The psychologist J. B. Rhine, famous for his decades of ESP research, once called the ‘after-life’ the Mount Everest of paranormal phenomena, a hill he would not attempt to climb. Probably for the same reason, I’ve avoided writing about it here. But now I’m going to face up to it.
One problem is that the best argument of the sceptics is a pretty good argument – that an ‘after-life’ is nothing but wishful thinking.
How can we deny that we wish for it? It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t prefer some kind of post-life existence to nothing at all. But that doesn’t mean that this is nothing but wishful thinking. Just because we want something, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
Where do you start an investigation though? Most authors go first to NDEs, or near-death-experiences, so I will too. But I find it hard to be enthusiastic about them. After all, these involve people who have not died. But that isn’t to discount the experience. This is evidence of something. In his book, Evidence of the After-Life, Dr Jeffrey Long, an NDE researcher, says this:
Those who are near death are generally unconscious and may be clinically dead with loss of breathing and heartbeat. … To understand how remarkable it is to have a conscious experience at the time of clinical death, it is helpful to understand that when the heart stops beating, blood immediately stops flowing to the brain. Approximately ten to twenty seconds after blood stops flowing to the brain, brain activity necessary for consciousness stops. Brain activity can be measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain electrical activity. When brain activity stops, the EEG readings go flat, indicating no measurable activity. ……….. Medically, I can’t conceive of any meaningful experience that could occur near death. Aren’t people near death generally unconscious? Doesn’t the very term unconscious mean that there is no possibility of an organized conscious experience? Yet despite what should be a blank slate for NDErs, they describe highly lucid, organized, and real experiences. In fact, NDErs say they are usually experiencing a more heightened state of awareness than in everyday earthly life.
( 3 paragraphs condensed here)
So, if you want evidence that mental activity can continue with the body and brain totally shut down, there it is. The people who have experienced NDEs believe they have stood in the doorway of death and looked through it towards an after-life world beyond. I don’t blame them, but I’m not satisfied that we know what it is that they have seen.
There is other evidence that receives less attention than NDEs, but deserves more attention. I’m referring to dreams.
In their book, Dreaming Beyond Death – A Guide to Pre-Death Dreams and Visions, Kelly Bulkeley and his mother Reverend Patricia Bulkley (no spelling mistake on the surnames), provide an impressive introduction to this subject.
First I should say that this little book of only 152 modest pages might be the best introduction to how dreams work that I’ve ever read.
Do you find it surprising that a Christian minister and her son with a Ph.D in theology might be experts on the subject of dreams? I don’t, for I learned a long time ago that it isn’t only psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists who are qualified to talk about the mind. Philosophers, the authors of poetry and fiction, those who practice formal religions, and those who practice informal ones – mediums, witches and shamans, etc – are all psychologists. They have all explored the mind in their own way.
Let’s look at the first dream they discuss.
This involved a retired merchant marine ship captain, Bill, who, in his eighties, had been diagnosed with bone cancer that had metastasized. With only weeks to live he had fallen into depression. His wife searched for someone who might be able to lift his spirits, and came up with Patricia Bulkley.
Patricia tells how she found him “sitting alone in a room filled with a lifetime of memories: pictures of ships he had captained, art from the Orient, books, papers and family photos.” She talked with him first about things like how his wife would cope without him. Though he wasn’t particularly religious, his wife was a Baptist and they talked about that, and about death and dying. At one point she quoted the lines of St. Paul:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us ……….we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The next time she saw him the depression was gone. He told her eagerly of a dream he had had, which ended as follows:
I am sailing again at night in uncharted waters and the old sense of adventure comes back. I feel the tingle of excitement again, of pushing through the waves in the vast, dark, empty sea but knowing somehow I am right on course.
“Strangely enough,” he said to her, “I’m not afraid to die any more. In fact, I feel ready to go, more so every day.”
This simple dream is interesting. I often say that there is no pressing need to interpret dreams. Their obscure metaphors and symbols make interpretation difficult. Trying to explain them leads you astray more often than it does to the truth. But the metaphor that this dream uses – the night sea journey – works without any interpretation required. We ‘get it’ immediately don’t we?
Why is that? I think it is evidence that this metaphor has been with us for a long long time. It is deeply embedded in the psyche, to the extent that probably all people in the world understand it. In other words, it is part of what psychologist C.G. Jung called the “collective unconscious.”
Bulkeley and Bulkley pay a lot of attention to Jung’s ideas in their book. Jung believed that the unconscious mind that we are born with contains all of humankind’s thinking and dreaming, even from the time when we weren’t human yet. But this unconscious is not just a mass of chaotic memories, thoughts, images and feelings. There is a focused autonomous intelligence in there.
Anyone who has studied dreams knows that they are sometimes crafted in a way to that suggest they are the work of an accomplished artist/novelist/film director.
But the unconscious also knows things that we don’t know. Jung gives instances where it has predicted diseases like cancer long before any doctor.
Dreams are the chief means of communication that the unconscious uses to communicate with us. Jung believed that dreams are often ‘compensatory’ – that they correct mistakes that we are making in our conscious/daily life. But there are also ‘anticipatory’ dreams. These, he said, are not precognition, but a form of preparation for what is coming in your life. And one of the things that is coming, the most inevitable of them all, is death.
But the way in which the unconscious prepares us for death is not what you might expect. In his 1934 essay, The Soul and Death, Jung said:
I was astonished to see how little ado the unconscious psyche makes of death. It would seem as though death were something relatively unimportant, or perhaps our psyche does not bother about what happens to the individual. But ….. the unconscious is all the more interested in how one dies; that is, whether the attitude of consciousness is adjusted to dying or not.
If the unconscious is unconcerned with death, why should it care whether we have accepted dying? Why does it matter how we face death? To those questions, Jung replies,
At this point….. I do not want to suddenly pull a belief out of my pocket and invite my reader to do what nobody can do – that is, believe something. I must confess that I could never do it either. Therefore I shall certainly not assert now that one must believe death to be a second birth leading to survival beyond the grave. But…..
Then he goes on to point out that religions have always asserted that another life exists beyond this one. And he stresses that religions are not just spiritual propaganda concocted by scheming priests to manipulate people. Instead he says of them,
They do not come from the head at all, but from some other place…..from a deep psychic level very little resembling consciousness ….. At all events, experience shows that religions are in no sense conscious constructions,…they arise from the natural life of the unconscious psyche.
Religions are products of the unconscious. They are another means by which it communicates with us. And if these religions profess a belief in an after-life, as almost all of them do, then the author of the idea of an after-life is the unconscious.
What is the unconscious? If you want to know that, you’re right to ask, but this is a big question. Jung spent much of his life thinking about that and never came to a solid answer. Someone else needs to pick up where he left off.
But Bulkeley and Bulkley are not finished. After dealing with Jung’s ideas, they they show you, in case by case, how dreams have led other people to accept death.
They end with a chapter on a remarkable young Christian woman living in Carthage in the third century Roman Empire, who had been had sentenced to death because she had refused to revoke her loyalty to the new cult of Christianity.
She was to be put in with hungry predators in the forum, before the crowd. Her family tried to get her to relent, but she refused. She kept a diary in which she recorded a set of dreams she had as the fateful day approached. In Dreaming Beyond Death, you read each dream. They, especially the last one, are astonishing in their strength and creativity, as the unconscious encouraged, even drove Perpetua not just to accept, but to choose death.
Almost forgotten now, Perpetua was famous in the Christian community for a long time, helping to fuel Christianity’s explosive growth in the late Roman Empire. Read the book and you will never forget her; and you will be impressed with the strange power to be found in these dreams.
Why I should find this to be more persuasive evidence than the NDE accounts of this something that we call the after-life, I can’t say, but somehow they carry more weight for me.
There are other places to look for evidence of an after-life though, which I intend to explore in future posts.