“The bright realization that must come before death will be worth all the boredom of living.”
— Ned Rorem
All of Kenneth Ring’s Waiting To Die essay’s are now available in his new book.
Kenneth Ring is also a regular writer on The University of Heaven website.
Waiting To Die
By NDE Researcher and Author Kenneth Ring
What’s it like, waiting to die? Of course, it’s different for everyone. I can only say what it’s like for me. On the whole, it’s rather boring.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have many pleasures in life and — knock on silicon — I’m lucky not to be suffering from any fatal illness, though if I were, that would certainly add some drama in my life. I could then follow the example of the poet Ted Rosenthal, who after contracting leukemia, joyfully called his friends and said, “Guess what’s happened to me!” Well, no thanks. I’ll take my boring life any day and intone a hymn of gratitude every morning I wake up with only the ordinary indignities of an old man — coughing, wheezing and sneezing, and, oh, my aching back!
But still….I’m used to having productive work — writing books, helping other authors with their books, being involved in various professional pursuits, and so forth. But recently I published my last book, which I puckishly entitled, Pieces of My Mind Before I Fall to Pieces, which was a kind of potpourri of stories and interests from my later years, and just after that I wrote what I expect to be my last professional article, the foreword to a colleague’s memoir. Now what? More precisely, what do I do with my time now that I have clearly entered the epilogue to my life? Honestly, I feel as if I have stepped over the threshold into my afterlife before dying.
Of course, I can watch films — I’ve become quite a “film buff” in my later years; I still have interesting books to read. I am blessed with a wonderful girlfriend. Still, since life has become a spectator sport for me, and I can no longer travel, except locally, I find that I am spending more time on my sofa, honing my couch potato skills, watching sports. Yet I must confess that even they have lost a good deal of their zest for me. My home town baseball team, The San Francisco Giants, finished in the cellar last year; in golf, Tiger has gone away; in basketball, Michael Jordan is long gone; and in tennis, which is now the only sport I follow with some avidity, it is chiefly because of the great Roger Federer. Nevertheless, I can only wonder how long he can at 36 continue to produce one miracle after another? Surely, he, too, will begin his inevitable decline soon, and with his descent from the heights of glory, my interest in tennis will also flag. So what will be left then? I will tell you.
The body. Mine. It has already become my principal preoccupation and bête-noire. These days, I can’t help recalling that St. Francis referred to the body as “brother ass.” It seems I now spend most of my time in doctors’, chiropractors’ or dentists’ clinics, as they strive to preserve my decaying body parts by inflicting various forms of torture on me that would even impress Torquemada, or doing physical therapy in what is most likely a vain attempt to delay the encroaching onset of wholesale physical deterioration. Really, is this any way to run a navy? There are many days when I think the only surgery that will preserve me would be a complete bodyectomy.
Well, okay, I realize this is only par for the course of the everyday life of an octogenarian. Wasn’t it Bette Davis who famously said “old age is no place for sissies?” It isn’t for wimps like me either, it seems. (I can often be heard crooning, “turn back the hands of time….”) Still, I wouldn’t go so far as the saturnine Philip Roth who said that old age is “a massacre.” I guess at his point I find myself somewhere between Davis and Roth, but the waiting game still seems to be a losing proposition and I might very well come to think of my current boredom as the halcyon days of my decline.
Nevertheless, consider a typical day in the life of this old wheezing geezer.
It begins with the back. Every day does. In the morning, you get up, but your back doesn’t. It hurts. Even though you take a hot shower before bed, by the time you wake up your back has decided to take the day off. When you try to use it, as for example, when you bend over to pick up the comb you’ve dropped into the toilet, it begins to complain. And finally, it gets so bad, you have to lie down on your once neatly made bed, remove half your clothing, and apply some ice to it while listening to mindless music and cursing the day when some enterprising hominid decided it would be a good idea to change from the arboreal life to a bipedal one. Big mistake. The next one was the invention of agriculture, but never mind. We were talking about the back and its vicissitudes.
Nevertheless, a little later, you decide to take your body out of a spin. “Don’t look back,”the great Satchel Paige advised, “something might be gaining on you.” In my case, it’s the man with the scythe whom I hope to outstrip for a few more years.
Of course, the back, which had only been moaning quietly before now begins to object vociferously, asking sourly, “what the hell are you thinking?” Nevertheless, you press on, thinking your will will prevail, and your back can go to hell.
But the next dispiriting thing you notice are all these chubby old ladies whizzing by you as if they are already late for their hair appointments. How humiliating — to be passed by these old biddies! You think about the days in junior high when you were a track star, setting school records in the dashes and anchoring the relay races, which you used to run in your bare feet. Then you ran like the wind. These days, you are merely winded after trudging a hundred yards.
When you can go no further, you turn around only to become aware of still another distressing sight. Actually, it is your sight — or lack of it. It ain’t working. You could see pretty well after your corneal surgery last year, but now you can’t see worth shit. What is that ahead of you? Is it a woolly mammoth, a Saint Bernard or merely a burly ex-football player? Where are the eyes of yesteryear? Gone missing. Well, they didn’t give me any guarantees as to how long my vision would last before it decided, like my back, to begin to object to its continued use outdoors. The way of all flesh doesn’t stop with the flesh; it continues with the cornea, so now I am cursing the darkness in the middle of a miasmal morning.
I finally arrive home in a disconsolate mood, but now it is time to hop onto my stationary bike, which is the only kind I have ever been able to ride since my balance is worse than that of an elderly inebriate on New Year’s Eve. I used to be able to pedal reasonably fast and for a long time. But lately someone must have snuck in to affix some kind of a brake to the bike since suddenly it seems that I am pumping uphill at an acute angle. Heart rate is up, speed is down, my old distance marks are a treasured memory, which I can only mourn. All I am aware of now is the sound of someone huffing and puffing.
At last the torture is over, but now I really have to piss. That damn enlarged prostate of mine has no patience — it must be satisfied now! I race into the bathroom, unzip my fly before it is too late, and make sure, because I have my girlfriend’s admonitions in my ears as I piss that she will behead me if I continue to treat the floor as an auxiliary pissoir, I am pissing very carefully into the toilet bowl. Of course, these days, my urinary stream is a sometimes thing. It starts, it stops, it pauses to refresh itself, it pulses, stops, dribbles, starts up again with what seems to be its last mighty effort to produce something worthwhile and finally drips itself into extinction.
I’m relieved, however, because at least I haven’t soiled my pants this time. But wait. What is that? Pulling up my pants, I can feel some urine on my left thigh. How the hell did it get in there? Is there some kind of silent secondary stream that runs down the side of my leg when I am otherwise preoccupied with trying to keep my penile aim from going astray?
Now I have to find a towel to wipe off the offending liquid and just hope my girlfriend won’t say, when I return to the kitchen, “what is that funny smell, darling?”
Well, you get the idea. Life is no longer a bowl of cherries, or if it is, some of them are turning rotten. And naturally I can’t help wondering how long I have to go before I really cross that final threshold over the unknown. For years, I’ve joked that I’ve wanted to live to be 1000 — months — old. Now I’m at 984 and counting. I’m getting close, and it’s no longer just a joke.
And of course I now also have to wonder what will be next? I mean, after I die, assuming I will ever get around to it.
Well, in my case, I have some inklings because I’ve spent half my life researching and writing about near-death experiences and in the course of my work I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have told me what it was like for them to die — at least for a few moments — before returning to life. And what they have told me has been, I am frank to admit, profoundly reassuring.
I remember one woman who said that in order to grasp the feeling of peace that comes with death you would have to take the thousand best things that ever happened to you, multiply them by a million and maybe, she said (I remember her emphasis on the word, “maybe”), you could come close to that feeling. Another man said that if you were to describe the feelings of peace that accompanied death, you would have to write it in a letters a mile high. All this might sound hyperbolic, but I have heard such sentiments from many near-death experiencers. Here’s just one more specific quote from a man I knew very well for many years, telling me what it was like for him to die:
It was a total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace, security….I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It’s difficult to describe….Verbally, it cannot be expressed. It’s something which becomes you and you become it. I could say “I was peace, I was love.” I was the brightness. It was part of me….You just know. You’re all-knowing — and everything is a part of you. It’s just so beautiful. It was eternity. It’s like I was always there and I will always be there, and my existence on earth was just a brief instant.
After listening to so many people describe what it was like for them to die, it is easy for me to imagine what it might be like for me — for anyone — to take that final journey. And many great writers have said much the same thing as those I have interviewed have told me about what is in store when we die. Walt Whitman, for example, who wrote “And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.” And Herman Melville, with even more eloquence, said, “And death, which alike levels all, alike impresses all with a last revelation, which only an author from the death could adequately tell.” It seems that in our own time, these authors from the death are today’s near-death experiencers, and the revelations they have shared with us appear fully to support the claims of these famous 19th century American authors.
So having immersed myself in the study of near-death experiences for so many years, I’m actually looking forward to my passage when my time comes. Still, I’m not looking forward to the dying part. In that regard, I’m with Woody Allen who quipped, “I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” I just hope that all those stories I’ve heard about how wonderful death itself is aren’t some kind of a spiritual trompe l’oeil, a cosmic joke played by a malevolent god. Or as that marvelously antic diarist and composer, Ned Rorem, whimsically jested, “If, after dying, I discover there is no Life After Death, will I be furious?”
Of course, when I am faced with the imminence of death, I hope I’ll be able to comport myself with some equanimity, but who knows? Think of Seneca who wrote so eloquently about suicide, and then horribly botched his own. Well, naturally, I’m not planning to hasten my death by such extravagant means, though I wouldn’t refuse a kind offer of a little help from my doctor friends to ease me on my way if I’m having trouble giving birth to my death. It can, after all, be a labor-intensive enterprise. I just hope I can find myself on that stairway to heaven I’ve heard so much about and can manage to avoid a trip in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, when did you say Federer will be playing his next match?
Waiting to Die – Part II
By NDE Researcher and Author Kenneth Ring
I might have been a tad too glib when in the first installment of what clearly will be a terminal series having to do with my personal terminus, I observed that at least for me waiting to die was rather boring.
After this winter, I have had cause to change my mind. For a while there, I thought it might be more of a matter of life or death. I found myself thinking of the line Othello sings toward the end of Verdi’s opera as he contemplates his own death: “Ecco la fine del mio camin.” Colloquially, “This is the end of the line for me.”
You see, I was one of the millions who caught the flu bug or, rather, it caught me. And held me tight for a while in what seemed to be its death-like grip. It was really bad for a week or ten days there — it’s hard to remember how long. Even now, five weeks to the day after becoming sick, I am still hawking and spitting up gobs of sputum, and my voice now resembles that of one of your local frogs. There were times when I considered whether the first piece I wrote in the series might well turn out to be my epitaph. I admit there were moments, or really days, when I felt it didn’t matter if that were the case since I was past caring whether I lived or died. La vie ou la mort, c’est la même chose.
I also thought ruefully that it is wise to be careful what you write about. Magical thinking or not, someone might be listening. I remember not long after I had completed my research having to do with near-death experiences in the blind, I developed glaucoma, and as a result I am now virtually blind in my right eye and have since had a series of other ocular maladies. I’m just glad I didn’t choose to research gonorrhea.
There are other well-known stories about people tempting the devil and then having to consort with him to their infinite regret.
For example, in 1904, Gustav Mahler was working on a song cycle called Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children). As it happened, this was only two weeks after the birth of his second child. The timing as well as the content of the work greatly upset Mahler’s wife, Alma, who felt that the composer was tempting Providence. And sure enough, four years later, his daughter was dead of scarlet fever, devastating both him and his prescient wife.
But thinking about death, as I have often had occasion to do, both in connection with my many years of studying near-death experiences and as a result of nearing my own demise, however uncertain the date, can’t help but conjure up certain images.
For the last several years, this is one that has occurred a number of times to me, like a kind of repetitive waking nightmare. I am in a forest surrounded by comrades. We are all fighting an unknown enemy who keeps shooting at us. I see some of my comrades fall and die; others are wounded and lie bloody on the ground. I keep moving, hoping that no bullet will strike me.
And isn’t this like life itself where death is the enemy whose bullets no one can dodge forever? We are in a war against death, and as we get older, more of our comrades succumb or if they don’t die, they become disabled, infirm or demented. Or sometimes they barely escape themselves, as happened recently to a good friend of mine, almost exactly my age, who became ill with the flu at almost the same time I did but whose experience was far worse. Not knowing of his illness, I had written him on his birthday and expressed the hope that all was well with him. When he was again well enough to write, even though he was still not recovered, this is what he told me.
At just about the time that you are hoping that I am having a better time than you are, I am being stricken with overpowering symptoms of the same malady. I take a few sleeping pills and hit the sack, determined to ignore it. Alas, I awaken the next morning with high fever, urine-soaked bed, pounding headache, wicked aches and pains, and inability even to arise from the bed and make it to the bathroom. Off I go in an ambulance to the hospital, where they wheel me in to the ER for extended tests and treatment. Turns out that I too have the flu, but of a most severe strain. For more than a week after they get me back home I was literally bouncing off the walls, being unable to lift myself off the floor once I had arrived there, totally unable to control my urine, only semiconscious of what was happening around me, ignorant as to what day of the week it was or whether it was day or night, unable to grasp anything without dropping it, and so on.
I shuddered and almost cried when I received my friend’s email. There, but for the grace of God, etc. My friend survived and was able to dodge death’s bullet, but I could easily have lost my beloved comrade. Death is all around us, but mostly we can pretend it isn’t — except when it comes close or someone dear to us does die. Then we remember. When you get old, you have lots of such reminders.
Meanwhile, now that I’ve largely recovered from the flu, I have resumed some of my own preparations for death or taken measures to deal with my increasing physical limitations.
One set has to do with my vision, which although it is not yet deteriorated to a point where it is really worrying me, has declined significantly during the last year. As a result, I can now drive only locally and then just during daylight hours and have to depend on the kindness of my girlfriend and sometimes often friends to tote me around.
My visual difficulties have also forced me to succumb to the lure of personal entertainment devices that have become so ubiquitous in the early part of the twenty-first century. In my case, I have just acquired an iPad so I can more easily read my favorite magazines and novels. I regard this as still another personal affront and humiliation. I never wanted to become “one of those people.”
And to spare my heirs the trouble, I am now in the process of giving away all my professional books and eventually my entire library. I have a large archive, too, much of which I will probably trash as I have not yet been flooded with offers from potential biographers to write my life story.
Downsizing and letting go — that’s the name of the game I’m playing these days. Another means of making way for death.
Other factors — let’s not go too much into those depressing details — have also made it increasingly difficult for me to travel, so I’m mostly restricted just to my locality in the Bay Area. I used to love to travel and have traveled widely, but now I have to get used to promenading around my own neighborhood — literally — as I have become something of a tottering boulevardier in my declining years. All that’s missing are an elegant cane and a top hat.
Another doleful sign of the end times (mine, not the world’s) is that increasingly I find myself thinking of people from my past who played an important part of my life. Actually, this isn’t really a melancholy preoccupation at all. On the contrary, I often think of them with strong feelings of gratitude, as if I am in a sense saying farewell to them and thanking them, as it were, for all they have done for me. The other night, for example, in a conversation with my girlfriend about my early days as a graduate student, I spent a long time talking about my major professor, Harold H. Kelley, a distinguished social psychologist, whose personal care for and interest in me helped me survive a deep crisis of confidence not long after I arrived in graduate school. Kelley was venerated in his lifetime, not only for his important work but for his warm and caring nature. He saved my ass, and I will always be indebted to him.
Many years later, after I had become known for my work on near-death experiences, we happened to meet at a conference. He was much the same in his openhearted and friendly manner, and I had a chance to tell him then, awkwardly, I’m sure, how much he meant to me. I still felt like his grateful student, and I was.
But I am not only thinking about the past. I am thinking about my future, too. Not here, but there. And about my father from whom I was separated at an early age and who died young. I have missed him my entire life and wonder whether I will soon be seeing him again.
Some years ago, as a result of a really bizarre set of circumstances, I happened to get a reading from a medium — the only one I have ever had — and my dad came through.
At one point I asked the medium whether she could give me any information about my father. This is what she told me. (My responses are in parentheses.)
Well, first of all, I feel like he crosses before his time. Somehow you and he had abbreviated time together. (That’s very true.) And I hear an apology for that. He apologizes to you, that’s what I’m getting. To me, it’s like in a way he was letting you down. This could be like he crossed without having enough time with you as father. It’s like, “I’m sorry.” He crossed very quickly, too. (Yes.) Was that from a heart attack? (Exactly.) OK, and there was no goodbye, correct? (That’s right.) And you were much younger, right? (True.) [I was 17 when he died.] I just feel like there’s an apology for that. I feel like he’s saying he should have taken care of his health better. I don’t feel that he’s that old when he crosses at all. [He was 41, just as his career as an artist was taking off.] There’s a tragedy around him. (Yes.)
After she gave me a good deal of evidential information about my father, she added this:
It’s also interesting in that he says he helps you with your work from the other side. Somehow organizes things on the other side that helps your work here, you understand? Were you – this is going to sound bizarre – OK, were you on Larry King or something? (That’s amazing, yes, I was on Larry King.) Really?? Was this like 20 years ago? [Damn close – it was in 1992, 19 years ago.] I’m getting something like, your dad helped to arrange getting you on Larry King. I was arguing with him, “What, Larry King?” I thought maybe I was getting it wrong. (So he’s helping me?) And he has helped you. He’s helped you for twenty years. Because he couldn’t do it here physically, he’s had to do it from the other side. [I always felt this and several years ago wrote a memoir about my dad whose main theme was my sense that he had been a continuing, loving and guiding presence in my life.]
Toward the end of the reading, I couldn’t help asking the medium a question, which coming from me, will make you laugh:
(I’d like to know in the unlikely event of my death, will I see my father or will I have some connection to the various people you described to me?) Well, absolutely, but he’s laughing at you! “You are asking me that when you already know the answer!” I mean, he’s joking with me, and he sighs, and says [apparently tongue-in-cosmic-cheek], First, there’s going to be a tunnel, and then, if you like, I’ll greet you, and then you’re going to see all of us there….” It’s almost like he’s laughing at you, you understand.
Recently, I completed a little memoir I called Pieces of My Mind Before I Fall to Pieces, and at the very end, I wrote these lines, again about my father:
“Throughout my life, I feel that I have been looked after and guided, not only by many friends and relatives as well as my various mentors, but by invisible agencies, not least of whom is my father, who have watched over me and protected me. A foolish man like me could not have made it through life without assistance from those tasked with looking after me from some unknowable elsewhere.
“Of course, my time is limited (everyone’s is, to be sure, but when you’re in your early eighties, you are more aware that the sands of time are rapidly ebbing), and I’m mindful that I am now very close to my goal of living to be 1000 months old. My health, fortunately, is still tolerably good, but one never knows when the man with the scythe will show up at one’s door saying, “it’s time.” When he comes, I trust I will be ready — ready to take my next adventure.
“As I have said, I hope when that time comes, I will be seeing my father again. As it happens, I am finishing up the last stages of this book on his birthday.
“Happy birthday, dad. See you soon!”
Waiting to Die – Part III
By NDE Researcher and Author Kenneth Ring
Of course, when you’re in that in-between zone — what the Tibetans call a “bardo” — after your life is over but before you’ve died, you have plenty of time to think; to ruminate and to wonder what will happen to you when you finally cross that threshold and enter the house of death.
Oh, perhaps before I follow that train of thought, I guess I should clarify what I meant when I wrote that line about my life being over. Obviously, either I’m still here or a ghost is writing this. What I meant was that the really active part of my life has finished — no more love affairs, exciting adventures, extensive travels, doing research, writing books, and so forth — all the activities that I enjoyed so much during my life until recent years. Yes, I still have my quieter pleasures, as I have written, but mostly I am just waiting — waiting to die. And can’t help speculating what will happen once I do.
Lately, I have been reading a little philosophy, not about life and death matters, but in doing so, it has occurred to me that so many of the world’s great thinkers are professed atheists and are convinced that when we die, that’s it. Poof! Death brings annihilation to our individual personalities and to all consciousness. We enter into a sleep from which we never awaken.
Let’s consider this roster of the world’s greatest minds who hold this view.
There’s Friedrich Nietzsche, of course, who became the most influential philosopher of the 19th century, albeit only after he had gone mad in 1889 while embracing a horse that was being beaten on the streets of Turin.
And then there was Heidegger, commonly regarded as the greatest philosopher of the 20th century despite his unapologetic embrace of and involvement with Nazism. But let’s not get distracted.
Another unabashed atheist who immediately comes to mind (at least mine) of whom you have doubtless heard is a fellow named Sigmund Freud, unquestionably one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.
And then I immediately think of the psychoanalytically-inclined anthropologist, Ernest Becker, whose Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, I used to assign in one of my classes. Becker, incidentally, died before reaching the age of 50 and prepared for death by reading Chekhov, which I used to read to my mother before she died, but never mind. I seem to be digressing again, which may be my own way of denying death.
Finally, we shouldn’t overlook one of the most widely quoted philosophers of our own time, Woody Allen, who can be seen toting around Becker’s book in his glorious smash hit, Annie Hall. And in another one of his top-rated films, Hannah and Her Sisters, his mordant character makes us laugh by reminding us that the universe is totally meaningless, which, leads him to consider becoming a Hare Krishna. Whatever works.
But let’s continue our list of the world’s most influential avowed atheists. No such list would be complete without mentioning the most revered and beloved scientist of our own time, the recently deceased Stephen Hawking whose incontestable genius was often compared to Einstein’s.
And how about another intellectual luminary, Steven Weinberg, one of the leading theoretical physicists of the present day and a Nobel Laureate to boot?
Then of course we have that clutch of infamous atheists — a quartet that includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris — no intellectual slouches, these guys.
Well, when you consider the collective brain power and enormous influence of these men — and of course they are all men (make of that what you will), the idea that death is not a dead end seems patently ludicrous — a childish fantasy for people who can’t deal with the obvious fact that death brings only extinction. We like to imagine what most religions teach — that we will continue to exist even after death, but in light of all reason, this is pure balderdash.
Still, as we know, most people don’t believe this is balderdash. Surveys consistently show that the vast majority of people, certainly in the United States, believe in some form of life after death. Also arrayed against the view of the intellectual giants I’ve mentioned is the testimony of literally thousands of near-death experiencers who have at least entered into the first stages of death, which so far as I know, none of the formidable thinkers cited above ever did before their deaths; that is, none of them is known to have had an NDE. I can only wonder if they had, whether they would have remained so sure of their position. In my research on NDEs, I can say that I have encountered more than a few former atheists who changed their mind after having had an NDE.
However that may be, almost all near-death experiencers become undeniably convinced that some form of postmortem existence awaits us all. Let me take just a few moments to offer some illustrative examples from those persons who have come the closest to crossing the bourne from which Shakespeare taught — wrongly, as it turns out — no traveler returns.
I was standing in a mist and I knew immediately that I had died. And I was so happy that I had died but I was still alive. And I can’t tell you how I felt. It was, “Oh, God, I’m dead, but I’m here. I’m me. And I started pouring out these enormous feelings of gratitude because I still existed and yet I knew perfectly well that I had died.
I know there is life after death. Nobody can shake my belief. I have no doubt — it’s peaceful and nothing to be feared. I don’t know what’s beyond what I experienced, but it’s plenty for me. I only know that death is not to be feared, only dying.
Upon entering that Light…the atmosphere, the energy, it’s total pure energy, it’s total knowledge, it’s total love — everything about it is definitely the afterlife if you will… As a result of that [experience] I have little apprehension about dying my natural death…because if death is anything like what I experienced, it’s gotta be the most wonderful thing to look forward to, absolutely the most wonderful thing.
It gave me an answer to what I think everyone must wonder about at one time or another in this life. Yes, there is an afterlife! More beautiful than anything you can begin to imagine. Once you know it, there is nothing that can equal it. You just know!
What is striking about these quotes — and the literature on NDEs is replete with them — is not merely their unanimity of opinion, but the tone of absolute certitude that pervades them. Those who have left their bodies behind, even for a moment, know without a scintilla of doubt that they will continue to exist, as themselves, in another world of indescribable radiant beauty.
So where does that leave us? We have two diametrically opposed points of view to consider — that of the renowned and world famous intellectual atheists I’ve cited and that of the thousands of unknown ordinary persons who have had NDEs. Take yer choice.
For atheists, however, the road stops here, and there is nothing further to add. But the testimony of NDEs tells us that there is something more that awaits us after death, even if they can’t tell us what. The question is, is there a way to know, and, secondly, does it make sense to try to conceive of it while we are, like me, waiting to die?
The distinguished psychiatrist Carl Jung, who himself had a profound NDE when he was nearly seventy years old, was an ardent proponent of precisely this kind of imaginative exercise. In his captivating memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, written toward the end of his life, he exhorts his readers as follows: “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it — even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss.”
At the risk of disagreeing with the great man, I demur. In fact, I think it is a friggin’ waste of time. I give several reasons for taking this position in my book, Lessons from the Light, but the one I would emphasize here is two-fold. First, of all, it is impossible to know what, if anything, is going to happen to us, and second, near-death experiencers themselves tend to shy away from these speculations, often implying that the world beyond death completely defies representation in ordinary language. After all, if such a task could daunt even a sublime poet like Dante, what could we expect from mere mortals when they try to describe their encounter with the ineffable?
But there is a third reason as well. Thinking about the afterlife, assuming it exists, which honesty compels us to admit we can’t know for certain in any case, keeps us from paying attention to our lives here, which is the only thing we can be certain of. Didn’t Ram Dass remind us, in the title of his seminal book of wisdom, Be Here Now?
When the time comes for us to die, either we’ll find out or we won’t. Why waste time thinking about it now? I’m with Omar Khayyam on this one. The hell with it. I’m going to the movies with my girlfriend. Afterward, we’ll have our bread, cheese and wine, though probably in our case we’ll substitute some chocolate confection for the wine. I’m alive now and, while I’m waiting to die, by jingo, I’m going to enjoy myself as long as I can.
Learn About Kenneth Ring
Books by Kenneth Ring
Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience
By Kenneth Ring (Author), Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino (Author), Caroline Myss (Foreword)
While providing many accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) from men, women, and children of all ages and backgrounds, Lessons from the Light is much more than just an inspiring collection of NDEs. In Lessons near-death expert Kenneth Ring extracts the pure gold of the NDE and with a beautiful balance of sound research and human insight reveals the practical wisdom held within these experiences. As Stanley Krippner states, “In this remarkable book, Ring presents evidence that merely learning about the near-death experience has similar positive effects to those reported by people who actually have had near-death experiences. Kenneth Ring is one of the few authors whose gifts include the capacity to transform their readers’ lives.”
Heading Toward Omega breaks new ground in the field of near-death studies by focusing on the meaning of the near-death experience (NDE) for the survivor and for human evolution. Dr. Kenneth Ring’s intensive three-year study of more than one hundred experiencers found that NDEs cause a provocative pattern of very positive changes in outlook, values, and behavior — and are often powerful catalysts for spiritual awakening and psychic development. Moreover, deep NDEs frequently include strikingly similar visions of our planetary future.The depth and consistency of these life transformations — as well as the apparent widespread and increasing incidence of NDEs — lead Dr. Ring to a startling conclusion: Near-death experiences may be part of an evolutionary thrust toward higher consciousness for all humanity. Thus they may foreshadow the birth of a new planetary consciousness as we head toward Omega, the final goal of human evolution.
Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind
By Kenneth Ring
This book investigates the astonishing claim that blind persons, including those blind from birth, can actually “see” during near-death or out-of-body episodes. The authors present their findings in scrupulous detail, investigating case histories of blind persons who have actually reported visual experiences under these conditions.There is fascinating evidence that the blind do “see” in these moments, but it is not sight as we think of it. Ring and Cooper suggest a kind of “transcendental awareness” they refer to as Mindsight. It involves seeing in detail, sometimes from all angles at once, with everything in focus, and a sense of “knowing” the subject, not just visually, but with multisensory knowledge.Human beings may be more talented than we think, gifted with amazing abilities of perception. This book is an opportunity to assess the evidence for yourself.
Life at Death
By Kenneth Ring
Beginning in May 1977, Dr. Kenneth Ring, a psychologist interested in altered states of consciousness, spent thirteen months tracking down and interviewing scores of people who had come close to death. He discovered that most near-death experiences seem to unfold according to a single pattern. What to make of this common set of elements associated with the onset of death is the central challenge of this book. Whether this experience can be interpreted in naturalistic terms is the overriding scientific issue raised.
In Life at Death, Dr. Ring, after interviewing more than a hundred near-death survivors, was not only able to confirm Moody’s basic findings, but extended them in important ways by establishing an empirical basis for the different stages of the near-death experience. He also showed that the aftereffects on the experience are consistent, dramatic and profound. The fear of death tends to vanish, and the total impact is akin to a spiritual rebirth.