Saturday, November 17th, 2012 a friend and I went to the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, VA., to hear Dr. Eben Alexander III, author of Proof of Heaven, speak of his near-death experience. I had first read about Dr. Alexander in Newsweek and, as I read about Dr. Alexander’s vision of “Heaven” that included fluffy white clouds, a lush green valley, masses of butterflies and a beautiful girl, I thought sounds like the Western white Christian version of Heaven. Bah, humbug. Then this friend asked me if I had seen the article; she had read the book and was so overwhelmed by it that she had bought it and wanted to loan it to me. I read it and ended up having a lot of questions about the whole thing. But let’s hear a little bit about Dr. Alexander’s experience:
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian, I was so more in name than in actual belief. I didn’t begrudge those who wanted to believe that Jesus was more than simply a good man who had suffered at the hands of the world. I sympathized deeply with those who wanted to believe that there was a God somewhere out there who loved us unconditionally. In fact, I envied such people the security that those beliefs no doubt provided. But as a scientist, I simply knew better than to believe them myself.
In the fall of 2008, however, after seven days in a coma during which the human part of my brain, the neocortex, was inactivated, I experienced something so profound that it gave me a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death.
Very early one morning four years ago, I awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours, my entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and that in essence makes us human—had shut down. Doctors at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia, a hospital where I myself worked as a neurosurgeon, determined that I had somehow contracted a very rare bacterial meningitis that mostly attacks newborns. E. coli bacteria had penetrated my cerebrospinal fluid and were eating my brain.
When I entered the emergency room that morning, my chances of survival in anything beyond a vegetative state were already low. They soon sank to near nonexistent. For seven days I lay in a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline.
Then, on the morning of my seventh day in the hospital, as my doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open.
There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility. (From the Newsweek article, Oct. 8th, 2012)
One of my questions was, if this guy’s “higher order brain functions were completely offline”, how, after he came out of the coma, did he remember what happened while he was in the coma? And how did he know that this experience happened while he was in the coma, and not right before, when he was having convulsions as the bacterial meningitis attacked his brain, or right afterward, as he was coming out of the coma (he also says that at this time, he had psychotic delusions in which his wife was chasing him in a hospital and he was rescued by Ninjas)? And that this experience constitutes “proof” of a real place called “Heaven”?
Then this friend tells me that Dr. Alexander is coming to the A.R.E. and asks if I want to go with her. The Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.), for those unfamiliar with the place, is described thus on their website: “Edgar Cayce (1877–1945) founded the non-profit Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) in 1931, to explore spirituality, holistic health, intuition, dream interpretation, psychic development, reincarnation, and ancient mysteries—all subjects that frequently came up in the more than 14,000 documented psychic readings given by Cayce.” So you know the audience there for Dr. Alexander is going to be sympathetic, as is my friend, and, with reservations mostly involving the questions above, so was I. Let me explain.
I believe in what Dr. Alexander (in a playful and affectionate manner) calls “woo-woo”. I believe in reincarnation, in near-death experiences, in the existence and persistence of the spirit after the body has expired, in other worlds and multiverses. If you know me or have read my book Parisian by Heart, you know that I have seen ghosts, including my maternal grandfather, my husband’s father, and a woman who lived in our house many years ago, and have spoken to them and heard them speak to me. I have not had a near-death experience, although my friend’s mother has; she herself has had an out-of-body experience- but I am a self-taught lucid dreamer who always knows when I am dreaming and have traveled through space and time in my dreaming body.
I believe in a Divine Creator who brought into being all that there is and that we, and everything we can experience in this world and beyond it, carry sparks of the divine within. I do not believe in a god who gives his creations one shot at life and then consigns good folks to a place called Heaven or bad folks to a place called Hell, for all eternity, which is a very long time. I believe in a creator that has sent us, and continues to send, teachers, like Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and Edgar Cayce, to help guide us and show us the way. And sometimes, maybe even an ordinary joe like Dr. Alexander gets to bring back a little piece of the divine to share.
So on this Saturday, Dr. Alexander speaks to the standing room only crowd in a conference room at the A.R.E. From 10a to 12p he stands before an Apple computer while beside him, a large screen projects the PowerPoint presentation that outlines his NDE (near-death experience) and how it affected his life. There is also a question and answer session. The presentation and Q&A’s continue in an afternoon “workshop” the same day from 2:30-4:30p. Then, of course, there is a book-signing. My friend has brought her copy of the book to be signed.
As my friend helps explain to me, and as is discussed in the presentation and answers, Dr. Alexander can remember his NDE because of, and as proof of, the existence of one’s consciousness outside of the brain and body. Memories, information of all kinds, remembrances of past lives, etc., can be accessed from that other realm, through psychedelic drugs (not recommended) or in trance states, like Edgar Cayce did, or through deep meditation, Dr. Alexander’s preferred method. As he talks, remembering and relating his experience, he shuts his eyes for many moments, as if watching a movie inside his mind. His time in that other realm was more real to him, he says, than anything he has ever experienced. It has not faded with time, as a dream or nightmare would have.
And what about the fluffy white clouds, the green valley, the butterflies, the beautiful girl…? Dr. Alexander believes that our personal perception of this world and the constructs of what we perceive as “Heaven” color and overlay the translation and transmitting of that other realm he visited, a place of peace that is suffused with the divine and to which we, after many lifetimes here, will eventually return to spend eternity.
But still….”Proof of Heaven”? Turns out the book’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, chose the title, and Dr. Alexander objected to it vehemently. His experience, he argued, did not constitute proof, and the “place” he went to was not Heaven as Christians would define it. The publishers also asked him to remove nearly 3/4 of the book as he had written it, in order not to overwhelm the readers at first. It could serve as an introduction to him and his NDE and subsequent conclusions and reflections on it, and if it was well-received, a second book could contain the removed material. Much of that has to do with quantum physics/string theory/frequencies and vibrations and its parallels with all that “woo-woo” stuff.
One more thing- the beautiful girl. Dr. Alexander was adopted after his 16 year-old, unmarried mother gave him up a few months after his birth. As he got older he searched for his birth mother, off and on, occasionally working with a social worker, but it wasn’t until after his NDE that the social worker called him to say his birth family was ready to make contact with him. His birth mother had ended up marrying Dr. Alexander’s father, her childhood sweetheart, and they had gone on to have three more children. When he finally went to meet them, there was his mother, his father, and two siblings. After the emotions of the meeting had died down, he asked them where was the third sibling? She died two years ago, they said, and handed him a picture of her. Two years ago was before the doctor’s near-death experience. He looked at the photo. It was the beautiful girl.