What happens after I die? On October 23rd, a book by neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander of Lynchburg Virginia, titled “Proof of Heaven” will give one doctor’s personal experience being conscious while in a medically confirmed coma for seven days.
After seven days at the Lynchburg General Hospital in 2008, while “doctors weighed whether to discontinue treatment, my eyes popped open”. Unlike night dreams that are soon forgotten, what Dr. Alexander experienced during the seven days when “my higher order brain functions were totally offline”, he recalls the vivid life-altering experiences he had. His training and experience as a neurosurgeon had taught him that consciousness was impossible given that “the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity” by his illness, but he was conscious and his book details the communication, vision, images that words are mostly inadequate to describe.
Prior to this experience, Dr. Alexander notes that he considered himself a faithful Christian, in name more than in belief. This experience while his “neocortex was inactivated”, gave him “reason to believe in consciousness after death”.
Now his is sharing what he saw, felt and heard in a book. His story is on the cover of Newsweek magazine, and is discussed in the Science channel’s “Through the Wormhole” on the web.
His story is uplifting and for those dear ones suffering from the loss of a loved one may bring some comfort. For me his story raises wonderful questions to ponder in prayer. One is, if consciousness is not dependent on brain (physical substance), where does consciousness reside?
As a Christian, I turn to the Bible for insight and guidance. There, in the New Testament we have Jesus saying that “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. To the inquisitive Nicodemous the Pharisee, he said that man must be “born again” or “born from above”, and continues in telling him he must be born of “the Spirit”.
It was like he was saying – Nicodemous, you must hit the “reset” button on your entire view of what life is, and where it comes from. Nicodemous didn’t get it. He thought Jesus meant reentering his mother’s womb. Like Dr. Alexander before his seven days in a coma, he thought that if something is not physical then it is not really life.
According to the Bible, Jesus spent three days in a tomb after his crucifixion. The Roman soldiers at the cross (who had plenty of experience with recognizing death) saw that he was dead, but just to be sure had put a spear in his chest before a kind follower of Jesus took the body away to the tomb. Like Dr. Alexander, the brain function was gone, but perhaps, like Dr. Alexander, consciousness was active, and we all know that the Bible says on the third day he walked out.
What these two stories and my own experience tell me is that I need to question the widely held belief that brain function equals consciousness.
In 1971, as a young Ltjg in the Navy preparing to join a fleet A6 Attack Squadron on the USS Independence, like all carrier aviators, I had to attend “SERE” school. SERE stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. At that time the Vietnam war and specifically the air campaign against North Vietnam was raging and the skills taught at SERE training were more than an academic interest.
One cold March night in snow covered mountains of Maine in a simulated POW camp, I found myself in an interrogation room with a ominous looking guy. The interview quickly went downhill and I found myself in a headlock with a mouthpiece of a tobacco pipe up my nostrils, a hand over my mouth and Igor blowing into the bowel of the lighted pipe sending heavy choking smoke into my head. I have never been a smoker so within a short time, I found myself looking down at an unconscious me, in the grasp of Igor as he continued to pour smoke into me. I felt calm and quite detached, but more than anything, I felt it was going to be “ok”. I felt no animosity toward my interrogator and had not concerns about the physiological state of my body.
Interestingly, Dr. Alexander says that if he had to translate what one of the beings in his journey said to him: “You are loved and cherished dearly, forever”; “You have nothing to fear”, “There is nothing you can do wrong”
So if asked where does consciousness reside, I am leaning more and more toward the answer of a divine being and wholeness that is often hidden by the reports of my five physical sense. This wholeness is there ready to comfort when I silence the senses in prayer or meditation.