Proof of Heaven: A neurosurgeon's journey into the afterlife
Eben Alexander, M.D.
Simon and Schuster, 2012 (paperback, 196 pages)
Joe Szimhart, reviewer (Dec 2012)
There are deep flaws in this author's perceptions.
When it comes to the supernatural, some ancient occultists held to the adage To Know, To Dare, To Do and To Be Silent. Unfortunately, since the New Age Movement explosion that began in the 19th Century, those very occultists have become blabbermouths that will publish secret doctrines, private revelations, prophecies, spiritual memoirs and I talked to God tracts. The neo-mystics appear before any crowd or media source that would have them. If Saturday morning cartoons and popular fiction are any indication, we can easily see why: Occult occurrences and supernatural powers of mind have a wide and deep appeal in entertainment as well as in private belief. Nearly half the people I meet claim to have some psychic talent and humbly try not to brag about it.
The filters of occult debris are skeptical science and the honest magician, thank God. Yes, I am being facetious by thanking good old God but I am being serious too. Without a God given trait of reason and analysis to evaluate evidence, we humans would remain in a world of hellish and stupid superstition. In some respects we remain there despite modernization. Entire sub-cultures entertain irrational fears of witches and demons and continue to hunt down and kill innocent folks with mental illness or quirky ways of relating to nature. We know what rabid Fundamentalists and pompous Inquisitors can do to alleged heretics and witches. We know what happened to Hypatia and Joan of Arc. But who can blame them for being alarmed. Too many disordered minds continue to believe in their own delusions and manage to recruit and fool devotees. We can easily understand where the To Be Silent part of the old occult adage comes from: If you see God or an angel and want to be regarded as sane or holy, shut up and behave.
Despite the narcissistic nonsense inherent in much private revelation, a true scientific impulse to unveil the reality of a soul or an angel or God persists. Sir Isaac Newton, hailed by one biographer as The Last Sorcerer, was an avid if closet alchemist as were many of his contemporaries at the dawn of modern scientific experimentation. The great advances in the 20th century science dimmed the power of supernatural claims so much that a great divide exists between hard science and lofty religion. Dr Eben Alexander’s book is the latest in a long line of responses to this rift. Others have thoroughly reviewed his Proof of Heaven. Many have seen Alexander on Oprah or heard him on NPR and visited his popular website www.lifebeyonddeath.com.
Briefly, Alexander writes about his near death experience (NDE) several years ago when he went into a coma for many days as a result of a rare E-coli meningitis or severe infectious pus that shut down his brain and much of his nervous system. His physicians had little hope for his survival. While in coma, Dr Alexander recalled an extraordinary existence in another realm that was heavenly. He recalled being taken on a cosmic tour by an angelic young woman in plain human attire after experiencing a primal soup of smelly creation and creatures, an earthworm level. She flew him to a blissful place where people, animals and angels interacted and then to something he called the Core or the place of God, a being he got to calling Om because there was a primal brilliant void accented by indescribably holy sounds. In heaven he had instant answers to questions from the personal Om that was and was not the author at the same time.
Alexander was an accomplished aviator and successful neuroscientist in mid-age when he went into the coma. He was also a skeptic about God and heaven, practically an atheist. “Science seemed to be providing a steady onslaught of evidence that pushed our significance in the universe ever closer to zero” (35). His experience in heaven not only redirected his perception; it also re-energized his mood, healing him of a long, subtle depression regarding his adopted roots. He was born again for all intents and purposes, religious or not.
Since his NDE, Alexander has been on a mission to argue beyond the best scientific dismissals for the existence of heaven. Science has not ruled out the reality of his experience. For example, the rebooting of his brain after coma can not account for what he recalled, he says. He surmises that he is unique among the NDE crowd that retained greater or entire brain function during their experiences. Personally, I have no bone to pick with him about his heavenly experience whether it "really" happened or he made it up. What interests me is not to try to disprove extraordinary NDE claims but to see what people do with them after. I am curious about behavior or more precisely: How does a person after an NDE incorporate the experience, make sense of it for society and for self?
I.M. Lewis once observed in his book Ecstatic Religion that after an ecstasy (to stand outside oneself) you will invariably bond with the environment in which it took place or the source that appeared to inspire it. If one has a born-again ecstasy in a Pentecostal church meeting, that church will most likely be the place of worship and the Gospel the source of inspiration for a long time if no for life. If one takes a psychedelic herb in the Amazon rain forest with an indigenous tribe, the herb (entheogen) and that shaman administering it will likely form the narrative that explains the experience. Any number of cult leaders and motivational seminar promoters know this: If you can engineer an ecstasy, OBE (out of body experience), an emotional breakdown and breakthrough, or group euphoria, then you can better maintain the devotion of the client/recruit to your scientific system, therapy, religion or cult. When I read Proof of Heaven I was not surprised to find that Alexander fell into a milieu indicated in his book that supported his experience. What is that milieu? How does he dumb it down for our consumption?
The author actually has some insight into this process of why we inevitably have to dumb down our NDE and brushes with heaven—there are no words, myths, poems, or narratives that properly carry the sacred into the profane. Alexander remained the scientist by addressing every brain function he knew to dismiss purely materialistic explanations. He turned to the Monroe Institute, a seemingly secular organization where clients can go to have OBE type experiences induced. Alexander found that Monroe's approach using a trademarked Hemi-Synch brain wave manipulation helps him and others approximate what he discovered while in coma, the Gateway Experience promoted by Monroe. Alexander uses some of the Monroe language in describing his OBE as having three realms: Earthworm eye view, the Gateway and the Core.
At Monroe, Alexander found that he is unique but not alone. His mission to promote these experiences coincides with Monroe’s experiments with transcendent awareness. Although he lightly acknowledges the Christian mystical traditions, his bibliography essentially ignores them in keeping with his desire to remain trans-religious. He discovers no judgment in heaven: “…nothing can tear us from God” (14). Alexander encourages us to “cultivate”…“this miraculous aspect of ourselves” and “bring it to light” (85). His experience of heaven appears to have transcended all religion (as most mystical experience does by definition). He positively references Eastern religion, the Dalai Lama (of course), and a host of New Age or psi-believers including Rupert Sheldrake, ex-priest Matthew Fox, Gerald Jampolsky and Marianne Williamson inspired by A Course in Miracles, reincarnation therapist Brian Weiss, death and dying observer Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Gnostic apologist Elaine Pagels, and self-styled “non-dual” mystic Ken Wilber.
Alexander's Gnostic side is revealed in Chapter 32 in barely two pages when he attends an Episcopal service on a Sunday with family shortly after his recovery. He feels the sacred space in an entirely new way as he approaches the altar to take the host. “A painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the communion of the Core. I shuddered as I recalled the bliss of infinite unconditional love I had known there. At last, I understood what religion was supposed to be about. I didn't just believe in God; I knew God” (147-148).
Carl Jung essentially answered that same way in a famous interview: I do not believe in God; I know he said. I have low regard for Jung's disjointed Gnostic side—I think his mentor Freud was right to warn him about the “black tide of the occult.” Jung got into some dicey territory as a therapist and scientist. Why try to paint kitchy, sensational or arbitrary portraits of angels and Jesus when you can paint wonderful pictures of your neighbor? Jung missed a lot on the ground where most of his clients lived and breathed in their anxieties.
This is not to say that I dismiss Alexander's integrity or experience. I like the book for its easy reading style and apparent honesty. But Alexander draws some insights consistent with apocalyptic Christianity as well as New Ageism. He believes that we are “in a crucial time in our existence” (72)—as if ever we were not in a crucial time. In other words, he overreaches by projecting the particular experience onto the global environment: This is how I see it--this is how it is!
But I am curious to see where his campaign to convince us that heaven exists goes ten years from now. Just for the record, I am not one that needs convincing about heaven but I find Alexander’s approach to “cultivate the miraculous aspect of ourselves…by manifesting love and compassion” a tad delusional. Here he is revisiting the super-idealism of New Thought religion. He insists that God truly lives within us “right now and that is in fact the being that God truly intends us to be.” He claims that “love and compassion are far more than the abstractions that many of us believe them to be. They are real. They are concrete. And they make up the very fabric of the spiritual realm” (85). In this latter regard, Alexander falls smack into the Theosophical and New Thought/A Course in Miracles (ACIM) religious frameworks.
Love and compassion as well as fear and hate are to Theosophists and New Thought religionists thought forms with quantifiable existence like gasoline and oil in an engine. Theosophists C. W. Leadbeater and A. Besant published a small illustrated book called Thought Forms on 1906. Similar to Alexander, ACIM talked at length about the holy instant in which there is no separation from God, that separation from God is but an illusion, that we can use daily meditations or affirmations provided by ACIM to erase this illusion and stay one with God. Similar to Alexander, Eckhart Tolle has made a career out of this simple insight of the “Power of Now” and the illusion of material life. People throng to be in Tolle’s presence as if he exudes this magical power like an Eastern guru that can transmit shaktipat, which is a kind of electrical jolt to the Kundalini energy.
The reason I find all this holy hoopla about love as an independent energy that can be stored through meditation and somehow sent is the high propensity for human beings to fool themselves and others that this is actually taking place. If this were true, then the Transcendental Meditation cult or something like it would have brought peace to this planet ages ago. But TM in my experience has been nothing more than a spiritual wrecking crew to naïve seekers that fall into its depths. (See the documentary David Wants To Fly as a good example of what I mean about TM). Like TM Alexander misses an essential fact about love: Love requires relationship with and sacrifice for the other in real, not imaginary ways. Love as pure energy, as Alexander claims, does not exist in this life or in anything that we call life. Until I am dead, really dead and never to come back, there is evidence of nothing else no matter what people say with OBEs or NDEs. Pretending to be Godly or God now will only bring on pride and more narcissism no matter how delightful it may feel for a time. But it might get you on Oprah.
There is strong indication that people that use the drug DMT have similar experiences: