Author: Dr Eben Alexander
Published in India by Haechette in 2012
Pages: 194, Price: Rs 350
The subtitle of the book is A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Dr Alexander, the author, is a neurosurgeon by profession. Bacterial meningitis sent him into a coma for a week from Nov 10, 2008. The bacteria had made the entire neocortex of his brain dysfunctional. But Dr Alexander claims that his consciousness (or soul, if you prefer) travelled to a realm which he thinks is the ultimate reality, the divine milieu.
Dr Alexander’s experience reveals a reality or phenomenon which many mystics experienced in the past, irrespective of their religion. It is a reality in which everything is interrelated and love is the binding link. No one / nothing is a separate entity with a distinct ego. You have your identity, but you are at the same time deeply aware of your essential relationship with all the reality around. You can feel the love and the relationship. You can understand whatever is around you without any communication.
Perfect understanding and love. That’s the heaven to which Dr Alexander’s consciousness rose while his comatose body lay in the ICU of Lynchburg General Hospital.
Dr Alexander claims that he met God though he does not use that word. He uses the word ‘Core.’ It is an experience rather than a personal entity. But there was an angelic individual, a beautiful girl, who escorted him to that Core.
Without the use of or need for any medium of communication, Dr Alexander learnt that it is a world in which everyone is loved and cherished; no one has anything to fear; and that there is nothing you can do wrong. There is only love and understanding in that world; there is no evil. He also learns that evil is necessary on the earth “because without it free will was impossible, and without free will there could be no growth – no forward movement, no chance for us to become what God longed for us to be” (48).
While I can accept Dr Alexander’s vision of heaven as a place of pure love and unmediated understanding, I find it impossible to accept his logic (or the revelation he received in heaven) about the necessary link between evil and free will. Does this imply that there is no free will in heaven? Moreover, why should free will necessarily imply evil?
Dr Alexander analyses his experience using the various hypotheses and models available to medical science only to find that there is no scientific explanation for his experience. But a mere absence of a scientific explanation does not validate a supernatural explanation. The doctor, however, argues that his experience was indeed real and divine, and scientific too. Scientific, because Heisenberg and many other scientists showed that our consciousness is an integral part of the reality around us, and Dr Alexander’s experience just validated that theory. “What I discovered out beyond is the indescribable immensity and complexity of the universe, and that consciousness is the basis of all that exists” (155, emphasis in the original).
I’m not questioning the meaning or relevance of Dr Alexander’s vision. I can accept the mystical perception into the nature of the ultimate reality. If all the people on the earth could actually raise their consciousness to that level of perception, the earth would be a paradise and we wouldn’t need to crave for a heaven elsewhere. Dr Alexander’s vision is valid. The method by which he arrived at it is not what really matters. Here I’d go with Bernard Shaw who said in his preface to Saint Joan, “The test of sanity is not the normality of the method but the reasonableness of the discovery.” Shaw went on to say that if Isaac Newton had seen the ghost of Pythagoras walk into the orchard and explain why the apples were falling, the theory of gravitation would not be invalidated. Similarly, Dr Alexander’s vision of the deeper meaning of reality and the need for making our consciousness more profound in order to understand it is valid.
It is his claims about God and spirits that I find it difficult to accept. God is not necessary to explain the doctor’s experience, according to me. The doc himself says, “The brain is the most sophisticated – and temperamental – organ we possess. Tinker around with it, lessen the degree of oxygen it gets by a few torr (a unit of pressure), and the owner of that brain is going to experience an alteration in their reality. Or more precisely, their personal experience of reality” (138). With a brain whose entire neocortex had become dysfunctional, Dr Alexander too experienced the reality in a different way. Maybe, like the mystics did.
I enjoyed reading the book in spite of the images of the omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving Christian God that dominates the heaven of the doctor although the sound he hears in association with that God is Om! I enjoyed it because I have always felt somewhere deep within me that the mystical visions about the essential interrelation among beings are true. I too believe that the basic evil is in separating ourselves into our little egos instead of trying to understand the relatedness.
I don’t accept Dr Alexander’s God, the angels and spirits. But I accept the profundity, the mysticism of his vision.
I also found the doctor’s biography interesting. He was born to a 16-year old girl who left him in a children’s home. He was adopted (“chosen”) and very much loved by the family in which grew up with step-siblings. His quest for his biological parents and biological siblings, the acute pain he experienced when his mother refused to contact him, the resulting alcoholism, and the final triumph – I enjoyed reading every bit of it. Dr Alexander comes across as a very loving and equally sensitive person. It is quite understandable that he had a mystical vision.
The fact that he was speaking about flying and skydiving when he recovered from his coma also may indicate that his consciousness was indeed flying somewhere in the clouds while his body lay helplessly inert. Flying and skydiving were the hobbies of his youth.
The book keeps a suspense too about the angelic girl who escorted him in his heaven. I shall not mention the suspense here. May you enjoy reading it if you wish to. If you are a staunch unbeliever, the doctor says himself, you won’t enjoy the book, perhaps.