NHNE Near-Death Experience Network

Exploring all aspects of the near-death experience.

The following chapter is from John White's nearly finished book "Enlightenment 101: A Guide To God-Realization And Higher Human Culture." It was published in Vital Signs, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring 1995, the newsletter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies. This version includes a new conclusion that has been added for his soon-to-be-published book.



The near-death experience is a crash course in spirituality and the human potential to expand consciousness. My interest in spiritual experience and the nature of consciousness has been present from early childhood, but a near-death experience at age 14 certainly accelerated it. As one of the founders of the International Association for Near-Death Studies in the 1970s, I obviously have a deep and abiding interest in the subject. I've written and lectured about NDEs from a theoretical, research-oriented perspective and about the experiences of others for more than two decades. However, I've never written about my own near-death experience until now. I chose to keep my personal life out of my writing in order to direct readers' attention to my work rather than to me. However, I'm often asked about my personal experiences. Therefore, after twenty-plus years of writing about altered states of consciousness and noetic studies, I've decided to be more public about myself, so I've written this brief account.


In 1953, during my fourteenth summer, I nearly died through drowning. The event was completely unnoticed by anyone. I'd gone swimming at a pond about a mile from my home in Cheshire, Connecticut. At the time, Mixville Pond was my town's only public swimming area, although there was no lifeguard on duty in those days. I rode my bike there one sunny afternoon and swam out to a platform which had a diving board. The platform was about six feet above the surface of the pond and the board added perhaps a foot more height.

I'd come by myself and didn't meet any friends there. The beach wasn't very crowded. The platform was empty, but a few people were sunning themselves on a nearby raft. Feeling the vitality of youth, I began to dive in a show-off manner. It's not that I was a great diver; I was simply enjoying the feeling of performing more than routine, simple dives as my body responded to my intention of "swan dive," "half-gainer," "back flip."

After a few of those, I decided to do what I'd heard called a "sailor dive." As an adult, I now know there is no such thing, but somehow I'd gotten the false, foolish notion from some friends that sailors dove headfirst with their arms next to their sides rather than in front of them. So I did that. I sprang on the end of the board and sailed high in the air to enter the water head-first at a very steep angle of descent and with greater-than-normal speed gained through attaining more-than-usual height.

Near-Death through Near-Drowning

It was a really stupid thing to do. I plunged through the water toward the bottom and went deeper than usual -- so deep, in fact, that I struck my forehead on the sandy floor of the pond. The shock of the blow passed through my body at lightning speed and I lost normal awareness. I was blacked out on the bottom, unconscious. If I'd been monitored by an EEG and an ECG, some vital signs would have showed, of course. My heart continued to beat and my brain kicked in the drowning reflex which closes the windpipe (trachea) so water can't be inhaled to the lungs. I know that now, looking back. However, at the time, my understanding was quite different.

I lay unconscious on the bottom of the pond for several minutes. I'm estimating that duration on the basis of two things. The first is book-knowledge of how long it takes before irreversible brain damage sets in from lack of oxygen. The second is from contests I held at that time with a friend during English class, when we'd sneakily challenge each other to hold our breath while the second hand of the clock crept around once, twice and -- for me, because I usually won -- a few seconds more. At that point I'd have to give up and breathe, so I know I could hold my breath for at least two minutes.

As I rested on the bottom, my awareness changed from blank nothingness to a sensation of wonderful, warm tranquility and security. I had no external perception, no sensory awareness. I was simply floating idly, feeling more peaceful than I'd ever been. And while that languor and serenity pervaded me, I had the fascinating experience of "seeing my life pass before my eyes," as the saying goes. That life review wasn't sequential; it was more like all-at-once, yet each scene was nevertheless discreet. I didn't watch it, strictly speaking -- I lived it, I was in it, experiencing it rather than passively viewing it. Yet I also knew that it had all happened earlier and that I was really re-viewing it. There was a strange, simultaneous subjectivity and objectivity to it. My visual field -- if I can call it that -- as I watched my life pass in review was unlike normal vision, which is limited to about 120 degrees in front of you, including peripheral vision. But my life review was a full 360 degrees! I could see everything around me, front and back. And even as I objectively "saw" all that, subjectively I felt all that as if it were happening to me for the first time.

Not all the features of the idealized NDE which researcher-authors Raymond Moody and Kenneth Ring have identified were present. I didn't float out of my body and go down a dark tunnel toward the light, nor did I sense the presence of a being of light or an otherworldly environment. Moreover, I didn't feel judged, nor did I feel a profound reorientation of consciousness from sin and guilt, although it was clear from the review that I'd sometimes acted with shameful self-centeredness. But remember: I was only 14; I didn't have all that much life to review.

Return to Life

As I drifted at ease, feeling a vague sense of satisfaction, I slowly became aware of a pounding in my ears. Then I became aware of my chest heaving, trying to breathe, but no air moved into my lungs. I developed a strong sense of danger and started to panic. No light penetrated to the bottom of the murky pond. Everything was dark so I was quite disoriented.

Then my hand brushed the bottom and immediately I had a sense of direction. I kicked my arms and legs wildly to swim to the surface, yet they hardly seemed to move, so close was I to paralysis. Amid that action I thought rather calmly I'm drowning. There was an impossible pressure in my lungs. They swelled up, trying to take in air, but the airway-stoppage reflex was still active. I moved through the water for an agonizing time until at last my head broke the surface. I was surprised to find that I could see but I still couldn't breathe, so powerful was that life-saving reflex. I couldn't cry for help. In fact, I was so traumatized that I could hardly control my arms and legs enough to tread water. The people dozing on the raft didn't notice my plight.

Somehow, through the grace of God and a strong will to survive, I remained above water while my airway opened enough for me to begin breathing again. I slowly swam to the raft, hauled myself up the ladder with great difficulty and, exhausted, lay down to rest. After about ten minutes I felt well enough to swim to shore. Then I got on my bike and rode home.

I never told anyone about the event until many years later when my writing brought me in touch with Ring, Moody and several others who were focusing their research on the near-death experience. Why didn't I mention it, at least to my parents? Strangely, it didn't immediately seem important. I'd survived; I was 14 and full of boyhood concerns. So I sort of tucked it away in memory, where it worked like slow-acting yeast in a bowl of bread dough.

The Gift of Nearly Dying

Now, as I look back on that experience of nearly dying, I am infinitely grateful for it. It introduced me to the power of consciousness and the hidden dimensions of human life. Since then I have experienced deeper, fuller, spontaneous alterations of consciousness which have impelled me to practice more deliberate means for expanding awareness, realizing ultimate values and maturing in character. However, the seed-energy of that NDE was planted and grew. I can summarize it with this quote from my book, The Meeting of Science and Spirit (pp. 218-219):

"There is no way to enter the Kingdom except to ascend in consciousness to the Father, to that unconditional love for all creation which Jesus demonstrated. That is what the Christian tradition (and, indeed, every true religion) is all about: a system of teachings, both theory and practice, about growth to higher consciousness. But each of us is required to take personal responsibility for following Jesus on that way. That is the key to the Kingdom. Self-transcendence requires honesty, commitment and spiritual practice to cultivate awareness. The result of such discipline is personal, validating experience of the fact that alteration of consciousness can lead to a radical transformation of consciousness, traditionally called enlightenment. But this, by and large, has been lost to the understanding of contemporary Christendom. Instead, Jesus and the Bible are idolized, and heaven is said to be located somewhere in outer space.

"Awareness of inner space -- of consciousness and the need to cultivate it -- is sadly lacking. Exoteric Judeo-Christianity must reawaken to the truth preserved in its esoteric tradition.

"For example, the original form of baptism, whole-body immersion, was limited to adults. It apparently was an initiatory practice in which the person, a convert who would have been an adult prepared through study of spiritual disciplines, was held under water to the point of nearly drowning. This near-death experience was likely to induce an out-of-body projection such as many near-death experiencers report today. The baptized person would thereby directly experience resurrection -- the transcendence of death, the reality of metaphysical worlds and the supremacy of Spirit. He would receive a dramatic and unmistakable demonstration of the reality of the spiritual body or celestial body of which St. Paul speaks in I Corinthians 15:40-44 (apparently referring to his own personal experience with out-of-body projection). The forms of baptism practiced today -- even those involving bodily immersion -- are, from the esoteric perspective, debasements of the original purpose and meaning of baptism in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (However, I am not implicitly advocating a return to that esoteric practice; much safer, less risky methods of inducing out-of-body projection are available today. The present symbolic use of baptism is justifiable if it is supplemented with the necessary understanding of its true but esoteric significance.)"

Added Conclusion

Because of the transformative effects of the near-death experience, some recent research has focused on the social structure of the nonterrestrial environment in which NDEs occur and its sociocultural relevance for humanity. One investigator asked, "Do these visions and values of the Good Life bespeak a renewed desire for some lost Arcadia or golden age? Or do these visions in the final moments of consciousness reveal, at death's door, a final yearning for utopia?" Both questions presume a psychological origin in the human mind. However, I do not think the answer is simply either-or. I think it is a both-and. The "and" is this, stated as still another question: "Or are they clear perception of another realm transcendent to physical reality?"

The Ideal Society

NDE visions reveal, at death's door, the ideal society. They are, in my judgment, clear perceptions into a transcendent, metaphysical realm which is senior to our familiar 3-D space-time reality and which, in the great chain of being, influences and guides our development in the physical realm. Call it the shaman's imaginal world, Plato's world of Ideas, the yogic model of reality, Judeo-Christianity's heavens, Hinduism-Buddhism's lokas, Taoism's World of the Immortals, Islam's Garden of Paradise, Native America's Happy Hunting Ground -- whatever the name, the universality of the notion of reality as multileveled, with various planes of being affecting those "below" them, is what makes sense of NDE visions of a transcendent society.

Yes, there are cultural overlays which the NDErs unconsciously place on their perceptions while out of their bodies in the NDE-world. However, an underlying commonality more fundamental than cultural overlays can nevertheless be discerned by noetic researchers.

All the world's great religions, sacred traditions, hermetic philosophies and mystery schools agree that the senior realms -- collectively, the metaphysical world -- have beings who are native to those realms and whose nature is to interact with humanity in some way. Some beings apparently are malevolent, but the benevolent ones whom NDErs perceive as beings of light are my concern here. Although their social organization is not entirely apparent in all details, it is nevertheless clear that they themselves are models for human aspirations of spiritual growth. Call them angels and archangels (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), call them devas (Hinduism and Buddhism), call them ascended masters in their solar bodies (mystery schools), call them cloudwalkers or Immortals (Taoism), call them those who have attained the resurrection body and the company of saints (Christianity) -- these beings present themselves to us in ways which appeal to our deepest nature and which urge us to externalize that nature in every aspect of our being, including relationships and social organization. They are a transcendent society, an order which exists beyond, but alongside, our own.

Bridging the Worlds of Matter and Spirit

However, it appears that the "membrane" dividing that realm of Nature and its inhabitants is permeable in a two-way fashion. NDErs penetrate it spontaneously through nearly dying, but psychics, mystics, shamans and seers such as Emanuel Swedenborg, Rudolf Steiner and Edgar Cayce penetrate it in controlled, deliberate fashion.

Likewise, those who die biologically often report seeing into a nonterrestrial environment in their final moments, as Drs. Karlis Osis and Erlandur Haraldsson showed in their important study, At the Hour of Death. The 1979 book presents findings from interviews with more than 1,000 doctors and nurses in America and India -- two widely diverse cultures -- who report strikingly similar perceptions by the dying. Those deathbed visions include apparitions of human and nonhuman figures such as Jesus and Krishna and scenes or landscapes of nonearthly nature. As Osis said to me, "The experiences of the dying are basically the same, regardless of culture, education, sex or belief system, and their experiences cluster around something which makes sense in terms of survival after death, and a social structure to that afterlife."

"As above, so below" is a metaphysical axiom. Christianity preaches the kingdom of heaven, Tibetan Buddhism has its Shambhala and other traditions have their images of human perfection and the ideal society, but these images are not simply "all in the mind" as conventional psychology would have it -- i.e., fantasy, wish fulfillment, projection. Rather, as esoteric traditions and transpersonal psychology would have it, there is only one great Mind, and what we experience as most deeply personal is actually universal. In that sense, these images are indeed all in the mind, but only because the deepest layers of the human mind are coterminous with the ultimate structure of the cosmos. What some call the highest state of consciousness is another way of describing the ontological ground-structure of reality. Therefore, the pursuit of the ideal society is a perennial project for humanity and will be until our evolution has brought us back to godhead -- the same godhead which began the cosmic drama of our evolutionary unfoldment and which, paradoxically, we are right now and have been all along, but without recognizing it.

NDE = Nearly Done with Evolution

Insofar as NDEs awaken us to our true identity, the acronym could be said to stand for "Nearly Done with Evolution." However, evolution is not the same thing as instant transformation. Living in accord with the spiritual guidance obtained during an NDE is hard work requiring profound personal change. It takes time, patience, commitment and courage to integrate the experience. NDErs often express anger and frustration with their return to life because their exalted experience is not understood by those around them and, even worse, is sometimes scornfully rejected.

Moreover, the experience itself is not ultimate. As I noted, nearly dying can be a crash course in spirituality (to those whose NDE involved a vehicle wreck: no pun intended), but it's only one course, not complete graduate school. NDEs are enlightening but not final enlightenment. In terms of Patanjali's yogic model of consciousness, an NDE is equivalent to savikalpa samadhi or samadhi-with-form -- i.e., a visionary experience involving the subtle plane of existence in which the experiencer still has a separate sense of self. Beyond that, however, is nirvikalpa samadhi or formless samadhi, a causal plane experience of self-as-cosmos in which there is no separation. However, even that is not ultimate. Beyond it is sahaj samadhi , "easy" samadhi or "open eyes enlightenment" in which all that arises within one's awareness is seen as simply a modification of God, the One-in-all-and-all-in-One. Beyond sahaj samadhi are even higher states (see Chapters 8 and 9.)

In terms of the mystery school tradition, an NDE is equivalent to the first initiation (which in ancient times could have been baptism or whole-body immersion). It leads to the state of consciousness characterizing Homo noeticus. The disorienting aftereffects which NDErs experience is due in part to their lack of preparation for initiation.

There are higher initiations, however, and they go beyond the form of the NDE into the formless. Adeptship, the culmination of mystery schooling, is far beyond the first initiation.

Beyond Homo Noeticus

Adepts are what I have in mind as models of higher human development -- the Jesuses, the Buddhas and other enlightened men and women of history who delineate the characteristics of what I see as the coming race, Homo noeticus, and beyond that to Homo magnus. Beyond even that, it seems to me, are the beings of light met during NDEs; they are enlightened to a still-higher degree, that of actually being light, and likewise exemplify a still-further stage of our future evolution which I call Homo illuminatus (see Chapter 8.) The beings of light whom we meet in near-death conditions are, from my perspective, representatives of a state which awaits humanity in the future -- a stage of evolution I term merged and characterized by the light body as the vehicle through which they function.

Homo noeticus is such not simply because s/he has awakened the heart -- a quality wonderfully exemplified by NDErs. S/he also has awakened the wisdom-eye. The love of Christ, the compassion of Buddha is balanced by wisdom. Without wisdom, transpersonal love or what Christianity calls agapé can become "sloppy agape" -- mere emotionalism or indiscriminate, foolish behavior which turns people off to what NDErs want to share with them. NDErs have a distinct calling to live in accordance with the ideals they experience during near-death, and that is fine. However, they are returned to life and Earth to make the ideal real. To real-ize who we are means living from the wisdom-eye as well as the heart.

So it is no wonder that NDErs are less than fully realized divinity. The ultimate yardstick was stated simply two millennia ago: "By their fruits ye shall know them." By that I do not imply any criticism of NDErs; I merely mean that we all have a long way to go, and the spiritual journey proceeds at a slower pace than many would like to think after coming back from an NDE. However, the amount of frustration, impatience and anger we feel with others for not understanding our NDE-based reorientation to life is a direct measurement of the amount of ego left in us.

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