March 30, 2020

Spring Break

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Are you ready for a break from stories about the corona virus? Well, if so, then please join me for a while on my own spring break.

Do you remember when we were kids and just returning to school in the fall after a summer of delightful school-free frolics and our teacher would ask us to stand in front of the class to tell our restless classmates "how we spent our summer vacation?" No? Well, frankly neither do I. Maybe this is just a bit of grammar school folklore, but in any case I can use it as a template to tell you what I’ve been doing on my spring break from the virus.

For one thing, I've been reading the novels and short stories of Mark Helprin. Now please pay attention. Of course, blogs are by nature ephemeral (as am I) and are soon forgotten (as I will be), but I am about to tell you something important that, if you are a reader of novels, you will have cause to thank me for in years to come.

A Soldier of the Great War
I have been reading novels for more than seventy years, and the greatest novel I have ever read (have you marked these italics?) is Helprin’s 860-page masterpiece, A Soldier of the Great War, which is his War and Peace. I’ve read a number of his other books as well, and they are all superbly crafted works of art. Indeed his writing routinely elicits the most extravagant but wholly deserved praise from critics and readers alike. Just last night, I was reading one of the marvelous stories in one of his collections of short fiction in a book entitled The Pacific. This one, simply called "Monday," caused me to choke up and become teary-eyed at the end. And I’m a guy (just in case you had noticed)! The sheer beauty of his writing as well as the emotional power of Helprin's writing will do that do you.

The Pacific
Well, had I time and you patience, I could write reams about Helprin -- and about his politics, which is another matter -- but perhaps I have already said enough to intrigue you. If so, I invite you to check him out. After all, unless you are having to mind your kids or dealing with the hardship of illness, you may have time on your hands now. If that’s the case, why not put your hands to good use and deploy your eyes at the same time in reading one of Helprin's books?

Another thing I’ve been doing is avoiding the news. Ah, the pleasures of tuning out! But the other night my girlfriend Lauren found herself raptly watching PBS's The News Hour while I was busy doing the equivalent of filing my Howard Hughes-like nails. Naturally, afterward I was impelled to launch into another one of my tedious diatribes about the toxicity of our virus-laden news feeds that only wants to make you consider killing yourself before the virus gets to you. But shortly thereafter, I was struck not by lightening, and, thank heaven, not by the virus, but by a serendipitous synchronicity, which will soon be revealed.

Anita Moorjani is a now well-known NDEr, author and self-help guru. It was her first book, Dying to Be Me, which brought her to my attention and eventually to my home where I was lucky to spend four hours with her and her husband, Danny, mostly laughing, as I recall. Anita is an absolutely delightful person and has now amassed a large and devoted following. In that connection, she sends out periodic newsletters to her fanship among whom I include myself. Anyway, not long after I had vented my spleen to Lauren, I found one of Anita's newsletters on my computer and what did I find from this sage woman? Simply this passage:

Everything feels very calm and peaceful both in my home and outside, however, the minute you turn on the news, every channel is reporting the same thing. And the news at the moment has all the essential components to raise our anxiety levels to the point of making us feel like we are fighting for our lives. I have some friends who are news junkies, and their stress levels are through the roof right now. When you are constantly bombarded with doom and gloom news and your stress levels go through the roof, it puts your body into "fight or flight". This means that your body goes into survival mode, and when it does that, your immune system is not at its best.
Well said, Anita! Thank you. So if Lauren won’t listen to me, maybe she will pay heed to Anita. Maybe you will, too.

Of course, you don’t have to be an NDEr to realize that listening to the news is bad ju-ju for the soul, but one of the interesting things about NDErs is that after their close encounter with death, many of them become psychic, often to an uncanny extent as my research and that of others have revealed. One of the ways their psychic gifts may manifest is in precognitive visions -- apparently seeing an event before it actually occurs. For example, several NDErs reported that they had foreknowledge of the Space Shuttle Challenger before it exploded in 1986.

Which brings us to another NDEr, Sylvia Browne. But I never knew Sylvia, who died in 2013. Indeed, despite the fact that she wrote over forty books and was a very well known if controversial psychic, appearing on many television shows during her life, I had never even heard of her until this year, and you will soon understand why. The reason will, I’m afraid, bring us back to the corona virus and bring our brief spring break to an astonishing end.

You see, nearly twelve years ago, Sylvia foresaw the corona virus. You don’t believe it? Neither did I at first, but read on.

In 2008, Sylvia Browne wrote a book called End of Days. In that book she predicted:
"In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes, and resisting all known treatments."
Weird, eh?

She also made some other seemingly startlingly accurate or at least plausible predictions for this same time including the crash of the stock market and, most alarming of all, this one:
"The year 2020 will mark the end of the U.S. presidency and the executive branch of the government."
Not to get too political, but of course people have wondered how our pandemic might affect the election and whether if things should really spin out of control, President Trump might invoke martial law or other extreme measures that could imperil our government. At this point, the future is as uncertain as is the course of the corona pandemic itself.

But let's not get carried away on the wings of wild speculation. For one thing, like all psychics, Sylvia Browne’s predictions were often wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. In her lifetime, she was a highly controversial figure. And even what she did have to say about the course of the pandemic itself should give us pause because she also added this to her prediction:
"Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely."
Alas, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all as far as the course of this pandemic is concerned, but if, against all odds, Sylvia should prove right about this as well, what would we think then?

A Brief Addendum

Lest you think from my remarks on the dangers of exposing oneself to the news about the virus that I insulate myself from it, you couldn’t be more wrong. Of course, I follow the news as much as I need to. I am very well aware that almost 150,000 Americans have contracted the virus, that thousands in the U.S. have already died and that perhaps as many as 200,000 here will die of this disease. And that many thousand throughout the world have died and perhaps three quarter of a million of the earth’s population have been sickened. So much for the stats thus far. And they will get worse.

And then there are the thousands of health care workers on the front lines and in the trenches of this horrible war whose health is imperiled, the hospitals stretched beyond capacity, the massive number of people are suffering, including some friends of my own. And so on into the dark night. I have heard these heart-sickening stories and like everyone I am anguished by them.

But I figure we all know that. I don’t think you need to read more blogs about this. Distraction, entertainment, humor, music, reading, etc., are also weapons we can deploy in our fight against this remorseless enemy. We need to keep our bodies safe, of course, but we also keep to keep our spirits up. Which is why for the most part you won’t find me mentioning all the bad news in my blogs. Just so you know...

March 27, 2020

Are We Having a Collective NDE?

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

If you’ve been following my blogs, you may remember that in my first one, "An NDE Researcher Ruminates about Death in the Time of COVID-19," I drew on some correspondence with a graduate student who wondered whether because of the widespread nature of this virus we were undergoing what she called a "collective NDE." So imagine my surprise when last night I received this note from a woman who herself had survived an NDE:
I was inspired to write you because I thought of you directly as it started to dawn on me that we might be living through a collective near-death experience.
I had my NDE at sixteen and was transformed forever, and now as I am listening to people describe their experience with this "pandemic time" I can't help but feel like millions of us are having similar processing experiences, life reviewing, atemporal experience, waves of spiritual connection -- and it seems like we will move to the other side of this profoundly affected as such. Purpose is emerging, importance of connection... etc.
Having had two such inquires recently both of which used the same expression, "a collective NDE," got my attention and caused me to exercise what’s left of my brain in a little reflection.

As my most recent correspondent indicated, NDEs have the power to bring about a profound transformation. My research and that of others have offered abundant evidence that NDEs tend to lead to radical changes in one's values and behavior such that NDErs become more loving and compassionate and decidedly more spiritual. So if the very specter, horrifying as it is, of possibly widespread death and certainly even the worldwide fear of death were to usher in a planetary NDE, so to speak, might we reasonably expect that humanity -- at least those who survive -- would be similarly transformed?

It is a comforting thought to suppose that when this black cloud of the virus finally lifts, we might, as a species, reap the benefits of the light of a collective NDE.

To me, personally, it is a slender reed of hope to cling to since it is entirely possible, and perhaps even more likely, that all the survivors of this ordeal will reap is a collective case of PTSD, owing to the pervasive trauma that this virus can be expected to inflict on us. Even so, there is plenty of evidence that trauma, even seemingly soul-destroying ones, can nevertheless lead to astonishingly positive personality changes and spiritual growth. So it is at least conceivable that when humanity emerges from its current trauma, it too may find itself in a nascent state of spiritual renewal with an undeniable sense of deep connection to all the peoples of the earth who together will then have to fashion a planet where love for one another and all life must reign.

A utopian dream perhaps, but in these dark dystopian days, it is at least something to think about. And if this kind of transformation should come about, we will have reason to give heartfelt thanks. In the meantime, I plan to cling to that slender reed of hope, and maybe if enough of us do, the dream will one day become the reality of our lives.

March 24, 2020

Silver Linings in a Dark Sky

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Are you suffering from virus fatigue? I know I am. You can’t turn on the TV or check the Internet without being drenched in stories about how terrible it is -- and of course it is dreadful -- and how grim the prospects are for the long term. While I don’t intend to adopt the way of the ostrich to deal with it, I think there is something to be said, not for denial, but for diversion. I know when I listen to all the advice for how you protect yourself, I sometimes think that the only way to be safe is to cut off my hands and then have someone decapitate me. That way, at least, I would no longer have to worry about touching my face.

All right, there’s humor, too, even lame humor like mine, to provide diversion of another kind. Whatever works.

But then, let’s not forget that this crisis also has brought out some things to be grateful for. I know I am filled with gratitude for its unexpected benisons. Let me just share one of them with you, which will exemplify what I mean.

I have a dear Mexican woman friend who has had a hard time recently after her father suddenly died. Not long afterward, she broke her leg and various complications ensued. Many months later, she is still struggling to recover. And yet...

I just received this note from her yesterday.
Dear Mr. Smile!!!
I hope everything is going soft and easy for you. Please keep calm and enjoy your quarantine. You must have lots of emails to answer and some time for relax and enjoy!
I am still working hard on my recovery. Now I am going daily into the pool, so this may help me a lot with strength and resistance... always with love and good mood!!
Here we take our own measures to make this experience a positive one. I really think this was meant to be since our sense of separation and lack of love between each other. 2020 will be remembered as the year where Mother Earth claimed some peace and showed us what is love about. I am sharing a beautiful video with you. Hope you like it.
I send you all my love from home!! 
I replied immediately:
Dear Miss Sunshine,
Thanks for checking in with me. I'm all right, just buried  under an avalanche of email for the last few days as everyone has been writing me to make sure I'm all right. And since most people write me long letters or send me their videos, blogs, poems, podcasts, what have you, it is taking all my time to keep up with my mail. I have to spend all day at my computer and don't even have time to brush my teeth! Still, it’s gratifying that so many people take the time to express their concern and love. So my thanks to you. It’s reassuring to learn that you are okay and still progressing in your recovery.
And I agree with your sentiments, too. As I wrote to another friend, the other day --
On the plus side of this vile virus crisis is the fact that it is putting people in touch with each other again in heartful and life-affirming ways. This is one way to contend against the fears that are being stirred up in the mainstream media, which I think represent another kind of toxin. Paradoxically, it is this very enforced isolation that is bringing people together, if only virtually. I myself, even though I bellyache about being on an email treadmill, am grateful for all the many friends, longstanding ones and recent ones, who have written or called me to make sure I am all right. And I’ve even heard from all of my grandchildren, which is rare, as well as my own kids of course (I have three) and other family members. It's comforting to feel surrounded by so much loving light in such dark times. 
So for this outpouring of love and concern from so many friends and family members, and indeed even for "the kindness of strangers" who have also come may way lately to offer assistance to me, I am filled with gratitude.

Only connect, E. M. Forster famously said at the end of his novel, Howards End.  I don’t think he meant it the way I mean to, but this is also a time when people are connecting with each other with love and caring. My experience must be typical of many, and I hope it has been for you, too. As trying as this time has been for all the world and for however long it may endure, the darkness has not extinguished the light of love, and never will.

March 20, 2020

Is the World Still Turning?

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

To me, the world -- and certainly my world -- seems to have become still, like molecules at absolute zero (all right, I know that even then they still vibrate a little, but I’ll stick to my metaphor all the same). Seemingly, everything has ground to a halt and we all now live suspended in an indeterminate limbo of anxious uncertainty and not a little dread about the future. The world’s future and our own.

We here in California are now, all of us, living in a locked down situation. We can leave our houses if we must but otherwise we have been directed to stay home as much as possible and avoid contact with others. And last night, even worse news as our governor, Gavin Newsom, announced that he expects that 56% of Californians will become infected with the virus. Just what I needed to hear before tucking myself into the womb of my bed.

Predictably, I had a troubled night’s sleep and feel like crap today, but at least I’m not sick. Yet.

This morning, I got out my little calculator and did some figuring. Let’s see -- there are about 40 million of us in California, so if Newsom is right, we can expect about 22.4 million to get sick. If we assume a 3% percent death rate, that means, if I have calculated correctly, maybe some 67,200 of us will die of this disease. But since at age 84 and not in tiptop health I am in that vulnerable category, the odds that I may not make it are not exactly encouraging.

On the other hand, what’s so important about my petty life? I’ve lived long enough, anyway, and am only taking up room on this planet. What I really think about are younger people and children whose lives may suffer so much because of this virus or even die. How monstrously unfair! How absurd! It makes me think that the Gnostics were right, and that we are governed by a malevolent god, or more likely, live in a universe that is indifferent to our fate.

I’ve spent over half my life studying and writing about near-death experiences. So I am okay with death. In fact, last year I brought out a little book of humorous essays I entitled Waiting to Die. Hey, I may not have to wait much longer! This could be my chance! (Is humor still allowed during a pandemic? It had better be!)

But do I really expect to die? Well, yes, someday if I ever can manage to get around to it. But the thought of having to kick the bucket because of a stupid virus -- it’s just unacceptable! Also, demeaning. No one deserves to die because of a virus, even if many already have. See my comment above about absurdity.

The world will go on, even without some of us. It will keep turning no matter what. It won’t be the same after this, but children will play outside again and there will be the sounds of laughter and song. And have you noticed? It’s spring.

March 19, 2020

Putting the COVID Virus in Historical Perspective

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Last week, before it had become evident how serious the COVID-19 virus would become, I had an email exchange with a cousin of mine, a retired cardiologist, who even then was predicting that this crisis would be much more deadly than earlier forecasts had indicated and certainly far worse than the bland reassurances we were then hearing from the not always reliable lips of President Trump.

In response, I wrote my cousin this:
On the virus, well, you certainly paint a pessimistic picture of the next few months here in the Bay Area. I don’t think it’s unrealistic, but I can only hope your projections will not be realized. On the other hand, I have been reading -- among other books -- a book about the European émigrés who had to flee Nazi Germany and who came to settle LA, creating a kind of "Weimar of the West." You might have read about this in an article that Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker not long ago. Reading what some of these refugees went though helps to put things in perspective. As does the situation of Syrian refugees and so many others who have been displaced in recent years. So now it’s our turn.
And consider how lucky we’ve been to have lived all of our lives until now never having suffered here from any of the world wars or anything else at all comparable to what the world has had to endure during the last hundred years or so. In that, you and I have been extremely fortunate, wouldn’t you say? And as of Sunday, both of us will be octogenarians. Yesterday, I actually reached 84 and 1/4. I'm not any more keen to die than you are, but on the other hand, I've lived long enough, and death would obviously solve my spinal stenosis and other physical problems. So although I am taking all possible precautions, que sera, sera. If things get as bad as you anticipate, I’m not sure I’d be all that keen to witness all that, anyway, even if I do survive.

March 18, 2020

An NDE researcher ruminates about death during the time of COVID-19

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Just a little while ago, I heard from a graduate student who asked me what I was thinking about in regard to death during this virus crisis. (She was familiar with my work on NDEs.) She had mentioned that she was now doing daily meditations on death. She also wondered whether we were going to experience what she called "a collective NDE."

What follows is a bit of what I wrote to her a few minutes ago:

Re your idea of a collective NDE, I actually wrote about that toward the end of one of early books on NDEs, Heading Toward Omega, although right now, we seem to be heading toward oblivion. But I’m sure many people, especially us old farts, are thinking about death, and at many levels. Not just personally -- will I or my loved ones survive? -- but what the world will look like after this crisis has passed? How many -- possibly millions -- will have died? And what about the world’s economy? It’s like the Great Depression of the '30s, only much worse. So, sure, apocalyptic thinking is in the air despite all the brave and cheerful talk about "carrying on." Though carry on, we must. What else can we do?

Meanwhile, you are dealing with this in your own way with your meditations on death -- an ancient Buddhist meditative practice, to be sure. I am, too, but I’m different from most people because I have spent more than half a lifetime thinking, reading and writing about death and near-death experiences -- as well as spending countless hours with NDErs. To me, death is an old friend, and nothing to be feared.

Nevertheless, there is plenty to be feared about dying, especially in these circumstances. Unlike the H1N1 crisis of some years ago, which affected mainly younger people, this one will tend to target the old -- people like me are in the "vulnerable category." And what makes this tough are the very practices designed to keep us safe -- isolation. So I think:  Should I get ill, seriously ill, I would not want to infect anyone, especially those dear to me. Which means I could well die alone -- not a cheerful prospect, no matter what may follow death. I think: Will I ever see my children again? My friends? My girlfriend, Lauren? Who will hold my hand if I should find myself dying?

Not that I think I will -- at least not because of this pandemic. But then, being a sucker for Jewish humor, I have considered that actually death would solve a lot of my problems, such as my spinal stenosis or what the hell am I going to do when my driver’s license expires at the end of the year, assuming I don’t expire before that myself. So my thoughts are not so much about death but about social isolation.  Living alone has its drawbacks...

I actually thought about keeping a corona diary, since writing is just about all I can do these days, but I’ve been too busy. But maybe writing letters like this is a way to write a diary in another form.