Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

I’ve just come back from a conference with hundreds who’ve died and visited heaven. It’s the International Association for Near-Death Studies Convention, a yearly gathering to explore the ultimate trip. And I feel oddly comfortable with the crowd, because I visited that realm myself, and can describe it in one word: home.

It was because of my cancer, pheochomocytoma; a nasty tumour that produces a Molotov cocktail of chemicals which, when released, usually kills within seconds. I have the rare honour of surviving four of them. But one time, in 1988, it crashed my heart and suddenly I was out of here, and into wonder.

The details of that can be heard in my interviews, but the texture of that can only be appreciated by one who’s been there. And so many have been there – up to 20% who’ve gone through childbirth, accidents, surgery and illness. This had been occurring throughout time, in all cultures, through all faith traditions. And that makes sense, for if this reality arises from consciousness (or the spiritual realm), then this must be a universal phenomena. The implications are staggering –  each of us are a localized expression of the foundational consciousness from which reality emerges – of God. Wow. This is what Jesus prayed we would wake up to when he commanded we love each other as ourselves; not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the only real thing we can do. To perceive ourselves as separate is spiritual insanity. To identify as love enfleshed is the ultimate restoration.

This aligns with my own experience, for due to the nature of my job as a chaplain, I hear of accounts every month. Some are current, some are retrospective from years before, even from childhood. All are marked with a strange mixture of conviction and bewilderment, but also hesitation for fear that others will think you’re crazy. That’s because, when you’ve shifted to a level of consciousness radially more expansive than this one, and then back again, it’s going to create the ultimate existential dissonance. And it will leave a mark of love that cannot be shaken.

The American monk and mystic Tomas Merton wrote “that if you descend into the depths of your own spirit . . . and arrive somewhere near the center of what you are, you are confronted with the inescapable truth that, at the very roots of your existence, you are in constant and immediate and inescapable contact with the infinite power of God Who is Pure Actuality and Whose creative and personal will keeps you, every moment, in existence.” [1]

So, when you experience yourself as a disembodied consciousness, you realize what you actually are. The voice of the ego-self fades against the foundational state of pure Being. No longer suppressing any aspect of yourself, you are whole. That’s one reason so many describe it as home. To be so complete results in a feeling of expansiveness, wonder and joy beyond words, especially when the truth of ultimate love, God’s Being, saturates your being.

Merton puts it this way: “Underlying the subjective experience of the individual self there is an immediate experience of Being. This is totally different from an experience of self-consciousness. . . . It has in it none of the split and alienation that occurs when the subject becomes aware of itself as a quasi-object. The consciousness of Being . . . is an immediate experience that goes beyond reflexive awareness. It is not “consciousness of” but pure consciousness, in which the subject as such “disappears.” [2]

I remember that vividly. I was awakened to a reality more real than this, and I ached to disappear in its beauty. As we sat at the conference sharing our experience of this state, struggling to express it in words, tears and silence would soak us. We were homesick for heaven, and nothing on Earth satisfies.

But this was not some kumbaya event. There was solid research and excellent analysis of Near-Death Experiences (a subset of something larger, called Spiritually Transformative Experiences, or STEs). We examined the cultural resistance to sharing, aftereffects, and explorations in the nature of consciousness. Leading experts and gifted experiencers helped bring heart, mind and soul in line with the ultimate truth, which in the end is very simple: it’s all about the love. God is love, and we are each localized expressions of that state.

We are each localized expressions of divine consciousness. – David Maginley

Explore more on NDEs at the IANDS website. And, if you’ve had such an experience, I’d love to hear from you. Send me a note via this site or message me through Facebook.

Question: Have you had a NDE? How has it affected your feelings around death?

[1] Thomas Merton, “The Contemplative Life: Its Meaning and Necessity,” reprinted in Thomas Merton: Early Essays, 1947-1952, ed. Patrick F. O’Connell (Liturgical Press: 2015), 107. Emphasis in original.

[2] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite (New Directions: 1968), 23-24. Emphasis in original.

10 replies
  1. Patricia Barnello
    Patricia Barnello says:

    Hi. Yes I’ve had an NDE. When I was 15 years old. I left a comment on FB earlier saying I was 14 when it happened. I actually had just turned 15. I was in a coma for 4 1/2 days. My heart actually stopped more then once. My neighbor brought me back and the paramedics did also. They told my parents at the ER I wasn’t going to make it through the night. I was on life support. My left lung had collapsed. They told my parents to let my family members know I wasn’t going to make it. My sister came from Virginia to see me to say good bye. I remember being on the other side. My mother told me what I told her when I came out of the coma and was taken off of life support. I’m leaving my info if you would like to contact me.

    • David Maginley
      David Maginley says:

      Hi Patricia! I would love to learn more of your experience, and would appreciate the opportunity to chat. If you’re local in Halifax, this could be in person, otherwise Facetime and email. Specifically, I’m wondering about details from the other side, support (or lack of) after you returned, and any aftereffects. Please let me know if we can continue this conversation by emailing me, Thank you!

  2. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    Hello. I had an experience 23 years ago which changed my life. I was going through a very difficult period in my personal life. I have always prayed but not like this. As each day progressed I became overwhelmed with the thought that I could no longer live the way I was and each night I came home and got through yet another day.

    One night as I slept God spoke to me and said three things which I repeat frequently:
    I am never alone
    God is always with me
    God is all that I need

    To capture this experience in the bottom line concept, I had the most beautiful, deeply loving experience that is not of this world. There was no audio, yet I knew the words God had spoken to me.
    I have been a changed person. Knowing that I am so deeply loved gives me the confidence that I didn’t have before. The issues of my life have been based on not feeling loved by my mother. Consciously Knowing that I am loved unconditionally by God changed this for me.
    I have read on numerous occasions that we are afraid to tell others of our experience in fear they will think we are crazy. I have not been an exception. Most recently, I was with three friends sharing our love stories of a dear friend who recently went to heaven and shared my experience. I had hoped we could start a conversation about the end of life, God and heaven, it didn’t happen. The difference today is I shared and feel confident. It doesn’t matter that my friends may think I am a little wacky, I know what I know.

    Thank you for the time to share my experience with you and others in this forum. Catherine

    • David Maginley
      David Maginley says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, Catherine. Absolutely trust that Love! We are always connected to God, the consciousness from which we arise. And how could it be otherwise? I’m so grateful for your story, and encourage you to keep up the conversation with that underlying spiritual realm so many dismiss, or simply feel awkward with. Very few people (me included!) are ble to maintain that awareness all the time. I guess a glimpse is enough to sustain us for now, but wouldn’t it be lovely if it were more frequent?

  3. Paula
    Paula says:

    Hello David, I just watched an interview you did for YouTube, and your NDE description struck some very familiar chords with me. About 15 years ago, I experienced an NDE as the result of a long, difficult surgery. I found myself in the most perfect pastoral setting. I could see every blade of grass, every flower petal, every leaf on the distant trees. I was standing on a knoll; there was a clear, rushing river down beyond the meadow, with lovely trees dotting its banks. The colors were so perfect, so dazzling, so clean, just indescribable. The air was crisp, and a gentle breeze was perfection. My first thought was, “Oh, I’m home!” I have never felt such joy! I knew that if I got to the river, I would get to stay home. I was aware that I was myself, and I could move about, but I nothing felt like effort! Just as I was about to make my way to the river (and, this may sound silly, but it’s true) I noticed that my childhood dog Jerry was coming up behind me. I was delighted! Then, the medical team brought me back, and I was aware of pain and heaviness and noise. When I could speak, I kept saying, “It’s so beautiful. I want to go back.”
    When I heard you speak of being able to see every blade of grass and feeling joy at being home, I knew those feelings exactly. I know my “school” here is not done, but I will be so happy to get back home.

    • David Maginley
      David Maginley says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Paula. Trust that it continues to live within you and inform you of your true nature. I’m homesick too, and am grateful that so many have touched on that realm. You might be interested in a new book out by Dr. Bruce Greyson called ‘After.’ An excellent contribution to the field from a world expert and psychiatrist.

  4. Carol
    Carol says:

    Your words are valuable, thank you. My issue is the subject of evil. It is here in our world infecting the human race, in us all to a greater or lesser extent. The elephant in the room that is not addressed in all these lovely heartwarming NDEs. Where does it come from, what is it’s purpose. It is a huge subject. Could I have your thoughts please?

    • David Maginley
      David Maginley says:

      Evil is indeed at play in our world, and it can feel overwhelming. Nonetheless, we are far from powerless as we step up in service to God’s love. Prayer is the most effective force for transformation, yet so under-utilized. May we engage such darkness with resolve and confidence that awe are never alone.

  5. John Davids
    John Davids says:

    I was raised Lutheran and I am so thankful for the faith community and church where I was raised. I have been interested in theology, love Franciscan theology, Thomas Aquinas and much of the early church, what we might call mysticism. I’m struck, by your description of “pure Being” during the NDE. Just as I was when I read how Aquinas describes God, “as pure Being itself.” It has always made sense to me. Also your description of a constant evolution to higher forms of Love, very similar to the Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, and his concept of the Omega Point. I’ve read Dr. Bruce Greyson’s book “After” and believe that we have much evidence pointing to what we have been worshiping. I work in healthcare and early in my career a physician who I was having dinner with, suddenly asked me if I knew about NDE’s. He went on to tell me that when doing his surgical rotation, a Pt had arrested in the OR, they successfully resuscitated him and days later while visiting with the Pt, the Pt told the resident about his out of body experience. The Pt asked the physician if he could do him a favor, he said that he was high up in the OR and could see above the surgical lights, on one of the lights was a serial number, the Pt stated that he could not forget that number and gave it to the physician. Could the physician confirm that the number was real? The doctor went into the OR, and with a ladder took a look, the number was indeed there and correct. This physician looked at me and said I believe these are real. Thank you for your blog! And thank you for all you do! Peace be with you.


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