Our world is rich with all kinds of religions and belief systems — clearly influenced by their respective cultures and natural surroundings.
Even so, when we filter out the unique imagery and biases of each tradition, we are left with certain mystical experiences that seem universal.
Among them, one of the most prominent is the “near-death experience”, or NDE.
Thanks to new effective resuscitation technologies, more NDEs are being reported today than ever before.
Still, if we look into the past, we can find certain texts and traditions that clearly describe similar, if not identical, characteristics to the NDEs of modern times.
Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most interesting near death experiences in history.
Plato & the Tale of Er
Perhaps the earliest written account of a near-death experience comes from the famous Greek philosopher Plato.
In the tenth book of his defining work “The Republic”, Plato writes about the account of a soldier named Er, who dies in battle.
Er suddenly awakens on his funeral pyre the day he’s supposed to be cremated.
Then, he proceeds to tell those around him about his experience of the afterlife.
The story introduces the idea of a sort of judgment after death and draws several parallels with modern NDE stories.
A great light, an honest reflection on the life lived, tunnels, and “delights and visions of a beauty beyond words” are just some of the noteworthy descriptions.
Reincarnation is also mentioned in quite some detail.
It’s said souls choose their next birth and drink from “The River of Forgetfulness” before incarnating once again, with little to no recollection of the greater reality.
“…as he was lying on the funeral pile, he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world.
He said that when his soul left the body he went on a journey with a great company, and that they came to a mysterious place at which there were two openings in the earth; they were near together, and over against them were two other openings in the heaven above.”
– The Republic, Book 10, 614
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead” (actually titled “The Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” or “Bardo Thodol” in Tibetan) is a guide meant to help souls in the state between death and rebirth.
According to Tibetan traditions, the book was composed by the legendary figure Padmasambhava in the 8th century .
It was supposedly written down by his student Yeshe Tsogyal.
The text is somewhat-colored by the Tibetan Buddhist theology.
However, its wording is clear enough that we can extract plenty of useful information.
It’s not filled with thousands of metaphors and double meanings — like so many sacred writings are.
The 6 Bardos of Our Existence
The Bardo Thodol explains that once consciousness is detached from the body, it will shape its own reality — similar to a dream.
This dreamlike state has three phases, called bardos (intermediate states of consciousness), which have several distinct characteristics.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there are six bardos in total:
- Kyenay bardo: The bardo of birth.
- Milam bardo: The bardo of dreams.
- Samten bardo: The bardo of meditation.
- Chikhai bardo: The bardo of death.
- Chönyi bardo: The bardo of true nature.
- Sidpa bardo: The bardo of transmigration.
The last 3 are the ones we go through when we die.
The 4th Bardo
The 4th bardo is entered at the moment of passing, where the person is met by a clear light (The Clear Light of the Ultimate Reality).
At this stage, the individual is advised to embrace the experience with love and compassion, as opposed to selfishness, and also realize that the self is the clear light.
If they truly recognize this “oneness”, they will supposedly remain in the clear light forever — the mind once again being part of all there is.
According to the book, however, most people will fail to do so and will enter the second stage of the 4th bardo.
Here, they will witness “The Secondary Clear Light” seen shortly after death.
The 5th Bardo
If the soul is still unable to liberate itself, it will go through the 5th bardo.
This stage is said to last for two weeks in our measure of time.
During the first week, various peaceful deities will be encountered, and a white light will shine upon the soul.
In response, it will either react with joy or recoil in fear and anger.
During the second week, the soul is said to be greeted by various demons and other negative entities.
At this point, one is instructed to not give in to fear, but rather realize that the apparent demons are illusions emanating from the mind.
If this also fails, the soul will enter the 6th bardo.
The 6th Bardo
In the 6th bardo, a fearsome demonic entity called the Lord of Death will approach, which will then judge the person.
Again, the book explains that it’s a projection of the mind — the individual is instructed not to let fear envelop them.
Finally, there comes a point where the soul can no longer be liberated.
The individual is then instructed to choose a new womb for its next incarnation.
“Remember the clear light, the pure clear white light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns; the original nature of your own mind.
The natural state of the universe unmanifest.
Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it.
It is your own true nature, it is home.”
– Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead)
An Admiral’s Near Death Experience
Sir Francis Beaufort (1774-1857) was an Irish hydrographer and Admiral in Britain’s Royal Navy.
In 1795, when he was a young sailor, he had an NDE after nearly drowning.
Beaufort wrote that he was stationed on a British ship in Portsmouth harbor.
He was trying to fasten a small boat when he lost his balance and fell into the water.
Beaufort didn’t know how to swim — he started splashing frantically before sinking below the surface.
Others nearby noticed the occurrence, but took several minutes to reach him and get him out of the water.
Beaufort’s Written Account
After relating the experience to his physician, Dr. Wollaston, he was requested to give a detailed account in writing.
Beaufort wrote down the following:
“Though the senses were deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description, for thought rose above thought in rapid succession.
The event just occurred the awkwardness producing it, the bustle it must have occasioned… the effect on my most affectionate father, the moment in which it would be disclosed to the family, and a thousand other circumstances minutely associated with home, were the first reflections.
Then they took a wider range, our last cruise a former voyage and shipwreck, my school and boyish pursuits and adventures.
Thus, travelling backwards, every past incident of my life seemed to glance across my recollection in retrograde succession; not however in mere outline, as here stated, but the picture filled up with every minute and collateral feature.
In short, the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic review, and each of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right or wrong, or by some reflection on its cause or consequences.
Indeed, many trifling events which had been forgotten then crowded into my imagination, and with the character of recent familiarity.”
The Admiral’s writing is one of the more eloquent accounts of an NDE prior to modern times.
His experience was a clear case of “one’s life flashing before one’s eyes”.
It also included the personal reflection (judgment) on “right” and “wrong” actions taken in life and their consequences.
Even today, this is seen as one of the most impactful parts of the near-death experience.