On March 1, 1983, David Bennett died — and lived to tell about it.
Bennett, a Skaneateles resident, drowned in a vicious storm off the California coast more than 25 years ago. Since then, he’s been trying to understand what followed: a near-death experience.
Bennett is the founder of the Upstate New York chapter of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), a group whose mission is to “build global understanding of near-death and near-death-like experiences through research, education and support.”
“The goal of the group,” Bennett said, “is to try to give experiencers a safe place to share their experiences with no judgment.”
The group meets every other month. The next meeting will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday May 13 at the Maplewood Inn, 400 Seventh North St. in Salina.
At group meetings, participants generally have the opportunity to hear a speaker with some authority on the topic of near-death and near-death-like experiences. They can also share their own stories. And there may be a lot to tell — according to IANDS, some 5 percent of U.S. adults — 13 million people — have had a near-death or near-death-like experience.
What is a near-death experience?
The term was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 book “Life After Life: The Investigation of a Phenomenon — Survival of Bodily Death.” In the text, Moody, a psychologist and medical doctor, investigates more than 100 case studies of people who experienced clinical death and were subsequently revived. Moody reported that many of those people shared similar experiences while “dead” — the near-death experience.
According to Moody and subsequent research, there are fifteen common features in near-death experiences, though no two experiences are the same. Common elements include a bright light, heightened perceptions, a life review (going through the experiences of one’s life) and encounters with deceased loved ones, among others.
Bennett said the research into the phenomenon has been going on for more than 30 years.
“They can’t tell you what it is,” he said. “But they can tell you what it’s not. It’s not a hallucination, It’s not drug-induced. It’s a real thing.”
Indeed, according to IANDS, physicians have confirmed that near-death experiences are not hallucinations, nor are they the result of lack of oxygen, or anoxia.
However, the phenomenon has not been completely explained. IANDS was founded in an effort to understand the occurrence.
“It’s more academic than anything,” Bennett said of IANDS.
Founded in 1981 by a group of researchers and scientists, IANDS came to be as a result of increased public interest in near-death experiences. The group has no religious affiliations. Its members have devoted the last 27 years to studying the phenomenon experienced by Bennett and millions of others.
From pragmatist to believer
Bennett himself was a practical person when he had his experience in 1983.
“I was the chief engineer on a research vessel,” he said. “If I couldn’t see it or touch it, I didn’t believe in it. I was not the type of guy you’d think this would happen to.”
Bennett’s ship was off the California coast when a horrific storm hit. The ship’s design engineer needed to get to Los Angeles International Airport as soon as possible, so, despite the weather, it was decided that Bennett and another crew member would take him to shore on a small rubber boat.
“Normally, I would not go on [a mission] like that,” Bennett said.
But Bennett boarded the boat. Mere moments later, a 30-foot wave toppled the vessel, tossing Bennett and his compatriots into the violent sea a mile from shore.
That’s when Bennett joined the ranks of near-death experiencers.
“I had a full-blown near-death experience,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he found himself in darkness, what experiencers call the void. There he felt total calm that was augmented as a light began to shine towards him, getting brighter and brigher.
“I got this feeling of love and welcoming [from the light],” he said. “It’s hard to explain, but it was beyond anything I was accustomed to. It was like love permeated my whole being.”
Bennett said the light was unlike a normal glow, but was instead millions of fragments of light combining together. As he watched, three of the fragments broke away and came towards him. Those fragments were soon joined by several more, and they guided Bennett into his life review.
“It’s like reliving your life, but you’re not just an observer,” Bennett said of the life review. “You don’t just see things as you experienced them. You see how others perceive you and how you interact with them.”
But Bennett wasn’t exactly happy with what he saw.
“I was in my mid-20s when I became chief engineer,” Bennett said, “because I was a pretty aggressive young man. I stepped on a lot of people to get where I was. I saw things [in the life review] that I wasn’t leased to relive.”
After his life review, Bennett said he heard a voice telling him to go back.
“The voice said, ‘It’s not your time,'” Bennett said. “‘You have to go back, because you have a purpose.’ So I had to go back.”
So, with reluctance, Bennett went back to his body, an experience he called “more traumatic than dying.” Then began his true ordeal.
“It was such a profound experience,” he said. “You feel like you’re not all here, like you’re still half there. You try to tell someone, but no one understands. No one believes you. It’s very isolating.”
A changed man after his experience, Bennett ended up divorced from his first wife. He ended up hiding the gifts he brought back with him, including a sense of knowing — he said he would know things were going to happen before they did.
But Bennett couldn’t forget what had happened to him. In 2002, he connected with a Rochester man who had started a support and discussion group for near-death experiencers. With nothing closer, Bennett decided to start his own IANDS chapter in July 2005.
“It’s really caught on,” he said. “We started with 12 or 15 people at the meetings. Now we get 60 to 80.”
The experience impacted Bennett’s personality, as well.
“I came back a changed man,” he said. “The experience taught me that I need to be aware of everything I do. I need to be open and honest, and be the best person I can be.”
For more information on the Upstate New York chapter of IANDS (UNYI), contact David Bennett at 685-8394 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.