My near-death experience

Rafting a river in Costa Rica, I was swept underwater by a powerful current and drowned. Dying during a traumatic experience is a common claim made by people who have had near-death experiences (NDEs), but my experience differs in a very important way. I was wearing my Apple Watch, which continually monitors my heart rate. During the time I was underwater and having my NDE, my watch indicated that for more than 8 minutes, I had no heartbeat. The watch was not malfunctioning, because once I pulled myself out of the water and returned to a more normal state of consciousness, the watch recorded my heart rate. 

 

Bottom line: I was in cardiac arrest, and yet while I was, I had the most extraordinary experience of my life. 

While in the river, I did not experience a great deal of fear. Instead, as my body began to shut down, I experienced profound feelings of light, peace, and love. I saw my wife and my son, who had also gone into the rough river waters, pulled to safety by our guides—but I witnessed this activity from above, in real time, like I was flying above the scene in a hot air balloon. I was reminded of this when I read research accounts of hospital NDEs, in which patients in cardiac arrest usually reported viewing their bodies and the doctors from above. Later, our river guides verified for me that the events I saw had actually happened exactly as I had described them. 

During the eight minutes I was unconscious, floating in the river, with my body presumably dying, I had an incredible, transformational experience of oneness and universal connection with everyone and everything. I had the certainty that separateness is an illusion, and that all people are part of a larger, shared consciousness. Perhaps most incredible of all, I experienced what I can only call...God. It was the overwhelming sense of a Presence, a loving Consciousness that permeates everyone and is the basis for all existence.

 

Not lifeless matter. Consciousness.  

For me, a physician and a trained forensic neuroscientist, this experience was both transformative and deeply disturbing. I was a comfortable materialist and atheist. My orthodoxy was the same one shared by many of my colleagues:

 

  • Consciousness is an epiphenomenon (an unintentional side effect) of neural activity in the brain.

  • There is no afterlife because the self dies with the body.

  • NDEs are nothing more than vivid hallucinations caused by the random firings of a dying brain, hypoxia, the release of the body's natural hallucinogenic compounds, or all of the above. 

  • God is a fabrication of humans terrified of their own mortality and looking for order in a chaotic universe.

 

However, now, as I began researching my own NDE, I found that orthodoxy shaken. I'm a neuroscientist, yet I could find no compelling evidence to support the idea that either neural activity, low oxygen levels, or any other physiological factors could have created the hyper-real, logically consistent, veridical (truthful and objectively verifiable) experience I'd had. Plus, I had been in cardiac arrest for more than eight minutes! Within about two minutes of my heart stopping, my brain should not have been able to produce a coherent conscious experience of any kind. Yet I had one.

 

After months of research, the evidence, I could arrive at only one conclusion: My NDE had been an objectively real experience, and it had been produced by a source other than my physical brain. 

This finding shook me to my core. Not only did it shake the philosophical foundation of my life, my medical and scientific training, but it also shook my certainty of how the universe worked. Worse, after the experience, I had no sense of the flow of time, existing without past or future in a perpetual present, and I felt like an alien in the everyday world, a stranger to my family and friends. I time, I even felt suicidal and actually did attempt suicide at one point. However, with time and work, I have come to see my NDE as a transformative experience and a blessing, one that has led me away from conventional medical thinking and into a new world of mind, consciousness, and spirituality—a world still built on skepticism and rigorous, scientific thinking. It's world of wonders I never could have expected, one that I am continuing to explore. 

 

Peter Cummings, MD

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E: pete@petercummingsmd.com

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