First of all, I have no doubt that a lot of people, people who would enjoy this book, who would get a lot out of it, that they will steer clear, will be repelled by the title:
You do not need to be religious, to believe in a theistic God, in any God or Gods, you don’t even have to be spiritual (note: you can be ‘spiritual’ without being ‘religious’), you do not have to believe in ‘Heaven’, in an ‘afterlife’, to read, to enjoy and to be blown away by this book.
I implore you, please, if you do not consider yourself to be religious/spiritual, do not be put off by the title of the book, the cover, the fact that it looks like it would, or should, only be for sale in a ‘Bible’ shop (as it happens, I think Eben’s account of his journey will excite Buddhists as much as, if not more than, followers of the monotheistic religions!).
You can read this book, feel, at the end of it, that you still do not believe in an afterlife but find yourself moved, both emotionally and from your prior place of understanding.
If you have an open mind, you will find this book either transformative or, at the very least, intriguing and bewildering.
At its most basic level, it’s an interesting story, a neurologist’s journey through a serious, life-threatening illness, an illness from which the many professionals in the medical team looking after Eben thought it highly unlikely that he would recover, and that if he did, that he’d have much quality of life.
Against odds of 10 million to one, Eben contracted bacterial E-coli meningitis seemingly out of the blue (ie no head trauma, stroke etc). He was in a deep coma, during which he had an NDE, a ‘near death experience’. The USP of the story is that Dr. Alexander makes it clear that whilst he had, as a neurologist, heard many patients’ reports of NDEs, he had always believed that there was a scientific, rather than a spiritual, explanation, along the lines of “the mind plays tricks…”
THE important element in the story of Eban’s coma:
“When it came to the part of my brain that every single brain scientist will tell you is responsible for the human side of me: well, that part was gone….I quickly began to realize that mine was a technically near-impeccable near-death experience, perhaps one of the most convincing such cases in modern history. What really mattered about my case was not what happened to me personally, but the sheer, flat-out impossibility of arguing, from a medical standpoint, that it was all fantasy.”
Dr. Alexander’s back story adds colour to his experience: his family (ies), adoptive and biological, his childhood, his insecurities, the complex dynamics are at play in and around Eben’s life in ‘this world’ and, without wanting to give anything away, the world ‘up there’.
As aforementioned, it doesn’t matter if you don’t believe in the afterlife, if you don’t believe that our ‘soul’ outlives our human body, Eben’s is a suspenseful, emotional, story, with some ‘spooky’ (if you don’t buy into ‘spiritual’ explanations) twists, and he tells it beautifully. Clearly, he, perhaps, I don’t know, with the assistance of his editorial team, has taken the time to conjure up the most precise wording to reflect, as best as possible, as much as is possible, the experience he went through whilst in that deep coma from which he was not ‘supposed to’ rise:
“Something had appeared in the darkness.
Turning slowly, it radiated fine filaments of white-gold light, and as it did so the darkness around me began to splinter and break apart.
Then I heard a new sound: a living sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard. Growing in volume as a pure white light descended, it obliterated the monotonous mechanical pounding that, seemingly for eons, has been my only company until then….
Brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning…I could heap on one adjective after another to describe what this world looked and felt like, but they’d all fall short. I felt like I was being born. Not reborn, or born again. Just…born.
….I was flying, passing over trees and fields, streams and waterfalls, and here and there, people….
….A beautiful, incredible dream world…
Except it wasn’t a dream…”
Eben goes on, a few pages later…
“Meanwhile, I was in a place of clouds.
Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.
Higher than the clouds – immeasurably higher – flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them….A warm wind blew through, like the kind that spring up on the most perfect summer days, tossing the leaves of the trees and flowing past like heavenly water…”
Now, I must point out, make it clear, that Eben was not, insofar as he was telling me what happened to him, he wasn’t preaching to the converted, so to speak.
Culturally, I am attached to, I do identify strongly with, my Judaism. I also observe many Jewish ‘laws’, eg I observe the Sabbath, but I don’t think I can describe myself as religious because I don’t, I just can’t, buy into the whole theistic G-d belief system/culture. I’m much more open to the idea, the concept, of a pantheistic god, a ‘supernatural being’, I guess, who, or that, is, in essence, indivisible from nature, from the sky, the sea, the waves, indivisible from the beauty that is all around us.
I think I am spiritual, I feel that I am. I do, as I said above, believe that one can even be spiritual without believing in any type of god. Spirituality, to me, means having a sense of an ‘extra’ dimension, a sense of our being a part of something outside of science, a sense, or a feeling, a belief, that there is something kind of inexplicable, beyond our ability to understand, to mentally grapple with, something out there, or up there, which humbles us. That does not have to be connected to a sense of a god, just an existence, a presence, a power, a force… When I listen to beautiful music, when it ‘transports me’, removes me, lifts me, when it makes my skin tingle, when it brings me to tears, when I burst into tears listening to it, when I am oblivious to everything else around me, I can feel ‘something’, perhaps ‘godly’, whatever that means, in the experience. That is, I believe, a spiritual experience.
However, ‘heaven’, certainly heaven, the ‘afterlife’, in the way that Eben describes it, well, as I was reading his account of his journey, I found myself unable to believe it, unable to connect. I don’t mean to patronise Eben but I believe that he believes, I just can’t quite feel it myself. Then again, neither could he before he went on his journey!
Now, another piece of importance context:
In 2001, under the onslaught of badly/poorly-prescribed antidepressants, clinical depression and associated conditions, as well as pneumonia, I went into cardiac arrest. I don’t know how long I was in cardiac arrest for but the medical team got me going again with a defibrillator, I was in an induced coma for a few days, ICU for a week and the heart/cardio ward in another hospital for a week after ICU.
I did not experience an NDE.
I don’t think that my not having had an NDE swayed my belief or otherwise in NDEs. I accepted that just because some people might have them, it doesn’t mean that everyone would have the experience. I think, on some level, I just assumed that I wasn’t dead ‘enough’, that I had had to be ‘more’ dead to get to go through ‘the tunnel’. I guess that my heart wasn’t ‘off’ long enough to ‘affect’ my brain.
I, like most people, like Eben himself, used to think that stories of NDE were really just rooted in hallucinations, medication-induced, trauma-induced, oxygen depletion-induced, BUT – and here’s one of the crucial elements of the story:
Eben’s neocortex was ‘switched off’. It’s not possible to experience hallucination when the neocortex is down/off, when it’s not functioning.
Eben likens a non-functioning neocortex to a tv set that is switched off: no picture. Blank screen. Dead.
This is where it got strange: Eben’s neocortex was broken, it was off, but he was experiencing a fully-immersive existence, bright lights, vibrant colours, beautiful music…. It cannot be explained away as ‘the brain/mind playing tricks’, as a hallucination.
Our consciousness, our personality, character, our essence, that is supposedly rooted in the neocortex but, to repeat, as Eben’s neocortex was broken, wasn’t working, how was he feeling ‘conscious’?
Science tells us that Eben should not have been experiencing anything. I have no reason to think he is lying. This is a man who regarded himself as a ‘skeptic’, as so skeptical that he didn’t even bother to read the NDE literature despite the numerous NDE accounts told to him by his patients when they ‘came back’. He was a changed man after his NDE. That said, whilst Eben felt that he understood what was happening when he was ‘up there’, when he was back ‘down here’, it was confusing:
“It’ll take me the rest of my life, and then some, to unpack, what I learned up there…”
A concept that Eben referred to in his account of what happened and his attempts to make sense of it all, is ‘reductive science’. This got me thinking.
Eben, before his NDE, believed that everything ‘real’ existed within the realm of science, that science was everything, that science was, in essence, not just judge and jury but it was akin to God. Science is, or was, for Eben, truth. Before I read Eben’s book, I didn’t think that science could explain everything. I did, I still do, believe that there’s a realm outside of science but I did, and I still shall, stay pretty close to science, I did tend to look to science for answers to big questions. I was on the same page as Richard Dawkins with his ‘god gap’, the idea that just because science might not be able to explain something, that that, in and of itself, is not evidence of God, it just means that a certain something can’t be explained by science YET.
BUT, Eben includes in his book an eye-opener, or a mind-opener, of a quotation by John C. Eccles:
“I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition…. we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls existing in a spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world.”
Now, THAT hit me with a heavy punch, with impact.
Scientists or, more precisely, blinkered scientists, those who are devoted to a ‘god of science’, argue that people who have a belief system that goes beyond science, that they are in the realm of superstition but I’d never turned that on its head, I’d never seen the ironic risibility in the scientists’ position, that being that they are too superstitious to look outside of science, that Eben WAS superstitious but that he is no longer superstitious, that he has let go of the crutch of science, that spirituality is not a crutch but that science, if held onto too tightly, if it is seen as monopolising truth, that IT is the crutch.
That is a mind blowing, ultra-powerful, liberating idea that certainly helps me to make better sense of the world and to better understand what is happening to me when I feel ‘removed’.
Eben is still a ‘scientist’, he still believes that science provides us with a lot of ‘truth’ but he no longer believes that science has a monopoly on truth. He now sees scientists who insist that science and spirituality can’t coexist, he sees them as mistaken and he sees the debunking of that reductive nature/character of science as his principal task in life. He sees his illness as the vehicle that took him to the dawning of this realization or revelation:
“The unconditional love and acceptance that I experienced on my journey is the single most important discovery I have ever made, or will ever make…”
Eben is on a mission.
The most mind blowing paragraph in the book is one in which Eben recounts his journey to ‘the Gateway’ and to and into ‘the Core’ (‘of the afterlife’): it’s a chapter titled ‘The Enigma of Consciousness’.
Eben’s journey changed him. He saw things (remember, his neocortex was off, it was broken!), he heard things, he felt things, which, up there, is, according to Eben, an inter-connected sense/experience, an experience which gave him an insight into consciousness which he did not have beforehand:
“…everything I had learned in four decades of study and work about the human brain, about the universe, and about what constitutes reality conflicted with what I’d experienced during those seven days in coma.”
“…It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in consciousness. I was simply more aware than most people of the staggering mechanical unlikelihood that it existed independently (of the human brain) – at all!”
Think about that for a sec: Dr. Alexander is pitting himself against the medical and scientific establishment in telling his story. In terms of his career and professional reputation, he has a lot to lose!!
After the journey, Eben was convinced that we have a consciousness and that it does exist independently of the brain.
He seems to have been born (he says not born again, not re-born, but born) as an enlightened person:
“The ascendance of the scientific method based solely in the physical realm over the past four hundred years presents a major problem: we have lost touch with the deep mystery at the center of existence – our consciousness….
…For all of the successes of Western civilization , the world has paid a dear price in terms of the most crucial component of existence – our human spirit….”
He goes on and the more I read some of his insights, and I have read them over and over again since I finished reading the book a couple of days ago, the more it opens, expands, blows, my mind.
I think that this is an important book because of its power to liberate us from our restricted scope of thinking and understanding. I want to finish this review with three quotations which head up three of the chapters in the book, quotations which should whet your philosophical appetite in readiness for your exposure to Eben’s ‘birth’:
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things”;
“I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be”;
“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self”.
This isn’t just an interesting book/story, it’s a powerful one and, I believe, that it’s an important one. Please read it and if, after reading it, you agree with me, encourage others to read it.