Nancy Evans Bush , a devout Christian, had an unusual near-death experience resulting from a severe complication during childbirth. In her own words, she described seeing unusual mandalas during her near-death experience: "I was rocketing through space like an astronaut without a capsule with immense speed and great distance. A small group of circles appeared ahead of me. To the right was just dark space. The circles were black and white and made a clicking sound as they snapped black to white and white to black. They were not evil exactly, just mocking and mechanistic. The message in their jeering was, "Your life never existed. The world never existed. Your family never existed. You were allowed to imagine it. You were allowed to make it up. It was never there. There was nothing there. There never was anything there. You're not real."
Several years after her near-death experience, Nancy was looking through a book on eastern philosophy. What she saw in the book so upset her she threw the book across the room. In the Eastern philosophy book was the same circular shape she saw in her near-death experience. It was the Chinese symbol "yin-yang" which represents the oneness of all so-called opposite principles we find in the universe.
The Buddhist concept of reality is that nothing in this physical world is real. People consist of a "bundle" of habits, memories, sensations, desires, and so forth, which together delude people into thinking that he or she consists of a stable, lasting self. This false self is what reincarnates body after body. In Buddhism, life in a corporeal body is the source of all suffering. Hence, the goal is to obtain liberation. This means abandoning the false sense of self so that the bundle of memories and impulses disintegrates, leaving nothing to reincarnate and hence nothing to experience pain. "Nirvana" is the Buddhist term for liberation. Nirvana literally means extinction - an extinction that allows a person to become one with all there is – to become "God" (Buddha). To attain Nirvana, one must face and accept the concept that physical reality is not real; true reality comes through self-extinction which results in becoming one with the Clear Light.
Nancy Evans Bush has a BA in English is from the University at Albany-SUNY, and a master’s degree in Pastoral Ministry from St. Joseph College in Connecticut, with additional graduate study at Trinity College and the University of Connecticut. She has three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Nancy is a past-president of The International Association for Near-Death Studies, Inc. (IANDS) and because of her own distressing near-death experience, has been their go-to researcher on distressing NDEs for 30 years (see below for more information).
REFLECTIONS FROM THREE DECADES WITH IANDS
Nancy Evans Bush Interviewed by Amy Stringer
From the Fall 2009 edition of “Vital Signs”
The newsletter of The International Association for Near-Death Studies, Inc.
VS: Please tell us about your own NDE which you had during childbirth.
NEB: It was not a radiant experience; it was an utterly terrifying experience of the void. I had never heard of anything like it. I didn’t know anybody else in the world had ever had such an experience. That left me with a sense that I was walking around with secret knowledge too terrible to tell anybody.
There was a group of circles. They were clicking, black to white, white to black. They weren’t…I didn’t think they were evil, but they were malicious, maybe the way a sibling would be malicious when you’re being really heartless to each other. There was no question: they were authoritative. They knew stuff I did not know. I was the stranger there; they weren’t. It never occurred to me that this was hell, and it never occurred to me that I was dead, only that this was what it would probably be like when I was dead. I just knew that this was a place other than where I thought I had been.
I was told I did not exist. I had never existed. It had been a joke. My life was a joke; my baby’s life was a joke. I had a 17-month-old daughter; she did not exist. My mother did not exist. Hills, trees, robins, Earth did not exist. It was so utterly clear I was being told something true. It’s hard to explain …what would have been the point of arguing? What they were saying was incontrovertibly true.
[I had] no context for it. The Christianity I grew up with was a pretty amiable theology — Congregational UCC, God is love, and Jesus loves the little children. My father and grandfather were ministers from a very liberal, intellectual tradition. Oh, some people talked about hell, but we knew that God loves his people, and if you try to do the right thing, you’ll be all right.
When I woke up my first conscious thought was, “Calvin was right…predestination.” There are sheep, and there are goats, and I must be a goat; some people are just automatically on the outs with God. And, the reason that occurred to me was because it was so contrary to anything I thought I deserved.
Most of the people who have written about unpleasant experiences talk about them as happening to people who were sin-ridden, guilt-ridden, hostile, God-denying, love denying, suicidal -– all of that. None of which applied to me. I was far from perfect, but for heaven’s sake, I had been saved twice at Billy Graham crusades! I had been born again…..and again! There was nothing in my background that could in any way help me explain this experience. I didn’t even know where to look for an explanation.
Six years after the experience, I was about to have a cup of tea with a friend when she said, “Here’s a book we just got today. Take a look.” I think the book was Jung’s Man and His Symbols, and I was flipping through it, and suddenly there on the left-hand side of a page was a large illustration of one of the figures from my experience. I got a feeling of just sheer horror, because my immediate thought was, “My God! Somebody else knows about this!” I was so horrified that I simply threw the book and ran. It was not until several years later I discovered the circle was the yin/yang symbol. And this lead to the question, how does a Chinese symbol get into the transformative experience of a New England Congregationalist who has had no contact with Taoism, New Age, paranormal activity? The question would turn my life around.
VS: How did your NDE affect your relationship with IANDS and vice versa?
NEB: Within a few weeks at IANDS I began to realize that there was a name for that experience I had twenty years earlier and had been trying to bury ever since. That was uncomfortable, because I knew beyond question that not all NDEs are glorious, and not all experiencers lose their fear of death — and clearly, nobody was going to want to hear that.
But, there were occasional clues in the letters coming into the office, little hints or even outright statements that other people knew about experiences like mine — “Why don’t you people tell the truth?” Somebody had to figure out what to say to these people. And, although I had no background to start with — well, I was there, and the letters kept coming in. As for how it affected my relationship with IANDS, I think it’s accurate to say that in some ways it has kept me pretty much an outsider, even on the inside. More than a few people would prefer that my type of experience not be considered an NDE and that this conversation would happen someplace else, if at all.
In the face of so much genuinely wonderful talk about radiant NDEs, it’s been hard always to have to say, “Excuse me, but that’s not true for everyone, it’s not universal, that doesn’t always apply.” Looking from the other point of view, I think it’s been difficult for many people, because of the very fact that my experience was “negative.”
VS: One of your greatest contributions to the study of NDEs has been exposing and explaining the distressing NDE. Will you share some satisfactions and frustrations this endeavor has brought?
NEB: I suppose one satisfaction is that I didn’t stop talking just because the topic was unwelcome. The need is so great, and I’ve been able to say so little. But every once in a while I’ve heard from someone that my work has helped. That’s worth the struggle. And of course, because I didn’t stop searching for answers to give to other people, eventually there came a kind of resolution, of understanding, of my own experience. Finally getting beyond the literal interpretation and arriving at a deeper comprehension makes all the difference. And, I keep hoping that some of my conviction is getting through, that we have to recognize that the universe is made up of darkness as well as light, so we’d better pay some attention to the implications of that.
So, there are certainly satisfactions.
One frustration is that getting this has been such a long process of stumbling along. I was a junior high English teacher when the NDE happened, not a psychologist, not a theologian, not a philosopher, had absolutely no background in psychic anything — nothing useful in that sense; so it’s been like following breadcrumbs through a very dense forest, piecing a trail together one little chip at a time. I’ve been just wild, sometimes, wishing that more people from other disciplines, who might have had some insight, would speak up, would write an article for the Journal, would say something. Within near-death studies, PMH Atwater has done some fine work, moving people to accept that these NDEs exist; she has a great understanding of the difficulties for experiencers. Physician Barbara Rommer’s book Blessing in Disguise was useful for its experience accounts, though I found it disappointing as information. Otherwise, within near-death studies there has been a scattering of articles and mentions of distressing NDEs in descriptive studies. Christopher Bache added some helpful insights as a transpersonal psychologist, and Gracia Fay Ellwood as a scholar of religious studies, and one should add Michael Grosso as a Jungian; but otherwise, there is still a great general silence. When I first felt I knew enough to say something to other people, it was with the article Bruce Greyson and I put together that was published in 1992 in the journal Psychiatry — 30 years after my NDE! Probably my biggest continuing frustration is the general conviction that if a person has a horrifying NDE, they’ve done something to deserve it; there must be something about them. No researcher, to my knowledge, has analyzed moral character or previous behaviors to explain radiant NDEs, but an astonishing number of people seem quite sure that a scary NDE is a manifestation of deep-seated guilt, hostility, fear, hatred of God, rigidity, lack of love, meanness, and on and on. No wonder it’s been hard for experiencers to come forward to share their difficult NDEs!
VS: As an experiencer, what question annoys you most? Why?
NEB: Probably the one I dislike the most is, “Do you believe these NDEs? Are they really true? Do you really believe near-death experiences?” It’s such an annoying little mosquito of a question because it indicates just such a lack of thought. They are experiences! You can’t ask people, “Is your experience true?” any more than you can ask someone with an abscessed tooth if their experience of pain is true. You’re having the experience; of course it’s true — as a genuine experience. Now, what does it mean? That is something different. Do I believe these experiences? Of course I believe them. Do I believe they are literally true? That’s a different question with a far more complex answer.
VS: What question do you wish more people would ask?
NEB: I wish more people would look at the NDE and ask, “And so…?”
The horizon is so very much wider than what we’re looking at. There’s entirely too much stopping at the literal level, at the sensational level, thinking that the experience itself is all there is, or that it’s enough. I wish people would wonder more about what these experiences point to — both the beautiful ones and the difficult ones — not just that everything is wonderful and there’s “life after death.” What does it mean that there are both bliss and the abyss? Why all these continuing visual images across millennia? What are all of these amazing spiritual experiences trying to tell us about being, about ourselves, about the nature of the universe and the way it works? What are we supposed to do with the information? What will it take to make us change?
VS: Do experiencers, as Garrison Keillor says, have “the answer to life’s persistent questions”?
NEB: I think some do, but I suspect that, for the most part, those people go quietly in the world and make few speeches.
The idea that experiencers come back with answers is part of the myth of the NDE, the myth that it’s all wonderful. (And because we haven’t looked hard enough at a bigger picture, IANDS hasn’t done much to address this.) It seems to me that many experiencers have a glimpse of an answer, but don’t know how to interpret it or don’t know how to work at how to live it. Too many folks get stuck in self-congratulations for their feeling of being special, for having “evolved”, or they get sidetracked with psychic abilities, or having had a powerhouse personal experience. Some think they have Ultimate Truth, and can’t accept that there are also very different perspectives.
It’s bound to be more pleasurable to marvel at a glorious NDE than to dig into one’s own psychodynamics to clean house afterwards, or to explore the history and disciplines surrounding these experiences that the religious traditions and Buddhism have found helpful. Some good words are there — “love, learning, service” — but too often actions don’t follow. Many people don’t want the information, they want only the experience, or they don’t see how knowing about something like this can be helpful. And, a good number of experiencers suffer deeply, and wonder why IANDS hasn’t said more to help them understand what’s going on. It’s complex, this business of revelation and communication.
In fact, the messages have been with us since well before Deuteronomy, and in the Gospel, and the Koran and the Sutras, and in all the religious and mystical traditions; and each time there’s a breakthrough, the convinced have to struggle with their egos, and there’ll be a group of people who know that “This news can change the world!” And of course, they’re right, but the work of self-discovery and self-discipline is terribly difficult, so inevitably the great “shazam” doesn’t happen and the world goes on un- rescued. The deepest enigma for human beings remains learning to live what we say we believe. That’s the hard part.
VS: How have perceptions about NDEs changed, from your 28-year perspective in the field?
NEB: The most obvious shift is that the near-death experience is now so well known that it has become the stock visual image for dying. Thirty years ago, when someone in a movie or soap opera died, you’d see the hand drop, or the eyes close. Now the room fills with light, the camera pulls up, and there is the actor’s body, and misty figures coming in, and everyone knows what’s happening.
It’s nice to know that we’ve helped make NDEs so much a part of the culture. On the other hand, this bland acceptance leads to a trivializing of the experience. The awe is missing, and the wonder. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, ho hum, another NDE. Sweet.” People (the media, certainly) tend to have accepted the superficial myth of the beautiful NDE, and stopped asking questions…