TITLE: At death's door
AUTHOR: Karnjariya Sukrung
SOURCE: Bangkok Post
DATE: April 16, 1998
"That hurts!" screamed Dr Saengchai Simakachorn as a plastic tube was inserted into his throat. Lying on the operating table being anaesthetised in preparation for a throat operation, those were his last words before he lost consciousness. His blood pressure and pulse dropped. His breathing soon stopped.
After the doctors' frantic 30-minute resuscitation efforts which seemed to last a lifetime, his heart started beating again. Later when he came back to life, he began to tell of his extraordinary experiences during the moments when he lost contact with the world.
"After I shouted out, I felt no pain. My body was so light that it floated. In the corner of the operating room, I saw myself lying on the bed surrounded by doctors who were struggling to pump my heart.
"Then I felt I was being sucked into a dark tunnel and was moving forward uncontrollably so fast to somewhere I didn't know. Although I wanted to return to my children, the movement would not stop.
"When it finally did, I saw a brilliant, warm light that made me feel so peaceful, happy and comfortable. I saw faces of deceased friends and relatives. Later, I saw pictures of myself, every single deed I had done in my life from the present back to when I was a child, like a video replay.
"Then, the body of light told me it was not my time and I had to come back."
The audience sits in awe as they listen to Dr Saengchai's story at a recent meeting, organised by the Association of Spiritual and Mental Research of Thailand.
Bizarre as it may sound, Dr Saengchai's encounter with the supernatural is not unique. In fact, it is typical of what is referred to as a "near-death experience," or NDE.
In Thailand, there are many anecdotal accounts of such experiences but only 13, including that of Dr Saengchai, have been recorded for a systematic study, according to the association.
In the United States, however, the Gallop Organisation and NDE Research studies estimate that more than 13 million Americans have had such extraordinary experiences.
Dr Raymond Moody, a well-known researcher on near-death experiences, concluded in his book, Life After Life, that while the specific details of each experience may differ, there are similar elements.
Before the soul leaves the body, most people who experience the near-death phenomenon say they hear a buzzing or ringing noise. Medical research confirms that hearing is the last sensory function to go when someone is dying.
Painless, they will feel their "spiritual body" floating up from the physical body and will witness the events that occur after their own death.
Then, similar to Dr Saengchai, they will feel as if they are travelling through a dark tunnel at high speed until they reach a golden light at the other end.
The next general sequence involves meeting "people of light" or deceased friends and relatives before encountering the "body of light," commonly described as powerful, radiant and warm. Many people have interpreted this bodiless energy as God or Jesus, angels, even the Lord Buddha.
Another typical phenomenon is seeing one's own deeds in a backwards sequence, from the present to the past, as vividly as "seeing a video," many have said.
Then, the person is told to go back to life because it is not their time to die yet.
According to NDE believers, many souls do not want to return to life after such an overwhelming encounter with the divine. Instead, they want to stay in that ecstatic state of warmth and love. Only those souls with unfinished tasks or worry for loved ones would decide to come back, they say.
Dr Prasarn Tangjai, a physician who is well-known for his prolific writing on the affinity between science and religion, said the NDE happens across cultural and religious barriers.
"These experiences are very much alike in pattern and sequence, regardless of religious differences and age," he explained.
The similarity of the physical sensations of the NDE may derive from the genetic traits shared by all members the human race, he opined.
Or it may be simply biological; that sensory perceptions during the NDE may be a result of the functions--or malfunctions--of the brain when the body is becoming lifeless.
"NDE is believed to be a brain phenomenon," said Dr Naiphinich Kotchabhakdi, director of the Neuro-behavioural Biology Centre, Institute of Science and Technology for Development, Mahidol University.
When a person is dying, the brain produces endorphins, a substance which induces feelings of lightness and painlessness.
When the body is "shutting down," Dr Naipinich said, the deepest brain cells still work for a while before the body is completely switched off. According to the neurologist, this physical process is similar in all humans, causing the same pattern of NDE.
Despite general similarities, individual experiences contain different details which, say experts, may result from different cultural and religious backgrounds.
According to Suwanna Satha-Anand, head of the Philosophy Department at Chulalongkorn University, different religions have their own versions of life after death.
In Christianity, Jesus Christ was resurrected three days after crucifixion. Christians, and Muslims too, believe they will rise from the dead to be united with God on Judgement Day. Buddhists, meanwhile, believe in rebirth; that the soul or life energy does not end with physical death.
"Religion has grown from our subconscious world and religious symbols can directly influence the near-death experience," noted Dr Suwanna Satha-Anand.
Christians, for example, may interpret the body of light phenomenon as the manifestation of God or Jesus Christ, while Buddhists may believe it to be Buddha or other enlightened monks.
Monk Paisan Visalo agrees that culture shapes one's sensory perceptions. "For example, we hear the rooster's crowing as 'ek ee ek ek,' but English-speaking people hear it as '*beep* a doodle doo,' although it is the same rooster."
In our science-oriented era, a combination of ancient mysticism and reverence for high-technology has fanned a UFO fever and a New Age belief in higher beings from outer space as modern-day Gods and doomsday saviours.
The old world's devils and angels are out of fashion, explained Dr Kenneth Ring, a researcher of UFO abductions and NDE similarities. Since many have taken up belief in extra-terrestrial beings almost as a religion, such ideas can significantly influence their feelings and perceptions when they are close to death, he said.
According to Dr Ring, there is a close similarity between the NDE and UFO abduction stories; both tell of an encounter with a body of light and a high-speed journey into the unknown.
Non-believers dismiss such images and sensory perceptions as mere hallucinations caused by sedatives, medication, or the intense pain and emotion at the time close to death.
When the brain is shutting down, the nervous system is intensely perturbed, causing the stored memories to gush out as visual images in the near-death syndrome, they say.
Believers, however, argue that such explanations are inadequate. "How can you explain a resuscitated patient who comes back to life to talk accurately and in detail about an incident which took place while they were 'flatliners,' or dead?" asked neurologist Dr Naiphinich.
"If there is no mind separate from a physical body, how can the person perceive such things while dead?" Growing evidence of the existence of a "spiritual body," he said, has led to today's resurgence of belief in the supernatural which was once scientifically dismissed.
But what is the use of arguing over the existence of life after death? And even if the accounts of near-death experiences are true, what use is it to our life anyway?
Those who have come back to life after a short period of death said that the experience miraculously changed their way of life for the better. They also said that while the experience eradicated their old fear of death, it has also given them a new spiritual understanding of life, which has turned them into more moral people.
"I used to live a decadent life of overindulgence," said another NDE believer. "After the near-death experience, I've become more mindful of my deeds. Now I lead a simple and unselfish life. I've lost my worldly desires and ambitions for money and career success. I know what I should or should not do, for sins and merits do exist. I've also learned to love and help others."
She is now a philanthropist and advocate of the law of karma through her work for the Thor Liangpibool foundation.
"It's a general pattern that those who have come back from the netherworld tend to be more moral, fear committing bad deeds and diligently help others. They also become believers in the existence of the spirits," said Dr Naiphinich.
Dr Saengchai, for example, used to scoff at the idea of spirits. Now he is a firm believer. Just one step into the door that separates life from death has given him a new understanding of life and the universe which the secular world cannot give, he said.
Theologists say a belief in life after death is significant in determining one's ethical standards and conduct.
"Those who believe there is only one life to live are more likely to be hedonists. They don't care if their indulgences made others suffer," said Dr Suwanna.
The NDE however, can shock people and teach them to lead a moral life. "Life energy doesn't stop with this lifetime. It goes on," said monk Paisan Visalo.
He added, "The near-death syndrome makes us realise that death is not painful or threatening, but only a natural and transitional stage while we move to another spiritual dimension."
Not many people are fortunate enough to have the chance to come back to tell of their extraordinary experiences after death, which is basically an honest encounter with their past deeds.
"I'm lucky to have a second chance to redeem myself," said Dr Saengchai. "And I'll live it well."