"At the perinatal level
of consciousness, our idiosyncratic histories begin to yield to a
narrow set of issues fundamental to human existence: birth, physical
pain, disease, and death."
-- Christopher M. Bache
ABSTRACT: While endorsing several of
Kenneth Ring's conclusions, I propose a more comprehensive
interpretation of frightening near-death experiences (NDEs). I
criticize Ring's interpretation of meaningless void NDEs as emergence
reactions and argue that all three forms of frightening NDEs -
inverted, hellish, and meaningless void experiences-are better
understood as rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness. I expand
Ring's account of resistance to ego death as the cause of these NDEs,
and develop the broader implications of a perinatal reading of
frightening NDEs. Finally, I introduce and explore parallels with the
"dark night of the soul" experience.
Anyone familiar with Stanislav Grof's
work cannot help but be struck by the phenomenological parallels
between perinatal symptomatology (Grof, 1975, 1985, 1988) and
frightening near-death experences (NDEs) (Atwater, 1992; Grey, 1985;
Greyson and Bush, 1992; Irwin and Bramwell, 1988; Rawlings, 1978).
These extensive parallels suggest that Grof's concept of the perinatal
level of consciousness may hold an important key to understanding these
enigmatic NDEs. Kenneth Ring is aware of these parallels and discussed
them in his analysis of the meaningless void variety of NDE in his
article, "Solving the Riddle of Frightening Near-Death Experiences"
(1994). Ring's analysis is insightful and productive, yet I believe
that the parallels with perinatal experience are much more extensive
than he has recognized.
The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to attempt a solution to the
riddle of frightening NDEs by bringing Grof's paradign to bear on the
problem. Specifically, I argue that all three types of frightening NDE
- inverted, hellish and meaningless void experiences-show distinctive
perinatal features, not just the meaningless void type, as Ring
suggested. Accordingly, I propose that all three are best understood as
rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness and that the differences
between them are primarily differences of degree, not kind. This
argument challenges Ring's suggestion that meaningless void NDEs are
not true NDEs but emergence reactions to inadequate anesthesia.
Establishing the perinatal roots of frightening NDEs also allows me to
deepen Ring's analysis of resistance to ego death as their cause, to
suggest new directions for future research, and to reframe our
thinking about these NDEs by noting some provocative parallels to the
- mystic's "dark night of the soul" experience.
Let me state candidly at the outset a basic conviction that informs
this approach to the problem. Put succinctly, it is this: that what we
catch glimpses of in NDEs, we get sustained looks at in therapy with
lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). In NDEs we get short, intense, and
usually unrepeated access to intense states of consciousness that lie
outside sensory consciousness. Studying large numbers of NDEs gives us
a more complete picture of this terrain, but we are always limited by
the fact that our data base is a collection of (for the most part)
onetime - only forays beyond space/time consciousness.
In LSD therapy, on the other hand, we get extended and repeated access
to a variety of states of consciousness that appear phenomenologically
to overlap with and subsume the NDE states. In both contexts, studying
the experiences of many persons stabilizes and extends our vision, but
the greatest advantage of the therapeutic context is repetition.
Repeated immersion in these nonordinary states activates and dramatizes
the larger, organic processes involved. Processes that we see piecemeal
in NDEs, therefore, are seen more comprehensively across a long string
of therapeutically focused LSD sessions. If this assumption has merit,
Grof's model should be able to help us solve the riddle of frightening
NDEs: why do they occur and what do they represent?
Let me begin by identifying three central points of Ring's presentation
with which I am in complete agreement, and which constitute common
ground in our approaches. First, frightening NDEs are not as real as
radiant NDEs; they do not have the same ontological status. As Ring
expressed it, "it is the transcendent and not the frightening NDE that
is, after all, a leaking through of ultimate reality." In Grof's
approach to therapy, the perinatal matrices eventually consume
themselves, yielding permanently to the transpersonal realities they
Second, frightening NDEs can sometimes convert to pleasant NDEs.
Setting aside for the moment the final disposition of meaningless void
experiences, Ring's demonstration that both inverted and hellish NDEs,
when yielded to, convert themselves to pleasant NDEs is important for
two reasons. First, it demonstrates that these NDEs and transcendent
NDEs are two aspects of an underlying, organic process. Second, it
demonstrates that they represent a truncated form of the radiant
near-death experience. In them a process that is triggered by nearly
dying is interrupted and sometimes arrested. These frightening NDEs can
thus be thought of as incomplete NDEs.
Third, Ring's suggestion that frightening NDEs are caused by our
resistance to ego-death opened up an exciting new line of thinking in
the discussion. A Course in Miracles
(1975) is in complete agreement with Grof's observations on this point:
ultimately, we suffer because we resist the fact that the personality,
which we had taken as our identity, does not exist as anything real or
enduring. I suggest, however, that Ring's account of this resistance
did not go deep enough, as Grof's paradigrn indicates that this
resistance is actually rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness.
Common Ground With Ring
Ring convincingly argued, with Grey's support (1985), that hellish NDEs
are "merely more intense versions of 'inverted' NDEs." His presentation
of the case of Howard Storm, in which a hellish NDE converted to a
pleasant NDE, removed the only remaining obstacle from Greyson and
Bush's study (1992) to viewing inverted and hellish NDEs as differing
only in severity. I will therefore focus my attention on hellish and
meaningless void experiences. If it can be demonstrated that these two
types of NDEs share a common origin, we will be on safe ground assuming
that the same holds true for inverted cases.
Ring did an excellent job of demonstrating the close parallels between
meaningless void NDEs and Grof's Basic Perinatal Matrix II (BPM II)
experiences. In both contexts individuals experience existence as
completely devoid of purpose and doomed to failure. All our attempts to
construct meaningful lives and to create anything beautiful are seen as
utterly futile. Death and destruction are the paramount realities that
despoil and mock our dreams. In both contexts persons must confront
agonizing feelings of metaphysical alienation, loneliness, and
desperation. Everything appears hopeless and completely without meaning.
What Ring left out of the picture, however, is the fact that the
anguish of BPM II frequently culminates in profound experiences of
hell. Indeed, Grof observed that the experience of hell is often the
deepest level of BPM II. For example, in Realms of the Human Unconscious he wrote:
The Parallels With Perinatal Experience
If we compare this summary of BPM II experiences with Grey's summary of
negative and hellish NDE experiences, the parallels are striking:
More frequently the activation of this matrix
results in a rather characteristic spiritual experience of "no exit" or
"hell." The subject feels encaged in a claustrophobic world and
experiences incredible physical and psychological tortures. This
experience is characterized by a striking darkness of the visual field
and by ominous colors. 'Typically, this situation is absolutely
unbearable and, at the same time, appears to be endless and hopeless. .
The characteristic elements of this pattern can be experienced on
several different levels; these levels can occur separately,
simultaneously, or in an alternating fashion. The deepest levels are
related to various conceptions of hell to situations of unbearable
physical, psychological, and metaphysical suffering that will never
end, as they have been depicted by various religions. (1975, p.116; my
To fully appreciate the degree to which hellish BPM II experiences
mirror hellish NDE experiences, one must compare individual cases. This
can be done by folllowing the references listed at the beginning of
this paper. To illustrate the intimate detail of the correspondences
one will find there, let me insert two cases. The first account,
previously unpublished, comes from an LSD therapy session of a
well-educated professional and contains paradigmatic BPM II content:
A negative experience is usually characterised by a
feeling of extreme fear or panic. other elements can include emotional
and mental anguish, extending to states of the utmost desperation.
People report being lost and helpless and there is often an intense
feeling of loneliness during this period coupled with a great sense of
desolation. The environment is described as being dark and gloomy, or
it can be barren and hostile. . . .
The hell-like experience is defined as being one which includes all the
elements comprehended in the negative phase, only more so in that
feelings are encountered with a far greater intensity. There is often a
definite sense of being dragged down by some evil force, which is
sometimes identified with the powers of darkness. At this stage,
visions of wrathful or demonic creatures that threaten or taunt the
individual are occasionally described, while others recount being
attacked by unseen beings or figures which are often faceless or
hooded. The atmosphere can either be intensely cold or unbearably hot.
It is not uncommon during this phase of the experience to hear sounds
that resemble the wailing of 'souls' in torment, or alternatively to
hear a fearsome noise like that of maddened wild beasts, snarling and
crashing about. Occasionally, respondents will report a situation that
resembles the archetypal hell in which the proverbial fire and an
encounter with the devil himself are experienced. (Grey, 1985, p. 58)
Compare this account to the following description of a hellish NDE from the Evergreen Study (Lindley, Bryan, and Conley, 1981):
I don't know how to describe the places I was in
today, the searing pain and torment of thousands and thousands of
beings, myself with them, tortured to their breaking point and then
beyond. I did not want to believe that regions of such unspeakable
horror existed. I moved through layer after layer of anguish,
descending into more and more primitive levels until eventually I
reached a level I can only liken to hell itself. Excruciating pain.
Unspeakable horror beyond any imaginings. I was lost in a rampaging
savagery that was without bounds. The world of the damned. The worst
pictures of the world's religions which universally describe the
tortures of this place only touch the surface. The suffering tears you
apart until you've died a thousand times and can't die any more. Then
you find a way to die some more.
The phenomenological parallels between these two sets of experiences
are extensive and detailed. Furthermore, their dynamic patterns also
demonstrate striking consistencies. For example, in both contexts
fighting the experience simply intensifies it, while yielding to it
causes it to resolve itself into a positive transpersonal experience.
If allowed to run their full course, both experiences culminate in ego
death followed by spiritual rebirth (Grof, 1985), as Ring noted.
In the context of LSD therapy, the experience of hell constitutes the
deepest form of the crisis of meaning. What makes hell hell is not just
excruciating pain but "knowing" that this pain is completely devoid of
meaning. Interestingly enough, at least some NDErs appear to agree with
this assessment. In two of the four cases that Greyson and Bush (1992)
listed as examples of eternal void NDEs, subjects spontaneously
described their experiences in terms of Hell. One even penned a poem to
I went downstairs!. Downstairs was dark, people were howling, [there was] fire, they wanted a drink of water. . . .
First we went down. . . . it was pitchblack . . . .
It was not a tunnel, more than a tunnel, a great big one. I was floating down. . . .
I seen a lot of people down there, screaming, howling.
I'd say about, almost a million to me. . . .
They were miserable and hateful. They were asking me for water. They didn't have any water. . . .
[H]e was there. He had his little horns on. . . .
I know him anywhere. . . .
The devil himself. (p.114)
If, therefore, BPM II combines in a coherent manner meaningless void
and hellish experiences, this suggests that these two types of NDEs
might not be as distinct as Ring proposed, but might in fact have
common roots in the perinatal level of consciousness. Furthermore, if
inverted NDEs are correctly viewed as simply milder versions of hellish
NDEs, then we find in Grof's category of perinatal experience a
dimension of consciousness that underlies and unites all three types of
frightening NDEs. Different aspects of BPM II appear to surface in
different NDEs, sometimes separately, sometimes in conjunction with
other aspects. Sometimes the experience is particularly severe, some
times milder. These are all variations seen in the context of LSD
The only remaining obstacle to this proposal is the absence of a
documented case in which a meaningless void NDE converts to a radiant
NDE. Such a case would strengthen the hypothesis put forward, and
indeed the prolonged failure to find such a case would weaken it. As
Greyson and Bush (1992) noted, the sample of void NDEs is as yet quite
small, and all we can say for sure at this point is that the jury is
still out on this one. On the basis of the parallels with psychedelic
experience, I predict that it is only a matter of time before such a
case appears, just as Ring was able to locate a case of a hellish NDE
converting where Greyson and Bush had found none.
Before developing the perinatal interpretation of frightening NDEs
further, let me clarify the import of the evidence presented thus far
for Ring's interpretation of meaningless void NDEs as emergence
reactions to inadequate anesthesia.
I have been to Hell.
It is not as you say:
There is no fire nor brimstone,
People screaming for another day.
There is only darkness-everywhere. (p.105)
Given the existence of a perinatal matrix that includes the full range
of experiences that show up in both void and hellish NDEs, it would
seem advisable that we not attempt to explain their appearance through
entirely different mechanisms, but look instead for a unified
explanation of their origin. If this seems a wise course of action, we
then have two options. Either we move to reclassify hellish experiences
together with meaningless void experiences as emergence reactions, or
we drop this interpretation of meaningless void experiences altogether.
I recommend the latter option for two reasons.
First, Grof (1975) has argued that neither the physical nor the
psychological symptoms associated with psychedelics can be interpreted
as resulting from the direct pharmacological stimulation of the central
nervous system. The experiences that surface in the psychedelic state
are too variegated from person to person and change too much across a
single individual's multiple sessions to be reasonably interpreted as
mere pharmacological artifacts. Furthermore, there is a demonstrable
logic to the experiences that emerge over a string of sessions that
indicates a successive unfolding of deeper and deeper layers of the
When Ring suggested therefore that we might best understand meaningless
void experiences as "reflecting mainly the effects of these anesthetic
and psychedelic agents on human consciousness," he misrepresented the
true psychoactive effects of psychedelics at least. Grof's data clearly
indicate that we must interpret the states of consciousness triggered
by LSD in terms of the psyche's inherent processes, not in terms of
biological responses devoid of psychological significance. As for
ketamine, Grof (1980) has criticized interpreting the peculiar states
of consciousness that one experiences during awakening from this
anesthetic as emergence reactions. Ketamine induces a state of
dissociative anesthesia quite different from the state induced by
conventional anesthetics. In low doses it functions as a psychedelic,
inducing an out-of-body state in which the patient detaches from
physical reality and shifts to other levels of consciousness.
Meaningless Void NDEs as Emergence Reactions
The parallel Ring drew to LSD and ketamine "induced" experiences, therefore, actually argues against interpreting
meaningless void NDEs as mere emegence reactions. (It is interesting
to note in this context that Ring's very unpleasant experience on
ketamine was cognitively consistent with the view of life offered by A Course on Miracles
(1975). The essence of each is that our lives as we know them on Earth
are not "real" compared to another reality outside time/space. What A Course in Miracles
offers as a supreme illumination nevertheless inspired horror when
experienced directly. Is the source of this horror ketamine or the
There is a second and definitive reason for not classifying these
experiences as emergence reactions, and this is the fact that the full
range of BPM II experiences, including meaningless void experiences,
can surface in therapeutic contexts that are completely drug free. In The Adventure of Self Discovery,
Grof (1988) set out the principles and methods of "holotropic therapy,"
a very intense form of experiential psychotherapy that combines
intensive breathing, evocative music, and focused bodywork. The cases
presented there demonstrate that the perinatal experiences that emerge
in this context are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from
those that emerge in psychedelic contexts.
One last comment: Ring was rightly struck by Greyson and Bush's (1992)
observation that the majority of their meaningless void NDE cases
occurred during childbirth under anesthesia. While Ring focused on the
anesthesia as a possible explanation for these experiences, I would
suggest that we look to childbirth itself. Grof has observed that the
experience of giving birth sometimes stimulates the emergence of the
perinatal level of consciousness in delivering mothers. Given the
central role of biological birth in perinatal experience, it is not
surprising that giving birth should sometimes cause memories of their
own birth to surface in women. Other peri-natal content, such as the
meaningless void aspect, would then be drawn in through association to
this natal aspect, following the complex logic of the perinatal
Having said this, I do not want to suggest that anesthesia has no role
whatsoever in precipitating frightening NDEs. If anesthesia plays a
part here, it lies, I think, not in generating these experiences but in
lowering the resistance of ego-consciousness to the unconscious, thus
allowing these powerful underlying experiences to emerge. In the final
analysis, neither childbirth nor inadequate anesthesia causes these
unpleasant experiences in the sense of being their ultimate source, but
both may contribute to their emergence in this specific context. To
understand their true cause, we have to look beyond these triggers and
into the deeper psyche.
Integrating Ring's and Grey's Approaches
Taking his lead from A Course in Miracles (1975), Ring argued that the source of frightening NDEs lies in our fear of losing our ego-identity:
Grey took a somewhat different approach in Return from Death (1985),
where she suggested that hell-like NDEs might be caused by the release
of negative emotions that had been trapped in the psyche. She directed
our attention to the negative post-mortem bardos described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Evans-Wentz,
1957) and suggested that these reflect "'unfinished business' that has
become trapped in the psyche or soul and which continues to cause
problems until recognised and overcome" (p.191).
Both of these approaches to the problem have merit and both contribute
important pieces to the discussion, but neither by itself is
sufficient, I think, to solve the riddle of frightening NDEs.
The problem with Ring's approach is one of proportion. Estimates of the
incidence of frightening NDEs are preliminary and tentative but range
from 1 to 22 percent of NDErs (Gallup and Proctor, 1982; Garfield,
1979; Lindley, Bryan, and Conley, 1981; Ring, 1980), with the lower
figure being the more commonly cited. Yet the condition of overly
identifying with our egos would appear to be nearly universal. Among
the millions of persons who have had NDEs, surely more than, say, 10
percent were "strongly identified" with their egos at the time of their
NDE. why, then, did only this small percentage of them experience the
kind of frightening NDEs that this attachment should have generated?
At one point Ring appeared to narrow the scope of this correlation. He
cited Igor Kungurtsev's (1991) observation from his research on
treating alcoholism using ketamine that persons who are very control-oriented often had frightening experiences on ketamine because they had
trouble giving up control of their experience. Accordingly Ring
suggested that "those individuals who are unable to let go, or who
enter the experience with undue apprehension for whatever reason
(great situational fear, personal rigidity, massive religious
indoctrination concerning the existence of a literal hell, etc.) would
be expected to undergo 'inverted' NDEs, at least to begin with." This
seems like a reasonable suggestion and may very well be a factor in
individual instances, particularly in weaker, inverted cases. However,
I do not think the fact that some people are more afraid of losing
control of their lives than others will by itself solve the problem of
proportion. The discrepancy involved is still too great.
Surely it is not the exception but the norm in our culture to approach
death "with undue apprehension." While personality rigidity, religious
indoctrination, or situational trauma may intensify an individual's
fear of death in specific cases, the fact is that our culture is
pervasively and profoundly frightened by death, and people in general
are terrified at the prospect of surrendering their body/mind
identities. Indeed, A Course in Miracles
(1975) states clearly that those who hold their ego identities lightly
are still the exception, not the rule, among us humans. If this is the
case, then the problem of proportion is very real for Ring's hypothesis
when so many people are frightened of death and ego dissolution, why
are so few of them propelled into frightening NDEs?
Grey's suggestion that in frightening NDEs people are confronting
unresolved, negative aspects of their unconscious would also seem to
have merit, particularly given the correspondence with The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Evans-Wentz,
1957). By itself, however, it fails to account for the rather narrow
thematic content of these experiences That is, if individuals were
simply confronting "unfinished business' from their lives, we would
expect these confrontations to show a greater variety than they in fact
A point of clarification is needed here. Several researchers (Greyson
and Bush, 1992; Rawlings, 1978) have suggested that frightening NDEs
show considerable phenomenological variety compared to the more
consistent content of positive NDEs, and this would appear to
contradict my claim of narrow thematic content for these experiences. I
do not, however, think there is a problem here. While the imagery of
frightening NDEs may be somewhat variegated, the underlying themes of
these experiences are relatively narrow and well defined, as all
commentators have observed. These themes, outlined above, are
remarkably consistent from person to person and have an almost
"archetypal" quality about them. Grey mentioned this archetypal
quality but failed to give any explanation for it.
Despite this problem, I think Grey's suggestion points us in the right
direction, as does Ring's focus on the role of resistance to ego-death.
In the context of Grofs paradigm, both observations can be viewed as complex and complimentary.
By tracing the roots of frightening NDEs to the perinatal level of
consciousness, we will be able to incorporate both of their
observations into a comprehensive solution to these puzzling
If upon having an NDE, you are strongly identified with
your ego and sufficiently attached to it that you cling to it like a
drowning man might clutch to a raft, you will naturally bring a great
deal of fear into your experience, . Such an individual's emotional
state will then tend to generate images consonant with that fear, which
will only cause it to strengthen. The person will therefore continue to
feel deeply menaced, as he or she is indeed threatened with extinction
- as a separate ego.
The experiential parallels cited above strongly suggest that all three
forms of frightening NDEs are rooted in the perinatal level of
consciousness. I now want to set out a more fully developed
presentation of this proposal. Let me begin by reviewing the most
pertinent features of perinatal experience, as described by Grof (1975,
A Perinatal Interpretation of Frightening NDEs
In contrast to the variety of themes and issues that characterize the
psychodynamic level of consciousness, the content of the perinatal
level is rather narrow. It focuses on those problematic experiences
that are universal and endemic to the human condition. Its themes are
birth, physical pain, disease, aging, and death. It collects and stores
the undigested remnants of those experiences that most seriously
challenge our individual physical and psychological existence.
Narrow and Universal Thematic Content
At the perinatal level, the unconscious is organized into highly
condensed systems (COEX systems) that store our experiences in
thematically congruent clusters, Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs) I
through IV. When the perinatal level is activated, one confronts not
simply individual memories and fears but highly sedimented and
compressed patterns of memories and fears, the distilled residue of
lifelong behavior patterns. Because the energy of a COEX system is the
cumulative energy of all its component parts, such encounters are
exceptionally powerful and overwhelming.
As the intersection of the personal and transpersonal dimensions of
consciousness, the perinatal level has both personal and transpersonal
aspects. It is not just the fetal level of consciousness but
rather an operational mode of consciousness in which the personal and
transpersonal blend, sharing their organizational patterns and
Given its hybrid nature, our description of the perinatal will differ
depending on whether we are looking at it from the personal or transpersonal side of the equation.
From the personal perspective, perinatal appears to be the basement of
the personal unconscious in which are stored the undigested fragments
of those experiences that have most seriously threatened our physical
and psychological integrity. It is the repository of the most serious
challenges to our existence. Small wonder, then, that fetal experiences
would figure so large here, as they derive from that period in our
development when we were most vulnerable and most easily overwhelmed by
From the transpersonal perspective, however, the perinatal domain looks
quite different, and here we discover interesting common ground with A Course in Miracles
(1975). From the transpersonal side the - perinatal domain looks like
the residual core of the insanity of atomized existence. It is the
repository of our individual and collective attempts to live the lie of
separateness, to pretend that we exist as autonomous beings, isolated
from the surrounding tapestry of existence. As such it represents the
supreme philosophical ignorance and psychospiritual disease. The
perinatal level consolidates the identity of an individual and an
entire species that has not yet used its self awareness to penetrate to
the roots of its existence where it would discover its connection to
the whole of life.
From the personal perspective, perinatal experience takes the form of
being attacked and fighting back, of killing and being killed until -
eventually we are completely and utterly destroyed. As we make the
transition to the transpersonal perspective, however, these same
experiences are discovered to be loving attempts to rescue us from our
misguided efforts to cut ourselves off from the larger flow of life
itself. Merciless attack from one perspective is merciful deliverance
from another. We were not being killed at all but being birthed into a
reality that is larger, more fundamental, and more "real" than physical
real ity. Ring's discussion of Jacob's Ladder
(Rubin, Lyne, and Marshall 1991) is directly on target here. Indeed,
this movie could be viewed as a screenplay of the perinatal dimension.
The Repository of the Illusion of Separate Existence
In BPM ll-IV, the individual must face the deepest roots of existential
despair, metaphysical loneliness, and profound feelings of guilt and
inferiority; but the nuance and focus of the confrontation differ in
each phase and follow a developmental sequence.
In BPM II the subject typically experiences an overwhelming assault
against which he or she is utterly helpless. Tortured without chance of
escape, he or she is plunged into extreme metaphysical despair.
Existence appears to be completely meaningless, and feelings of guilt,
inferiority, and alienation have a distinctly hopeless quality to them.
This is usually the first matrix that appears in therapeutic contexts.
In BPM III many of the above themes are continued but with an essential
difference. Because there is now a slight possibility of escape - the
cervix is dilated - a titanic struggle for survival takes place. A
frequent experience related to this matrix is the encounter with
purifying fire that destroys all that is disgusting or corrupt in the
individual (Grof, 1980).
In BPM IV the subject eventually loses the struggle for survival and
experiences complete ego-death. His or her entire world collapses with
the complete loss of all meaningful reference points. After the subject
has died as an ego, he or she experiences rebirth into a
trans-individual mode of consciousness. All torment suddenly ceases and
is followed by experiences of redemption, forgiveness, and profound
love. These experiences are subsequently deepened in a mystical
direction as the subject becomes absorbed into fully developed
experiences of cosmic unity characteristic of BPM I (Grof, 1975).
The death-rebirth process is never fully actualized in a single
session, and many sessions of repeatedly engaging the same issues are
required before one has exhausted all perinatal content. The usual
pattern is that a subject working at this level will eventually
experience a major perinatal crisis centering on one of the phases
described above. Yielding to and resolving the crisis will usually
shift the person into positive transpersonal experiences for the
remainder of the session, even though perinatal content may remain for
future sessions. During the final stage of a session, persons may
experience reentry difficulties as their consciousness shrinks back to
its normal boundaries if they get stuck in unresolved psychodynamic or
perinatal material (Grof, 1980). (This pattern parallels James Lindley,
Sethyn Bryan, and Bob Conley's (1981) observation that negative
experiences often occur at the beginning and the end of NDEs.) If the
process is continued through multiple sessions, a final death-rebirth
experience will eventually consume all perinatal material. In
subsequent sessions the subject will move directly into transpersonal
Let me now apply these observations to frightening NDEs. One of the important insights in Ring's Heading Toward Omega was that "What occurs during an NDE has nothing inherently to do with death or with the transition into death "(1984,
p. 226; Ring's emphasis). His articulation of the parallels between
transcendent NDEs and the mystical experiences that emerge in various
meditative disciplines demonstrates that nearly dying is but a trigger
that catapults persons with some consistency into higher states of
consciousness that can also be cultivated through various
What happens, however, if for some reason the thrust toward this higher
state of awareness does not carry someone all the way to the point of
transcendence? What happens if the consciousness-expanding power of
their NDE is sufficient to carry them beyond their personality
consciousness but insufficient to open them to the transcendental level
of their being.
The indications from LSD therapy are that these persons would get
caught somewhere in the labyrinth of their deep unconscious. When
persons experience a transcendent NDE, they have been catapulted
through this labyrinth and end up beyond it. They have not dissolved it
but have pierced it to reach the larger reality it screens. If they do
not get this far, however, they will be susceptible to a perinatally
We might think of such a person as stuck in the tunnel that most NDErs
pass through without complication. The tunnel here represents the
transition from the personal level of consciousness to the
transpersonal, that is, the transition through the perinatal domain. In
this context it may be significant that in three of the cases that
Greyson and Bush (1992) presented, the frightening phase of the NDE
began while the subject was actually in the tunnel or in the transition
A perinatal interpretation of frightening NDEs both confirms and
expands Grey's (1985) suggestion that in these NDEs one is confronting
problematic unfinished business from one's life. Grof's paradigm
expands our framework for conceptualizing this encounter by identifying
a level of consciousness deeper than the personal unconscious, where
the dynamics of this "unfinished business" go beyond anything
envisioned by conventional psychodynamic theory. At the perinatal level
of consciousness, our idiosyncratic histories begin to yield to a
narrow set of issues fundamental to human existence: birth, physical
pain, disease, and death. The experiences that distinguish us as
individuals begin to yield to experiences that unite us with other
members of our species. This turn toward the collective is more than
simply a turn to collective themes, however; it is also a turn to a collective mode of experience.
According to Grof's model, the perinatal dimension of consciousness is
both the basement of personal consciousness and the beginning of
transpersonal consciousness. It is the region of overlap between the
individual and that which the individual is part of: most immediately
the species mind (Bache, in press; Sheidrake, 1981, 1989). When we
turn deeply within, we find that our personal experience of perinatal
themes begins to merge with our species' experience of these same
themes. At the perinatal level, our mind opens to the species mind, and
we are drawn into collective experiences of previously unimaginable
proportions. Here the line between my pain and the pain of my species
is systematically blurred until it disappears. As Grof observed:
Patterns in Perinatal Experience
When these sorts of experiences emerge in either therapeutic or
near-death contexts, they will take the form of collective ordeals
centered on perinatal themes. As already noted, one of the most
painful experiences associated with BPM II is the experience of hell.
This hell will be not the private projection of an individual's
personal pain but a genuinely collective experience. We might think of
it as the creation of the species as a whole, to which the individual
has gained access through his or her NDE. In the psycho-plastic world
one enters after dissociating from one's body, personal and collective
components will be synthesized into experiences of devastating
The archetypal quality of such experiences derives from the fact that
one is confronting patterns of suffering that are universal to the
human condition. (Parallels with the Sidpa Bardo described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead [Evans-Wentz, 1957] are striking.)
Though intense beyond description, these hellish experiences are, as
Ring argued, not as ontologically real as the transcendent experiences
that will eventually emerge if one completely surrenders to this
suffering. whether experienced in the context of LSD therapy or an
NDE, the transition from hell takes the form of (partial or complete)
ego-death. What is dying is not anything real but merely an attachment
to a partial identity. In its place arises a new identity, grounded not
in our bodies but in a transcendent reality that underpins all
Grof's paradigm, therefore, supports Ring's assertion that frightening
NDEs are driven by our resistance to ego death. It also, however,
deepens it by emphasizing that this resistance is more than situational
or characterological. It is in addition a resistance that is embedded
in the deepest strata of the personal and the collective unconscious.
It is our cumulative resistance to the most fundamental spiritual truth
about ourselves. This resistance may surface in a milder form in
inverted NDEs or in a more severe form in hellish and meaningless void
NDEs. Its roots, however, reach into the very depths of our existential
confusion about ourselves.
It would seem that a perinatal interpretation of frightening NDEs has
only worsened the problem of proportion that I earlier criticized in
Ring, and I think this is partly true. If our resistance to ego-death
is rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness, and if this level is
a universal structure of consciousness, it would appear to be even
harder to explain why so few persons who nearly die experience
A perinatal reading of frightening NDEs does not so much solve this
problem as redefine it and thereby shift where we should be looking for
answers. It suggests that the reasons some people have frightening NDEs
while others do not lie less in the psychodynamic particulars of the
individuals involved and more in the variables inherent in their NDEs.
While I think that Ring was correct that some individuals hold on to
their ego-identities more fiercely than others, I suspect that the
larger share of the explanation for perinatally tainted NDEs will lie
in the conditions that cause some NDEs to be weaker than others.
Why do frightening NDEs occur so infrequently? I don't know. Perhaps it
happens more often than we have yet identified, as some researchers
think (Clark, cited in Flynn, 1986). Perhaps more people have
frightening NDEs and either do not remember them or do not report them.
Alternatively, it may be the case that once a strong NDE is initiated
by a biological trauma, deviations from the prototypical script are
simply rare. Perhaps once certain thresholds are crossed, the
psychospiritual impetus generated by nearly dying is simply strong
enough to carry the large majority of persons through the perinatal and
into the transpersonal dimension of consciousness without complications
arising. There is much we do not understand here and much work to be
At the present time, however, the most important point to realize is
that the experiences of those few whose journey to the light is
interrupted or sidetracked closely parallel experiences that occur in
therapeutic contexts that are better understood and better mapped. By
recognizing the perinatal features of frightening NDEs, we can
incorporate them into a comprehensive model of consciousness that makes
sense of them and, in this way, lessens their sting.
The interpretation of frightening NDEs offered here is, of course, a
speculative hypothesis requiring further verification and refinement.
One avenue of research immediately suggests itself. Grof (1980) has
outlined a set of clinical complications that can arise when perinatal
material emerges in therapy but is unresolved by the end of the
session. Research into the aftereffects of frightening NDEs that do not
convert to radiant NDEs might explore the degree to which these
aftereffects parallel the clinical derivatives of unresolved BPM II
material in LSD therapy. This is a complex assessment that must take
into account the pre-existing condition of the LSD patient, but these
are manageable variables if handled carefully. Correspondingly,
holotropic therapy might be explored as a therapeutic option for
survivors of frightening NDEs. Positive results would strengthen the
hypothesis put forward here.
With further research it may be necessary to consider a modification of
the perinatal thesis presented here. It may turn out to be the case
that inverted NDEs will be able to be satisfactorily conceptualized in
terms of the psychodynamic level of consciousness, and the perinatal
level may need to be invoked only for hellish and meaningless void
NDEs. I am convinced of the necessity for a perinatal interpretation
for the latter two types of NDEs, but am less certain about the status
of inverted NDEs. This division may end up being the preferred
balancing of the arguments Ring and I have put forward. A detailed
phenomenological study is needed to clarify this question. We are
trying to mark divisions in the spectrum of consciousness, and inverted
NDEs are clearly in a gray zone. Whatever the final determination of
this matter, it will not affect the overall thrust of the argument
presented here, as the perinatal is the foundation of the personal
unconsciousness and the repository of our deepest illusions about our
true identity and our deepest fears of ego-death.
A subject can experience himself as thousands of
soldiers who have died on the battlefields of the whole world from the
beginning of time, as the tortured victims of the Spanish Inquisition,
as prisoners of concentration camps, as patients dying of terminal
diseases, as aging individuals who are decrepit and senile, as mothers
and children dying during delivery, or as inmates maltreated in chronic
wards of insane asylums. (1975, p. 116)
There is an important point that I want to make in the closing pages of
this paper, and I wish to address it particularly to those who have had
a frightening NDE and to those who might one day counsel someone who
has had one.
Survivors of frightening NDEs are doubly alienated in our culture.
First, they must manage the general failure of our society even today to
accept the reality of their experience. Second, and more importantly, ~
while the majority of NDErs report basking in divine light, they were
taken to hell, or at least to its doorstep. How could they not take
this as a devastating commentary on their life? How could they not
conclude ~ that they were deliberately singled out for harsher
treatment by some higher intelligence? This reaction is reinforced by
theological interpretations of frightening NDEs (Rawlings, 1978). If
the analysis proposed here is essentially correct, however, these are
all fundamentally mistaken interpretations of what has occurred.
A frightening NDE is not an alternative NDE but an incomplete NDE. It
is not necessarily a reflection of the individual's moral character but
represents instead an encounter with some of the deepest structures of
the psyche, structures that are universally distributed among persons.
Why one person is carried through these structures while another is not
has more to do with the strength and intensity of the NDE itself than
with the person undergoing the experience, and these are influenced by
many factors, most of which probably have yet to be identified.
Perhaps one of the clearest ways to make this point is to remind
ourselves that the descent into hell has happened to some rather
saintly persons. It happened, for example, to St. Teresa of Avila, the
famous sixteenth-century Catholic mystic. Teresa regularly entered into
nonordinary states of consciousness while deep in prayer and not
infrequently left her body during these episodes. while in the out-of-
body state, she had extraordinary experiences, many of which were quite
unpleasant. In her autobiography (1991/1565), which was written not for
publication but to allow her superiors to assess her spiritual
experiences, she described in detail one particularly difficult ordeal,
a descent into hell:
The Frightening NDE as a Purification Experience
NDErs who have had similar experiences might be interested to know that
Teresa considered this and her many other frightening experiences in
the out-of-body state to be especially beneficial and helpful to her
spiritual development! She did so not because she harbored masochistic
tendencies but because she had come to understand that these ordeals
were a kind of purification process. Through them something negative
was being lifted from her soul. By submitting to them and following
them wherever they took her, she found that her experiences of mystical
Teresa was not alone in experiencing such ordeals, nor in recognizing
their purifying function. In fact, the descent into hell is simply an
extreme instance of a large set of arduous experiences that are a
rather common feature of the mystic's journey. In the Christian
tradition, these difficult experiences are called the "dark night of
the soul," and Teresa's close friend, St. John of the Cross, is perhaps
their most well- known chronicler (1959/1584). The Vissudhimagga
a Buddhist manual of meditation practice, calls them the "Higher
Realizations." Collectively these experiences represent a series of
particularly harsh purifications aspirants must undergo as they slowly
uncover the transcendent core of their being.
In a series of papers, I have argued extensively that these dark night
experiences are also manifestations of the perinatal dimension of
consciousness (1981, 1985, 1991). In the dark night, spiritual
practitioners are encountering essentially the same set of experiences
that surface during the perinatal phase of LSD therapy or holotropic
therapy. The experiences are the same, the patterns within these
experiences are the same, and the outcome of successful engagement is
the same -- ego-death and spiritual rebirth into a transcendental order
of existence. If NDErs occasionally experience their own version of the
dark night, they can take some comfort in knowing that they are keeping
rather distinguished company. Furthermore, they should understand that
in confronting these extremely dark recesses of the unconscious, they
are not being punished or judged but rather purified and made ready for
their final homecoming.
A larger pattern emerges. The descent into hell and similar
excruciating experiences occur on the mystic's journey to God, the LSD
subject's journey to wholeness, and the NDEr's journey to the light - a
striking confirmation of Ring's earlier contention that we must
separate the NDE from the context of death in order to understand it
fully. Not only in its ecstatic forms but also in its problematic
forms, the NDE shows itself to be a coherent part of humanity's
spiritual pilgrimage to discover its true nature.
The entrance, I thought, resembled a very long,
narrow passage, like a furnace, very low, dark and closely confined;
the ground seemed to be full of water which looked like filthy,
evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked-looking reptiles. At the
end there was a hollow place scooped out of a wall, like a cupboard,
and it was here that I found myself in close confinement. But the sight
of all this was pleasant by comparison with what I felt there. . . My
feelings, I think, could not possibly be exaggerated, nor can anyone
understand them. I felt a fire within my soul the nature of which I am
utterly incapable of describing.
My bodily sufferings were so intolerable that, though in my life I have
endured the severest sufferings of this kind . . . none of them is of
the smallest account by comparison with what I felt then, to say
nothing of the knowledge that they would be endless and never ceasing.
And even these are nothing by comparison with the agony of my soul, an
oppression, a suffocation and an affliction so deeply felt, and
accompanied by such hopeless and distressing misery, that I cannot too
forcibly describe it. To say that it is as if the soul were continually
being torn from the body is very little, for that would mean that one's
life was being taken by another; whereas in this case it is the soul
itself that is tearing itself to pieces. The fact is that I cannot find
words to describe that interior fire and that despair which is greater
than the most grievous tortures and pains. I could not see who was the
cause of them, but I felt, I think, as if I were being both burned and
dismembered; and I repeat that the interior fire and despair are the
worst things of all.
In that pestilential spot, where I was quite powerless to hope for
comfort, it was impossible to sit or lie, for there was no room to do
so. I had been put in this place which looked like a hole in the wall,
and those very walls so terrible to the sight, bore down upon me and
completely stifled me. There was no light and everything was in the
blackest darkness. (pp. 301-302)
Note: There is a follow-up chapter on the issue of this article in Dr. Bache's book, Dark Night, Early Dawn. See Chapter 4, Solving the Riddle of Heaven's Fire.
Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Religious
Studies at Youngstown State University. Reprint requests should be
addressed to Dr. Bache at the Department of Philosophy and Religious
Studies, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, OH 44555-3448.
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For an interesting short explanation on how near death experiences can be prevented in a medical surgery setting, see this short article by Dr. Douglas Fields