Dr. Raymond Moody only recently coined the term “Near-Death Experience” in the 1970s, but the NDE phenomenon has a long-standing history with documented examples going back thousands of years. Like OBEs, NDEs appear to be a universal phenomenon. They are described at length in both the eighth-century Tibetan Book of the Dead and the 2,500 year-old Egyptian Book of the Dead.
In Book X of The Republic, Plato recounted the story of a Greek soldier named Er who died on the battlefield and came back to life almost ten days later just as his body was about to be incinerated. Er awoke with a start and began describing what he had seen on the other side. He said his soul left his physical body and joined with a group of other spirits who led him upwards through a “passage way” (tunnel?) to the afterlife. There the other souls were taken by divine light beings and shown detailed life reviews. Er himself was shown many sights, but not his life review, and was ultimately sent back and told to inform others on Earth about what he experienced in the afterlife realm. Amazingly this two and a half thousand year old story sounds exactly like modern NDE accounts.
“According to Plato, the soul comes into the physical body from a higher and more divine realm of being., For him it is birth which is the sleeping and the forgetting, since the soul, in being born into the body, goes from a state of great awareness to a much less conscious one and in the meantime forgets the truths it knew while in its previous out-of-body state. Death, by implication, is an awakening and remembering. Plato remarks that the soul that has been separated from the body upon death can think and reason even more clearly than before, and that it can recognize things in their true nature far more readily. Furthermore, soon after death it faces a ‘judgment’ in which a divine being displays before the soul all the things - both good and bad - which it has done in its life and makes the soul face them.” –Dr. Raymond Moody, “Life After Life” (46)
Plato’s mentor Socrates’ belief in the afterlife was so strong that he actually looked forward to his own death with curiosity and excitement. Socrates said that death was simply the separation of soul from body and an awakening from “illusion to reality,” this 5-sense world being the illusion, and “reality” existing on the higher non-physical planes. This is consistent also with the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead which suggest that immediately following death we assume a “ka” or “bardo” spiritual body which transcends the ordinary limitations of time, space, and matter.
“In the Tibetan account the mind or soul of the dying person departs from the body. At some time thereafter his soul enters a ‘swoon’ and he finds himself in a void - not a physical void, but one which is, in effect, subject to its own kind of limits, and one in which his consciousness still exists. He may hear alarming and disturbing noises and sounds, described as roaring, thundering, and whistling noises, like the wind, and usually finds himself and his surroundings enveloped in a grey, misty illumination. He is surprised to find himself out of his physical body. He sees and hears his relatives and friends mourning over his body and preparing it for the funeral and yet when he tries to respond to them they neither hear nor see him. He does not yet realize that he is dead, and he is confused. He asks himself whether he is dead or not, and, when he finally realizes that he is, wonders where he should go or what he should do. A great regret comes over him, and he is depressed about his state. For a while he remains near the places with which he has been familiar while in physical life. He notices that he is still in a body-called the ‘shining’ body - which does not appear to consist of material substance. Thus, he can go through rocks, walls, and even mountains without encountering any resistance. Travel is almost instantaneous. Wherever he wishes to be, he arrives there in only a moment. His thought and perception are less limited; his mind becomes very lucid and his senses seem more keen and more perfect and closer in nature to the divine. If he has been in physical life blind or deaf or crippled, he is surprised to find that in his ‘shining’ body all his senses, as well as all the powers of his physical body, have been restored and intensified. He may encounter other beings in the same kind of body, and may meet what is called a clear or pure light. The Tibetans counsel the dying one approaching this light to try to have only love and compassion towards others. The book also describes the feelings of immense peace and contentment which the dying one experiences, and also a kind of ‘mirror’ in which his entire life, all deeds both good and bad, are reflected for both him and the beings judging him to see vividly. In this situation, there can be no misrepresentation; lying about one's life is impossible. In short, even though The Tibetan Book of the Dead includes many later stages of death which none of my subjects have gone so far as to experience, it is quite obvious that there is a striking similarity between the account in this ancient manuscript and the events which have been related to me by twentieth-century Americans.” –Dr. Raymond Moody, “Life After Life” (48)
The Bible also contains stories of typical near-death experiences such as Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul was a persecutor of Christians until receiving his famous vision and conversion. Acts 26 describes how Paul saw a “light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me.” He then heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him asking “why persecutest thou me?” The voice then tells Paul that he has appeared to him for a purpose, to make him a minister and a witness of God.
“This episode obviously bears some resemblance to the encounter with the being of light in near death experiences. First of all, the being is endowed with personality, though no physical form is seen, and a ‘voice’ which asks a question and issues instructions emanates from it. When Paul tries to' tell others, he is mocked and labeled as ‘insane.’ Nonetheless, the vision changed the course of his life: He henceforth became the leading proponent of Christianity as a way of life, entailing love of others.” –Dr. Raymond Moody, “Life After Life” (44)
1 Corinthians 15 gets even more specific regarding the life after death state. It is asked “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” to which it is answered that there are both terrestrial bodies and celestial bodies, natural bodies and spiritual bodies. In death, the scripture says “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye … the dead shall be raised incorruptible.”
“Interestingly, Paul's brief sketch of the nature of the ‘spiritual body’ corresponds very well with the accounts of those who have found themselves out of their bodies. In all cases, the immateriality of the spiritual body - its lack of physical substance - is stressed, as are its lack of limitations. Paul says, for example, that whereas the physical body was weak and ugly, the spiritual body will be strong and beautiful. This reminds one of the account of a near-death experience in which the spiritual body seemed whole and complete even when the physical body could be seen to be mutilated, and of another in which the spiritual body seemed to be of no particular age, i.e., not limited by time.” –Dr. Raymond Moody, “Life After Life” (44-5)
In 1688, the “Leonardo da Vinci of his era,” Swedish mystic Swedenborg was born. He spoke nine languages and was a successful mathematician, politician, astronomer and businessman. He built watches and microscopes, invented prototypes for the submarine and airplane, and wrote books on diverse subjects ranging from physics and chemistry to color theory and metallurgy.
“Throughout all of this he also meditated regularly, and when he reached middle age, developed the ability to enter deep trances during which he left his body and visited what appeared to him to be heaven and conversed with ‘angels’ and ‘spirits.’ That Swedenborg was experiencing something profound during these journeys, there can be no doubt. He became so famous for this ability that the queen of Sweden asked him to find out why her deceased brother had neglected to respond to a letter she had sent him before his death. Swedenborg promised to consult the deceased and the next day returned with a message which the queen confessed contained information only she and her dead brother knew. Swedenborg performed this service several times for various individuals who sought his help, and on another occasion told a widow where to find a secret compartment in her deceased husband’s desk in which she found some desperately needed documents. So well known was this latter incident that it inspired the German philosopher Immanuel Kant to write an entire book on Swedenborg entitled Dreams of a Spirit-Seer.” -Michael Talbot, “The Holographic Universe” (257-8)
Swedenborg’s descriptions of his out of body experiences in the afterlife realm, just like Plato’s, the Bible’s, and the Egyptian/Tibetan Books of the Dead all closely parallel descriptions given by modern day near-death experiencers. He mentions going through a tunnel, being greeted by telepathic loving angels, seeing landscapes more beautiful than earth, and being subjected to an extensive life review. All in all, Swedenborg wrote nearly 20 volumes about his out of body experiences. On his deathbed Swedenborg was asked if there was anything he wanted to recant, to which he replied, “Everything that I have written is as true as you now behold me. I might have said much more had it been permitted to me. After death you will see all, and then we shall have much to say to each other on the subject.”
“How is it, we might well ask ourselves, that the wisdom of Tibetan sages, the theology and visions of Paul, the strange insights and myths of Plato, and the spiritual revelations of Swedenborg all agree so well, both among themselves and with the narratives of contemporary individuals who have come as close as anyone alive to the state of death?” –Dr. Raymond Moody, “Life After Life” (50)
Shamans the world over throughout history have spoken of visiting the “spirit world” or “after-life realm” regularly, conversing with sentient entities and deceased souls, then bringing visions and messages back to the living tribesmen. They believe that in the other realm one possesses a subtle body, it is populated by many spiritual teachers, and it is a world created by the thoughts and imaginations of many people. Amazonian shamans use the psychedelic brew Ayahuasca to transport them into this realm. The Persian Sufis enter a deep trancelike meditation in order to visit this “land where spirits dwell.” And the Australian aboriginals regularly enter this realm during group meditations called “dream-time.”
“The picture of reality reported by NDEers is remarkably self-consistent and is corroborated by the testimony of many of the world’s most talented mystics as well. Even more astonishing is that as breathtaking and foreign as these subtler levels of reality are to those of us who reside in the world’s more ‘advanced’ cultures, they are mundane and familiar territories to so-called primitive peoples. For example, Dr. E. Nandisvara Nayake Thero, an anthropologist who has lived with and studied a community of aborigines in Australia, points out that the aboriginal concept of the ‘dreamtime,’ a realm that Australian shamans visit by entering a profound trance, is almost identical to the afterlife planes of existence described in Western sources. It is the realm where human spirits go after death, and once there a shaman can converse with the dead and instantly access all knowledge. It is also a dimension in which time, space, and the other boundaries of earthly life cease to exist and one must learn to deal with infinity. Because of this, Australian shamans often refer to the afterlife as ‘survival in infinity.’” -Michael Talbot, “The Holographic Universe” (265-6)
Virtually all of the world’s shamanic traditions describe a spirit world or alternate dimension reached during states of altered consciousness which they maintain is where souls travel after physical death. Shamans are experts at navigating these inner realms and they regularly use deep meditation, ecstatic dance, ingestion of entheogens and other methods of shifting consciousness in order to enter them. In many tribes the pre-requisite to becoming a shaman is having a near-death experience! The Seneca, the Sioux, the Yakut, the Zulu, the Kikuyu, the Guajiro, the Mu Dang, the Eskimos and many other tribal societies all have traditions of shamans assuming the role after a life-threatening illness brings them face-to-face with the afterlife spirit world.
“Most non-Western cultures have religious and philosophical systems, cosmologies, ritual practices, and certain elements of social organization that make it easier for their members to accept and experience death. These cultures generally do not see death as the absolute termination of existence; they believe that consciousness or life in some form continues beyond the point of physiological demise. Whatever specific concepts of afterlife prevail in different cultures, death is typically regarded as a transition or transfiguration, and not as the final annihilation of the individual. Mythological systems have not only detailed descriptions of various afterlife realms, but frequently also complex cartographies to guide souls on their difficult posthumous journeys.” -Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax, “Human Encounter with Death” (2)
University of Toronto Psychology professor Joel Whitton has successfully used hypnosis to regress dozens of patients to the time before their birth and published his findings in the book “Life Between Life.” In this between life state his patients universally reported all the classic features of NDEs including passage through a tunnel, entering a light-filled realm outside of space and time, encountering deceased relatives or spirit guides, and being subjected to an extensive life review.
“The message from deep trance is that life after death is synonymous with life before birth and that most of us have taken up residence in this other world many, many times as disembodied entities. Subconsciously, we are just as familiar with discarnate existence as we are with the Earth plane - the next world is both the state we have left behind in order to be born and the state to which we return at death. As the wheel of life revolves, birth and death happen repeatedly in the evolution of the individual. Death is no more than the threshold of consciousness that separates one incarnation from the next. Truly there is life between lives. Subjects, whose religious backgrounds are as varied as their initial prejudices for or against reincarnation, have testified consistently that rebirth is fundamental to the evolutionary process in which we are enveloped. At death, they say, the soul leaves the body to enter a timeless, spaceless state. There, our most recent life on Earth is evaluated and the next incarnation is planned according to our karmic requirements.” -Dr. Joel Whitton, “Life Between Life”