Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Three Things I Think I Know About Life, Death, and the Afterlife

In my last post I recounted my experiences leading up to sudden death--three times--and resuscitation. I experienced comfort and guidance in the form of a series of encounters with my dead father, mother, and finally a crowded room of friendly spirits leading to and during my cardiac arrest. What I haven't revealed until now is where I think I went while my heart was not beating and my brain was dead. And to be honest with you, I am not totally sure I know how much I remember and how much my brain filled in the gaps after the fact--but maybe that isn't really the question.

Just eight days ago my heart stopped three times. The first time I was in my hospital room, recovering from a heart catheterization, the third of five in just a month, to place a new stent. I sensed a room full of departed loved ones telling me that the event they had been warning me about for five days was about to take place, that it was entirely unexpected (and medically, it was), and I'd be OK. I felt my heart slowing down and stopping, and then I seemed to float to the top of the room.

My father had been the one speaking in the earlier encounters, but my mother spoke to me during my first cardiac arrest. Actually, "spoke" is not the right word. The communication didn't require language and was instantaneous. She made it clear that this was not the end. Sure enough, just before my arrest a nurse educator had come into my room, and since I was on a heart monitor with telemetry to a monitoring station, my day nurse was already racing down the hall.

I'm not entirely sure it was my nurse who gave me atropine and epinephrine, but it was only a minute, or possibly less, before the drugs restarted my heart. I recall the feeling of being drawn back into my body as I took my first breath, very much on a bed being rushed down the hall, and very much struggling to breathe again.

Another happy coincidence, if all of this was just coincidence, was the fact that an interventional cardiologist (heart surgeon, for those of you more familiar with the sawbones era of cardiology), happened to making rounds in my ward.

He was walking with my gurney trying to get me to stay awake. He asked me my name, where I was, the date, to count to five---and I guess I got bored with that last question because after answering him in bad Italian (the doctor was born and trained in Italy), I started to drift back to sleep. I remember the door to the cath lab being forced open as my heart stopped again.

The next thing I saw was the blackest black imaginable. It wasn't just that I couldn't see or hear or feel anything. It was somehow as if nothing existed. There was no past, no future, no present, no memories, no people, no feeling--but somehow I continued to be. There was no God, no St. Peter, no Jesus, no loving family, no unloving family, no friends, no enemies, no pearly gates, no streets paved with gold, no 72 virgins (and, keeping in mind another reading of the verse, no 72 raisins), no devil, no hellfire, and no brimstone. There was simply nothing at all. This was so striking it was the only thing I remembered for a while. But out of the darkness I heard the word "360," and I was being prepared for another round of emergency resuscitation.

When shooting your heart with adrenaline hasn't saved you, and shocking you to the max hasn't saved you, the next thing the doctor does is to open your femoral artery to introduce a wire to carry a balloon directly into your heart. They don't stop to give you anesthetic. I felt the incision. It hurt but I wanted to live and I knew that feeling pain was a good sign. Nonetheless I quickly went out again.

Then I went, well, elsewhere. I was on a ridge on a tropical island that looked a lot like the southwestern shores of Maui. It was fantastically beautiful, but the beauty was not, as some other near-death experiencers have told it, automatic. For the landscape, I thought about what I wanted to see and then I saw it. A fantastic tropical bird, a flowering tree, a vista of an infinite sea each appeared when I thought to look in a different direction. Throngs of loved ones were there, too, but not everyone. People I knew to be dead were there, and people I knew to be alive were there as well.

What I couldn't create on command was people I wanted to see. It seemed that they more or less had to be there, or not. All of the spirits of the departed who had been with me in my room before my first arrest were there. There were some people with whom I had had a "developmental relationship" in life were there, but there were people I knew who were not in my afterlife. Or heaven. Or dream. Or whatever it was.

There was also the Presence of someone I can best describe as wisdom personified. There was nothing scary about this Presence, it was inviting and friendly and non-judgmental, but there was nothing familiar about the presence, either. I asked if there were boats to other islands where the other people in my life resided.

I was told, "No, silly," and given a vision of how it works. The sea rolled back and fish flopped back into the safety of its waters. The waters carried starfish and shellfish and seaweeds into the vastness of the nurturing sea. There was rocky dry ground leading to the other islands, but some coil-like objects that resembled eels lurking between the rocks, creating a narrow path.

I didn't know what the coils were, but I knew they were painful, deadly, disabling, and, in the parlance of my youth, sinful. I was raised to think of sin as an inability to reach a goal, falling short of the mark, rather than an act that wiped out brownie points on God's scorecard. The rocks were broad enough, however, that one could rise above the "sins" and that one could crawl back onto the path if one stumbled.

The Presence told me that the narrow and dangerous path across the rocks was physical life, and physical life allowed us to reach other islands in the infinite sea. About that time I woke up and I was on the way to the intensive care unit. I didn't die again that day and I haven't died again since.

I'll have a lot more to say about what I think happened to me and what I think might happen to someone else, what might happen to someone else on this side of life and death, at least. But for right now I'll leave you with ten things I think I know about life, death, and the afterlife.

1. The sicker we are, the closer we are to our heavens.

Neurologists explain near-death experiences, psychic phenomena, and hallucinations and delusions, too, in terms of the brain's unique feedforward system. Probably you're aware of the concept of feedback. A regulator gets information on whether a process is on course or whether a machine is operating within pre-defined parameters or whether a plan is on its way to achieving its goals.

Feedforward is different. The brain feeds forward, changing what it sees to conform to what it expects. Only when there is a vast difference between what our senses tell us and what our brains expect does the brain edit the image to conform to shared reality.

But what does that have to do with being sick? It turns out that the fewer functioning neurons we have the more our brains are able to ignore reality and create the reality we expect. When we're very sick, we tend to get "delirious," but the experience is very real to us, just not to a bystander. When we're near death, our brains go to "heaven."

2. Making ourselves sick or trying to commit suicide won't get us into our heavens.

The feedforward principle also explains why suicides who are brought back to life usually report a horrific experience. Their brains have to employ a lot of neurons to kill themselves. As the brain eventually fades, it's so busy with suicide, waiting for death, anticipating death, relishing death, that it doesn't create a heaven before the blackness sets in for good. There's an absolute limit of two minutes before the brain can be brought back (before the stored energy in brain cells is completely used up), but in those two minutes there can be a horrific experience of utter abandonment. Or if the person committing suicide is expecting to be sent to hell, the brain may use its dying energy to create it.

3. Understanding how our brains work can enable us to help make the last moments of our lives and the last  moments of our loved ones' lives enormously more comfortable. But just because scientists have a sophisticated understanding of what goes on in our brains we don't have to abandon our faith about what happens to our minds, our spirits, and our souls.

The scientific explanation of how our brains create our near death experiences doesn't preclude the existence of heaven, hell, judgment, and the afterlife, or prove it, either. The mere fact that I have to imagine the afterlife doesn't mean I didn't imagine it correctly. It just means that a great deal of humility is in order.

Maybe I went to Heaven, and Heaven happens to be in Maui. Maybe my brain created a pleasant place for me to be when it was too sick to be bothered with what was happening in the cath lab as the doctor and nurses were saving my life. But as important as the brain is to human life, what happens between our ears is an unimaginably small part of what happens in the rest of time and space throughout the universe or universes. Maybe that old time religion was more right than most scientists think.

My mother could really get into old time religion and she certainly thought so. I'll share what she told me of her experience in my next post.

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