Since its publication, "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife," by Eben Alexander, M.D., has taken readers by storm: The book, which details Alexander's experience of the afterlife during a five-day meningitis-induced coma, has spent 15 weeks on the New York Times' bestselling paperback nonfiction list and has won praise from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Katie Couric.
The book joins numerous testaments of near-death experiences, but Alexander's status as a neurosurgeon makes his account of the afterlife especially compelling. In addition to poetic evocations of Heaven, the experience has prompted him to proffer new theories of the human brain, consciousness and the "illusory nature of the material realm."
It should come as no surprise, of course, that Alexander has encountered criticism from skeptics in intellectual and scientific circles. And while he continues to push his message with messianic confidence, he's not denying that the transition from cynic to believer has been a difficult one. Alexander talked to Bookish about his struggle to relate his experience to peers and what the next steps in his science career will be.
Bookish: You practiced Christianity prior to your experience of Heaven, but more so "in name than in actual belief" as you wrote in a recent essay in Newsweek--what was missing from your faith before that is in place now?
Eben Alexander: I saw no way for there to be any survival of consciousness after death of the body and brain--no way for any "afterlife" of the self, for any God or [for] Heaven. I believed that consciousness emerges from the brain. My odyssey proved that consciousness (soul/spirit) is primary, is actually freed to higher awareness when freed from the body/brain [and] that afterlife is a must. God is absolutely real, at the basis of our very conscious awareness. My revelation actually offers a more ready solution [to] some of the deepest questions known to human science and philosophy (i.e., the "Hard Problem of Consciousness" and the enigma of quantum mechanics).
Bookish: Do you remain a devout Christian? If so, why did you choose to return to the Christian faith?
EA: I attend a Christian church and enjoy participating in Christian ceremony. My journey showed me that the way to God is through love, compassion, oneness and forgiveness…. To the extent that a religion teaches the oneness that we all share…that religion is portraying the truth as I see it.
Bookish: You say that during your coma your cerebral cortex was completely offline, and that you therefore had no technical capacity for consciousness. How do you explain your awareness of what you saw?
EA: This is the heart of my revelation--my brain could not have manufactured this ultra-real, elaborate, life-changing odyssey. It really occurred, in a realm more fundamental than our physical world. All that I had come to believe—over 30 years of scientific experience—concerning the brain as the origin of consciousness had to be revised from the ground up.
Bookish: Skeptics have argued that your visions of the afterlife were random images produced by a brain under extreme duress. What is your response to this?
EA: Any physicians who have dealt with such severe cases of bacterial meningitis [as I had] will acknowledge that such patients have no brain capacity for ultra-real, extensive, interactive experience and memory…. It became clear that my story is the “exception that proves the rule,” that it validates so many of those other reports of near-death experiences as occurring…outside of the brain.
Bookish: You say in your book that when you were in this place, you had no memory of your life, your family, your own identity or even language. Did you still feel like "you," i.e., a single individual with a self? Do you remember having emotional reactions or thoughts about what you were seeing there? Do you recall feeling afraid, or distinctly unafraid?
EA: I was a "speck of awareness"…. There was no remnant of "Eben" as a person who had lived on Earth (no ego or "self")…. My personal identity and destiny were veiled from me during the experience. Emotional presence was very powerful there, much more so than in our earthly realm (emotions there are more "pure" and unfettered). But none of it attached to my personal "Eben" identity until I saw [my 10 year-old son] Bond’s face…. I did not recognize him in terms of remembering his name or that he was "my son" (I had no linguistic notion of a father and son at that point), but there was a…powerful bond of love between us that [served as] the catalyst that forced my return out of a sense of his need for me, and my responsibility to be there for him--that was the key to unlocking my temporary amnesia that had allowed for such a deep journey. The only true terror I felt during the entire journey was [upon] recognizing his face, because my only defense up to that point was that I had no attachments or responsibilities, that my existence could continue or cease, and that it did not matter. Bond’s face told me that it did all really matter, because of my love and responsibility to him—that I had to comprehend it all, and somehow survive to be there for him.
Bookish: Did you or do you now have a sense of how long you were there? Were you conscious of time passing?
EA: Time there was much more fluid. The entire odyssey seemed to go for weeks or months, very elaborate and interactive. There is indeed a causality and flow of events in that higher spiritual realm that is much more fundamental than causality in the earthly realm.
Bookish: Do you believe this consciousness without self, memory, language or time is inherently present within all of us? Or was this something you were only able to experience by crossing to the other side?
EA: Yes, experience and memory of experience are the essence of our very being and by their nature exist completely independent of the physical realm. Knowing and awareness in the spiritual realm are closer to the truth of our existence, compared with the pale reflection that we witness here in the earthly realm.
Bookish: Transitioning from this place of serenity back into a world full of stress, demands and complications must have been immensely difficult. What was the hardest part about "coming back"? How do you navigate the earthly day-to-day, now that you know what lies beyond?
EA: The hardest part about coming back occurred several months later when I realized the profound nature of my journey and how it…proves the reality of our eternal spirit/soul. Trying to keep a lid on that, given the astonishing and awe-inspiring ramifications, has been very difficult. We all have a purpose in this imperfect earthly room. It’s very easy to navigate day-to-day, knowing that my purpose is to share this revelation about the nature of our existence. It is crucial to point out that realizing the eternity of our soul and spirit necessitates reincarnation—any discussion of “what lies beyond” must take into account that numerous reincarnations are necessary towards our soul becoming one with the Divine.
Bookish: When you regained your consciousness and health, were you motivated by your experience on the other side to make changes in your life? What were the first changes you made, and why?
EA: Yes…my experience changed my life fundamentally, just as it has done for thousands of other returning near-death experiencers. The skeptical response of my colleagues to my early sharing of my story steered me toward trying to explain the ultra-reality of my experience as a brain-based phenomenon. Within months, I came to realize the power of my journey and its message and that led [me to make] far more profound changes in my life. Fundamentally, I see this all-loving energy [that I witnessed] as healing energy that applies to self, family, others and patients…. Health is all about seeing the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and Divine facets of us all. Disease, illness and hardships are opportunities for growth, allowing for the ascendance of our souls in the higher realm.
Bookish: What are the some ways people can cultivate peace and serenity in their daily lives?
EA: Centering prayer, deep meditation--any means of turning off the self and ego, which foster anxiety and fear over past and future, coming to know the oneness that we all share that at its core is divine.
Bookish: Do you believe you were destined to have this experience of the afterlife? Why or why not?
EA: It took me more than a year to realize, but yes, I believe that this did occur for a reason--that I did return to tell the story and to validate the spiritual realm and the deeper meaning of our existence.
Bookish: Do you think there's any way for people to experience this "heaven," or at least get a sense of it, without undergoing a traumatic brain malfunction?
EA: Absolutely! This knowing is within each and every one of us by being conscious beings. We [can] come to know this same all-loving, all-powerful creative source of the universe…through centering prayer and deep meditation.
Bookish: You've taken an interest in other NDEs (near-death experiences) since having your own. What are some of the most noteworthy accounts you've come across?
Bookish: Several people have compared your story to that of Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuroanatomist who had a spiritual epiphany as a result of a stroke.
EA: I was most impressed when I read Jill Bolte Taylor’s book ["My Stroke of Insight"], especially because of her description of the actual hemorrhage and how she started becoming one with all the material objects around her in the room and her great sense of love for all. To me, that revealed [a] strong sense of self and non-self that we form through our linguistic brain and all of its definitions in the objects and relationships of our physical reality. So much of my current knowing has to do with comprehending the illusory nature of the material realm and that so many of our limitations and hurdles to true knowing have to do with that linguistic brain and all of its boundaries. Part of my lessons involved becoming all of the scene that was presented to me, which at times would involve facets of the higher dimensional universe through extended swaths of higher time outside of the earth time. I saw that at its deepest level it was all about love, to the point where love was an actual constituent, a law of affinity, like the law of gravity, or the laws of quantum mechanics that dictate atomic orbitals such as those of carbon (that gives us its symmetry, allowing for biology), and that Love was the most fundamental of these laws of affinity. By having a complete eradication of neocortical function, I was allowed a rich demonstration of the nature of our existence.
Bookish: What books (in addition to your own) or authors would you recommend to people who'd like to learn more about NDEs?
EA: My friend Ptolemy Tompkins was a great help in putting together "Proof of Heaven," and his "Modern Book of the Dead" is a great presentation of the significance of NDEs in the larger context of history.
Bookish: You've vowed to focus your scientific career on investigating the nature of consciousness. What are some of the research leads you're pursuing?
EA: Start by going to www.Eternea.org, which is there for public education about the physics of consciousness and for people to leave their own spiritually transformative experiences in a database that will allow for enriched study of these phenomena. My research currently involves…auditory enhancement of deep exploration of consciousness through Sacred Acoustics (www.sacredacoustics.com).
Bookish: Any plans for a second book? What are you thinking about for it, even if it's still early?
EA: Yes, I’m working on a second book. It will elaborate on the nature of free will, on a divine plan, on the true power of unconditional love, reincarnation, the nature of causality in both the earthly realms and the higher realms, the fundamental nature of time and space and my greater understanding of human destiny and of the cosmic destiny of all consciousness.
Bookish: We love the bowtie. Any story behind it? When did you start wearing it and why?
EA: When I was offered my first real job position at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I was told by a fellow resident at Duke, who had been at Harvard, that I had to wear a bowtie. And that’s when another resident, Dr. Gene Rossitch (with whom I shared many connections in both this realm and the other), taught me to tie and wear a bowtie.
Eben Alexander, M.D., has been an academic neurosurgeon for the last 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women’s and the Children’s Hospitals and Harvard Medical School in Boston. Visit him at LifeBeyondDeath.net.