Vital Signs

Psychotherapy From A Near-Death Perspective

by Catherine Burton, PhD.

Though I have never had a neardeath experience (NDE), my life has been forever changed by what I have learned from those who have. In my professional practice as a psychotherapist, I have also found that the perspective of the NDE can be very effective in the healing, growth, and transformation of clients as they encounter different stages in the human life-cycle.

My first contact with the near-death experience occurred in the 1970s. In graduate school, I met a person who had been in an automobile accident, had had a classic NDE, and overnight changed his worldview, values, and beliefs. He immediately left his job in sales, and decided to become a psychologist. It was striking to witness such an instantaneous transformation. My second experience was reading Dr. Raymond Moody’s book, Life after Life, which helped me to heal my own remaining grief over my father’s death.

The NDE phenomenon also excites and inspires me personally because so many people have, in that brief moment in their lives, directly experienced what I have spent the last 25 years searching for, studying, and practicing to realize in myself. Their experiences, and the growing body of research surrounding them, are now confirming “the perennial wisdom” that the great mystics and sages have been saying all along. Over the years, I gradually began to offer this “wisdom” revealed in the near death perspective to people I work with in my private practice as a clinical psychologist. I would like to share with you the different ways I have applied this expanding knowledge to help people heal, grow, and transform their lives.

Confronting Death

Naturally, I find myself most often applying this knowledge when my clients or their relatives are facing the process of dying. At a pace and in the particular way that is most comfortable for the specific individual, I share some of the common features of reported neardeath experiences, including turning toward the light, going through a tunnel, and meeting loved ones on the other side (Kenneth Ring, PhD, Life at Death). If the dying or elderly person is interested in learning more, I then share with them a book on NDEs, or I lend them my copy of Dr. Moody’s excellent videotape, Life after Life.1 Seeing death as not an ending to life, but as a transition to another dimension of life, greatly lessens their fear of dying.

The families of those making this transition can also be comforted, educated, and given hope by the research that suggests that there really is no death, that their loved one will remain alive in another dimension.

Also, the process of grieving a loved one who has passed on is made easier by the expectation that the grieving person will be reunited with their loved one at the end of their own journey.


Contemplating Suicide

I have found research on NDEs to be very helpful for clients contemplating suicide. These individuals have turned away from life, and are looking to suicide as a way to end their pain. In a compassionate way, I share with them the experience of persons who have tried suicide, yet came back. When my clients hear that others who attempted suicide continued to be conscious even though their body had been declared dead (Barbara Rommer, MD, Blessing in Disguise, pages 44-45, 56-58), they see that there really may be no such thing as killing yourself.

Secondly, persons whose NDE occurred during a suicide, often found themselves, at first, in a darkness and despair similar to what they’d been experiencing before the attempt, and discovered that suicide did not put an end to their emotional pain. Those who then turned to the light during their experience were told by beings of light that suicide would not be a solution. They were told they would have to come back, face the same situation and feelings again, and make other choices (Melvin Morse, MD, Closer to the Light, pages 184-188; Barbara Rommer, MD, Blessing in Disguise, pages 47-48; Phillip L. Berman, The Journey Home, pages 119- 120).

At the same time, those who attempted suicide also found hope, for they experienced—even if only for a moment— the greater reality of light, love, and the larger meaning of life. Reading accounts of experiencers posted on www.near-death.com and on this web site can let clients in distress know that there are others who have felt what they feel, and that these others found the hope and courage to face reality and to heal. I have found with almost every client that sharing this information helped them to mobilize the internal resources of their true self to make a decision to turn back towards life, to face the situations that had overwhelmed them, and to begin the process of healing and growing from those challenges.


Deriving One’s Life Ethics

At some point with almost every client in my practice, I share the fact that millions of people have had NDEs and their accounts suggest that we will go through a life review after we go through the transition called death. My view is, “Why wait until you die to have a life review? Since it is one of the most transformative experiences, why not do your own review right now?” As we come to understand that we will not only re-experience every moment of our lives, but will also feel the effects that every thought, feeling, word and deed has had on others, we often quite quickly become more accountable and responsible for our lives. (Kenneth Ring, PhD, Lessons from the Light, pp.161-165). The golden rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—because you will feel exactly what you have done unto them—becomes quite an effective way of helping one to become self-governing. The faculty of conscience is restored.

As one way to help my clients make wiser choices, I suggest that they imagine going into the greater self that is experienced during a life review and weigh each option with its possible consequences from that perspective. How will you feel about your decision, as you relive its consequences on your life and others’ lives during your review?


Relationships, Love, and Sex

Knowing that we will feel the effects on others of our thoughts, words, and deeds can have a profound effect on the way we relate to each other. Relationships are one of life’s greatest mirrors, in which our reactions towards others show us much about what we carry inside ourselves. Research on the life review and on suicide-NDEs suggests that we escape nothing (the six personal NDE accounts in Dr. Moody’s Life after Life video; also Dannion Brinkley, Saved by the Light]. Living with bitterness towards a person is unfinished business. If it is not healed and forgiven by the time you leave this earth, you, according to many accounts, will have to come back and complete the lesson as part of your education in the school of life. Many NDErs have seen from their life review that they chose to be with certain people or to have certain difficult relationships because they had not learned how to forgive and let go of resentments. So they are in remedial school, so to speak, reexperiencing similar situations and feelings until they learn to reopen their hearts, learn and move on from the past, forgive and let go. Many a bitter divorcee, blocked from moving on with life because of a resentful heart, will exclaim at the thought of going through the same experience over again in this or another lifetime, “Oh God, no! Anything but that! What do I need to do right now to start learning how to heal and forgive this?” And indeed they do.

This broader NDE perspective helps them to forgive because it can show them that often we come together with people who either trigger or represent aspects of ourselves that we need to work out. When we turn from blaming the other person to understanding what is the lesson we can learn from the relationship, we have set our feet in the right direction for healing. Then we can begin to see that what bothers us most in the other person may reflect something that we don’t like in ourselves. Once we have learned this lesson, and have cleared this aspect in ourselves, we become much more able to let go and forgive the other. When our life gets better because we have done that, we may even find ourselves appreciating how we may have attracted that person into our life as a teacher, to help us learn that lesson. We can become grateful for what has come from the challenging experience. In the end, as we free up energy we had been using to hold onto our resentments from the past, we realize that what matters is not what others have done to us, but how we have responded.

In almost every account of the near-death experience, the person returned saying that what mattered most was love, the kind of love that expects nothing in return, the kind of love that is good for all (Barbara Rommer, MD, Blessing in Disguise, pages 129, 177-181; Kenneth Ring, PhD, Lessons from the Light, pages 187-198). Many have said that it was small acts of kindness—the smile to the postal clerk, a friendly offer of help, the loving word or touch to one’s child, sibling or mate, or any way of spreading goodwill and respect for life— that were featured in their life review. The experiencer not only felt the loving-kindness they’d given to the other person, but also the ripple effect as that person spread the goodwill they had received onward to others (Dannion Brinkley, At Peace in the Light). This principle implies that love is the surest basis for making choices. That which comes out of caring and love is good; that which does not come from love hurts ourselves, hurts others, and hurts life. From this perspective, our orientation switches from trying to get from the world to being a blessing to the world.

And what does the NDE have to say about sex in this regard? It is interesting that not too much is ever said about sex in most accounts. It seems that God really isn’t too interested in our sex life, but is very interested in our love life. By that I mean that we have to ask ourselves if our sexual behavior is based on love, and is it given as an expression of our caring for another, or is it just for our own sensory gratification or to boost a lonely or deflated ego. In addition, several gay people who have had NDEs write that, although they felt or were made to feel shame on Earth for their sexual orientation, having a homosexual orientation was not a major issue on the other side (Liz Dale, PhD, Crossing Over & Coming Home). Again, what was more important was where they were coming from in the relationship—was the other person a sexual object, or a person and human being that they loved and cared about? Whatever our sexual orientation, this greater understanding about love is indeed needed in our modern culture, which has often forgotten that love is caring.


Work and Career

Revelations from NDEs can have a profound effect on our values. The view from the other side is that you take nothing physical with you. What you take is how much of the kingdom within you—namely love, compassion, courage, honesty, responsibility, discipline, wisdom, and faith—you have developed. As revealed in some of the reported accounts (George Ritchie, MD, Ordered to Return, pages 33-46; Barbara R. Rommer, MD, Blessing in Disguise, pages195-199), these qualities of character you take with you may determine, to a significant degree, what you experience on the other side. To paraphrase one of my favorite accounts from an NDEr, it did not matter how big your paycheck was, how beautiful you or your house were, how many degrees you’d earned, or how much fame, fortune or position you’d achieved. It didn’t matter how important your job was, how many lovers you’d had or how small your waist and hips were (thank God!). What mattered was how much you had loved. Life is love’s gift to us, and many are asked at the end of their days on Earth what they have done to return the gift of love back to life. I have witnessed many times that, as clients come into the broader understanding offered by the NDE (as well as by many spiritual paths), their values transform from materialistic to more humane, spiritual values.

This change in values can transform our work life from simply having a job that pays our bills to doing work or service that we love and that makes a contribution to life. It can also give a greater meaning to the latter part of life. Mid-life and later can be a time for greater spiritual growth and service to society, a time for giving back for all that we have received. As we come into this larger view, many find soul purposes and passions stirring, as they seek to find how deeper gifts and abilities can meet the needs of the community they live in. Yet to know our deeper purpose, we must first know this greater self. To help my clients move into this greater perspective on themselves, I suggest that they imagine they are more than their body, that they are a soul with a body of light, who came to earth to realize this true self and make a contribution. Connecting to this deeper self and asking what you find most meaningful and fulfilling in life holds a key to discovering important directions in one’s life, work and service. I was fascinated to read so many NDE accounts suggesting that we are each here for a special reason, and have something unique to contribute to life (Betty Eadie, Embraced by the Light; Suzanne Boehm, Beyond the Tunnel). I was fascinated to read that some who were very reluctant to return to earth during their NDE were shown their purpose for being here, and remembered how they had made a promise that this time they would not forget: they would remember who they really are, why they are here, and would give their life to service.


The Adolescent’s Searchings

At the January 2003 IANDS conference in Hawaii, I asked several near-death experiencers what the view from the other side says about why we are here on Earth. They said we are here to remember who we are, to remember our divinity, to be the best we can be, and to come into the greater oneness. One of my favorite things to do with such information is to offer adolescent clients this enlarged view on life. Adolescence is the time when a person is supposed to be preparing for life. Yet in today’s world, what life are they preparing for?—a life of consuming, getting and spending, wanting to be like others and just going along with the crowd? Or the vision of life offered by the NDE, in which life is seen as a quest of awakening to who you deeply are, and challenging yourself to realize (to make real) the potentials within you. It’s about knowing that you are here because you have something special to contribute to making this world a better place. It’s about being a blessing to this world, and expanding your circle of compassion and respect continuously. After all, we, and our sons and daughters, will live either up or down to the vision we have in life. Many adolescents, when presented with this larger view of life as a quest, respond with excitement, saying “I knew there was something more to life!”


Child-rearing

Finally, there are two ways I would like to offer for using NDE research to help growth. The first is that our individual sense of self has its foundations in what we are told and how we are treated in childhood and adolescence. How often does hearing “you’re bad, you are no good, you will never amount to anything” trample a child’s sense of self? If we can make it a priority to tell our children the greater view of who they are, that their true nature is good, that love can guide their actions, and that they have been given this gift of life to help bless the world, we will do much for their self-esteem.

Secondly, NDE research not only can help us to die consciously and to live consciously—it also can help us to be born consciously. The last way that I have applied the NDE perspective has been to help parents conceive their child in greater conscious awareness. This involves helping parents realize that bringing a child into the world is the greatest and most sacred responsibility they will ever have, so their decision to have a child becomes a more profoundly conscious process. It also includes that the future parents be very aware, and in a loving feeling, while they are conceiving the child. Furthermore, though it may feel awkward to some, talking to their fetus and its incoming soul with messages of honor and love can do much to offer the child the best start; and research has shown that this does indeed have a positive effect on fetal development (Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Magical Child). Wouldn’t anyone want to have been conceived and born in awareness and love? Though the soul may enter life in a small body, it still needs to be acknowledged as the soul it is, and it still needs to be given the love, light, and guidance that will help it to grow.


Summary

The perspective of the near-death experience can help guide us at every stage in the journey of life — from conceiving consciously and instilling healthy self-esteem in children, through providing adolescents with the big picture and preparing them for life’s quest, to creating meaningful work and loving relationships in our adult life, leading to a deeper spiritual understanding and service to life in our maturity, and finally preparing us to complete our human sojourn and move into the next dimension. Being guided by this perspective, we can know that we made the best of the precious gift of life that was given us, and that when we have our life review we will be able to see the growth we achieved and the blessing our life has been.

I am grateful for the NDE’s wisdom, for its effect on the clients I work with and on myself. I thank all the experiencers as well as the NDE researchers, for the valuable contribution they have made, and all the lives they have touched.


Catherine Burton, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Hawaii. She has consulted to, and has conducted trainings for, corporations, government agencies, and community organizations in personal, organizational and community development.

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