Lessons from the Light:
What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience (I)
by Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., © 1998
For more than twenty years we have been hearing about near-death experiences (NDEs), those transcendental episodes of light and love that so many people who have experienced the beginnings of death have recounted for us upon returning to physical life. By now, these travelers tales have become very familiar to us, and they have certainly helped to fashion a much more positive vision of the nature of death itself. Recently, however, NDE researchers such as myself have been more concerned with the question of what those of us who have never had such experiences ourselves can learn from those who have about how to live our daily lives. In short, what do all these beautiful stories have to contribute in a practical way to how we go about living our ordinary lives in the world? Specifically, how can we make use of this body of knowledge about NDEs so as to live with greater self-awareness and spiritual insight?
To begin to extract the essential lessons of the NDE for everyday life, I would like to draw on some of the material from a new book of mine, Lessons from the Light, which is an attempt to distill the wisdom teachings of the NDE in such a way as to enable its readers to apply them to their own lives. Here, however, I will focus on just one particular feature of the NDE, that which is usually called the life review.
Most readers will know, at least in a general way, what this term refers to. But just to be clear about it, it is that portion of an NDE when the individual has a panoramic review of his or her life wherein virtually everything that has ever happened to the individual is revealed, often in an atemporal holographic display of countless visual images. However, what most persons with only a superficial knowledge of this phenomenon fail to grasp is that in the life review, if this were happening to you, you would be more than a passive observer watching yourself in the movie of your life. Actually, you are back in it all over again, and you experience what happened to you as it were happening once more. In short, but to simplify somewhat, you are living your life afresh -- your memories have somehow transformed themselves into vivid recreations of the episodes of your life.
Now to begin to see what this kind of experience has to teach those of us who haven't had it, let's concentrate on just one single episode from a particular life review. It comes from the NDE of a man I know very well with the unlikely (but actual) name of the famous fictional character of the American author, Mark Twain -- Tom Sawyer. Here, let me introduce my friend, Tom, to you by giving you something of a context for his experience to follow.
As a youth Tom had an uncontrollable temper, and one day it really got him into trouble. He had been driving his hot-rod pickup truck through town when a pedestrian darted out and almost collided with it. Tom, rather than being relieved that no accident had occurred, found himself incensed that this man had almost damaged his beautiful truck of which he was inordinately proud. Angry words were exchanged, soon followed by blows, and Tom eventually pummeled his victim into unconsciousness and left him lying in the middle of the street. Shortly afterward, however, overtaken a bit by remorse after his surge of anger had subsided, he reported the incident to the police, but was let off with a warning.
Years later, during his NDE, Tom was forced to relive this scene, and like many others who have described their life reviews to me, he found himself doing so from a dual perspective. One part of himself, he said, seemed to be high up in a building overlooking the street from which perch he simply witnessed, like an elevated spectator, the fight taking place below. But another part of Tom was actually involved in the fight again. However, this time, in the life review, he found himself in the place of the other party, and experienced each distinct blow he had inflicted on this man -- thirty-two in all, he said -- before collapsing unconscious on the pavement.
This role reversal in the life review in which one finds himself directly experiencing the effects of one's actions on another is hardly unique to Tom. In fact, as I was to discover doing the research for my book, it is found quite often in accounts of life reviews and seems to ram home their lessons for living with all the force of a psychic body blow to those who experience this surprising empathic turnabout.
Just to get a sense of how powerful and all-encompassing these empathic life reviews tend to be, let me simply quote next a few of the many I culled for my book, using the words of the experiencers themselves.
FLASH! Brilliant colors came radiating from within me, to be displayed in front of us [she was with a group of persons whose faces radiated unconditional love], like a theater floating in air. It was a three dimensional, panoramic view of my life, every aspect of my life. Everything I had ever said or done, or even thought, was right there, for all of us to experience. I re-thought every thought, I re-experienced every feeling, as it happened, in an instant. And I also felt how my actions, or even just my thoughts, had affected others. When I had passed judgment on someone else, I would experience myself doing that. Then I would change places in perspective, and experience what that judgment had felt like for them to receive from me. Then I'd return to my own feelings, to be able to respond to the drama I'd just witnessed and experienced, to react, for example, with shame or remorse because of that episode. Multitudinous actions or thoughts, derived from my own meanness, unkindness, or anger, caused me to feel the consequent pains of the other people. I experienced this even if at the time I had hurt someone, I had chosen to ignore how that would affect them. And I felt their pain for the full length of time they were affected by what I had done. Because I was in a different dimension where time can't be measured, as we know time to exist on earth, it was possible to know all of this and experience it all at once, in a moment, and with the ability to comprehend all of this information!
[During her life review], I remember one particular incident ... when, as a child, I yanked my little sister's Easter basket away from her, because there was a toy in it that I wanted. Yet in the review, I felt her feelings of disappointment and loss and rejection. What we do to other people when we act unlovingly!... Everything you have done is there in the review for you to evaluate (and) when I was there in that review there was no covering up. I was the very people that I hurt, and I was the very people I helped to feel good.... It is a real challenge, every day of my life, to know that when I die I am going to have to witness every single action of mine again, only this time actually feeling the effects I've had on others. It sure makes me stop and think.
It proceeded to show me every single event of my 22 years of life, in a kind of instant 3-D panoramic review.... The brightness showed me every second of all those years, in exquisite detail, in what seemed only an instant of time. Watching and re-experiencing all those events of my life changed everything. It was an opportunity to see and feel all the love I had shared, and more importantly, all the pain I had caused. I was able to simultaneously re-experience not only my own feelings and thoughts, but those of all the other people I had ever interacted with. Seeing myself through their eyes was a humbling experience.
Mine was not a review, but a reliving. For me, it was a total reliving of every thought I had ever thought, every word I had ever spoken, and every deed I had ever done; plus, the effect of each thought, word and deed on everyone and anyone who had ever come within my environment or sphere of influence, whether I knew them or not.... No detail was left out. No slip of the tongue or slur was missed. No mistake or accident went unaccounted for. If there is such a thing as hell, as far as I am concerned this was hell.
Read slowly and meditatively, such quotes are, as I well know from having used them in my classes and workshops, quite a bit to take in at one sitting. In the groups I have presented them to, I have witnessed many persons becoming deeply pensive when contemplating these observations and, later when discussing them, some have even burst into tears. If you should feel this way, simply upon reading them, imagine what it's like for the near-death experiencer!
But it's not enough merely to note that these commentaries tend to provoke some deep reflections and strong emotions in their readers. To get more of the full impact of these observations and, more importantly, to begin to make them relevant to your own life, you can easily perform a little but very instructive exercise at home. Here it is.
Please take a piece of blank paper or, if you keep a personal journal, pick it up now. Or, if you prefer, go to your typewriter or computer screen. In any event, here's what I want you to do for the next ten or fifteen minutes (or longer, if you wish). Begin with this sentence stem, and then continue to write:
When I reflect on these commentaries in relation to my own life, I ...
I can assure you that performing this exercise, and, even better, sharing it with others, can be a profoundly rewarding and even revelatory experience, and can help you to see how to bring such episodes to bear on your own life, as I will illustrate in a few moments.
Of course, each person who reflects on these commentaries will come away with his or her own insights, but perhaps it might be useful here to try to bring out some of the chief implications that have often come up in my work with this material.
Perhaps the most obvious -- and important -- insight that is voiced, in one way or another, is that this exercise forces one to think about the meaning of the Golden Rule in an entirely new way. Most of us are accustomed to regard it mainly as a precept for moral action -- "do unto others as you would be done to." But in the light of these life review commentaries, the Golden Rule is much more than that -- it is actually the way it works. In short, if these accounts in fact reveal to us what we experience at the point of death, then what we have done unto others is experienced as done unto ourselves. Familiar exhortations such as, "love your brother as yourself," from this point of view are understood to mean that, in the life review, you yourself are the brother you have been urged to love. And this is no mere intellectual conviction or even a religious credo -- it is an undeniable fact of your lived experience.
This insight becomes self-evident to NDErs who report a life review and sometimes causes them to look at this universal religious injunction with much deeper appreciation for just why it must be true. As one near-death experiencer told me:
No matter what I did to any person -- no matter what that action might be, good or bad -- that action would react not only upon me but also on others around me. I knew that every action was its own reaction. What we do for or against another, we do to ourselves. I fully understood what Jesus meant when He said, "As ye do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.
Another way of putting this would be to say that the life review demonstrates that, psychologically and spiritually, there is really only one person in the universe -- and that person is, of course, yourself. Every act, every thought, every feeling, every emotion directed toward another -- whether you know the person or not -- will later be experienced by you. Everything you send out, returns -- just as Tom Sawyer felt each of the thirty-two blows he had viciously rained down on his overmatched victim. Remember what one of the persons quoted above said to pithily encapsulate this lesson from the life review: "I was the very people that I hurt, and I was the very people I helped to feel good." Next time you are in the middle of a heated argument with someone, you might find yourself stopping in mid-sentence when you realize that your verbal assaults will one day inevitably be reflected back to you in the unsparing mirror of your life.
I don't know about you, but pondering these implications of the life review makes me think about justice in a new way, too. It occurs to me, what could be a more perfect form of justice than this -- everything you do becomes yours. It is not that we are rewarded for our good deeds or punished by our cruel ones; it is simply that we receive back what we have given out, and exactly as we have done. Unselfish love given to your child is love you experience as bestowed on you. And likewise, a careless word that wounds somebody's feelings cuts into you. Measure for measure, perfectly, with no possibility of error. What Solon could devise anything fairer?
These reflections in turn suggest a revisioning of one aspect of the NDE that seems to give many people trouble. Very often, following a lecture on NDEs, a question is raised to the effect of whether everybody will eventually find himself in the presence of the Light and receive the incomparable blessings that the Light seems to extend to anyone who comes within its embrace. Behind the question, there is usually the implication that some persons should be disqualified for this experience -- rapists, for example, or others who have led morally reprehensible lives (or even, with some fundamentalists, persons who are "unsaved").
The answer I have heard several near-death experiencers give to this question is unqualified: Everyone, they say, will come into this light. The Light is unconditional and plays no favorites. This reply invariably stirs an agitated response in some members of the audience, and someone will then play the trump card. "Even Hitler?," a voice will ask incredulously.
I remember an answer that was given to this query by a near-death experiencer who, as a child, had suffered severe sexual and physical abuse from her father. When she found herself in the Light, she asked it telepathically, "Does everyone come here?" She was told, "yes." Then, she herself asked the very question that represents the limit for most people: "Even Hitler?" "Yes." And, then, pushing the Light even further, she found herself asking, "Even my father?" Again, "yes."
But when she told of her encounter with the Light, she also happened to mention the other side of the coin -- the life review. Remember what we have already been told by the persons I have quoted: "Multitudinous actions or thoughts, derived from my own meanness, unkindness, or anger, caused me to feel the consequent pains of other people. I experienced this even if at the time I had hurt someone, I had chosen to ignore how that would affect them. And I felt their pain for the full length of time they were affected by what I had done." Another person, echoing comments I have heard from other NDErs, said that having to re-experience what she did to, thought, and felt about others, was hell itself for her. And a prisoner, not previously quoted, who actually had a long criminal career said, in a passage whose relevance to Hitler's atrocities cannot be overlooked, "Apparently nothing was omitted in this nightmare of injuries, but the most terrifying thing about it was that every pang of suffering I had caused others was now felt by me as the scroll unwound itself."
Again, seemingly perfect justice. From this perspective, can you imagine what Hitler's life review must have been like? One may even wonder whether it is over with yet!
Such reflections, however much they serve our need to see justice done, especially to figures of world-historical moral depravity, are nevertheless very disquieting for most of us. None of us, obviously, has lived a blameless life; we have all done things of which we are deeply ashamed and now must live with the knowledge that the shadow of these deeds will haunt us like an unexorcised ghost. And then there are actions of whose consequences we may remain unaware, but whose effects, not always pleasant, we will be forced to experience for ourselves during the life review. Such thoughts -- and maybe you had them when you were doing your writing -- are likely to be disturbing, even deeply distressing, to many of us. Even to think about them now is a burden no one would wish to carry, and yet there seems to be no honest way to shake it off.
But there is, after all, a way to come to terms with this problem that threatens to weigh us down with gloomy and fearful anticipations of almost Dickensian proportions. And it is one that may come as a surprise almost too good to be believed. For the incontestable fact is, in these life reviews, justice is seemingly always tempered by a kind of mercy that allows most of us to re-experience our lives without teeth-gnashing anguish and remorse.
There is never any condemnation -- you are not judged.
You are in the presence of a being who loves you unconditionally.
You are treated with total compassion.
You are already forgiven.
You are only asked to look at your life, and to understand.
Although the life review may be the price you pay for entrance into the Light, the presence within the Light helps you through it with the greatest and most tender compassion and love and, even at times, humor. You are not being punished; you are being shown, so that you can learn.
Just to illustrate the benignity of this process, let this one example speak for many that might be cited. A man who had quite a hard time looking at his life during his review commented:
I feel strongly that the whole life review would have been emotionally destructive ... if it hadn't been for the fact that my friend [the being of light] and my friend's friends, while we watched the whole thing, were loving me. I could feel that love. Every time I got a little upset, they turned it off for awhile and they just loved me. Their love was tangible. You could feel it on your body, you could feel it inside of you; their love went right through you. The therapy was their love, because my life review just kept tearing me down. It was pitiful to watch, just pitiful ... it was nauseating. But through it all was their love.
Finally, just to show how knowledge of these experiences can actually affect one's conduct in everyday life, let me conclude by citing a letter that was sent to me by a friend named Judy who was previously familiar with and had thought about the lessons stemming from these life reviews. In her letter, she described this incident to me:
One evening, a friend, two recently acquired acquaintances and I met at a restaurant. The four of us found ourselves sitting at a table in such a way that no general conversation inclusive of all of us could be held -- and the decibel level in the crowded room also precluded that. The physical arrangement was such that a woman named Michelle was seated to the far left; my friend, Jim, was immediately to her right; I was positioned next to Jim; and another woman, Kathleen, was on the far right-hand side of the table.
Jim and I were eager to talk with Michelle because we were very interested in her work and knew we would not have a chance to see her again for a long time since she was soon to go to Europe for an extended period. However, a four-way conversation being impossible under the circumstances, I gradually gave up trying to chime in, especially since I had become aware that Kathleen seemed somewhat removed from the developing situation. It would have been difficult for her to participate, anyway, because Michelle, who is something of an "entertainer" and always "on," quickly dominated the conversation. And it had already become apparent by now that Michelle and Kathleen had something of an antipathy toward each other.
Anyway, sure enough, Kathleen began to show signs of withdrawal, perhaps even resentment, and it was becoming increasingly obvious to me that she didn't feel included. Later, Jim told me that he was vaguely aware of this at the time, but felt that the circumstances prevented him from doing much about it.
Judy, however, who was already keenly aware of the implications of the life review from her knowledge of the NDE literature, suddenly had a thought flash through her mind that changed everything.
I was feeling a bit frustrated about not being able to talk more with Michelle and having instead to make conversation with someone who didn't seem to want to make any effort to engage and remained very distant. It is not easy for me to choose to be superficially social, though, just out of obligation, so this was a difficult predicament for me. Suddenly, the thought came, "How would I like to see this scene in my life review?" Immediately, I felt Kathleen's pain, and the degree of that pain sent shudders through my body. I didn't see my own life review per se, but rather I felt Kathleen's life inside of me, almost as if I were experiencing it myself, particularly the immense amount of rejection she had felt most of her life (which she later confirmed for me) and how distancing herself had become a protective device for her against further pain.
After this insight had hit Judy like a thunderbolt, she says that... "feelings of empathy and compassion rose to the surface quite rapidly, accompanied by a genuine and strong sense of caring toward Kathleen. Without hesitation or hypocrisy, I turned -- not just my head, but my entire body -- toward her and gave her a very warm smile and began again to talk with her (although I knew within me that words wouldn't even be necessary). She responded as though she had just been given the most loving hug, and we soon became engrossed in a conversation of our own.
As a result, not only was the evening a success after all, but there now developed between Kathleen and me a very tender and genuine mutual affection, which has since ripened into a friendship. And I have truly felt, ever since, an unchanged and unconditional empathy toward her, as if I had been allowed to peek for just a brief moment through all the deceiving veils into the heart of another, thus receiving the full force of complete understanding that comes from truly walking in someone else's shoes. "To truly know someone is to love them," I remember reading somewhere, and I can tell you that was shown to me that evening, incontestably.
All this, it would seem, simply because Judy had consciously used her knowledge of the life review to behave as she would have wished to see herself in her own life review. This example makes plain the thesis of this article and of my book: The lessons of the life review are available to everyone, whether one has had an NDE or not. All that is necessary is not to forget what you have learned, and to act upon your knowledge.
“Kenneth Ring, Ph.D., is the author of various books on NDEs, including Heading Toward Omega, The Omega Project and most recently, Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience and Mindsight.” Also by Kenneth Ring: Ultimate Near-Death Experiences: Journeys Beyond the Light.
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