Editor’s Note: This interview, excerpted from a full-length television interview to be broadcast soon throughout Latin America, was conducted and made available exclusively to The Standard by the award-winning Bogota-based Colombian-Filipino journalist Manuel Teodoro.
Eben Alexander, M.D., is the neurosurgeon who fell into a coma while suffering from bacterial meningitis. He claims to have had a transcendental Near-Death Experience (NDE), which allowed him a glimpse of heaven, as well as proof of the existence of God and the afterlife. He insists his experience was not a hallucination, as his brain was comatose and incapable of any activity. He wrote about his NDE in the book Proof of Heaven. His latest book is called The Map of Heaven, which touches on meditation and the path to transcendence. “It’s all about how the answers lie within us all,” he says.
Alexander’s claims – and his own professional and personal history - are not without controversy, but that hasn’t stopped his book from climbing up the bestseller lists worldwide.
MANUEL TEODORO: For the benefit of those in our audience that aren’t completely aware of your story… Run us through, Dr. Alexander, quickly what exactly happened and what the diagnosis was.
EBEN ALEXANDER: Okay. It all came on very suddenly and I developed severe back pain, and headaches, and within 2-3 hours had grand mal seizures, was driven deep into coma and I was taken to the emergency room and at that point they determined that I had gram negative bacterial meningitis, which is really about the worst kind of bacterial meningitis you could have. In fact, I was extremely ill from this; my neocortex – the human part of the brain – the last sign of any kind of function of that neocortex was within an hour or so of hitting that emergency room, and from then on, my neocortex was gone. It’s something I came to realize in the months after my coma, trying to analyse and understand it, is that that kind of meningitis is the perfect model for human death, because meningitis attacks the surface of the brain, the outer surface of the neocortex is the part that makes us human. All of human conscious experience, according to conventional neuroscience, demands that that neocortex, or at least some part of that must be active. Everything we see, everything we hear, all of our emotions, falling in love, appreciating a beautiful symphony or sunset, every bit of that demands that the six-layer neocortex – the human part of the brain – be functioning.
That’s why it was such a gift that I had a really flagrant case of meningitis that by all accounts should have killed me, and certainly should not have allowed for any rich, elaborate, ultra-real experience like I had deep in coma.
MT: Allow me to ask you one really quick question – what were your religious beliefs before and how did heaven play into those beliefs before this happened?
EA: Before this coma, I had grown up in a Methodist church in North Carolina, and my father was very religious. He had come from eastern Tennessee. He was very spiritual, he had grown up in the Baptist church but he was a neurosurgeon, in fact he was an academic neurosurgeon, and he was the chairman of a neurosurgical training program. So he was deeply into science, he was every bit science, but he also had a religious faith. So a lot of that rubbed off on me when I was younger.
I wanted to believe what I’d heard in church. But like so many who had grown up in the 60s and 70s, I knew full well that science is the pathway to truth. And I’ll tell you, I am more of a scientist now than I’ve ever been in my life, and I realize that what is happening now is that science needs to greatly expand its boundaries to fully encompass the fundamental role of consciousness and acknowledge that the soul exists.
MT: So it would be fair to say you were agnostic before?
EA: Yes, for 8 years leading up to coma. And I think that’s important for people to understand. I went into my coma journey open-minded, but certainly not a believer. And my coma journey showed me very clearly that God and that the eternal realm of our eternal spiritual selves are much more real that this. “This” is dreamlike by comparison. And that realm is absolutely, fundamentally rock-solid, that’s our soul home. And that is the most beautiful thing. So in other words when our physical brain and body die, it actually liberates our conscious awareness up to that grander knowing and being, reuniting with our higher soul, reuniting with our soul mates, going through our life review… If we were handing out pain and suffering to others we have to relive that in our life review on behalf of our victims. In our words there is no need for an eternal hell, we have to go through that in a life review and feel it, feel the power of the emotional impact of our decisions and choices in life, the impact on others around us.
MT: What are some of the fundamental – what would you call them, visions? – or aspects of that experience that you had that make you-- that when you came back convinced you that you went to heaven?
EA: In fact, for months after I came back, I was not convinced I’d gone to heaven. I knew something very shocking and completely – I mean shattering – had happened, that completely threw all my models of brain-mind consciousness and existence -- threw all that out of the window. What had happened weeks after my coma, going back to my medical records, I had gone back to the hospital to talk to my doctors, my neurologists, neurosurgeons I had seen, went through the medical records, went through all my scans, and started realizing, hey wait a minute, this brain was way too sick, the neocortex was far too damaged to come up with anything and so when I first came back I was blown away by the experience, completely. I mean, it’s the most shocking thing you can imagine. But remember that I didn’t know anything. All my knowledge, my brain, my consciousness, had been stripped away during the journey by the meningitis. That’s how I explained it initially, severe bacterial meningitis destroys the neocortex, of course it would get rid of all prior experience and memory. So that part seemed to be no surprise. But the deeper I got into it the more I realized, well, I shouldn’t have had any experience at all! And my doctors were very keen to tell me, when I tried to tell them what had happened, well you can’t have experienced anything, your neocortex was badly damaged, in fact we had no idea how you’d come back. To this day they have no explanation as to why I had a full recovery, and I think that’s an essential thing to understand about this: that I went through a long process, and that’s what Proof of Heaven is all about. It shows how I tried to explain this, as a brain-based mechanism. I tried to explain this as some kind of a dream, a drug-affected confabulation, a trick of the dying brain. That’s what my doctors told me when I came back. And yet the more I went over my medical records and my experiences with my doctors, the more I came to realize that there is no way that this brain, so devastated by bacterial meningitis, could have manufactured any of that. It should have been a state of nothingness, with the near-destruction of my neocortex. And yet it was much more like the blinders coming off and an awakening to a far richer, more vibrant and alive reality than the one in this world. And that was the deep mystery that demanded some kind of explanation.
MT: What is your message, Dr. Alexander, to the inevitable skeptics that maintain to this day that what you had were hallucinations, and that it just wasn’t heaven?
EA: Well I would say that anyone who says that simply doesn’t know enough about gram negative bacterial meningitis. This is why you don’t have a lot of doctors out there coming out and saying, well, we see this now and then, and Dr. Alexander simply had a hallucination. If they know anything about the medical story, anything about gram negative bacterial meningitis, and about someone being driven into coma within 3 hours and spending 7 days in coma with that diagnosis, and know all the details of my medical illness, it was such a severe case there was really no way I could have had any kind of experience based on my neocortex and so that’s why the scientific world takes this story very seriously. So there’ll be plenty of skeptics – I would call them pseudo-skeptics, debunkers, deniers who simply won’t believe it no matter what. People who are addicted to scientific materialism as if it were the brain creating consciousness, and there are many people out there. I mean, I was exactly like that before my coma so I know exactly what that thinking is all about. But any pseudo-skeptic who puts it out there that this had to be a hallucination simply has not paid enough attention to the medical details of this case.
MT: Can you describe a little bit of that coming back? What that phase was like?
EA: Well the coming back was like... It was the hardest thing I can ever remember in all my existence. It was like climbing out of a gravel dirt pit where every move is just pulling and everything around you was – it was impossible to climb out of there and back into this world. And yet I knew I had to be strong, the sense of responsibility and love for that soul, for my 10-year-old son who again, I did not remember at the time, that I had to come back. So it was a tremendous struggle coming back to this world, it was all for the love for him that I had to. And when I first started waking up in that ICU, and was fighting the ventilator – they were pulling – they had finally pulled the tube out and all that – I remembered nothing of my life before. As I said before I remembered deeply everything I had been through in this coma journey and there were family members standing around and I had no idea who they were.
MT: Do you as we speak believe that when you die, you will go to heaven?
EA: All I know is that when I die, I will reunite with my higher soul to a much greater awareness. That’s probably the biggest shock for the skeptic when they die, is all of a sudden they come to this realization that not only are they still here, but they are far more aware than they ever were when they were incarnate in this physical form, and they they’ll reunite with their entire soul, soul mate, go through this life review and encounter than infinitely powerful deity that is pure love, to go back into that oneness of the core. And than plan that reincarnation to come back with the soul group to do it again and get it better. This is all about the essence of our soul group. And in fact all of humanity and beyond is part of this ascendance, this evolution of consciousness that is occurring. But each one of us is doing it on our own as part of that far grander evolution of consciousness. And that is something that will happen.
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