Is it: (a) a trappist monk, (b) a sufi imam, or (c) a Harvard neurosurgeon?
If you answered (c) you would be correct.
Dr. Eben Alexander – who has worked at some of the most prestigious US medical institutions – has spoken of the need for a different “picture of reality” after he nearly died during a seven-day coma. His book “Proof of Heaven” has just been published.
The biographical work, previewed in a Newsweek article entitled “Heaven is Real: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife”, set the web humming as to what his experience does or doesn’t determine about life after death.
Yet that doesn’t seem to be the thrust of his book. The word “afterlife” is barely mentioned, although his experience has given him “a scientific reason” to believe in the continuity of consciousness “beyond death”.
That’s primarily because, through his experience, he now has a new understanding of the very nature of consciousness, and references to that are woven throughout the book.
This is the crux of the work to me. As a neurosurgeon Dr Alexander experienced a consciousness he didn’t previously believe existed, one that is “completely free of the limitations of [the] brain”. And that from a scientist once comfortable with the “modern neuroscience” perspective that “the brain gives rise to consciousness – to the mind, to the soul, to the spirit, to whatever you choose to call that invisible, intangible part of us that truly makes us who we are…”.
In that brain-independent consciousness, he experienced the love of “a God who cares for us even more deeply and fiercely than any parent ever loved their child.”
Many in his field will be astonished by his acquired certainty God exists. To some scientists, though, the claim of a stand-alone consciousness will seem equally astounding as they regard the brain as either the only game in town or view consciousness as just a by-product of its physical activity. Others are convinced consciousness plays a much more substantial role.
As science strives to better understand consciousness, Dr Alexander’s experience includes medical facts deserving consideration.
Because, whether he was in a real or imagined heaven, one thing is evident: although the brain was apparently AWOL (his entire cortex had shut down!) he was still aware – something considered a “medical impossibility”.
And he wasn’t hallucinating. Comparing his coma experience to hallucinations he’d seen others undergoing – and had earlier experienced himself, during a few days of Intensive Care Unit Psychosis – he said:
“But while I was in my coma my brain hadn’t [just] been working improperly. It hadn’t been working at all…And yet despite all of this, I had been alive, and aware, truly aware, in a universe characterized above all by love, consciousness, and reality”.
So what might be happening if the “higher-order brain functions” are “totally offline” and yet there’s a profound awareness of unconditional love? Could that suggest such love is always present but somehow obscured by a limited viewpoint?
“How come consciousness can exist much more richly outside the brain?” – Dr Alexander asks, in a videoresponding to questions about his experience.
To many, like myself, this is what we feel we are glimpsing when we meditate prayerfully – that we can reach beyond the mundane thinking that seems to demand so much of our mental attention and find a stillness within, a window onto the kind of powerful, inclusive love Jesus knew and exuded. He spoke of a kingdom of heaven “at hand”, accessible to anyone adopting the humble, living-in-the-now innocence of little children. Rather than pointing to a vague future promise of heavenly good his effective healing practice proved a touch of “heaven”, or harmony, could be as close as a change of thought.
Which might be just as well because only a handful of people will ever have the kind of near-death experience Dr Alexander relates.
But the potential for healing through gaining a more spiritual consciousness is not confined to a few. Many, like me, who seek an alternative to the limitations we see in drug-based medicine, have found the prayerful awareness of divine love can be a powerful mental approach to health. It can ease and even cure acute and chronic ailments and bring surprising insights that challenge our familiar material way of thinking about things.
That echoes what Dr Alexander concludes from his own spiritual transformation, a conclusion that will resonate with others whose spiritual growth has also coincided with unexpected recovery from ill health.
He said: “I think it will be just a wonderful thing for humanity to get back to re-acknowledging the power of that divine spark of our spiritual existence and realising that the body and the physical reality is not all there is to the world.”
In other words, we each have the opportunity to break through the boundaries that a merely materialistic existence would impose on our health, happiness and hope – and glean some of the benefits of the kingdom of heaven “at hand”, here and now.
This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post UK on 31 October, 2012.