soon as I say this, I feel myself flying through the air in the general direction of the horizon. I can feel the wind going by and I am quite high up off the ground--maybe 100 feet. The next thing I know, I am hovering above what looks like a school building. There are people standing outside and suddenly a man looks up at me and says that next time I should remember to wear a shirt. I am so startled by his comment I wake up.

In the dream discussed above, I was aware of having a dreambody. In the following one, I experienced myself as simply consciousness in space:

I become lucid and I am trying to roll out of my body the way Robert Monroe suggests in his books. I seem to be half way out, but get stuck and can’t get the rest of the way out. I roll back into my body and then roll out again and this time I am successful. I rise up into the night sky and am fairly high--maybe 100 feet above the ground. I don’t have any dreambody. I am just a presence in space. A cloud floats by and I can feel its density. I am amazed at how much substance it has. I remain in this state for a few minutes and then feel myself slowly going down, back into my body.

Many people experience a vibration during sleep. For those who are interested in having an OBE, an excellent recommendation is to simply imagine yourself somewhere else in your home when you feel this vibration. Quite often people suddenly find themselves in the exact location they had mentally envisioned moments before.
The first few times I felt this vibration it was strong and somewhat frightening. Over a period of time, the vibrations have softened and I now experience them as a gentle, hum-like feeling. One night I became lucid, felt the vibration and I tried to lift out of my body. I began lifting out when suddenly I felt a hand on my right shoulder. The hand firmly pushed me down, back into my body and I heard a woman’s voice say very distinctly, “You will fly.” I strained to turn around and see who was talking to me, but couldn’t and soon woke up. The next night I had a non-lucid dream of flying with another person. The following dream is also one which began with a feeling of vibration:

In the dream I become lucid and realize that the vibration is running through my body. I consciously allow more of its energy to move through my body and suddenly, I realize I have let too much in. I then find myself standing next to my bed. I look back at where my body is lying and see a figure, although it doesn’t look like my body. I become frightened and dive towards my body. A few seconds go by and I wake up.

Both of these dreams occurred on a night when I had used the technique of interrupting my sleep cycle which many people have found useful in inducing lucid dreams and OBEs. I awoke at about three o’clock in the morning, stayed awake for two hours and then went back to sleep. In doing so, I missed a cycle of dreaming which would have normally occurred if I had been asleep during those two hours. When I went back to sleep, my body made up for this loss by having a longer period of dreaming, which allowed for a greater possibility of becoming lucid or having an OBE.
As one drifts into sleep, they sometimes experiences imsgaes which are called hypnogogic images. Other people become aware of flashes of light, geometric figures, even complete images of people’s faces, rooms or fields. This happens quite often during daytime naps and is an excellent method of inducing lucid dreams. To do so, one should become aware of the imagery and then focus as intently as possible on one specific area within the field of imagery. What often happens is that as one continues to remain conscious and focuses on the imagery, the body falls asleep and you find yourself awake within the vision that seconds before you had been looking at. The following dream illustrates this:

I am focusing very intently on the hypnogogic image, focusing more and more on a smaller area and then suddenly I am floating free of my body. I float around the room for a moment and then I go directly through the roof of the house and marvel at how easy it is to do so. I them remember my intention to go to the upper world and meet my spirit guide, but I find myself back in my body.

Most of my recent work with lucid dreams has had to do with the issue of fear and death. Logically, if one is dreaming, there is nothing to be afraid of and any fear can be faced with complete confidence. After all, it’s only a dream and if anything goes wrong you can always wake up. On the other hand, many of our fears are deeply ingrained and it takes time to overcome them, even within the dream state. And clearly our deepest fear is the fear of death. In the following dream, my fear of death was brought up and, at least within the dream, partially overcome:

I find myself driving through Malibu Canyon toward the beach. As I drive, I notice that the walls of the canyon seem to be crumbling. I come to a sharp hairpin turn and as I do, suddenly I am no longer in a car. I find myself looking over the edge of a cliff into utter vastness. At the same moment I fall and I realize that I am falling to my death. I am gripped with terror, but in the next moment I realize that I am dreaming and I will myself to open completely to the experience. Still very frightened, I try to turn my fall into flying, which I often do in lucid dreams. As I do, I feel myself losing the lucidity and I awaken.
During a typical lucid dream, I know that I am dreaming and that my body is laying in bed asleep. At times that I cannot remember exactly where I am sleeping, but I always know I am dreaming and that my body is comfortably asleep somewhere. However, one night almost two years after my first lucid dream, I had the following experience which was unlike anything I have ever had before or since:

I suddenly become conscious and I am sitting on a bench in what seems to be New Orleans. People are walking past and the thought occurs to me that I have died. As I sit there wondering how one would verify this, a man in a wheelchair rolls up beside me. I ask him if we are dead and he says yes we are dead. I am astonished, but not sad or scared in any way. Suddenly the whole thing seems absurd and funny to me. I laugh and slap my knee. I tell him I can't remember being sick or being in an accident or anything like that. In fact, I can't recall anything at all about my life, although my sense of myself remains the same as always.
It seems to be early evening and there are people walking by. After a while, I turn to the man in the wheelchair and ask, "Doesn't your guardian angel come to get you when you die?" He says something to the effect that this is usually the case. Apparently my guardian angel is not coming to get me, so I begin flying. I am aware that I am traveling in a southernly direction, flying over the tops of trees
and in the distance, between the trees, I see a brilliant light which I think is an airport. As I am flying, I have a thought monentarily frightens me and I suddenly wake up.

When I awoke I was astonished, not because of the dream itself, but because I was alive! The complete discontinuity between this experience and my daily life was amazing to me. While experiencing it, there was no doubt in my mind that I had, in fact, died. Not only had I died, I almost immediately accepted my new state and was off on my first adventure. I had the distinct impression that I was in a different reality for a period of time, and it was only the momentary thought, and the associated fear, that kept me from my destination which was a light; a light that I took (or mistook) to be an airport.
I will end this artile with a dream during which, in a sense, my guardian angel did show up, because in the following lucid dream, I experienced what I can only describe as an angelic being:

I become lucid while lying in bed and find a young man with attractive Middle Eastern features kneeling next to my bed. I can see his face very plainly. He has very fine features, young, handsome and dark. He says that he traces his lineage back to the time of Christ, 16 generations. I ask him if Christ had ever lived in Paris and he says no, that he had traveled as far as modern day Iraq. I am aware that he has been teaching me for a long time before I became conscious. He then says, “No one comes to God or Jesus except through the Bible.” I say that I have my Bible right there next to my bed. (There is an open Bible on my nightstand in ordinary reality which I had been reading before falling asleep. In the dream on top of it is another book which is white and appears to have no writing in it). He then turns towards me and there is a orange/yellow light that leavces from his forehead and flows into mine. I can feel a vibration as this light/energy enters my forehad. We keep talking and then he seems to go around to the other side of my bed. I become afraid at this point because I can’t see him. As if reacting to my fear, he then appears at the foot of my bed, but as a ball of yellow/orange light. I thank him and as I do he drops out of the light, again takes on his angelic form and walks out of my room.


I have included just a few of the hundreds of lucid dreams I’ve had over the last six years. It’s difficult to accurately convey in words exactly what the effect has been on me to have these experiences. Before I began having lucid dreams, I was someone who was interested in these experiences from a theoretical standpoint. Since having them, I have become one of the millions of people who has experienced ecstasy directly and, in doing so, have proven to my own satisfaction that consciousness can, and does, exist independent of the physical body. The last six years have been, for me, a time of wonderful adventure that formerly was beyond my wildest imagination and it all began with learning to have lucid dreams. Maybe the best way to sum up the effect of these experiences is my answer to a question I was recently asked. My teacher asked a group of us how training in shamanism had changed our lives. I immediately knew that, for myself, all the experiences of ecstasy I have experienced over the past few years have taught me one thing; I now believe that anything, literally anything, is possible. And that is a belief that will open a number of doors that appear closed to many people.
When you consider the fact that lucid dreamers are able to continue working, raising a family and living quite normal lives; that the total investment in time and energy is to read the literature on lucid dreams, attend a two-hour group twice a month and faithfully record their dreams, there is really only one conclusion that can be drawn: having profound ecstatic experiences during the dream state is not at all difficult for many people.

The Near-Death Experience as a Shamanic Initiation: A Case Study

This article was originally published in The Journal of Near-Death Studies and later in Shamanism: The Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

The Near-Death Experience as a Shamanic Initiation: A Case Study

Mary was a woman who consulted me following a near-death experience (NDE). Her most pressing problem when she entered treatment was that she no longer wanted to live. She wasn't suicidal in the typical sense; she just didn't want to be alive in this realm any longer. Like so many other people who have NDEs, Mary had gone into a light during her experience, a light that had been so attractive that she desperately wanted to return to it. She was convinced that if she could somehow die physically, she would find herself very much alive within that light with its perfect peace, love and acceptance. As will be clear from the following account, little else seemed to matter to her at that time.
During our first few sessions, I was able to help Mary by validating her experience and assuring her that she wasn't crazy. I told her of others whom I knew who had undergone similar experiences and suggested she read books that dealt with difficulties people have following NDEs. I was able to arrange for her to speak to another woman who had a deep NDE. She later told me that this was one of the most helpful things for her during this difficult period of adjustment. The following is the account of her initial NDE:

I was driving to an appointment and I remember seeing the sign at the Coco's restaurant and all of a sudden I was flying down this really big dark, black tunnel. I could see this white light at the end. I was thinking that the tunnel was really scary, but for some reason because the light was there it made me feel everything was going to be O.K. I remember I couldn't wait until I got to that light. Something about it seemed like it was really wonderful. Anyway, I got to it and I went right into it. After I was in it, I started noticing other lights around and they all looked the same, but they were people. I could feel that they loved me, and then all of a sudden, I looked at one of the lights, and I knew it was Frank Myers. He said, "It's not your time and you need to go back." I just said, "O.K." The next thing I knew, I felt myself rushing back through the tunnel.
Prior to her NDE, Mary had known a man named Frank Myers who worked in the office of her veterinarian. The two had become friends, in part, because they shared a love for a particular breed of dog: whippets. At that time, Frank and his wife had a whippet named Pistachio and Mary had become very attached to the dog. Because the veterinarian's office was only a few blocks from her office, Mary would go over and walk the dog during her lunch hour almost every day.
Some time later Frank and his wife moved into an apartment and couldn’t take Pistachio with them. The dog was ten years old, somewhat feeble and they needed to find a home for it. Knowing that she and her husband had whippets, they asked Mary if she would take the dog. By this time Mary had become so attached to the dog that she immediately agreed and went down and got Pistachio the same day.
In 1989, Frank was diagnosed with leukemia after a prolonged bout of fatigue. He began a course of radiation treatments that he found very unpleasant. He went into remission, but one day over lunch, he told Mary that if the leukemia reoccurred he would refuse further treatment and simply let nature take its course. The leukemia did reoccur and Frank died approximately nine months later. This was the same Frank Myers that Mary met during her initial experience and who, as we will see shortly, was to become such a significant part of her life from that time until her death. We continue with Mary's account at the point where she has returned to her body at the scene of the accident:

Then the next thing I felt was the left side of my head and it hurt really bad. I felt like I was leaning over in my car practically into the passenger's side of the car. My body was half way between both seats and the pain in my head was so terrible, it hurt so much, that I felt like I left my body again, only this time I didn't go through the tunnel, I went right into the light. When I went into the light there were all of these lights again. And there was a big light or the major light--I don't know what you would call it--God or Jesus, but it was definitely a higher being that has something to do with why we are all here. Anyway, I went back into it and there were all of these people and they were all letting me know that they loved me and one of the lights I knew was Frank Myers. I just started talking to him and he said, "Well, you're going to have to go back because this is not part of the plan." And I said, "Oh no, I'm not going back. I did that last time and my head hurt really bad and I don't want that pain." I felt like we were walking around or moving around over there. The more that we moved around it seemed like there were more of these lights that were beings and they were letting me know that they loved me. And I could hear the most beautiful music. It was absolutely beautiful. I have never heard music like that on this earth. And so then Frank said, "Well, you really do need to go back." And I said, "No, I don't know what's happening here, but I am not going back."

To this point in her experience, Mary's account corresponds in almost every detail to what other NDErs report. She finds herself leaving her body, being propelled down a dark tunnel-like area, sees a light, enters into the light, hears celestial music and sees other spiritual presences, one of which she identifies as God or Jesus. Mary also sees and communicates with a deceased friend who tells her it’s not her time and that she must return. Although the first time she doesn't resist, the second time she is adamant that she does not want to return because of the pain in her body. At his point she is shown all of the prayers that she had prayed up until that time in her life and she suddenly realizes she must go back.
While many people who have NDEs report a panoramic replay of their entire lives, Mary saw not her life but all of the prayers she has ever prayed. After viewing these prayers she remembered something that caused her to agree to return to earthly life.
Mary later told me that what she saw was her spiritual self prior to birth. She realized that not only had she agreed to enter physical reality, but that she had participated in the decision about what her life would be like, what goals she would attempt to attain, what lessons she would try to learn. She now sees life as a sort of "school for the spirit.” We take on physical form to come here to learn specific lessons, or to achieve specific goals, and then we return to the spiritual realm. This belief is quite common among people who have had deep NDEs. After Mary agreed to return, she again found herself in her body and at the scene of the accident. She was then transported to a local emergency room. I continue with her account from the point where she finds herself in the hospital:

The next thing I knew I started lifting up. My head down to my waist started lifting up out of my body and I looked around and that's the first glimpse I got of the hospital. But I didn't know what it was. I thought, "Well, this is really weird. Where am I?" In my mind, I still thought I had to get to the Coco's sign to get back to the light and I thought, "This is really strange." So all of a sudden, when I thought I was trying to get off of the bed, the rest of my body came out and I found myself floating around on the ceiling in what must have been the emergency room. I was looking down and all of these doctors and nurses were running around and I thought "Why are these people acting this way?" As I looked at it, I had this terrible feeling. I thought, "Oh my God! This is so much stress and so overwhelming, how could they stand this?" Then I thought, "I've got to find the Coco's sign," and that's when I started floating around in the hospital. I could just go through walls. I went into this room and there was this lady lying in this bed. She had short dark hair and it was kind of curly and she had dark colored skin. She had blood coming out of her nose and she had her eyes closed and all of these doctors were doing all of this work on her, sticking things down her mouth. They were moving around in there really fast. One of the doctors came into the room and said that some s.o.b. had just mowed her down. There was a nurse and she said, "She's a goner." I was looking at this and I still didn't realize I was in a hospital. Then all of a sudden I felt this presence up at the ceiling with me. I guess you could call it a spirit or soul. It was looking down at the body also. We were looking at the body together and after a while this presence disappeared. It just sort of floated off and went away. I heard the doctor down below just say, "That's it, she's gone."
The next thing I thought was that I had to get to the Coco's sign to get back to the light and find out what was going on. So I went back to the area where they have all of the beds and they have curtains marking off where the beds are. I just started flying through the curtains as fast as I could thinking I've got to find my body. I was really frantic. All of these thoughts were happening at the same time. Somehow, I remembered that the doctor who was treating me had these really thick glasses and I thought, "O.K., I'll have to find this man and then I'll know that's my body.” All of a sudden, I saw this doctor with the thick glasses and there was this body lying on the bed. So I felt like I went into my body through my head. All of a sudden I opened my eyes and there was the doctor with the thick glasses.

Mary was released from the hospital into the care of her husband the night of the accident. If her account ended at this point, I would be quite impressed. She has described an NDE that is entirely consistent with hundreds of others that I have heard and thousands that other researchers have documented. Her account also includes almost all of the components are commonly associated with NDEs.
But in a sense, this is only the beginning of Mary’s story. Since her NDE, she has been in almost daily contact with her deceased friend Frank Myers, who has become something of a guardian angel or spirit guide for her. True to his word, he has helped her on numerous occasions with both physical and psychological problems. Although he often comes to her during sleep, a number of times she has seen and interacted with him while fully conscious. The first time this happened was just a few days after the accident. Mary was resting at home when:

I decided to walk down stairs and here was this light, like a form, but the feet didn't touch the ground. It scared me. Then all of a sudden it became a person and it was Frank and he had clothes on like humans have but his feet still didn't touch the stairs. I said, "Oh, I'm glad it's you." I said I'd been trying to get back to that Coco's sign and find that light and I have no idea what was happening. I said, "You've got to help me explain something to these people." I was totally conscious when this happened. When he was on the steps he had a little dog named Teddy and I said to him, "What are you doing with Teddy, that's Gary's dog?" I said, "Oh my God, is Teddy with you?" He said that he was and he looked so happy. I could see Teddy licking Frank's face. I said, "This is really unbelievable." I asked him why he didn't have Pistachio with him. He said that Teddy and he worked real well together. He has had Teddy ever since he has been coming to see me. I said, "I just want to go with you." So I begged Frank to take me and he told me to remember that I am part of the plan and I must stay here for the time being. Then he smiled and he said, "We'll come back when you are ready." I started crying and threw a fit.
It was at this same time that I had recognized the overlap between shamanism and NDEs and I was working my way through the contemporary literature on shamanism. Shamans often work with spirit helpers or teachers, and clearly Frank Myers was taking on the role of a spirit teacher for Mary. In shamanic cultures, the spirit teacher has a special relationship with the shaman. The shaman can call upon the spirit teacher to ask questions, for help with problems, or for healings. Although the shaman is said to be in control of his or her spirit teacher in the sense that they are in direct and ongoing contact with them, spirit teachers display an unmistakable independence and distinct existence from the shaman, something that has been apparent throughout Frank's relationship with Mary. But shamans also often work with what they refer to as power animals, the spirits of animals that help and guide them in their journeys into the shamanic realm. Here a woman walks into my office, who clearly had no prior knowledge of shamanism, who not only was in contact with a spirit teacher, but the teacher had a spirit animal with him!
Mary would almost always walk into my office, sit down and say, "Well you wouldn't believe what happened this week." She would then proceed to tell me about fascinating things that were occurring to her on almost a daily basis. This went on for months, and for the entire time I saw her, I looked forward to our next appointment simply because that hour was often the highlight of my week.
I was so amazed by the obvious shamanic themes spontaneously occurring I asked Mary if she was familiar with shamanism. She told me that the first time she heard the term was when
another psychologist, who was treating her with conventional methods, had mentioned it while listening to her account. She asked him what the term meant and he told her to look it up in the dictionary, which she later did. At this point, I also briefly explained shamanism to her.

Central to shamanism is what is referred to as the shamanic journey. During these journeys, the shaman will enter into the spiritual or shamanic realm and travel, often to distant places. Frank would often simply appear to Mary, usually in a dream, but one in which she is conscious and he would take her on journeys. Mary's descriptions of these journeys are quite similar to accounts of lucid dreams or OBEs. Initially, Mary was somewhat frightened of these journeys, fearing she would get lost and not be able to find her way back to her physical body. Frank assured her that this would not happen and repeatedly admonished her against being too serious. Below she discusses a journey that took them deep into the ocean:

One time we went down into the Pacific ocean. We were flying deep down. He was showing me these barrels of stuff that our government dumped there. They had bad things in them and he showed me all these barrels. He said that this was really bad and that it had to stop because it was making things out of balance and that mankind will be really sorry. I asked if it would make us extinct and he said no, but we are going to have a real rough time. I felt like we were swimming on the floor of the ocean not too far from Japan and we went all the way past close to Australia. It seemed like we went really fast. When the trip was over we came back and sure enough I could recognize my house and I came back down through the ceiling and got back in bed.

This concern about the earth and maintaining balance in nature is a theme often heard in shamanism. During another journey Mary reported being in nature and communicating with animals, another time honored shamanic theme, because it is the shaman alone who is said to be able to communicate with animals:

Another time we went up to Lake Arrowhead and they have these big trees and I was at the top of these trees and touching these acorns and flying around and communicating with these birds that were perched on these trees. I could feel their happiness and how delighted they were to have these big trees. It was just really a neat feeling. We were talking about how beautiful it was; the birds in the trees and how blue the sky was, just how magnificent it was.

Following her accident, Mary had difficulty sleeping. One aspect of this has been a recurrent nightmare of running through a hospital with doctors and armed guards chasing her. In the nightmare, Mary would find herself running down corridors and hiding under beds, only to be discovered and having to continue running. These dreams caused her to wake up repeatedly throughout the night and she had difficulty going back to sleep. Again, Frank intervened on her behalf:

I would run out and find another bed to hide under and I was just really panicked and scared. I kept thinking they were going to hurt me. Then all of a sudden, and this has happened numerous times, Frank Myers would appear and snap his fingers and they would disappear. When they would disappear he would smile at me and say, "Come on, let's go for a walk,” or sometimes he'd say, "Let's go have fun." I would tell him that I felt like I just didn't belong here, I don't fit in anymore and I think I lived past my time of dying. Maybe somebody made a mistake. I just wanted to die. He'd say no, that the plan was perfect and there was no way a mistake could be made. He told me I had to trust that he knew what he was talking about. He told me not to worry, that he would help me. And I said, "Well, I can't keep having these nightmares, they're scaring me and making me tired all day." He explained that whenever I had one he would always be there to help me. He said, "I made them go away this time, didn’t I?" I smiled and said yes and then I would find myself begging him to please let me come over there. At one point I was so desperate I said, "Did I do something wrong, is that why I have to stay here?" He said, "No, it's not about that, it's just that it isn't your time to go and you have something else to do." He always tells me, "Don't worry, life is short. Life is the blink of an eye." He said that although we over here have a tendency to believe in time and space, there really isn't any time or space.
At one point, Mary consulted a psychiatrist because of her sleep disturbance. He gave her a prescription for a commonly used sleeping pill. Because he was very specific about the instructions for it’s use, Mary realized that if she took all 25 pills at once, it might be a lethal dose. When she got home, she took the pills out of the container and lined them up on the counter. She was deciding whether or not to leave her husband a suicide note when:

Suddenly something really strange came over me. It was like a feeling in my heart. Something told me or made me look into the mirror, like I was being guided to do this. It was a very strange feeling. I looked in the mirror and there was Frank Myers and all of my whippets that had died. He was still holding Teddy and he had the lady who raised me with him. She looked younger than she was when she died. I was just sitting there and I was so flabbergasted seeing this in a mirror. But somehow it gave me the feeling that everything was O.K. The really horrible feeling I had before this went away. I guess you'd call this a vision. I really don't know what to call these things. By the time all of this happened I was just so thrilled to see all of my dogs, and the lady who raised me was saying, "I am with you too, you don't have to worry." After that I even felt better physically. I didn't feel so much pain in my body when it was over. So I just threw all the pills away and forgot about attempting suicide.
On another occasion, Mary was sitting in her bedroom when her dog alerted her to a similar event:

Another time my dog got up on the little bench that I sit on in my dressing area and she started pawing and whimpering and trying to put her paw on the mirror. I could see her and I wondered what she was doing. I'd never seen her act that way before. Finally, I walked out and I looked in the mirror and there was Frank. I said, "I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe that my dog can see this." The dog was still whimpering and batting at the mirror the whole time. Frank was just smiling, like he was visiting.

Mary's experience of seeing deceased friends in a mirror is similar to a type of divination work that is often practiced in shamanism. Quartz crystals are used in many shamanic traditions throughout the world to see and communicate with spirits or to divine messages or information.
Mary had a friend named Gary who also liked dogs. In fact, Teddy, the dog that accompanied Frank on his visits to Mary, had been Gary's dog. One night Frank gave Mary specific instructions that turned out to be quite helpful to Gary. In the dream Frank told Mary to tell Gary about her experiences, but Mary said she couldn't do that." Frank told her to tell Gary about the NDE and she said, "No, I might lose his friendship." He said, "I want you to tell him about Teddy." He said, "It is time to do this and you have to tell him about the NDE and tell him that Teddy is O.K." Mary woke up the next morning and thought, "Do I dare?" She called Gary and said, "I have a story to tell you that has been happening for a year and I don't know how you are going to take this." He said, "I can take a lot of things." I said, "No, this is something that's really wild."
I started telling him the story from the NDE to the point when Frank kept coming to me and had Teddy with him. He was silent for a long time and then he said, "Is Teddy O.K.?" I said, "He's wonderful, he's so happy, he's just such a happy little guy." Then he started crying. I asked him why he was crying. I thought it was because of Teddy. Then he told me that he was crying because his aunt had died that morning at about 3:00 o'clock. He had been up all morning crying and was upset because he was very close to her. He told me that I had no idea how much this telephone call meant to him, how much better it made him feel.
Mary is fortunate to have a husband who seems to be able to take all this in stride. Many people who have deep NDEs find that the changes that occur are very difficult for their family and friends to accept or deal with. His attitude towards the whole continuing saga of Mary's experiences is probably best summed up by the following anecdote.
At one point, Mary was given instructions by Frank to tell her husband's uncle that it was important that he, the uncle, contact his son. The two had been estranged for a number of years and Frank's message was that now was the time to reestablish communication and a relationship. Mary was somewhat reluctant to act on this message, but not so her husband. He got on the phone with his uncle, gave him the message and added one of his own. He told his uncle that he’d better do this, and not even question him about it, because he had "personal access to a guardian angel." The uncle called his son.
Mary's husband has also been able to independently verify things she has told me. For instance, while writing this account, Mary told me the following story. More than a year ago she had been having chronic pain and a chiropractor had loaned her a Tens unit, a small electrical device used to help relieve chronic pain. Mary lost the unit and tried to find it a number of times without success. She felt badly about not being able to find and return the device and she discussed the matter with her husband on more than one occasion. Finally, she told him that she felt the only thing she could do was to pay the chiropractor for the missing unit.
That night Frank came to Mary in a dream and they discussed a number of matters. Frank then mentioned he was aware Mary had been upset about the missing Tens unit and said he would help her find it. He told her it was in a box in the garage. Mary said that the garage was filled with boxes and that she would never be able to find it. Frank told her that this box was green and she would be able to find it the next morning. Mary then said, "But what if I forget this dream?" Frank told her that when she got up in the morning she would not remember the dream, but when she took her first sip of coffee it would come back to her.
The next morning Mary got up and, just as Frank had said, the moment she took her first sip of coffee, the entire dream came back to her. She went into the garage and found a green box with the missing Tens unit inside. I spoke to her husband the same day and he verified that she had indeed found the Tens unit which had been missing, by his own recollection, for more than a year.
At times, Frank has been able to be of help in more important matters. At one point during her recovery, Mary developed a chronic lung infection. Her physician tried a number of different antibiotics but none was effective for any period of time. The infection was exacerbated by the fact that Mary had smoked for over 20 years and had no intention of trying to give up a habit she felt she had little control over. One night, Frank came to her and told her he was going to help her quit smoking. The next day, Mary woke up, went through her regular morning routine, which included drinking several cups of coffee, and then left for work. When she arrived at work it suddenly dawned on her that she had simply forgotten to smoke a cigarette, something she usually did with her first cup of coffee in the morning. Realizing this, she decided she would just continue her day and see how long she could go without smoking. She made it through the first day without any discomfort. Not only has she not smoked since, she has never even craved a cigarette, which is truly remarkable, especially now that we know how terribly addictive nicotine is.
Mary has also shown many of the positive changes in personality so often seen in those who have deep NDEs:

Even with people who seem to do really ugly or mean things, I have this really calm feeling about it like they are just on their own path. We are all on our own path. Even two people who are married are not on the same path. You each have your separate path. Before this happened I just thought of myself as my husband's wife and a bookkeeper. I never even thought of myself as being a real spirit and having my own path. I feel like my mind is way out here just thinking and learning things and having thoughts about things that I never thought about in my life. I almost feel like every minute of my life something new comes up in my thoughts. I feel like I've just now been born.

The inability to return to an exclusive identification with social roles and identities, and the understanding that one is, in reality, a spiritual being, may be the most basic and fundamental change that occurs following a deep NDE. It manifests itself in a number of different ways, but most especially, in a more compassionate feeling towards others:

I feel like things in the physical sense don't matter much unless it is somebody or something’s feelings. I feel like I tolerate people better, even people who would say something ugly. I just say to myself that is the path they are on and that just happens to be where they are on their path. They just don't know, so I feel very compassionate about it.

There is also a less materialistic and more relaxed attitude towards life in general:

Before I used to go to Nordstroms three times a week and then I would come home and work until two o'clock in the morning and my life was like living in the fast lane. Every minute was filled with something and not enough time to do it. Now I feel really relaxed and I just feel like so what about things. What's going to happen is going to happen anyway so why get upset about it?
I had stayed in contact with Mary throughout the years usually by telephone. I had not spoken to her in several months when one Saturday evening, I decided to call her. The following Monday I received a call from her husband who told me that Mary had died. Her lung infection had reocurred and she had died as a result of it. I offered my condolences and we reminsiced about Mary for a few minutes. I then asked him what time she had died. He told me she died at 5:20 p.m. on Saturday evening. Later that month I received my phone bill and I looked at the call I had placed to her house. After not speaking for months Mary, I had called her at within minutes of her death for no apparent reason.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Near-Death Experiences, Shamanism and the Scientific Method

This article first appeared in the Journal of Near-Death Experiences in 1998. It was reprinted in the publication Shamanism, the Biannual journal for the Foundation of Shamanic Studies.


Nevertheless, the shaman remains the dominating figure; for through the whole region in which the ecstatic experience is considered the religious experience par excellence, the shaman, and he alone, is the great master of ecstasy.

Mircea Eliade 1

Psychologists up to this point have generally avoided contact with shamanism. . . . But once they open the door experimentally and start going inside that other dimension to explore and map the territory, it is really going to be an extraordinary and revolutionary development.

Michael Harner 2

This article discusses what is clearly the highest form of ecstasy, that which is found in shamanism. Shamanism is the most advanced form of ecstasy because it is the shaman who has become, in the words of a late professor of religious studies, Mircea Eliade, “a master of ecstasy.” That is, the shaman one who has learned to enter into the ecstatic state at will and with intention. There are strong connections between shamanism and the other ecstatic experiences and the connection between NDEs and shamanism may be the clearest of all. In answer to the question of whether an NDE is similar to a shamanic journey, Michael Harner, the man widely recognized as the leading authority on crosscultural shamanism in the world stated: “Yes. The shaman's journey starts with an experience of going through a tunnel of some kind, usually with a light at the end, and this is very similar to descriptions of the so-called near-death experience. But the shaman goes all the way through the tunnel and explores the world into which it opens at the end, the world that people feel themselves passing into at the time of death.” 3
Shamans also experience the ecstatic nature of this realm. Harner says that new shamans often cry “tears of ecstasy” during and shortly after their experiences and “talk with mutual understanding to people who have had near-death experiences.” 4 Although students and practitioners of shamanism have been quick to understand and comment on the connection between their own field and modern research into NDEs, the same cannot be said for those in the area of near-death studies. Only Kenneth Ring 5, and more recently I, 6,7 have written in more than a passing comment about the overlap between NDEs and shamanism. Ring notes that the NDE is a shamanic experience "whether or not the NDEr realizes it." 8 He even goes so far as to describe NDErs as "modern day shamans." 9 However, he carefully qualifies this statement by saying that the NDE is an initial excursion into the shamanic realm and does not impart full status as a shaman on the individual.
Nevertheless, his point is accurate. The NDEr has briefly and unexpectedly entered into the same realm that the shaman has learned, sometimes through great effort and over many years, to be able to enter at will and for a specific purpose. While the NDEr has visited this realm, he does not always have the ability to reenter it at will. The shaman's experience often, although not always, begins with a close brush with death. Following the shaman's initial excursions into this realm, he or she then becomes an apprentice to a master shaman. The young initiate is then taught all of the techniques that comprise the art of shamanism.
I have suggested that the possibility exists of developing a methodology of inducing direct spiritual, transcendental experiences that could be used therapeutically. We now come full circle and find that, not only is this possible, but precisely this has been the art of the shaman for centuries.


Shamanism is the most ancient of spiritual traditions and has been shown to have influenced the mystical wing of most major religions. It is also a method healing that is believed to be at least thirty thousand years old. Although all but stamped out in “advanced” cultures, shamanism has been an important part of many tribal and preliterate cultures throughout history and continues to be to this day. Despite cultural differences, as well as vast geographical and time differences, many of the basic practices and techniques which comprise shamanism are amazingly similar crossculturally. As anthropologists fanned out throughout the globe during the last two centuries, they were often surprised to find quite similar religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in cultural groups that were known to have had no contact for thousands of years, if ever. The question this raised was why would groups of people who were so different in so many other ways develop spiritual beliefs and practices which were so strikingly similar? The most convincing answer is that in all of these cultures people were experiencing similar ecstatic states, and because the beliefs and practices were based on these experiences, those practices and beliefs were also similar.
The master shaman is a medicine man, a soul doctor, who has acquired a great deal of knowledge and information about ancient techniques of healing a variety of physical, psychological and spiritual problems. Through their long apprenticeship, the shaman learns a number of healing techniques that they use in helping members of his community. Although there are a number of different types of practitioners, a person is generally not recognized as a shaman unless he or she engages in the shamanic journey or soul flight.

The Shamanic Journey

During a shamanic journey, the shaman enters into an altered state of consciousness and wills himself to have an OBE. While out-of-body, the shaman travels to one of three different realms for a specific purpose. During the journey, the shaman will do one of three basic things: either he will contact one of his helping spirits to gather useful information for his client, he will find a missing aspect of the patient's spirit and encourage it to return with him, or he will extract or take out a spiritual intrusion that has penetrated the patient and is causing disease or discomfort.
Through repeated journeys, the shaman becomes familiar with both the geography and the inhabitants of these different realms. While doing so, he enlists the aid of helping spirits, often in the form of animals, who assist the shaman in learning the various methods of curing illnesses.
Shamanic cosmology describes three different but interpenetrating realms of existence usually referred to as the lower world, the middle world and the upper world. Shamans believe that these worlds are populated by spirits that are accessible to people at death or in an altered state of consciousness. By actively entering into the world of spirits and interacting with them, the shaman enlists their aid and instruction in how to help care for the lives of the people who come to them for help. The shaman’s interaction with these spirits constitutes on ongoing relationship with them. From the shamanic perspective all things are thought to be endowed with spirit: animals, plants, even minerals possess a spiritual essence and it is the shaman who has the ability to communicate directly with these spiritual entities.

Shamanic View of Illness

In the shaman's view, many illnesses are the result of being literally dis-spirited; that is, either the person's spirit has left their body and not returned, or the individual has lost the aid of one of their helping spirits. In either case, the shaman will undertake a shamanic journey in order to find and bring back the missing spirit. If the shaman is successful in doing this, the patient should then be relieved of their symptoms and restored to health.
The shaman is also a psychopomp, a conductor of souls between this world and the world of the dead. Shamans believe that people who have recently died, especially under sudden circumstances, are often confused and disoriented in the afterlife. The shaman enters the ecstatic state, travels into nonordinary reality, finds the wandering soul and helps direct it to where it can find help.
The shaman is also a see-er; that is, one who engages in divination to see into the future in order to help those in his community. This is often done with the help of a quartz crystal. The shaman will stare into the quartz while focusing his intention on a particular question and "see" the answer within the rock.
Dreams also play a major part in shamanism. The shaman believes that there are two different types of dreams: ordinary dreams and nonordinary dreams which are also known as "big dreams.” Harner describes a big dream as a "dream that is so vivid that it is like being awake, an unusually powerful dream.” 10 (italics added). This comes very close to the definition of a lucid dream. Transpersonal psychiatrist, Roger Walsh has also commented on the connection between shamanic journeys and lucid dreaming: “Perhaps the closest experience to shamanic journeys that most of us have had is lucid dreaming. These are dreams in which we know that we are dreaming. Here too there is partial control of the state and experience. Strange worlds and scenes seem to arise spontaneously, but we are usually able to control our responses to them and, if we wish, to awaken from the dream at any time. The shaman's control during journeys is similar, and lucid dreams may well have provided inspiration for early shamanic journeys.” 11
Harner comments on this altered, heightened consciousness which he refers to as shamanic state consciousness (SSC): “In the SSC, the shaman typically experiences an ineffable joy in what he sees, an awe of the beautiful and mysterious worlds that open before him. His experiences are like dreams, but waking ones that feel real and in which he can control his actions and direct his adventures. While in the SSC, he is often amazed by the reality of that which is presented.” 12

Shamanism is, then, basically an applied therapeutic methodology. It is, however, a methodology based on a different, expanded view of reality and dependent upon the practitioner's ability to enter into this altered state of consciousness and successfully execute his or her task. And one thing is clear: people who have had a deep NDE, or have learned to repeatedly enter into other ecstatic experiences, are excellent candidates for further training in shamanism. While many people who seek out shamanic training undergo difficult, even dangerous initiations, in the case of the NDEr, the worst has already happened! The NDEr has died, been to the other side and returned. And they often return expressing a deep desire to enter into the helping professions. What better way to express this than by building on their experience and training to become a shaman, training now is available in the Western world.

Western Shamanism and the Work of Michael Harner

Michael Harner is an anthropologist by training who, since the death of Mircea Eliade, is considered the leading authority in the world on shamanism. Harner is more than an armchair authority on the subject, having himself been initiated into shamanism while conducting field work among the Conibo Indians in the Upper Amazon.
It is interesting to note how Harner himself was initiated into the world of shamanism. While living among the Conibo, Harner's ethnographic fieldwork was progressing well. However, he found the Conibo reluctant to discuss their religious beliefs. After repeatedly questioning them about their spiritual views, he was told that in order to learn about their religion he would have to experience it first hand by taking ayahuasca, a powerful psychoactive substance used in their religious ceremonies.
Harner agreed to undergo the initiation and the ceremony started late in the afternoon. As the drug began to take affect, Harner had a number of visions, one of which was of a large vessel with a dragon-head prow filled with figures which looked like ancient Egyptian depictions of birdmen. Harner wrote that at that moment, "Although I believed myself to be an atheist, I was completely certain that I was dying and that the birdmen had come to take my soul away on the boat." Later in the experience he relates that:

"Now I was virtually certain I was about to die. As I tried to accept my fate, an even lower portion of my brain began to transmit more visions and information. I was 'told' that this new material was being presented to me because I was dying and therefore 'safe' to receive these revelations. These were secrets reserved for the dying and the dead, I was informed." 13

Again we find the overlap between the ecstatic experience and the theme of death, Harner's being a psychedelically induced ego death, rather than a physical death. Since his first initiation, Harner has worked in other shamanic traditions and discovered that, although powerful psychoactive substances are used in some cultures, most do not use these substances. Many Westerners can easily learn to journey by using sustained drumming, rattling, singing and dancing in order to gain access to the shamanic realm.
Harner has been very instrumental in making shamanic techniques widely available to Westerners. Through his workshops he has exposed thousands of Westerners to these ancient techniques. He reports that over 90 percent of his students have some success with shamanic techniques even after brief exposure. Many people report their journey experiences are very real in nature and easily distinguishable from fantasy or imagination. And although some people have more innate talent, Harner maintains that anyone can learn to enter into the shamanic realm with practice.
Harner teaches what he refers to as core shamanism, which is his own distillation of the basic techniques practiced by shamans the world over. He differentiates between what he refers to as Ordinary State Consciousness (OSC) and Shamanic State Consciousness (SSC). While OSC is the consensual reality that most of us share, the shaman is also able to enter into SSC which puts him or her in touch with the shamanic realm.

Soul Loss, Soul Retrieval

Sandra Ingerman is one of Harner's closest colleagues, and an accomplished shaman in her own right. And Ingerman is not only a shaman; she is also an NDEr. Below she discusses her own NDE and how it impacted the development of her shamanic skills:

"Traditionally shamans have been people who have had a near-death experience, life threatening illness, or a psychotic break. In my case, I almost drowned, and this near-death experience showed me the way to the other side. Many survivors of near-death experiences report going to a great blinding light that pulsates only love. In my own near-death experience in 1971, I too, was received by the light. For me, this light represented the Father and Mother God. I started thinking about God's being pure light. The Bible says that God created man in his own image. What that means to me, then, is that we are really balls of light. I started to experience myself as being light surrounded by matter, the body. We are a body; we have a mind; and we have this beautiful light that shines in us that is Spirit, which connects us to the divine." 14

Author of the books Soul Retrieval 15 and Welcome Home, 16 Ingerman discusses her work as a modern shaman helping those who suffer from soul loss. Soul loss in our culture is often the result of traumatic events such as incest, abuse, loss of a loved one, surgery, accident, illness, miscarriage, abortion, the stress of combat, addiction, verbal abuse, or divorce. Although the accepted treatment for most of these disorders is psychotherapy, Ingerman points out that from a shamanic perspective, psychotherapy cannot be effective if the aspect of the personality we are addressing is not present.
In retrieving a soul, the shaman's task is to enter into nonordinary reality and first locate the soul. Once the soul has been located, the shaman must then convince it to return to ordinary reality and reintegrate with the individual involved.
Ingerman discusses the case of a man named David who came to her for a shamanic healing. He was in a very poor physical condition at the time, with Epstein-Barr virus as well as a number of other infections. He mentioned that just prior to his becoming sick, his girlfriend, whose name was Suzanne, had committed suicide. This alerted Ingerman to the possibility that this might be a case of not just soul loss, but soul stealing. The following is also an excellent example of psychopompic work, during which the shaman helps the deceased soul become better situated in the afterlife. As Ingerman enters into the shamanic trance using sustained drumming:

"I repeat my intention to focus myself. As I walk, I come to a tree where I see David tied by a rope around the trunk. He looks very forlorn and spiritually beaten. His head hangs down, and his soul shows no vitality. I don't like what I see, and I feel sensations of deep anger in my solar plexus. I yell out in nonordinary reality for my power animal to come and help me. No sooner do I call than he appears. He is just in time! Suddenly a woman jumps out from behind the tree where she is hiding and lunges at me with her imposing nails aimed at my face. My power animal steps in front of me, creating a force field around us that she can't break through. She repeatedly lunges at the field in anger but keeps being thrown backward into the leaves. Finally, when she is exhausted, we carefully let the field down and walk close to her. She bursts into tears and begins sobbing. She is Suzanne." 17

Ingerman asks the woman whether she knows that she is dead, and she answers yes. Ingerman tells Suzanne that she can help her move to a more comfortable place, but in order to do so, she will have to agree to release David's soul. She refuses. Ingerman then turns to her power animal for help and is told to keep the conversation going:

"David is dying back in ordinary reality, because you are keeping his soul captive. 'That's good, she replies. 'I want him to die, so he can keep me company here. I want him to stay with me forever.'" 18

Although the shaman is able to intervene, she is not able to impose her will on others. Ingerman now has to convince the woman to release the soul:

"I reach into my pocket and pull out a quartz crystal and hand it to her. She loves the sparkling light, which starts to whirl around and through her. She obviously is soaking it up. 'I can take you to a place where the light shines all the time and will take care of you.' She asks, 'How do I get there?' 'Give me back David's soul, and I'll take you there.' Suzanne looks at the crystal and then at David and then at me. Seconds go by that seem like hours, and finally she agrees to release David. I untie David from the tree. He slides to the ground, lying still; his breathing is shallow. I leave him there in the care of my power animal. I put my arm around Suzanne's and we float upward. We continue to move up and out of this place and travel through space, surrounded by planets and stars. Suddenly we come to a skin membrane, which we break through. Our pace quickens as we continue to rise, going through layer upon layer of clouds. In the distance there is a blinding light. I know I can go no further. 'Suzanne, go to the light.' At this point I push her up, watching her disappear into the all-encompassing golden rays." 19

After returning with the soul parts, the shaman will then blow them back into the client's body and seal in the parts by rattling around the person. In his case, David felt an immediate rush, his eyes brightened, and his physical condition gradually improved. Ingerman reports that he continues to enjoy good health to this day.

Shamanic Extractions

Often shamanic healings call for the extraction of some foreign object or element from the body. Shamanic practitioner Larry Peters 20 has written about an extraction he performed while in the country of Tuva, where he was traveling as part of an expedition for Michael Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies. One evening the exhibition members, who were all shamanic practitioners, were invited to a gathering. When they arrived, they were quickly ushered on to a stage where a man with a serious heart condition had been brought. The man was so ill that he had come directly from his hospital bed to be seen by the visiting shamans. As the group stood in a circle around the man, Peters describes his experience:

"Our group began drumming quickly, each singing our own spirit song softly. After possibly ten to fifteen minutes of intense drumming, Gajandra (his teacher) appeared to me in a vision. He came out of the sky as a thunderbolt that struck my heart. I found it difficult to breathe. My body began to shake, first my belly, then the rest of my body. The rattle in my hand moved with nervous energy. I wanted to shout "Stop!" But I was overwhelmed and couldn't stop. My whole body was shaking. Gajandra had penetrated into my being, into my body. In the vision, I heard Gajandra say, 'Get up, get up, get up.'" Tears flowed from my eyes, as I saw in the vision a golden nugget emanating light, first in the sky above. Then I was standing outside myself, observing myself, and the golden light was now encircling my head, now in my heart, now surrounding my body. I heard bells ringing on my feet, and I saw myself dancing. I was witnessing a person who looked like me. Was that me dancing? Then I looked down on the circle of drummers, and I watched myself dancing for a long time, circling the patient and the drummers." 19

This is an excellent description of the ecstatic nature of the shamanic experience. Ten to fifteen minutes into the drumming and singing, Peters has left his body and is witnessing the scene from above. When he returns to his body, he finds himself transformed:

"I'm not exactly sure how I returned to my body, but I became aware I was kneeling next to the patient, clawing at black poisonous spiders and other insects I saw crawling in his veins. I saw large wasps with huge stingers in his heart. I growled and hissed as I jumped at the insects. I thought to myself, 'I'm behaving like a tiger.' Suddenly I was an orange, black, and white tiger with large saber fangs--the tiger Gajandra had taught me to be, the tiger that bites and sucks flesh at healing ceremonies. I bit and sucked out the insects. I felt their sharpness inside my mouth, then spit them out. There were so many I thought I'd never get them all. I sucked the man's back. I bit and sucked his sides and rolled his body over. Saliva covered my face as I growled and bared my teeth. Picking up his shirt, I went straight for his heart.
At the time, I didn't know how long I had worked on the man. As I shape-shifted back into ordinary reality and fell back into my seat in the circle of drummers, I was exhausted. Sweat was pouring from me. I felt dazed and unbalanced. I remember feeling out of time, and I kept
holding onto my colleagues for reassurance. The patient was visibly shaken. His hands and body continued to tremor as he was hurriedly escorted back to the hospital ambulance that brought him." 20

Although Peters was deeply concerned, he later learned that the man's condition had improved dramatically. In fact, when he visited with the man and his family a week later, he was vibrant, smiling and joking and embracing his wife. He sat tall and said he felt no pain. It was as if he were another person and he talked about going back to work. He had developed a passion for life, had changed diet and stopped drinking alcohol. 2

Active Dreaming

Another dramatic healing comes from the work of Robert Moss. Moss, the author of Conscious Dreaming 22 and Dreamgates, 23 described the experience of a woman named Wanda who was a natural healer and who had worked with Moss for several years. Over a period of twenty years Wanda had a recurring dream during which she was told that she would die at age forty-three. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at age forty-three. The cancer was thought to be spreading quickly and she underwent a modified radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. During and following the chemotherapy, she was having a very difficult time. Moss journeyed on her behalf:

"One night in a hypnogogic dream state, I journeyed to check on her. I found her in a night setting, near a cave that was also a temple. A circle of women were performing a ritual nearby, but Wanda was not part of it. She was frozen, paralyzed in terror of some shadowy, snakelike forms that menaced her on all sides. I grabbed two of the 'snakes' and wound them into the form of a caduceus. Instantly, the healing staff came brilliantly alight in my hand. It radiated intense golden light. I touched Wanda with it. She promptly vanished." 24

Wanda later told Moss that she had also had a dream that night, a dream in which he had 'flooded her with light.' Following the dream she also felt buoyant and released from the malaise of the past weeks. Apparently, this dream energized Wanda and prepared her for a dream that she had on the night before her forty-fourth birthday, a dream that Moss writes quite literally, gave her a new lease on life." Wanda dreamt:

"I am climbing to the top of a mountain where an awesome presence is waiting for me. I know that this powerful being sent the messenger who told me I had to leave Earth. It moves like waves of light. It conveys its wishes and emotions by thought. I am terrified, but I never back away. The entity reminds me that I agreed before I came to this planet that I would leave at forty-three. I acknowledge this is true. I am shown a contract with my signature on it. I argue that this contract should not be executed. I tell the entity that I didn't want to come here when I made the contract. But now I have people that I love and people I believe I can help to heal, because of my own experiences. I tell him, 'You must know this, because you allowed me to discover my illness through dreams before my time was spent.'
There is a time lapse. It seems like an eternity. Then I am presented with a new contract. I am given more time to help others." 25

Awakening from this dream, Wanda found herself trembling and crying with joy. Later, she told Moss that the dream was unlike any she had ever had before because she was both awake and asleep at the same time.

Shamanism and Mental Health

Shamanic techniques have also been applied with a great deal of success in mental health. Psychotherapist and shamanic pracitioner Myron Eshowsky was supervising an intern who brought to his attention the case of a woman who was being treated for chronic schizophrenia. The patient was hearing voices, had attempted suicide a number of times and had been repeatedly in and out of psychiatric hospitals. She had been tried on a number of medications, all without lasting benefit. Also pertinent to the woman's history was that she often reported hearing the voice of her son who had been killed tragically some years prior to her becoming ill. Eshowsky told the woman's therapist he was going to try an experiment and would inform her when he had completed it. The therapist was then to report back to him if she noticed any significant change in the woman's clinical status. Below Eschowsky describes his journey on the woman’s behalf:

"I journeyed to see if the young boy's soul had not yet left the Middle World. I found him in the house where he had lived, calling for his mommy. He was quite frightened and I spent much time calming him down. He told me many details of what had happened (details previously unknown to me, which I later was able to confirm). Then doing psychopomp work, I was able to help his soul leave the Middle World. The results were staggering. My student reported that her client, by all parties' reports, had stopped talking to or about her son. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from her and she had awakened. The suicide gestures stopped and over time she was able to live in a group home and work part-time in competitive employment. With counseling, she began to grieve the loss of her son." 27

For those of us involved in the treatment of the chronically mentally ill, this is nothing less than incredible. Chronic schizophrenics are assumed to be, and in most cases are, suffering from a brain disorder. The standard treatment for someone like the woman Eshowsky describes includes major tranquilizers, supportive psychotherapy and often requires psychiatric hospitalization when the patient's symptoms or behavior becomes unmanageable.
All of this is expensive, time consuming and, in reality, not very effective. For example, the major tranquilizers are medications which help relieve the symptoms, such as hearing voices, but do nothing to alleviate the real problem. And because they have unpleasant side effects, many patients refuse or discontinue using them. (In fact, an additional medication has to be taken to counteract the side effects of the primary medication.) Supportive psychotherapy is just that--it is designed to help the person deal with what is assumed to be a chronic illness, but does nothing to help overcome the illness itself, which is assumed to be incurable. I don't point this out to be critical of my own profession or others involved in mental health. For someone who has a degenerative brain disorder, this is simply the best treatment we have to offer at this time.
However, what has become increasingly clear is that a subset of those diagnosed as schizophrenic are not suffering from a brain disorder. Rather, they are going through a spiritual emergency, a crisis which is spiritual in nature but is often misdiagnosed as schizophrenia or another psychotic condition. The fact that this is actually the case is beginning to be acknowledged within the field of mental health as we are becoming more sophisticated in differentiating between true psychosis and spiritual emergency.
Looking at this case in retrospect, and including a shamanic perspective, an intellectually honest reappraisal suggests that this woman was not schizophrenic, but was actually hearing the voice of her dead son who was trapped in the Middle World and unable to move on. Because she was never provided with a shamanic intervention, prior to Eshowsky's involvement, she endured many years of suffering which would have been unnecessary if she had been provided with treatment at the level of her disorder--the spiritual level. I can't help but wonder how many people, like Eshowsky's patient, and patients I see every day, would benefit from shamanic interventions. If even ten percent of the chronically mentally ill-many of whom make up our homeless population--responded to shamanic interventions, we are talking about millions of people who can be helped.