There’s something about this Thanksgiving that resonates deeply with the past. Back to the time of the first feast— And I’m not talking about images of a perfect family gathered around a spectacular roasted turkey, Norman Rockwell-like. After all, isn’t that how most Americans view the holiday? Quick, frenzied trips, across-country if necessary, to reacquaint with family, stuff ourselves, and hit the road home again. Year after year. It’s tradition. No, this year—it’s about…suffering.
Suffering is what binds us to the pilgrims who arrived EXACTLY 400 years ago. On Dec. 21, 1620, a landing party reached the site where the colony of Plymouth would be built. That first winter was tough and grim. Arriving so late in the year, only seven residences and four common houses (of the 19 planned structures) were built. Half of the 102 pilgrims perished in the first year, most in the first few months. Celebration of what we call the “First Thanksgiving” happened in October 1621 after almost a year of long, hard work. Only 53 pilgrims were left to attend the event. Those who remained probably took stock of the sacrifice and endurance it took to establish their small colony.
Thanksgiving 2020 is tied to the first part of the pilgrims’ experience here. One of hardship, loss, and grief. Already 260,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. By the time, we take our seats at the dining table, we’ll have to acknowledge that we’ve lost almost as many fellow citizens to the pandemic that has raged for ten months as died in combat during WWII (1941-1945). * (And they called them The Greatest Generation.) How does anyone wrap their mind around the kind of loss we’re experiencing now? Grief will join us this Thanksgiving even if we haven’t (yet) been touched by the pandemic. It lurks just under the surface. A certain uneasiness about the future. Where will we be next month? Who will be sick then? Who will be gone?
Some part of us knows we haven’t built our shelters or come through the long, dark winter. Like the pilgrims, we are just as vulnerable as they were stepping into a new world fraught with danger. The future will require people of character, strength, and vision. Capable of great sacrifice and great faith. May we find them and may they be us.
Kids say the darndest things! Known for their blunt honesty and jaw dropping lack of filters, we adults sometimes shake our heads or laugh. Every once and a while, these articulations make it into family history and are re-told for generations. But what if your little darling starts talking about an experience BEFORE he/she ever knew you?
This happened to Dr. Wayne Dyer and his friend, Dee Garnes. Sharing their experiences, they wondered how many others had similar stories to share. Memories of Heaven is the book that resulted from parents, grandparents, and others contributing their tales. These real-life stories are fascinating in their detail, sophistication and yet— simplicity of language. Almost all the utterances happen spontaneously and without coaxing. There is a certainty exhibited by these young ones in what they are telling. Often these remembrances of a time before are shared as soon as language emerges. Can we dismiss them as fanciful talk of children? I suppose, the most cynical can. But then there are the patterns.
What kind of things do kids talk about?
Memories of the time before now: This often includes where they came from and what it looked like. They may also recall specific activities they miss doing. Some can describe their feelings while in the before place and some miss it terribly still. This other place may be thought of as the real “home”. Children may engage in language and use concepts like God even when there has been no formal religious education in the home. Youngsters may speak about viewing family members from this other place and relate information they don’t have normal access to. Some children have spoken about being with siblings or other relatives who have died. There are some interesting stories about miscarriages. Later born siblings may know all about the miscarriages and have met those babies.
Memories of past lives: Some children will talk about living in another time and another place. They may share details of family life or even circumstances of their deaths. It’s not uncommon for a child to say, “You’re not my real mother.” In some instances, they know their names and the names of others from this other lifetime. It doesn’t appear that any of the cases in the book were ever substantiated but those familiar with Dr. Ian Stevenson’s work know that many similar cases have been verified.
Memories of choosing parents: Children describe a process of choosing their mothers and fathers. It seems to be a deliberate process that they have a lot of control over.
Memories of family reincarnation and role reversal: A commonly shared phenomenon was one in which souls returned to the same families. Children reported things like being a grandmother or grandfather in a previous life recalling specific memories or details. Instances where a child talked about being the parent were classified as role reversal and they were viewed as a subset within family reincarnation. These may involve a needed healing of the parent-child relationship. The authors are quick to point out that not every child born is an ancestor.
Memories of connections to spiritual source, precognition, & mystical wisdom:
Children may spontaneously speak of another realm where light, love, and compassion are expressed as primary memories.
Sometimes young children utter mysticlike wisdom. These stories oftentimes involve knowing about medical conditions, pregnancies, and impending death before anyone else.
Memories of invisible friends, spiritual visitors, and angels:
It has been reported that up to 65% of children have imaginary friends. But who are they? The book contains tales of children talking about these encounters. Many times these stories involve deceased relatives the child never has met. Oftentimes the youngster knows specific information about the individual that no one has told them. Children can sometimes identify the person from photos without prompting/coaching.
Children also talk about seeing angels. They offer vivid descriptions with simple language.
This book is a constant reminder that we must listen to what children are saying. That simple openness allowing them to communicate what is happening in their world is crucial to developing trust and safety. If we can put aside our adult, preconceived notions, a whole other world of possibility may emerge for us.
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I haven’t read a near death book in a while and when Eben Alexander’s book came out in 2012 and he was making the talk show circuit, I decided to give it a pass. Having read and heard many NDEs over the years, I knew all about the white lights, tunnels, and ability to see your body from above. Long ago I gave up the idea that the brain is the chemical factory of our consciousness and adopted the more cutting edge perspective that our bodies act more like a radio receiving signals. But recently, Proof of Heaven was mentioned in something else I was researching and decided to have a peek at why Alexander’s book had become so popular.
I’m glad I did. Eben Alexander III, MD got sick at home and ended up in the hospital in a coma. From the perspective of a hard- core materialist neurosurgeon, he describes what happened to him when the parts of his brain that would have been required for him to have these experiences was not functioning. The book is written like a thriller cutting back and forth from the medical mystery which had disabled him to the otherworldly journey he undertook. I’d bet he had a great editor too. Honestly, I enjoyed the way this book was written more than what his story adds to the evidence of life after death. Does his book prove life after death? Probably not, but I didn’t need it to.
A reader alerted me to this Esquire article that sheds a different light on the book:
Wade Davis is a Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist. He has written extensively about culture, botany, the environment and he has become a noted photographer. Davis has done hundreds of interviews, inspired many documentaries, and even was the source for three X-files shows. And Wade Davis has met a zombie. Not the made-up kind delighting so many Americans nowadays, but the very real kind. A poor, unschooled man who was victimized by his family.
Back in the 80s Wade Davis wrote about his experience investigating the zombification process in Haiti. His book The Serpent & the Rainbow propelled him to worldwide fame and a Hollywood movie followed in 1988.
Drawn to Haiti by legends concerning the existence of zombies, Davis wanted to investigate the botanical or chemical aspects of the phenomena. Soon he was drawn into the vodoun culture of the Haitian witchdoctor (bokor). Escape the cities of Haiti for the countryside and fear and magic play a very real role in the society. Wade Davis knew the story of Clairvius Narcisse and before long the two would meet.
In 1980, Clairvius Narcisse approached a woman in a marketplace and identified himself as her long gone, well- dead actually, brother. She was shocked to say the least, but then so is his story. Shocking. Clairvius told a tale of being drugged, buried, resurrected, and made a slave on a sugar plantation. Apparently a brother wanting Clairvius’ land sold him to a bokor. Having “died” in 1962, Clairvius escaped the plantation a couple of years later only to wander aimlessly for the next sixteen. Now having learned of his brother’s recent death, he felt safe enough to make himself known to the sister. A local doctor developed a questionnaire to establish once and for all, if the man was who he claimed to be. Clairvius answered everything correctly and the doctor along with his village accepted him as the true Clairvius. Had the curious tale of Clairvius Narcisse been isolated, maybe it could have been dismissed easily. But there are many tales of zombies in Haiti long before Clairvius and after.
Davis’ investigation into the world of vodoun and the zombie led him to advance the hypothesis that tetrodotoxin (TTX) was the chemical agent used by the bokor to induce a death-like state. A mixture of toad skin and puffer fish, either rubbed on the skin or ingested through food, seems to accomplish this. Breathing slows, the heartbeat weakens, and victim appears dead even to medical personnel. In the tropical climate of Haiti, bodies are buried quickly and the bokor likes it that way. A zombie in the ground for more than eight hours risks asphyxiation. The zombie is dug up and restored to life possibly with an antidote. Delivered to a plantation, the zombie is kept in a semi-permanent induced psychotic state by force feeding a datura paste. Datura destroys memory and wreaks havoc with gaining any sense of reality. It is also known to produce powerful hallucinations.
All of the chemicals used or potentially used are powerful enough to cause real death so the bokor has to be knowledgeable and proficient in their use to be successful. Davis also credited the culture of fear and belief that underlies the creation of the zombie. There are powerful cultural influences that must be in place to create and maintain a zombie.
Are zombies scary? Maybe not, they’re victims, but the idea that you or I could be made into one makes me uncomfortable. That’s why I try to make sure my siblings are happy with me and I’m not more valuable “dead” than alive. Happy Halloween!
In 1927 American anthropologist, Walter Evans-Wentz published a bestseller he called The Tibetan Book of the Dead taking his lead from the Edwardian fascination with all things Egyptian. Only five years earlier Howard Carter had discovered King Tut’s tomb. Evans- Wentz’s book or subsequent translations can be found in most bookstores and the original has never gone out of print. During the rebellious Hippie days, the book was re-interpreted by Timothy Leary at Harvard to guide and justify the use of LSD. How can an eighth century Buddhist text still capture our imagination? Simple really. It might just hold the key to what happens after death.
Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup & Walter Evans-Wentz, circa 1919
Not that this book will ever really be mainstream. How could it be in a society perpetually captivated by youth and the denial of death? Americans do not talk about death. It is taboo. People die in hospitals and nursing homes, and we like it that way. As a society, we are all about acquiring stuff and death has its upside. Maybe we’ll inherit something. That’s probably about as deep as it goes. We muddle through funerals and try very hard to get back to normal. It is the odd fellow who contemplates his own death. So if you are a typical American, this is where you go look for something ego-comforting and fluffy elsewhere on the web.
Ah, but what if you’re not typical. Come closer because we are about to examine the origin of a mysterious text and answer some questions about what happens to you when you die.
PADMASAMBHAVA, wall painting in Bhutan, Baldiri, 2007
Sometime in the eighth century the famous Indian saint, Padmasambhava entered Tibet. Today he is known for converting the indigenous demonic spirits of Tibet to Buddhism, doing healings, and producing miracles. He also wrote a funerary text which he called Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State. Some scholars have called it the first how-to book, but today we know it as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Upon reflection, Padmasambhava felt he couldn’t release the book to a population of newly created Buddhists. He hid the book keeping it safe for future generations. Six hundred years later, treasure revealer (terton), Karma Lingpa had a vision and was able to recover the manuscript.
The book is a guide for what happens to your consciousness as it passes from this life to the next. Reading it before death allows for preparation and familiarization with the process.
For, at this singular opportunity, you could
attain the everlasting bliss (of nirvana).
So now is (certainly) not the time to sit idly,
But, starting with (the reflection on) death, you
should bring your practice to completion.
In Tibet, the text is read for the dead by monks during a forty-nine day transition period. After encountering the light (similar to what NDE survivors report), the deceased is faced with three bardo states. Each phase offers the opportunity for liberation (enlightenment). Rare individuals who have been well-prepared avoid subsequent phases having mastered the understanding of consciousness, avoid rebirth, and become enlightened. Others pass through the bardo stages where various peaceful and terrifying beings appear arriving at the third which concerns itself with rebirth. A person’s karma then directs rebirth into one of six realms. The human realm (although not the most comfortable) is considered to be the best because it offers the possibility of eventual enlightenment. The deceased has the ability to choose his parents and the best situation for the next incarnation.
Zhi Khro Bardo Thodol: Mandala associated with The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The value of The Tibetan Book of the Dead does not lie in its vivid descriptions of the entities the deceased meets along the way because those can be viewed as cultural constructions. Interestingly enough though, it might explain why Christians meet Jesus or Muslims meet Mohammed as reported in near-death accounts. The bardos are constructions of the mind, self-generated, and culturally dependent. You can only create what you are familiar with and what scares you the most. So the value of this profound and lyrical text is an overall familiarization with the process of death as a transition of consciousness. From the Tibetan standpoint, death doesn’t have to be a scary unknown. It is knowable and everyone can prepare for it. What would it be like to live a life not fearing death? How would our world change?
Watch a History Channel Documentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead: