✨ Their message is always “I’m OK; please don’t worry.”
✨ Joyfully and lovingly and willingly.
Dr. Fenwick; you are a neuropsychiatrist, and you are an expert in near-death experiences, and end-of-life phenomena. Before I ask you about that; what is a neuropsychiatrist?
I’m a neuropsychiatrist, and that means I’m trained in neurology and psychiatry, and I’ve done that for many years, but it’s a perfect position to be, because you’re between brain and mind. So you can see both sides of the field and understand them much better than if you were just a psychiatrist or a neurologist.
What does your daily work involve?
The day job that I had, was dealing with people of brain damage and the psychological problems that flow from that, so I dealt with epilepsy, and I had large numbers of patients who had seizures and they had altered consciousness of various types, so one can use epilepsy as a model of how the brain works. And that was great. But in my researches, and they were very wide, I was interested in sleep, I was interested, as the equipment came in, to look at brain structure, but first of all I was interested in the electrical activity of the brain, EEG, and in fact, one of the first papers I wrote, was on George Harrison; do you remember George Harrison the Beatle?
Well, he very kindly came along to our lab, and I took his EEG when he was meditating, ’cause he’d been to see the Maharishi and so on; and he was one of the first meditation records that I got, so that then became an interest of mine, so meditation, and unusual experiences, spiritual experiences I studied.
And then I became interested in the near-death experience; that led on to an interest in dying and how we die.
In broad terms, what can we learn from these scans?
So, how does neuropsychiatry help us understand people?
It’s very good, because you get both sides of the picture; you can understand what’s going on in the brain, you can understand what’s going on in their minds. So you’ve got a really quite close correlation between those two things, but it also directs you straight to the fundamental question of our time, and that is; What is consciousness? Is it all brain? Is it outside the brain? Because William James, way back at the turn of the century, said that consciousness was outside, and the brain filtered it, as many people have done since then. Whereas others and the main thrust of modern science is to ignore that, and to say, “No, it’s all brain function”. My view is that’s too limited; I don’t think it is from in it.
Yeah… How did you get involved with near-death experiences?
Near-death experiences I thought was rubbish. Absolute rubbish. It only happened in California, and it would never ever cross the Atlantic. I knew that, and I said so.
Hahaha… When was that?
That was waaay back in the late nineteen-seventies just going into nineteen-eighty.
Until there turned up in my consulting room somebody that had a near-death experience. He had a cardiac catheter in one of our hospitals in London, which had gone wrong, and during the process, he left his body, watched the resuscitation and then had a classical near-death experience. And so, with this as an example, I was able to study them and I came to the conclusion that they really happened, and they had a lot to teach us. So I had to shift my position from “Rubbish” to “Really interesting”.
M-hm. How did you go about studying these phenomena?
First of all, I took individual cases, when I came across them, and looked at those from the point of view of what the people experienced, and I set up a number of studies. Some of them I was allowed to do, others I wasn’t. For example, in one of the hospitals I was in, I wanted to study people in the intensive care unit, and see if they had near-death experiences during that time; and when I put it to that hospital’s ethics committee, the man who ran the intensive care unit said, “NONE of my patients will have experiences like that! It’s a waste of time!” and so I couldn’t do that one then.
So I went the other route, and that was to study the experiences that people’d had, and I was very lucky, because in ’87, I did a television documentary in this country, and following it, we got two thousand letters –do you remember letters, those things you open, you know, not an e-mail– so we got two thousands of those, and that gave us a huge database. So I took the best ones, “best” meaning “most like an NDE [near-death experience]”, and sent questionnaires off to five hundred of them, and that became a sample, and I learned a lot of very important things from that.
Firstly, this sample will never be repeated again, because ninety-eight percent had in fact not heard of NDEs when they had their NDE, so that automatically rules out suggestion and things like that. So it was very different.
The next thing I learnt, was that when you looked at what caused the NDE, it was very very wide; from cardiac arrests, right through child-birth; illnesses; going even wider than that; you come down at the end to people who’d been sitting in front of their far [litter of pigs] one evening, and they would have a near-death experience: they got all the phenomena, and if they filled in any of the rating scales, they were rated as a near-death experience.
And so I learnt that they are common in all society. And the fact that they are associated only with things like cardiac arrest, I think was a lot due to the work which ourselves and Bruce Grace in America was doing, and that was to say, “OK! We want to study near-death experiences. Well then, we want to know what the brain state is.” Now how do you know what the brain state is when a woman is having a baby… You can’t. It’s far too variable. And during an illness, it’s also too variable.
And so I took what I thought was the most sensible; when the brain was not working. So I took the near-death experiences which occurred during cardiac arrest. And so we spent a number of years looking at that.
So this was a large sample? Did you get the whole spectrum of near-death experiences?
I think it was pretty nearly the whole spectrum, in our culture; ’cause you have to say that there are certain fundamentals which are culture-specific. For example, tunnels and light tend to be seen a lot more in Western experiences than they do in some of the Eastern experiences. And if you take hunter-gatherers, the experience itself is quite different.
For example, these nice simple near-death experiences from hunter-gatherers, and here’s one example. A man had a near-death experience; he got into his canoe and he paddled for three days till he came to an island –this is his near-death experience; he didn’t actually do this– and in the island, he then had the sort of experience of an ideal place, like the near-death experiences do. So his was quite different.
And don’t forget the Japanese, when they go… They don’t actually go down a tunnel; they usually come to a dark river, which they have to cross, they have to find a boatman to take them across; that sort of thing.
So there are cultural differences, and I think one has to realize that and accept it.
Is that dependent on your worldview? On your background?
Yes. The reason for there being cultural differences is very wide. It’s definitely worldview, it’s definitely religious upbringing and it’s definitely the culture that you’re in. All these things impact on it.
What do you think is the value of NDE research?
I think that they have two important values. One is that they have to be at the cutting edge of research into consciousness, and one of the things that we’re learning is that they’re very powerful experiences; they change the people who have them. And so people who have near-death experiences are changed because of them, and so that’s one interesting fact which we need to look at. The phenomenology of them, gives us some idea about the nature and structure of consciousness, so from that point of view they’re extremely good. And because they’ve come to be associated –and I pointed out that this is just an association; they’re much wider than that– with cardiac arrest and actual death experiences, are they a good model of how we die. So from all those reasons I think they’re very important.
Do you think that near-death experiences provide some kind of proof that consciousness can exist without a brain?
“Is consciousness independent of the brain?” That’s a very wide question. “Can consciousness exist without a brain?” Well, we’d have no way of knowing, would we? So the question is a very good one.
I’d formulate it slightly differently; I would say, “Are the mechanists right? Is consciousness secreted by the brain, as the liver secretes bile, or the kidneys urine? Is it a product of brain function? Or is it in fact a filter in some way, that there is in fact a transcendent reality out there, that is filtered by the brain so we get a reduced picture of it?” I think those are the two questions, I mean I know what my answer is, but it’s not the usual answer.
Why is that?
Why do I believe that consciousness exists beyond the brain, rather than it’s secreted, like bile, in the brain? The answer to that, is: Why would you think it was only brain function? And if you look at the arguments which are put forward, there’s got to be a very high correlation between brain damage and the changes in the mind or in the capabilities and so on of the person who’s damaged. There’s got to be a very high correlation.
But that doesn’t say anything about causation. Because causation and correlation are quite different. And if you want a really good authority for this statement, you can think about Penfield.
Penfield was a very very well-known neurosurgeon from Canada. And Penfield put electrodes in the brain, he was one of the first people to do it, got a very good idea of how the brain functioned and how it was connected together and so on.
So he spent his life actually looking at the brain. And at the end he wrote a book about what did he think, what his mind… And he came to say: “There’s absolutely no doubt that neurons communicate with each other in very complex ways, and in complex ways we don’t understand yet. But the energy of mind is different, and however much you’re studying the neurons, you will not in fact get to the energy of mind, so it’s a different dimension altogether.” And that’s from someone who spent his life studying the brain.
But on the other hand, you can get philosophers like Dan Dennett, who says, “It’s all brain”. I was sitting next to Dan Dennett at a conference once, and I said, “Dan, you don’t really believe that, do you? ‘When we understand neuron, we understand consciousness…’” He said, “Absolutely. When we’ve understood the neurons, then there will be nothing left; maybe a little smidgen like that; but that’s all. It’s only the brain”.
And so you got the two camps. And each camp will in fact put forward evidence as to why they’re right.
But of course I sit in between. The brain is enormously important, has great functions, but it can’t explain consciousness.
There is only one theory in this world of what consciousness is, and this is Stuart Hammeroff’s and Roger Penrose’s theory, and this is that the brain, in the microtubules –these are structures within the brain– acts as a quantum mechanical computer, and that it is within that collapse of the wave function in the tubules that consciousness, undifferentiated, unattached, arises.
So think of the huge matrix of the brain, and these little points of consciousness coming into the brain; then of course consciousness is woven into the brain, and into the circuits of the brain, and then you build it up into self-consciousness. Now, that is about the only theory I know that actually allows consciousness to arise in any way at all. So it’s an important theory.
You’ve written a book about the art of dying, and describe a number of end-of-life phenomena. Can you tell us about them?
I have written a book called The Art of Dying, and I wrote it because I asked a question, and it came right out of the near-death-experience research. The research said that you go down a tunnel –in our culture–, you meet a being of light, you’re going to this transcendent reality, where you meet dead relatives and spiritual beings, you may have a life review, then you come to a border, which if you cross you know you are going to die. So it’s a perfectly valid question to ask, “Is this near-death experience a model of what will happen when you die?” So we can actually do that. So how do you validate that model? Well, what you do is, you find out what the mental experiences are, of the dying. Now in 2000, when I started on this research, you could go into PubMed, one of the main medical databases, and ask questions, like “How many people have published papers on deathbed visions?” There were only about five. “What about end-of-life experiences?” Maybe one or two. And so you could become a world expert, you see, very quickly; you only had to look at seven papers; you knew the literature!
And so what I’m saying is that there wasn’t anything there. So we went along to our ethics committee and said, “Could we please talk to the dying, so we could get some idea of what the process of dying was like?” That was way back in 2000, and they quite rightly said I think, “No, because you may disturb the dying”.
Now why did they say that? They said it because no one had ever done that before, and they actually didn’t know. So we had to change our tack; we had to do a carer study.
Now, if you go into a hospice –it’s less so now, but very strong then– you find that it’s divided into bands. There were the nurses, who are in touch with the patients, they see all the phenomena of dying, and the doctors, who aren’t, and say it doesn’t occur. So there is really quite a significant difference between these two, and I have some really interesting stories about this gap between the medical and the nursing staff; as I say, it’s less now.
Yeah? Tell us!
I’ll tell you why I did it, and I’ll tell you the stories afterwards, ’cause it makes more sense that way.
Ahm… So, the ethics committee said, “You can do a carer study, but you can’t ask the dying”. So we actually did a carer study; we did three hospices in a nursing home in this country, and we did three hospices in Rotterdam to get a cross-cultural component – it’s not very cross-cultural, but it’s just slightly different; a bit further away…
And we found the most fascinating things! And so it allowed us to put together a measure of the sorts of things that you can expect.
The first thing that you may get, is a premonition; and that means that you know you are going to die. So before you get the diagnosis, you learn in a dream, maybe, or it certainly comes to you that you’re going to die.
This is the patients, or the relatives?
Ah… No. The patients. The Dalai Lama says, all of us know two years before we are going to die, that we are going to die. So we’re given that information. And if you look in his book to see how we know, he says two things, one of which I can understand slightly, and that is, the behaviour changes. The other is that our breathing changes. Well I don’t know what he means by that, but I can see that one’s behaviour may change. You may get the feeling that you’re going to die and of course your behaviour will change. But he says that it’s very common, in fact it’s everyone. We didn’t find that. We found it was not common, but not so rare that we couldn’t pick up occasional cases of it.
The next thing that happened, is that a few weeks before you die, you get deathbed visitors. Now, what’s a deathbed visitor? They are relatives who come to you. They do it in a specific way. They may stand outside the room in which you die, or they may come into the room and that’s quite common –you of course will talk to them– and then a number of them will sit on the bed and talk to you. Why do they sit on the bed? Because it’s enormously comforting to you, to have somebody sitting on the bed; I mean, if you’ve ever had an ill child, you know you don’t just stand up and talk to it; you go and sit on the bed and hold his hand and so on. Well, the relatives can sit on the bed, and we took a hundred deathbed visions and analysed them for content; we found that the commonest people who come are first degree relatives – mother and father are commonly seen; dead spouses are quite common, but we also in fact find that brothers and sisters come. People you don’t know, occasionally; occasionally. Ahm… animals; not many [sweetly smiling] –sorry about that, your cat or your dog is not going to come along.
So, it’s mainly first degree relatives, and we also found in a sample that spiritual beings were seen. Now, spiritual beings behave slightly differently from the relatives; they tend to either wait outside the hospice, and they’re seen through the window, or they may come to the door, and some of them come in. Now, I must point out that this is a big cultural element, because a paper published from the Bible Belt of America showed that angels were seen very commonly. In our sample, only three percent of people saw angels; it’s much smaller over here. So I think there is this cultural component to it.
So there are visitors and spiritual beings. Are there any other phenomena around death?
As you get closer to death, you come into the next stage –and in fact these need to be changed now a bit– but what we initially found was that you went into a different reality; a spiritual world; then you came back again. So this was as if you were getting used to this spiritual world, so you went into it and came back, and went into it and came back, and it was very important for the people who were dying.
Now that is changing, and I want to talk about Monika Renz’s theory on this, because it’s absolutely vital. Monika Renz is a theologian in Switzerland, and she has had a lot of contact with the dying, and she’s published three studies now with cancer patients who are dying, and one study was I think with about sixty patients, and she’s just recently done a dual hospice study. Now what she finds is that what we said was correct. People do in fact go into this other reality, but it will come now to the dying process itself, which is enormously interesting and important, and we all need to learn this; in fact, we should be taught it in school. And I think the way that dying is, is like this. Deathbed visitors come; fine. Then, at some moment, you realize you’re going to die, and it hits you hard, We’re not coming back guys, this isn’t a getting well process, it’s a dying process. And that then leaves you in a very difficult position, because you know you’ve come across that before, you’ve always had some control of something; you now don’t.
And so you have to start giving everything up.
This is absolutely fundamental.
You have to give up the fact that you’re going to go on living…
You have to give up your wife, you have to give up your cat and your dog, you have to give up your children, your family, you have to give up your house, your job;
you’ve got to give up everything!
And if you don’t, you remain attached.
Now, attachment is the most difficult thing when you’re dying.
If you could give everything up, you’d have a very smooth transition.
You go from this pre-transition where you’re attached, to transition, which is a sort of intermediate one to post-transition.
And in post-transition, you in fact have given everything up, and you go more and more into the spiritual domain, which I’ll describe to you.
It’s just like that.
Until at the end, you’ve lost your ego. You’ve lost that part of yourself which is differentiated “you”, and you’ve become what’s known as Non-dual. That means, that you do in fact merge with the universe. You’ve already lost all your trappings of being a body and a person, and you just got this non-duality, which is merging with the greater cosmos behind.
So the idea that you’re going to retain a lot of the things that you have in this life, when you go there, you know, I’m going to see my mum and say hi… Probably not… but you… well, you could probably see your mum, I don’t know.
But in fact you will become; universal.
So that’s what the data shows.
And the data says that if you don’t give up all the things to which you’re attached, then you have a very difficult process in dying.
So you got these two processes:
the one of fusion with the Greater Beyond,
the other pulling back into the limited.
Do you see?
And what happens then? When the dying is more… difficult?
Yeah. Then you have what is called spiritual restlessness.
It’s… it’s not a pleasant state to be in, because you got a lot of anxiety, and all the time you’re being pulled back; you’re being pulled back… you’re being pulled back…
It’s not pleasant.
So you ought to know this, so when you’re going to a hospice, you should have a lecture on the fact that you’re going to give up everything.
And so that takes you up to the dying process.
Now before you die;
I just want to add one other set of phenomena, and these are called “terminal lucidity”.
Terminal lucidity is when… –the Victorians used to call it “late awakening”, essentially– and what it was, is that you suddenly sit up in bed, say hi to the people around you –actually you don’t say hi, you say goodbye, ’cause you know you’re dying– then you lie back and die.
Now, that’s interesting enough, but it’s much more interesting than that, because people who are paralysed –and haven’t moved maybe for a year, been in a long-term care home– they can sit up and do it. So for those few moments, the central nervous system seems to work again appropriately.
But more interesting than that to me, is, the people who have Alzheimer’s disease, and have in fact lost their memories many years back and just been in a care home, will sit up, recognize their friends, say goodbye, sometimes meet their dead relatives, and then lie back and die.
So that’s a real question for science. Because how can you do these things if one just takes the argument that the brain creates consciousness, ’cause it has to get its whole secretion process going again, do you see, like that, just before you die. It doesn’t seem totally reasonable.
So. Then you die. Now, the show’s not over. It’s over as far as you are concerned, but it’s not as far as your relatives are concerned, because many people who have a close relationship, can then make a visit. And this is important, because as you come up to death, you can actually put off your dying for a bit, ’cause sometimes, some of the deathbed visitors you have say “I’m gonna come back on Tuesday”, and you’ll die then.
But remember that we got two sorts of narratives running. One is where you have more control and you probably actually do. So you can remember that you can negotiate with your relatives if you want to live a little bit longer.
But when you actually die, if you have a drive to, say, go and see a daughter, or a son, who couldn’t be there with you, then you can visit. And the visit is very specific. We’ve got a lot of these and we’ve analysed them, and they occur at the time of death. Ninety-nine percent are all within half an hour, most are at the actual time of death. And it depends on the mental state to the person who receives the visit.
If you receive the visit, and you’re awake, then it will be a feeling that somebody you know is dying; the feeling that they would like some help in some way; or you feel that some catastrophe is occurring. There’s the sorts of feelings you have.
If, on the other hand you’re asleep, then it’s quite different. You get a narrative dream, and here’s an example of one. A woman woke up –I think she was actually in the narrative dream– and she saw standing at the end of the bed her son, and her son was dripping wet. And her son came closer and closer to her, and as he came closer, he became… he came into the light, and became transfigured. He gave her a message –which many of them do– and said “It’s OK; please don’t worry; I’m alright” and then the whole thing faded. Now, the interesting point is that she’s in Australia, and he’s in England. And when she can, when the time zones adjust, she rings up and she finds that in fact he was drowned, at that time, in England. And so there was a component of what was happening; he had wet clothes, and then his transformation and disappearance at the end.
So, that’s not an unusual story.
Sometimes they just come and give their message, which is always “I’m OK; please don’t worry”, and then move on.
So these are called deathbed coincidences. Now, in our series of these, forty-five percent of the people who had them, didn’t know the person was dying. So you can’t in any way blame expectation in very nearly half the cases, and I don’t think actually anticipation of somebody’s death is a good explanation at all.
So that’s deathbed vision.
Now there are other phenomena which happen around the time of death, and these are:
Light in the room…
Light in the room is fascinating! It can be very strong and behave like a real light; in other words, the room can flood with light, it can flood out of the door…
Experience by the relatives?
Only by the relatives. …into the corridor, and then people can pick it up. We had one account where the person woke up at night, found the light shining through, thought “I must have left the corridor light on”, got up and saw it was streaming out of her aunt’s bedroom (her aunt was dying), went in… When you go into this light, it’s always got the spiritual quality to it, and she reported that. And she sat down quietly by her aunt who slowly died. Now she died, the light faded. The light fading with death is very common. When I say “common”, in our series, about thirty-five percent of the nurses reported light in the rooms of the dying, and in their conversations with the relatives. But it’s a little bit more complex than that, because I’ve spoken to relatives, whether it’s been a brother or a sister, and one of them was seeing it and the other one may not. So I think it’s going to be an interaction between the person and what’s going on in the dying process.
So that’s light.
Next thing is shapes leaving the body.
Again, really quite common. Lots of stories of that, and they describe, first of all some people describe a mirrorish type of thing that they see coming up –it’s a sort of change in the atmosphere– and the other thing is that it can look like smoke arising, or it can have a definite form to it. They are all variations on the theme, and it’s very much how the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes these last phases of dying; they describe a mirror, or they describe smoke, and then they go into orange sky, or white sky, which is something slightly different, but it’s a stage further down the line.
So, shapes leaving the body; quite common.
Light and transformation.
Then, clocks stopping.
Do clocks really stop?
Well, the answer is yes! How do we know? Because people say their clocks stop at the time of death, and show it. But what’s interested me is, OK, so I accept the pendulum clocks –you know, long-case clocks– stop because you could see that, sort of good old mechanical feel to it, but do modern clocks, which are LEDs, do they stop? What do they do? They turn the light out, or what? And we got two accounts, and this is a nice one. Somebody came up to tell the person who’s died brother that he had died. When he went into his house, his brother came to the door and said, “It’s no need for you to tell me; I know.” When I asked him how he knew, he said, “Look at the clocks,” and they’d all stopped at the time of his death, and were flashing his death time.
That’s the story. And you get a lot of these stories, watches stopping and so on, so clocks still seem to stop, even in this modern era.
The other thing is, cats and animals howl at the time of death, that’s quite common, common enough for people to report it; and birds… Fascinating! If you talk to people in hospices, they’ll tell you quite often that birds appear on the windowsills of people who die. I’d wish people would do simple experiments; you just need one camera, put it on the window of a person who’s dying and compare that with the window of somebody who’s not dying, I mean it’s so easy, such easy experiments to do, and it’s either true or it’s not true. So birds are commonly seen. There was a village in Massachusetts that described a guy who’s fond of owls, and when he died, a white owl came and sat in the village tree, and –well-documented; they don’t have snowy owls there– the owl stayed there until his funeral, and after his funeral it flew away. What does that mean? I don’t know. So these are all things that happen.
Do you have a sense of how frequently these things occur?
Well, we did… in our surveys, we always asked what the frequency was. You can do it in two ways. You can see how common it is, in the sense that if a lot of our carers saw it, it’s probably a lot more common than if they didn’t. And so I can give you frequencies very easily, talking to carers, and deathbed visions were about fifty percent.
But since we published these papers, other people who’ve been doing it, they have done it two ways.
They have done it by looking at the charts, doing a chart to reveal how many times people have said they’ve seen deathbed visitors and so on, that they’ve seen any of these things.
And the other way is to ask the dying, if you’re in that phase, or ask the carers actually, or the relatives, and it goes way up into the eighties. It’s probably very common, but people just don’t report it.
And certainly we know that in Monika Renz’s study, ninety percent –Ninety percent! That’s almost everyone!– will go through this phase of going into this alternate reality and back again, and will have to give up everything and go towards non-duality.
So it’s enormously important.
How can we achieve a good death?
I’m driven now, with all the experience I’ve had, by Monika Renz’s work. My work showed that you would go into this alternate reality, you’d have your deathbed visitors, and then you’d slowly come up to death, and many people would in fact then transcend. I’ve got two stories on this.
One is, a great friend of mine, Thetis Blacker was a religious plaitor.
I had an agreement with Thetis that when she died, she would let me know. If I died before her, I’d let her know, so we could in fact discuss the dying process, because we talked a lot about it.
And she died before I did –’cause I’m still here and she’s not [sweetly laughing].
And she described what it was like for her. And she said, as she was coming up to death –this is just a week before she died– she… ahm… had a river of love, golden love and light, which flowed through her room and through her hospice.
And that sort of phenomenon I can see probably occurs quite often, but people aren’t asked about it, and they also don’t know how to incorporate it into their worldview.
And another one, which is an amazing book, he’s written a book about it, and this is Paul Robinson, the leader of the Medici Quartet, and he and I knew each other very well, and Paul had a near-death experience. And in his near-death experience, he catalogues the points of dying. He says that he gave up his body to join with universal consciousness; joyfully, happily and willingly.
Do you see? He was unattached, and I think that’s a very good description of the death process that we have now…
Joyfully and lovingly and willingly…
And when he came back, he was able to talk about his near-death experience and the way that it changed his life.
And I had the same pact with Paul, that if I died before him, he’d come be with me.
But in fact I was lucky because I was there the day before he died, and he was in and out of this sort of stage. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay long enough, but his wife was there the next day. He was sort of going down into unconsciousness, and he said to his wife:
“Tell Peter Fenwick: it’s exactly as we’ve discussed!”
Then he died. Interesting. I mean you can’t get much closer than that.
So I think the picture that we have of dying, from the evidence of dying people, is actually quite good,
and I think you have to think about giving everything up,
and then becoming non-dual and merging.
Now, one of the interesting points about near-death experiences, is that a number of them become non-dual.
Now what do I mean by that?
This is in consciousness research, and it’s one of the most interesting points of consciousness research. And that is, that as you go on the awakening process –in other words, changing your level of consciousness and becoming more widely conscious– you in fact have one or two features:
You lose your narrative self – you know, this little bit of you that chats to yourself all the time…
Next, you’re always in the moment.
You’re not in the past;
you’re not in the future.
It doesn’t mean anything to you.
If you were to ask them,
“What is the world?”
“Well, it’s here; now. This is it.”
“What about what it was like…”
“It’s not there. It doesn’t exist.”
And same for the future; what’s to come.
So you’re just in the moment.
And the other thing is,
you’re unbelievably happy,
and you’re also tending to be transcendent, as well.
Your persona is not in the narrative voice in here [circling his hand around his head].
It’s that you become non-dual, and are merging with reality.
There’s a man called Jeffrey Martin, in the States, and he’s collected one thousand five hundred cases of these, these are ordinary people who’ve done it, so we know the state exists and we know how it exists, and the link with near-death experiences is, because of the non-dual features in the near-death experience and in dying, the question is whether they’re the same or not, or whether people might become non-dual in the near-death experience, and the answer is: Yes they do! And how do I know that? Because I’ve spoken to people who’ve had near-death experiences –actually it’s only two, but I only need two– who describe the non-dual state.
So you can get a shift in your level of consciousness when you come back from a near-death experience.
So the idea that the near-death experience may have something to do with dying, and quite closely in terms of consciousness and the shift in consciousness, is beginning to come together in a really interesting way.
Do you think there’s any connection between the way we think and the way we live our lives and the way we experience our death and what comes after?
It’s the sort of life you lead? Does it influence in the way you die?
Well, yes it does, but you have to be very careful here, because we have accounts of people who say, “It’s all material. I’m just going to go into blackness; nothing.”
And they say this beforehand.
Beforehand. That’s their belief structure.
And what is quite clear, is that as they come into the death process, they’ve all given up that idea, and they all start looking forward to what’s happening to them. They don’t say they don’t believe in anything anymore.
The sort of things they say:
One woman who was absolutely sure that there was nothing there, kept on waking up from the coma saying, “Come on, get on with it, ’cause I want to move on!”
Do you see? And that was quite different from what her stance was.
So, if you have a strong belief in angels –where you see angels probably; that’s what the South of North America shows, the Bible Belt, they show that– if you lead a good life, will it be different from a bad life?
And again, to just reframe that a bit…
If a good life means that you’re not strongly centred in yourself,
in other words you’re thinking about other people and doing things like that,
then, when you come to this phase of giving up,
you can give up much more easily!
The other thing is guilt.
Because guilt is something which holds up; people find it very difficult to give up their guilt; all those terrible things they did and they feel guilty about. They’re very difficult to give up. And so if you think of somebody who’s committed a lot of crimes… and they feel guilty about it… Then they have a lot of difficulty giving up.
And so my colleagues ask me, “What happens if you’re a psychopath and have no guilt?” I don’t know, I’ve never seen a psychopath die, but I assume they may do it very easily, I don’t know if they can give everything up.
So the quality of your life is going to be related to your capacity to give up
and this is going to be how self-centred you are.
The more self-centred you are, the more difficult it’s going to be to give up.
A cliché we often find in movies and in literature, that a good person has a good death and a bad guy has a bad death, is this what you observed in your research?
Ahm, how I’ve described it, is arguing from death in normal people,
and death in people who have spiritual anxiety as they come up to death.
So the people with spiritual anxiety are those in fact who’re attached.
And those who are free, aren’t.
And so you can argue from that statement that, if you’re loaded with guilt, or unable to give up your persona, or your possessions or anything,
those are the people who’re going to have a difficult death.
So, it sort of fits in a bit with literature, but not quite… It’s… it’s… It just got this twist, that you have to be able to give up. So let’s assume you’re a billionaire, you smile at your friends and say, “It’s all yours now”, and give it up and sink into death.
Fine. No problem.
Many of my colleagues, many doctors would say, these are just hallucinations. What do you say about that?
Ahm. So, people say all these things that we were finding in the dying are hallucinations. Well, this is terminology, isn’t it? What is a hallucination?
Hallucination is an experience that you have, and nobody else does. So there are many hallucinations. So, the fact that they’re hallucinations, really is saying nothing. But, if you look at the data, then people, relatives in the same room, quite often… no, not quite often… rarely see deathbed visitors; but they do see them, there are quite good accounts. Children see them more than adults, and occasionally the hospice nurses see them. So on that ground, they’re not hallucinations in those cases. So why are you going to say some are hallucinations and some aren’t? It doesn’t make any sense. Calling them hallucinations, means that you’re just keen to get rid of the topic; “Now let’s talk about something interesting”. But they’re not… It… it doesn’t help.
There are also so-called hellish near-death experiences. What do you say about that?
So, some people report hellish experiences. I have a lot of difficulty with hellish experiences, because in the ones we took from our survey, often the letters which people wrote, there was always a clear explanation of what a hellish experience was. I give you an example. This man had a near-death experience. He suddenly realized that he’d left his body and was in the hellish realm, and there were loads of devils there, and they kept on pricking him, and ah… ah… ahm… torturing him, and he knew he was in a hellish realm because he could feel the flames of hell, burning him.
Now, as he got better –’cause he was in intensive care– he realized that hellish experiences were in fact coming from the heating pad he was lying on, and that led to misinterpretation of the heat sensory data. And the devils also, it’s quite easy to see, he said these were the nurses that were coming in and giving him injections and doing things like that. That was his interpretation, so this was an illusory experience. He was getting very close to something which is called an intensive-care psychosis, because “They are paranoid, they are people doing things which are horrible to you”. And so, it has a rational explanation; you don’t have to postulate a hell.
But the question is, “Is there a hell? Is there really a hellish realm where people go into?”
I’ve had no death experience, no true death experience, in which people have reported that there’s a hell. They just don’t do it; near-death experiences in our sample; it was four percent. Now, it may be lower, because remember, ours was a letter-writing survey, and are you really going to write in somebody who’s done a program on NDEs, and say “I’ve spent my NDE being punished and pulled by devils”? Of course you’re not! So we probably got an underrepresentation of that, but the ones that we had in our sample, I couldn’t convince myself that they were of the same sort of order as near-death experiences.
Now, other people think that I’m wrong there, so you can obviously interpret the data either way.
So what have you learnt from all this? Is there a special message for our culture?
I think the experience that I have learnt, about near-death experiences and dying, have a very strong message to our culture. I’m absolutely with Dalai Lama on the first part, and he says, any culture which can’t… which sweeps death under the carpet and can’t acknowledge it, is a society [extending thumb as he starts counting] which is greedy, because you’re collecting things and you’re going to have it; [extending index finger] you can be angry with people, because it means it’s fine to have enemies; and [extending long finger] they are very self-centred, because they’re going to live on to eternity. And if you look at our culture, it’s very… it’s got strong components of that. So I think the way that we medicalize death, sweep it away, don’t talk about it, is producing a culture that is exactly one in which we deny our responsibility. Look, every hundred years we’re all going to be swept away like that, but yet we won’t talk about this. So that’s point one.
The next point is that we ought to start with children, telling them about what it’s like to die. In fact we’re all going to die. Bring it out in the open and discuss it! One of my grandsons came down and he found that a dog had gotten into the garden, and bitten the head off two of his hamsters. Now, he’s confronted by death there. These things that he loved dearly, have been destroyed. And so it raises questions: “Do they all go to a guinea pig heaven?” Or, “Are we just all machines?” “What does death mean?” Do you see, these are very fundamental questions, you get very early lessons. If you go around a class of kids and say, “How many of you have experienced a death?” many of them have had grandparents who’ve died… They know about it. So it ought to be on the school curriculum; we ought to teach them that death is a normal part of living, and in fact you accept death when you accept birth. In fact birth and dying are all parts of the same continuum. And that it’s going to happen to us, and it’s nothing to be afraid of or fearful of.
What you have to do, is like when you’re going to an exam, you want to be prepared for it, or when you go to the final exam of death, you want to be prepared for it, and then you can talk about the phenomena which occur and so on.
But it’s so important that we stop this process of sweeping it under the carpet. And do you wonder we sweep it under the carpet? Because we don’t die like we used to. If this was a Victorian family, I would already have two or three siblings that’d died, when young. We did. No antibiotics… Ahm… Keeping the place clean and stopping infections was very poorly done… So people died! And kids particularly. So death was ever-present. And so the Victorians were much better talking about it than we were.
Have you ever seen a hearse going along the road in our culture now? What’s it followed by? Cars at a distance behind it, going slowly? No! They’ve all got their fingers on the horn, “Come on! Move on! Get on!” It’s not respected. Do you stand with your arms crossed and your head bowed when the hearse goes by? No, of course you don’t! You got many things which are much more important than that, because you don’t value death! Simple as that.
And it’s very important.
Nothing strange about it,
we’re all going to do it,
so you might learn about it.
Dr. Fenwick, thank you very much for your time and your interesting insights, and the wisdom from your research. Thank you very much.
Well, thank you very much for your questions.
Peter Fenwick transcribed by Leon Hieros