Close encounters

Millions have reported near-death experiences. What does it mean and what message do they hold?

October 19, 2006 09:49
close encounter 88 298

close encounter 88 298. (photo credit: )


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Avraham Yosef was 25 years old when he died for the first time. "I was an electrician, and I was working in an industrial building when I unplugged the drill I was using, slipped, and got electrocuted," says the now 63-year-old, turning over his hand to reveal the small, rectangular scar on his right palm where the electrical plug struck him. "I screamed and then lost consciousness," he says. "My brother who was working with me heard me scream and called an ambulance. But by the time they got me to the emergency room, I was dead." At Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek hospital, doctors administered paddles to his chest and attempted to defibrillate his heart, but to no avail. Minutes later, they declared Yosef dead, but suggested to the family that they double the electrical voltage of the defibrillator in an attempt to shock his heart and resuscitate him. He was already dead, they reasoned, and therefore it would do no harm to try. The family agreed, and the voltage was increased to 1000 watts - a quantity the physicians admitted they had never attempted when administering an electric shock to a patient's heart. Yosef's heart began to beat again, albeit faintly, and the relieved doctors reported that he was alive. But Yosef had been clinically dead for seven minutes, and the risks of brain damage were high, they warned his family, and chances were that due to the trauma his brain suffered, he would never be the same again. When he awoke days later, Yosef was in a severely weakened state and had no memory of the accident. Upon returning home two weeks later, his wife had to take care of him as one would a baby, feeding and bathing him while he regained his strength. And then suddenly, while sitting at home one day, Yosef remembered everything, and as his doctors predicted, he would never be the same again. "When I died, my soul went up," he states calmly from his home in Jerusalem. "There was a room I was standing in, and in front of me was an open door. Everything was white, but not white like the walls, a pure white, a white that we don't have here in this world. "The doors in front of me opened and I saw a spectacular sight: In front of me was a man sitting on a high chair, two men sat on either side of him, and on either side of me were six other men. They looked like regular people, but were wearing this pure white, with pure white beards and white hair. They had no wrinkles or blemishes on their faces and their eyes were glowing, as if there was fire or light emanating from them. They were all beautiful." Though he only died for seven minutes, Yosef experienced a lengthy encounter with what he called the judges of the world to come, who did not identify themselves to him. They did, however, leave him with lasting messages to impart to the Jewish people and its leaders upon his return to this world. "They said they invited me because I had zechut avot (merits of the fathers - credit from their good deeds)," says Yosef, explaining that his father had been a great rabbi in Iran, where he built a synagogue for the Jewish community and provided them with a Torah scroll. When his family moved to Israel, his father continued to work in construction, and as such also had the merit "of building the land of Eretz Yisrael." For that reason, Yosef says, the Beit Din shel Ma'ala (high court of heaven) promised to return him to this world with critical messages for the leaders of Israel, along with the warning that unless they amend their wicked behavior, tragedy will be inevitable. "They told me it can't be that there are people in Israel who are starving, it can't be that the rich continue getting richer and the poor continue getting poorer," recounts Yosef from a 17-page document he wrote by hand as soon as he remembered the encounter more than 35 years ago. The document comprises a complex list of the major modern transgressions of the Jewish people, including intermarriage of Jews with non-Jews, disrespect among Jews of Jewish tradition and customs and even cruelty to animals. But most sinful, reported Yosef, was the leadership of the State of Israel. "The government and regime of Israel is corrupt and must change their ways," continues Yosef. "Those elected to the Knesset must be chosen according to the rules laid out in the Torah, and not according to money and power." If the leaders of Israel don't change their ways, Yosef was warned, just as the Holy Temple was twice destroyed, so too the Zionist state will be destroyed - in 2012. "A charismatic leader from an Islamic state will gather two million soldiers from all the Islamic countries and they will attack us, killing one-and-a-half million Israelis," Yosef explains in his surprisingly calm voice. "We will launch the atom bomb and kill 10-15 million Arabs in two days, and tens of millions of others will die from radiation poisoning." Nonetheless, he was told, the Arab nations will conquer Israel for a period of nine months to a year, after which God will perform a miracle and free us from their oppression, willing us to repent and reform and bring about the coming of the Messiah and ultimate salvation. But all of this can be avoided, he maintains, if the leaders of Israel and the entire Jewish nation change their ways. "For 2,000 years we have been in exile, and we still haven't learned our lesson," he professes. "If we change our ways, redemption will come." Power and riches will also come to the Jewish nation, says Yosef, revealing that there is indeed oil to be found under Israeli soil - near Jerusalem and on the way down to Eilat. But unfortunately, he adds, immorality has only increased since that time, and so he expects the worst. When the "judges" finished instructing Yosef on his mission upon his return to this world, Yosef says he walked backwards through the room and the anteroom and found himself back in his body, where he remained in a coma for five days. Though there was a time when he tried fervently to speak with members of government and warn them of these messages, after being laughed at, embarrassed and even physically threatened by members of the Knesset, Yosef stopped trying. Now, he says, he lives his life day by day and accepts the fate of the world. "I think everything I was told will happen," he says. "But I'm not scared. I already know what death is." YOSEF IS one of more than 13 million people worldwide who have reported having a near-death experience. Coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in 1975 in his best-selling book Life after Life, a near-death experience, or NDE, is a distinct subjective experience that individuals sometimes report after a near-death episode, which includes situations in which a person clinically died and was brought back to life, as well as circumstances where death is likely or expected, such as military combat. The release of Moody's book triggered a wave of people who had undergone NDEs and had previously been scorned to come forward with their experiences. Before he began his vast research on the subject, the majority of professionals dismissed NDEs as crazy hallucinations or the result of oxygen deprivation to the brain. Today, says clinical psychologist Brigitte Kashtan, it is more widely understood that an NDE could simply be a journey to another state of consciousness. "These people have interacted with the next world," says Kashtan, who performs past-life therapies and takes people on journeys through their souls from her private offices in Tel Aviv and Haifa. While each NDE is unique to the particular individual, there are fundamental stages found in almost every NDE, she explains, as outlined by Moody's research. In the first stage, one experiences the sensation of leaving the body and seeing it from above - called an out-of-body experience - in which one can still hear and see all that is going on in the room. In fact, says Kashtan, patients who are blind from birth have even been able to accurately describe all the visual elements of a room after awakening from an NDE. "This is proof of the continuity of the soul after the death of the physical body, which is exactly what all religions have always said," says Kashtan. "The body is not all there is - it's just an outer shell for the consciousness." During the next stage, one usually experiences being taken through a tunnel, where different things can happen, including reuniting with dead relatives and loved ones. This stage is often associated with very positive and comforting feelings, says Kashtan. Those who had NDEs also often report encountering a being of light, or beings from which a pure light emanated. They report feeling unconditional love and acceptance radiating from that being - who most do not describe as God, but rather as an angel or messenger of God - and sometimes have telepathic dialogue with the being of light. After this, many report having been shown a detailed record of their lives, or life review, in which they not only relived their experiences through their own eyes, but also through the eyes of others. "If they made someone happy, they felt their happiness, and if they humiliated someone, they felt their humiliation and all the consequences of their actions, good and bad," explains Kashtan. "It can be perhaps an explanation of what we call hell, experiencing all the evil we have done to others. It is proof of the idea of cosmic justice." In the final stage, they are sent back through the tunnel to their physical bodies, usually reluctant to leave the haven of peace and bliss, and re-enter their bodies "like a hand into a glove." A FEW months after Beverly Brodsky of San Diego, California returned to this world after her NDE, she was overcome with depression at having come back from the world of perfect harmony to the world of strife, intolerance and conditional love. "I realized that before I could go back there, I still had to live out the rest of my life here," she says. Unlike Yosef's NDE, Brodsky's falls much more in line with the norms described by Moody. When she was 20 years old, Brodsky was riding a motorcycle without a helmet when she was hit by a drunk driver and violently thrown from the vehicle. She suffered a fractured skull, numerous broken bones throughout her body and lost all of her teeth as well as the skin on the entire right side of her face. When she was released from the hospital after two weeks of lying semi-comatose, doctors refused to supply her with anti-pain medication, fearing she could become addicted. "I was in an extreme state of despair," recalls Brodsky, now 56. "I remember crying to the nurse that no one would ever love me because of my face, and I was in constant, horrible pain. One day, while in my bedroom, I cried and begged that if there is a God, if you're up there, take me, because I didn't want to live another second." Beverly fell onto her bed in a fit of despair and the next thing she recalled was rising up out of her body. For the first time in weeks she felt absolutely no pain. Accompanied by an angel wearing robes of white light, Brodsky flew out the window of her room and up through the sky towards a dark, narrowing tunnel. At the end was a tiny pinpoint of light. "I was outside of time and space and there was this feeling of being so incredibly alive," says Brodsky passionately. "It was so blissful." After an indefinable period of time Brodsky emerged from the tunnel and the angel was gone. Instead, she faced a huge being of light for as far as she could see. "This is where my words don't really make sense," Brodsky calmly confesses. "This being was all there ever is, was or will be. It contained perfect truth, wisdom and justice and was just pouring out this wonderful, unconditional love on me. I thought it was God." Brodsky grew up in a non-observant Conservative home and admits that up until her experience, she was an atheist and had many doubts as to the existence of God, most of which stemmed from the Holocaust and human suffering. Upon encountering the being of light, she engaged in a kind of telepathic conversation with it and had the opportunity to ask the questions that had plagued her throughout her life. "There were no words, but every question in my heart was answered and with every answer I remember having the feeling, 'Of course, I remember now,'" says Brodsky. "It was as if there was this primordial, perfect knowledge and divine plan that my soul remembered, and I understood everything." Brodsky was then cradled by the being of light and taken on what she calls a tour of the universe, through galaxies and star clusters, until they reached a place that was "before the Big Bang, composed entirely of the oneness of God." "I would have never wanted it to end, it was so blissful and beautiful and perfect, but then I found myself back in my broken body," recalls Brodsky with tears in her eyes. When she awoke, she was a changed person, surrounded by an embracing feeling of God's love, and continued to see the "light of God" in everyone and in everything, as evidence, she says, that every molecule on earth was created by God. Almost everyone she spoke to about it afterwards told her she was hallucinating, and it was only after reading Moody's book that she was able to open up about her experience and share it with others. "If it wouldn't have happened to me, I'm not sure I would have believed it," admits Brodsky. "But it was such a precious thing, I feel so blessed to have the gift of that memory." BOTH BRODSKY and Yosef have consulted with local rabbis about their experiences, hoping that Judaism, with its history of mysticism and prophecy, could provide them with the answers that science could not. Very often rabbis confirmed that their experiences were in line with Jewish tradition. "We do believe in the world to come, the soul doesn't just disappear," says Rabbi Shlomo Vilk, a Modern Orthodox rabbi who lives in Jerusalem and is the principal of a yeshiva high school in Gush Etzion. "But in general, Jewish philosophy is very rational and discusses this world, not the next, and tries to stay away from discussing what happens after death." Rather than assuming an NDE is actually a journey to the world-to-come and back, Vilk explains the phenomenon as a memory of the world to come that we experienced before we were born. "I believe that our souls have a previous knowledge," he elaborates. "The Midrash says that when a child is in his mother's womb, the angels teach him everything, and when he comes out the angel hits him under his nose and he forgets everything - the meaning of this is that nothing is new to our souls. We have something within us which comes from before, and when someone is between life and death, the connection with the soul strengthens and some of this emotion, feeling, intuition, comes back." Kabbalistic literature goes even further and firmly supports the notion that people may encounter the world to come in a close experience with total death. "It could be that these [NDE] stories are true," claims Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, head of the kabbalistic Yeshivat Shalom in Jerusalem, citing stories in both the Gemara and the Zohar in which rabbis traveled to the next world and then came back to life. "There is life after death." Batzri says there are occasions when the Beit Din Shel Ma'ala, made up of rabbis who once lived in this world, can make a mistake in taking someone's life and decide to send them back. It is nonetheless critical to remember, he continues, that the stories people bring back with them from the dead are simply that - subjective, personal stories - and however true they may be, they should not in any way be misconstrued as prophecies. "Chazal [our sages] tell us that there is no prophecy anymore, and I don't think any rabbinic authority would call these people prophets or even messengers of God," says Vilk. "It is a personal experience that was intended for that person only." Batzri agrees, adding that anything a person witnesses from the world to come is solely for himself and for the purpose of amending his own ways. However, he does allow that these experiences can instill faith and belief in the hearts of those close to the one who was returned to life, which can be very positive and help reinforce the fact that there is more to our existence than just this world. With regard to Yosef's foreboding of imminent war in 2012, Batzri warns that any specific information such as dates or numbers communicated from above should not be taken literally, because man can change everything through prayer and good deeds in this world. Thus Yosef's encounter and the information he was given were intended for him and him alone, and while a war with our neighboring Arab nations may be in our future, we should not take his predictions as an unavoidable truth. "We can never know if messages received are completely true because the future depends on the actions of men," Kashtan concurs. "It could be correct that if we don't become better people bad things will happen. Terrorism, earthquakes, tsunamis are all results of the creation of bad energies - whereas if we do good actions, we spread light and goodness." THOUGH IT IS extremely difficult if not impossible to prove the legitimacy of near-death experiences, their rate of occurrence has dramatically increased in recent decades due to advances in medical technology that enable more people to be brought back from the brink of death. People of all ages, religions and nationalities have reported having an NDE. Not everyone who comes close to death will have an NDE, but there is no known way of predicting who will have one and who won't. It is also widely understood that the nature of an NDE is dependent on the culture, religion and background of the person - Christians might see Jesus, whereas Hindus may see the god of the dead. Each person integrates his or her near-death experience into their own pre-existing belief system, explains Jody Long of the Near-Death Research Foundation based out of Washington state. Several theories have been documented attempting to explain the phenomenon of the near-death experience through the lens of science and medicine, mostly dismissing the mystical elements in favor of a more logical explanation. While believers like Kashtan explain the NDE as a veritable journey to another consciousness, many who approach the issue from a more scientific angle define it as the creation of an over-stressed mind. "It is death anxiety," states Dror Green, a psychoanalyst and the head of the Cogito School for Psychotherapy near Safed. "We are born with the knowledge that we are going to die in the end. It is the surest thing we know and the scariest thing we know and therefore, we live in fear of death." According to Green, human beings live in a constant state of paradox with regard to death. We search incessantly for security - a family, a home, a culture, a contract - with the ridiculous notion in our heads that if everything is planned and prepared, maybe death can be eluded. At the same time, we constantly want to change our routine and break out of the norms, Green explains, but the moment our frame is broken, we feel fear - and that fear of separation, fear of change, is really nothing but a fear of death. When one is finally face-to-face with death, like during an NDE, one therefore searches for anything that will make them feel secure, and as such sees dead relatives or "finds God" in the extreme vulnerability of the moment. "Everyone sees what they have to see to make them feel safe and secure in the face of death, which is the most insecure place in the world," says Green. Although most who have experienced NDEs would shudder even at the mention of the possibility that it could be a hallucination, Green contends it is a favorable and accurate definition of the experience. "It's a hallucination, but it's a good thing, because it gives us the power to deal with death," he says. "Once we come face-to-face with our biggest fear, we can let go of it." That's why, he elaborates, people often feel a sense of calm and peace or see a bright light, because they finally stop fearing death. Our whole lives are lived conscious of the fact that we will all eventually die, he says, but we live as though we will live forever. If we knew death was inevitable, we would all live our lives very differently. "The moment of death can lead people to very different experiences," Green adds, "but they are very meaningful, because when you see death, you see life differently." DESPITE ALL the technological advances in modern medicine, we still have a relatively rudimentary understanding of brain function and ability. Arguments abound over whether the 10 percent "myth" - the idea that we only use 10% of our brains - has any truth to it. We do know that we cannot fully explain or account for the majority of the brain's complex activities. Believers in the paranormal insist this is evidence of metaphysical activity, whether that be psychic powers or other extraordinary untapped abilities, but the truth continues to elude us, and so the nature of an NDE has yet to be universally defined. Though NDEs differ, one thing they all have in common is the drastic change they make in the lives of those who experience them. Before his NDE, Yosef suffered from constant debilitating migraines. He claims that since the experience he has not been sick once. He also says his spirituality and sense of giving to others has thrived. "After an NDE, suddenly people understand all the mistakes they have been making and feel they have been given a second chance," says Kashtan. "They become better people. They don't necessarily describe themselves as more religious, but instead say they are more universally spiritual." Green calls the experience "psychotherapeutic," and Vilk says the deeper connection with the soul can have a very positive influence on people's behavior. Brodsky stopped rebelling against religion and God and today, her daughter is raised with the Jewish ethics and values Brodsky once denied. Both she and Yosef are in the process of writing books on their experiences and how it changed their lives for the better. "In the Zohar, it's written that 'the worlds of splendor are around us all the time,'" Kashtan remarks. "We just aren't conscious of them. But during a dream, or spiritual exercise, or close encounter with death, people who are very sensitive can have access to these worlds. They are there, all around us. We just aren't conscious of them."

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