Barbara Harris Whitfield
Barbara Harris Whitfield is the author of many published articles and five books, a thanatologist, workshop presenter, near-death experiencer and therapist in private practice in Atlanta, Georgia. She has served on the board of directors for the Kundalini Research Network and also on the faculty of Rutgers University’s Summer School for Alcohol and Drug Studies for 12 years.
Websites & Background Information
• The Natural Soul
• Spiritual Awakenings: Insights of the Near-Death Experience and Other Doorways to Our Soul
• Final Passage: Sharing the Journey as This Life Ends
• Full Circle: The Near-Death Experience and Beyond
The following is a three-part report.
The first part consists of two videos in which Barbara Harris Whitfield, therapist, author and near-death experiencer, tells her NDE story and the changes she experienced in her life while discovering the Natural Soul, the True Self. This talk was filmed at The Fellowship of the Inner Light in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Her story is included in her new book, The Natural Soul.
The second part of this report is an excerpt from Barbara’s book, which also describes her NDE.
And the third and final part of this report is a review of Barbara’s new book, written by NDE researcher Bruce Greyson.
BARBARA HARRIS WHITFIELD’S NDE FROM HER NEW BOOK THE NATURAL SOUL
This comes after Chapter One of Barbara’s book.
I was born with a deformity, a curvature in my lumbar spine called “scoliosis.” It never bothered me until 1973 when it suddenly became the focus of my life. I was hospitalized four times in the next two years, each time for two weeks, with traction and injections of Demerol to help alleviate the pain. Looking back on it now, I believe, like many other NDErs, that my back pain was a metaphor for my life, which had gotten off track.
Finally, I underwent surgery, a spinal fusion. I awoke after the five-and-a-half-hour operation in a Stryker-frame circle bed. This strange bed looks like a Ferris wheel for one person. There are two big chrome hoops with a stretcher suspended in the middle. I remained in that bed for almost a month, and then I was placed in a full body cast from my armpits to my knees for six months.
About two days after surgery, complications set in and I started to die. I remember waking up in the circle bed and seeing this huge belly. I had swollen up, and the swelling was pulling my incisions open and it hurt. I called for my nurse, and then I started screaming.
People in white came rushing in. It was a dramatic scene, just like those you see in hospital dramas on television. I had no idea what was going on because I hadn’t become a respiratory therapist yet. It seemed like everybody was pushing carts and machinery, throwing things back and forth over me. They hooked me up to all kinds of machinery, tubes, monitors and bags. Overwhelmed emotionally, I lost consciousness and later that night woke up in the hall outside my room. I floated back into the room and saw my body. I felt peaceful, more peaceful than I had ever been in this lifetime.
Then I went into a tunnel where I was greeted and held by my grandmother who had been dead for 14 years. Before this I had never once thought about her surviving her death. I didn’t believe in that. But now I knew I was with her. Her love enveloped me and together we relived all our memories of each other. I could see and feel all this through her eyes and her feelings of each moment too. And I know she experienced how her actions and her love had comforted me in my childhood.
Suddenly I was back in my body, back in the circle bed. Two nurses were opening my drapes. The sunlight was startling. It hurt my eyes. I asked them to close the drapes. I tried to tell my nurses and then several doctors that I had left the bed. They told me that it was impossible and that I had been hallucinating.
My Life Review
About a week later, I again left my body in the circle bed. I was no longer on the critical list, but I was still debilitated and weak. I had been rotated forward onto my face. I was uncomfortable. I seemed to have been in that position for too long. I reached for the call button, but it had slipped away from where it had been clipped to the bed sheet. I started to call, then yell, then scream frantically, but my door was closed. No one came. I became hysterical. I separated from my body.
As I left my body, I again went out into the darkness, only this time I was awake and could see it happening. Looking down and off to the right, I saw myself in a bubble — in the circle bed — crying. Then I looked up and to the left, and I saw my one-year-old self in another bubble-face down in my crib — crying just as hard. I looked to the right and saw myself again in the circle bed, then to the left and saw myself as a baby. I looked back and forth about three more times, then I let go. I decided I did not want to be the thirty-two-year-old Barbara anymore; I’d go to the baby. As I moved away from my body in the circle bed, I felt as though I released myself from this lifetime. As I did, I became aware of an Energy that was wrapping itself around me and going through me, permeating me, holding up every molecule of my being.
Even though I had been an atheist for years, I felt God’s love. This love was holding me. It felt incredible. There are no words in the English language, or maybe in this reality, to explain the kind of love God emanates. God was totally accepting of everything we — God and I — reviewed in my life.
In every scene of my life review I could feel again what I had felt at various times in my life. And I could feel everything that everyone else had felt as a consequence of my presence and my actions. Some of it felt good and some of it felt awful. All of this translated into knowledge, and I learned. Oh, how I learned!
The information was flowing at an incredible speed that probably would have burned me up if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary Energy holding me. The information came in, and then love neutralized my judgments against myself. In other words, throughout every scene I viewed, information flowed through me about my perceptions and feelings, and the perceptions and feelings of every person who had shared those scenes with me. No matter how I judged myself in each interaction, being held by God was the bigger interaction. God interjected love into everything, every feeling, every bit of information about absolutely everything that went on, so that everything was all right. There was no good and no bad. There was only me — and my loved ones from this life — trying to survive… just trying to be.
I realize now that without God holding me, I would not have had the strength to experience what I did.
When it started, God and I were merging. We became one, so that I could see through God’s eyes and feel through God’s heart. Together, we witnessed how severely I had treated myself because that was the behavior shown and taught to me as a child. I realized that the only big mistake I had made in my thirty-two years of life was that I had never learned to love myself.
God let me into God’s experience of all this. I felt God’s memories of these scenes through God’s eyes. I could sense God’s divine intelligence, and it was astonishing. God loves us and wants us to wake up to our real selves, to what is important. I realized that God wants us to know that we only experience real pain if we die without living first. And the way to live is to give love to ourselves and to others. It seems that we are here to learn to give and receive love. But only when we heal enough to be real can we understand and give and receive love the way love was meant to be.
When God holds us in our life reviews and we merge into One, we remember this feeling as being limitless. God is limitless. God’s capacity to love is never-ending. God’s love for us never changes, no matter how we are. God doesn’t judge us either. During our life review, we judge ourselves by feeling the love we have created in other’s lives. We also feel the pain we have caused in other’s lives. This may be a kind of Cosmic Equalizer. I did not see an old man with a white beard who sits in judgment of us. I only felt limitless divine love.
God only gives. God interjected love into all the scenes of my life to show me God’s reality. And the most amazing part of all is that God held nothing back. I understood all that God understood. God let me in. God shared all of God’s self with me: all the qualities of gentleness and openness, and all the gifts, including our own empowerment and peace. I never knew that much loving intelligence and freedom could exist.
What I saw in My Life Review
At this point God and I were merging into one Sacred Person. It felt as though I lifted off the circle bed and We went to the baby I was seeing to my upper left in the darkness. Picture the baby being in a bubble; that bubble was in the center of a cloud of thousands and thousands of bubbles. In each bubble was another scene from my life. As we moved toward the baby, it was as though we were bobbing through the bubbles. At the same time, there was a linear sequence in which we relived thirty-two years of my life. I could hear myself saying, “No wonder, no wonder.” I now believe my “no wonders” meant “No wonder you are the way you are now. Look what was done to you when you were a little girl.”
My mother had been dependent on prescription drugs, angry and abusive, and my father wasn’t home much of the time and did little to intervene. I saw all this again, but I did not see it in little bits and pieces, the way I had remembered it as an adult. I saw and experienced it just as I had lived it at the time it first happened. Not only was I me, I was also my mother, my dad, and my brother. We were all one. Just as I had felt everything my grandmother had felt, I now felt my mother’s pain and neglect from her childhood. She wasn’t trying to be mean. She didn’t know how to be loving or kind. She didn’t know how to love. She didn’t understand what life is really all about. And she was still angry from her own childhood, angry because they were poor and because her father was sick almost every day until he died when she was eleven. And then she was angry because he had left her. She didn’t know what to do with her anger so she gave it to my brother and me. Her anger boiled up all the time and then she physically abused us or she made us listen to all her resentments. Her list went back to her early childhood. Everyone had hurt her. I don’t think that she, through her numbness and drugged state, understood how she was doing the same thing to us.
Everything came flooding back, including my father’s helplessness and confusion at stopping the insanity. I could hear myself saying, “No wonder, no wonder.” And then the benevolent Energy that was holding me held me tighter and with even more love.
We continued watching my mother in pain, always seeing doctors and always receiving prescription pain killers, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. My only feeling during this time was loneliness. I saw myself down on my knees by the side of my bed, praying for a doctor to help my mother. I saw how I had given up “myself” in order to survive. I forgot that I was a child. I became my mother’s mother. I suddenly knew that my mother had had the same thing happen to her in her childhood. She took care of her father, and as a child she gave herself up to take care of him. As children, she and I both became anything and everything others needed.
As my life review continued, I also saw my mother’s Soul, how painful her life was, how lost she was. And I saw my father and how he put blinders on himself to avoid his grief over my mother’s pain and to survive. In my life review, I saw that they were good people caught in helplessness. I saw their beauty, their humanity and their needs that had gone unattended to in their own childhoods. I loved them and understood them. We may have been trapped, but we were still Souls connected in our dance of life by an Energy source that had created us.
This was when I first realized that we do not end at our skin. We are all in this big churning mass of consciousness. We are each a part of this consciousness we call God. And we are not just human. We are Spirit. We were Spirit before we came into this lifetime. We are all struggling Spirits now, trying to get “being human” right. And when we leave here, we will be pure Spirit again.
As my life review continued, I got married and had my own children and saw that I was on the edge of repeating the cycle that I had experienced as a child. I was on prescription drugs. I was in the hospital. I was becoming like my mother. And at the same time, this Loving Energy we call God was holding me and let me into Its experience of all this. I felt God’s memories of these scenes through God’s eyes, just as I had through my grandmother’s eyes.
As my life unfolded, I witnessed how severely I had treated myself because that was the behavior shown and taught to me as a child. I realized that the only big mistake I had made in my life was that I had never learned to love myself.
And then I was back here, in this reality.
Following My Heart
I came home after a month. I weighed eighty-three pounds and the body cast weighed thirty pounds. I insisted on seeing a psychiatrist, hoping he would understand what I had experienced. The doctor I saw didn’t understand. No one understood NDEs back then, so I realized that I couldn’t talk about it. I spent six months in the body cast, thinking about my NDE but not talking about it. Once I was out of the cast and went through some physical therapy to regain my strength, I decided to put the NDE away and follow my heart.
First, I volunteered to work in the emergency room of the hospital where I had been a patient. I was excited that first morning. I put on my volunteer uniform, wishing my pounding headache would subside. My first few hours standing in the corridor of the emergency room, doing what little I was asked to do, was agonizing because of this headache. Then an old woman was brought in on a gurney from an ambulance. She was shivering. I knew she was dying but I didn’t know how I knew. A nurse asked me to go over to the warmer and get a few blankets for her. She pointed to what looked like a refrigerator and turned out to be a warmer filled with blankets. I took two over to the shivering woman and spread them over her, one at a time, using my hands to smooth them. Then, to my surprise, something strange started to happen. I felt my headache moving down through my shoulders, draining into my hands and out of my palms, only the sensation wasn’t one of pain anymore. It was more like a tingling. I looked at the old woman and she was smiling right into my eyes. She said, “Oh, my dear, I feel a little better.” I took her hand in mine and sat down next to her, just content to hold her hand. A few minutes later, she said, “The pain medication is working. I’m out of pain and not so afraid anymore.” (My headache was gone too). I sat there for the longest time. Occasionally a nurse or the emergency room doctor walked by and they smiled but they didn’t ask me to do any more until much later when the woman was taken to a room.
After that first experience at that hospital, I had many opportunities to be with and touch dying people. Either I searched them out, or the staff asked me to. During my breaks I would go to the rooms of dying people I had met in the emergency room. I felt real when I worked there. And everyone else was real, too. In settings where life and death are on the edge every moment, only the truth is spoken.
My personal life, however, was at the opposite end of the spectrum. My husband, my friends and most family members were caught up in their own games. No one seemed to be communicating honestly. It seemed that what was shown to me in my life review now made me recognize how manipulative our relationships were. We never were able to honestly talk about what we wanted or needed from one another. The most painful part for me was watching the disrespect of each others feelings. I cannot deny that I, too, had once been a part of it, part of the denial and numbness. We used materialism as a way to substitute for authentic living. But now I was different. It wasn’t their fault I had changed. The only place I felt real besides the hospital was on a college campus. I realized that I needed to go back to school in order to qualify for some type of health care career.
I graduated a few years later as a respiratory therapist. I loved working in the emergency room and the ICU, where, once again, my patients were telling me about their experiences as they were dying. And those who returned to their bodies told me about their NDEs. I started to write about what I was hearing, calling my topic “the emotional needs of critical-care patients.” Surprisingly, I was invited to speak at professional conferences and was published in respiratory therapy journals. The emotional needs of critical care patients was a hot new topic in healthcare during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Finally, I became a researcher and could start looking for the answers that I so longed to find. Because I was undertaking my research at a university medical school, all kinds of new knowledge became available to me. Now at last I could frame and reframe not only the hundreds of experiences I was studying, but also my own.
Starting to Wake Up
I learned in my life review that the only thing that is real is love, and the only way to share love is by being real. Being real happens when we acknowledge our feelings, the feelings of others and continually share our truth. When we feel our feelings and are real, we share our truth out of love. Then our relationship with God and our self is healthy. This relationship is always here and can continue to grow in our lives if we allow it to. This sacred relationship continues to interpret for us what we are doing here, what life may be all about.
When we die, if we re-experience our lives from everyone else’s perspective as well as our own, there are only feelings, perceptions and knowledge. We really cannot judge or blame others, because we suddenly understand where we and everyone else is coming from. We only judge here in this earthly reality. When I was with God, I was just learning. The knowledge of what had happened was pouring into me, and I was repeatedly saying my “no wonders!” I came to believe that God doesn’t judge but wants us to learn so we won’t make the same mistakes again. My experiences showed me that God wants us to stop being fearful and instead, to extend love. Suddenly, I was catapulted out of time and embraced by this whole different way of thinking and being. Just as rapidly, I was back here, wanting to break new ground. I had had a great opportunity, and now I wanted to share it.
Many times over the years since then I have shared this different way of thinking and being with my transitioning clients, friends and relatives that want to experience it, too. I have assisted many in creating their own life reviews while they are still here, using a tape recorder or camcorder.
In fact, what I learned and experienced for myself during my own life review — that a Divine Energy connects all of us — has since orchestrated all of my relationships. Moreover, not only have I witnessed this Spiritual energy on each occasion that I have attended someone during the dying process, but almost every hospice worker I’ve met during the many talks I have given has also confirmed God’s loving energy being present during their own clients’ deaths. I’ve even heard similar remarks from medical staff and relatives regarding births.
To this day, I still feel connected to this Energy through my heart. Within my heart, there is a constant prayer. This prayer forms the background music of every experience I have. When we are connected to God’s loving energy, It is the single most powerful force in the universe.
Now, 35 years later, with all that I have learned: I have learned that the place I went to will always be there but what I yearn for here — is who I was in that place — my Natural Soul — without all the baggage I had accumulated in this life time. To be free gain — here and now. And that is what this book is about.
This review is reprinted with permission from its original publication in the winter 2010 issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, volume 28, number 2. Copyright 2010: International Association for Near-Death Studies.
BOOK REVIEW OF THE NATURAL SOUL
By Bruce Greyson, M.D.
University of Virginia
Barbara Harris Whitfield’s post-operative near-death experience (NDE) in 1975 transformed her from a materially-oriented housewife and mother into a spiritual crusader (Whitfield’s NDE is included below). She went back to college to become a healthcare professional, studied NDE aftereffects with me in the 1980s, became the first woman elected to the IANDS Board of Directors, co-founded one of the longest-running Friends of IANDS support groups, embraced the “child within” model of spiritual development and applied it to NDErs, taught college courses in psychospiritual recovery from trauma and addiction, and published four previous books and a host of articles on spiritual growth. The Natural Soul, her most recent offering, pulls together her life’s work into an insightful and practical guide to living from our soul rather from our ego. This book is not about an instantaneous spiritual transformation that occurred when Whitfield awoke from her NDE 35 years ago. It is rather about a gradual accumulation of insights, a spiritual journey that was initiated, in her case, by the NDE, but which evolved over decades.
Whitfield used NDEs to illustrate what it means to live from the soul rather than from the ego. For example, the life review in NDEs is often described as if it were a reminiscence in anticipation of dying, a psychological summing up of the value of one’s life (Butler, 1963; Noyes & Kletti, 1977). It is those things, but Ian Stevenson and Emily Cook (1995) concluded from a systematic review of NDEs with life reviews that they have deeper implications and that they make sense only in the context a life beyond this material one. Whitfield in The Natural Soul explored that context in depth. She revealed the life review as not just a recall of memories but a first-hand experience of oneness with others, as the experiencer relives the events not only from one’s own perspective but also through the eyes of others involved:
“In every scene of my life review I could feel again what I had felt… and I could feel everything that everyone else had felt as a consequence of my presence and my actions. Some of it felt good and some of it felt awful….”
“The information came in, and then love neutralized my judgments against myself. No matter how I judged myself in each interaction, being held by God was the bigger interaction. God interjected love into everything….”
“This was when I first realized that we do not end at our skin. We are all in this big churning mass of consciousness.” (pp. 5-8)
In this sense, the life review is far more than just a reassessment of life events. It is a lived encounter with the fact that we humans are all one, which puts the death of the individual in a very different light. Indeed, Whitfield showed how the life review can be a means of seeking (or creating) meaning in the problems and conflicts of life. In the Foreword to this book, her husband Charles Whitfield noted that this act of “making meaning from our everyday experiences and conflicts” is an important part of soul work that enables us “to rise above the limited and often painful episodes of our life” (p. ix).
But although Whitfield made good use of NDEs as an exemplar of spiritual interactions, her message extends far beyond NDEs — in fact, far beyond mystical experiences in general — to encompass how we negotiate our daily lives. So much has been written and said about the soul. In this book, we are shown the soul. Whitfield illustrated how to live from our soul and relate to the souls of others. The central concept that pervades this entire book is the differentiation between the voice and traits of the soul — who we really are — and of the ego — the character we play in our daily drama.
If the soul is who we really are, then where does the ego come from and why do we adopt it as our identity? Whitfield wrote that the soul constructs the ego as an executive assistant to help it live out this human experience: balancing the checkbook, keeping us on time for appointments, and negotiating our way through the physical world. However, when the ego takes over and controls our lives, we tend to forget who we really are. Because the ego is a construct created to negotiate our way through the physical world, it is no longer needed and dissolves when the body dies. If we make the mistake of thinking we are our egos, then we make the mistake of believing that we dissolve when we die.
Whitfield suggested a simple test to tell if you are living from your ego or from your soul, your true self: Notice what happens when you relax into “doing nothing.” If you feel bored and restless, that is your ego complaining because, when you are not engaged with the physical world, it has nothing to do. On the other hand, if you have a quiet feeling of peaceful being deep within you, that is your “true self” just being. Whitfield pointed out that linear time is a construct of our intellect that moves us to living on a horizontal line. With natural spirituality, we experience time in a vertical fashion and live in the eternal now. We still meet our appointments on time, but our perception of time changes to give us a peaceful experience whereby we can focus on the task at hand and be totally present with it.
Whitfield wrote that the real love of our life is our own sacred person (of which our soul is one part), and that no other can make us whole or make us feel loved. We do that for our self in relationship with our higher power. This is “true love.” In putting into words what our egos struggle to understand (but what our souls innately know), Whitfield suggested that both science and religion miss the boat in explaining what life is about. Science tries to analyze, and religion tries to codify, truths that seem so arcane to the ego, but that come naturally, requiring neither analysis nor codification, to the soul.
Whitfield punctuated her book with a series of “aha’s” as she gradually learned these truths. If my experience is at all typical of other readers, we will all experience a series of “aha’s” as we follow her journey through these pages. Because that journey ranges over more territory than I can cover in a short review, I’m going to focus, for illustrative purposes, on three such “aha’s” that most intrigued me as a psychiatrist and near-death researcher: those related to grief, child-rearing, and death.
In discussing our tendency to live as egos rather than as souls, Whitfield tackled head-on the spiritual malaise that is endemic to our materialistic society. She pointed out that labeling our grief as “depression” can make it harder for us to move through it to resolution. We medicalize a normal human experience, numb ourselves with pills to distract our attention from our feelings, and reinforce our sense of being victims stuck in a painful situation. In grief, even though we may be overcome with sadness, we eventually move through it and make meaning out of our loss. By contrast, in depression, we are numb and do not move through the feeling. If we mislabel grief as depression and try to “treat” it with drugs, we interrupt our grief work until we stop the drugs and allow ourselves to feel the pain….
Whitfield quoted from the introduction to A Course in Miracles (1975): “What is real cannot be threatened/What is unreal does not exist./Herein lies the peace of God.” She wrote that if all that is real is God’s world, the world of the soul, then the ego and its world are not real and, therefore, do not exist. When we make this differentiation between identifying with our true self and our false self, we learn the way to peace and serenity. However, people today have become distracted by materialism and have fallen asleep to the real world of the soul. They often wake up to their true identity and realize that they are not just their body as they about to die. At that point, they experience a sense of joy at the knowledge that the dying body is going to drop away, that suffering and death are happening to the body, not to them. When we recognize this, we can release our clinging to our false self.
Whitfield adopted Aldous Huxley’s analogy from The Doors of Perception (1954) of the brain as a reducing valve, allowing the flood of too much reality to flow in a gentle stream so we can handle it without exploding. Helping someone die is usually as close as we get to the reality that is beyond our ego’s ability to perceive; we do that by allowing ourselves to experience death with openness and without ego. Allowing ourselves to feel vulnerable is not bad once we recognize that we won’t be destroyed, but that it is only the ego that is destroyed, while we evolve and grow. Whitfield explained that the reason people on their deathbeds see deceased relatives, and the reason she knows that no one dies alone, is that our separateness from each other is an illusion of the ego. We are our souls when we die, just as we were when we were born. To be our soul again is what we yearn for now: The divine existence we seek after death is not some place in another dimension but is who we experience ourselves as in that dimension.
Whitfield wrote that when she hears that ego voice in her head worrying that she is not qualified to help someone die, she turns the task over to the universe and asks for help to get her ego out of the way. The secret here, as elsewhere, is to relinquish control over this unpredictable process and to allow the spiritual agenda to orchestrate the transition.
The style of writing in The Natural Soul is clear and very accessible, just as it is in all of Whitfield’s books. And, just as in all her previous books, this one pushes the reader a bit further than the last one did. Whitfield reminds us why NDEs are important phenomena. What I have not conveyed in this review of the major concepts in this book are the personal examples with which Whitfield illustrated these concepts. The Natural Soul overflows with intimate vignettes that bring the ideas alive.
Toward the end the book, Whitfield wrote that she has come to regard synchronicities, those meaningful coincidences that crop up in our lives, as “cosmic postcards” that remind us there is more going on than our egos are willing to believe. Her advice, when we receive one of these momentary flashes of insight into the universe, is to “smile, say a quick ‘thank you’ and go on.” I have come to regard this book as a postcard from Whitfield’s soul to ours, and my advice is to read it, say “thank you,” and put it into practice.