BEING THERE WHEN IT HAPPENS: Looking again at Near Death Experiences
“It’s not dying I’m afraid of, I just don’t want to be there when it happens” –Woody Allen.
When Proof of Heaven by Doctor Eben Alexander appeared in the bookstores last year we could all see its future. It would fly off the shelves in the same way that other testimonies in this American genre have done. It sells reassurance. It answers the big question at the back of all our minds: if all the world is a stage, what happens when the players Exit?
Temple, church and mosque alike have all repeated that the coffin is just a stopping post on a longer journey. These religious claims belong to the world of faith: they do not require proof, nor expect it to be demanded of them.
Still, proof would be nice. Into the vacuum comes a book like Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo. This tells of the author’s son who left his earthly body to meet with Jesus during a fatal illness. Critics have been quick to dwell on the fact that the author is himself a Pastor (Fortean Times, August 2012).
Then, at never a more propitious moment the big gun arrives in the form of Doctor Eben Alexander. Here is the man who we would turn to if we were having problems with our brains. He can put the stamp of neuroscience no less onto this very question. He is a brain surgeon who has been there and got the T-shirt.
Life must be more than just suffering. A great deal of it, though, consists of a flight from suffering, a fearful vigilance on behalf of our welfare. Little wonder that we mortals all cherish a hope that somewhere exists where this struggle is suspended; a place where our human susceptibilities are accorded some dignity.
However, as the playwright john Osborne said: `It is easy to answer the ultimate questions, it saves us from bothering to deal with the immediate ones`. Heaven has a lot going for it in terms of wish fulfilment. It is a powerful motivator: ask your local suicide bomber.
Near Death Experiences (N.D.E’s) have been acknowledged throughout history. Even the science-fictioneer H.G.Wells penned a short story -`Under the Knife` - which deals with it. It is ironic though that reported cases of these have increased in our time and have done so because of the advances in medical science. More people are surviving to tell the tale after what would once have been the end for them.
These death cheaters have a golden promise that seems striking in its unanimity. While your body lies on the wrack your etheric body is taken on a packaged flight to a sun-kissed better place. After transcending up a passageway, a deputation of grandparents, aunts and brothers meet and greet you. According to your faith you might also get to press palms with a spiritual celebrity – a Christian meets Christ, a Buddhist the Buddha and so on (who do we agnostics get to meet? Weird Al Yankovich, I suppose!)
Doctor Alexander’s book is generic enough to tick all of these boxes, but his medical calling gives his tale more punch. His very biographical resume reads like something that would have been rejected from the script of an American movie – for being too cheesy. A thriving neurosurgeon, adopted as a baby, with Harvard connections, he sports a loving wife and two children with `Junior` before their names. Even the glossed over mention of time spent hitting the bottle enhances the general image of the American dream lived out.
Then comes a fall from grace. Described in terrifying detail, our good doctor falls down with a rare strain of E-coli meningitis. This puts him in a brain dead coma for seven days and no-one expects him to come back from it.
Come back, however is what he does. With the zeal of a convert he has a tale to tell, and quite a turn of phrase to tell it, to anyone who will listen (which seems to be a lot of us).
The Super-comfort Zone.
Alexander calls the flip-side of life the `ultra-reality`. His heaven is introduced in a chapter called `The Spinning Melody and the Gateway`. A guide, a beautiful young woman with (yes) high cheekbones, flies him over an idyllic scene of verdant countryside. Flocks of butterflies pass by. Happy peasants dressed in natural fibres dance below. It seems sincere, but feels pure Woodstock.
Our host, however, also spends some time in an `underworld`, a sort of purgatory maybe. He calls this the `Realm of the Earthworm`s View` Here he has to put up with having no body and being engulfed in a jelly-like substance while a rhythmic pounding (`like a heartbeat`) sounds. (This, by the way, puts me in mind of some sort of memory of being in the womb, but neither Alexander nor any of his critics seem to have made this link.) He does not belong there, though, and soon gets out of it.
In an Appendix, Alexander lines up the neuro-scientific possibilities that he himself had considered to explain away his curious spree. He then knocks these down one after the other like skittles. His arguments are technical, but seem to return to the fact that, unlike even many cardiac arrest patients, he was brain-dead throughout it all. Nothing but the experience read as a literal one would account for `the rich, robust and intricate interactivity of it` (Alexander, p-183).
That said, there are some disconcerting sides to Alexander’s heaven. For one thing he never has the pleasure of ever seeing his late beloved father. This taunting omission, in what seems to me to form the most moving part of his book, does give Alexander some pause for thought. Also Alexander’s Godhead is a New-Age style Hinduistic one. He even calls it `Om`. It would not give that much succour to your average Bible-belt inhabiting believer.
Thirty four years ago a now overlooked publication by John G. Fuller also offered serious confirmation of survival beyond physical death. (Fuller may be known to many of you as the one who chronicled the Betty and Barney hill abduction case in Interrupted Journey.) The Airmen Who Would Not Die is an historical and biographical investigation into the events that surrounded the air-crash of the British dirigible R101 in 1930.
A famed psychic named Eileen Garret alleged that she had made contact with the deceased pilots. From this she gave technical information as to the cause of the tragedy; information of the kind that would not have been available to any living person.
In a foreword to this book, Charles H, Gibbs-Smith. a former Lindbergh Professor of Aerospace History, calls it a `prime source of evidence of survival after death`. Indeed, with its many witness accounts and checkable facts, it seems like a firmer pedestal on which to place such a belief than Alexander’s offering.
However, its glimpse of heaven is also problematic. It is a world much like our own. One correspondent from beyond the grave describes `a grey, damp and most disagreeable country` (p-138) Furthermore, there is little mention of any Godhead being involved. In fact it provides a view of the afterlife that satisfied the spiritualist thinking of the time. It is no surprise that Arthur Conan-Doyle has a walk on part in this story.
Not just a death issue.
Nor do we need to even die to have such episodes as those mentioned above. Jenny Randles notes the case of Peter Lee. He was a Londoner who fell whilst mountaineering in Germany. What followed was an N.D.E much like the others, including a flashback of his life, but with one crucial distinction: the snowdrift had broken his fall and he was just bruised and had not even broken any bones. He had merely expected to die (Randles, P-79)
In fact, Out Of Body experiences can be induced by hallucogens, as Aldous Huxley reported in The Doors of Perception. They can also be brought on by self-hypnosis of a kind. Both the fakir Lobsang Rampa and the sceptic psychologist Professor Wiseman give rather similar instructions on how to leave your body, although the latter believes it all to be a trick of the mind (Wiseman, 89-92). For that matter, though, you need not even astral travel for another version of yourself to be on the move.
In March 1960 a widower awoke to find a man in pyjamas standing beside his bed. He took this to be a burglar and made to punch it. It duly vanished, but not before he could recognise it as being himself (Tulleken, 97).
In Norway this phenomenon is so known as to have its own name – the vardogr. In the early 1900s Wiers Jensen lived in a boarding house in Oslo. His vardogr would return home before he did, in the form of the noise of the door being opened and so on. This would alert the hostess to begin to cook (Tulleken, 100).
The elusive `soul`.
All of these experiences do require something like a – call it what you will -`soul` to be able to happen. Yet this is the very thing that has evaded capture by science. All the `spirit photographs` that I know of are forgeries, often laughable ones. As later as April 2012 a Dutch `psychic` claimed to have pictures of dead people’s souls on view on his website. These purported to be of the crop circle researcher Pat Delgado and hoaxer Dave Chorley. It was not long before his technique was exposed. It was done,-in this age of CGI - using the same method used by John Henry Pepper in Victorian times! A tilted pane of glass is placed in front of the image to be viewed. Onto this, from a hidden source, an image is projected (Fortean Times, August 2012).
Doctor R. A. Watters conducted a more promising, but ghastly, experiment in the early thirties. He constructed a cloud chamber which could show up the pathways of sub-atomic particles. Into this he placed frogs and mice which he then put down and photographed what happened. The pictures which resulted do show blobs of white mist around the poor animals. Their souls? Subsequent attempts at the same thing failed to replicate the same results. (Nowadays, thankfully, they would be illegal anyway) (Wiseman, p-64-66).
In the absence of observable souls, a reductionist hypothesis became fashionable in the 1990s. A Canadian scientist called Persinger proposed that the whole array of parapsychological events – from N.D.E’s to UFO abductions –could be triggered by the effect of electromagnetic fields on the brain. He built a `helmet` which he said could stimulate all of these experiences.
It was a simple Theory of Everything which really seemed to sow things up in a neat way. However, even the arch-sceptic Professor Wiseman concedes that there has been little subsequent evidence for his claims.
In 2004 the Swede Peter Granqvist of Uppsala University tested Persinger’s helmet again and could find no positive correlation between magnetic fields and psychic experiences. Likewise, a test done by Chris French at Goldsmiths University in Britain in 2009 drew the same negative results (Wiseman, p’s-218-220).
Something tells me that this whole situation is stranger and more complicated than either current science or current religion is capable of contemplating. Perhaps after all we are going to have to wait and see what happens after we die.
Meanwhile though, if spirituality is to become something more than what Marx called `the opium of the people` then it need to focus on ameliorating suffering in the here and now. In the words of the Queen song: `This could be heaven for everyone`.
If you want more information or wish to purchase this book simply click on its title: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife
Alexander, Doctor Eben Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife (USA: Simon & Schuster, 2012)
Fuller, John G. The Airmen Who Would Not Die (New York: Berkeley Books, 1979)
Randles, Jenny Truly Weird: Real-Life cases of the Paranormal (London: Collins & Brown Ltd, 1995)
Tulleken, Kit Van (Editor) Mysteries of the Unknown: Phantom Encounters (Amsterdam, Time Life books, 1988)
Wiseman, Professor Richard Paranormality: Why we See What isn’t There (London: Pan Macmillan, 2011)