Once you leave your body, your spiritual form appears as you perceive yourself. In Buhlman's case, he's 30 years younger with a full head of hair and much thinner. The problem is, if you prolong your out-of-body experience, your extremities start to melt.

"Don't freak out!" Buhlman says reassuringly. "You're bringing more consciousness in. You become a globe of consciousness with 360-degree vision, and then you become a pinpoint. You have unlimited abilities. It's amazing. You have the capability to assume any form. It's beyond the mind to comprehend what capabilities we have. Most people are so locked in to their physical bodies."

Buhlman tried to prolong his out-of-body experiences indefinitely two years ago when he had stage-four cancer of the lymph nodes and wanted to escape the intense pain. He discovered that they can only last indefinitely if you're dead.

RFT Photo-illustration. Illustrated elements by Mark Andresen.

The best thing about out-of-body experiences is that anyone can have them, in theory. You don't have to have a rare form of bacterial meningitis. You just have to practice by doing daily exercises and make a habit of looking for openings between conscious states, like when you're falling asleep.

At this point, Nancy Bardenheier raises her hand.

"I feel like I'm too left-brained," she says, "and this is keeping me from this experience. By God, I want to have an out-of-body experience!"

Buhlman can't promise that it won't happen without a lot of work, but he happens to be a hypnotist, too, so he asks Bardenheier and the other participants in the workshop to close their eyes and envision a stone wall upon which they will carve — with a chisel or with power tools — the words "I intend to have an out-of-body experience." An out-of-body experience (if out-of-body experiences do exist and aren't just dreams) is probably one of those things, like juggling, that somehow becomes easier once you know you can do it.

Afterward you mention to Buhlman that you find his democratic and no-nonsense approach to something that, objectively, sounds sort of nonsensical, refreshing.

"Well," he says, "a near-death experience is not something anybody wants."

The Parlance

Christina Poteros actually has had a near-death experience, but she calls it a death experience. It was beautiful. Afterward she trained as a shaman, in Peru and at a seminar with the Dalai Lama in Madison, Wisconsin, so she could help other people "cross over," as she puts it, with grace, and to let them know that death is nothing to be afraid of. In the conference bookstore, she's also selling handmade jewelry and photos and paintings of her travels, both on earth and in other realms.

"You die more consciously by living more consciously," she says. "Intention is everything. Fear is the absence of love. If there's love, it's all good."

Poteros remembers two experiences in particular. One was with a woman at Mother Teresa's Kalighat Home for the Dying in Calcutta who was dying of starvation. The other was with a fifteen-year-old cocker spaniel named Abby. In both cases she sat with the dying and cleaned their chakras and then held them and comforted them until they passed. "The pain was there," she says, "but I could feel their souls crossing over. They both crossed peacefully."

Poteros says a few other things about soul journeys and chakras, but after a few minutes you start to think that that's just her language, what rhetoricians would called her "mode of discourse."

So you try to translate her language into yours. And this — you're pretty sure — is what she's saying:

Why should anybody, even a cocker spaniel, die alone and frightened?

Why Are We Here?

This is the third annual Afterlife Awareness Conference. Terri Daniel, a hospice worker and interfaith chaplain who lives in Oregon, organized the first one two years ago in order to provide an outlet for bereaved parents — herself included — who were curious about what Daniel calls "alternative healing practices" and the possibility of communicating with their dead children.

"Other national organizations that serve bereaved parents don't allow mediums or after-death communication or encourage non-mainstream types of spirituality," Daniel explains. "I wanted to create a place to have all that to help with the grief journey."

It's about 5 p.m., the bar opened a few minutes ago, and Daniel has a glass of red wine. You figure she has earned it: She planned and executed this whole thing singlehandedly and can't get through a conversation without someone running up with another question or a quick status report about one of the sessions.

Between interruptions Daniel explains that the conference has expanded from bereavement to include discussions about spiritual explanation and scientific proof of spiritual phenomena. "We're not so much focused on healing disease as we are on supporting the soul through its journey, whatever that may be," she says. "Some people aren't sure what they think, but they want to learn." She looks at you intently. "You're a skeptic, aren't you? It's OK."

She takes a sip of wine and continues. "There's no other conference like this. What makes it different is that it combines shamans and clergy and scientists and medical doctors in the same room, and they're all aligned with the same idea. There. Isn't that a good quote to use to end your story?"

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