Butterflies, Little Deaths, and the Afterlife

October 15, 2012 at 4:32 pm (Death and Dying, Spiritual) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Pagans find ourselves gearing up for Samhain (pronounced “Sow-win”), a celebration of the end of the agricultural year. We also talk of the “thinning of the veils”, when it is easier to reach out to spirits, ghosts, and other sorts of conciousnesses that reside Elsewhere. It is a good time to receive divination, and to reach out to your Ancestors and Beloved Dead.

It’s been a hard year for me, death wise. I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s, and two dear friends to an overdose and a motorcycle accident. It’s been hardest for me because I haven’t had the right kind of time and energy to really grieve – this year has been so full of life-changing events, it’s been hard for me to have the luxury of time I can spend just grieving and feeling the absence of those I care about. I am hoping to get some of this when I attend a ritual for the Ancestors/Dead next weekend.

It is timely, in its own way, that Newsweek recently decided to publish an excerpt from an upcoming book by Dr. Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, which is coincidentally being released for sale a week before Samhain. I’m sure, since the author is a Christian, this is not on purpose.

However, the excerpt from Newsweek is an incredibly interesting point of view about the Afterlife from a neurosurgeon who, before his own experience, thought that the best stories were likely the random firings of a dying brain, and the worst were invented by someone looking for meaning or attention. He had dismissed the “near death experience” as a scientific concept and moved on.

Then something interesting happened, something that he could not discredit: Dr. Alexander found himself in a coma for seven days, due to a strange manifestation of meningitis caused by E. Coli that had entered his cerebrospinal fluid and began to literally eat his brain. What makes his experience scientifically interesting is that by his account, his “afterlife” experience happened while there was no recorded or witnessed activity in his cortex – the part of the brain that is thought to control thought and emotion, y’know, the stuff that makes us human – at all. This means that he can safely rule out random misfiring or any other heretofore scientific theories as to why humans report these kinds of experiences. He also reports that the doctors were actively discussing discontinuing treatment when his eyes “popped open” and he came back from the coma, with no medical explanation as to his recovery.

Although he describes himself “in the old days” (before the coma) as nominally Christian, his Afterlife experience has only the barest resemblance to the classical descriptions of “Heaven”. If the excerpt is any indication, part of the problem with his retelling is that he’s just too scientific to craft the artistic wordsmithing necessary to describe things such as “the sound was palpable, almost material, like a rain you can feel on your skin but can’t get you wet.” Granted, his larger goal is to try to document his experiences for fellow scientists, so they can start to understand not just the bio-mechanical reasons for his “journey”, but maybe they can also begin to glimpse the world the way Dr. Alexander does now that he has seen things from a greater perspective.

One of the details of his story that was particularly interesting to me was the presence of butterflies. I’ve developed quite the love for the little creatures, and honestly it’s always bugged me. It seems like such a predictably hippie Pagan, girly sort of thing to be fascinated by. One of the deeper drawing points for me is this idea that just when you think you have a handle on who you are and how you relate to the Universe, something begins to change outside of your control and then you have to learn the same damn lessons over again. Eventually, this cycle (like all cycles) leads to death, but meanwhile it serves as a reminder that you should never take your current reality as a given. One can never tell when the cosmic apple cart is headed for a tilt.

I appreciate that symbolism woven into an experience of the Afterlife. The idea that yet again, we’re just undergoing another Hagalaz that leads to fertile ground yet again. We practice dying so many times in our lives, but we never really sit and allow ourselves to think of these things as little deaths. We don’t take time to mourn when our lives undergo large shifts – like getting married/divorced, moving to another location, changing genders, moving into another phase of life – and it’s actually seen as kinda selfish and wrong if the change is seen as primarily a good one. The media is full of examples of heterosexual men being sad before their wedding day due to the radical change of lifestyle that marriage brings, but we diminish it by calling it “cold feet”.

There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to recognize the little deaths in your life, and especially the big ones, such as my relatives and friends who have passed away in the last few years. I have to accept that as I grow older, friends and family dying will become a more common experience, and maybe if I can teach myself to properly grieve now, it might help me in the long term.

As for what happens to us when we die, I do believe that personal experiences are largely tied to one’s expectations. Dr. Alexander’s experience of angel-like spirits and a large booming voice doling out life advice belies his Christian upbringing. Even if he was only a casual believer before his coma, since he hadn’t done any real exploration of Otherside mythology, he saw and experienced something that relates to his understanding. In the same vein, there are others that describe something akin to the Christian Hell, and I honestly think it’s a residual in their soul, feeling as though they are beyond redemption, that leads them to this journey. We all get the journey we need, and if we need to see big burly Vikings drinking in a big hall, or being touched by the icy hand of a half-dead woman, or paying the Ferryman to cross over into a gloomy cave, in order to feel like we understand where we are, that’s what we see.

I know this from my own experiences dealing with places that contain Spirits of the dead. I was once asked to speak to a Death Deity that I had no experience with (nor really much experience in his pantheon), and once I was given a key that unlocks, for lack of a better term, the Big Gates Of Dead People Land, I saw that there was an infinite amount of space, and people were gathered at different points in this space, sorted by what they envisioned the afterlife to be.

Yes, I know this can sound like a wimpy, pantheist explanation how everyone is ultimately “right” when it comes to where we go when we die (tell me you haven’t heard the joke that ends, “That’s because they think they’re the only ones here.”), but in a way we’re all wrong, too. The vast expanse that is the rest of the Universe, outside of our little spaceship Earth, is too big for the human mind to truly wrap its little brainmeats around. Sound like something else I’ve described before? Yes, when it comes to most things theology related, my working theory is that we grasp onto what works best for us and our understanding of Things and Places way too big for us to comprehend. And yet, all our little brainmeats want to do is to understand, to know for certain that we’re all not headed for a dirtnap decomposition and nothing more. So we try, and we continue to have these near-death-experiences to keep reminding us to meditate, to journey, to divine, to pray, and do whatever else we need to, to prepare ourselves for that time when we face the end of this part of our own existence.

What do you think happens when we die? Have you spoken to spirits of the Dead, and have they given you any answers as to what their experiences have been like? How do you envision the Afterlife? Do you believe Dr. Alexander’s experience is universal?



  1. EVCelt said,

    I’ve spoken to one or two spirits of the dead, and a few death-related Powers. I’ve never asked about the afterlife, though.

    I believe that after we die, we get an experience that is conditioned by what we believed while we were alive- paradise, purgatory or perdition, reincarnation or nirvana or union with godhead, Valhalla or Lavilokan or the Summerlands, or even just being snuffed out.

    At the same time, I believe that nothing is lost, that our temporal and earthly minds and souls are a way for us to do and experience things that our more-eternal spiritual selves can only do in time and incarnate flesh; when we die, those experiences and memories are taken up and incorporated into our more-eternal selves…

    I wish Dr. Alexander a lot of luck and fortune. He’s got a hard task ahead of himself.

  2. Larch said,

    I don’t have any set expectation or belief about the afterlife – right now my spiritual path seems to be about focusing on the here and now, and earthly life. Still, I’ve had a few uncanny experiences that I would classify as contact with spirits of the dead, that somehow broke through my skeptic filter.

    Most have involved dreams or sleep in some way.

    All three experiences happened within a few minutes of the person in question being pronounced dead, and in all three cases the person died unexpectedly and suddenly of trauma – two cases were vehicular accidents, the third was a suicide. The first two were visions (?) were of the deceased person being in agony and feeling trapped, followed by a feeling of release and freedom and ecstasy. Then the person would be surrounded by white light, landscapes of unearthly beauty, music – all the heavenly cliches. Both of these people were childhood friends who had been raised, like myself, as Christian Spiritualists, so maybe that accounts for it.

    The third instance, I awoke alone in the house with the worst case of sleep paralysis. I was terrified and felt something was very wrong but didn’t know why, and couldn’t move. I would have cried or screamed. Then I felt a hand stroking my hair and heard the deceased person saying comforting words and singing me back to sleep.

    In all three instances I was awakened again or interrupted from my trance state/dream (?) by a phone call informing me that the people I had vision of had died.

    I’ve never sought these experiences out, and have no interest in seances or mediumship. In a way, I’ve tried to avoid them. In my studies of the occult, it was a subject I shied away from, and is probably the reason it took me so long to start doing ancestor work.

    The intensity of it really spooked me, and is also the reason that i feel all tree instances were “real” and not delusion. It’s a feeling of intensity like a electric shock running through your body, or the adrenaline rush wile skydiving, or an orgasm. That electric shock feeling is largely how I differentiate spirit contact and communication from deities from sockpuppeting.

    And then I’ve had two near death experiences myself. The first time, my last thought was “This is a really stupid way to go. I don’t want to explain to my husband how I got hit by a truck and died in the gutter outside the post office. The again…I’ll be dead so I guess I won’t have to”
    No deep thoughts, no life flashing before my eyes, no tender thoughts of loved ones, and white light surrounding me. Just big holes in my memory and a six month blur of physical therapy and rehab.

    The second NDE was an out of body experience. Basically, there is another blank spot in my memory, and then there is several days of feeling like I was outside my body, watching. It was terrifying – like..”wait…that’s me..OH NOES That’s my body I need that I have to get back in there!” and then a lot of freaking out.
    I kept shifting in and out of experiencing that panic out-of-body state, and these weird, surreal cthonic scenes that looked like they were directed by Guillermo del Toro or something.

    This might have been a true out-of body experience, or it maybe it was a severe disassociative episode brought on by illness and trauma. I honestly don’t know.

    That Christian Spiritualist family I mentioned? When I came back to myself and could talk and everything they of course wanted to know if I’d seen “the other side” and Jesus waiting and whatnot. But I told them honestly what I experienced, and they got really concerned. Started talking about how I must not be saved yet, because it must have been a vision of hell. It was certainly dark and strange and disturbing, but it didn’t seem evil or punishing. Just…alien. Like for a little while I had been in a place I wasn’t meant to be in and didn’t understand. Given my state of mind and spiritual searching/questioning at the time, it now seems entirely appropriate.

    Anyway, all this spiritual borders between life and death stuff to draw from, and I still don’t have the faintest clue about the afterlife.
    Maybe I’m not meant to know any details until I am wormfood, and that is probably a good thing because it keeps me focused on this life and making the best of it.

  3. free tarot readings said,

    Likewise, the symbols are also linked to Alchemy, Kabbalah,
    and to some Secret Societies. Here we see a younger apprentice hard at function on his bench, making pentacles.
    Emotions are getting in the way of common sense.

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