LIFE AFTER LIFE:
UNDERSTANDING NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE
with RAYMOND MOODY, M.D.
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is near-death experience, and with me is Dr. Raymond Moody, a psychiatrist whose classic book, Life After Life, published in 1976, literally launched the whole movement into research on the phenomenon of near-death experience. Dr. Moody is a founding member of the International Association for Near-Death Studies. He is a professor of psychology at West Georgia College, and he is also the author of Reflections on Life After Life, and The Light Beyond. Welcome, Raymond.
RAYMOND MOODY, M.D.: Thank you very much for having me here, Jeffrey.
MISHLOVE: You know, when you first began investigating the phenomenon of people coming back from near-death experience after having been resuscitated, say, from cardiac arrest, there was almost no literature in the field at all, nothing really for you to relate your research to. It's as if in the last ten years things have changed drastically.
MOODY: That's right. I kept hearing from these patients who had almost died and had had really dramatic experiences that had profoundly altered their lives, and yet I couldn't find anything in the psychiatric literature, the psychiatric textbooks, the medical literature, that could give me any clue as to what was going on with these patients.
MISHLOVE: Why don't we for the benefit of our viewers just outline what a typical near-death experience would be like?
MOODY: Well, a very typical
pattern, or something that the patients commonly tell us, is that at this
time when their heart stops beating, they have a cardiac arrest -- they
have no heartbeat, no detectible respiration -- and very often their physicians
will say something such as, "Oh my God, he's dead, we've lost him," or
something to that effect. The patients will tell us that from their perspective
they feel more alive than ever. They say they float up out of their bodies,
and they watch the resuscitation going on from a point of view immediately
below the ceiling of the operating room or the emergency room, and they
say from this perspective they can see exactly what's going on down below.
They can understand the remarks and the thoughts of the medical personnel
who are around. They say after a time in this very unusual experience that
they're having a great deal of difficulty understanding -- in effect, "How
can I be up here watching me down there?" It doesn't seem to make any sense
MISHLOVE: Truly yourself.
MOODY: Truly yourself. And at this point, at this moment of isolation and realizing that this is what we call death, then very unusual, transcendental experiences begin to unfold. I call them transcendental partly because the patients say that these later steps of the near-death experience are absolutely ineffable -- that means indescribable -- and that, try as they may, they can't find any words in the ordinary language that we're exposed to, to describe the amazing feelings and experiences they're going through at this point.
MISHLOVE: Beautiful beyond words, in other words.
MOODY: Absolutely. They say they become aware of what's described as a tunnel, a passageway, a portal, and they go into this tunnel, and when they come out, they come out into a very brilliant, warm, loving and accepting light. People at this point describe just amazing feelings of peace and comfort. In this light they say that relatives or friends of theirs who have already died seem to be there to meet them and to greet them and to help them through this transition. Another thing they'll often tell us is that at this point they are met by some religious figure -- Christians say Christ, Jews say God or an angel. They say in this setting that this being, in effect, asks them a question, and they all say that words can't convey it -- that communication in this position does not take place through words as you and I are now using, but rather in the form of an immediate awareness. The way they summarize this question, or try to put it into words, is they say that he asks, in effect, "What have you done with your life? How have you learned to love?" At this point, they say, they undergo a detailed review of everything they have ever done in their lives. This is displayed around them, they tell us, in the form of a full-color, three-dimensional panorama, and it involves every detail of their life, they say, from the point of their birth right up to the point of this close call with death.
MISHLOVE: And it might take only a matter of seconds in our time.
MOODY: Absolutely, Jeffrey. And you know, the people who go through this say that time as you and I are experiencing it now, that's measured by the clock, is not a factor in these experiences.
MISHLOVE: Is this their inner realm which has transcended time as we know it?
MOODY: Right. Many of them say eternity, as the word they will grasp at to explain this. Interestingly enough, during this life review the patients often report that they review the events of their lives not from the perspective they have when they went through the event, but rather from a third-person perspective, in that their perspective is displaced out to the side or above, and they watch themselves go through these life actions from a third-person perspective -- from which, incidentally, they can also empathetically relate to the people with whom they've interacted.
MISHLOVE: In other words, if some of their actions have caused pain in another person, they feel that pain.
MOODY: Absolutely. They take the perspective of the person that they have been unkind to. Accordingly, if they see an action where they have been loving to someone, then they can feel the warmth and good feelings that that has resulted in, in the life of this person. One thing that is fascinating is that all of the patients who go through this tell us that there is one thing that comes up to them as the most important feature in their life in these reviews. They say that it doesn't have anything to do with earthly success; no one asks them about their financial well-being or how much power they've had or any of these other things that our society suggests that we should be paying so much attention to. Every single person has told me that what they were faced with there was the question of how they had learned to love, and whether they had put this love into practice in their lives.
MISHLOVE: What a powerful message for those of us who get caught up into thinking that our identity is so much contingent upon whether we get a raise or a promotion.
MOODY: Right. And certainly that's one of the prominent after-effects of these experiences -- that people have exactly the kind of realization that you're talking about, that those are not the important things in life.
MISHLOVE: In fact, I recall at one point in your book you said as they review their lives, they realize that it's the little things that count, not the big things.
MOODY: Yes, and living in the moment, not worrying obsessively about what's going to happen next week, or deadlines, and so on. After a time in this experience, obviously all of the patients have to come back at one point or another -- some of them see little glimpses of things even beyond what I've described so far. Sometimes they report beautiful pastoral scenes, heavenly scenery, places of amazing beauty. After a time in this, though, all of them have to come back. When they reach the point of coming back, we have various accounts. People differ a little bit in how they describe how they got back. Some of the people say that they suddenly found themselves back without knowing why. They said at first maybe they were out of their bodies watching this resuscitation, then suddenly they just found themselves back in their bodies, perhaps after the paddles had been put on the chest during the resuscitation procedure. Others will tell us that someone there, either this religious being that they were with, God or Christ, or else alternatively a relative or friend of theirs who had died, who was there with them, tells them, "You've got to go back. It's not your time yet. You have things left to do, and you can't come here yet." And so they go back. There is another group of people who say that they were given the choice -- that someone there told them, "Well, you have a decision to make. You can go back to the life that you've been leading, or you can come on in this experience you're having now." It's very interesting that obviously all those that I've talked with who were given that choice have chosen to come back, and when they do it's interesting to me that the reason that they give for returning is universal, with one exception, which I'll relate. The almost universal reason is that the person will say, "From my own point of view I would rather have stayed, but I had children left to raise, so I decided that I had to go back to take care of them." The one exception was a young woman who at the time of her experience was in the last part of her training as a nurse. If I can use her exact words, she told me, "All my life I had wanted to become a nurse and to help people," and so she chose to go back to resume her nursing training and career. I suppose there's not much doubt, or it should be fairly obvious, that when people do return from this experience their lives have been totally transformed.
MISHLOVE: The description that you just gave us is sort of an amalgamation of thousands of people who you've now interviewed.
MOODY: Yes, absolutely. And it's not necessary that every person has every element of that experience. We found that some people who have a relatively brief cardiac arrest may report only one or two of these things, whereas people with more extensive cardiac arrest can report the full-blown picture.
MISHLOVE: It seems to suggest that there's a world beyond, which is a very pleasant world indeed.
MOODY: Suggests -- I'm glad you used that word, because it certainly doesn't give us scientific evidence in a rigorous sense, or proof, that we live after we die. But I don't mind saying that after talking with over a thousand people who have had these experiences, and having experienced many times some of the really baffling and unusual features of these experiences, it has given me great confidence that there is a life after death. As a matter of fact, I must confess to you in all honesty, I have absoutely no doubt, on the basis of what my patients have told me, that they did get a glimpse of the beyond.
MISHLOVE: And they themselves come back with an enormous conviction that they know what death is like.
MOODY: Oh yes, certainly, and it gives them a great sense of peace. Never again do they fear death -- not that any of them would want to die in a painful or unpleasant way, or that they would actively seek this out. As a matter of fact, they all say that life is a great blessing and a wonderful opportunity to learn, and that they don't want to die anytime soon. But what they mean is that when death comes in its natural course of events, they're not going to be afraid. They don't fear it in the least anymore as being a cessation of consciousness.
MISHLOVE: Now, I did have a chance to pick up another book by a medical doctor with a strong apparently fundamentalist Christian leaning. He had read your works, and he was very puzzled. Why were all these experiences so positive, when his Biblical teachings had a little more fire and brimstone? He pointed out that some of his own patients had experienced hellish kinds of experiences.
MOODY: Yes, I have heard anecdotally of a few cases of people who have had hellish experiences, but I don't know how to explain that particular finding that you're mentioning, because certainly I have many other colleagues who have investigated among us many thousands of these reports, and we're all in agreement that the hellish reports are a distinct rarity. I wouldn't have any idea how to explain that. It's conceivable that people who have hellish experiences would be less likely to talk about them, for instance, or something of that nature, but I really don't know.
MISHLOVE: Well, it's ironic that you have now personally investigated over a thousand. There is a whole international society that's accumulating data on more and more. It seems that, as I recall, a Gallup poll has indicated there may be as many as eight million Americans who have had this experience. And yet only a little over a decade ago it was simply not discussed. It was literally unknown in our culture, kind of a buried phenomenon.
MOODY: Absolutely, and I suspect what's happened is that the enormous strides in resuscitation techology over the past couple of decades is a factor here. Just in the past twenty years we have developed devices that can bring people back from a state that a hundred years ago would have been called death, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation is widely taught, even to young people, and so on. So we are seeing, due to the advances in medicine, a much greater number of people who are brought back from the verge of death. In fact, if we look back into history, we find these experiences going way, way back in history, some reports literally thousands of years old. Then more recently, in medieval times, there was a great interest in this phenomenon. One of the Popes of the medieval church became very fascinated with near-death experiences, and actually wrote a book about them. So this goes way back, but what I think is happening is that because there are so many more now, we have just reached a point where something had to be said. We had to understand how to talk with these eight million adults in this country who had had this experience. I should add also that that figure of eight million, Dr. Gallup's poll, obviously dealt with adults; his sample was limited to adults who were polled. What we know now, from some most fascinating work by a pediatrician and some other physicians and researchers, is that children have these experiences identically to those of adults. Dr. Melvin Morse of the University of Washington School of Medicine, who's now a pediatrician in private practice in Seattle, has published three articles in the American Journal of the Diseases of Children on his studies of over fifty children who have had near-death experiences -- again, exactly what we hear from adults.
MISHLOVE: I would imagine that, again, part of it was creating a context for it -- that prior to the publication of your book, Life After Life, people who were having these experiences had very little to relate to in the literature, and I would imagine also that they were afraid to discuss it with their doctors or even their relatives.
MOODY: Yes. It's interesting how many of my patients over the years, before there was any widespread publicity or public knowledge of this, would relate to me that they had tried very hard to tell their physician, or a minister, or a friend, or a relative, but that no one paid any attention to them. They tried to dismiss this. And that was very distressing to the patients, I'm sure, because this was such an overwhelming, very meaningful and touching personal experience, and the patients had no one to listen to them.
MISHLOVE: Now, I think, with eight million people, and the experiences being discussed commonly in many books and research, it would seem as if a whole new context for spirituality is being created, because I gather that these experiences are relatively similar regardless of a person's religious denomination.
MOODY: As far as I know, yes. I haven't done a lot of research in other cultures outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition, so I have to rely on reports that I read in the literature, and so on. I've talked with people from over large areas of the world, certainly -- Western Europe, South America, even the Orient -- but most of these people were people who had been raised in Judaeo-Christian traditions. But certainly, from reports I've heard from other people looking into this, we get identical accounts from other cultures as well. An anthropologist, even working back in the late twenties or early thirties, David Hallowell, wrote a most fascinating paper on his research among the Salto Indians in Canada. He found that the Salto were very intrigued with near-death tales, and they had accumulated a large number of them in their oral tradition. And again, we hear the same kinds of reports that we hear from contemporary Americans.
MISHLOVE: You described the people who have had this experience as being truly transformed in a very deep, deep way. One of the phrases that you use, which touched me a lot, was that they become more spiritual -- not more religious, necessarily. You say being religious means following the teachings of your church, whereas being spiritual means following the promptings of your soul -- that people open up in this way.
MOODY: Oh, absolutely. I think that's a very good way, the way you've described it. They come back saying that it's not denominational religion that counts. I once talked with a very wonderful man who told me that he had his near-death experience during the last year of his seminary training, and he said that up to that point in his life -- and he characterizes himself as a very narrow person -- up to that point he said he was absolutely convinced that only the members of his very specific denomination were going to be in heaven, and that everybody else was going to hell. He said he was firmly committed to this. He said during his near-death experience he went up through this tunnel, after seeing his body, and going into a brilliant light, and being there in the presence of a being who he identified as Christ. And his interesting remark was that he found this Christ to be a much more affable fellow than he had imagined, and in the words he used, he said, "I was very surprised to learn that God wasn't interested in my theology." And so generally, I think, the patients who return from this will say that it's not denominational religion that counts, it's the commitment to the basic spiritual truths that are embodied in religion -- the love of oneself and of others, and the attempt to expand oneself and to be harmonious with God and one's fellow human beings.
MISHLOVE: You reported on another case in which a near-death experience had occurred to a fundamentalist preacher whose sermons prior to his experience had frequently dealt with the fire-and-brimstone kind of theology.
MOODY: Oh yes, this fellow said actually, when he went through the review of his life, it was pointed out to him in a very gentle and loving way that that was not the way to be with people, to try to frighten them.
MISHLOVE: He changed.
MOODY: He changed very dramatically.
MISHLOVE: And this kind of dramatic life change is common.
MOODY: Oh yes, yes. We see this again and again -- no more fear of death, renewed commitment to loving others, a certain feeling that it's the present that's important, living in the present and not worrying about the future and this sort of thing, and I'd say a great sense of contentment and so on. Another interesting thing is that very often they describe a renewed interest in learning. I've had quite a few patients, even patients of advanced age, who had near-death experiences, who said that one of their first impulses when they recovered was to go back to school, some of them even entering college for the first time and so on, because they say in this life review they saw, it was sort of pointed out to them, when they saw events unfolding in which they had been learning something, developing themselves in that way, that that was a plus for them, and that was satisfying and expanding.
MISHLOVE: At one point you indicate that some of them had said that the only things they could take with them into the other realm would be their ability to love and the knowledge that they had acquired.
MISHLOVE: Is this like any kind of technical knowledge, or is it a specific knowledge of the soul, or something of that sort?
MOODY: I suppose more what we would characterize as wisdom, and when you're really trying to learn and to understand.
MISHLOVE: In other words, when it comes right down to it, love and wisdom are the things that are permanent somehow -- everything else will fall away.
MISHLOVE: As people experience this, do you feel that it's affecting our culture as a whole, now that so many people are talking about it in this way?
MOODY: No doubt about it. It's portrayed now in movies. There have been a number of really excellent films, I think -- Resurrection being one of the really good ones. It's even been on soap operas. I see in my own field of medicine that every year now there are a number of articles in the medical journals about near-death experiences -- not from the point of view of using these things to prove or to establish that there's a life after death, but rather in the sense that it has a genuine relevance to clinical medicine. There's a study which indicates very strongly that between, say, forty-five to sixty percent of the people who undergo a cardiac arrest from which they are resuscitated will have an experience of that nature. And so, from the point of view of a physician, whatever one might believe about the origin and the nature and the cause of it, it's certainly important for us to be able to reassure these patients that, look, you're not alone; we don't fully understand what happened to you, but we know that it was a very important thing, and we want to help you to try to integrate it into your life.
MISHLOVE: So right under our noses, virtually, people are having these profound experiences, and whether they're biochemical in origin, or spiritual in origin, now, really for the first time in Western culture -- largely thanks to your work, Dr. Moody -- we can recognize it.
MOODY: Well, it seems so,
although I must say I don't want to take credit for this. That's very nice
MISHLOVE: I'm going to have to stop you here, too, because we're out of time. I appreciate your humility and the genuineness with which you're approaching this most profound phenomenon.
MOODY: What I meant is there are so many other physicians who have made the same findings.
MISHLOVE: Well, Raymond Moody, thank you so much for being with me.
MOODY: Thank you.