Steve Fanning is a history professor who spent two weeks in a coma that left him paralyzed. Once he returned to consciousness, he was miraculously healed and learned to walk, this despite his doctor's prognosis that his walking was neurologically impossible. (Doctors and scientists, like most people, have trouble shifting their worldview – even when the facts speak loudly!)
During his coma, Fanning had a near-death experience through which it was revealed that he had to re-arrange his life. He learned he had to get his life in line with what really matters, which he says has something to do with “Trying not to hurt others, regardless of the rationalizations your ego presents to you for why they deserve it.” From that point on, Fanning began listening to his conscience, ignoring his ego, and began studying mysticism.
Near-death experiences (ndes) may be a mystical phenomenon, but 21st century science now has enough data to draw the conclusion that the Golden Rule is actually a law of nature. A 2001 study published in the respected medical journal Lancet dispelled one of the most common explanations for ndes by proving that none of the people who experienced them shared any common drug treatments, physiological symptoms, or psychological viewpoints. Despite having so little in common, most people who have had ndes reported similar “life-changing insights, heightened intuition, and disappearance of a fear of death.” Some of them can reliably recount events that occurred when they were clinically dead. Many of them say that during their experience, they became aware that to hurt another is to hurt oneself. So there you go: scientific evidence for “Do Unto Others.”
This is not the only study weighing in on the validity of ndes. There's at least one peer-reviewed journal, The Journal of Near-Death Studies, filled with them. Researchers have documented enough ndes to keep the journal alive for the past 15 years. That shouldn't be surprising, says Diane Willis of the Chicago-area International Association for Near-Death Studies, since more than 23 million people have had ndes in the U.S. alone. That means one of every ten people you meet has been to the “other side,” a non-material reality that has now been investigated with rigorous scientific methods.
But there's been a PR problem for these particular scientific findings, according to Dr. Neal Grossman, professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He says that research on ndes proves that love and connection are the guiding forces of the Universe, but this research is marginalized because the greed-oriented and ego-driven nature of our current culture could not survive if the implications of nde research were taken seriously.
When I heard this, I first thought Grossman was being a bit paranoid. After all, many scientists think their field of research is marginalized. It's the whole geeky-kid-gets-made-fun-of-and-can't-get-over-it scientist thing. But when I started to look at what other magazines were saying about the Lancet piece and similar work, I saw Grossman's point.
The March 2003 issue of Scientific American ran a scathing column that actually used the Lancet study to argue that ndes aren't real because they can be triggered by trauma (yeah, death!). But scientists aren't the only ones threatened by nde research; the conservative press is worried as well. The September 2002 issue of The Economist stated that out-of-body experiences, which are often part of ndes, are not real because you can create them by stimulating the brain with electrodes. Funny, this implies that sensations such as fear, anger, the desire for candy, and the smell of roses must not be real, since you can also get these by stimulating the brain with electrodes. I suspect The Economist delights in dismissing such phenomena as bunk. Why? Because to them the results mean that the material world wins; greed and power can rule if love does not.
This brings me back to my conversation with Steve Fanning, the history professor who began to study mysticism after his nde. At the end of our discussion, I began to get a little hopeless about the future of our culture. Sure, people who have been to the “other side” may understand the connection among all life, but what about the other 90 percent of us? Then Fanning reminded me of a hopeful fact: nde isn't necessary. Meditative practice, study with a spiritual mentor, and/or prayer has helped many people arrive at the same understanding that near-death experiencers report. That is, in the words of the mystic St. Francis of Assisi, “Only love honors God.”
Julia Mossbridge is a Chicago-based writer, cognitive neuroscientist, and author of Unfolding: The Perpetual Science of Your Soul's Work (www.unfolding.org).This article is reprinted from the May 2003 issue of Conscious Choice magazine.