Proof of Heaven
A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Eben Alexander, M. D.
(Simon & Schuster)
We Americans have managed to elevate our physicians and surgeons into holy beings who, we believe, beside being divine, have access to the secrets of the universe. We have given them carte blanche in the work of curing us of bodily ills --- our mental diseases, our infections, our cancers, our aches and pains --- even having them reform (in the ultimate sense of the word) what Walt Kelley called "a case of the uglies" through plastic surgery: nipping, tucking, excising. Medical doctors enter our bodies with exotic instruments, reform us, in a sense, even amending the natural god-given state of those who want to pretend that they are never going to die. By putting these medicos on the same plane as god, we give them carte blanche to do as they want with us, curing us (sometimes), making us worse (sometimes), and most of all, helping to excise that painful bulge that resides in our back pocket.

This transformation of ordinary folk into gods and godlets has some fatal consequences. When you treat ordinary people as supreme, they may turn into the equivalent of Old Testament gods: harsh, demanding, brutish. However, every now and then, we find one of these divinities turning more human, made so by the wonderful paradox of illness, the surprising catastrophe that turns doctor into patient.

New books appear regularly, the narrative of a physician or surgeon who has come down with cancer, heart-attack, or best, to up the ante, an obscure sickness which causes the most artful members of his chosen profession to shake their heads. This chance to be patient makes the clinician turn and gaze at his colleagues, (even at his former self), discovering how vain, troublesome and --- at times --- heartless they can be.

§   §   §

They do resist being turned from gods into frogs. "If there's one thing doctors hate even more than being sick," our author writes, "it's being in the emergency room as a patient. I pictured the house filling up with EMTs, the retinue of stock questions, the ride to the hospital, the paperwork..." But Eben Alexander did indeed get just such a shock. He --- a healthy 50-year-old neurosurgeon, practicing in Charlottesville, Virginia --- came down with a rare case of bacterial meningitis caused by Escherichia coli (mostly called, simply, E. coli) which plunged him into gran mal seizure, and

    For the next seven days, I would be present to Holley [his wife] and the rest of my family in body alone. I remember nothing of this world during that week and have had to glean from others those parts of this story that occurred during the time I was unconscious. My mind, my spirit --- whatever you may choose to call the central, human part of me --- was gone.

Where did Dr. Alexander go? He went on a wild ride, that's where. One might say that he died and went to heaven. Although he didn't die. Rather, he was in Another Space for the better part of a week --- or more, maybe years (time is different out there). He did go to heaven, or what he now sees as to be a kind of pre-heaven ... a place where he was given lessons, he believes, that are extremely important for the rest of us. Having to do with life, and death, and a very peculiar and beautiful interregnum.

As he was flying over a lovely land, he was joined by a girl, a "beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes."

    We were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, alive with indescribable and vivid colors --- the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us --- vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the greenery and coming back up around us again. It wasn't any single discrete butterfly that appeared, but all of them together as if they were a river of life and color, moving through the air. We flew in lazy looped formations past blossoming flowers and buds on trees that opened as we flew near.

As I read this, I found myself with doubts about the scene around us, with doubts about Alexander himself. He had doubts too, but then he reminds us that he is not "a soft-headed sentimentalist."

    I know what death looks like. I know what it feels like to have a living person, whom you spoke to and joked with in better days, become a lifeless object on an operating table after you've struggled for hours to keep the machine of their body operating.

He says that as a realist he has had to deal with families who have just lost one "they never dreamed they could lose." He reminds us that he knows his biology, and that he knows "the difference between fantasy and reality, and I know that the experience I am struggling to give you this vaguest, most completely unsatisfactory picture of, was the single most real experience of my life."

He travels next into "The Core" which is the core of his journey, and becomes the core of his new belief system, the one that grew out of these seven days when he was out of his body, in a strange land, perhaps out of his mind. For him this is the core of proof of heaven, a heaven which appeals to us (it appealed to me greatly). But also, we have to accept that it could be a fantasy cooked up in the head of a very serious professional who, briefly, perhaps, went bonkers He found, in the sky, "higher than the clouds --- immeasurably higher --- flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them."

    Birds? Angels? These words registered when I was writing down my recollections. But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this plane. They were more advanced. Higher.

And from them, as he soared, he heard a "glorious chant" --- a sound "palpable and almost material, like a rain that you can feel on your skin but that doesn't get you wet."

    I could hear the visual beauty of the silvery bodies of those scintillating beings above, and I could see the surging joyful perfection of what they sang.

I quote these lines to give you a taste for the visions that came to him, for Alexander is no slouch in the descriptive prose department, almost, possibly, a poet trying desperately to tell us several things.

  • I disappeared from the world for a week.
  • I went to an otherworldly place which I will try to describe to you.
  • But I know and I hope you realize that these are only words.
  • And words cannot convey the powerful experience I had.
  • But I will keep on trying.
  • Because what happened to me changed my life forever. And
  • I hope it can help to change yours as well.

For he did, he tells us, go into a glorious dark space, where profound yet comprehensible concepts appeared almost automatically in his mind. It was an "immense void, completely dark, infinite in size, yet also infinitely comforting."

    Pitch black it was, it was also brimming over with light: a light that seemed to come from a brilliant orb that I now sensed near me.

The orb he calls "mother ... God, the Creator, the Source who is responsible for making the universe and all in it."

    This being was so close that there seemed to be no distance at all between God and myself. Yet at the same time, I could sense the infinite vastness of the Creator, could see how completely minuscule I was by comparison.

Finally he says that here, in this book, he will use the word Om "as the pronoun for God because I originally used that name in my writings after my coma."

§   §   §

My suspicion is that Alexander knows that his audience will be composed, mostly, of those of us who grew up "Christian." He knows that if he chooses the word "God" here, you and I would already have a set of preconceptions that would be triggered by that single word.

Since he wants us to journey with him into a new universe with as little baggage as possible, he picks a word that is a familiar to the many of us who have already ventured into the Eastern tradition. "Om" --- also "aum --- is Sanskrit, part of a sacred mantra used in Hinduism and Buddhism.

In times before our own, "Om" was thought to be the sound that you would hear if you were floating 300 - 400 feet above a town or village, the blending of the sounds of men, women, children (laughing crying singing shouting humming, yelling, dreaming) along with the sound of animals (mooing barking quacking meowing yelping whistling singing hemming-and-hawing) --- the song of life floating there forever above us all, the music of humanity and humanity's creatures melded together perfectly and uniformly ... a music that would be heard no matter where in the world you were to float.

By choosing this one word Alexander has put his message on another plane, letting him escape from any pre-ordained ideas we might have about life and death, the divine and the human, the sacred and profane. For somewhere on your journey with him on these pages you are going to either join in his vision, his new found faith ... or you are going to back away, say that this guy is off his noodle, that you've had those acid visions too and you know that they always go away after you float back to earth.

He knows that you are going to believe or disbelieve, but, as long as he has you with this book, he is going to do his damnedest to get you to go along with him. Into the core.

Me? I like this approach. (And I like his bow-tie: he wears a bow-tie when he isn't out there flying about.) Outside of his being in a profession that has its own special magic --- physicians can indeed, at times, bring us back from the brink --- he now wants you to journey with him and be changed. He takes our suspicion of lunacy and works with it to show us that he's been there, done that. It's a little zany, he says, but just bear with him.

§   §   §

The first few days after his return are quite comic. This formerly very serious 50-year-old neurologist coming back from outer space, tries to, for instance, communicate with his son Bond. There he is in his hospital bed having just woken up from the Voyage of Voyages, something known in the profession as "ICU psychosis," telling his wide-eyed son "You need to move, I'm getting ready to jump!" Later, when they try to calm him down, he finds he cannot sleep. "I kept them up all night, going on about the Internet, space stations, Russian double agents, and all manner of related nonsense. ... I was like a newborn who did not adhere to a sleep schedule."

    It's normal, even expected, for patients whose brains are coming back online after being inactive for a long period. I'd seen it many a time, but never from the inside. And from the inside it was very very different indeed.

§   §   §

I think Alexander is rather bold. Because he had a choice when he came home. In the early days, he was expected to be a little whacked out. But then, the pressure was on for him to return to "normal."

The doctors who examined him wrote him up as being "too euphoric ... that I was probably suffering from brain damage."

    This doctor, like me, was a regular bow-tie wearer, and I returned the favor of his diagnosis by telling my sisters, after he had left, that he was "strangely flat of affect for a bow-tie aficionado.

"Even then, I knew something that more and more of the people around me would come to accept as well. Doctors' views or no doctors' views, I wasn't sick, or brain-damaged. I was completely well."

    In fact --- though at this point only I knew this --- I was completely and truly "well" for the first time in my entire life.

There's a disc that came along with Proof of Heaven that I haven't listened to yet, but I pretty much know what it is going to tell me. That somehow we've managed to make the world drab, dull and gray. But it's not like that at all.

We are just programmed to "miss the wonder of why we are here." And no words are necessary, at all. The brain is but a machine, but the world wants to give us something outside and above this machinery. "We may be materialists but our minds aren't."

We are wired into the universe at large, he tells us. "This self actually determines reality. On a very real level, our consciousness makes the world happen."

--- Lolita Lark
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