How Death Changes Life

By Joann S. Bakula

Originally printed in the Fall 2009 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Bakula, Joann S. "How Death Changes Life." Quest  97. 4 (Fall 2009): 142-147.

Theosophical Society - Joann S. Bakula, Ph.D., is a transpersonal integral psychologist and lecturer. She is review editor of the Esoteric Quarterly and the author of Esoteric Psychology: A Model for the Development of Human Consciousnessas well as of many articles on myth, the bardos, higher states, and applying ancient wisdom to planetary living.Near-death experiences (NDEs) have fascinated people around the globe ever since the first popular book on the subject, Raymond Moody's Life after Life, became a best-seller in 1975. If such experiences awaken a person to another dimension of consciousness, reading accounts of these experiences may be able to touch and awaken the same layer of consciousness in us all.

Betty Bland, president of the Theosophical Society in America, had an NDE in 1968 and has described it, along with some of its aftereffects, in many talks and writings (e.g. Bland, 1—3). She went into the hospital for a simple surgical procedure, but a physician"s error put her in a situation where, as she describes it, "I endured several days of hanging on the edge of death. Certainly psychic sensitivity was greatly heightened at this time, and I was able to slip in and out of physical consciousness at will. I preferred staying in the astral realms, but could be called back whenever necessary."

One night Bland was transported to what she calls the "Council of Light." As she describes it, "there were no specific forms as such, but different foci within the Light. They were great beings, but received me as if they were my brothers and sisters, partners in the life process."

With the help of the council, Bland went through a nonlinear life review in a "series of thematic holographic bubbles...from obscure reaches of time," including "relationships with individuals and qualities of being or capacities developed." She perceived "threads to past and future," where "successes were viewed as completions and shortcomings were relegated to future lives." Learning that "life is a classroom," she was left with an intense quest for new ideas and understanding and with the knowledge that one could not know from external appearances what particular tasks you had taken on in your life. Deep within ourselves is the nexus or "flower of being," that "exalted aspect of ourselves that is part of the universal All [and] is accessible to each one of us."

Bland was surprised to learn from the council that "as far from perfect as I was . . . I had accomplished all that was necessary for this life." Given the choice between returning to the earth plane and moving on, she says, "I reluctantly but determinedly set my direction toward the earth plane," even though the council warned her, "It will not be as easy as you have had it up to this point."

Depth of understanding, extended perception, compassion, love, insight resulting from an unique review of her own life and life itself, living for others, knowledge of purpose, and the ability to use the experience in living skills are all there in Betty Bland"s life and words and even in her presence. This is the most noticeably profound, life-transforming, and long-lasting aftereffect of the NDE. As she describes it, "reality gains a new dimension."

Many similar statements may be found in the famous NDE experience of the psychiatrist C. G. Jung, recounted in his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Jung's NDE had elements similar to Bland"s, affecting his sense of temporal location and resulting in multidimensional perception: "I had the feeling that I was an historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. My life seemed to be snipped out of a long chain of events" (Jung, 291). "Although my belief in the world returned to me," he added, "I have never since entirely freed myself of the impression that this life is a segment of existence which is enacted in a three-dimensional boxlike universe especially set up for it." He described the other state as "a non-temporal state in which present, past, and future are one." Everything that had happened "in time had been brought together. . . . Nothing was disturbed . . . .nothing could be measured by temporal concepts. . . . One is interwoven into an indescribable whole and yet observes it with complete objectivity" (Jung, 295-96).

Researchers Kenneth Ring and Raymond Moody have categorized NDEs in terms of their depth. The basic than atomimetic narrative in Moody"s first book, Life after Life, includes fifteen core elements, compacted by Ring into five stages: peace and well-being; out-of-body sensation; going through a dark tunnel; seeing the light; and entering the light. The deeper, fuller NDEs go on longer, and the experiencer enters further and deeper into the light, revealing details of perception, memory, purpose, and meaning not found in accounts of the other four-fifths of Ring's sample (Moody, Life after Life, 80). Two new elements associated with deeper, fuller NDEs were "the vision of Knowledge" and "cities of Light" (Moody, Reflections, 9, 15). Betty Bland entered deeper into the light and had a fuller realization, as did Carl Jung. "When we come to examine the core of full NDEs we find an absolute and undeniable spiritual radiance," Ring writes. "It"s as if the core of the NDE becomes their core. The NDE is, then, not merely an experience that becomes a cherished memory" that changes one"s life. "It is one"s life. And it becomes the source of one"s true being in the world" (Ring, Heading toward Omega, 50).

H. P. Blavatsky distinguishes two kinds of memory, the ordinary one and the "soul"s memory," which is a record of every thought, word, and deed in the life. She writes that "not the most trifling action of our lives can disappear from the soul"s memory, because it is . . . an ever present reality on the plane which lies outside our conceptions of space and time" (Blavatsky, 66). A direct experience has a quality and significance that beliefs simply do not contain, and this puts all NDEs in a special category, even if researchers with materialistic beliefs deny the significance of the data.

Over the years, several of my students at Florida International University and Southern Oregon University have reported their NDEs, along with the profound aftereffects of those experiences. Self-development, knowledge, and aversion to judgmentalism and negative emotional states are some of the most common changes reported. The following three accounts are as accurate as words and notes can provide, although the identities, and in one case the details, have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Vital Engagement

Even NDEs with elements appearing to be negative can have positive effects in the life afterwards. One of my Florida International University students, of Cuban Catholic background, whom I"ll call Rosa, reported an authentic NDE during a death studies class. Her experience followed a brain aneurysm and left her very puzzled about part of it. She described the customary tunnel and the painless voyage to a blissful realm where "light more brilliant than the sun" seemed to be caressing her. "It was loving, approving, safe." She said to herself, "Now you"ve done it—you"re dead!" A soundless voice answered her, "You are not dead. You must go back." A review took place in the presence of this being, whom she identified as God. As she left this state she was surprisingly told to "become more selfish."

After Rosa returned to consciousness, she had a difficult time assimilating the information and following the advice. Would God tell her to be more selfish? Like most people raised in the Christian religion, she had always associated God"s way with being less selfish and less self-centered and with leading a life of service to others. What she heard while near death caused her to doubt her understanding of her faith.

Nevertheless, Rosa felt certain that this presence was God; she had no doubt of this. The experience was profound; she told her parents and husband that she had changed and would continue to change, and that there was no death, although they dismissed her experience as part of the trauma. But how could she follow the advice? It caused considerable conflict to her in the months that followed. As an aftereffect, she reported definite changes in her personality, resulting in a less passive and more vital engagement in life. She had become more assertive and self-confident, more aware of male dominance of women, and more concerned about using her full potential. She was less likely to be complacent and took the initiative more often. She had developed a need to learn, understand, and develop. She realized that she had to "love myself before I could love others without judgment." Something of the nonjudgmental and unconditional love of the presence she had felt began to fill her, changing her life.

Kenneth Ring has grouped aftereffects of NDEs into four categories: (1) change in attitude toward life; (2) sense of personal renewal; (3) personality changes; (4) changes in attitude toward others (Ring, Life at Death, 139). Rosa reported positive changes in all of these areas. After the initial period of doubt, confusion about conflicting values, and cognitive dissonance, Rosa felt that the NDE significantly changed her personality, causing her to become a much stronger person, more caring both for herself and for others, as well as more self-confident and self-directed. She had a new sense of the importance of life and the opportunity it presented. This is confirmed by the fact that she was pursuing her undergraduate degree as an older woman, wife, and mother. Moreover, when she related her experience to others, she was careful not to challenge their beliefs while remaining certain of the meaning of her experience.

As Betty Bland wrote, the aftereffect is related "to growing into [one"s] full potential," to actualizing that potential, and to increasing a sense of purpose. This affirms what The Secret Doctrine describes as the "obligatory pilgrimage" of the divine spark through a process of development or unfoldment of individuality, "first by natural impulse, and then by self-induced and self-devised efforts," both consciously, and, it appears, unconsciously in a brush with death. Bland writes, "Those who have experienced the near death state...have embarked on their pilgrimage with a new sense of purpose and zeal" (Bland, 2).

Near Death by Misadventure

A male student in one of my death studies classes at Southern Oregon University reported an NDE of some years earlier, following a night of drunkenness, debauchery, and wild driving that culminated in hitting a tree head-on at high speed. The young man, whom I"ll call Stuart, was found with his leg wrapped around his neck and with a ruptured kidney and spleen, and he woke up in the hospital in traction. The injuries were multiple and severe, taking him over two years to recover. As is typical of victims of severe accidents, he had a swift life review, which he described as like "a fast shuffle of cards, a card bridge." He had a sense that in the NDE he had returned to the state where he belonged. I asked him whether he would call it returning to home. He replied, "No, it was more an experience of belonging."

Stuart came back with a different attitude toward life. He had an expanded sense of where he had come from, where he was now, and an awareness of a deeper layer of conscious being. At the same time his life direction had recovered as well. He had returned to the university to earn his undergraduate degree and had specific goals for his future career as well as positive changes in lifestyle. The major negative aftereffect could be that since that time he was "stuck on a feeling of ascension" and had become obsessed with bungee jumping!

The assurance that belongingness does not primarily come from the outside or social realm, but from the inside and is subjective, gave Stuart a new sense of identity and self-assurance that enabled him to change the direction of his life. Jung also mentioned belongingness in his NDE account: "I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand—this too was a certainty—what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know what had been before me, why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing" (Jung, 291).

Thanks to the NDE, Stuart had a deeper knowledge and life experience than most people, and he knew it. Education became more important to him, as it did to Rosa. With their direct experience of deeper knowledge they felt a sense of inner authority that drew them to higher education. Leadership qualities and a deeper sense of seriousness about knowledge itself remained with them. There are accounts throughout the literature of knowledge becoming available during the NDE, with accounts of "libraries" and "institutions of higher learning." One said, "This is a place where the place is knowledge" (Moody, Reflections, 13-14).

Calming Emotions

An older woman from California discussed the NDE experience of her second husband, a retired businessman, following a heart attack. The man had been devoted to his family and to the family corporation of which he was an officer, and had been heartbroken by conflict with his son, the only male heir. The son had driven him out of the business, displaying blatant disrespect for and considerable aversion toward him. After a decade or so of excruciating emotional pain from this loss, the man reciprocated. Love between them died; hate grew. Then he had a coronary. Recalling the NDE afterward caused him extreme fright, his wife reported.

In the months after the NDE, his attitude underwent a noticeable change. He no longer expressed anger or acute distress when talking about his son. He no longer spoke with pain of his broken relationship, nor did he seek to understand how it happened or recount his painful tale. He no longer sat in judgment, even though he apparently had every reason to do so, as the other members of the family corporation had the same feelings toward his son. The man"s emotions were calmed, his aversion was gone, his hurt was soothed, he stopped obsessing.

The past was not altered, nor was the grief ignored; rather his acceptance of the injustice was now objective rather than emotional, with equanimity and the assurance that justice would somehow work out in the larger scheme of things. According to his wife, he recognized that his inflamed negative emotion—which he didn"t like to see at first—was hate, and this was the only thing he was responsible for, not his son"s behavior. His attitude was transformed after the NDE by seeing how detrimental dying with negative thoughts and feelings in his heart could be. In the end, he saw that we are responsible for what we do, what we think, and what we feel, but we are not responsible for what others do to us in thought, word, or deed. This brings to mind what the humanistic psychologist Victor Frankl said: "It"s not so much what we expect from life, but what life expects from us."

One of the greatest obstacles in overcoming hate is the inability or unwillingness to call it what it is. Hate hides under many guises: injustice, racial prejudice, wrongdoing, the desire to punish someone for deep or superficial wrongs, sibling rivalry, and competition. It becomes an habitual cognitive behavioral pattern from which projections onto others are constructed. Hate is an energy easily infecting individuals through social networks; hate hides in history. The Tibetan Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche (134) calls this the "afflicted consciousness, or –klesha mind," which is the instigator of mistaken thoughts, conceptions and disturbing emotions." The well-known Tibetan Buddhist author Sogyal Rinpoche writes: "If our death was peaceful, that peaceful state of mind is repeated; if it was tormented, however, that torment is repeated, too" (290). He puts great emphasis on the right to a peaceful death, away from the torments of an intensive care unit with tubes, IVs, and resuscitators (as well as agitated relatives). "Peaceful death is really an essential human right, more essential perhaps than the right to vote or the right to justice; it is a right on which . . . a great deal depends for the well-being and spiritual future of the dying person" (186). Because the experiences after death are mind-created, with all of the delusions, misconceptions, and false identifications to which we have become habituated, serenity and acceptance at the moment of death become very important. Eventually, of course, the quality of the whole life takes precedence over the moment of death, but in the immediate aftermath the circumstances of death do matter.

One aftereffect of the California businessman"s NDE was a dramatic change in attitude, which became nonjudgmental and was accompanied by an equally dramatic reduction in strong negative emotions. He no longer sought to judge and punish, hate or blame, despite good reason. He realized his responsibility for his own thoughts and feelings, and how they could injure him. It is as if he had experienced something of Betty Bland"s "totally noncondemnatory" Council of Light and knew that he too must adopt this attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance. In terms of Ring"s "Behavior Rating Inventory" for NDEs (Ring, Omega, 281), the man"s "tendency to accept others as they are" had definitely increased.

In this case, however, the most significant aftereffect was a calming of emotions and decrease in negative emotional states. Having had similar effects, Jung wrote:

The objectivity which I experienced...signifies detachment from evaluations and from what we call emotional ties. In general, emotional ties are very important to human beings. But they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity. Emotional relationships are relationships of desire, tainted by coercion and constraint; something is expected from the person, and that makes him and ourselves unfree. Objective cognition lies hidden behind the attraction of the emotional relationship; it seems to be the central secret. Only through objective cognition is the real coniunctio possible (296-97).

As we have seen even in this short review, the insights of an NDE can result in changes far beyond attitude or emotions; they can change the direction of a person"s life and work. Betty Bland, whose NDE ended with the word "others," emerged to become president of the Theosophical Society in America. Having had direct and profound experience of one of the most important unexplained physiological processes of nature, death, and transpersonal union, she eventually came to lead an organization dedicated to brotherhood and to investigating unexplained natural laws. Similarly, Jung wrote, "The insight I had had, or the vision of the end of all things, gave me the courage to undertake new formulations" (Jung, 297). His three-volume series on the transpersonal process of union, or coniunctio, in psychology and alchemy was part of the "new formulations" resulting from his NDE.

Not only do NDEs eliminate the fear of dying, they also reduce the fear of living. Those who have undergone NDEs tend to have an adjusted sense of values, stemming from a sense of synthesis that undergirds their judgment and decisionmaking. They are more fully alive and present; at the same time they have a longer view of consciousness through time. They act as guides to the true principles upon which the whole cycle of life is based, from individuation to the Omega Point of enlightenment and perfection, resulting in the cessation of the cycle of lives on the wheel of samsara.


Bland, Betty. "The Near Death Experience: A Theosophical Perspective." The Messenger, March 1996, 1—3.
Blavatsky, H. P. "Memory in the Dying." The Nature of Memory. Adyar, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1980. 
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. Mind beyond Death. Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion, 2006.
Jung, C. G. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1963.
Moody, Raymond. Life after Life. New York: Bantam, 1975.
———. Reflections on Life after Life. New York: Bantam, 1977.
Ring, Kenneth. Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience. New York: Quill, 1982.
———. Heading toward Omega. New York: Morrow, 1984.
Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992.

Joann S. Bakula, Ph.D., is a transpersonal integral psychologist and lecturer. She is review editor of the Esoteric Quarterly and the author of Esoteric Psychology: A Model for the Development of Human Consciousnessas well as of many articles on myth, the bardos, higher states, and applying ancient wisdom to planetary living.

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