" In the imagery of mythology and religion this birth . . .
theme is extremely prominent. (Such change) . . . is comparable
to a birth and has been ritually represented, practically everywhere,
through an imagery of re-entry into the womb. This is one of those
mythological universals that surely merit interpretation. . ."
-- Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology 
In the beautifully illustrated Beyond Death - The Gates of Consciousness, Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina, write about the psychological origins of the themes of the afterlife, heaven, hell and purgatory which they show are pervasive concepts in all religions and cultures of the world from the most ancient times to the present. The authors write that death and dying and afterlife mythological themes are especially common in Hindu, Moslem and Christian sacred writings.
An examination of ancient, medieval, and contemporary writings devoted to these eschatological themes reveals remarkable similarities of descriptions. Why should these different cultures have such universally similar descriptions of what happens to mankind after death? Dr. Grof, a Czech-American psychiatrist and early therapist and researcher of psychedelic (LSD) psychotherapy, writes,
Modern consciousness-research offers interesting new insights into this problem. In psychedelic
sessions, in spontaneous visionary states, and in the practice of experiential psychotherapy, one encounters ecstatic and hellish experiences of an entirely abstract nature as well as concrete and specific images of heavens and hells. It is fascinating to find that occasionally the eschatological symbolism appears to be from a cultural frame entirely unknown to the subject. . ." (p. 14)
It is not only during visionary states and deep experiential psychotherapies when these images occur. Under certain conditions all of us become capable of experiencing such themes. Those who have had a near death experience often recount similar events as do religious mystics whose experiences include "dark nights of the soul" - times during which hopelessness and separation from God form a image of being in hell.
Many who have had such experiences reported having the feeling of the need to undertake a journey to arrive at their final after life destination during which they undergo trials and tests such as crossing dangerous mountains and other formidable landscapes like deserts, swamps and jungles where strange, exotic and often malevolent creatures are encountered. Finally, at the end of the journey, divine judgment is received.
The ancient Egyptians as well as Tibetans have compiled "books of the dead" - instructional manuals for the journey of the soul after death. There have been many such texts in other cultures. In medieval Europe there were Christian counterparts - Ars Moriendi texts - the art of dying writings which emphasized how the devil would attempt to interfere with the salvation of the dying.
Ancient Greek manuscripts refer to the themes of death and subsequent rebirth into a new life. Rites of passage, common in many ancient and modern primitive cultures, have reflected transitions during the life phases of birth, puberty, marriage and death. Shamanic rituals and temple mysteries have also reflected these themes.
These afterlife "journeys," the Grofs write, at one time
As psychiatry and anthropology became established disciplines these visions were thought to be a symptom of severe psychopathology instead of merely superstitious beliefs of primitive people.
In addition, psychotics began writing first person accounts of their breakdowns in terms of these very same maps of consciousness (See my article Psychosis, Mysticism, and Feelings ).
Soon after LSD was discovered during World War II, researchers began to find the very same death-rebirth themes in their clients. These experiences were not restricted to those who were mentally ill but also appeared in their more "normal" research subjects. (See Dr. Grof's first book, Realms of The Human Unconsciousness, 1975.)
For many years Grof was in the forefront of this type of psychotherapy research with LSD. He began such studies in Eastern Europe and in 1967 continued such work in the United States. His research had to be discontinued when all work with psychedelics was made illegal. He and his wife and co-author, then developed Holotropic Breathwork, a non-drug psychotherapeutic modality which again accesses the same death-rebirth material.
The Grofs write that after re-living, in such a regressive psychotherapy, the early traumas of one's life,
". . . sessions focus on the problems of the impermanence of existence, physical pain, emotional agony, aging and decrepitude, and ultimately, dying and death." They continue, "Confrontation with death is just one aspect of the psychedelic experience. A second important aspect is the struggle to be reborn, conceptualized by many subjects as the reliving of their birth trauma." (pp. 25, 26)
". . . were viewed in terms of primitive superstition, group suggestion or collective psychopathology. The descriptions of heaven, hell and the posthumous advertures of the soul were misunderstand - frequently not only by critics of religion, but by clergy and theologians themselves. They were considered to be historical and geographical references rather than cartographies of unusual states of consciousness. " (p. 23)
Dr. Grof has divided the experience of being born into four distinct stages or matrixes which he believes are very similar or even identical with the themes previously described in world mythology and religion.
Before the beginning of the first stage, the unity of the fetus with the mother in the womb is described by those undergoing the experience as feelings of cosmic unity - which is the very same feeling which is described by the mystics of all religions - the unio mystica - as feelings of sacredness and unity with God and sometimes with all of existence.
Stage one is characterized by feelings of cosmic engulfment which is identified as the beginning of one's biological birth when the uterine contractions have begun. Indentifying this stage from a religious viewpoint is typically one of entering the gates of hell or expulsion from the Garden of Eden or the theme of rebellious angels being cast out of heaven.
In stage two the fetus feels as being in a confined situation from which there is no exit. Here the fetus identifies with the torments and suffering of hell as he feels an inability to stop the suffering to which he is being subjected in the birth canal.
The third stage is the death-rebirth struggle typified by uterine contractions sometimes accompanied with feelings of suffocation. One may be reminded of the experience of divine judgment, identification with the temptations of the saints or of purgatory and the death of church martyrs. As the fetus is expelled from the birth canal, feelings of total annihilation are followed by visions of white light and liberation from crushing pressures. The opening of heaven is sensed as well as feeling that one has received revelations of God.
Grof terms this final stage thefourth stage. This death-rebirth phase completes the death-rebirth struggle and is the expulsion of the fetus from the birth canal - one's actual birth. This outline is not meant to imply that all of the feeling content of the various stages are only limited to religious themes - although such themes are quite common and often predominate. Other related feelings which can occur during these four matrixes are described in an article of Dr. Grof.)
The authors write that successful resolutions of such intrauterine confrontations with death can eliminate the fear of death and of dying and result in a spiritual transformation.
The remaining section of Beyond Death, - about sixty per cent of the book - is devoted to 158 attractive color and black and white illustrations ( some full page ) from early Egyptian, Hindu, Chinese, Japanese, Buddhist, Moslem, Mayan, and Christian mystical traditions. Included is a series of seventeen fascinating ink drawings by an artist-patient in LSD psychotherapy.
The themes of the illustrations, which are accompanied with explanatory text, relate to the topics of the book and include death and dying, the entering into the glory of heaven and the torments of hell, encounters with demons and saints, and the final judgment and triumphant rebirth and salvation of the deceased.
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
For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism