Evolving news on the science, writing and thinking about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

Being or not Being, that is the question.

Is the Being Of Light consistent across cultures?

This is my second post in a series that is focusing on the Being Of Light that is frequently described in NDEs.

Most NDE research has taken place in the West, and in particular in the US. This has resulted in many of the NDE accounts coming from people who grew up in a society that was predominantly Judaeo-Christian. While these beliefs seem to be waning in recent years as the media and academic institutions becomes increasingly dominated by an atheistic “progressive” liberal mindset, this has not yet appeared to have had an impact on NDE accounts. Whether this is due to a “lag” caused by the majority of data originating from previous decades, or some other reason will only become apparent as time passes.

This potential cultural bias may well affect the interpretation of the core elements that NDErs encounter, and none more so than the Being of Light. More often than not, this being is referred to as God or Jesus, but is it really, or are the experiencers just superimposing this cultural bias on the experience? There have been a number of accounts, and the odd study, that has shown that experiencers from other faiths will see the being of light as a figure from that faith. Yet another study, and perhaps the most intriguing as it has a completely different outcome, was published in the Journal Of Near Death Studies last June – A Comparative Analysis of Japanese and western NDEs by Masayuki Ohkado and Bruce Greyson.

In this particular analysis the authors were looking to identify whether any differences in accounts of NDE were due to cultural, physiological or biological factors. They analyzed a set of 22 NDE accounts from Japanese citizens that they deemed sufficiently robust to be able to measure against the 19 core NDE elements identified by Moody and assess differences and similarities between accounts from Japan and the West.

Reassuringly many of the Japanese accounts reported similarities with Western NDEs, with reports of meeting other spiritual beings, feelings of peace and quiet, experiencing a heavenly place and sensing a border or limit occurring in more than half of the Japanese NDEs. 4 had out of body experiences which is consistent with rates observed in Western NDEs, and which highlight the ongoing challenges facing the AWARE study.

In terms of key differences, none of the Japanese experienced a life review, only 1 experienced a place of all knowledge and only 3 experienced a bright light, but importantly none of the latter 3 reported a specific Being of Light. They did describe the physical qualities of the light in terms that are similar to those used by Western experiencers however. The light was brighter than any they had ever experienced and yet it did not hurt their eyes. Furthermore, while they do not describe a person or being, or use the word love, they describe a feeling of unparalleled euphoria.

Firstly, it is important to note that the group being analyzed was very small. Moody’s first cohort of experiencers was 150 strong, and there have been many many cases added since. It is therefore possible that this group does not properly represent the full range of Japanese NDEs. Indeed, I have read Western NDEs in which some of these key elements are missing, and in which there is only a light, and no specific Being Of Light. The authors however point out that in Moody’s first reports this bright light was a specific being and universally interpreted by the experiencer as being God or Jesus. Moreover this being emanated pure love, and that it sometimes communicated telepathically, passing on instructions etc. The experiencers seemed in no doubt as to the fact it was a being rather than just a light. This is therefore noted as a fundamental difference between the Japanese NDE and the Western NDE (as well as the general lack of a life review which I will discuss in another post).

So what should we make of this difference with regard to the Light? There are a number of conclusions that it is possible to draw depending on your viewpoint on NDEs:

The reductionist conclusion:

If the bright light is not consistent across cultures, then it is not an “external” event, but rather an internally generated experience. In other words the bright light is the result of a physiological process that occurs as the brain shuts down producing the sensation of a bright light, peace etc. For Westerners this experience becomes intwined with their own cultural beliefs creating a sense of this light being God; for the Japanese culture, which is largely atheist, Shinto or based on some off shoot of Buddhism which generally doesn’t believe in a specific God figure, there is no preformed belief in God, therefore the light is just a light, albeit one that makes them feel better than they have ever felt before (feelings that could be associated with the release of various chemicals in the brain near death).

Personally I think it is hard to argue against this interpretation of the data. This argument, or explanation for the observations, is consistent with the facts from this particular analysis. However it is only one of a number of plausible explanations, and whether you believe this explanation will be determined by which camp you approach this from. If you were a reductionist atheist before reading this, you will still be one, and this data will only confirm your preformed belief about NDEs and the spiritual dimension. However, if you come from the camp that you believe NDEs are the actual process of the spirit or conscious leaving the body and entering another realm, you too can find an explanation which is consistent with the observations from this analysis.

The objective NDE-believer conclusion:

The original article discusses this in length and concludes, much as the atheist would above, that the differences in description of the Light (specific being vs generic light) are also due to cultural reasons arising from the prevalence of various kinds of religious belief in the societies of the experiencers. So how can an NDE believer, when given the same facts, arrive at the opposite conclusion from the atheist and is one more right than the other?

The NDE believer would say that the Bright Light exists identically for both sets of experiencers, just as the atheist would, however, for the believer, the Bright Light is an external element of the NDE rather than an internally produced phenomenon and that just like a sunset is one consistent external phenomenon , it can look and feel completely different depending on who is experiencing it and where they are sitting to view it, and would be described differently by these people.

The objective NDE believer approach would take the baseline from the two different viewpoints and conclude that there is bright light that at the very least emanates intense wonderful feelings; those from a Christian heritage would say it was God because the experience they have when in the light is akin to what they have come to understand about God, and those who have no understanding of God, would just say it was a bright light that made them feel good. The objective believer would say that the experience is external; the light is external, but that it is not possible to conclude with absolute certainty that the light is a personal being like God, or something else. There is a discussion about the lack of the use of the word “love” in the text from the study which focuses on the fact that the word is rarely used in the Japanese language, and this could explain why. From the other point of view, is love just a feeling of euphoria and conceptually we Westerners are placing an additional layer of subjective understanding on this state?

In conclusion, the objective believer would have to say that the Western interpretation of this experience is likely to be the most subjective due to the preformed beliefs we have, therefore the most we can say with certainty about the light is what is common to all experiences – bright light that doesn’t hurt, which makes the experiencer feel better than they have ever felt before.

A subjective Judaeo-Christian conclusion:

The Bright Light is a being, and that being is God/Jesus but that there are a number of possible reasons why the Japanese, who were non-believers, did not experience the light as God.

1. Not knowing there is a God, they have never tried to communicate with God, or experienced his presence before, so when they encounter Him for the first time they don’t recognize him for who he is and don’t know they can communicate with him or how to, and therefore do not have a full experience with the light – this is the “incomplete experience due to ignorance” explanation.
2. They don’t see the light as God because God does not reveal his full identity to them at that time for various possible reasons – this is the “incomplete experience due to an external “heavenly” decision” explanation.
3. They do experience a Being but just don’t realize it or know to describe it as such because the connection is not there in their minds due to their cultural upbringing (very similar to the explanation given in the paper). This is somewhat supported by the fact that other Japanese accounts do refer to hearing instructions on how to live etc. if it was just a generic light then it would not communicate. Communication is the result of a specific consciousness, therefore they experience God but just don’t know it – this is the “complete experience but inability to process resulting in a incomplete understanding” explanation.

I am a Christian, so I have a subjective view on this. I believe that NDEs are the experience of the soul leaving the body and entering another realm. I believe that when they enter that realm, among other elements, the soul does encounter God who is this Being Of Light. Therefore I feel that the explanation why the Japanese do not report their experiences in the same way as Westerners is due most likely to a combination of 1 and 3 above. However, I recognize that my opinion is formed from an entirely subjective view of existence and that all three explanations of the differences (reductionist atheist; objective NDE believer and subjective Christian NDE believer and possibly many others, such as a subjective New-Age NDE believer explanation) are all consistent with the observations made from this analysis.

In other words the analysis presented by Ohkado and Greyson will probably not (and need not) change your preformed understanding of what constitutes an NDE and the nature of the bright light!

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5 thoughts on “Being or not Being, that is the question.

  1. Eric on said:

    Example#2 as seen here is very interesting and relevant to the cross-cultural aspects of NDEs:

    I find it especially interesting that they were aware that each one was interpreting the BOL according to personal beliefs and that they were aware of the fact.


  2. Eric on said:

    * that they were aware of the fact that in reality all of them were really only “seeing” it differently.


  3. Intruiging indeed. It is an enigma how they recognised the being as someone specific yet knew the others saw them as someone completely different, and yet were able to accept this. It does make one wonder what the true nature of the light is if it is multifaceted in this way and at the same time exudes the same feelings to everyone.


  4. Seeker on said:

    Hoping to see updates more often in this great blog.


    • Me too. I have had a couple of conventions in my day job to prepare for, so been a bit tricky, but there will be another post in the coming week. I’ve also had problems with my messaging system, so been a bit frustrating. Comments like yours help motivate me though, so thank you.


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