Eben Alexander and the New Consciousness
from Marquette Monthly December, 2016
By Jon Magnuson
“More than anything else, the future of civilization depends on the way the two most powerful forces of history, science and religion, settle into relationship with each other.”
– Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) Philosopher, Author
On a Friday evening in October, over 500 persons crowded into a candlelit church sanctuary in Marquette County to hear Eben Alexander, M.D., a former neurosurgeon, talk of his own near-death experience that subsequently changed his life and career. His 2012 New York Times’ best-selling book Proof of Heaven triggered a tidal wave of highly charged critical reviews, some affirming his account while others dismissed him as a mystic and fraud.
For many, the veracity of his story served as an impetus for a first inquiry into a spiritual life. It didn’t take long before Alexander became a guest on major television networks, telling his story at medical conferences, scientific meetings, and religious gatherings across North America. Once restricted by an insulated world of privilege shaped by a high-end medical practice, he suddenly began to receive thousands of letters from ordinary people from all walks of life. He was invited into dialogue with pop culture icons and religious personalities including Oprah and the Dalai Lama.
As another season of holiday celebrations and religious observances begins to frame the fading light of December days here in Northern Michigan, the legacy of Alexander’s presence among us continues to linger on in coffee shop conversations and informal interchanges. It invites our reflection for numerous reasons, not the least being Alexander’s deep conviction that beyond the haunting specter of human mortality lies a deeper, benevolent reality waiting for all of us. From the very beginning of human consciousness, Alexander believes, this intuition of a deeper spiritual world has always haunted the human condition.
Part of the resistance, especially in academic and intellectual circles, for accepting and normalizing Eben Alexander’s experience is that his story challenges core beliefs upon which most conventional medical and religious institutions are built: competition, power, economic viability, and adoration of ego-centered achievement. Alexander’s message taps into an underlying spiritual hunger. During a time when family rituals, community cohesion, traditional religious life, and individual well-being have been sacrificed to a barrage of twitter messages, pharmaceutical overdosing, and intrusive overloads of digital information, many who are searching to live out more deeply the questions of meaning and relationship have been left adrift.
Alexander’s near-death experience exposed what was for him, an artificial world built on prestige, economic power, and fear. For twenty-five years he worked as an academic neurosurgeon, including positions at the Brigham and Women’s and the Children’s Hospitals, and Harvard Medical School in Boston. In 2008, a rare form of bacterial meningitis put him in the hospital, sending him into a deep coma for seven days. Following a statistically improbable recovery, he reported that, during his coma he underwent a journey passing through a series of realms, each more extraordinary than the last. The most startling aspect of his account included his experience of overwhelming forgiveness, acceptance, reconciliation, and beauty.
In a recent interview with a reporter from our local newspaper, Alexander talked about the evolving change he has undergone since his experience in 2008. He uses the term “existential optimism” to describe how he now chooses to view the world around him. For Alexander, that has come to mean for him that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, one orients themselves to a hope that lies waiting to be born in even in the deepest abyss of loss and suffering. I recently mentioned this offensive promise to an insightful friend of mine, a retired elementary school principal. She replied with a smile, “In my church community, we call that “faith.”
CONTROVERSY AND CHALLENGE
Most of my friends who are mainstream clergy or teaching in the theological schools would never pick up a book titled “Proof of Heaven.” And they haven’t. After reading Alexander’s story, I was convinced the title of his book was an editor’s decision. I discovered it was. Alexander came to accept it, amusingly, as “a parlor trick:” A publisher’s decision against his own initial judgment. Some marketing whiz for the publishing company had a hunch that millions of readers would at least take a look at anything with such a title. They did.
So, a word of explanation about what’s going on with my colleagues who are priests and pastors. Those of us trained at seminaries and divinity schools, with exception of conservative theological institutions, are introduced, early on, to “historical criticism.” We’re taught to look under and through Biblical narratives and dogmatic teachings. Our mission is to translate a core message that speaks to the current human condition, not simply to present a retelling of a familiar scriptural story. Believe me, it’s a tough job. And no surprise that after listening to sermons, most of us will be disappointed by superficiality and program-promoting moralism in even the best of them.
There’s a reason for this sad state of affairs. Alexander addresses it eloquently. As my friend Robert, a former nuclear physicist at Los Alamos, likes to put it in street language: “Two versions of the same problematic attitude piss me off. One comes from the science side where statements are made without any qualification like “Evidence suggests…” or “There’s a probability… The same goes true for many who are authorities in the religious world. Both sides need to take a deep breath. There’s more out there in both science and religion that anyone knows.”
In the closing pages of Proof of Heaven, the author acknowledges the most passionate criticism of the account of his near death experience came from two specific groups: Literal-minded Christians and hard-lined medical professionals. Following publication of his first book, he responded to his accusers, defending his experience in context of his extensive medical training. In his second book, Map of Heaven (2014), Alexander takes a further step, boldly setting his near death experience in the context of mystical traditions that have long been a part of all spiritual traditions.
A NEW CONSCIOUSNESS
Eben Alexander’s message is unabashedly a hopeful one: That death is part of the cycle of life, a transition, not an ending. He shares a conviction that science, as it meets its limits, is moving toward finding new common ground with the deeper truths of religious traditions. As that happens, he is convinced that how we practice medicine will change in more holistic ways, how we choose to live out religious beliefs will become more personal, compassionate, and emotionally healthy.
Competing perceptions of reality always elicit strong reactions. It’s not surprising that Alexander experiences that whenever and wherever he presents. I found him, in numerous personal conversations and small group discussions during his time with us, to embody, in an extraordinary way, insightful, measured, respect whenever deeply personal differences were shared.
One of Alexander’s convictions is that mature spiritual life reflects a dynamic flexibility, a degree of permeable boundaries, a heart of curiosity. Many sacred writings playfully warn against our human tendency to cling rigidly, uncritically, to what we may have been taught. Taoist tradition teases us with such an Alexander-like reflection; its origin traced back thousands of years. “I awoke one morning wondering am I a human dreaming that I am a butterfly. Or am I a butterfly dreaming I am a human
Self-disclosing honesty marked Alexander’s presentation that unique evening in October. It sparked emotional reactions, as many of us predicted. During Friday night’s presentation, a young attorney told me she witnessed tears flowing down the cheeks of a father who was sitting alone with his teenaged son in one of the back pews. Others witnessed individuals quietly weeping. At other times, during the question and answer portion of the evening, some appeared to bristle when Alexander asserted, based on his own experience, that the mind can be harnessed by prayer and meditation to access levels of reality in ways more life-giving and powerful than any recreational or prescription drug.
At one point, Alexander reflected about the ego’s filters and our need, based on fear and denial of our own mortality, to cling to personally constructed worldviews with fierce stubbornness. That we are too often willing to sacrifice our very physical life to addictive behaviors rather than consider the possibility that the way we might be looking at the world is skewed.
Friday evening’s presentation “Crossing Over: A Neurosurgeon’s Experience Facing Death” was framed by music provided by folksinger Michael Waite and violinist Connie Ann Weiner. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community sent a representative to join us in honor of their tribal spiritual traditions. There were at least ten area physicians present and at least 50 health professionals. Among the standing room only crowd, many leaning against the sidewalls and dozens of others sitting on and around the altar’s steps, I counted five clergy and one retired nun. Whether one agreed with him or not, Eben Alexander, for that ninety minutes on Friday evening, became a priest for all of us.
The most important message from Alexander may be to accept his invitation, take a chance to believe we’re more than our ego, but sometimes less than who we think we are. If he’s right, life is a mystery, with an opportunity to choose how we are going to live. To make decisions whether or not we see ourselves part of a landscape greater than ourselves, a larger drama, as Alexander believes, blessed, kind, and gracious.
If we are open and the time is right, there’s a chance we can discern such signs.
Earlier on the afternoon, prior to Eben Alexander’s and Helen Newell’s evening arrival in Marquette I attended the funeral of an 88 year-old friend of our family, held in that same sanctuary that Alexander’s presentation “Crossing Over” later took place the following evening. I talked with the deceased mother’s son a few days later by phone and asked him “Have you received a sign?” His response was, “What do you mean?” I replied, “Sometimes, I’ve worked with people who have lost loved ones and have they’ve received something from the “other side,” something reassuring, comforting. Just wondering.” After a pause, he responded, “Well, all I can think of is a strange thing did happen Saturday. I was sitting on the deck outside, staring out over Lake Superior. A chickadee landed on my shoulder.” He chuckled for a second. “No bird has ever done that. Ever. Then it gave me a little peck.”
I asked, “Any connections with birds and your mother?” After another pause, he replied, “Myrtle loved birds. She fed them regularly. Birds served as a special connection for her over many, many years.”
In the movie “The Life of Pi,” based on a 2001 short fantasy novel by Yann Martel, the closing scene involves two reporters interviewing the survivor of a shipwreck after a boat carrying animals to a zoo in Canada sinks during a storm in the Indian Ocean. The sole human survivor Pi Patel tells them two versions of his story, one regarding his survival with a Bengal tiger, how the two of them survived together on a life boat for 227 days; the other about the loss of his mother at sea, the death of the ship’s cook, and the cannibalism of a sailor’s broken leg. The reporters ask the young man which story he wants them to write. Pi responds. “Which one do you prefer?”
So it is with Eben Alexander’s account of his near death experience and the conflicting opinions of his supporters and detractors. Which story do you prefer? And which story will each of us spiritually choose to live out in light of our nation’s troubled political transition, the ponderous evidence of unprecedented environmental degradation, and the threatening truth of our own mortality? That’s a question each of us needs to answer as well.
The morning of October 21, Eben Alexander and his assistant Karen Newell ascended Marquette County’s Sugarloaf Mountain for a morning breakfast, accompanied by Tyler Phillips. That noon they were guests of a support group of cancer patients. Following his evening presentation, the next morning Alexander facilitated a workshop with co-facilitator Karen Newell at the Federated Women’s Clubhouse. Later that afternoon and evening was spent with a small group of hospice staff, physicians and volunteers, sharing insights for a continuing education seminar at a remote Lake Superior cabin. He and Karen were presented, before leaving, with a gift of two small leather medicine bags. Each contained a pebble from Lake Superior, a piece of chaga to make birch tea, and a small handful of cedar.
One hundred donors from all walks of life sponsored Eben Alexander’s and Karen Newell’s presence with us here in Marquette. Messiah Lutheran Church generously provided space for Friday night’s free presentation. Lake Superior Hospice and Upper Peninsula Home Health and Hospice graciously provided logistical support.