When patients began to tell Dr. Eben Alexander III about heavenly visions, he quickly shut them down.
“I’d heard that kind of thing, but I wouldn’t even let it go so far as to tell me how they experienced heaven,” Alexander, a neurosurgeon, said in a recent phone interview with The Bee. “I wasn’t willing to listen to the evidence because I’d already made up my mind.”
Alexander said he attended a Methodist church growing up. “My father was a big influence,” he said. “He was very spiritual and he was also very much a scientist.”
But as Alexander entered college and became a neurosurgeon himself, he said, “I completely bought into science as the arbiter of truth.
“Through neurosurgery, all my experiences, they were all eroding my faith. I wasn’t sure how conscious awareness could survive the death of brain and body. That was a big stumbling block for me.”
Then, in November 2008, Alexander suddenly was hit with “an overwhelming bacterial meningitis” along with an E. coli infection. He was in a life-threatening coma for seven days before doctors, trying a variety of antibiotics and doses, finally got the disease under control.
When he woke up, Alexander told of an incredible experience, which he said began with a timeless, vague sense of living in some dirt-colored Jello-type environment, and then being caught up on the wings of a beautiful butterfly with a lovely woman dressed in colorful peasant clothes next to him and an amazing melody surrounding him.
The woman, whom he later identified as his guardian angel, “was smiling and her thoughts came into my mind and she was telling me through these thoughts: ‘You are greatly loved; there’s nothing you can do wrong; you are cherished in a love-eternal way,’ and it was the most comforting and beautiful experience just having her there, just sending me these warm waves of love and comfort,” he said in a 2011 radio interview.
His 2012 book, “Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife,” became a runaway best-seller. He will be in Modesto on June 20 to speak about his experiences and his new book, “The Map of Heaven,” due out in November.
He said his deep skepticism about God and an afterlife changed dramatically after his recovery from the coma.
“My coma journey just flipped that all around,” he said. “It showed me the absolute reality of eternity of the soul. It’s pretty much a settled issue, although to define all mechanisms of it is still something to work out. It was an absolute complete reversal of everything I thought was true.”
He said he has received a lot of positive feedback from others in the scientific community, although there are others who, like him before his coma, dispute the existence of God and heaven.
“There are a lot of scientists who are totally on board with everything I’m saying,” he said. “We’re no longer flopping around with water wings in the shallow end of the pool. We’re diving into the deep end.
“I really don’t care so much what the pseudoskeptics have to say. They’ll get on board when they’re ready. They’re following a false pathway. That’s not my concern. My concern is to help the souls that are truly on a journey of understanding, the true open-minded skeptic.”
His views diverge from traditional Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Islam and other major religions in that he said he experienced a path to heaven open to all.
“That all-powerful (God) loves Hindus, Jews, skeptics, Muslims,” he said. “The twisting of the words of the prophets that screws everything else that’s partial to some little religion is wrong. It’s erroneous thinking. There’s no one religion that has big claims. We can all come to know the answers.”
He said his faith “is mostly aligned with original Christianity and mystical traditions in other faiths, especially Sufism and Kabbalah.” When he speaks at churches, he added, “One thing I can say in my talk that is almost guaranteed to get a standing ovation is when I talk about how God loves all. He does not discriminate.”
Alexander is passionate when he discusses scientists who hold beliefs similar to his former ones.
“Modern neuroscience would tell you there’s an illusion of consciousness, that there’s no spiritualism,” he said. “It would say there is no free will. That’s where it gets stuck.
“We have a new way to move to quantum mechanics. There are those who say you can’t invoke God in anything. The ‘G’ word is forbidden in the discussion of modern science. That is the blind spot of modern science.”
He and a friend set up eternea.org as a place where others can describe their own journeys to heaven.
“These stories are very, very common,” he said. “They’re not just a trick of the dying brain. These are true gifts from spirits on the other side. I predict in 20 to 30 years, this will be commonly accepted. Simple science is coming to an end. People will look back on that and say the people who supported that were simplistic and hopelessly not having anything to do with reality. I see a richer, deeper science coming down the road.”
Alexander no longer practices as a neurosurgeon. He said he can’t be a part-time neurosurgeon and instead spends his time talking about heaven, helping others to experience what he has. But critics point out that while he never had his medical license revoked, he did lose surgical privileges at three hospitals following malpractice suits, including one in which he eventually admitted fusing the wrong spinal vertebrae on a man. That $3 million lawsuit was gaining traction just before his coma; it was later settled.
His near-death experience has had an impact on his family, he said, leading to a split from his wife but closer relationships with “my son, my sister, my colleagues. We’re all going deeper. It’s all good.”
Alexander said he has not lost touch with the experiences and incredible sense of love he experienced in his coma.
“I do that through Sacred Acoustics,” he said. It’s a website that sells recordings of “digital harmonic frequencies, sacred instruments, sounds from nature and a human, guiding voice.”
Alexander said the site (sacredacoustics.com) “is my way of trying to bring tools to this world. I always say, you don’t have to almost die to know everything about my journey. What you do have to do is spend time in meditation or sacred prayer. I can do that on a daily or nightly basis. I go back there frequently. Every bit of that is accessible.”
The bottom line for him, Alexander said, is that “moving forward, to be scientific, you can’t leave all of this spirituality behind. Spirituality greatly strengthens science.”