This reading group guide for Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Eben Alexander M. D. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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As a neurosurgeon schooled in some of the most elite institutions of the American scientific community, Dr. Eben Alexander considered himself an “unbeliever”—one who did not believe in God, Heaven or an afterlife. He was confident that the brain was the ultimate source of consciousness and all reports of experiences in the “spiritual realm” were unsupportable from a scientific perspective. Everything changed, though, on November 10, 2008, when a splitting headache landed him in an emergency room and ultimately a seven-day coma. In Proof of Heaven
, Dr. Alexander recounts the story of those seven days and the spiritually transforming experience that occurred during them. When he awakened from his coma, his old certainties about the nonexistence of the afterlife were gone. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Do you know anyone who had a Near Death Experience (NDE)? What was your attitude toward their experience when they described it to you?
2. How does the fact that the author (Eben Alexander) is a physician (neurosurgeon) influence your attitude toward his story of his NDE?
3. In chapter 10, “What Counts,” the author shares some of his family history and how, after learning some news about his birth parents as an adult, he lost his “last, half-acknowledged hope that there was some personal element in the universe. . .” Do you identify with that hope? Has there been a time in your life when that hope was either confirmed or lost?
4. On pp. 57–58, the author poses these questions: “Was there a force or intelligence watching out for all of us? Who cared about humans in a truly loving way?” How would you answer those questions? How have you come to those answers?
5. In chapter 11, “An End to the Downward Spiral,” the author describes the impact of meeting his birth family and learning about aspects of his life story that he had not previously known about. Why do you think these experiences had such a significant impact on his sense of well-being? Have you ever had an experience in which you learned new things about your own life story? How did your experience change you?
6. On page 71, the author puts into words the wordless message he received during his NDE. “You are loved and cherished. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.” How does this message make you feel? What emotions do you experience when you read the words? Do you believe they are true?
7. On page 73, the author asserts that “. . . certain members of the scientific community, who are pledged to the materialist worldview, have insisted again and again that science and spirituality cannot coexist.” What is the materialist worldview? Do you believe science and spirituality are necessarily opposed? Describe.
8. On page 76, the author states: “The (false) suspicion that we can somehow be separated from God is the root of every form of anxiety in the universe . . .” Do you agree? Why or why not?
9. In chapter 14, the author describes one factor that made his NDE unique. What was this factor? Do you agree with the author that it really does set his experience apart?
10. How does the author’s response to his NDE make you feel about your own faith? Do you agree with his conclusion on page 96: “None of us are ever unloved. Each and every one of us is deeply known and cared for by a Creator who cherishes us beyond any ability we have to comprehend”? How do his conclusions compare and contrast with your understanding of God?
11. What part of Dr. Alexander’s story moved you the most? Describe.
12. Upon his first visit to his Episcopal church after “returning” to his body, Dr. Alexander said: “At last, I understood what religion was really all about. Or at least was supposed to be about. I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God” (p. 148). What do you think is the difference between believing in God and knowing God?
13. In chapter 31, the author describes three varieties of attitude toward NDEs. With which do you most identify? Has reading this book moved you from one group to another?
14. On page 141, the author makes the bold statement that scientists in our society are “the official gatekeepers on the matter of what’s real and what isn’t.” Do you think this is true? If it is, why do you think scientists have been given this kind of authority? Do you think this authority really should belong to scientists? Why or why not?
15. On page 103, the author describes the positive effect his friends’ prayers had during his coma. Does this part of his story resonate with you? Do you have any experience(s) of your own of prayers being effective?
16. How do you feel about the title of the book? Do you think spiritual experiences and realities can be proven? In what ways does the author’s suggestion that a spiritual experience can be proven help or hinder his story’s believability? Enhance Your Book Club
1. If you know someone who has experienced an NDE, invite them to your next book club meeting and ask them to share their story. How comfortable or uncomfortable is the group with the sense of mystery and the unknown? How do different members of the group respond to things that are beyond our ability to fully comprehend?
2. Keep a month-long log of things you notice in your life that can’t be reduced to material or physical explanations (i.e., anything that happens that has an element of mystery or transcendence). Bring your log to your next book club and discuss the options for how to think about these realities.
3. Read The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog
, which provides an overview of the eight main worldviews that are held by different individuals in the twentieth century. At your next book club meeting, discuss which worldview you most identify with and why.
4. Think about the power of science in affecting your own beliefs. Are you a person of faith, science, or both? Discuss. A Conversation with Eben Alexander, M.D. Why did you decide to become a physician and specifically a neurosurgeon?
My father certainly had a lot to do with it. As I describe in the book, he was a celebrated neurosurgeon who had a huge influence not just on me, but on just about everyone he met. That would have been about the end of it if you’d asked me this question before my NDE. Now it’s a little different. I see my father’s role in my life as part of what you might call my destiny. I think my life this time around was supposed to be about delving into the mystery of consciousness and how it relates to our fundamental understanding of reality. How has your NDE changed the way you make decisions about how to spend your time and energy each day and the way you relate to others?
I was never much of a time waster. Even when “relaxing” I was usually going in overdrive. That’s even more the case now. I see time as more precious than ever. But at the same time, if something goes wrong, I’m able to take it much more in stride. Every moment of our life is precious beyond measure. But it’s not all we have. There is more—much more—to come.
In terms of relationships with others, everything has changed. I see all those around me as eternal spiritual beings undergoing the glories and trials of the physical world. This does not mean I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, however. Hardship and suffering appear in a clearer focus and in fact hit me harder than they did before. Seeing the world more deeply does not mean filtering the negative out. It just means seeing it in its true context. Has your NDE impacted the way you practice medicine and/or interact with your patients?
My current schedule has become far too busy with presentations and telling my story to leave time for patient care. I hope to get back to it at some point, but with a different focus. I plan on working with patients who are terminal, in ICU or hospice, and in helping families deal with the impending loss of a loved one. I have so much more to offer them now. I feel that that is one of the main reasons I returned—to share my story and give real comfort to those who need it most. In the earlier part of your book, you talk about your hope for what you describe as a “personal element in the universe” (p. 57). That hope seems to have been realized in the encounter with a personal Creator that you describe occurring during your NDE (p. 96). Yet you also state that “consciousness is the basis of all that exists” (p. 154), and this has a less personal sound to it. Can you elaborate on this contrast?
Consciousness is a primary aspect of the universe and a supreme mystery that transcends all our efforts to capture it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to describe it anyhow, and in doing so we can go more in one direction or another. That is, we can zero in on its less personal aspects or its more personal ones. But the loving Creator I encountered was very definitely not impersonal. At the same time, calling that Creator “personal” is problematic too, because it introduces limitations. The same kind of limitations that are introduced when we use words like “Him” or “Her” or “It” to describe that Creator. The reality of the Divine burns all these terms instantly to ash. The word “Proof ” in the title has caused controversy. Do you think using this word has helped or hindered you in your efforts to demonstrate the reality of the spiritual world?
I wanted it known that this was not just another NDE story. My experience provides extremely strong evidence that consciousness is not dependent on the cortex. It was proof for me personally, and it has convinced many others. The cortex mediates consciousness while we are on earth, it does not produce it. Of that I am certain. So while I completely understand the difficulties that people have had with the title, in the end I feel it is accurate. In chapter 32 of the book, you briefly allude to going to church after you recovered an understanding of “what religion was really all about. Or at least was supposed to be about.” Can you say more about what you realized at that moment?
I felt deeply, for the first time in a place of worship, the concrete presence of the Divine. The images and symbols around me struck me with a power that I had never appreciated before. I have since visited many places of worship, both Christian and otherwise, and though the specifics of the settings differ, that core feeling of gratitude to the Divine always comes through. As a young man you thought science had all the answers. How would you advise a current medical student to approach the argument (popular among scientists) that we are “fast approaching a Theory of Everything (or TOE), which would not seem to leave much room for our soul, or spirit, or for Heaven, and God”? (pp. 153–54).
It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that you know all there is to know. The history of science and philosophy is filled with examples of thinkers who were tempted into believing they could do just that. When I was in med school, the thinking was very much: we don’t know everything about the universe yet, but we’re just about to. I now find that idea absolutely laughable in its arrogance and its blindness. We don’t have the first hint about how the universe really works or what’s really in it. We have no idea what dark matter is, we have no idea what consciousness is. We have no idea how many dimensions there are to the universe, how populated or unpopulated they are by other consciousnesses. One could go on. I would advise someone in medical school now to thank their stars they are living in a time when we do know so much about the universe, about the human body, about all manner of things that we were essentially in the dark about just a hundred years ago. But there’s a big difference between feeling grateful about the knowledge we do have and thinking we know everything. We don’t, and never will. Are you still in touch with your birth family?
Yes I am. My birth family and my adoptive family have become very close, and we have all grown in many wonderful ways as a result of our reunion. What was the most challenging part of writing your story?
The most challenging part was simply containing my sheer excitement and enthusiasm to tell the world what had happened to me. What I experienced was not new. Many others have caught a glimpse of the realms I encountered during my NDE and told of them. But the medical facts behind my case were new, and once the full force of this came home to me, it was very hard to keep patient during the long process of creating the book. The early drafts read more like a telegram than a book. I gave all the details of what happened to me within the first few pages, because I was just so anxious to tell the reader how amazing it all was. Learning to slow down and do it right was hard. The final manuscript of Proof of Heaven
was produced with the help of a friend of mine, a gifted writer named Ptolemy Tompkins, who had written a book, The Modern Book of the Dead
, with which I’d identified closely. Along with my editor, Priscilla Painton, Ptolemy showed me that one of the most extraordinary things about my story is that it is just that: a story. It needed to unfold piece by piece and revelation by revelation, just as it did in real life. How has this experience changed your life?
It has changed everything imaginable in my life. However, I continue to struggle through life’s bumps and surprises like everyone else. Like many people who have undergone a spiritually transformative experience of such magnitude, I have no choice but to live my life as authentically as I can. We must always be true to our hearts. What is the main thing you hope people take away from reading your story?
That we are far more
than physical beings. Not only do we continue to exist after bodily death, but our awareness functions at a much higher level once it is free from the physical limitations of the brain. At the core of our existence is a love for us far grander than we can ever imagine: the infinite, unconditional love of a Divine Creator. That love offers us the power to heal ourselves, our species, our planet and our entire existence.