This essay is not about butterflies and sunshine--it
is about the difficult time we live in and the
ray of hope we have been given through Near
Death Experiences (NDEs) and hospice experiences.
The outcome is not certain. The hope is. There
is a definite chance of redemption even at this
late date, but attention must be paid to the
values of NDEs and hospice.
If the world in general and America in particular
continue to follow the path of materialism with
people's values, passion, and power being directed
toward acquisition of material possessions,
there is no hope of salvation of the planet.
If, however, people turn toward simplicity
and compassion and connectedness, there is much
hope for a sustainable future that has greater
peace and safety than the world has ever known.
Although we don't like to dwell on it, we all
know the extreme dangers that we face: the wars
that persist throughout the world, the AIDS
epidemic, famines, terrorism, depletion of resources,
enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots,
the nuclear dangers, etc.
One response to these hazards is to simply
focus on the moment and make it as pleasant
as possible. When making it as pleasant as possible
contributes to the problems, much is lost. If
it means using up resources in acquisition of
superfluous things, we have contributed to the
dissolution of resources. When making it as
pleasant as possible means leading lives of
quiet simplicity with intimate connections with
individuals and groups, it can add much to the
resolution of current problems. It not only
saves the environment, but also contributes
to understanding among people and helps to bring
more peace in relationships.
This is where the wisdom of NDEs and the hospice
experience come in. An in-depth psychological
study of people who had undergone NDEs was reported
by Dr. Kenneth Ring in Heading Toward Omega1
in 1984. In addition to a lack of fear of death,
these NDErs tend to be less interested in material
possessions, more interested in universal love
and being of service, more interested in nature,
and more interested in spiritual (not necessarily
theological) matters. These people tend to leave
the business world and enter the world of social
services. If they stay in the business world,
they consider the well being of clients and
employees as much as they do the financial bottom
line. These are the people who tend to volunteer
both formally and informally to assist others
who need help in the moment. People who have
had NDEs understand that we are all part of
the great Oneness and that when they help a
neighbor or a person halfway around the world,
they are helping themselves as well.
These values are seen in hospice patients as
well. As people are dying, they commonly do
a life review where they look at the details
of their lives and seek to make meaning of their
lives. People in the last days of life typically
come to realize that it was the relationships
in their lives that were important to them,
not their accomplishments, and certainly not
their financial acquisitions. The last work
of a lifetime is frequently seeking and giving
forgiveness for old transgressions. People who
are caring for their loved ones in those last
days of life learn a great deal about the meaning
of life. These people frequently begin to do
a life review themselves and contemplate the
values from which they are living their lives.
It is not uncommon for the caregiver to make
big changes in their lives as a result of what
they learned from the dying person. These changes
are always in the direction of greater balance
in life, more spaciousness of time, and a greater
emphasis on peaceful loving relationships.
These changes in values do not only occur in
the people with NDEs and those who are dying
or caring for dying people. These changes in
values are beginning to permeate our society.
Thirty years ago when Raymond Moody first published
his book, Life after Life2,
the concept of NDEs was a novel one. While NDEs
had been anecdotally mentioned throughout time,
never before had a whole book been devoted to
the concept. Prior to that time, people who
had NDEs usually kept them to themselves because
they didn't want to be considered crazy. If
they told anyone, it was usually just one or
two people that they were especially close to.
That book gave people the courage to talk about
their experience and it gave doctors the impetus
to ask patients about the experience. Until
then, it was rare for patients to tell their
doctors about NDEs and, if they did, they were
often referred to a psychiatrist and possibly
put on medications and labeled a psychiatric
Attitudes toward NDEs did not change over night,
but they have changed dramatically over the
past 30 years. The change began with people
being willing to share their experiences. Initial
stories usually found their way to "The
Enquirer." As more and more stories came
out, people were interviewed on daytime television
shows like "Oprah." NDEs came to be
featured in movies like "Resurrection"
and even on television series. Currently, NDEs
are such an accepted part of our culture that
when a movie star has a NDE, that will simply
be mentioned as a part of his/her life rather
than as the main part of the story. In a Spring,
2003 AARP3 journal
article, Tony Bennett's life-changing NDE was
referred to, but not dwelled upon. The thrust
of the article was about how he had changed
his life, not the details of the NDE that had
led to the changes. This is a far cry from the
NDEs in the 1970's that were featured in the
"Enquirer." Some of the best selling
books in the past few years have been about
At the same time that the public was becoming
increasingly curious about NDEs, research was
done on NDEs and it was determined that they
occur in 20-50% of cardiac arrests. A Gallup
Poll4 in 1982 showed
that 8 million Americans had undergone a NDE.
With improving technology for cardiac resuscitation
(including the automatic external defibrillator
device--AED), more people are surviving cardiac
arrests and, hence, the absolute number of people
with NDEs is rapidly rising. These people feel
freer to talk about their NDE than at any other
time in the history of the world, so it is now
common to hear an acquaintance talk about a
NDE. In fact, it is quite common for people
to simply ask someone after a cardiac resuscitation
if they had a NDE. Hence, the influence of NDEs
on values is even more powerful than the number
of people having the experience.
At the same time that interest in NDEs was
on the rise, the hospice movement began in the
United States. From the first hospice that was
founded in 1976 in Connecticut, the hospice
movement has increased at such a rate that currently
nearly every town in the United States has at
least one hospice. Most people now have either
cared for a loved one on hospice or have at
least known someone who died while on hospice
service. Until the hospice movement began, most
people died in ICUs in isolation with daily
15-minute visits from loved ones. Those brief
visits gave little time for life reviews and
intimate conversations. In fact, in those days
prior to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross' work to
change medical professionals' attitudes toward
death and dying, the standard practice was to
not tell people that they were dying. There
was certainly no invitation by the medical community
for dying people to talk about their feelings
and concerns. Families were encouraged not to
talk about dying with their loved ones. The
rationale for that is that a frank discussion
might hasten death.
Much has changed since the 1960s. Mitch Albom's
book, Tuesdays with Morrie5,
was on the bestseller list for over a year.
That book was composed of conversations that
he had over several months with his dying mentor.
This new eagerness for conversations about the
meaning of life (or, at least, reading about
such conversations) bodes well for a change
in values in this country.
Along with the rise of interest in NDEs and
the concerns of the dying, there has been an
increase in interest in spiritual matters in
general. Neale Donald Walsh's book series, Conversations
has been another best seller. There seems a
genuine shift in attitudes toward looking at
the deeper side of life.
In contrast, there has been an upswing in "reality"
shows on television that generally portray the
baser aspects of human kind. This is a time
of great contrasts and the outcome is not certain.
How can we harness this interest in NDEs, hospice
values, and spiritual values to positively affect
our culture? Let's look at what is already happening.
Media tends to focus on the negative aspects
of our daily news, but there have been some
very positive recent changes as well.
There has been an interest in introducing "Spirituality
and Medicine" into medical schools, largely
due to the support of the Templeton Foundation.
Most medical schools now have such a course
that recognizes the influence that spirituality
plays on an individual's level of wellness.
The emphasis in medical school is moving away
from the idea that the patient is simply a machine
that needs to be fixed and the physician is
the mechanic to do the job. The paradigm of
healing is moving toward a more holistic model
that recognizes that the patient's body is constantly
interacting not only with his/her mind and spirit,
but that it is constantly interacting with the
environment as well. The physician is beginning
to see themselves as a part of the therapeutic
team that includes the patient as well as other
health care providers that are contributing
to the patient's sense of wellness. To be sure,
the medical profession is not entirely invested
in this paradigm, but there is definitely a
move in that direction.
Hospitals are also bringing in more complementary
therapies into the in-patient setting. Since
the study by Eisenberg in 19977
showed that 1/3 of health care out-of-pocket
money was spent on complementary therapies;
hospitals and clinics have begun to offer these
services. In the best of settings, these are
integrated into conventional medicine and are
not seen as separate but as integral to successful
outcomes for the patient who seeks optimal wellness.
The March/April 2004 issue of "Spirituality
and Health" featured several of these medical
settings. Small towns such as Great Bend, Kansas
and large medical centers such as California
Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco have
programs like this.
The next front toward adopting the values of
the NDE is to educate the public about the positive
benefits of those values to them. There are
several excellent studies that support that.
- Dr. Dean Ornish reported on the power of
volunteerism in his book, Love and Survival8.
A study of volunteerism showed that people
who worked as volunteers were healthier than
matched controls. When people become volunteers,
they begin to feel themselves connected more
to other people. Their compassion grows. They
spend their time helping other people rather
than consuming resources. The world benefits
from their activities.
- Dr. Randolph Byrd in the cardiac care unit
of the San Francisco General Hospital found
that prayer positively affected the outcome
of patients, even when they didn't know that
they were being prayed for. Dr. Larry Dossey
reported on many other studies illustrating
the power of prayer in his book, Healing
- Stress is one of the biggest factors in
illness. Living a life that requires less
money allows one to work at a more leisurely
pace most of the time. Having fewer belongings
allows a person more spaciousness in time
since they are not busy acquiring and maintaining
a lot of "stuff."
- Dr. Paul Lam reported that tai chi improves
health and reduce stress (Journal of Rheumatology,
200310). It costs
nothing, uses no resources, and can be done
anywhere anytime in a life that has some time
- Food that is raised organically and cooked
with love has higher nutrient value than prepared
foods that are not organically grown. Community
gardens are a great way to produce organic
food while deepening relationships with friends.
What about cooking some great meals together
- Studies have shown that if people feel
connected to other people, their overall health
is better through the years. Being connected
takes time. (Dr. Dean Ornish in Love and
As more and more people adopt these values,
what will the new America look like?
Recognizing that the health and well being
of our neighbors (near and far) impacts our
own health and well being, we will look for
ways to contribute to the happiness of others.
Recognizing that excess material possessions
require undesired expenditures of time and effort,
purchases will be kept to a minimum. Recognizing
that time is needed to develop deep relationships
with ourselves and others, excess distractions
such as most television, will be kept to a minimum.
Recognizing that nature enhances our sense of
well being, we will spend more time in quiet
in nature appreciating the beauty and balance
of nature. That appreciation of nature will
allow us to make wise decisions at the polls
and the market place as to how we want to preserve
that precious aspect of our lives. Recognizing
that our relationship with Spirit is fundamental
to our happiness, we will spend more time in
meditation and prayer. Recognizing that our
bodies are intimately connected with our minds
and spirits, we will eat only those things that
contribute to a sense of radiant health. Having
developed a greater awareness of our bodies,
minds, and spirits, we will create balance in
our daily lives that give us time for movement
as well as quietude. We will create balance
between our time with other people and time
in solitude. With less frantic input from outside
sources, we will come to know ourselves at a
deeper level and make friends with our bodies
and our needs. We will be aware of the difference
between a need and a want. Americans will move
slower, but each move will be purposeful and
in balance with other people. We will honor
the great gift that we have been given to live
in a democratic land of plenty. We will be grateful
and we will share with the rest of the world,
recognizing that we are all a part of the great
Oneness that is humanity.
How do we begin to create this new America?
First, we must recognize that the change is
already in process. Each of the aspects that
I discussed earlier in this essay shows that
a quiet revolution is already in place. The
next question is merely to recognize how each
of us is already contributing to that revolution
and how we would like to contribute at an even
deeper level. I invite each of us to write down
what we are doing to bring about a simpler,
gentler world for others and ourselves. So often,
we slip immediately into what we aren't doing.
Let's first honor ourselves for what we are
doing. As you write down the positive changes,
just gently review for yourself when that change
occurred--no judgment, just a gentle asking
to increase your own awareness of your decision
processes. Then consider the next two or three
things that you would like to change to move
your own life toward more balance and connectedness.
Not big things, just little ones that you can
actually accomplish. Then, simply do those things.
Review back in a couple of weeks or a month
and honor yourself for any small positive changes
that you made. Share those changes with a friend.
It will give you support and allow them to consider
changes that they might be ready to make. Perhaps
you might want to develop a support group of
friends who are working toward making similar
changes. Know that you are part of a growing
All of the concerns listed at the beginning
of this essay--the famine, the wars, the nuclear
dangers, etc.--could be resolved if we each
seriously began to live our lives from the perspective
of a person who expected to die next week or
from the perspective of a person who just had
a NDE. We have just enough time to do just that.
This is the time. We are the people. What greater
purpose could there be for our lives? Together,
we have the power to address the concerns of
our world today. And, we have the love.
- Ring, Kenneth. Heading
Toward Omega. New York: Morrow, 1984.
- Moody, Raymond. Life after
Life. Covington, GA: Mockingbird Books,
- AARP Magazine, 601 E. Street
NW, Washington, DC 20049.
- Gallup, P. and Proctor, W.
Adventures in Immortality: A Look Beyond
the Threshold of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill,
- Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays
with Morrie. New York: Random House,
- Walsch, Neale Donald. Conversations
with God. New York: Putnam, 1994. , 1999.
- Eisenberg, David. "J.
Altern. Complement. Med.," 2001. 7 Suppl
- Ornish, Dean. Love and
Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing
Power of Intimacy. New York: Harper Colllins,
- Dossey, Larry. Healing
Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice
of Medicine. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
- Lam. Paul. "Journal
of Rheumatology" Sept., 2003.
- Ornish, Dean. Love and
Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing
Power of Intimacy. New York: Harper Colllins,
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