Friday, September 14, 2012

Of Tunnels and Barriers

My library added a recent book on the near-death experience (NDE), Evidence of the Afterlife by Jeffrey Long, Harper One, 2010. I checked it out. After a while I realized that I was already aware of Dr. Long. He is behind a rather extensive web site on which hundreds of NDE reports appear; these are contributed voluntarily by the public and hence are something of a mixed bag. The book is intended for the public at large, not for students of the phenomenon. No bibliography; no index. Despite this leaning toward the popular, valuable insights, data, cases, and commentaries make the book valuable.

The book, in turn, led me to consult two already on my shelf. The first of these launched the whole category, Raymond Moody’s Life After Life (1975), the other is At the Hour of Death by Karlis Osis and Erlendur Harakisson (1986). Moody’s book is also an introduction of the subject to the public, but its structure, style, tone and cases on which it reports produce a sense of clarity. Moody built up his cases in extensive interviews with people who’d undergone the experience. These he then studied systematically. Osis and Harakisson studied the deathbed experiences of people who died; not NDEs these. The data they used came from interviewing doctors and nurses. There are some interesting differences between NDEs and deathbed visions; in the first people are brought back and report experiences; in the second they soon die. One difference is that in death-bed cases people experience neither a tunnel nor a barrier that separates this world from that one—but they are visited by apparitions of relatives, friends, or religious figures shortly before they die.

Concerning the tunnel, a subset of NDE subjects (33.8% in Long’s book) report passing through a tunnel, narrow passage, valley, or some such delimited structure; sometimes, not always, they also report sound effects; these that range from highly unpleasant to vibratory to musical.  The barrier comes later. It is reported as a stretch of water, a wall, a fence, a door, and so on: pass the barrier and you cannot return; some 31 percent reported a barrier in Long’s NDE database.

I went back to re-read Moody because, in his careful presentation, the tunnel phenomenon is closely associated with the actual near-death event; the heart stops, breathing stops, a vast pain is felt. When reported, it is the first experience of the NDE and appears to mark the point when the mind/soul leaves the body. The person doesn’t travel any actual distance; in most cases, after passage, he or she is still in the same room where the body is. The tunnel, therefore, must be taken as a passage from the body, not as a trip to a heavenly realm.

The barrier appears later in cases where the subject also reports visions of another realm; the barrier is located there. Interestingly, in many cases, this other-worldly setting overlays the actual room where the subject’s bed or operating table is located and where, even as the heavenly scenes progress, the doctors/nurses labor on the physical body; and the subject is aware of both simultaneously. As a consequence of profound feelings of serenity, the subject wishes to proceed “onward”—and then meets the barrier, only to be prevented from making that move because “the time is not yet.”

In Osis and Harakisson’s work, neither phenomenon is reported, most likely because it doesn’t take place. By contrast, however, the figures that appear convey to the subject their intention of taking the subject away.

This got me thinking. The NDE phenomenon, however evidentiary for the reality of soul-survival, may be something exceptional, not the usual situation at death—because it isn’t actually death yet. When the final hour arrives, there is no need to tunnel out of the body or to worry about barriers. The transition will happen quite naturally.

To this I might add two notes. The first: Multiple excellent, disciplined, and careful studies of the NDE exist, usually carried out by doctors, nurses, or a combination of these two professions. The best are published in scientific journals accessible only by paying rather steep fees or membership dues. I’ve seen a few but have no hard copy to consult. The second: If it all happens anyway, why waste time on this arcane nonsense? Well, if you are on a tall ship sailing, slowly, to China—and you’ve never seen that realm—you might be tempted to read the few sorry books on board your ship that say something about China, your destination. That they are few and sorry is a given if you are under sail rather than traveling by diesel-steam; but whatever their number or quality, you will study those pages with some curiosity.

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