Shared Death Experiences: A Transformative Path
Fascination with death and the afterlife has taunted man since the beginning of time. Much of this fascination has been expressed through the exploration of mythology, rituals, and shamanic practices that date back thousands of years. Examples of ancient teachings concerning death have been depicted in the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Tibetan Book of the Death which explicitly articulate the passage to another world. Recently, in the 20th century, however, Western Science has begun to explore the phenomenological aspects of dying through the examination of near-death experiences (NDE) and empathic shared death experiences (SDE). SDE is a term coined by Dr. Raymond Moody (2010), a prominent psychiatrist who dedicated his life to exploring such phenomenon.
The following will explore the phenomenon of shared death experiences and will consider the striking similarities between shared death experienced and shamanic death initiation and journeying. This paper will also evaluate the effects of shared death experiences on those who experience them, and possibly their importance to the grieving process as well as to the movement towards a healthier capacity to embrace life.
The Landscape of Shared Death Experience
Interest in shared death experiences surfaced in the West as a result of the study of transpersonal phenomena such as near-death experiences which aimed at demystifying the possibility of life after death. It was Dr. Raymond Moody, the father of near-death studies, who began gathering testimonies of people who claimed to have similar experiences to near-death survivors, yet shared common death-bed visions and events with the dying. In an attempt to further study this phenomenon, he began breaking down the component parts to try and figure out why and how these experiences took place. As a result of this inquiry, Moody (2012) noticed commonalities in empathic shared death experiences. They often include (a) the room changing shape, (b) the dying person telepathically communicating with the bystander(s), (c) the bystander(s) leaving their body and witnessing another dimension of reality, (d) the bystanders feeling engulfed by an intense bright light that felt like absolute love, (e) a life review of the dying person witnessed by the bystander(s) (which has been observed by 23% of those surveyed), (f) the bystanders(s) witnessing a mist rising form the dying person, (g) the bystander(s) accompanying the dying person through a tunnel to a gate or place often described as heaven, (h) and, the bystander(s) view or become aware of the deceased relatives, friends or angelic beings in the room of the dying person (Moody, 2012). These accounts strikingly resemble many of the shamanic journeying experiences of the shaman which we will explore later.
It was not until 1994, after several years of gathering shard death testimonials, that Moody (2010) experienced a shared death experience for himself with his dying mother. He recounts his experience as follow:
And as we waited, it happened to us: a shared death experience. As we held hands around the bed, the room seemed to change shape and four of the six of us felt as though we were being lifted off the ground. I had the feeling that the room had turned into the shape of an hourglass. I felt a strong pull, like a riptide that was pulling me out to sea, only the pull was upward (p. 49).
Moody (2010), with a similarity to many of the accounts he recorded, further described his experience as:
“…there was great joy in the room. We all knew something truly incredible had happened to all of us as our mother died. It was though the fabric of the universe had torn and [for] just a moment we felt the energy of the place called heaven…What should have been one of life’s least happy moments was suddenly cause for elation. We had gone partway to heaven with our mother. We had personally seen her off to heaven” (p. 50).
Comparable accounts are referred to by shamans as transcending the earthly plane through what is known as the veil (Moody referred to this as the fabric of the universe) into non-ordinary reality, which for the shamans is also part of the ordinary world.
Other interesting elements and findings about shared death experiences are: they are not gender specific, although women are more susceptible to talking about them; they are not related to age; and, more interestingly, religious beliefs seem to be equally irrelevant (Long, 2010), as they are in shamanic practices. “Their experiences are truly cross-cultural in that they happen to people of all races, colors, and creeds. Yes even atheists” (Moody, 2010, p. 140). Research findings of near-death experience, which remarkably resemble shared death experiences, reveal the universality of these experiences. They are the same all over the world. This is also true of shamanic death initiation and journey practices.
The Shaman’s Death Initiation
The path of the shaman often begins with a significant crisis corresponding to the time of initiation. “The shaman’s initiation – whether in a cave, on a mountain, atop a tree, or on the terrain of the psyche – embraces the experience of death, resurrection, and realization or illumination” (Halifax, 1979, p. 4). Those who have nearly died through accident, illness, or psychological or spiritual trauma, are catapulted into the territory of death and inner crisis (Halifax, 1979). Walsh (2007) indicates that, “in shamanic cultures, this crisis is interpreted as selection by the spirits, the victim is destined to be a shaman, and the “newly inspired” is understood to be undergoing a difficult but potentially valuable development process” (p. 56). Such experiences can also be referred to as a birth where the neophyte transcends to a new place of being or consciousness, acquiring valuable knowledge, skills, and wisdom along the way. Encounters with spirits, travels into the dark, and acquaintance with the land of the dead, become the valuable tools of the shaman. In addition, the neophyte shamans often return from their perilous journey with greater understanding of the human condition, where ego loss has made way to a higher order of consciousness, compassion, and understanding of the world. These initiations are remarkably similar to those who have encountered near-death experiences, and to some extent similar to those who have experienced shared death encounter. They are all marked by (a) a painful journey (It may be enduring the illness and anticipated death of a loved one.), (b) a time of darkness, (c) an encounter with spirits from beyond, and (d) the illumination process into higher orders of being — entrance into heaven. Upon returning from such lengthy and perilous journeys, the shaman is now equipped to travel realms of realities though what is called journeying. The universal experience that is common here is the powerful transformative nature of these experiences which result in a greater sense of understanding, compassion, inner peace, and appreciation for life.
The Transformative Nature of Shared Death Experiences
Contrary to Moody’s (2010) preoccupation with the demystifying of life after death, my interests reside in determining and understanding how such transformative experiences can contribute to a more embodied and compassionate existence on earth. In a manner that is similar to the powerful transformative experience of near-death experience or shamanic deaths, shared death experiences offer the potential to change the lives of those who are touched by them. “Powerful events like these are transformative. Even years after a person has had a shared death experience, they will tell me how the event changed their life” (Moody, 2010, p. 154). These changes can be characterized by the transformative changes at the time of death and those subsequently carried into life following a shared death experience.
In reading many counts of shared death experiences, as well as relying on my own shared death experiences as a shaman, the most profound transformative experience that often permeates a shared death experience is the experience of joy and unconditional love that imbues the moment of transition. Many describe their experience as gaining a glimpse of heaven (Moody, 2010). It is in this expansive state that one grasps the sacredness and beauty of death. In this space, one can truly understand that death is a celebration, a new birth.
Kübler Roos stated, “Dying is an integral part of life, as natural and predictable as being born. But whereas birth is cause for celebration, death has become a dreaded and unspeakable issue to be avoided by every means possible in our modern society” (para 15). Despite a significant shift in the capacity to embrace death over the last few decades, death is still American’s second greatest fear according to public polls, the first being public speaking (Speech Topic Library, para 2). Transformative experiences such as shared death experiences can become a powerful vehicle to help alleviate fear, thus suffering, not only at the time of death, but also throughout one’s life.
Such transformational experiences also seem to have lasting effects as individuals carry their experience into their lives. Often those who experience shared death experiences feel a sense of inner peace knowing that their loved ones are in good hands, and that they will see them again. Moody (2010) shares one of his clients’ account:
“It changed my life, and the lives of each of us who were with her at the end to witness the pure joy of what they call ‘going home’. Now I understand what that means, and I think of that day as the greatest gift that Nana could ever give us, one of happiness and joy – hers and ours, not sadness at her passing. Although we still miss her so much, we know that we will all be there together someday, without a doubt. Now, I know we will be reunited” (p. 156).
Such experiences offer individuals the opportunity to move away from a mechanistic view of death, where heartbeat and brain activity cease to function, toward a more transcendent view of our essential nature where soul and consciousness persist to live on.
According to the testimonies, a deep inner knowing often offers individuals hope, peace, and equanimity that are carried with them throughout their lives in a powerfully embodied way. Reconciliation with a deeper knowing that life after death is a reality soothes the soul, leaving room for deeper and richer life. Fears are dissolved, much like the shamans fears dissolve following his initiatory death, leaving way to embrace and accept life fully. Another consequence of such experiences is that individuals are no longer constrained by time nor controlled by our finitude, knowing that life and consciousness supersede our bodily form. This reduces the pressure associated with those responsibilities generated by the deadlines often thought to be inescapable in this lifetime. The result is a profound embodiment of the experience of life here on earth.
With the understanding of the significant transformative values of such experience, we may ask ourselves, how we can facilitate empathic shared experiences to fully support families during a dying process. I propose here to turn to indigenous and shamanic wisdom for guidance.
The Path of the Shaman in Shared Death Experiences
The Shamans, often considered the tenders of the soul, have played an important role in the accompaniment of the dying, as they are said to be in contact with the spirit world (Endredy, 2009). They are the “healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death” (Halifax, 1976, p.3). Around the world, shamans are sought after for their expertise in birthing people into the world of spirit.
Historically in our Western culture, only the medical community gathered at the bedside of the dying (Moody, 2010). “Thanks to the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the subsequent rise of the hospice movement, medical attitudes towards death and dying have changed considerably. Now, doctors and nurses encourage family members to be at the bedside of a dying loved one, even taking over management of the deathbed scene if they feel comfortable doing so” (p. 20). It is in this shift of responsibilities that family members are in some ways becoming shamans to their own dying family members.
When asked what family members can do to prime themselves for a shared death experience, Moody (2010) responded that the common element he encountered through his research was that all individuals who experience shared death phenomena had a well-developed sense of empathy and an acceptance or surrender of the death of the dying person.
According to Villoldo (2000), death rights are preferable in helping the luminous body field to uncouple itself from the physical body. This is particularly important for people who may have been weighted down by heavy emotional baggage, often keeping them weighed on earth. Villoldo (2000) speaks of the importance of conducting Death Rites which include recapitulation and forgiveness, granting permission to die, and the final luminous body release rite. The benefit of rites is that, “When a person comes to closure with their worldly existence they transit effortless through the domains beyond death (p. 218). Recapitulation, or what Moody (2010) has identified as a panoramic view of one’s life through an empathic shared view, brings completion to a life through the art of forgiveness. Many who are privy to such co-lived life reviews speak of a non-judgmental quality while witnessing the most intimate aspects of the dying person’s life. This non-judgmental experience becomes the foundation for forgiveness and letting go, not only for the dying person but also for those left behind.
Granting permission to die is perhaps the most important step in the Death Rites. Letting a dying person know that there is no reason to be worried about those left behind will help the soul surrender towards its new birth (Villoldo, 2000). Here compassion and surrender become key in the unfolding of the movement of the soul.
The Final Rites can be performed by simply holding space for a loved one to be touched by spirit (Villoldo, 2000) or can include the art of gently disconnecting the chakras through the Illumination Process and erasing the imprints of the Luminous Energy Body (Villoldo, 2000). This can be done by the family with very little training from a knowledgeable shaman.
Another way to prepare the family for a transformative shared death experience is for a shaman to teach them how to journey into other realms through guided meditations or shamanic journeys prior to the death of a loved one. Here families are introduced to the art of crossing through the veil and access other realms of reality. This process may also help family members gain strength to face the difficult times by requesting guidance and support from the spirit world, guides, and ancestors. Such meditative and shamanic practices can support the upcoming death-rebirth process that awaits the family.
Changing Death, Changing Lives
As Moody (2010) states; “Before the groundbreaking work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the terminally ill were largely left to die alone” (p. 19). With 35 % of Americans already over the age of 65 (US Census, 2012), our Western society will be faced with a significant increase in deaths in the next twenty years. Since the fine work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the seventies, the awakening of Baby Boomers, and the demands for quality dying, a new reality is emerging regarding death. According to Moody (2010), only approximately 5 to 10% of the population experience empathic shared death experiences, along with their beneficial qualities. Understanding the transformative nature of shared death experiences can help demystify the process and can enable better support of families during the process of death and dying thereby conveying the transformative values of shared death experiences to those facing the death of a loved one.
In preparation for the impending Baby-Boomer exodus, I propose the use of ancient shamanic teachings and skills to support a greater capacity for family members to experience shared death experiences. Simple shamanic training and an awareness of the importance of Death Rites may be all we need in order to offer family and friends a pathway to the freedom of the soul. Rather than being plagued by the fear of dying, what if millions of people had the opportunity to find peace and equanimity through shared death experiences? This world would be a better place and such an undertaking would be a worthy therapeutic enterprise!
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