Over the past two decades, 'Near Death Experience' (NDE) researchers such as Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring and Melvin Morse have unveiled some of the mysteries of consciousness as a person faces death. What their data shows is that underlying each personal experience is an archetypal progression, whereby people from many different cultures and backgrounds experience essentially the same stages: a rushing, whooshing or buzzing sound, an Out-of-Body experience, travel through a tunnel, a meeting with 'the Light', experiencing a life review and so on.
Certainly each experience never conforms directly to the archetype, but all tend to partake of at least one aspect if not several - although often presented in different ways. For example, during their out-of-body travels, many people often find themselves reaching a river that needs crossing, or alternately a bridge, or in some case a fence, wall or door. A similar example is the 'heavenly abode' that many NDErs are given access to - in some cases a beautiful garden, for others a land in the clouds, and also sometimes a heavenly city.
I'd like to concentrate here on the experiences relating to a 'heavenly city', as there is a curious aspect to many of these particular anecdotes which suggests something extraordinary. Often these 'cities of light' have a particular quality - they are 'crystalline' - or more directly, made of transparent gold.
Take for example the well known case of Dannion Brinkley's NDE, related in his book Saved by the Light. After being struck by lightning while on the telephone, Brinkley experienced many of the archetypal elements of the NDE. After meeting with the 'being of light', he then relates that:
Like wingless birds, we swept into a city of cathedrals. These cathedrals were made entirely of a crystalline substance that glowed with a light that shone powerfully from within. I was awestruck. This place had a power that seemed to pulsate through the air. I knew that I was in a place of learning. I wasn't there to witness my life or to see what value it had had, I was there to be instructed
The research of Professor Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut has contributed greatly to our understanding of Near Death Experiences. Ring found that different elements of the experience could be associated with the ‘depth’ of the NDE. One interesting detail was that some experiencers ‘travelled’ to a city of light, sometimes also called a ‘city of knowledge’. In Ring’s book "Heading Towards Omega", he describes two such accounts in separate NDEs:
...the first thing that I saw was this street. And it had such a clarity. The only thing I can relate it to in this life was a look of gold, but it was clear.
...the building I went in was a cathedral. It was built like St. Mark’s or the Sistine Chapel, but the bricks or blocks appeared to be made of plexiglass. They were square, they had dimensions to ‘em, except you could see through ‘em and in the center of each one of these was this gold and silver light.
Ring lists these two experiences without linking the similar theme -- that the city is made of a ‘transparent gold’ (not literally, but the best ‘rational’ description of an ineffable vision). This in itself is interesting enough, but perhaps even more so if we consider the Revelation to John in the Christian Bible. John is taken by one of the seven angels to view the ‘Holy City’. John says:
...the Spirit took control of me, and the angel carried me to the top of a very high mountain. He showed me Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming down out of heaven from God and shining with the glory of God...the city itself was made of pure gold, as clear as glass.
Not to mention Enoch describes similar structures in his narrrative while exploring the heavens. In terms of the city locales found during the death experience, 17th Century mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg had this to say about the experience of the newly dead:
So they are taught by their friends about the state of eternal life, and are taken around to different places, into different communities. Some are taken to cities, some to gardens and parks; but most are taken to splendid places because this sort of place delights the outward nature they are still involved in.
Interestingly, it's not just the NDE field which has presented these curious cases. In his exploration of the time between lives using hypnotic regression Dr Michael Newton found that some groups of people report seeing great crystalline castles as well. But was the revelation to John a near-death experience, or the astral journeying of a mystic? Perhaps they are one and the same, as some mystical explorations tend to report similar visions.
Occult writer and researcher Nevill Drury reports that during a guided shamanic journey - facilitated by expert Dr Michael Harner - he travelled through a smoke tunnel and was carried towards a golden mountain rising out of the mist. Drury says that as he approached the mountain, he saw...
...a magnificent palace made of golden crystal, radiating lime-yellow light. I am told that this is the palace of the phoenix, and I then see that golden bird surmounting the edifice.
Drury's account leaves us wanting to talk to Michael Harner, as Drury says the respected shamanic guide was keen to know whether any of the group saw 'geometric structures' during their visions - it turned out that many had the specific experience of viewing geometric 'celestial' architecture.
Furthermore, Drury's visionary journey shares a lot of similarities to the 'alien abduction' experience, in particular the one shared by Betty Andreasson. In her ordeal, she also saw a crystal palace - in conjunction with the tunnel motif and a vision of a phoenix. There are many 'abduction' anecdotes describing similar crystalline locales, such as the experience of Katharina Wilson as related in The Alien Jigsaw.
So here we come across, once again, the implication that these myriad phenomena - NDEs, alien abductions, shamanic visions - all flow from the same spring. And that spring has characteristics which remain constant throughout different experiences.
Perhaps such findings will give serious backing to Henri Corbin's description of the Mundus Imaginalis. Corbin, an expert in Persian mysticism, argued that the modern world had forgotten about the subtle realms, and now classified things via the simplistic dichotomy of either 'real' or 'imaginary'. The mystical world, however, also had what he calls the 'imaginal' world - a place which doesn't reside in our physical realms, but which nonetheless is very much a 'real' place.
Neither the tales of Sohravardi, nor the tales which in the Shi'ite tradition tell us of reaching the "land of the Hidden Imam," are imaginary, unreal, or allegorical, precisely because the eighth climate or the "land of No-where" is not what we commonly call a utopia. It is certainly a world that remains beyond the empirical verification of our sciences. Otherwise, anyone could find access to it and evidence for it. It is a suprasensory world, insofar as it is not perceptible except by the imaginative perception, and insofar as the events that occur in it cannot be experienced except by the imaginative or imaginant consciousness. Let us be certain that we understand, here again, that this is not a matter simply of what the language of our time calls an imagination, but of a vision that is Imaginatio vera. And it is to this Imaginatio vera that we must attribute a noetic or plenary cognitive value.
Ironically, at least in terms of this essay, Corbin frames his argument using the the 'goal of the Orient' - the desire for the Sufi mystic to visit the 'Emerald Cities' which exist beyond the 7th clime (that is, beyond the physical world). Part of the description of one of these locales is that it is made of 'diaphanous marble' (that is, transparent marble). The sufis believe that in order to see this 'region of light' they must develop their spiritual eyes and other suprasensory organs of perception, in order to see the subtle world rather than the physical.
Returning back to Dr Michael Harner, he sums up the 'false' dichotomy of 'real' versus 'imaginary' in simple terms:
Imagination is a modern Western concept that is outside the realm of shamanism. "Imagination" already pre-judges what is happening...I think we are entering something which, surprisingly, is universal - regardless of culture.
Perhaps, then, it is time to begin resisting the modern trend towards physicalism, and instead return to a thorough exploration of the imaginal realms in an attempt to lift the veil from the true 'mysteries'.
Greg Taylor, owner/editor of 'The Daily Grail', is currently researching the mystery of whether consciousness survives the body. He welcomes enquiries from publishers, magazine editors, and literary agents who are interested in his work