Let’s consider a series of items, and then look at where they may take us.
Item: During a near-death experience, a man found himself being tormented by demons. Terrified, he reached back into his childhood to the only faith he had ever been taught and prayed to Jesus for salvation. Instantly he found himself lifted out of the experience into a higher plane.
Item: A deeply religious Christian, undergoing a near-death experience, found himself in a stereotypical Christian heaven, complete with "pearlescent gates," streets of gold, and choirs of angels. He came back convinced that he had been to heaven, though he remained skeptical of other NDEs that encompassed different, nonbiblical experiences.
Item: A survey of Hindus in India who underwent NDEs found that many of them reported being taken to the afterlife by angelic messengers known as yamdoots, whose role is to escort the deceased to the next life. In many Hindu NDEs, the experiencer's death was attributable to a bureaucratic error, which was promptly corrected by returning them to life.
Item: Spiritualist literature abounds in descriptions of Summerland, a paradisal environment enjoyed by most people after death, which bears a striking resemblance to earthly life. Gardens, cottages, and other homely delights are recounted in detail. People are sometimes said to engage in sex, create artworks, plant flowers, or hold regular jobs.
Item: Accounts of postmortem existence often feature puzzling omissions and elements of vagueness that cannot be resolved even after repeated follow-up questions. Exactly how the spirits spend their time, whether there are alterations of day and night, whether people need to sleep, and other details either vary unpredictably or are never satisfactorily addressed.
Item: Oliver Lodge's book Raymond recounts purportedly postmortem communications with his son. Among other details, Raymond says that some people in the afterlife smoke cigars and drink liquor. Lodge was ridiculed for believing such far-fetched claims. And yet his book contains much veridical material produced by mediums – statements they had no way of knowing, which were later verified, and at least one startlingly accurate prediction.
Item: In some channeled literature and séances, communicators claim that Shakespeare and other great poets are continuing to write. Yet no convincing snippet of original Shakespearean poetry ever comes through. On the rare occasions when original poetry is proffered, it is no better than doggerel.
Item: Communicators disagree with each other on such fundamental questions as whether or not reincarnation is real, and whether or not there is a God.
Item: In The Road to Immortality and Beyond Human Personality, the alleged spirit of F.W.H. Myers, as transcribed by Geraldine Cummins, warns that Summerland is a plane of illusion which he compares to the land of the Lotus Eaters in Greek mythology. The Lotus Eaters kept themselves perpetually intoxicated and existed in a hallucinatory state. Myers insists that however attractive Summerland may be to its inhabitants, it is not ultimately real, and when an individual spirit recognizes this fact, he will immediately be elevated to a higher plane.
Item: Longtime OBE researcher Robert Monroe reported bizarre experiences on other planes of existence that often had an illogical dreamlike or nightmarish quality.Still, his experiences are hard to dismiss as nothing more than dreams, because of their occasional veridical content.
Item: So-called alien abductions have much in common with out-of-body experiences. In both cases, the experiencer typically reports being drowsy or asleep, then feeling his body start to vibrate before he rises horizontally from bed and floats through the air, often passing through a wall or window. Other than the science-fiction aspects (little green men, flying saucers, lab experiments), the only significant difference between abductions and OBEs is that the OBEs are understood to be nonphysical; the person looks down and sees his physical body lying prostrate and temporarily abandoned. By contrast, abduction experiences are assumed to be physical, probably because the person is simply unfamiliar with being out of the body.
Item: Hypnotic regression to an alleged between-lives experience, in which the patient remembers an intermediate experience after one earthly incarnation and prior to the next, typically discloses an afterlife environment markedly different from that described in NDEs and mediumship. In between-lives accounts, the spirits typically do not take human form but exist as blobs of light in an abstract landscape. Unlike the residents of Summerland, they remember all their past lives and the other members of their soul group. And they participate in planning their next incarnation, during which they will necessarily sublimate their higher consciousness and all knowledge of their life-plan.
Item: Sometime between the 8th and 14th centuries, Tibetan monks authored a document known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It delineates various stages of postmortem existence, stages known as bardos. As is often the case with religious writings, the book is highly formalized, with successive stages neatly ordered in groups of seven and said to last for a specific number of days. Leaving aside these elaborations, the essence of the narrative is that dying persons experience “luminosity" or "the clear light of being." If they recognize this light as their own higher self, they will merge with it and avoid subsequent incarnations. Most people, insufficiently spiritually advanced to do this, proceed to a series of visions, both positive and negative, which are generated by their own minds but perceived as objectively real. They find themselves fully immersed in these thought-forms, which reflect their deepest expectations, fears, and hopes, all the while cut off from the higher self. If plagued by frightening images, they are advised to appeal to a personal deity in order to rid themselves of troubling thoughts. At a late stage in the process, they are brought before the Lord of Death and subjected to judgment by looking into the mirror of karma. As before, they are advised to realize that the scene is nothing more than a mental projection; most people, however, cannot manage it. Eventually they are shuttled back to earth in a new incarnation, still caught in the wheel of rebirth.
Okay. Now let's assume, for the sake of argument, that all of the above items are factually correct as far as they go. Can they be reconciled? I think so ... and it's not really even that hard.
Upon death, a person sees "the clear light,” which near-death experiencers know as "the being of light," sometimes perceived as literally the light at the end of a tunnel. As some near-death researchers, notably Kenneth Ring, have speculated, this being of light is, in reality, one's higher self. Most people, however, will misinterpret it as God, i.e. something outside of and distinct from themselves, a basic error which prevents them from uniting with the light. Then, just as the Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests, they move into a realm of illusions produced by their subconscious minds. People with a background in Christianity or Hinduism will see environments consistent with Christian or Hindu imagery. People who are subconsciously troubled may find themselves in a hellish environment, which they can escape by focusing on a personal deity - just as one NDEr escaped from the "demons" tormenting him by appealing to Jesus.
Most people in our secular age find themselves immersed in a virtual-reality environment similar to the earthly world they have left – an environment conjured up by the collective unconscious of many like-minded souls. This is what spiritualists call Summerland, the Lotus Flower paradise discussed by Myers. As a plane of illusion, Summerland can incorporate any ideas in the inventory of the subconscious, including cigars, whiskey, sex, gardening, meeting William Shakespeare, and whatever else may seem pleasurable or interesting. But since Summerland residents are not actually meeting William Shakespeare, they are unable to produce any satisfactory examples of his new work. And because they are Lotus Eaters, they will be hard-pressed to explain exactly how they spend their time or even what time is. They are in a hallucinatory state which they mistake for a higher reality.
The "life review" common to many NDEs and some channeled accounts, and described in Buddist terms as peering into the mirror of karma, is another illusory, self-generated experience - which may account for the fact that a person typically sees what he needs to see and feels that he is being judged only by himself.
At this stage of consciousness, the individual is not aware of his higher self, his soulmates, or his previous and upcoming incarnations. He may or may not believe in reincarnation or in God. His knowledge is partial and conjectural. He still sees as through a glass darkly. The higher self, temporarily cut off from the ego-persona, enjoys a different experience, as remembered by hypnotically regressed patients who report between-lives memories.
Even without having a near-death experience, people can encounter other planes of existence generated by their own thoughts and possessing a kind of quasi-reality. This is the case with many out-of-body experiences, and it accounts for their dreamlike qualities. It is also the case with so-called alien abductions - nonphysical experiences generated (presumably) by imagery gleaned from popular science fiction. In previous eras, the same types of "abductions" were interpreted as the work of demons, angels, faerie folk;- the popular mythology of the time.
Skeptics of near-death experiences, mediumship, and channeled literature are right to point out the discrepancies, illogicalities, lacunae, and cultural biases that crop up in these cases. But they are wrong in assuming that the cases can thereby be explained away in materialistic terms. The best accounts contain too much veridical material. The actual explanation is that the experiences are real but hallucinatory - actual adventures in nonphysical realms, but adventures realized in terms of thought-forms and cultural constructs dictated by the experiencer's own mind.
These sojourns in what the Tibetans call the chonyid bardo and sidpa bardo take place below the evolutionary level of the higher self, on a lower plane where postmortem existence is largely dictated by the biases, assumptions, and limitations of the subconscious mind. Such existence is a virtual-reality simulation, real enough to be fully immersive and widely shared, but not real enough to withstand the direct apprehension that yields liberation. Most NDErs who report visiting the afterlife remember this kind of experience. Most mediumistic communicators exist at this level also. Communications from higher-level entities are rarer and more difficult to evaluate or verify, since they typically lack evidential content.
This way of looking at things may help bring some order to the disparate collection of case histories reported as NDEs, mediumship, OBES, hypnotic regressions, and transcendental experiences, which have many commonalities but also many discrepancies.