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.