Eben Alexander speaks about the impact his near-death experience has had on his life.
- Posted on Sep 25, 2014
What do you ask a man who has seen heaven? Maybe what God looks like, or if everyone wears white. Did he meet loved ones who had died before him? Was there any pain? Perhaps you ask if he’s absolutely sure it wasn’t all a figment of a distressed mind...or if he thinks you were born yesterday.
The prominent neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III addressed skeptics and believers alike after publishing his bestselling book Proof of Heaven, about his near-death experience, or NDE, while comatose for a week from a rare form of bacterial meningitis—a vivid journey from darkness through a gateway of light and into a valley of great beauty, led by a strangely familiar girl to a place where he felt the close, overwhelming presence of God.
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But questions of his own remained. In his new book, The Map of Heaven, Eben shares the answers he found in the near-death experiences of others, and his attempts to revisit the spiritual realm—without the coma this time. Needless to say, we were intrigued....
You grew up with faith, correct? You knew the traditional view of heaven?
Right, I did. Although in my decades spent working as a neurosurgeon, I was having great trouble seeing how any kind of conscious awareness could survive the death of the brain and the body. That was very hard to explain...now, because of my experience, I can see much more clearly how all of that would work.
How do we know this wasn’t a hallucination or confabulation?
My brain was so wrecked by the bacterial meningitis that when I woke up, initially I had no memory of my life. I had no clue who my family members were standing around the bedside. That is one thing I could have clarified more in Proof of Heaven—my brain was really wrecked.
I had no memory of all that I knew about the brain. All that stuff was slow to come back, over many weeks. But I knew full well what had happened to me deep in coma. It was a spiritual odyssey.
Later I did think it had to be some kind of dream, but when the doctors and I reviewed my medical records, the exams and the scans, we came to realize my brain hadn’t been capable of dreaming. My doctors to this day have no explanation for how my brain came back.
Today you have no long-term effects from the meningitis?
Within three months I was not only back to normal, but better than I had been before in terms of my memories, my mental function. It’s really kind of shocking how that happened, but I ended up coming out ahead of where I had been in terms of my overall consciousness and awareness and intuitive function.
How did you begin to write about what you saw?
My older son, Eben IV, was majoring in neuroscience in college and saw me two days out of the hospital. He said there was like a light shining in me; I was much more present than ever before.
He couldn’t really understand that, especially knowing the neuroscience he did and having seen me deep in coma. He knew I should have been dead. He advised me to write everything down before I read anything about near-death experiences.
What challenges did you face when explaining your vision?
When I was writing, to me the word God was a puny little human word that didn’t do justice to the awe-inspiring power of that deity. That sense of unconditional love goes far beyond the words unconditional love.
This is not like telling somebody about a trip to Disneyland, so our earthly descriptors fall short. We don’t have words to describe it, we don’t have the concepts, although I felt that my words did about the best I could.
Even though I often point out that that beautiful realm had a lot of earthlike features—butterflies and flowers, my companion, a lovely woman on a butterfly wing—it’s better to look at it like an ideal world of which this world is kind of a pale reflection.
What sources helped you make sense of your experience?
I spent about six weeks writing everything I could remember from when I was deep in coma. Then I got into the near-death literature and was shocked because I realized that all those stories out there contained similar details to my story.
I started giving talks on my experience two and a half years before Proof of Heaven came out, and was soon contacted by numerous practitioners of mystical religious traditions to affirm how their most ancient teachings were consistent with my story.
I knew nothing of those religious traditions before my coma. These stories can sound so wacky, but when we share them, and other spiritually transformative experiences, it becomes clear that we are talking about the same realm, with one God, that deity at the core of all.
What do these heavenly experiences have in common?
People often do see angelic beings, light beings, soaring beings, with or without wings. I was really not aware of wings, but of beautiful trails flickering and sparkling. Also, of course, an encounter with a spiritual being of extreme power and essence that goes beyond all naming.
People often encounter departed souls of loved ones, even if they don’t know yet that that loved one has departed. Information passed from the spiritual realm in NDEs often comes with an imprimatur, some stamp of validation, sometimes as a clue to a deeper mystery.
These can be quite shocking, as when I recognized that my beautiful companion in the heavenly valley was the birth sister I had never known.
You were adopted, and she died before you found your biological parents. You’d never seen her before?
Correct. I received her picture in the mail four months later. There are numerous NDEs in which the subject obtains information, such as the actions of loved ones or interactions between doctors and nurses, often at a time when the patient’s brain was not functioning at a level able to process sensory information.
My favorite example is from a woman I met after a talk. She had gone to an outpatient center for a procedure under light general anesthesia. A complication resulted in a four-day coma, then prolonged recovery.
Work friends who came to visit her afterward were fascinated as she recounted that early on in her NDE, she encountered a longtime work colleague, whom I will call Ralph. He was happier than she had ever seen him—he was the most morose soul they had ever known.
After she told her colleagues, they broke the news—Ralph had died unexpectedly the day she went into coma.
You’ve tried to safely re-create your NDE. Is it really possible?
One of the greatest shocks was that while my neocortex was attacked by the meningitis, a far grander ultrareality presented itself. Consciousness is actually freed up to a much higher level when it’s released from the shackles of the brain.
We can turn off or limit the functions of our neocortex in other ways—like deep meditation and centering prayer. The most consistently powerful means for me now is to meditate with something called sacred acoustics.
Repeatedly in my coma journey, music and sound ushered me to higher levels. A beautiful melody took me through a bright portal into an ultra-real valley where pure spiritual beings were emanating hymns and chants and anthems from above.
I have not yet duplicated the full-blown ultra-reality of my coma, but I have revisited some of these realms through sound-enhanced meditation. Deep in our own consciousness we can find all of the answers, but it takes effort, persistence and a true yearning to know.
If heaven is so incredible, then what is this life for?
This is where we learn the lessons, of loving ourselves, loving all beings, showing compassion, forgiveness, acceptance. We are here to do that— manifest every bit of that love as our souls ascend to higher and higher levels. That’s why we are here.
We don’t just end this life and go sit on a cloud playing a harp somewhere; this is a dynamic process of learning and growing.
What transformation do those who have had an NDE report?
Very common is to lose any fear of death—to realize that these experiences actually point to a grand enhancement of our conscious awareness when our brain and body die. Death of the physical body is an awakening, a transition to a much higher level.
Also common is to realize that we are all truly here to love one another, that unconditional love is the coin of the realm. That love has infinite power to heal—the individual, the soul, all of humanity, all life on earth.
Also, the realization that accumulations in the material realm are only important as they allow for our soul’s ascendance in the spiritual realm—that our behavior around material things should involve giving for the greater good. My experience included all of these in large measure.
Here, we share more of our interview with Eben Alexander that we couldn’t fit in the magazine…
Can we ever “prove” heaven exists, from a scientific standpoint?
Science today is undergoing a profound revolution. The pure scientific materialism that assumed consciousness was a result of the physical workings of the atoms, molecules and cells of the brain, is crumbling.
The more we study the brain, and phenomena of non-local consciousness—our ability to be aware of things outside our scope of observation—the more we come to realize that the sheer complexity of the human brain cannot create consciousness.
Instead, the brain serves as a filter or reducing valve that limits preexisting consciousness into a narrow range of possible states.
I believe there is a reason for this “veil,” that prevents us from seeing the reality of our eternal spiritual selves as clearly as the moon rising in the sky every night. That is because we are here on Earth to learn lessons about loving ourselves and others.
We learn those lessons by being partially veiled from the richer reality that we witness in near-death experiences or any of the myriad forms of spiritually transformative experiences. All of that realm will never be uncovered through scientific investigations.
The human brain and mind are far too puny to remotely achieve that level of knowing—ever. But our science can reveal much more about it all, beginning with the study of non-local consciousness.
Any science that tries to ignore the reality of spirit, soul, consciousness is basically is trying to fight with one hand behind its back.
There’s a quote from Nikola Tesla that resonates with me: “The day science begins to study nonphysical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”
The brain limits consciousness? Are you saying that anyone’s consciousness can be unlocked if the right changes are made to the brain?
Examples of terminal lucidity and acquired savant syndromes are very common in the world of clinical neurology—yet they completely defy the simplistic "brain-creates-mind" model.
They demonstrate how damage to the physical brain can allow for the manifestation of superhuman mental capabilities, as in the savant syndromes, with inexplicable feats of memory, calculation, intuition and performance, or normalization of function in patients with advanced dementia, especially those who are close to the death.
Based on my extreme ultra-real experience as my neocortex was progressively dismantled by severe bacterial meningitis, I suspect that the "veiling" function of the physical brain has a substantial anatomic basis in the neocortex itself, that part of the brain that is most directly linked to all of the detailed modules of human conscious awareness and perception.
You talk about skydiving often in this book and your previous one. The message seems to be—there are experiences on Earth that help us approach the experience of heaven. How should people seek these out? What are other ways people can find the levels of consciousness you found?
For me, making 365 parachute jumps in college, most of which were group freefall formations, provided a rich source of excitement—really feeling alive for those spectacular experiences. Anytime we follow our passions and embrace the joys and miracles of our existence, we get closer to our true selves.
The most consistently powerful means for me now is to meditate or to use centering prayer to get in touch with the infinite consciousness available within us all.
You talk briefly about Carl Jung’s concept of “synchronicity,” events in our seemingly random world that appear distinctly un-random. It’s a common theme among our Mysterious Ways stories. How did Jung interpret these moments—and what do they say to you about the nature of our world?
The most famous synchronicity in Jung’s life occurred during a session with a patient who described a dream she’d had of being given a golden scarab, a carved Egyptian beetle. While she was telling him the dream, Jung heard a noise behind him, like a gentle tapping.
He turned and saw a scarabaeid beetle, knocking against the windowpane. Accounts like this indicate that our existence has meaning, that the whole universe has great purpose. There are no accidents—things happen for a reason.
A future book I am working on focuses on free will and the Divine plan, and how synchronicities are crucial in that evolving dance of our souls.
Here's a question from reader Nita Harrison of Murphy, North Carolina: “You say that there are trees, fields, animals, people in the heaven you saw. Are there snakes in heaven? From my childhood I've had a great fear of them.
"The other day as I was leaving my subdivision, a poisonous one was on the road and rose up to strike at my car, causing a recurrence of childhood nightmares.
"I had an accident once and felt I was about to be ushered into the presence of God. The love was so overwhelming and accepting. That would be so lovely and marvelous... the snake would not be. Thank you for an answer to this troubling (and maybe to others trifling) concern.”
That realm I described, with many earth-like features, is an ideal world on which our murky, pale material realm is based. Our fears are deeply connected to what we are meant to learn in this life, as are other apparent hurdles, challenges and difficulties.
One of the deepest lessons from my experience in this higher realm is that we have nothing to fear—by being eternal and infinitely empowered beings through our direct connection to the infinitely powerful creative being at the core of all existence.
There is not that sense of otherness that characterizes this world—nothing is isolated there. Everything is one. Nita, you will have no reason to fear in this next realm, because our direct connection to the Divine source of creation will allow us to be fearless.
Eben Alexander’s new book, Map of Heaven, will be available October 7th.