By ANNA OLSON (1,590 words)
In my past view, spiritual was not a word that I would have employed during a scientific conversation. Now I believe it is a word that we cannot afford to leave out.
Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven
Eben Alexander, M.D., was busily occupied in his roles of neurosurgeon, husband and father when his sense of identity suddenly changed. On November 10, 2008, at age fifty-four, he developed bacterial meningitis that ravaged his central nervous system for six days. On the seventh day, he started to recover, mystifying everyone, including himself, with his amazing revival and distinct memories of what happened while in a coma. He would never be the same again.
Previously a self-proclaimed skeptic on spiritual matters, Eben Alexander is now a zealous proselytizer of the love and acceptance that he experienced on the “other side.” He feels he must share this message – that it’s the most important task he has. His book, Proof of Heaven (Simon & Schuster, 2012) and his website eternea.org are steps in that direction.
The physical nightmare
Alexander describes waking up with pain at the base of his spine, which evolved to include a severe headache and a grand mal seizure. In the emergency room, doctors and nurses discovered he had gram-negative bacterial meningitis, a very rare condition, especially as nothing had happened to introduce bacteria into his central nervous system. His last words before lapsing into a six-day coma were “God, help me!”
On the seventh day, he woke up, thrashing with discomfort from the breathing tube he no longer needed. “Thank you,” he said as soon as it was removed. Later, as his surprised family and friends gathered around his bed, he said: “All is well. Don’t worry, all is well.”
All was not immediately well, however, as Alexander developed a full-blown “intensive care unit (ICU) psychosis,” which often happens to patients when their brains come alive after a period of inactivity. Gradually, the hallucinations and paranoid thinking decreased as language, memories and recognition returned. He has since regained his full mental abilities.
The real miracle
Eben Alexander claims three medical puzzles for his case: contracting bacterial meningitis even though doctors couldn't figure out how bacteria got into his "closed" central nervous system; staying alive even though bacteria were eating his cerebral cortex, the part of the brain "responsible for memory, language, emotion, visual and auditory awareness, and logic"; and the full recovery of his mental faculties.
The above is enough to get Alexander into the record books, with the doctors involved shaking their heads in amazement.
The real shocker for everyone is what Alexander experienced while in a coma. “I was encountering the reality of a world of consciousness,” he writes, “that existed completely free of the limitations of my physical brain. My experience showed me that the death of the human body and the brain are not the end of human consciousness, that human experience continues beyond the grave.”
Those are powerful words coming from a man who had built his career completely immersed in the scientific world of neurosurgery. Before his illness, Alexander had filed any reports of the supernatural under the heading “unknown.” He assumed a common sense answer would be obvious at some point.
In Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that his first awareness while in a coma was witnessing a kind of underworld. “Darkness, but a visible darkness – like being submerged in mud yet also being able to see through it,” he recounts. He felt like a point of consciousness without memory or identity, just awareness of what was going on around him. He later called this mud-like environment the “Realm of the Earthworm’s Eye View.”
After Alexander's encounter with this sludgy netherworld, he suddenly whooshed through an opening and found himself in what appeared to be a completely different world – “brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning” – into which he felt like he was being born. It was earthlike but with a difference. He was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls. Children laughed and played, and adults sang and danced. Everyone's clothing seemed to have a living warmth, as did the trees and flowers.
As Alexander was flying along, someone appeared next to him. They rode together on what looked like an intricately patterned butterfly wing. This “Girl on the Butterfly Wing” imparted a strong message of unconditional love: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” She intimated that there was more for him to see, but that he would be going back to his life on earth.
“Everything was distinct,” Alexander says, “yet everything was also a part of everything else.” He would silently pose a question and the answer would “come instantly in an explosion of light, colour, love, and beauty that blew through me like a crashing wave.”
Alexander then found himself entering what he called the Core, “an immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting.” A brilliant orb seemed to act as interpreter between him and what he sensed was God, the Creator, the Source. He uses the name “Om” to describe what he felt was an omniscient, omnipotent and unconditionally loving God.
Alexander learned to navigate between the levels of his mystical journey. When he slipped down to the murky, mud-like level, he found that when he wished for the “Spinning Melody” he had heard before, it appeared and pulled him out of the sludge, up towards the Gateway and the Core.
“Emotions are different up there,” Alexander writes. “Imagine that every time your mood changed here on earth, the weather changed instantly along with it. That your tears would bring on a torrential downpour, and your joy would make the clouds instantly disappear.” He says that inside and outside don’t exist in heaven – everything is permeable and connected.
Although he felt he had communed with God (or “Om”), Alexander admits he “never heard Om’s voice directly, nor saw Om’s face." He says it was as if Om spoke to him through "thoughts that were like wave-walls rolling through me, rocking everything around me and showing that there is a deeper fabric of existence – a fabric that all of us are always part of, but of which we’re generally not conscious.”
Eben Alexander says that communicating with God is the most extraordinary experience imaginable, while at the same time being very natural. “God is present in us at all times,” he claims. “Without recovering that memory of our larger connectedness, and of the unconditional love of our Creator, we will always feel lost here on earth.”
Back on planet earth
The Girl on the Butterfly Wing had told him he would be going back. Now he was descending through great walls of clouds. He sensed people praying for him, and it gave him confidence that everything would be all right.
Back in the earthly world of the living, Alexander needed to recover and then decide what to do with the rest of his life. He could either keep quiet or go public with what he experienced. He chose the latter.
A contribution to the near death experience (NDE) literature that Alexander wants to make is to squash medical explanations for NDEs. He writes, “The more I read of the ‘scientific’ explanations of what NDEs are, the more I was shocked by their transparent flimsiness. And yet I also knew with chagrin that they were exactly the ones that the old ‘me’ would have pointed to vaguely if someone had asked me to explain what an NDE is.”
While Alexander was writing about his heavenly journey, he realized he was disappointed that he hadn’t seen the spirits of deceased loved ones. He was grateful to the Girl on the Butterfly Wing, but she didn’t resemble anyone he knew from his past. Then he saw a picture of the sister he had never met. It was her. She had been born to his birth family after he had been adopted out, but she died before he reunited with them. Realizing that the Girl was the spirit of his dead sister helped to heal his deep pain about losing his birth parents.
* * *** * *
I loved this book. It’s deliciously ironic that a neurosurgeon who doesn’t believe in mystical tales from others has a near death experience that flips him into being a zealous promoter of the reality of heaven. In Appendix B, Alexander demolishes all the neurological arguments that attempt to explain NDEs. This guy knows brains, and you’re not going to fool him by using fancy medical terms to invalidate NDEs.
Alexander wonders if this journey in and out of coma was “meant to be” in the sense that his illness and recovery were to show proof of consciousness beyond brain functioning. For six days, his brain was being eaten by bacteria, yet he had vivid, interactive and life-changing experiences in another dimension.
Those of us who believe in the existence of spirit or soul probably won’t have any trouble accepting his near death experience. There are others who say there is no spirit that lives on separate from brain and body. Perhaps Eben Alexander’s revelations in Proof of Heaven will help to convince the doubters that a person’s spirit does exist – and that heaven is real and VERY beautiful.
Anna Olson is a Winnipeg freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her articles at annaolsononline.blogspot.com.
Sidebar (656 words): “The Prophet” – Eben Alexander Gets Pummelled
In his article “The Prophet” (Esquire magazine, August 2013), Luke Dittrich questions the credibility of Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven (www.esquire.com/features/the-prophet). Dittrich declines to accept that Alexander's near death experience (NDE) is proof of anything.
In his introduction, Dittrich writes: “Before Proof of Heaven made Dr. Eben Alexander rich and famous as a ‘man of science’ who’d experienced the afterlife, he was something else: a neurosurgeon with a troubled history and a man in need of reinvention.”
Let’s deal with the troubled history issue first. In Proof of Heaven we learn that at four months of age, Eben Alexander was adopted by a couple that loved him completely, calling him “chosen” (as opposed to adopted). However, there was still a part of him that felt rejected and unloved because his birth parents gave him up. This subconscious ache surfaced seven years before his illness. At the time, he had found his birth parents, but they didn’t want to see him because they were still grieving the loss of their daughter two years earlier. This ache pulled him down, affecting his home life and work.
In the book, Alexander doesn’t give details of these pre-NDE problems, but he doesn’t hide the fact that this was a difficult period. Do his former misdeeds (like an insensitive bedside manner in one instance, and surgery on the wrong vertebrae in another) negate his NDE? Dittrich also details the excellent pioneering work that Alexander accomplished. My impulse is to take the NDE at face value regardless of previous good or bad deeds.
Dittrich says Alexander was “a man in need of reinvention” prior to his NDE. In Proof of Heaven, Alexander says that as he recovered from his illness, he realized he felt like two personalities walking around in one body. His experience on the other side felt intensely real; he couldn’t dismiss it. Yet he still loved science. "How was I going to create room for both of these realities to coexist?" he asked himself.
Alexander’s decision has been to go public with his experience. He has created a website, eternea.org, and he speaks often on radio, TV and at conferences and other public events (browse “Eben Alexander YouTube” for public performances). Proof of Heaven has been translated into 35 languages. If he gets rich from it all, why put him down? His success shows a high level of public interest in a spiritual topic. We could applaud that. (Do we complain when people are paid millions to chase a ball or puck around?)
Whenever a person takes a public stand on a controversial topic, he or she can expect a certain amount of criticism. Luke Dittrich’s article may convince some people to disregard Alexander’s message, but it doesn’t dissuade me. I think the article is a case of “shoot the messenger” rather than dealing with the substance of the message.
Dittrich quotes the Dalai Lama chastising Alexander at a function at which both were speakers. “When a man makes extraordinary claims,” the Dalai Lama said, “a thorough investigation is required to ensure that person is reliable, has no reason to lie.”
Dittrich's implication is that, because Alexander once falsified a medical record, his otherworldly experience is not to be believed.
Who am I to argue with the Dalai Lama? But I will anyway. My approach to dealing with another person talking about a mystical experience is to ask: Does it resonate with me? Will this information help me live a better life?
My answer is yes to both questions when I look at Eben Alexander’s report of his near death experience. I have read a lot about NDEs in general plus I’ve had one of my own. Alexander's experience has some different elements to it, but fits within my previous understanding.
I admire Alexander’s courage to go public and risk the “rotten tomato” flings from people like Luke Dittrich.