Nancy Evans Bush's distressing NDE
Nancy Evans' research
As a significant example of NDE characterized by negative connotations (even if not classifiable as infernal, if compared to what is found in other dramatic experiences of this kind) is here reported that of Nancy Evans Bush, narrated in her book Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences. This is a very interesting study on negative NDEs, published in 2012, in which the author examines both the historical context of publications on NDEs, and the great interest aroused in a large audience due to their almost exclusively heavenly contents, as well as the cultural and personal meaning of the distressing experiences, which also occur, although they are certainly less pleasing to the public.
Evans' experience dates back to the early 60s, when at the age of 28, in giving birth to her second daughter a few weeks in advance, she was hospitalized urgently and anesthetized. For twenty years she did not talk to anyone about her NDE: not only did she not even know that NDEs were being studied, but she herself was trying to remove the unpleasant effects of her painful experience, so she had no desire to recall or rework them. It was only in 1982 that, looking for a temporary job, she read an ad of the IANDS (International Association for Near-Death Studies) related to an operational task at the Department of Psychology of the University of Connecticut, where IANDS was about to start its own activity as a non-profit organization. So it was that Nancy learned of the existence of the expression «NDE» to indicate similar experiences to that she had about twenty years before. Since then, Evans has always worked for IANDS, of which she was appointed executive manager after some time. In this role she met many people who had had NDEs, read all the publications available about this topic and began her research activity with a study on children's NDEs, published in 1983.
What most surprised Evans, however, was the fact that almost all published NDE reports were about positive, luminous experiences, full of love and happiness: practically heavenly. If there were negative, distressing or even infernal elements, these were limited to the initial phases of the experience, which then turned more or less rapidly into the celestial dimension for which NDEs have received so much interest and been so successful with the public. However she knew, not only from personal experience but also from the testimony of many people she had met, that there was also another side of the coin, represented by negative NDEs, distressing or even characterized by an infernal environment. Obviously, these experiences have a decidedly inferior appeal compared to the paradisiacal ones, and for this reason the reticence of the subjects involved to talk about them is much greater. Moreover, until the 1980s, researchers did not show a particular interest in distressing NDEs, which were relegated to a marginal role: the public's interest was all for heaven, certainly not for hell!
Today the context is quite different, and it must be recognized that Evans' research, which culminated in the publication of her book in 2012, contributed to the development of the cognitive framework of NDEs that characterizes current research. For those interested in the topic, we can mention a valid text published in 2009, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation (to which also Evans contributed writing the chapter on Distressing NDEs). In her websitewww.dancingpastthedark.com there is a page in which Nancy clarifies many aspects of negative NDEs: in particular their frequency, which could be up to 20% of all NDEs, and the fact that their occurrence is completely random if we refer to factors such as age, sex, ethics, lifestyle, religious faith, death by suicide, ethnicity, well-being and expectations of a life in the otherworld. Here is Evans' testimony about her NDE.
Alone drifting in space
It was a clear, hot night in late July. In an old Hudson River town of New York State, I was in labor with my second child. I was 28 and healthy, and the pregnancy had been easy; however, this was three weeks before the due date. Hours earlier, the obstetrician had discovered that an episode of premature labor the day before had moved the baby into the birth canal. He ordered an emergency induction. Now, ready to deliver, I was anesthetized according to common practice. What I knew next was that I found myself awake and somehow flying over a building. A quick glimpse backward – oddly, with no sense of turning around – and I could see box-like structures on the roof of what I thought must be the hospital, because there, up the hill, was the window of the classroom where I taught. There was the town, receding swiftly below me, and then the dark outline of hills along the river, and the earth’s curvature («It’s true, it really is round!»), and finally the planet becoming smaller, smaller while I continued into... where? Years later, I would describe it as hurtling into space like an astronaut without a capsule, for the first astronaut had gone into space only a year earlier.
The speed was puzzling. It felt like drifting, but I was covering enormous distances at what felt like an angle, headed northeast. (Is there a northeast in space?) The nighttime darkness turned into immensity and a different sort of dark: it was thinner somehow, shading inexplicably toward what might have been a paler horizon – except that there was no horizon. My impression was that God was over there. I was utterly alone. There was nothing but that strange, dark twilight, and the awareness of being there, and emptiness. There was a sense of form to me, I recall, or at least of presence, but no body. It was as if I were made of veiling – just insubstantial. But I was thinking. Did I have a mind, or was I being a mind? An unanswerable question.
The circle messengers and the deception of existence
A group of circles appeared ahead and slightly to my left, perhaps a half-dozen of them, moving toward me. Half black and half white, they clicked as they flew, snapping white-to-black, black-to-white, sending an authoritative message without words. Somehow its meaning was clear: «This is all there is. This is all there ever was. This is It. Anything else you remember is a joke. You are not real. You never were real. You never existed. Your life never existed. The world never existed. It was a game you were allowed to invent. There was never anything, or anyone. That’s the joke – that it was all a joke». The circles felt heckling but not evil, mocking, mechanistic, clicking without feeling. They seemed like messengers, certain of what they were saying, not ultimate authority themselves but with an authoritative message.
I argued passionately to prove them wrong, throwing out details of my mother’s girlhood, stories of my husband’s youth, facts from history – things I could not have experienced myself. Other people must exist; for how would I know these things if someone had not told me? And my first baby, the toddler Katy waiting at home – I knew that baby, the feel of the sturdy little body, the smell of her rosy babiness. I couldn’t have made her up! And childbirth! Why would any woman (even an imaginary woman) invent childbirth? And what about this unborn baby?
The feeling of nothingness
«Whatever you remember is part of the joke. Your mother, your babies – they were never real», they mocked. «This is all there is, all there ever was. Just this». But God? The thin darkness stretched off into nothingness, a thin not-quite-mist of dusk, and the circles kept clicking. And then I was entirely alone. The circles had moved out of sight, and there was nothing left – the world unreal and gone, and with it my first baby, and this baby who would never be born, and all other babies. Everyone I knew and loved – (but how had I known them, if they were never real?) – gone, and hills, and robins. There was no world, no home, no babies, not even a self to go home to. I thought that no one could bear so much grief, but there seemed no end to it and no way out. Everyone, everything, gone, even God, and I was alone forever in the swimming twilight dark.
And then I was groggily coming to in a hospital bed. My first waking thought: that I knew a terrible secret. «Calvin was right! Predestination. I have experienced predestination. I am one of the lost. That is what is out there, what it will be like when I die. There is something so wrong with my very being, even God has willed me not to be». But why? Raised as a Congregational preacher’s daughter in a denomination that emphasized the love of God and service to others rather than hell-fire, I was a questioner but deeply reverent, had belonged to youth groups, sung in choirs, taught Sunday School, was on staff at summer church conferences, had hoped for seminary. What had I ever done, that God would consign me to such emptiness? Despair moved like a tide.
Discouragement and despair
The baby had been born cyanotic, the color of an over-ripe plum, and I was not allowed to see her. Was she real? Is that why I could not see her? I withdrew into silence and futile tears. No reassurances helped. My husband was there, and my mother and sisters; nurses clucked in sympathy, assuring everyone that the baby would survive. Were they real, the family, or the nurses, any of the world seemingly present, the baby I could not see—was any of it real? I was drowning in grief and despair, but could tell no one of the experience.
The progressive return to the reality of life
The hospital released me early because I was so upset – they thought owing to the baby’s uncertain condition – and days went by, and the baby was allowed to come home. We finally met, she and I. Now it seemed there were two little ones. At night, hearing first one cry, then the other, I wondered, How can so much tiredness exist in a person who does not exist? Should I get up? If they are not real babies, do they really need to be fed? Weeks became months, and slowly the experience receded. Its tide mark was always present and unmistakable; but what might or might not be life moved on, seeming easier when I repressed thinking about the message; and actual or not, little girls were fed and changed and tended to. Beneath the thinnest of emotional shells, though, despair ran roughshod. God had no place for me; the circles waited; nothing was real. I tried once to tell my husband about the experience, but stopped. Who can love a person and want to describe something so full of grief? I would not speak of it again, to anyone, for two decades.
Yin and Yang
Six years went by, and one afternoon I visited a neighbor, faculty member at a seminary nearby. Going into the kitchen to make tea, the friend gestured to a book on the table. «Jung’s Man and His Symbols. It just arrived. Take a look». The book was large, profusely illustrated, something about images, and I leafed through it with interest until, turning a page, I froze. From the left-hand page, one of the circles stared back. They were true! Someone else knew about the circles! My breath jammed in my throat, and in a storm of terror I hurled the book across the room and fled from the house, too frightened even to say goodbye. (Twenty-five years later, the friend would laugh and say, «Yes, I did think it odd that you simply disappeared»).
The image from which I fled, the circle whose message I had been repressing for years, was foreign, terrifying, and meaningless except as recalled from my own experience. I did not recognize it. It would be several years more before I discovered that it was the Yin/Yang, the ancient Chinese symbol of the seemingly opposed but always interdependent principles within all of human experience – the balance of yes/no, male/female, active/passive, light/dark, life/death, moving in a constant flow of interactions. It is the interconnection of opposites, the acceptance of ambiguity and paradox, the understanding that reality is both less than what we believe it to be and more. The circle comprises two nested tear-shaped halves, one black and one white, each containing a dot of the other. It was those halves that had been clicking back and forth, back and forth. Not only had I been I troubled by the experience itself, but now – how does an unrecognized ancient Chinese symbol became a message-bearer in the experience of a mainstream Protestant in New England?
The need to understand
Nancy Evans' story goes on explaining how, from that experience and its effects, her interest in NDEs had arisen (and especially for the distressing ones), along with the need to know what the meaning of these experiences could be for those who live them. Her book is certainly interesting and worth reading. As for her NDE and the devastating consequences she had in her life for some years, perhaps it may have occurred that she was involved (or rather, she found herself involved in spite of herself) into a crucial problem for human knowledge, without having the resources to be able to get out of it quickly and easily. The problem of reality is in fact known in philosophy from the dawn of time, and it is clear that our knowledge of what is real depends on two essential factors: the first one is the instrument of perception, interpretation and knowledge, that is our mind (with all the programs acquired or elaborated), which determines the subjective reality, while the second is the presence of another person or a group of other people with whom exchange information, to determine the consensus needed to establish what can be considered as objective reality. In the context of her experience – typically subjective – Evans' conscious Ego was probably involved by a psychic nucleus that until then had remained unconscious, and, having no defenses, she was overwhelmed. As for the symbol of the yin and yang used to represent the messenger circles, it is not excluded that, while not consciously remembering it, she had acquired some information about it in the course of her life, before having her NDE.