Raymond Moody is a scholar and a joyful soul. He first attained widespread recognition with the publication in the mid-1970’s of Life After Life, his best-selling work on the near-death experience (NDE). He has pursued this subject in his subsequent works Reflections on Life After Life and The Light Beyond.
A native of Georgia, Dr. Moody is a professor of psychology at West Georgia College. His academic credentials are particularly impressive, indicative of a lifelong love of learning. He has earned not one but two Ph.D.’s at the University of Virginia, one in philosophy and the other in psychology. In addition, he has a medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia.
Moody is a much sought-after speaker both in the Americas and in Europe, having established a justly deserved reputation as a knowledgeable surveyor of the frontier areas of human consciousness. He was the one whose research with hundreds of near-death survivors first established the startling frequency of the experience of floating above the body, being drawn to a white light of unspeakable beauty, and feeling a peace which no words can truly tell.
As Moody observes in this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, the near-death experience transcends cultural boundaries, appearing with minimal variation in people throughout the world. People who return from the brink of death after these experiences lose their fear of death, and in most cases find themselves adopting a new perspective on life.
Raymond Moody Interview
DR: How do you reply to someone who says that the near-death experience of white light and transcendent peace is simply a consequence of oxygen deprivation in the brain?
Raymond Moody: When I first heard about this, I assumed it was something like that, shock to the brain and so forth. I know many physicians, literally from all over the world, who have investigated this phenomenon, and they all started with that assumption. All of us, in talking with the people who have had these experiences, have come around very much in our views.
The classic definition of a hallucination, of course, is that it’s an apparent sensory experience without a corresponding external event. That is, a person sees or hears something when there is not really anything there. But with these near death experiences, we have many cases where the patients, while they are out of their bodies, are able to witness something going on at a distance, even in another part of the hospital, which later turns out by independent verification to have been exactly as the patient said. So this is very difficult to put together with a simple physiological or biochemical explanation.
Another thing that makes me feel that the experience is something beyond just a hallucination, is that the profound effects of these experiences on people are just so amazing. They have this complete confidence that what we call death is just a passage into another level of reality.
I think that no final answer, though, can be settled on to the question you asked, because ultimately in this frontier area of the human mind, there aren’t any experts there that can give us the answer. There is no conventionally established way yet to determine the answer. Everybody is going to have to look at this and make up his own mind in his own way. All I can do is speak for myself and my many colleagues in medicine who have looked into this, and we’re all convinced that the patients do get a glimpse of the beyond.
DR: Have you found similarities in the content of near-death experiences even among people from widely differing cultures? Does an Australian aboriginal experience the same thing as a steelworker from Indiana and a shepherd in Afghanistan?
RM: Yes, apparently so. It’s quite interesting. Something I certainly wouldn’t have suspected, but the cultural variation of this thing seems to be remarkably narrow. There is just not that much variation. Now I myself have not looked at cases from outside the Western Judao-Christian tradition, but colleagues of mine have. I have gotten letters from the Orient, from China, Japan and India, describing identical experiences, letters from both experiencers in these cultures and from physicians who have reported on these experiences. From time to time in anthropological writings and even preliterate cultures, there have been anthropologists who have found these experiences among the particular group they were studying, and report to us that they are the same as what we find in emergency rooms in the West.
DR: Are the increasing number of reports that we have all heard about of near-death experiences in recent years due to advances in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or the fact that people feel more free to talk about it?
RM: My impression is that it’s primarily the former. If you go back into history, you find plenty of these cases. They are in historical writings. Gregory of Tours wrote a book, The History of the Franks. The Venerable Bede’s The History of the English Church and People. These were from very early writings, several hundred years A.D. Plato describes a case. Hieronymus Bosch did a painting which portrays this theme in the 1500’s. There are scattered cases in the medical literature even, beginning in the 19th Century. And a Swiss mountain-climber geology professor named Dr. Albert Heim in the late 1800’s had a fall, and he had a mystical experience on his way down that profoundly changed his life. So he became interested in this topic, and inquired among his fellow mountain-climbers and found many near death experiences, again identical to what we hear today.
So this has been going on for a long time, but I think that as you suggested, what we find now is that the techniques of CPR are just so widely available and so sophisticated that we’re rescuing a very much larger number of people
who have had these experiences from the brink of death.
DR: What percentage of people do not experience the classic ascension into the light when having a close call with death, such as in a severe automobile accident? What is different about these people?
RM: Well, studies vary on that, and it’s interesting that the percentage of people who have such experiences gets higher, the closer they were to death. In the study of Dr. Fred Schoonmaker, who is chief of cardiovascular medicine at St. Luke’s in Denver, he interviewed a large number of patients that he had personally resuscitated, and he found that about 60% of the patients who underwent a resuscitation had an experience of this nature. This is comparable to the findings of Dr. Ken Ring and Dr. Mike Sabom, who studied patients who as a group were perhaps less critically ill, and had been unconscious and near death, and found that about 45% of them had had these experiences.
But that still leaves unaccounted for the question of why some do and some don’t. We really don’t know. Many of the facts that I think we would suspect– the age of the patient, the particular cause that brought them to the point of death, whether they were male or female, prior religious training and beliefs and so on–none of these factors seemed to make any difference. So we just don’t know what it is.
Dr. Bruce Greyson, in a study he did a few years ago, came up with some evidence that it might perhaps be whether or not the patient surrenders at this point of death, and he believes, based on some of his findings, that perhaps the patients as they are close to death, reach a point where they surrender, and that those are the ones that go on to have the near death experience.
DR: Do you feel that reincarnation is metaphorical or literal? What is your idea of the survival of the soul?
RM: I definitely think that yes, reincarnation is metaphorical, but not in the sense that some might believe. First let me say that I don’t know whether there is reincarnation or not, and I have done a lot of work with these past life regressions and so on. From the point of view of just giving evidence, I can’t say either way.
But if you are asking me about my feelings and my intuitions, I would have to say that if I were forced top guess on the issue, I would say yes. But I do still believe that it would be metaphorical in the sense that I think the process is much more complicated than we can even express in ordinary language. When we are talking about it in this dimension, we have to use a linear form of expression and conceptualization, but my feeling is that when we get over on the other side, all these linear categories that we use–evidence, time sequence and all of that–are totally different. Reincarnation is probably a far more complicated experience than we can probably even imagine right now.
DR: Have you seen people helped by past-life regressions?
RM: No doubt about it, yes. That’s been quite remarkable to me. As I started with this, I didn’t really intend, wasn’t really thinking of it as a therapeutic procedure. I was exploring it as an altered state of awareness, and what really surprised me as I got into this was that the people who underwent these regressions would feel greatly benefited by this, and that they would feel they came to understand themselves in a new way, perhaps understanding some of the difficulties and neurotic conflicts that they were experiencing in this life.
DR: Do you feel that there is any danger in pursuing past-life information? Under what circumstances should this be done, and what qualifications, if any, do you feel are necessary for the guide or therapist?
RM: Well, to answer your latter question first, I think the criteria for a guide are pretty much in flux and flow, and certainly none of the customary trainings in this society give anybody any special expertise in this field. What we face in this culture, I think, is that we have so systematically excluded ourselves from altered states of awareness in the Western culture for so many hundreds of years, that there are just going to have to be a few brave souls who will look into this and wade into it, and then can help the rest of us as we enter into it. You ask about the dangers. I think there are for sure dangers, and I see them all the time. One is certainly inflation of the ego and a kind of elitism that you see–the people who talk about my past lives, and in my past life this and in my past life that, and it becomes an ego trip. Some of them seem to want to exclude others by puffing themselves up about all of this. But by and large, that’s certainly a minority, a distinct minority of people.
And then too, there’s the danger that I think the Tibetans expressed, that as one enters into this and starts exploring around in the spiritual dimension, a lot of things come up which the Tibetans say, and I begin to believe in a way, are distractions to the real path. By that I mean, I’ve heard this Eastern doctrine that when past lives start emerging, you just don’t pay too much attention to them, because there are other things beyond that that you want to find. I think it’s fine as these past life experiences emerge to be interested in them , and to look into them and to learn what one can about oneself from them. But at the same time we need to realize that it is a stage, and that if we spend too much time puzzling over the details of our past lives then we’re going to miss what’s going on in this one.
DR: How has your work with near-death experiences and past life regression affected your academic career as a psychology professor at West Georgia College? Has any pressure been exerted upon you to pursue less controversial
areas of research?
RM: No, that would be a nice story, to be able to portray myself as a persecuted martyr, but it really has not happened.
DR: I’m glad to hear that.
RM: I happen to be in a very liberal college where the persons in my department are very interested themselves in altered states of awareness. I think that the irresponsible thing to do would be to portray this as some sort of conclusive scientific evidence. I think that as long as one pursues these topics with the perspective that they are altered states which can teach us a lot about ourselves, I don’t see how anybody could really object to that.
DR: In the years since your first book came out, do you perceive an increasing openness among people in this society to this information?
RM: No doubt about it. I was in Europe not too long ago, and I went to eight countries. In every country, physicians there brought articles to me that they had written for their own medical journals on their own research on near death experiences. So what we can say that this has contributed over the past 15 years, is that it is now an accepted matter of fact that persons close to death, a large proportion of them, have amazing lifechanging experiences which take a common pattern.
But now the next step is the interpretation of these experiences, what they ultimately mean. That’s not even a matter for the medical community to decide. It’s not for medical doctors to decide whether there’s life after death., The point of the interest in the medical field about these is simply that whatever account we want to give of them, they clearly occur. So we need to be prepared for this in order to explain to the patients and support the patients and so on, and reassure them that they are not alone.
DR: What in your current work fascinates you most?
RM: What I love to do is, I love to explore the frontiers of the human mind. One thing that’s so fascinating to me is that I’m 45 years old now and I have gone through two doctoral degrees and I have always been very interested in the human mind. I can remember sitting out on the front porch at my grandmother’s house at age 3, and puzzling about consciousness. This has been a lifelong pursuit for me, and one thing that I am continually astounded by is that a week hardly ever passes by that I don’t come across some amazing new dimension of the human mind, or some phenomenon that I have never heard of before.
One that I’m pursuing with great interest right now is the much-despised activity of crystal-gazing, which our society has succeeded in portraying as just a fraudulent activity or a hoax, which I had assumed myself until about three years ago. Now I know from delving into this phenomenon that it has a very rich history, an amazing history, that involves quite a dramatic, unusual and intriguing dimension of human consciousness. I have no idea whether any of these visions pertain to events of the future. I don’t feel myself qualified to even begin to try to prove or establish something like that. But, the phenomenon of crystal gazing, and the visions that people have, undeniably exist and also can have some really intriguing applications.
Especially if you go back into the history of thought, it’s amazing how many of the great creative geniuses of history have used hyponogogic states as an adjunct to their work.
DR: Who are some of these people?
RM: Edison, for example, used hypnogogic states to get his ideas. Robert Louis Stevenson got his ideas and stories while in the hypnogogic state. George Sand used it for writing her novels. Charles Dickens, and the list goes on. And yet in our society we have just totally ignored this fascinating technique.
DR: Must one use a crystal to enter the hypnogogic state?
RM: No, as you look back into the history of this phenomenon, many different forms of viewing devices have been used. Tibetans gazed into clear lakes and saw visions. They also used oracular mirrors. So did the shamans. Many shamanic cultures used mirrors for crystal gazing. The Aztec priests used obsidian mirrors and balls for their crystal gazing. In medieval times in Europe and also in India, where such technology was probably very expensive, scryers would use the thumbnail, a drop of oil on the thumbnail, to induce these visions.
So there’s a wide variety of techniques for doing this, and it can be very simply taught. I have found in my experiments with it that it’s possible to teach about half the normal population, and very quickly. And once they do learn it, they feel they benefit from it very much, both in learning about a dimension of themselves that they are not normally aware of, and also in terms of increased relaxation and increased access to their creative processes.
DR: How have you personally benefited from it?
RM: I’ve found it’s a marvelous adjunct to creative work. I’ve been writing some stories that I have seen in the crystal ball, and have been using it in some quite interesting ways in my writing. I find it’s really beneficial.
Daniel Redwood is a chiropractor and writer who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He is the author of A Time to Heal: How to Reap the Benefits of Holistic Health, and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. He can be reached by e-mail at Redwoods@infi.net. A collection of his writing is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.doubleclickd.com, and also on the New Age Forum of the Microsoft Network.
©1995 Daniel Redwood, D.C.