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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

 
Death is enjoyable

John Bowers was born in 1912. After working as a District Commissioner in the Sudan, he served during the war in Abyssinia and North Africa. From 1947 he was Head of the Adult Education Division of UNESCO. He was also adviser to the Ministry of Overseas Development and drafted the first Government White Paper on National Parks.

I suppose that for many old people the fear of death is one of the most disturbing anxieties of old age. Anything that can remove or mitigate it must be welcome. This thought leads me to recount a personal experience and to suggest how it might be put to good purpose.

In 1942, on a Commando raid in the Sahara Desert, I was 'blown up' by a bomb accurately aimed by a German pilot - a Near Death Experience (NDE) which I greatly enjoyed. You may find this hard to believe but I am deeply grateful for it. The 500lb bomb detonated within a few yards of where I lay in the sand. I was instantly enveloped in a luminous cloud of pale purple light and a thunderous roar of sound. It was an ecstatic sensation and I felt no vestige of fear or pain. Then I was happily floating, apparently twenty feet or so above the ground, looking down at my body as it was flung over backwards. Soon I was gliding up a tunnel that seemed to be made of translucent silk towards a circle of primrose coloured light. I clearly remember saying to myself: 'If this is death it's rather dull' (I think in retrospect I meant uneventful). As if in response to this negative remark, I felt myself being sucked back from the light and squeezed into an unpleasantly heavy body. I will spare you the details of what followed my return to earth, of the unenjoyable 33-hour return journey over the desert, face down in a truck, and the eleven months of hospital treatment and thirteen surgical operations that followed.

Although I remembered the experience very clearly, I did not think or speak much of it. It was many years later when I began to write my life story that I realised how deeply it had influenced my beliefs and behaviour.

The most convincing impression I recall was that I - the essential Me - was 'up there' looking down at my body. This conviction is expressed by almost all of those who have reported NDEs.

Brought up in the Church of England, I learnt in my childhood that I was a body that had a soul. I imagined it as some sort of ghost that would go to heaven when I died. I have now come to believe rather that I am a soul that has a body. This seemingly trivial shift of belief has led to many others.

If I can apparently leave my body and move weightlessly or free of gravity when my body is close to death this seems to indicate, though not, of course, to prove, that I am an immortal soul capable of existing beyond bodily death.

The belief in immortality and the 'separable soul', logically leads to a belief in incarnation as the common experience of mankind. This logic has led me into sympathy with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. It has also deepened my belief in the incarnation of the divine 'Christ Spirit' in the human body of Jesus and his transcendent immortality.

When I was apparently a free-flying non-physical entity out of my body, which was 'lying low', traumatised and evidently unconscious, I still seemed to possess the faculties of my physical brain considerably enhanced - notably acute clarity of vision, memory and command of language. It seems therefore plausible to assume that as an immortal soul I have an immortal, non-physical brain with super-sensory consciousness and that I shall retain this and its memories of 'previous lives' after bodily death.

I even have a persistent belief that as an incarnate soul in a human body I have two 'brains' - a physical brain and a soul brain - now integrated by the process of incarnation. I find support for this from the German mystic Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Anthroposophy movement, who writes of the Soul Organisation.
I was drawn back before I reached the light at the end of the tunnel. Many 'returnees' report how they went 'through the light' into 'non-physical reality' - an extra-terrestrial sphere. Was this what Jesus called his father's house of many mansions? Most of the 'returnees' report meetings with deceased relatives, 'Beings of Light' and various religious figures and many experience a life review - an instantaneous and helpful replay of their earthly life.

After return to my body I had no sense of how long I had 'been up there'. It cannot have been long because the German planes were still strafing us. A cannon shell hit the truck beside me with a sharp metallic clang. I still felt no fear and, remarkably, no pain, only a sort of light-headedness that was not unpleasant. Many years later, ruminating on the sense of being outside time, I recalled the strange feature of the NDE that I seemed to see the actual event that caused the experience. Did I 'go backwards in time'?

I can readily empathise with rational materialists, and indeed anyone educated in our sceptical scientific culture, who finds NDEs incredible - mumbo-jumbo is the term often used. Hallucination, possibly triggered by endorphins is a favoured explanation. But those of us who have had an NDE or any kind of OBE (Out of Body Experience) seem almost unanimously convinced of its reality.

What then is the relevance of Near Death Studies to older people's fear of death? I have found that many people who have learnt that I have had an NDE are eager to hear about it and many seem to gain assurance from the idea that death may be enjoyable. This assurance might well be transmitted in a friendly talk by someone who appears honest and normal and will tell of their experience without sensationalising it and without any motive of conversion or fostering a change of belief. There are a surprising number of people who have had NDEs and OBEs and some could surely be enlisted to do this service.

John Bowers

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