Professor, Department of Philosphy and Religious Studies,
Dr. Christopher M. Bache earlier was Director of Transformative Learning at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California. He is presently Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Youngtstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. He is also adjunct faculty at California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco. He received a doctorate at Brown University in the Philosophy of Religion and completed three years of post-graduate training at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. |
CHRISTOPHER M. BACHE: Let me first clarify an important point. As Stan Grof describes it, the perinatal domain is not simply unconscious birth memories. Rather, it refers to a complex dimension of the deep psyche that stands at the interface of individual, personal consciousness and transpersonal consciousness. It is a region of overlap between these two modes of consciousness. It is a gateway through which seamless, holistic consciousness crystallizes into individuated consciousness through physical gestation and birth and, at the other end of life, it is the gateway through which individual consciousness opens back into the seamless fabric of spiritual reality. It is a realm, therefore, that juxtaposes birth and death, personal and transpersonal reality, matter and spirit. It is the foundation of our deepest instincts and memories related to our individual existence and the transition threshold beyond personal consciousness.
When I suggest, therefore, that frightening NDEs are rooted in the perinatal level of consciousness, I am not suggesting that their source is unconscious birth pain, but rather something much more fundamental and elemental. I'm suggesting that a person who has a near-death experience sometimes, not often but sometimes, gets caught in the intermediate realm Grof calls the perinatal realm, at the interface between individual and trans-individual reality. As in holotropic therapy, the key to managing such an episode is surrender, simply surrender to the forces that have you in their grip.
Why do mystics feel positive NDEs such as unitive experiences with the Divine? Not just mystics but ordinary persons fortunate enough to have a positive NDE often experience it as a unitive experience with the Divine. Unitive experiences have many degrees of depth, of course. Persons experience their NDEs as immersion in the Divine, I think, because that's exactly what they are - a brief, powerful opening to the deeper reality that surrounds and sustains the physical universe. Something so awesome, so vast, so compassionate, so intelligent, and so breathtaking that they spontaneously invoke the vocabulary of the divine to describe it.
CMB: I don't think so. Such limited explanations do not do justice to either the cognitive or experiential features of these experiences. Furthermore, in these states one often becomes aware of empirical facts that lie beyond one's ordinary sensate consciousness, facts that can be subsequently confirmed. For a short discussion of the epistemological warrant of various forms of nonordinary experience, see the end of the first chapter in my book, Dark Night, Early Dawn, where I collect a number of provocative cases previously published by Grof.
CMB: Evidence of neurosis or psychosis? Not at all. First, let's remember that the history of mysticism tells us that there are many ways that persons open to the conscious experience of the divine. Some struggle through long episodes of depression and crises as you point out, but others blossom with seemingly little struggle, as though they were just picking up where they left off in their previous life of mystical absorption.
The psychological stress associated with the opening of spiritual consciousness is not a sign of regressive pathology but rather indicates the depth of surrender that true mystical opening requires. It is not easy to surrender everything your body and your culture has all your life told you that you are; not easy to let go of your private existence. Furthermore, once one has actually tasted the ecstasy of transcendence, the confines of ordinary reality can feel depressingly banal until the state of transcendence has stabilized as a solid stage of development. As the consciousness of the Totality stabilizes and deepens, the physical world appears more and more as the miracle that it actually is.
CMB: I don't know but I'd doubt that severe intra-uterine trauma predisposes one to mystical experience. Again, the perinatal domain is not just the birth domain. The unified fabric of light has birthed these little droplets of light we call human beings. Though they may think themselves to be separate drops for a while, in time they learn that they are better thought of as nodes within the unified fabric of light. Birth is simply part of the crystallization of unified consciousness into these nodes of consciousness. Birth has many aspects other than biology.
CMB: Not being a scientist, I cannot evaluate the accuracy of these persons' experience of our phylogenetic heritage, but it is not difficult to understand the deeper logic of these experiences. In order to do so, we need to expand our frame of reference and think about our "birth" in larger terms than something that happens in our mother's womb. That is simply the last stage of a much larger BIRTH process reaching back 13.7 billion years. There would be no humans giving birth if there had not been primates giving birth before them, cells dividing before that, molecules forming and reforming before that, etc. Your and my physical birth assumes a long litany of evolutionary birthing. To understand the being that was birthed when you were born, where should we start? To re-experience the entire evolutionary saga is to remember our true parentage. It is to see our true Mother, that is, the universe itself. It is to remember what we truly are, not just a child of Mr. and Mrs.…….., but a child of the universe. Her history is our history.
CMB: The story we have been telling ourselves for a few hundred years places great emphasis on our early infant and childhood experiences. A larger story told by cultures who believe in reincarnation places great emphasis on a longer sequence of conditioning and reconditioning reaching back through many lifetimes. It is interesting that these cultures that have a more profound sense of the conditioning that shapes our lives - the cultures that believe in reincarnation - also deeply affirm our capacity for free choice.
Having said this, I think we bandy concepts like "free will" around somewhat cavalierly. I would say that we always have a qualified free will, meaning a will that is more or less constrained and more or less free, but that we have the capacity to increase our freedom by the choices we made. What we mean by "free will" I think is our capacity to be freer than we are now. That capacity I affirm deeply.
CMB: I think your first suggestion is correct. Most psychologists agree that the fear of death is one of the deepest instincts we have. And yet many persons drop this fear within seconds because of their NDE, and it remains dropped for the rest of their lives. I personally don't know what could have led so many people to go through such a radical transformation except a convincing experience of the reality of life beyond this physical life.
CMB: I think deep NDEs immerse many people into the Mother Universe, the reality that stands "behind" the reality of our physical universe. Call this more fundamental reality whatever you wish. The world's religions have tried to address this reality, and so it is only natural that the language and concepts used by NDEers should overlap to some degree with the language religions have used to describe the spiritual universe. Let's remember, however, that NDEers are also likely to be extremely critical of the failings and shortcomings of religion, both socially and conceptually. As Ken Ring has demonstrated in Heading Toward Omega, NDEers are likely to become more spiritual but not as likely to become more religious.
CMB: It has been said that a mystic learns to swim in waters that a psychotic drowns in. It takes a strong constitution, a strong ego, to open deeply to the divine depths of existence without being shattered in a negative way. When all goes well, a strong, healthy ego becomes transparent to the divine. (One of the translations of sunyata, "emptiness," is "transparency.") When things do not go so well, instead of transparency there can take place fragmentation. One must heal the fragmentation and strengthen the ego before safe transparency can emerge. As always, there seem to be countless permutations of these processes.
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