Becoming Conscious: A Neurosurgeon Discusses His Transformational Experience
In 2008, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, MD, woke up in excruciating pain. Within hours, he was in full grand mal seizure and was rushed to the hospital. The diagnosis was a rare and usually fatal form of E. coli bacterial meningitis, and his prognosis was grim. For seven days he lay in a deep coma. Despite the overwhelming odds against his survival, he not only woke up, but recovered completely.
Dr. Alexander awoke with new insights, having experienced an astonishing and spectacular journey to realms beyond our known physical universe. He was so changed that he felt compelled to write the book Proof of Heaven (2012), which recounted his experience in coma. His honest struggle to make sense of this unforgettable journey is a gripping story. Dr. Alexander explains that the profound lessons he learned from his NDE (Near-Death Experience) were a complete revision of everything he had come to believe about science, consciousness, spirituality, and the very nature of all existence.
Proof of Heaven was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller for over 40 weeks, and remained on bestseller lists for over 97 weeks. It has been published in over 40 other countries and dozens of languages. In 2014 Dr. Alexander wrote The Map of Heaven, which delves deeper into science and consciousness. Dr. Alexander resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his life partner, Karen Newell, and they are currently working on a third book.
Congress Quarterly: What were your goals in writing this book and what do hope to convey to the public via this book?
Dr. Eben Alexander: It’s important to stress that when I first came out of the coma my brain was devastated. When I first awoke, my brain was so devastated that I had no words or language. I didn't even remember who the beings around me were--my mother, my sisters or my sons. My mind took about eight weeks or so to recover, and as I slowly came back, the memory of what had happened was very strong. I believed what my doctors told me initially: that my neocortex had been too damaged through this seven-day global meningitis to have experienced anything. Of course in those first weeks back, I didn't remember anything about the brain, mind and consciousness that I had learned in over twenty years of neurosurgery. So the initial effort was just to try to understand it, personally. Then, months after that, I came to realize that there were implications to the neuroscientific understanding of conscious awareness as it pertains to the neocortex, because basically my meningo-encephalitis damaged the neocortex tremendously.
As I said in my book, my doctors said I shouldn't have experienced anything—but I knew I did experience something. That's why I wanted to record it, write the whole thing down and analyze it. Initially it was going to be some kind of a paper for the scientific literature, questioning the neocortex and our views of consciousness. Over time I came to realize that it was a far bigger message than that. I then got into the study of consciousness—what is widely known in the scientific and philosophical circles as the “hard problem of consciousness,” which is really that fundamental difficulty or explanatory gap in trying to explain all of the workings of mental activity from the neuronal activity and the physical substance of the brain. Over time, what I came to realize is that it was a much bigger issue, and rather than being just a paper in the scientific literature it would be a book for the scientific-minded. I wrote the initial manuscript for the scientific open-minded skeptic, as I viewed myself to be before the coma, to help those people come to the next level of understanding on the issue of consciousness.
When a publisher became interested in this manuscript in January 2012 and it turned into a bidding war, I began to change the focus of the book, steering it toward a general public audience. After we made that choice, the publisher reminded me at every turn that the average reader in the United States has about an eighth-grade education. What happened was that the original manuscript I had submitted was stripped down to about one-third of its original length. And it was essentially dumbed down to an eighth-grade reading level. That was regrettable, as the story is much deeper and bigger than that. This is why I wrote the second book, The Map of Heaven, which was published in October 2014. The Map of Heaven goes a lot further into the scientific background that points to the fact that our pure physicalist scientific explanation is false--that there is much more to this universe in trying to explain the workings of consciousness than just the physical world. In essence, the book was written for the intelligent open-minded skeptic in our modern scientific world.
Another issue I had was that the publisher selected the book title. Proof of Heaven was not my title at all and I finally agreed that it was a reasonable title, although I think in retrospect it may have turned off a lot of its target audience just by having the word “heaven” in the title. Some have pointed out to me that it is so much more than just a “proof of heaven.”
CQ: How do your neurosurgical colleagues respond to you now in the context of your new beliefs?
EA: Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the neurosurgical community’s response. A lot of them have been very supportive and, given some minutes to discuss the mind-body connection, many have gotten right on board in agreeing this is a very deep mystery and opens your eyes to the scientific proof of non-local consciousness, that is, consciousness independent of the brain. Of course I don't know if some neurosurgical colleagues out there think I’m a nut and that I completely lost my marbles after my coma experience, but I can say that the ones who do communicate with me are fascinated, and several of them were very important in helping me to arrive at my understanding of all this over time. Dr. Michael Schulder has been very helpful in an early version of my story published in the AANS Neurosurgeon. Also, Dr. Allan Hamilton, a good friend of mine who is a neurosurgeon in Tucson, Arizona, was helpful in my early endeavors, and other neurosurgeons have been helpful in the sharing of my story.
Dr. Jim Rutka was kind enough to invite me to deliver the Kergin Lecture at the University of Toronto in February 2014, and it was an honor to be given that opportunity. Jim knew me and wanted to hear more about my story from neurosurgical standpoint. I would love the opportunity to present my notions of consciousness at some of the major neurosurgical meetings in the world and get feedback. When you get down to it, we have no idea how our physical brain creates consciousness, and models are emerging that work better than that production model. That's what I’d like to discuss, to open up a forum to the wider neurosurgical community.
CQ: What concrete things convinced you this was real versus a dream?
EA: It’s important to stress that in those first weeks and months of recovery I simply believed what my doctors told me. What I had learned in my twenty years of neurosurgical study of brain, mind and consciousness was still coming back to me over those two months after coma, so I just assumed my experience had to be some kind of fantastic, wild hallucination. The words I used to explain it to my older son Eben IV, who at that time was majoring in neuroscience in college and was home from school for Thanksgiving of 2008, was that it was “way too real to be real,” and that's really the best phrasing I can offer. Shockingly hyper-real, and that is exactly what I wrote in my initial 20,000 word description of my experience. It was only after I dove deeply into the NDE (Near-Death Experience) literature and came to realize that this sense of altered reality, of events occurring in a far more fantastic and enriched fashion than we ever encounter in this four dimensional space-time, is something commonly described in the NDE literature. But at the time I wrote about my experience, when I first came back to this world and wrote it, I had never studied the NDE literature, and this hyper-real or ultra-reality was kind of a shocking feature. In fact, it actually led me to thinking my experience was a masterful hallucination because I thought parts of it were so astonishing. I defaulted to my old models of brain creates consciousness and cortex is absolutely essential, as the most powerful calculator in the brain, for any form of detailed conscious awareness. That's how I began running into deeper and deeper problems as I tried to explain it as a brain-based hallucination. This is covered in the nine hypotheses I list in the Appendix B in Proof of Heaven.
But none of them could explain my ultra-real experience deep in coma, given the damage that was so evident in my neocortex mainly from my neurologic exams throughout my clinical course. Plus, the CT and the MRI scans revealed that it was a global phenomenon – that none of the eight lobes of my brain were spared from the onslaught of the disease.
That fact ended up being an ally in my understanding the nature of it, because if a large section—or any section—of my neocortex had remained unscathed, then I would not have been in any position to comment on the role of the neocortex through all of this experience. With my scans and my neurological exam and the clinical course and what we know about severe gram-negative meningo-encephalitis of the severity that I had, I went from symptom onset to coma and status epilepticus in about three and a half hours--that in itself is a very bad indicator. The rapid descent to coma is what gave me about a ten percent chance of survival at the beginning of the week. And as time went on and my clinical situation deteriorated, the estimated survival probability dropped to about two percent by the end of the week. That's the point (morning of day seven in coma) when the doctors had a conference with my family, and said not only was I was down to a two percent chance of survival, but they gave a zero percent chance that I’d have any kind of quality of recovery. Instead, if I was in that two percent group, the best case scenario was that I would be transferred to a nursing home in a persistent vegetative state and die few months later. They suggested as an option to stop the antibiotics and let the nature take its course. And it was few hours later that I started coming back to this world. And then began the incredible recovery that really has no western medical explanation at all.
CQ: In your summary of neuroscientific hypotheses to explain the phenomena what happened to you, you talk about REM intrusion and DMT dump theories—referring to neurotransmitters or drugs bringing on a hallucinogenic experience. Both possibilities require a functional neocortex, which you describe was not present in your case. How do you know your cortex was off when you had this experience? Continuous EEG? How do you account for the timing of your experience?
EA: The key feature is the notion of ultra-reality, which is a little difficult to explain to people. What I say is that if you accept the model that I’m accepting and proposing, which is that consciousness is fundamental in the universe and that it is actually filtered into the brain so that we are conscious in spite of our brain, then it’s not producing consciousness as much as filtering out everything we need and only allowing in that trickle of the apparent “here and now.” So what happens in the NDE, and especially in my kind of case where the neocortex was so devastated but also in many other spiritually transformative experiences and NDEs, is that we actually get to the other side of that veiling function of the neocortex. And in that realm of consciousness it flows in a much more universal and infinite way, in a rich and robust form, and that's the nature of that ultra-reality that I discussed. I oscillated to the higher and higher spiritual realms (as described in Proof of Heaven), all the way to the Gateway Valley and up to the Core (infinite Oneness), then would tumble back to the Earthworm Eye’s view – a very primitive, unresponsive realm where everything started. I initially thought that was the best form of consciousness that my physical brain could muster while my brain was soaking in pus, but I have since come to see it as a common spiritual realm. It was so astonishing to have that clear white light that would come towards me with the perfect musical melody slowly rotating that served as a portal up into that gateway realm. It was ultra-real, lush and alive, very ideal like Plato's “world of forms,” and one that is personalized, where our higher soul re-unites with our soul at the time of death. We can cultivate this knowing via conscious meditation or centering prayer--techniques like that allow us to transcend that veil. Coming to be in touch with that more pure consciousness--that's the nature of that ultra-reality.
Now getting back to your question, really the issue we ran into was that there was too much damage to my neocortex, given my neurologic exams even in the emergency room. My highest Glasgow Coma Scale was 8 in the ER, but it went as low as 3 during much of the week. One of the hypotheses I mentioned was related to the six-layered anatomy of the neocortex, trying to explain the ultra-reality as some kind of a relative sparing of the excitatory and destruction of the inhibitory networks, but that really doesn't fit the cortical anatomy. Many people ask for my EEG results, although, in fact, that is not a very high bar in terms of suggesting brain damage – the EEG routinely goes flat-line (isoelectric) within 20 seconds of cardiac arrest, and my cortex was assuredly more damaged than in that scenario, so I doubt the EEG would have been very valuable. In fact, my doctors had given up hope while I was in coma because of the dire presentation (diminished cortical and brainstem reflexes, CSF: 4,260 WBCs, protein 1,340 mg/dl, glucose 1 mg/dl, etc.), and thus did not perform an EEG. My oculo-cardiac reflex was gone; any evidence of residual functional neocortex was gone. Even my brainstem was badly damaged from day one (abnormal oculomotor function).
Then later in the week the fact that they were having the family discussion about stopping the antibiotics obviously reflected that they thought I had a very dire prognosis. Up until today my doctors have said they have no explanation for this recovery. It really is something that defies our experience given how sick I was with meningo-encephalitis. I believe that's the reason they were not doing continuous EEG or even doing another EEG, which would have been very helpful, although as people realize in near-death studies, for example, or cardiac arrest, the EEG pretty much goes flatline within about 20 seconds. So a flatline EEG, burst suppression, or slow wave patterns that we can often see in deep coma probably would not have been very instructive findings in my case, although it would be nice to be able to silence the people who keep asking, “what about the EEG?” I think it’s mainly my neurologic exams and lab values--having a CSF glucose of 1 mg/dl and CSF: 4,260 WBCs, protein 1,340 mg/dl) — that look very revealing of the severity of my meningitis. Combined with the neurologic exams, we were really left with a picture of extreme damage to the neocortex. My doctors had given up hope, and thus did not perform an EEG.
One other point I would make is about the timing of the experience. Again, one of the hypotheses I entertained, also in the appendix, is that maybe all of this was some kind of random dump of information from either going into coma or coming out of the coma. Invariably there were some time anchors in my coma, especially those six faces that appeared to me at the very end of my journey. Now if you would ask me when I was coming out of that coma during that first week, how long was I in coma, I would have told you it was months or years. It was a very extraordinary odyssey and not one that would have seemed able to confine to seven days of earth time. But I was only in the coma for those seven earth days. The six faces appearing at the end provided a time anchor indicating that the vast majority of my coma experience had to happen between days one and five of coma, not when I was emerging from it. The reason for that is that five of those six faces were of people who were physically present in the ICU room during the last 24 hours or so while I was in coma. Yet, one of those faces which was as clear to me as all the rest was someone who was not there physically with me in the ICU room. She was a family friend we had known for decades who had written a book about channeling with people who were in a coma. And, if you would have asked me before my NDE what my opinion was about channeling, I would have said it’s nonsense because the physical brain creates consciousness and obviously the notion of channeling is ridiculous. But, deep in my coma she was right there front and center amongst the others. And that's why when I came out of coma explaining things to my family, all of whom had been present there in the trenches, I told them that she had been there along with the five other faces who were physically present in the ICU. It turns out Susan Reintjes had been channeling to me/communicating with me from 120 miles away at her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. And she did so on nights four and five of my coma, and that's why she appeared to me with those other faces. This led me to believe that the entire coma experience must have happened before day four or five, because of her appearance and the subsequent appearance of the other five faces. Days one to five of coma--a period that my doctors know from my neurologic exams, scans and my lab values--was when my neocortex was too badly damaged to be supporting any kind of detailed conscious awareness, much less the ultra-reality that I witnessed.
CQ: Were you religious before your NDE?
EA: As l have mentioned in my books and my talks, my father Eben Alexander Jr., was a tremendous influence of my life, and he was very religious. He was also the head of a neurosurgical training program and highly scientific. For him, there was never any conflict between science and religion. For me there was. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, and while I wanted to believe everything I was taught in the Methodist church my Dad took me to every Sunday when I was growing up, over the years—and in my years in academic neurosurgery—I found it more and more difficult to have any kind of understanding about how conscious awareness could survive the death of the brain and body. I fell into the party line of our conventional neuroscience that “brain creates consciousness,” which of course I do not subscribe to now.
As I report in Proof of Heaven, I also had a kind of “dark night of the soul” in the year 2000. This had to do with the fact that I was adopted. I reached out to my birth mother again (as I had in an earlier year) through the children’s home in North Carolina, because of a question from my older son, Eben IV, and his sixth grade school project about genealogy. I wrote another letter to my birth mother, c/o the children’s home, to see if she was able to give me more information about my birth family. I got a response that she was out there but it was not a good time to come back into her life. And because of the laws in North Carolina, they cannot divulge much more information to you. But I took that perceived rejection by my birth mother in a pretty strong way. Then I came to realize months and years later that this perceived rejection over the telephone in a two-minute conversation in February of 2000 sent me into a tailspin in terms of faith. I had stopped saying prayers with my sons, I had stopped taking them to church, I had stopped believing in the power of prayer, and I had stopped believing in a loving, personal God. I had struggled with faith during many of those years in neurosurgery, and in 2000 I became a complete agnostic. And that's how I lived the next eight years leading up to my coma.
Of course my coma journey changed all that, forever. I now have a very profound belief in the reality of God, and I believe God is the very core of our consciousness. This is the synthesis of science and spirituality – I see humanity awakening to a much more profound understanding of the nature of God and the spiritual workings of this universe. And that, of course, is the major reason why I put out the books Proof of Heaven and The Map of Heaven and am currently working on a third book that is set to be published toward the end of 2016 or possibly later. My contribution is to bring science and spirituality together and to help us realize that this is where the world is headed.
CQ: Why do think you were chosen and why do you think you were sent back?
EA: I don't think that I was chosen in any grand universal way. I think we are all chosen to serve various roles in this awakening. In fact, I think a better way to look at it is that I volunteered for this mission. I must say that it’s more than we can really go into in this conversation. Something that I understood as a feature even in the early months after my coma journey is that reincarnation is real. My traditional Christian teaching that we have one incarnation and then eternal heaven or hell made zero sense to me after my coma, and this is something about which I give far more detail in the second and third books. But reincarnation is critical to our understanding of this. In fact I’ve come to realize that we do, in a kind of very real sense, select our hardships. Our higher soul and our soul groups between lives pick out the difficulties, like illness and injury and other hardships and challenges, we may face in our lifetime. I believe that our soul group actually chooses our lessons, which are all part of our growth--how much can we manifest unconditional love for ourselves and others, as well as show compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and mercy. If we can manifest these qualities in the choices we make in this life, then our soul groups go higher and higher in ascending spiritual levels. I’ve seen in deep meditation what I believe are actually soul plans not only of my own, but of my birth parents and of my adoptive parents. That plan would include my father who was so influential in my life, a wonderful academic neurosurgeon. My particular mission in life has to do with being put up for adoption and then struggling with notions of being worthy of love, or not. The perceived notion of being rejected by my birthmother was part of the choice that I made with my higher soul for this incarnation, in order to get some of these lessons. We do that, I believe, for the evolution of the soul group. It is better not to be too myopic and look at just our own journey, but instead look at the much bigger picture, a beautiful tapestry of interconnection of souls across multiple lifetimes.
In terms of coming back, I do believe I made a free will choice to come back or not. And it was at the very end of it all, that I recognized one of those six faces was my son Bond. Now remember, as I explained in Proof of Heaven, when I witnessed him in that NDE, I had no idea who he was because I was still amnesic for the whole life of Eben Alexander before coma. In fact, that's one of the atypical features of my NDE--that I was amnesic throughout the experience for the life of Eben Alexander. All my religious beliefs, episodic memory, every bit of that was gone. And it only came back in a stepwise fashion over the next few months following my coma. Yet that amnesia provided a very important kind of condition of my journey that helped me to realize some of the far deeper lessons of my odyssey. Because if I had not had that amnesia, if I had had a more textbook case NDE, I would have been more likely to have seen my father who had passed four years before my coma, but he did not appear to me in my coma. I would have been more tempted to default to my previous belief system that you see who you want to see on the way out, that this was just a trick of a dying brain.
So it took this kind of fantastic, amnesic NDE--an extraordinary transcendental experience that is so much in line with traditional NDEs of this world experienced by millions over millennia. I would have been more tempted to ignore it if I hadn’t had such very unusual features of amnesia for my life before, of the contrast of the earthworm’s eye view, of the ultra-reality of the gateway and of the core realms, and of the cycling through those levels from a sub-reality to ultra-reality that showed me very clearly: the physical brain is not creating consciousness at all. That was really the deepest lesson that was portrayed by that amnesia. The fact that my father was not there I think was crucial. The fact that I saw that beautiful companion on the butterfly wing meeting with me and the loving soul of my son Bond imploring me to come back to this world is the reason I came back. It was out of my love for him that I came back, even though I didn’t know it was my son Bond, which of course in retrospect is a more appropriate name than I knew at the time. There was a very strong sense of my connection to him and that I had to come back to be here for that soul. Through much of my journey until that time, I thought the journey can continue or cease to continue--it does not matter. Part of that reasoning was due to that amnesia--having no memory of any attachments or responsibilities to any other souls. Yet, once I saw Bond’s face and recognized there is another soul out there, one with whom I was deeply entangled, then I knew I had to go back to whatever this realm is because I had to be there for him. It was my free will choice to come back, a choice made through unconditional love. Only as everything unfolded after that, and in the months and years since, have I come to realize that maybe there were other reasons for me to return to this world. I have certainly come to see that I had to share my story.
CQ: What do you think happens to patients who remain in persistent vegetative state?
EA: That's a fascinating question. Of course you are probably aware that in the last few years there have been some isolated reports of EEG findings and other subtle findings of activity in the brain, especially in people with persistent vegetative states. That suggests there may be a lot more going on than we recognize. There are occasional reports of people who come back from persistent vegetative states. Now I’m not sure when the soul might be leaving the body, but I think there are probably patients out there who are in a persistent vegetative state whose souls might have already moved on. Although I think we have to maintain a very open mind, I will say that when I talk to medical audiences I make a big point to stress that I don't care if your patient is in coma, has been pronounced brain dead or physically dead, I always encourage the family to assume that anything they say around the patient can be heard, that some aspect of the soul is there and is paying attention. We certainly don't know otherwise.
I think there is enough evidence, certainly from the NDE literature and other aspects of the medical literature, that people who appear to us to be in a coma and not in their normal waking and alert state, can nonetheless be quite aware of what’s going on. Of course that's what makes the NDE literature so fascinating—descriptions of people who in some instances should be in deep coma and should be completely unaware, who were later determined to actually be aware. So just kind of treat it as such.
I should say parenthetically, I’m still a very strong supporter of brain death criteria. People often ask me that question. I’m an organ donor, and I strongly support, when patients and their families contact me, that brain death criteria and recommendations related to them should be followed in decisions of withdrawal of care. I say that knowing full well that I believe that there’s a revolution in our understanding of healing and of the nature of consciousness and in our ability to heal. I think we will far transcend our consciousness and our current capabilities in western medicine. There may come a day where there is more advanced spiritual healing and brain death criteria may not be the final criteria. We may find ways where we can move beyond that in terms of bringing souls back to this world. However, for the time being I’m a very strong supporter of brain death criteria in making such decisions.
CQ: There are not that many descriptions of NDEs with people going to hell. Why do you think that is?
EA: Well I think it’s interesting. For my own experience, if I had simply gone to that earthworm eye view where my own deep coma experience started--a coarse, primitive underground realm—and, if I had just come straight back from that to waking consciousness, I would have had what many would call a hellish near-death experience. That's not what happened, of course. I went much deeper and much further than that. Now in the literature of NDEs what you will find is that in general that maybe 3 or 4% of all NDEs are hellish or report having a very bad experience.
When you read those, the thing that's of interest to me is that many of them, even though they have an earthworm’s-eye-view-like component or may witness going to hell, then what happens later is that they get a spiritual lesson there and end up coming to see the reality of God. They are not generally banished to hell at all, so theirs ends up often becoming a more positive NDE. But they still report it as a hellish NDE.
Nancy Evans Bush has written a blog site and some books, including a very interesting book with a fascinating discussion of hellish NDEs. She makes good points: that hellish NDEs are under-reported, because they resemble ordinary NDEs in presenting such a shocking reality, so much more real than this reality; that it is so strange and real in many ways that you do not necessarily come back and immediately talk about it. I certainly had some misgivings, especially early on, about sharing with people. It's the kind of thing you naturally keep to yourself, especially when doctors tell you that the dying brain can perform all kinds of tricks. They might even try to put you on anti-psychotic medications if you talk about it. Our society is not one that fosters this notion of NDEs in general, and that's even worse if you had a hellish NDE.
Now from my point of view there is no need for an eternal hell and I don't believe that any such thing exists. I think the notion of a life review--that old saying that “your life flashes before your eyes” --goes back thousands of years. The earliest reference I’ve seen to that is 2400 years old, from the writings of Plato who recounts the story of Er, the Armenian soldier who had a profound near-death experience. Er had had a very profound life review in which he came to realize that love is the currency of that realm, and that the love you shared in your lifetime is the only thing that matters, in the end. Coming from an Armenian soldier killed in battle 2400 years ago, I think it's a pretty important finding. So the life review, reported in tens of thousands of NDEs, is very real. And the life review is basically this: if you lived your life causing pain and suffering to others, then when your body dies and you have your life review, you have to relive all of the unlearned lessons or those transgressions for which you had not made amends. And you experience it in such a way that you see yourself through the eyes of the other souls involved. Whatever is meant to be shown you in your life review will be reflected by your thoughts and actions, and it can include all the good or bad. If you have been a bad person, by our normal definition, you can have a hellish life review that many people would see as hell. I think in general the hellish NDEs are under-reported, but most also offer glimpses of the very positive.
Another point I think is important to make is that Nancy Evans Bush wrote a beautiful essay about the death experiences and visions in Angola prison. In a prison where you basically have a lot of murderers and rapists, people who we would generally say have led very bad lives, the interesting thing is that they also encounter that infinitely loving power of unconditional love, forgiveness and mercy. They might experience some of that hellish stuff because they realized their wrongdoings, but they also could see that on the far side of that was this incredible grace and joy when one accepts and makes amends for those transgressions and wrongs. These reports came from hospice workers who were fellow prisoners.
It is important to know that there is an unconditional and infinitely healing power of unconditional love just beyond the life review, just beyond any so-called hellish encounter. NDEs allow our souls to reach that higher level of that loving presence, even when we are coming from rough circumstances in life, and return to tell others about it.
Additionally, the big advice to those who are at the brink of suicide is that you don’t sit up there and play harp on a cloud after this incarnation. Rather, this is all about getting it right through multiple re-incarnations. Suicide is never the right answer. I would say life in general is very sacred, and any homicide or suicide is a complete violation of the cardinal rules of that realm, which is a deep lesson that we have to learn.
CQ: How did the experience change you as a person? How do friends and family think you changed?
EA: I would say that it has changed me from the ground up. I realized within the few months after coma, especially when my prior memories were coming back in the first two months, that I really had to go back to square one. Everything I had put together in my world view about the nature of reality was very much in question and much of it was completely wrong. It has also involved a complete shift in how I view each and every one of us. We are each an eternal spiritual being linked to the entire universe through consciousness.
The universal consciousness, of which we are all a part, actually completely preceded and caused the big bang. All aspects of the universe that we think are part of the physical universe are part of the much grander realm of infinite consciousness. Each and every one of us is part of that universal consciousness. We can connect with that one universal and infinite mind through deep meditation and centering prayer. That's the same kind of infinite mind we come in touch with in NDEs and other spiritually transformative experiences.
I urge people to go within to “get out there” in the universe. As I often say in my talks, you don't have to die or almost die to come to know everything I have come to know and realize about those realms. As conscious beings, we can all do it through meditation. I point this out in detail in the appendix to my second book, The Map of Heaven. The appendix is entitled, The Answers lie within us all. In it, I talk a lot about the work I do in meditation. I try to meditate an hour or two a day, and I have been doing so for the last five years. I do a lot of hands-on work with a group called Sacred Acoustics. People who are interested should visit www.sacredacoustics.com. They have a free download, and if you listen to that Om meditation file over headphones, you will see what I’m talking about. These are meditative tools that take advantage of differential sound frequency, a topic that is probably a little more in-depth than what you want me to go into in this conversation.
In order to meditate, we need to be able to turn off that little voice in the head that is not our true consciousness. The voice in the head is our linguistic brain, very tightly tied into the ego, but that is not our ally in getting deeper into this knowing. As a neurosurgeon I would say that meditation offers a tremendous value because neurosurgery is such a demanding craft. It demands the best we can muster, and I have found that my own capabilities in terms of physical, mental and intuitive healing are much better because of this ongoing meditation. That's why I highly recommend it to others in the neurosurgical community, in order to improve everything that they do in their lives. It will help to achieve a much richer view about the nature of consciousness and nature of reality, and offers great gifts of healing, creativity, insight, etc.
CQ: How does your experience affect your practice of neurosurgery or how you feel about the field of neurosurgery?
EA: I went into neurosurgery mainly to follow in my father’s footsteps. He was such a mentor to me, and in many ways, he was a saint. I’ve never regretted that decision. I think neurosurgery is by far the most fascinating field in medicine. It's a beautiful field and I love the comradery and the fellowship that I’ve enjoyed with fellow neurosurgeons. And, as all of you fellow neurosurgeons realize, you don't do neurosurgery part–time. I started giving talks about my experience in April 2010. That was two and a half years before Proof of Heaven came out. When I fell ill, I was not working in clinical neurosurgery, but as the director for brain research in the Focused Ultrasound Foundation in Charlottesville, where I coordinated global research in focused ultrasound surgery. Given my prior track record in helping to develop stereotactic radiosurgery and then helping to develop intraoperative MRI, it was natural to work toward boosting research protocols around the world for focused ultrasound. That was the work I went back to within three months of my coma. That was a real shock to my boss, Neal Kassell, a neurosurgeon at UVA, as he had followed my illness very closely and knew how deathly ill I was. When I called him up a few weeks later and said I thought I was ready to come back to work, I thought he felt like he was talking to a ghost.
I did go back to work in research and also began seeing patients part-time with my former neurosurgery partners in Lynchburg, but things got too busy, and I couldn't give them the time that was due to them. I finally let go of my clinical practice around June of 2012. By that time I was coming to realize that I really was on my life’s mission. I look back on that time very fondly with wonderful memories of helping patients with malignant brain tumors and other challenging conditions, and also working in vascular and functional neurosurgery. I truly treasured every day. I find that whenever I talk to medical students and residents I encourage them that they have made the right choice. Neurosurgery is the most fantastic field going.
One more thing I would like to mention to you reflects the kind of thinking that I put out there, which is that the brain is not the creator of consciousness. In fact there is a more profound model of the brain as reducing valve and filter. That concept fits in here, with the history of neurosurgery. Along those lines, parenthetically, Dr. Wilder Penfield, one of the most renowned neurosurgeons of the 20th century, worked in Montreal mainly with epilepsy. He did a lot of awake-craniotomies to help resect epileptogenic tissue. He wrote a book in 1975 called The Mystery of the Mind in which he makes it very clear that the physical brain does not create consciousness, nor free will. This kind of thinking has a wonderful track record in neurosurgery, although I think his book fell on deaf ears because the world was not ready to hear all that back in 1975.
I recently participated in series of articles on near-death experiences, written in a peer reviewed medical journal, Missouri Medicine, the state medical journal for Missouri. They did an 18-month series reporting on NDEs: on physician reports on NDEs and on reports of physicians who study NDEs. It's a very important series, and I would encourage anyone who is interested to go look at their website. I wrote two of the articles that were included in that Missouri Medicine series, which will be published as a book in the next six months, entitled The Science of Near-Death Experiences. I think that book will go a long way in helping to legitimize NDEs as profound spiritual experiences that cannot be reduced to simplistic physicalist models of “brain creates consciousness,” in the world of neurosurgeons, physicians and scientists overall.
CQ: What are your feelings about of fear of death now?
EA: There is nothing to fear about death, as death is really an adventure where our consciousness and awareness are liberated from the shackles of our physical brain into a much higher level of realization. Of course this is what near-death experiencers, mystics, and journeyers have been telling us for thousands of years. The important thing is that this is really the only way out for the materialist neuroscience that tries to say that the physical brain creates the consciousness out of simply physical matter, because that doesn't work. For the scientist out there who wants to go much deeper, I can recommend reading not only my books, but also these wonderful books from the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia, both of which were edited by Edward Kelly. His first book in 2007 was Irreducible Mind: towards a psychology for the 21st century, and the second book from the same group came out in February of 2015, called Beyond Physicalism: towards reconciliation of science and spirituality. Both of these books are milestones in the progression of conventional science toward a much deeper understanding of the mind-body discussion, which actually is all about the fundamental nature of reality for all of us.
One consequence of all of this effort is that we will come to see as a culture that death is not the end and that our souls are truly eternal. It will help us live our lives much better by realizing that it’s not just birth to death and one incarnation, but that we are spiritual beings in the soul groups that are all participating in the evolution of consciousness, much along the lines of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This is all about helping to come to much deeper understanding of the relationship between brain and mind and to realize that death is not the end.