Editor’s Note: Click here for Part 1 of P. David Hornik’s new series: Near-Death Experiences—A New Take on Life, Part 1: Sam Parnia Explains Where the Field Is Leading. And click here to see his previous articles on the subject here: Do You Believe in Life After Death?
Out-of-body experiences, tunnels, bright lights, deceased relatives, a being of light—and life reviews. These are the most commonly reported elements of near-death experiences. They have been reported now for decades from all over the world, across cultures and religions. Of all of them, the life review may be the most difficult to imagine and “otherworldly.” Out-of-body experiences, encounters with dead people, mystical experiences of a deity—all these have long been on record outside of NDEs as well. The tunnel experience seems to have been represented in a painting by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch over five hundred years ago. Life reviews, however, may be the most “exotic” compared to our familiar modes of perception. Dutch cardiologist and NDE researcher Pim van Lommel quotes this life-review account of one of his patients:
All of my life up till the present seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic, three-dimensional review, and each event seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of good or evil or with an insight into cause or effect. Not only did I perceive everything from my own viewpoint, but I also knew the thoughts of everyone involved in the event, as if I had their thoughts within me. This meant that I perceived not only what I had done or thought, but even in what way it had influenced others, as if I saw things with all-seeing eyes…. Looking back, I cannot say how long this life review…lasted, it may have been long, for every subject came up, but at the same time it seemed just a fraction of a second, because I perceived it all at the same moment. Time and distance seemed not to exist….
This is only one account, but anyone who has delved even modestly into the NDE literature as I have knows there are numerous other, remarkably similar ones.
Life reviews, then, bear some resemblance to traditional religious conceptions of a judgment, a moral assessment, in the afterlife. They differ from those conceptions, though, in that—while many people report a compassionate presence of an otherworldly being during the review—no judgment occurs, except by the person.
As in this case, from the NDE of a woman during an emergency operation:
Most things were pleasant to see, some things made me very embarrassed. In fact, [revulsion] and guilt took away any good feelings, making me so very sorry for certain things I had said or done. I hadn’t just seen what I had done, but I felt and knew the repercussions of my actions. I felt the injury or pain of those who suffered because of my selfish or inappropriate behavior.
Misdeeds, then, seem to carry their own “punishment” of coming face to face with, and empathically experiencing, how they affected others. The aim does not seem to be a final “verdict,” a judgment of innocent or guilty as in a court of law, but possibly a kind of karmic stocktaking. True, all NDE testimonies that we have are from people who either were resuscitated from clinically dead states or never died in the first place; they may only have been at the verge of the afterlife. But even these accounts are thought-provoking enough.
How would I do in a life review? Asking myself that, I did some earthly stocktaking and looked back at my life. How much harm had I inflicted? I have to report that the results of my survey were surprising. Surprisingly bad.
To be fair, the misdeeds I recall happened a while ago. Over, say, the past decade, I cannot see myself inflicting much harm. And the negative behavior occurred during periods of confusion. I would not say I was enacting my “real” self, or certainly not my “best” self, in those cases where I was deleterious to others. Still, looking back at those cases, and realizing that there were considerably more of them than I would have thought, has not been easy. I’m bothering with this, of course, because I find NDE accounts very compelling (I wouldn’t be writing this series if I didn’t), and I assume I’ll undergo a life review at some point in the future. Maybe it will be easier if I’m less surprised. As for my troubling recollections, I’ll give only one example—Miss Baumann.
Miss Baumann (yes, Miss, not Ms.; it was still the early 1970s) was a teacher of German at Shenendehowa High School in Clifton Park, New York. I was her student because we were required to study a language, and since my parents were Austrian Jewish refugees who spoke German to each other quite a lot (though actually I picked up very little of it), German was the logical choice.
Along with my buddy Tom, I took Miss Baumann’s class in tenth and eleventh grade. I was at that time a molten core of frustration. Not succeeding at basketball as I had envisioned, too shy to get anywhere much with girls. One route, I thought, to improved status was to be a cut-up in class, a notable rascal, making people—especially girls—laugh. As for Miss Baumann, she was about 25, small and thin, not too attractive. She was American-born, of German background, and spoke German with a heavy accent. She was also inept at dealing with cut-ups.
Unlike most of the other teachers, she didn’t know how to crack down, get tough; she was weak. It was a bad combination. I dragged Tom into our behavior; he, himself, had no need or inclination to be a cut-up. In subdued but quite audible voices, we’d converse as if it wasn’t a class, as if she wasn’t there; make fun of her accent (that was me, not Tom); even say little derogatory things about her (again, me, not Tom). Derogatory, yes—sometimes even quite nasty. She would sigh, stamp her foot, but do nothing effectual, nothing that got us to stop. No, it doesn’t rank high on the scale of atrocities; but it’s terrible to think about now—terrible.
A gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism asked the sage Shammai if he could teach him the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai, finding the request ridiculous, chased him out of his house. The gentile tried again, this time with the sage Hillel. Hillel told him:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary—now go study.
That is one of the most famous Jewish formulations of the Golden Rule, which turns up in all religious traditions. I like Hillel’s formulation because it’s not too ambitious, doesn’t ask us to be moral heroes. Just not to hurt others—if we could manage even that. What near-death experiencers discover in life reviews is that we are, whether or not we acknowledge it, connected to each other. Treating someone cruelly, with a lack of empathy, entails ignoring or denying that connectedness, but it does not annul it. Quantum mechanics, too, teaches the interconnectedness of all elements in the universe. As the above-mentioned cardiologist and NDE researcher, Pim van Lommel, observes regarding life reviews:
the subject feels the presence and renewed experience of not only every act but also every thought from one’s past life, and one realizes that all of it is an energy field which influences oneself as well as others. All that has been done and thought seems to be significant and stored…. Because one is connected with the memories, emotions and consciousness of another person, you experience the consequences of your own thoughts, words and actions to that other person at the very moment in the past that they occurred. Hence there is during a life review a connection with the fields of consciousness of other persons as well as with your own fields of consciousness (interconnectedness).
Near-death experiencers who have undergone a life review say it motivates them to be more kind and compassionate. Just reading about life reviews (and other aspects of NDEs) can have a similar effect. Not out of fear of some draconian punishment, which does not appear to be in the offing, but to make things better for ourselves and for others, which is ultimately the same thing.