Lots of buzz this week about “Heaven Is Real: A Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife” by Dr. Eben Alexander, in Newsweek. The Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon changed his mind about the afterlife after getting a taste of it during a week-long coma resulting from a bacterial infection of his cortex. Alexander experienced the sense of floating, the light and the glowing darkness, the angel-like guide reassuring him of love—all the hallmarks of many near-death experiences (NDEs). Seeing and hearing, questions and answers all merged into instant sensation and understanding, he reports.
The brain expert’s testimony in support of an afterlife has been very convincing to many, and not at all to many others.
I don’t believe in an afterlife—not, at least, of the kind that is glimpsed in NDE’s. But that controversy overshadows a different question: does Alexander’s experience tell us anything new about our present life; what does it reveal that is normally obscured by our everyday thoughts and activities? Perhaps, for example, something about the course of the disease? Or an insight about how a verbal narrative is assembled after such a wordless vision, or how Alexander’s Christian upbringing manifested itself during what he felt was a transcendent experience.
One passage that interested me was a claim about the universe.
Modern physics tells us that the universe is a unity—that it is undivided. Though we seem to live in a world of separation and difference, physics tells us that beneath the surface, every object and event in the universe is completely woven up with every other object and event. There is no true separation.
Before my experience these ideas were abstractions. Today they are realities. Not only is the universe defined by unity, it is also—I now know—defined by love. The universe as I experienced it in my coma is—I have come see with both shock and joy—the same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.
The idea here is that the unity of things is also a connection of love. Certainly one of the features of a person’s love for another person (or for a deity or cause) is that our customary sense of boundaries fades away. The separation between the self inside and the world outside dwindles. Loving leads to unity.
But does unity lead to love? Is a feeling of harmony and commonality with other people or with nature conducive to the emotion we call love? It seems to have been so for Alexander. Perhaps with his cortex put aside, older parts of his brain registered a basic level of being alive with light, motion, and warm emotion and without separation and danger. Such a unity would indeed be loving.
We can read any text in a mood to doubt or to believe. Sometime it’s good to try both.