The first stage of the afterlife emerges with certain consistent events:
1. The physical body stops functioning. The dying person may not be aware of this but eventually knows that it has occurred. 2. The physical world vanishes. This can happen by degrees; there can be a sense of floating upward or of looking down on familiar places as they recede. 3. The dying person feels lighter, suddenly freed of limitation. 4. The mind and sometimes the sense continue to operate. Gradually, however, what is perceived becomes nonphysical. 5. A presence grows that is felt to be divine. This presence can be clothed in a light or in a body of angels or gods. It can communicate to the dying person. 6. Personality and memory begin to fade, but the sense of the “I” remains. 7. This “I” has an overwhelming sense of moving on to another phase of existence.
This sevenfold awakening isn’t the same as going to heaven. Researchers often call this the “inter-life” phase, a transition between the mental state of being alive and the mental state of realizing that one has passed on.
There are many specifics that change from person to person. Not all people with near death experiences “go into the light.” Some people report traveling to various planets in space or to other worlds according to their religious beliefs. Some experience a judgment scene that can be quite harsh, or even hellish; it can also be full of satisfaction, however.
The nature of the person plays a large part. A child can come back from heaven and report that it was full of baby animals at play, a cardiac patient can report sitting on God’s lap and being told by the Almighty that he must return to Earth, and those who come back to life can see every detail of Tibetan theology.
These images clearly depend on the culture they reflect. Everything we experience in the afterlife is a reflection of our own mental machinations.
Adapted from Life After Death: The Burden of Proof, by Deepak Chopra (Harmony Books, 2006).