Amber Wells is a former student at the University of Connecticut and wrote a research paper based on her study of the near-death experience for her senior honors thesis under the direction of Dr. Kenneth Ring. Her paper was published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (PDF) in the fall of 1993. In her study, 70 percent of the group of near-death experiencers demonstrated belief in reincarnation. In contrast, a Gallup Poll found that only 23 percent of the general population endorse this belief. Previous research has indicated that, following a near-death experience, the group tended to exhibit a significant shift in their beliefs on a wide range of subjects including a general tendency toward an increased openness to the idea of reincarnation. Ms. Wells’ study was designed to examine the factors underlying this belief shift. The following are some excerpts from her study reprinted by permission.
Several researchers have found that near-death experiences (NDEs) tend to increase belief in reincarnation. This study was designed to examine the factors underlying this belief shift. I used a questionnaire to compare the tendency toward belief in reincarnation among NDErs, individuals merely interested in NDEs, and a non-experiencer, non-interest control group. In addition, I interviewed 14 NDErs to gain insight into the factors influencing NDErs’ beliefs. NDErs’ reincarnation belief shift appeared to be due to (a) direct knowledge of reincarnation gained by some NDErs in the NDE itself; (b) knowledge of reincarnation gained through a general psychic awakening following the NDE; or (c) exploration of alternative perceptions of reality following the NDE.
2. Reincarnation Beliefs Among NDErs
Previous research has indicated that following a near-death experience (NDE), experiencers tend to exhibit a significant shift in their beliefs on a wide range of subjects, including an increased acceptance of others, a significantly greater belief in life after death, and a decreased emphasis on material success. These belief changes have also included a general tendency toward an in creased openness to the idea of reincarnation (Gallup and Proctor, 1982; Ring, 1980, 1984, 1992; Sutherland, 1992). It is this belief shift that was the focus of the present study. The question of what precipitates the shift toward belief in reincarnation has not yet been systematically addressed in the literature. In this study, I attempted to answer this question and, additionally, to determine if a consistent picture of the purpose and process of reincarnation would emerge from the accounts of near-death experiencers. Previous researchers such as Kenneth Ring have suggested that near-death experiencers’ increased openness toward the idea of reincarnation may be less a factor of the NDE itself than a result of life changes following the experience:
“Of course, there is no reason why an NDEr’s openness toward reincarnation must stem directly from his NDE. In fact, I am quite convinced that in many cases it is more likely to be a response to an NDEr’s reading and other life experiences following an NDE.” (Ring, 1984, p. 160)
Ring’s study also suggested that belief in or openness to reincarnation among NDErs was often accompanied by a more general endorsement of Eastern religions. This has also been noted in the work of Cherie Sutherland (1992). Other researchers (Twemlow, Gabbard, and Jones, 1982) found a similar shift in religious beliefs among individuals having not near-death experiences but out-of-body experiences. Thus it is possible that the NDE is simply one of many catalysts for an increased openness to reincarnation. In fact, it has been suggested that simply an interest in near-death phenomena can serve as a catalyst for many of the value changes expressed by NDErs, including an increased openness to the idea of reincarnation (K. Ring, personal communication, 1991).
If it is true that the NDE influences individuals’ reincarnation beliefs simply by causing them to consider new religions or spiritual ideas, then one would expect that individuals who exhibited an interest in the NDE would also be prompted to undergo a similar belief shift. If, on the other hand, it is something inherent in the NDE itself that leads individuals to consider the possibility of reincarnation, then one would expect that individuals who were merely interested in such phenomena but who had not experienced it themselves would have reincarnation beliefs that differed significantly from those of near-death experiencers and would instead be similar to those of individuals who have no such interest in NDEs.
In this study, questionnaires were used to determine the reincarnation beliefs of a group of NDErs, a group of subjects who were interested in near-death experiences but had not had an NDE, and also a group of subjects who were chosen to represent the general non-experiencer, non-interest population. Interviews of NDErs were also conducted to gain a deeper insight into the origins and structure of their beliefs concerning reincarnation.
3. Interview Data: NDErs’ Belief in Reincarnation
A review of my interview data revealed that 13 of the 14 NDErs either believed in reincarnation or were at least open to the idea. Seven of the NDErs I interviewed did not believe in reincarnation before their experience, but did believe in it afterwards. Four individuals did not believe in reincarnation before their NDE or afterwards. However, although these respondents did not definitely believe in reincarnation, they were at least open to the possibility. Two individuals had considered reincarnation prior to their NDE, but the experience led them to change the way they looked at it; one subject now believed in reincarnation on more of a collective level rather than as an individual process, and the other came to think about reincarnation more seriously and consider it more in depth following his experience. One subject did not believe in reincarnation before her NDE, and the experience had no effect on her views.
No strong common pattern of beliefs about the process or purpose of reincarnation surfaced in my interviews. However, a few commonalities were seen in some of the respondents’ answers. No one claimed to have gained any direct understanding of the nature or process of reincarnation during his or her NDE. Three of the 14 respondents, however, claimed a “sense” or “perception” during their experience of having lived before. Only one respondent claimed to have had a past lives review, in which she re-experienced events from a past life, during an NDE.
4. The Nature of Reincarnation
In response to the question about the general process of reincarnation, four respondents mentioned one consciousness separating into individual souls to be embodied in matter. One respondent took this idea further, to state that reincarnation takes place more on a collective rather than an individual level. In other words, she felt that a collective energy recycles itself through matter and that our sense of individuality is a product of our present incarnation only. One respondent believed that a higher power created a finite number of individual souls, some of which then are placed in human embodiments in order to learn lessons.
A strong minority of respondents, six of 14, saw individual choice as the initiating force behind the reincarnation process. Three other individuals mentioned karmic patterns or ties to other souls as influencing the reincarnation process.
Eight of 14 subjects mentioned learning or enlightenment as the main purpose underlying reincarnation. One respondent said:
“The spirit needs to embody itself in matter to experience it and learn. There are karmic patterns to learn lessons and to work spirit in matter.”
Another commented, “Life itself is a series of learnings. The lessons are universal, the two most important being truth and forgiveness.”
Ten of 14 interviewees believed it is possible to remember past lives, while two remained unsure and one saw claims of past life remembrances as most likely the result of fantasy.
Eleven of 14 subjects believed in the concept of karma or at least were open to it. Five of the 11, however, qualified their affirmation with further explanation of their beliefs:
“Yes, but not in that sense. We progress at our own rate to reach the light. If you do things that take you away from the light, then you are perpetuating your time here.”
“[I] don’t believe in karma as some people do – that it is pre-destiny. We have karma but we can change it.”
“Karma is misunderstood; it’s not just negative. Everything is karma, even thoughts.”
“Consequences carry over to some degree, but the emphasis is not so much on the physical act, but more on what is going on inside.”
“Definitely, but there are no rights or wrongs – it just is. We all have light and dark and we need to balance them out.”
When asked what goes on during the period between incarnations, seven subjects mentioned learning as the main activity of the soul. Four mentioned resting, rejuvenation, and/or connecting with God, and one subject indicated that individuals are involved in setting up the circumstances of their next life during this time. When asked if one’s personal awareness and sense of personal identity remained intact in the afterlife realm and for how long, two subjects answered affirmatively, one believing that the personality would continue forever and the other unsure as to how long this sense of “self’ would remain.
The majority of respondents, however, eight out of 14, gave more qualified endorsements of this proposition. Here are three examples of their responses:
“Not intact. The inner quality is there, the inner self remains, but the external aspect that may have seemed very strong is dissolved.”
“Individuality wasn’t the same there. I was the same as everybody and everybody was me.”
“Your spirit is always you. You are not the personality that you are on earth. In the other realm you are everything, light is everything.”
Finally, eight of the 14 respondents said that they felt the cycle of reincarnation would eventually come to an end. They indicated that at this point there would be existence as pure spiritual being and/or a merging with God. One respondent said:
“Then you exist as pure spiritual form, as a pure spiritual being.”
Another responded, “You become an integral part of God. When everyone reaches that point it is nirvana.”
Two of 14 subjects indicated that the cycle of reincarnation would probably come to an end for earthly embodiments, but that one would continue to incarnate into other realms or dimensions.
5. Factors Underlying the Shift Toward Belief in Reincarnation
A more definite pattern emerged in the subjects’ responses to the question about which factors led to the change in their reincarnation beliefs. Three causes for changes in beliefs in a direction favorable to reincarnation were mentioned.
One cause for this belief shift, for which I found only limited evidence in this study, is direct knowledge imparted during the NDE itself. Three of my 14 interview subjects claimed to have a “sense” that they had lived before during their NDE. For two of my subjects this factor would qualify as the main event influencing their reincarnation beliefs. One subject, however, had several NDEs and also exhibited a significant psychic awakening, involving direct information concerning reincarnation, following her experiences. She claimed to have had a past-lives review during one NDE, but did not indicate which one. Therefore, I do not know which came first: the direct reincarnation knowledge through her psychic awakening, or the past-lives review. Thus, I do not know for certain which was the influencing factor in her belief shift. However, because her post-NDE experiences were so many, so extensive, and obviously so influential in her beliefs, it is more likely these experiences, rather than her NDE past-lives review, that shaped her beliefs, and she is consequently categorized as such.
The second cause for the reincarnation shift was found in events taking place after the NDErs’ experience that seemed to be part of a general psychic awakening. This general psychic awakening has been documented by other researchers as well (Greyson, 1983; Ring, 1985). Ring presented this idea as his “spiritual catalyst” hypothesis, which implies that NDEs tend to lead to psychic development. For five of the 14 subjects in this study it was this psychic awakening following their NDE, rather than the experience itself, that provided them with direct knowledge of reincarnation. One subject explained:
“Before any of these events, I call mine kind of a two-part event, because I had the NDE in 1979, and then another car accident in 1985 that brought about what I call a kundalini awakening, which is similar to an NDE without the death part of the physical body. So, what happened to me is, before either of these experiences happened I didn’t believe in reincarnation at all … After these experiences what one of the things that happened to me was I started getting memories of my own past lives. A lot of times just spontaneously something would trigger it and I’d get this memory, and I see visions, and then I started getting them of other people’s lives.”
Two other experiencers noted similar phenomena:
“This didn’t come about from the experience but afterwards, since then. [I’ve received] messages, my brother-in-law [deceased] had a message … that his soul would be reincarnated into my sister’s son.”
“I had ongoing experiences after the near-death experience. In that after process I experienced souls. On one occasion it’s like I followed a soul, went through a process with a soul, in how they were reborn, how it came about that they were reborn.”
Finally, as the third source of the reincarnation belief shift, the NDE opened the individual up to greater possibilities in his or her perception of reality. It made them more willing to explore a wider range of spiritual possibilities, including reincarnation. This exploration was manifest in the form of reading, discussions with others, and personal reflection. Six of my 14 subjects fell into this category. One respondent said of her NDE:
“It opened up a dimension that I never really knew existed.”
Another commented: “It [his NDE] didn’t help me conclude anything, it just threw the doors of possibility wide open.”
Still another said: “I didn’t even know what reincarnation was before I had an NDE. It was afterwards that I was led to find out what it was. Some of the things I’m telling you [about reincarnation] came out in other conversations and some in the reading that I’ve done, and some just thoughts I’ve had. And it made total sense to me.”
And finally one woman I interviewed said: “[I] hadn’t given it [reincarnation] much thought before that [her NDE]. I was brought up in a fairly conventional religion – Catholicism. I was not a particularly practicing Catholic at the time, but more or less hadn’t explored much Eastern philosophy. After the experience, I did. I read a great deal of different philosophies, not just Eastern, but all of them, and found that it [reincarnation] was plausible.”
In this study, 70 percent of the sample of NDErs demonstrated belief in reincarnation. In contrast, a Gallup Poll (Gallup and Proctor, 1982) found that only 23 percent of the general population endorse this belief, while 30 percent of my control group help views favorable to reincarnation. These data confirm the findings of earlier studies with respect to NDErs’ reincarnation beliefs. While I found that the near-death experiencer group exhibited a significantly greater tendency toward belief in reincarnation than my general public sample, I also found that my NDE interest group exhibited beliefs that did not differ significantly from those of the NDErs. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that there is nothing inherent in the near-death experience itself that causes the shift in experiencers’ beliefs about reincarnation.
Additionally, my data failed to reveal any consistent pattern among NDErs’ beliefs about the purpose or process of reincarnation. There were, as I already noted, many similarities, but no one “truth” emerged. Furthermore, the beliefs expressed by the NDErs in my study are not unique; they tended to follow the standard view of reincarnation as expressed in much of the New Age literature. By way of example, the following excerpts taken from Irving S. Cooper’s book, Reincarnation.: A Hope of the World (1979), are representative of this view and are quite similar to many of the statements made by my NDE sample:
“The chief purpose of reincarnation is education. To this end we are born again and again on earth, not because of any external pressure, but because we, as souls, desire to grow.” (p. 14)
“It is a universal process, and prevails not only in the human kingdom but throughout the whole of nature. Whenever we find a living form, the consciousness of that form is also evolving, using temporarily for that purpose the physical form in order that it may gain physical experience.” (p. 19)
“In each incarnation we have a different physical body, a different name, and may have different souls acting as parents, but these changes do not in the slightest imperil our individuality.” (p. 24)
“Reincarnation is not an endless process, and when we have learned the lessons taught in the World-School we return no more to physical incarnation unless we come back of our own accord to act as Teachers of humanity or as Helpers in the glorious plan of evolution.” (p. 47)
With respect to the question of what in fact underlies the reincarnation belief shift, I can offer three possibilities suggested by my data, but which would require further research to verify. First, in some cases, it does seem to be the NDE itself that influences one’s reincarnation views. Although I did not find extensive evidence for this in my study, it has been documented by other researchers (Morse and Perry, 1992; Ring, 1985). In those cases, individuals claimed to have received direct knowledge of reincarnation during the NDE itself. An example of this type of knowledge can be seen in a letter written to Ring by John Robinson:
“It is a matter of personal knowledge from what the Being with whom I spoke during my NDE told me about my older son, that he had had 14 incarnations in female physical bodies previous to the life he has just had.”
Ring has also heard testimony of this kind of direct knowledge in some of his interviews. One NDEr, whose account is recorded in Ring’s audiotape archives, commented:
“My whole life went before me of things I have done and haven’t done, but not just of this one lifetime, but of all the lifetimes. I know for a fact there is reincarnation. This is an absolute. I was shown all those lives and how I had overcome some of the things I had done in other lives. There was still some things to be corrected.”
Another NDEr whose testimony is included in Ring’s audiotape archives gave this account:
“I had a lot of questions, and I wanted to know what they [light beings she encountered in her NDE] were doing – why are you just kind of milling around here? And someone stepped forward … it wasn’t just one … I got information from a number of them … that they were all waiting for reincarnation.”
Second, some NDErs may gain direct knowledge of reincarnation through other psychic or mystical experiences following their NDE. In this way, the NDE becomes a catalyst for openness to reincarnation through its ability to propel the experiencer into a general psychic awakening.
Finally, for other NDErs their experience serves mainly to spark their interest in various “New Age” phenomena that leads to often extensive outside reading and research. It makes sense that when one becomes open to the idea of life after death, the idea of life after life becomes much more plausible.
The fact that my NDE interest group exhibited reincarnation belief scores so similar to those of my NDE sample can be explained by two hypotheses. First, it is possible that some of my NDE interest subjects may have gained direct knowledge of reincarnation through other psychic or mystical experiences even though they have not had an NDE. Second, my NDE interest group may be very similar to those in my NDE sample who were prompted to explore “New Age” material following their experience. Both groups became interested in the near-death phenomenon, one group through direct experience and the other through unspecified means, and thus were led to explore the concept of reincarnation. My study is limited by the fact that I have no data on the factors influencing the beliefs of the subjects in the NDE interest group.
Future research would be well directed towards determining what it is about an interest in near-death experiences that promotes an openness to reincarnation, or if in fact both the interest in NDEs and openness to reincarnation are the result of some other factor or occurrence. Using a larger, more randomly assigned subject pool would also help to strengthen the findings.
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