190. Dr. Eben Alexander on the Medical Mystery of Near-Death Experience
Interview with Dr. Eben Alexander about his new book, Proof of Heaven, and the medical mystery of his NDE.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with neurosurgeon and author Dr. Eben Alexander about his new book, Proof of Heaven. During the interview Alexander explains why his medical training did not prepare him for understanding his near-death experience:
Alex Tsakiris: One of the really fascinating parts of the book is the professional transformation you go through as a result of this experience. As you tell it, you weren’t totally unaware of the near-death experience research. It was out there. You had heard of, for example, Dr. Raymond Moody, but it was something you looked past because all your training had told you this was impossible. So, it had created this blind spot in your medical knowledge.
Dr. Eben Alexander: …it did require a tremendous amount of re-education. Having been an academic neurosurgeon for over 20 years, I thought I understood brain and how brain generates consciousness and mind and soul, spirit, what-have-you. But my thinking was clearly that when the brain and the body die that’s the end of consciousness. I now know that’s absolutely not true. And to get to that point after my experience I really had to learn a tremendous amount about consciousness I never had to know as a practicing academic neurosurgeon.
I knew a few things about consciousness. I knew a few things that seem to turn it off. Every day we use general anesthesia which is effective at turning off consciousness. Yet having used it for 150 years we still have absolutely no clue how general anesthesia works. I think that should give the listener a little bit of an idea of how little we really understand about consciousness. In fact, my experience showed me this very clearly, and I go into nine neuroscientific hypotheses in my book that I entertained and discussed with others in neuroscience, neurosurgery, trying to explain how my ultra-real experience might have happened in my brain given the severity of my meningitis. My conclusion is that none of these explanations work.
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Today we welcome Dr. Eben Alexander back to Skeptiko. Dr. Alexander has just published Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Near-Death Experience and Journey into the Afterlife. Welcome, Dr. Alexander. Thanks for joining me on Skeptiko.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Well hello, Alex, and thanks very much for having me back.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, you’ve written quite a book here. One part medical thriller—it really is—and one part near-death experience science book. It’s a great read. I didn’t think neurosurgeons were supposed to be writers of this caliber.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. I think you can tell it’s really a story from the heart because it’s a very personal story and my experience was absolutely life-changing in every sense of the word. And I mean, to me I think a lot of people are most interested when they hear that I had a profound near-death experience like millions of people have had and witnessed that ultra-reality and the startling nature of that realm.
And because I had bacterial meningitis, which really pretty much turned off the human part of my brain, after I was recovering and putting the whole story together it started becoming very clear to me that there was absolutely no way that it had happened in my brain. And that was based on neuroscientific principles. So as stunned as I was by the nature of the experience, the ultra-reality, when I was waking up from coma my original intent was to try and explain that based on neuroscientific principles. T
Then over a few months and even before I started reading any near-death experience literature, I realized how sick I was and how it was really impossible to explain this very rich experience through the typical neuroscientific explanations and it really happened and it happened in a place that’s outside of our physical universe. I think that’s what’s so stunning and that’s why so many people are fascinated by this story.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. And of course, as you just mentioned, I think the other aspect of it that draws people in is your background. I mean, you would know the answers to some of those questions. You have quite an extensive academic background as well as professional. I mean, you are a brain surgeon. You know how people say, “It doesn’t take a brain surgeon?” Well, in this case it takes a brain surgeon. You were a professor at Harvard Medical School for 15 years, you’re publishing papers in all medical journals, so you are a bonafide expert in these areas.
And then if I can just fill in a little of your story—so there you are, you’re a neurosurgeon, you moved back to the South where you’re from originally with your family to slow down a little bit although you still have a very active practice and do to this day. But then this incident, this spinal meningitis, and it’s an e coli bacteria, which I just was stunned. I didn’t know anything about it but again, this book is part medical thriller so when you read this book—and it’s really a great read.
It’s not only a book you’re going to want to read for yourself but I really think it’s the kind of book you’re going to want to give to someone else because they’ll be drawn into the story and at the same time they’ll be overwhelmed by the medical and scientific evidence behind it.
Anyway, this thing happens to you and I guess one of the parts we could explore right now is as a physician, tell folks a little bit about the medical miracle of your recovery itself. Taking the NDE out of it this is just an extraordinary medical case, isn’t it?
Dr. Eben Alexander: Right. I must say, all the physicians and nurses who took care of me were absolutely dumbfounded that I ended up making a complete recovery. As you pointed out a minute ago, it’s very important to note that it was an e coli—a spontaneous e coli meningitis—which in adults probably has an incidence of around 1 in 10 million per year or less. So it’s very rare. That, I think, has mainly served the purpose of keeping me focused so that I was not about to dismiss any of this. It’s almost like it was kind of an overkill of forcing rarity on me so I would not lose track of how important it was to get to the bottom of all this.
The other thing is, as I do tell in the book, when I first came down with this illness which was on November 10, 2008, I became symptomatic at about four in the morning. It was a very severe, very rapidly progressive disease so it started with back pain and then rapidly to a severe headache. And then within about three hours of onset, into a grand mal epileptic seizure that was really not breakable. And if you do a literature search you’ll find that if someone has a grand negative bacterial meningitis like I had and they go into coma rapidly, and in the literature that’s within 24 hours—of course, I was so sick I did that within three or four hours.
It turns out that with that history, when they get to the emergency room their mortality is already at 90% from that illness. So I had only a 10% chance of surviving when I got to the emergency room. They quickly put me on three antibiotics to try and cover this and I did not respond for several days to the antibiotics. So that 10% survival estimate when I first came in the door crept towards 2% or 3% by the end of the week, which is the time when I finally woke up.
My physicians were making it very clear to my family that even if I did survive it, especially by that point after I’d been in a coma on a ventilator for a week, that my chances for neurological recovery were very limited and that I would probably spend the rest of my life in a nursing home. So in fact, they were even at the point of discussing stopping the antibiotics just so they didn’t get caught in that trap where at the end of the day they might have cured the meningitis and yet been left with somebody in a persistent vegetative state. It really was an absolute miracle that I was able to come back.
Alex Tsakiris: And your coming back is again just stunningly remarkable. Talk a little bit about that. You do in the book; you describe the process but it just sounds almost unbelievable that you would recover the way that you did.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Well, I will tell you that if I’d had a patient—before my coma if you had asked me, “How much does a patient remember if they have acute bacterial meningitis, go into coma within hours, spend a week on a ventilator, and then finally start to wake back up?”
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but your eyes popped open, right? Your eyes pop open and you say, “Take this ventilator out.” And you start talking. I mean, that is also quite amazing, right?
Dr. Eben Alexander: It was absolutely stunning. I think it’s important to point out to people that for one thing, I would not expect a patient to remember anything at all from within that experience. So in fact, I was very shocked because I remembered a tremendous amount and that’s what I tell in my story.
The other thing that’s crucial to understand is that the meningitis was so effective at wiping out the outer surface of my brain, my neocortex, that’s the part where all of our human experience happens. Meningitis is probably the most efficient way to wipe out the human brain and human existence and still leave some of the deeper structures intact so that potentially somebody could survive it, although very, very few people who are as sick as I was with bacterial meningitis end up surviving at all. So I still consider myself extremely fortunate.
Alex Tsakiris: And you remark in the book that this is for those reasons probably one of the most convincing cases of survival of consciousness because it’s very difficult to argue from a medical neuroscience standpoint that there was anything going on in that brain state that you were in.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Right. I think my neurologic exams very clearly point out that I was getting much worse through the week to the point where I really didn’t need much in the way of sedation or anything. My brain stem was very damaged, you can tell from my lack of brain stem reflexes. I mean, I was extremely sick from this.
And of course, when I started reviewing my medical record much, much later I was shocked that I could be that sick and then be coming back to the point where I was reviewing my own medical record. In fact, I was present at my own Grand Rounds, which are a clinical pathologic correlation conference which most people obviously cannot ever do because those conferences are about patients who are deathly ill.
It just shocked me that the meningitis was so effective that deep inside coma, when I first became aware of anything deep inside coma, I had absolutely no memory of my life. No knowledge whatsoever of Earth or humans or this universe, certainly nothing about my identity or any of that. I didn’t even have any words. All my words were completely gone. There was no language at all. And I spent a very long period of time initially, and of course long is easy to understand when you realize I had no prior existence. So just like for a newborn, an hour or two can seem like infinity because it’s their whole lifetime.
And likewise, just coming into existence in this murky kind of underground, muddy, foamy realm which is what I initially remembered, it was an area that I call in my book “an earthworm’s eye view.” It’s a very murky—I don’t think memory was working at all well and that’s why it seemed so foamy. I had no body awareness, no sense of self at all.
I was just aware of being this speck in this kind of mundane, boiling soup with this mechanical pounding sound deep off in the distance and kind of a vague sensation of roots or vessels or something that were coursing through the muck around me. Occasionally even a memory of some face that might boil up. I mean, these could be ugly, grotesque shapes. Certainly nothing identifiable. They’d boil out of the muck and there might be some screech or roar or something and then they’d go back into the bubbling soup and that was that.
I felt like I was in that earthworm eye view, that murky realm, for ages. It’s impossible to really put a number on it because it was for a very, very long time. It was the only existence I’d ever known. And it was in that setting that I had this what to me seems to be kind of a spontaneous emergence, which is most paradoxical in looking back on it because it was at a point where that earthworm eye view, that muck, was at its lowest ebb.
My thinking when I was writing all this up is that that earthworm eye view was about the best consciousness that my brain, soaking in pus, could muster. That’s why it was so stunning that what happened next was an awareness of this spinning melody of bright light and it had all these fine filaments coming off of it. It was spinning very slowly in front of me and coming closer but it had a beautiful melody that went with it. As it came closer it opened up like a rip in the fabric of existence and was a portal into this lovely, verdant valley. But I found I was going into a beautiful realm that was a very rich tapestry, very experiential.
In recalling all the memories of it and my awareness of it in the weeks after my coma when I was trying to write all of this up as a neuroscientist report, the amazing thing was how a lot of the visual and auditory sensations had this complete overlap. I mean, I think it sounds a lot like what is known as synesthesia where people in kind of recognizing their senses and constructing the world realize that sometimes auditory may overrun into visual and olfactory may be associated with certain visual or auditory. I saw a lot of that kind of thing when I was recalling all of this and trying to write it down.
It was an incredibly interactive realm and one that was very beautiful and kind of vivid and stunning but in recalling the beautiful music and a lot of the scenes that I saw, it was very difficult to unravel just because of this incredible overlap. And it was all ultra-real. It makes the realm that we live in here on Earth seem very dreamlike in comparison. It was very sharp and crisp and poignant and meaningful. Even though I had no words in that realm, the concepts, conceptual flow, was pure and complete. I mean, in fact words seemed to be a great bottleneck, a hurdle to understanding compared to the way information flowed into me there.
So I had that absolutely lovely scene that I flowed up into that was very rich in its complexities and also very interactive. Any question in my mind—and these were not worded questions. I could kind of wonder why and kind of who and what and the answers to those questions hit me like these incredible waves of experience. They would come through me and I would know completely the truth to everything around any of those queries. And from there this was this very profound sense of Divine and of the Divine presence that I describe in the book, and also the importance of love and how powerful love is in that realm.
Then I went outside of the entire universe and I was out with the orb of light and with this Divinity and learned so much more. I go into that in detail in the book but the important thing is that that very rich experience with profound knowledge coming into me would then suddenly without any apparent lead-in, I would be back in that earthworm eye view.
And actually I learned that by recalling the notes of the melody that beautiful light would come spin up in front of me and then as I kind of encouraged the melody and remembered more of it, the whole thing would open up again as a portal into that beautiful, very complex, rich, ultra-real realm and then back outside of the universe where I was taught more-or-less. And that happened several times.
It was a real mystery as I was trying to put it all together and write it down when I came back, especially that it was back and forth between this murky, very simple and unresponsive earthworm eye view and the very rich and vivid and alive and responsive aspects of what I call the Gateway and the Core which was outside of the entire universe. It took me a long time to understand why that all was and what that was showing me. Really it’s taken me about 3-1/2 years to come to my current level of understanding about what that entire journey meant and what it was telling me.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s an absolutely amazing account and it’s amazing on several levels. One is the detail. You know, it’s unbelievable that you could have a recollection of that level of detail and you can remember things happening in the sequence is both remarkable and is very useful for folks who want to understand whatever message you could bring back to us from that realm. Which I think is a tricky subject that we might want to talk more about later.
I also like—and you bring this out quite clearly in the book—that despite any uncomfortableness that it might create in someone, the message is one of Divinity; the message is one of love and a compassion that goes far beyond what we can imagine in this Earthly realm but which we often talk about when we talk to people who have had various kinds of spiritually transformative experiences. So you do kind of go there, if you will, and kind of jump right into it and say, “Yep. There’s no question about it. This was this Divine experience.”
Dr. Eben Alexander: The phrase, “unconditional love,” people talk about all the time who have had these kinds of experiences. The words just fail to do it justice. But it explains so much and the comfort that I found there and the love and the oneness and the connectedness that we all have and share is really profound. But of course, this is all confirmed.
It turns out that my older son had some home from college two days after I got out of the hospital and he was shocked to see me conversing at all because the last time he’d seen me I’d been deep in coma. He was just amazed at this transition. He said it was as if there was a light glowing within me, which I certainly felt. I mean, I was getting up at 1:30 or 2 every morning and just writing. I was just so elated to be alive and elated to have been through all this.
But he also advised me—he could tell I was very interested in writing this up and at the time my intent was to try and explain it based on neuroscientific principles because that ultra-reality is just an absolutely stunning thing. After I wrote down everything I could remember, and he advised me to do that before I read anything. So in fact, it took me about six weeks after I got out of the hospital to write down what amounted to about 20,000 words, which was kind of my core story.
Based on my son Eben’s advice which is very sage advice, not to read anything at all about physics, cosmology or near-death experiences until I’d written my entire story down, then I started reading the near-death literature and was shocked at the similarities across the board of what people experienced. In fact, when you research the afterlife literature going all the way back to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and lots of other early writings about afterlife going all the way back to Ancient Greece, it’s very clear that the similarities far outweigh the differences and are far more impressive.
This realm is very real and this realm is eternal and it’s very reassuring to see all this confirmation in so many different places. For me, as a neurosurgeon, it’s pretty clear how the differences arise in some of these stories and that has a lot to do with the brain and human mind serving as kind of a filtering function so that our culture and our personal history can kind of flavor or color our recollections when we come back from these places. But having been there, I can tell you that it was far more striking to me the similarities. The similarities going back for millennia in these writings of people who have visited these realms.
It’s not simply those who have a near-death experience. There are numerous ways to have spiritually transformative experiences and to me some of the most instructive were in Raymond Moody’s recent book, Glimpses of Eternity, where he talked about shared death experiences where loved ones–although back in the late 70s it was health care workers who happened to be there when a patient made a transition over–would be kind of sucked in along that spiritual journey even to the point of seeing someone’s life review, a soul’s life review on their way into the heavenly realm. And then in the shared death experience, you have a person who is perfectly healthy whose soul gets sucked along for part of that journey and then comes back to tell about it.
I would say before my coma, of course, I would have been very tempted to say that’s just some very kind of stressed-out psychological response. And now I know that it’s real. That these things indicate kind of the profound nature of what’s going on with reality and our existence. These are things that if we really want to understand truth and get to truth, we need to have a better understanding of what these kinds of experiences are telling us.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit about that because one of the really fascinating parts of the book is the professional transformation you go through as a result of this experience. I mean, it’s kind of like a Flat-Earth kind of thing where you reveal in the book that you weren’t totally unaware of the near-death experience research. It was out there; you had heard of Raymond Moody. But it was just something that you completely looked past because all your training had said this was impossible. This doesn’t exist. So it creates this blind spot in your medical knowledge.
I think that process is fascinating and you’re very open about it. I think it goes a long way towards helping us understand how we can be in the situation we’re in in terms of the medical establishment’s and scientific establishment’s views of these kinds of experiences. Do you want to talk to that a little bit?
Dr. Eben Alexander: Yeah. That’s actually one of my favorite subjects, as you can imagine, is the transition that I went through because of this. I had grown up in North Carolina in Winston-Salem in a family. My father was an academic neurosurgeon and he always led me into the scientific way of thinking. I really spent my life growing up with a scientific way of thinking. He had also been a combat surgeon in the Pacific in WWII and I think it was his strong spirituality that got him through that experience relatively intact because that was a very tough time.
So he gave me both a spiritual background and we used to go to church, a Methodist church, when I was growing up. But as much as I wanted to believe in God and Heaven and the power of prayer and all that, the more I went through my academic neurosurgical career and I trained at Duke and I spent 15 years on faculty at Harvard Medical School in Neurosurgery, the more it just seemed to be basically impossible to explain how the spiritual realm and God and Heaven could exist.
And in fact, I had my own personal kind of psychic challenge or trauma back in 2000 that had to do with the fact that I was adopted. That ended up really crushing out of existence my last hope that there could be a loving God or that prayers would be answered. And that was in 2000 that that happened. It was eight years later that I went into coma.
I can tell you that my journey in coma showed me very clearly the existence and power of that Divinity that exists and is very real. It also proved to me beyond any doubt the eternity of our souls. I know that physical death of the body and brain is not the end; it’s a transition. In fact, I think many will be quite surprised to find that their conscious awareness actually expands greatly when they leave the confines of the physical limitation of human brain and body. That’s something else that I explain pretty clearly in the book.
For me, it did require a tremendous amount of education. Having been an academic neurosurgeon for over 20 years, I thought I understood brain and how brain generates consciousness and mind and soul, spirit, what-have-you. But my thinking was clearly that when the brain and the body die that’s the end of consciousness, soul, spirit. I now know that’s absolutely not true. And to get to that point after my experience I really had to learn a tremendous amount about consciousness that I never had to know as a practicing academic neurosurgeon.
Because a neurosurgeon, we know a few things about consciousness. We know a few things that seem to turn it off. Every day we use general anesthesia, which is effective at turning off consciousness and yet having used it for 150 years we still have absolutely no clue how general anesthesia works. I think that should give the listener a little bit of an idea of how little we really understand about consciousness. In fact, my experience showed me very clearly and I go into nine neuroscientific hypotheses in my book that I entertained and discussed with others in neuroscience, neurosurgery, trying to explain how my ultra-real experience might have happened in my brain given the severity of my meningitis. And none of them work.
So in many ways my experience showed me that consciousness can exist very richly totally outside of the brain and body and that it exists in that form after our body dies. Now, there’s a lot of literature in trans-personal psychology that has to do with reincarnation and past life studies and also a tremendous literature on what I call “phenomena of extended consciousness.”
Some people in the past would say “psi” or “paranormal” or “parapsychological” experiences like remote viewing, telepathy, extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences, all manner of things like that that I know from my experience since coma are very real phenomena. There’s that marvelous book, Irreducible Mind that Ed Kelly and Bruce Greyson and the group UVA put out for any scientific types who still doubt extended or what we call “non-local” consciousness.
And also the book by Pim Van Lommel on Consciousness Beyond Life. Both of those are marvelous books about consciousness and how it exists and in fact exists in a much richer form when it’s not encumbered with a physical brain and body.
Alex Tsakiris: But I do have to say one of the things I appreciated about the book is you really don’t venture into those other areas too far, which I think can get a little bit confusing and a little bit thin in terms of the real science of it when folks do that. I mean, you allude to this other body of research out there that you might explore in consciousness but you don’t go too far in the book.
And also what you do do in the book which I really appreciate and I thought was great is because the book is written in a very accessible way and a very page-turner kind of fashion, you do have an Appendix in the book that you were just referring to that is in more of neuroscience-ese that will certainly address pretty directly these kinds of “scientific arguments” that are often leveled against near-death experience.
By the way, I love this–you mention that after looking at these scientific arguments you found that you were shocked by their transparent flimsiness. So you do have an Appendix in the book that addresses things from a more medically-oriented standpoint, don’t you?
Dr. Eben Alexander: I think it’s important. I mean, we’re all in this together. I think we’re all trying to get to truth so it’s not as if this is some great battle and somebody’s going to come out winning. I think all of us really would like to get closer to the truth about our existence. What my experience forced me to do was to really come to grips with what we know about consciousness and what we don’t because it’s all about consciousness.
And of course, just to clarify for people, in fact some people in my audiences have thought that only humans are conscious because we’re the ones who talk and have language. Well, it turns out that consciousness probably goes way down the evolutionary ladder and in fact I will assure you that many animals have a very rich consciousness. Many of them probably have a richer consciousness than we do because the linguistic brain, that little rational part in our brain—of course, that’s the part that I put all that tuition money into and all those years of training to teach myself neurosurgery.
It turns out that that little voice, the rational voice in our head, is not really our consciousness. In fact, I’ve gotten into a pattern of daily meditation, centering prayer, things like that ever since my coma because the real answers lie deep within all of us. We have these answers in our own consciousness but it involves—my meditations involve first and foremost turning off that little voice. You know, the little voice of reason in my head.
In fact, neuroscience showed 30, 40 years ago with Benjamin Libet’s experiments as a starting point but others more recently that that little voice of reason is not the decision-maker that we’d like to think but it’s actually a passive observer. It’s tied with our ego and with Self and in fact, what I’ve found is that liberating who I am and my awareness, liberating that from myself and my ego is a very important part of trying to get to some of these deeper truths which I think are accessible through deep meditation or centering prayer.
Although certainly I know of patients and families who have gotten this same kind of bridge to the Divine, to knowing of the Divine, to what I call the Gift of Desperation, which also can certainly happen in people’s lives where you just feel like you can’t take another step because everything has gone wrong and it’s just kind of the end. That’s when you feel that Divine love inside of you and it’s very real because it is real.
Again, that’s something I go into in my book about the power of love and that unconditional love and how we all are loved. It’s a crucial thing to understand as we move forward. I think it will help people feel this connectedness that we all share to read my book and kind of get how this has changed the way I look at all of our existence and look at consciousness.
I mentioned a minute ago about how I had to learn a tremendous amount about consciousness and I came upon the hard problem of consciousness, which I also would urge any interested parties to look into if you haven’t done that yet. The hard problem is actually a very simple thing to say. It’s simply how does our consciousness awareness that we each know and experience every waking second, how does that emerge from the physics, chemistry, biology and anatomy, physiology of the human brain?
What I can assure you is that there’s not a soul on Earth who has a clue what the first sentence in the chapter describing that emergence of consciousness from the physical brain; there’s no one on Earth who knows how to start writing that chapter because it’s a very, very deep mystery. This is something that I’ve really had to come to know full force because it helps me to understand my whole experience.
And of course, the other side of it that I discuss briefly in the book has to do with the enigma of the interpretation of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has been telling us for almost 100 years now that consciousness paints reality. That there is something very profound about consciousness that enables a reality to emerge. What we would consider our common sense, day-to-day knowledge, it says there’s a reality there and we’re simply passive observers is not correct. That’s why many very brilliant scientists who came up with quantum mechanics in the first place were driven to mysticism in trying to explain what the experiments revealed.
The experiments have only gotten even more mysterious in recent years, not less so. But I think the physics community has—I would say they’ve not necessarily stepped up to the plate to try and answer that although there are notable exceptions like Roger Penrose has written several excellent books trying to establish a physics that can be used to help explain consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Dr. Alexander, the name Raymond Moody, of course the pioneering NDE researcher, his name’s come up a couple times in this interview. I’d like to explore one aspect of that that I don’t know if you’re aware of but in your book you’re very open about your experience of adoption, being adopted as a baby and how that plays into your near-death experience in a very amazing, mystical almost kind of way.
I don’t know if you’re aware but Dr. Moody is a parent of two adopted children and he tells an amazing story about his son at a very young age coming to him with this between-lives memory. Raymond Moody’s son says, “I remember looking down and seeing you and mom on the beach talking about adoption and I was told ‘You’re going to go join that family and you’re going to become part of that family.’”
I guess there’s so many different aspects of that that we could go into but one of the things I want to explore is does it not seem that a lot of times these NDEs serve up to us just what we’re looking for? Just what we’re needing to advance? Sometimes on a level that we can’t even understand but they somehow fit into our life plan and resolve for us these life issues.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful point and yes, Dr. Moody is a good friend of mine. I love him dearly. He’s such a wonderful soul, as many people who know him will attest. I have heard his telling of some of the revelations that he has gotten from his adoptive children. It’s just absolutely beautiful. But you’re exactly right. And of course I’m sure you saw how in my story it was woven together to demonstrate very clearly how much of my life and how so much of my life, especially parts that just didn’t make sense before all came together and made sense by putting the pieces together through my NDE.
And it was kind of a two-way street because my NDE in many ways in my mind was validated very profoundly as a deep, rich, transcendental, spiritual experience because of the way it presented to me. And basically through things that were unknown to me because of the fact that I’d been adopted. Put up for adoption. And that kind of validation is very powerful. I think all that in essence, it would certainly seem that it could have easily been a purposeful thing because the revelation to me was so profound when I put it all together several months after my coma that it basically made everything start to make sense once I put it together.
But you’re right. It’s amazing how these NDEs often will bring the pieces together that help our life on Earth that might have seemed somewhat fragmented before, to bring it all to a point where it makes much more sense. It’s one of the beautiful gifts that we get out of these experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: But there’s also a challenge therein and I think it has to do with this word “personal” because there is a tendency sometimes for folks to come back from these experiences and generalize their personal message and kind of broadcast it out there that hey, I just talked to God and here’s what He had to say. Or, here’s what She had to say. And as tempting as it is to go along with that, and I think anyone who has been into near-death experience research has been uplifted by some of these accounts, there’s a certain inability we have to really access that information. We can’t really take it on face value, can we?
Dr. Eben Alexander: That’s absolutely true. I think that’s why I try to make a point in my book that as profound and life-changing as a near-death experience is, I firmly believe that we all have access to this kind of knowing. That we don’t have to almost die to get it.
As I point out, that has a lot to do with meditation or centering prayer, going pretty deep into our own consciousness and getting away from that linguistic brain, the ego, and the Self, which erect all these kinds of false hurdles around us up at the surface level. But to get beneath all that we can get to some much higher truths that are applicable more generally. You’re right. I think the lessons that I got out of my NDE are very good for me and I also think one of the main values of my NDE is that it very strongly supports that that whole spiritual realm is very real.
Part of that is it offers a much more facile explanation of the relationship between mind and brain and consciousness and reality. So I think it has value in that sense but a lot of my personal lessons and a lot of the profound parts of my story that had to do with my adoption and putting my life back into a piece that made much more sense, obviously a personal—and for me. But I think the overall story can help other people to be open and look for similar things in their own lives and also know that you can find those deep in meditation or in centering prayer or in other kinds of spiritually transformative, transcendent states.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, the book title again is Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Experience and Journey into the Afterlife. It’s sure to be a big success. It’s going to be out right around the same time that this interview is published in October of 2012. Tell us about the other things that you’re doing related to this book. http://www.eternea.org/—tell us a little bit about that and/or any other things that are going along with the publication of the book.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Right. Well, I would urge anyone interested in the book to visit my personal webpage, which is lifebeyonddeath.net. I’m trying to use the enthusiasm around this book to help educate people about Eternia.org, and this is a site that I co-founded with my very good friend and colleague, John Audette, who is also a founder of IANDS, the near-death studies group founded over 30 years ago.
John and others, Ray Moody, Bill Guggenheim, Edgar Mitchell of IONS, and Bob Staraster, there are numerous people who are helping with the Eternia efforts. We wanted to serve as an educational platform to help people learn about all manner of spiritually transformative experiences, so not just near-death experiences. But a tremendous number of other spiritual experiences that are out there that help us to know that God and Heaven and Angels and the whole spiritual realm can be very real. This can be after-death communications…
Alex Tsakiris: Terminal lucidity is one of the things you talk about in the book.
Dr. Eben Alexander: That I refer to in my book because by—and people can go there. We’re creating a database where people can tell their own stories. We’re trying to pay a lot of attention to how the data is entered so it will be very useful data that we vet on the way. We will open this to researchers, scientific researchers, consciousness researchers, those in clergy, and also as I said, have it be an educational facility for people who are curious about life after death. Curious about the spiritual realm.
I’m very grateful to Edgar Mitchell, the Apollo 14 astronaut who’s been a wonderful help in all this. He had this beautiful epiphany on his way back from the moon back in the early 1970s where he was aware of this consciousness throughout the universe. And of course, he has addressed that through IONS and through Quantrack and basically his view being that of looking at the quantum hologram. Those of you who are interested can go check into it. It’s part of David Baum and some of the other models that have to do with interpretation of quantum mechanics.
In my view that kind of thing really supports information as the core of all existence and it’s a very short step from the physics statement that information is at the base of all existence to saying that an intelligent, omniscient, unconditionally loving creator is that information at the core of it all. But we are trying with Eternia to bring science and spirituality much closer. In fact, I think that humanity will see its greatest progress if we simply open the boundaries of science to fully encompass all the possibility that belief and faith and knowing of the spiritual nature of the universe can exist very comfortably with the latest discoveries in science.
And in fact, as I said, I really had to go a long way into quantum mechanics. In fact, a second book which I’m working on will take a lot of the stuff I had to strip out of the first book, because the first book is really for the general reader, and I can tell you that to try and fully explain my experience I had to get right down into the very fundamentals of causality, free will, predetermination, energy, mass, time, space. I mean, really had to get down into the nitty-gritty of reality to try and fully understand it.
And of course, most of that was far too deep for a book written for the general public so a lot of that was stripped out but that is something that I’m working on and hope to finish sometime in the next few years. It’s a major project as you can imagine. But I think to really put all this together into a package that makes sense in the year 2012 for very educated people, we really have to look at all aspects of this. It goes very deep.
One thing I can tell you from my experience is I realized that the chasm between our scientific knowledge and even of the potential for human understanding, the chasm between that point and where the realm of this deity and the creative source of this universe is so much grander than I ever would have thought before. It’s now very clear to me how the human mind is just not in the right ballpark to ever weigh in pro or con on the existence of that Creator. We’re a little closer than lemurs and chimpanzees but not a whole lot.
And so all those physicists out there who want to write the theory of everything so they can get first prize in the Publisher Parish Challenge, we’re never going to know it all. There are some very strong philosophical reasons why I can say that in the current book and will get into it a whole lot in my next book.
But don’t worry. The journey is just fine. It turns out that when we are free of the limitations of human brain and mind, we actually can get into a tremendous amount, more knowledge, and that’s one of the challenges. When I came back, trying to squeeze into this little brain and body is a very difficult thing, which I found was the problem with many people who have NDEs. They report that same issue.
And I can tell you that awareness and understanding is much richer out there and we unfortunately just can’t bring it all back because we’re only human. We can get a tremendous amount of insight and we can try and pass that on to others which I try to do in this book. But we don’t necessarily bring back all that we’re able to witness when we’re free in that realm.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, Dr. Alexander, it’s a wonderful book and it’s a very great body of work that you’re trying to bring forward. So we wish you the best of luck with that. We look forward to talking to you in the future as you move forward with that.
Thanks again so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Eben Alexander: Okay, Alex, thank you very much. It was great talking with you.