Scientists at the Human Consciousness Project are studying what happens when we die. It’s not as bad as you might expect
BY DAVID RICKEY — When Time magazine wants to engage with its readers, they do articles like, “What Happens When We Die? Their take:
A fellow at New York’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, Dr. Sam Parnia … and his colleagues at the Human Consciousness Project announced their first major undertaking: a 3-year exploration of the biology behind “out-of-body” experiences.
The Soul’s Code take: please don’t ignore the spirit.
The study that TIME cited has a good intention: understand the experience of awareness while being “clinically dead,” as measured by brain waves (or, more to the point, the lack thereof).
Examples abound, after all, of people reporting awareness of what is happening around them while brain activity has ceased.
And there are even corroborating reports from people who were with the “dead” at the time. One incredible case is described in Lawrence LeShan’s “The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist“: A woman who went into cardiac arrest during surgery reported much of what had happened during her “near death” time — right down to recalling one of the surgeons mismatched socks. The kicker: This woman had been blind since birth.
So who, or what, is doing the seeing? That’s not a biological question but a spiritual one.
Mapping the brain has aided understanding of where and how thoughts are stored, but scientists have not been able, so far, to map conscious awareness. As the Rig Veda says (paraphrasing), “Not the seeing but that which is aware of seeing.”
Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist and writer, has postulated a mind “field” that extends beyond the body. It could very well be that this field continues to perceive even when the biological brain ceases to function, and that the brain is simply, though very complexly, the agent that decodes or processes the awareness in a form that can be communicated.
And it gets better. In a large number of near-death experiences, people speak not only of great peace but of a deep sense of purpose for their returning. In other words, they often come back with a “mission.” It seems that while freed of “ego structures” and unbound from time and space and, for that matter, cause and effect, people become aware of a deeper reality. We can describe it as an “ultimate reality,” which is at once peaceful and intentional, and what we here can call the Soul’s Code.
Another piece of the death-and-spirit mystery: Just what do we know, when, about whom?
There are numerous reports of pre-cognition by those who are near death, as the body and the ego start falling away. There are many stories of awareness of events at a distance. For example, a friend of mine says that she knew her grandmother died the moment my friend’s plane landed at JFK after a trip to Europe.
Back to the Time article, “What Happens When We Die?”
It describes the process, but it misses the mystery I experience every time I am at the bedside of someone who is dying. *
The personality, encased for a time in the body I have seen and known, is about to depart — never to be experienced again. The loss is physical, real, and worthy of grief and mourning.
Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher and best-selling author, recounts a story of a monk asking his teacher, “Is death real or an illusion?” After a pause, the teacher responds: “It’s a very real illusion.”
The biological question posed by the Time headline-writer misses the deeper question, raised by Stephen Levine in his book, “Who Dies?”
Who is the “We” – the “I” – that is dying? Evidence is mounting that the answer is: “the body.” And that the true “I” of awareness, consciousness doesn’t die but is transformed once it is freed from the strictures of the body.
We humans live in the tension between “reality” and the very real illusion of the “form” we call “Me” and “You.”
Our task is to know our true nature as consciously as possible, while delighting in the manifestation, the incarnation of the form that we, in this time, embody. Not clutching too tightly, but just enjoying this amazing mystery.
David Rickey is an Episcopal priest, Soul’s Code co-founder and counselor in San Francisco who does a weekly ministry at a residence for the elderly in northern California. Follow David on Twitter.
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