In recent years in the West there have been a number of studies in which people on their deathbeds are asked what it is they most regret about their lives. An Australian palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware, conducted one such study of patients in her care – she spent several years looking after a range of people in the final 12 weeks of their lives and kept a record of their dying epiphanies, publishing them in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. Ware spoke of their astounding lucidity and identified five common themes which recurred over and over. These were:
- That they had lived their lives true to themselves.
- That they hadn’t worked so hard.
- That they had the courage to express their own feelings.
- That they had stayed in touch with their friends.
- That they had allowed themselves to be happier.
What emerged is a pattern of conformity – both to those around them and wider society – which ultimately prohibited them from leading a truly satisfactory life in which their own dreams and ambitions were fully realised. From the treadmill of everyday work to the way in which we adopt our persona to suit the demands and expectations of others, these regrets are as predictable as they are a sad reflection of the skewed priorities which tend to dominate Western culture. At the same time they reflect something of a pessimistic approach to viewing life and death, focusing on the absence of something positive instead of an appreciation for the goodness that actually existed.
By contrast, Japanese documentarian and film-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda approached the idea of reflecting on life from a different perspective, asking hundreds of subjects from all walks of life – many of whom were not facing imminent death – to choose one cherished moment from their past which defined their lives. The result is a whimsical celebration of life in all its beauty and diversity, which also demonstrates how much people tend to fictionalize their past, with rose-tinted nostalgia heavily influencing their reminiscences. Choosing a single most cherished moment also proves to be considerably more difficult to do than listing one’s regrets, suggesting that negativity has become engrained in mankind’s mindset, as if anxiety and lamentation has become a driving force behind the species.
Kore-eda compiled the interviews and conducted many more for his film After Life, which straddles both documentary and work of fiction, and the result is a film which suggests the immanence of the human experience, with many themes and concepts emerging that a variety of different cultures would doubtless share. So too with deathbed phenomena – the paranormal experiences and visions of those on the brink of death – there is a unity across cultures, and indeed throughout history. Frequently these visions of heavenly creatures and deceased relatives have been considered evidence for the presence of a spirit realm and even as proof of the after life, comforting visions of a place beyond the familiar temporal realm.
The following account from Chaz Ebert, the wife of the popular American film critic Roger Ebert, highlights the nature of deathbed visions in a contemporary context:
“The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.”
Not surprisingly, when mainstream science first came to examine such phenomena in the early 20th century, they were rationalised by the materialistic mindset as being nothing more than hallucinations – a rationalisation which continues to the present day. There is some merit to this interpretation, as anyone who has taken psychedelic drugs can attest to.
Hallucinogenic drugs such as psilocybin and DMT are capable of manifesting alien realms and entities which for the user feel every bit as real as experiences they might have in sobriety; with DMT, visions of otherworldly beings are incredibly common. Given that the neuronal function of the brain at the point of death is impaired, experiencing a stage of cerebral hypoxia, it is entirely plausible that these visions correspond to these changes in brain activity. This would certainly parallel the work of Rick Strassman and his studies into DMT and the near-death experience, in which he posits that the pineal gland releases huge doses of the chemical at the moment of death.
But new theories have emerged in recent years which may finally take us towards a true reconciliation of science and spirit, in which the deathbed visions of people and places are neither the imaginative products of an ingrained cultural and historical perception of an afterlife nor chemically-induced hallucinations, but real phenomena which actually exist.
Harvard neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander, recently interviewed on Waking Times (above), conducted extensive research which challenged the orthodoxy of reductive materialism and offered a radical new interpretation of the way in which consciousness functions. Rather than being a product of the brain, Alexander posits that “consciousness is at the core of an unfolding reality” and that beyond this there is a conscious force which exists external to the physical body. Additional research in the field of consciousness by Stanford University Professor Emeritus William A. Tiller has indicated a powerful realm between particles which is heavily influenced by human consciousness. This latent energy, which interacts between the conventionally-measured molecular/atomic substance is apparently spurred into interaction by intentions projected from the mind.
A number of prestigious scientists have long held to the theory of the multiverse, building upon the lack of predictability in quantum mechanics as the starting point for an ever-expanding array of parallel universes. Dr. Robert Lanza, in his book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Key to Understanding the Nature of the Universe, put forward the notion – long held in religious and spiritual beliefs – that consciousness continues on after the death of the physical form. With consciousness the driving force behind the existence of the universe, Lanza believes that consciousness never actually dies, and that we only perceive it as doing so because of the identity people have with their bodies. Beyond this, Lanza suggests that consciousness can travel between universes at will – just as our bodies are thought of as the product of stardust (and there is solid mainstream science supporting that idea) so too are our “souls” intrinsically linked to the proto-consciousness which forms the fabric of space and time.
A recent study from Boston University revealed that belief in immortality may be hard-wired into the human brain, and while this study focused primarily on highlighting the cognitive roots of religious belief, an interesting aspect of the findings points to these beliefs originating not in culture and upbringing, as was initially assumed, but as intuitive concepts – natural drives rather than nurtured opinions. But perhaps this implicit awareness is more than mere fantasy – if the theories of Alexander, Tiller, Lanza and an increasing number of experts in a variety of fields prove to be correct, it would mean that humanity would have to radically revise its views on death itself, and deathbed reflections on hopes and regrets could become almost redundant.
Rather than validating the claims of religious institutions throughout history, confirmation of consciousness as a phenomena which both shapes the universe around us and transcends the physical realm would forge a new era of metaphysical enquiry. Albert Einstein famously predicted that “the religion of the future will be a cosmic religion” – that future may already be with us.
About the Author
Andrew Dilks writes on culture and politics at orwellwasright.co.uk. He is the author of Goliath and Flow. His newest book Prehistoric Highs: Mind-Altering Plants and the Birth of Civilization will be available in 2014.