Anyone who openly declares that consciousness is not brain is going to get some attention. Especially when it's from an established neurosurgeon whose knowledge of brain science includes 25 years of clinical practice, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women's and the Children's Hospitals and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Dr. Eben Alexander has collected his fair share of skeptics over the claims he's made in his New York Times bestseller, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife.
After a year of being on the shelves for public consumption, his book has sometimes taken a beating from critics who have poked holes in his story of surviving a very rare case of meningitis, which virtually destroyed his neocortex (the side of the brain that makes us human) and nearly left him dead or at best a vegetable.
Still, no one can dispute the proof that he's alive and well today. Now he travels throughout the world, lecturing in churches, hospitals, and at symposiums, giving interviews to journalists the likes of Oprah, as well as working on a new book he says will unpack the science behind his recently adopted theories on brain, consciousness, and spirituality.
I read Proof of Heaven when it was first released, and I met Dr. Alexander briefly at a talk he gave in New Bedford, Mass. in the spring, but I relished having an hour of his time recently to discuss the questions I'd considered since I first followed his story in the headlines.
I started off by telling him I write exclusively about the connection between consciousness, spirituality, and health to which he replied, "Right on the money!"
The following are highlights from our discussion:
Why do you think you came back to tell your story?
Well, I know that my initial connection to come back, as I explain in the book, was my love for my 10-year-old son, Bond. Even though I did not recognize my son with my eyes when I was aware of his face and I didn't hear him with my ears as he was pleading with me to come back, he had somehow reached across all of those dimensions and brought me back to this world. I came back because of that connection of love.
I also think what I bring to the table helps to legitimize near death experiences (NDEs) from a scientific standpoint and explain the nature of our reality -- how our mind and consciousness basically can never die. The reality that unfolds has tremendous implications for health, too.
It would be one thing if I was the only one to have such an experience. It would be useless if that was the case. However, NDEs are actually very common.
I often steer people to the book Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani. Her cancer should have killed her, but she's doing very well seven years later, fully recovered. When she had her near death experience she knew when she made the choice to come back that the cancer would evaporate. Now that's the kind of healing I had from my meningitis. My neocortex was being completely destroyed -- and of course modern neuroscience would say your cortex can't grow back and all your memories don't just come back.
My doctors to this day have no idea how I had a complete healing from severe bacterial meningitis that threw me into coma within 3.5 hours, and kept me in a coma and on a ventilator for seven days. By the end of that week I was down to a 2 percent chance of survival with no chance of recovery. So, how did that recovery happen? Well, it took me several years of deep, deep, study to try and get to that answer and I promise you there is no medical explanation. But there are explanations that have a lot to do with healing in the grander sense.
And what are those explanations?
Our attitude, our mind, our consciousness has tremendous power over our health.
As I mentioned in my book, I used to kind of chuckle when I was a medical student that the medical community looked at the placebo effect as an enemy. It was kind of that 30 percent hurdle of benefit that you had to overcome to show that any pill or any treatment would be better than a placebo. Well, why not just admit you can have a tremendous amount of benefit from someone believing that they're going to get better?
The pure scientific materialist model that I worshiped for so many years has absolutely nothing to offer up in terms of explaining how consciousness might emerge from the physical brain. It gets a lot worse when you realize that all the phenomenon of the non-local consciousness -- things like telepathy and psychokinesis, and of course near death experiences -- indicate that consciousness is a far deeper, more profound mystery than "kindergarten level" scientific materialism offers up.
Then you have the enigma of quantum mechanics, which of course materialist scientists are completely befuddled by and have been for 100 years for a reason. Pure materialism does not explain the nature of existence in reality.
As long as scientists hold onto that simplistic thinking they are going to be mired down to never, ever explain consciousness or the enigmas of quantum mechanics. But there are a lot of scientists out there who do get it and this new understanding has a lot to do with healing.
It reminds of something that Mary Baker Eddy wrote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, a book that's transformed how many people think about the relationship between spirituality and health. She said, "Consciousness constructs a better body when faith in matter has been conquered." It sounds a little bit like what you're saying. Would you agree with that?
Absolutely. And actually I think it goes even deeper.
My journey is proof of the eternity of consciousness and that consciousness is not created by the brain. Scientific materialism teaches that the brain creates consciousness. That's a big source of confusion. Consciousness is the thing that exists. It's all one and divine at the core.
You've got to realize that space and time as we see them are cleverly wrought illusions. That was something Einstein said in a very clear way.
People who have experienced NDEs often speak of this unconditional love that they feel. They say it wipes away any sort of discord or fear. Do you see a relationship between the three-pronged epiphany you described in your book -- that you were loved, you could do no wrong, and you had nothing to fear -- with your eventual physical recovery?
Yes. I think those insights were absolutely essential to my recovery. I would say my view of healing now is we're not just talking about healing someone who has an illness or an injury. I would say by being eternal, the only progress that we make that's in a direction of causality in that higher realm is towards love, towards oneness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, knowing that we are eternally and infinitely loved by that all-loving, all-powerful God.
The more that we're in alignment with that in our knowing of our existence here, realizing that our life doesn't end with the death of the physical body, that in fact our journey is in this vast tapestry of existence of understanding -- all of that has everything to do with healing.
To me so much of the badness in our world has to do with the fact people don't even love themselves enough. They don't realize they are divine beings. This of course is not about being selfish and greedy. This is about that unconditional love of self and others because we are all one. It becomes more clear when you see it in this light.
Our infinitely powerful creator loves us infinitely no matter what. We are here to learn lessons, so it's all about love and forgiveness -- showing love to strangers, showing love to our enemies. That has infinite power and will completely undo evil in the world. Just look at how, for example, the Amish community has responded with forgiveness to some of the atrocities against them and how that has such an incredibly powerful effect to defuse the anger and the hatred.
"Turn the other cheek" -- that's the teaching that we should carry with us. All violence and all the mayhem and badness in this world will disappear as we all adopt that ancient teaching and wisdom just in our everyday activities and our choices. We can do that when we're empowered by knowing we are infinitely loved and we are eternal spiritual beings, we are all divine and connected as one.
The God that I experienced in my journey is every bit pure love. Likewise, so many near death experiences report the same thing. That has everything to do with understanding how we can heal. We all can experience this deep love. It's a beautiful gift.
You've said that a person doesn't have to go through a near death experience to feel close to God, to have a sense of spirituality that's pure and helpful to others. Given your experience, how do you interpret Christ Jesus' teaching that "the kingdom of heaven is within you"?
That's absolutely at the core of all of truth that God, that divine spark of awareness in each and every one of us, is a very direct link to heaven right here on earth. That's why God's love is within each and every one of us. When we don't attach conditions to this love and we let it be pure and flow from that all-loving source, that infinite power brings us healing in tremendous ways. Darkness and evil in my view are simply the absence of light and love.
For me it's become very important to meditate two to three hours a day. That's the only way I've gotten answers and returned to the wisdom I experienced during my journey.
You predicted in your book that there would be those who would work to discredit your story. You probably would have been one of those critics if you hadn't gone through the experience yourself, so how has that made you more compassionate, more able to handle the criticism?
I think I'm far more compassionate, and caring, and understanding because of my unique perspective as a neurosurgeon. We're all here on our pathway doing our best and that includes those who are still stuck in the trap that I was in before my coma. Now that's why I include in my book the hard problem of consciousness and the enigma of quantum mechanics.
You can sit there and deny my story, my visions, and my coma until the cows come home. The problem is I worked on that with a lot of very deep thinkers and a lot of true open-minded skeptics, and people who are well into the deep study of mind/brain/consciousness and the nature of reality. I worked hard with all of those deep thinkers trying to understand this.
To take the approach of, "Oh it had to be a hallucination of the brain" is just crazy. The simplistic idea that NDEs are a trick of a dying brain is similar to taking a piece of cardboard out of a pizza delivery box, rolling it down a hill and then claiming that it's an identical event as rolling a beautiful Ferrari down a hill. They are not the same at all. The problem is the pure materialist scientists can be so closed-minded about it.
I'm an M.D., but for those who have been seduced into believing the physicist who says, "I've got a theory of everything and then we can just forget about it for the next 10 million years because we've got it all figured out." Well, that's ridiculous. The human brain will never ever understand all of the workings of that infinite knowing, loving, divine God. I promise you that.
People often ask me what my scientific colleagues think about this. Well, I can tell you the true open-minded scientists out there get it in a big way and they have for a long time. It wasn't just my book. There are a lot of brilliant scientists who have known for a long time that the pure materialist model fails miserably in explaining consciousness and reality.
In fact, a big part of my message is transcending that stale worn out dogma in science, and in religion, and helping people realize those theories aren't really relevant to who we are, what we are.
For scientists to talk about a "theory of everything" is a gigantic red flag, except people tend to pay attention to scientists and of course the press does, too. When Stephen Hawking's interview came out in The Guardian (May 2011) claiming that there is no heaven and that we stop working when the brain stops working, of course people panic because they say, "Oh, Stephen Hawking is so smart." Well, he is smart, and he's a brilliant physicist, but I would say that he doesn't necessarily know that much about consciousness.
If consciousness isn't brain, what is it?
Consciousness is the thing that exists. It is the support, the basis on which all of the universe is based. Consciousness is our oneness with the Divine. It is pure God-given love and power.
It's time for brain science, mind science, physics, cosmology, to move from kindergarten up into first grade and realize we will never truly understand consciousness with that simplistic materialist mindset.