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Near Death Experiences

The Impact of the Science of Compassion on NDEs and Healthcare

Based on a Presentation Given at Mercy Medical Center in Durango, Colorado on September 5, 2012
Pam Kircher, MD

The Science of Compassion Conference and NDEs

I participated in a conference on the Science of Compassion in July, 2012 in Telluride, Colorado. The conference was jointly sponsored by the Telluride Institute and Stanford University’s CCARE (Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.) CCARE was developed by Dr. Jim Doty, a neurosurgeon at Stanford, and the Dalai Lama and Dr. Thupten Jingpa, the Dalai Lama’s chief translator. During the course of four days, 40 international researchers presented their findings to 400 participants in 15 minute segments. It was quite a time of taking notes, talking on breaks, and thinking!

One of my main take-home messages was that much of their work centers on helping people to develop the motivation for compassion. It seems to me that the motivation for compassion is an instant result of a NDE and I am fascinated by how that might occur. In private conversations, I discovered that most of them were not very aware of the research on NDEs or on the after effects of NDEs. They were focusing on other areas of compassion while the NDE researchers have been focusing on universal love and not specifically calling it compassion. However, the definition of compassion is having a positive regard for the other person and seeing them with the same interests and concerns as yourself leading to wishing them well as much as you wish yourself well. Sounds a lot like Oneness, doesn’t it?

So, how does this happen so suddenly in a NDE? It may well stem from a mystical recognition of the Oneness. I have begun to wonder, however, if there might also be an epigenetic effect. What we are learning through the field of study of Epigenetics is that aspects of the environment may turn on or turn off certain genes and that causes permanent profound changes in a person. This is called an epigenetic effect and I’m wondering if an NDE is one of those environmental triggers that affect us at a genetic level. What I know for sure, is that there is a permanent change in values after a NDE. It remains to be seen if my theory will be proven correct in the future.

Mindfulness Training and compassion

Meanwhile, the researchers at the conference have found that mindfulness training and meditation lead to more motivation for compassion. As Thupten Jingpa stated, the goal is to meditate to generate the motivation and to make it such a habit that compassion becomes a way of life. Certainly, there are some wonderful results from that method of generating compassion, or an awareness of how we are literally, all part of the Oneness. One study by Dr. Leah Weiss working with veterans with PTSD at the Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto showed that after six-weeks of mindfulness training, the symptoms of PTSD were decreased, and they felt much more hopeful about being able to return to their families. In a study in Atlanta with inner city youth living in environments of chronic stress, Dr. Chuck Raison reported that C - reactive protein (a measure of inflammation) was decreased after six weeks of cognitive-based compassion training. Since NDEs are such life-changing events and by definition, life-changing events (positive or negative) are stress producing, perhaps mindfulness training short after a NDE might not only help the person with a NDE adjust more quickly, but it might help them heal more quickly from the physical problem that brought on the NDE.

The importance of self-compassion

Another area of study that I related to NDEs was the study of self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff from the University of Texas defines self-compassion as recognizing that life is imperfect, noticing your pain and being with it, without exaggerating it. To me, that is one of the outcomes of the life review of the NDE. Imperfections are examined in the forgiving Light, pain is experienced, and there is resolve to do things differently, while recognizing that imperfection still exists. NDErs typically have self-compassion toward themselves when they make mistakes, but continually strive to be more compassionate toward themselves and others. It is not so much the “threat” of an unpleasant life review as it is the deep awareness that we are all interconnected and that life is meant to be lived with love, and that living life with love is actually self-compassion. Dr. Neff found that it is difficult to have sustained compassion for others if there isn’t self-compassion. I believe that lack of self-compassion is one of the key components of caregiver burn-out, professional or otherwise. In a poster presentation, self-ratings of compassion of medical students decreased throughout the course of their studies and took years to recover to their pre-training level. I wonder how the profession would change if self-compassion were encouraged in the training programs.

Results of positivity and mentoring

Another line of research directly relates to the after effects of NDEs and to healthcare professionals as well. Dr. Barbara Frederickson from the University of North Carolina showed that a sense of safety and connection increased vagal tone and allowed a person to be more open to possibilities. Dr. Dan Martin from CA State University of East Bay showed that mentoring at work led to an increased sense of safety and connection. Mentoring had long lasting results on career, social and financial standing. That is why support from other NDErs who have integrated their NDEs is so helpful to the person who has just had one. That is the basis of the NDE support groups throughout the world. Local support groups may be found through It also demonstrates why mentoring programs and support groups might be helpful to all aspects of the medical profession. It would not only decrease stress, but allow individuals to be more open to possibilities.

Integrative Care in the hospital setting

Bringing compassion close to home, there is a beautiful example of Compassion in Action at Mercy Medical Center in Durango, Colorado. The basis of the “Steps to Surgical Success” program and the “Touch, Love, and Compassion” program is the recognition of the importance of compassion in healing. Throughout the decade that patients have participated in the program, I have heard over and over again that those sessions were the aspect of people’s hospitalizations that empowered them to remember the deepest part of themselves and to move into their own self-healing after the expertise of the doctors had set the stage for the healing process. Moving from the deepest part of oneself and living from compassion are the messages of the NDE.

Those programs created such a culture at Mercy that the introduction of nonviolent communication was a natural next step. Nonviolent communication (NVC) is now the accepted culture at Mercy Medical Center and is the language used not only in general, but also in times of disagreement. When it came time to build a new hospital, creating a healing environment became the theme. That healing environment included architecture that felt like a home, not a hospital. It contained original works of art, a lovely healing garden with outdoor sculptures and a waterfall. An outdoor wheel-chair accessible labyrinth was built for the patients, their families, Mercy staff and the community as a whole. Finally, the xeriscape landscaping was completed around the labyrinth creating a space of quiet peace and contemplation.


From my knowledge of NDEs and what I learned about the Science of Compassion at the Telluride Conference, I feel certain that the two fields of research have a lot to share with each other. I also believe that the medical profession could benefit greatly from having more awareness of what has been learned in both fields.


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