The Map of Heaven, by Eben Alexander and Ptolemy Tompkins, is a follow-up to their previous bestseller Proof of Heaven, which recounted Alexander's elaborate and unconventional near-death experience while in a coma. In the new book, the authors try to place Alexander's experience in the larger context of NDEs in general, mystical visions, and mythic symbols.
The context is vast, and the story is compelling. As the book observes:
Some skeptics miss the forest for the trees – they get lost in the details, so busy comparing the differences in their effort to disapprove, that they miss the deeper truths of the commonalities across cultures, beliefs, continents, and millennia.
Alexander begins by admitting that his background as a neurosurgeon had led him to be reflexively skeptical of afterlife claims:
I was the guy who, if you told me about your NDE, or the visit you’d received from your dead aunt to tell you that all was well with her, would have looked at you and said, sympathetically but definitively, that it was a fantasy.
Of course, his own NDE changed all that, though even now he concedes that his story may sound "crazy":
The worlds above are not general, not vague. They are deeply, piercingly alive, and about as abstract as a bucket of fried chicken, the glint off the hood of a Trans Am, or your first crush. That’s why the descriptions of heaven brought back by people like Swedenborg can sound so absolutely crazy. I know perfectly well how crazy my own account sounds, And I sympathize with those who have difficulty with it. Like a lot of things in life it sounds pretty far-fetched till you see it yourself.
After his NDE, Alexander - with the help of Tompkins, a former editor of Guideposts magazine and the author of several books, including The Modern Book of the Dead - began the long process of understanding what had happened to him. The book includes summaries of many published accounts of NDEs, such as this one:
In her 1987 book A Farther Shore (recently republished as Farther Shores), physician Yvonne Kason writes of an NDE she underwent when … the small plane she was on went down in an icy Canadian lake ... Coughing violently, numb throughout her body, and barely keeping her face above the frigid water, Yvonne suddenly found herself floating, easily and tranquilly, several hundred feet above the lake. She could see herself, paddling for shore, and the semi-submerged plane she’d escaped from, with complete clarity. She knew the patient still strapped to the gurney in the plane was probably doomed, and that, given the speed of the current and the temperature of the water, she was as well. Yet she felt completely at peace. She knew that, whatever happened, she was deeply loved and taken care of. Nothing could go wrong. …
[Yvonne finally made it to a hospital, where nurses took her to a hydrotherapy room and immersed her in a whirlpool.]
“As I was submerged in the hot, swirling water,” she writes, “I felt my consciousness shrinking from its expanded state and pulled back and pulled through the top of my head back down into my body. The sensation was similar to what I imagine a genie might feel when it is forcibly sucked back into its tiny bottle. I heard a whoosh, felt a downward pulling sensation, and was suddenly aware of being totally back in my body again.”
[Her NDE] “began a process of spiritual transformation that has continued to this day.”
There are also excerpts from some of the many letters and email messages Alexander received in the wake of his first book's publication. Here's one:
I was coming back from court (I am still practicing law) heading toward my car. I specifically recall stepping on a crack in the cement sidewalk and (without warning nor explanation) I suddenly became completely aware that everything was absolutely okay. When I say “everything,” I mean everything in as expansive a term as anyone could imagine – including (as lawyers like to say) without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the past, present, future, the universe, the cosmos, all actions, all events, all circumstances that were, are or could ever be.… The feeling that everything in the universe was okay – exactly as it should be – was more true, more real, more direct than any experience I have ever had.
Additionally, there are some accounts taken from the research of Alistair Hardy, a marine biologist who made a study of what might be called cosmic consciousness. One of Hardy's subjects wrote,
From time to time I have again experienced these wonderful ecstasies, always at completely unexpected times, sometimes while washing up and doing daily chores about the house. There is always the same feeling, leaving me weeping with a great joy and a feeling of deep reverence and worship and love. I think it best described as a sort of homesickness, a “nostalgia for some other where,” almost as if I had known an existence of such beauty and indescribable happiness and I am yearning and homesick for it again.
The idea of homesickness recurs in Alexander's musings on his own NDE, when he remembers the water he saw there:
It’s water that’s deeply familiar – so that when you see it you realize that all the most beautiful waterscapes you ever saw on earth were beautiful precisely because they were reminding you of it.
Another aspect of afterlife experience, the authors tell us, is its nonlinear quality, which is difficult if not impossible to grasp or appreciate from an earthly perspective.
The people we are in the world above this one are multidimensional beings: beings who contain all the best of what they were here on earth at the same time. If you have a grown child, think about all the different beings he or she has been over the years: The baby that first opened its eyes at the hospital, The five-year-old rolling her first few solo feet on her new bike. The teenager, suddenly revealing a thoughtfulness and depth that you had never seen before.
Which of these is your real child? You know the answer, of course. All of them are.
Life in linear time – earth time – allows for growth precisely because it takes detours and meets roadblocks. The time of heaven – the time dimension that we enter when we leave this body – allows for the full expression of those selves that we worked so hard to develop through those detours and roadblocks, here within the bounds of linear temporality. … The “unlived lines” that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said he saw on the faces of the people he passed in the street – these lines of possibility, of growth, that are so horrifically blocked and broken down here – will all have a chance to be fulfilled in the world above this one.
After quoting Roger Ebert's now-famous statement about life as "an elaborate hoax," Alexander discusses the last published words of Aldous Huxley, written just a few days before he died.
“The world is an illusion,” Huxley said. “But it is an illusion which we must take seriously, because it is real as far as it goes.” We must, Huxley argued, “find a way of being in this world while not being in it.” Because in truth, we are never fully, completely here to begin with. We come from, and are destined to return to, elsewhere. When we think we are our brains and bodies and nothing more, we lose the ability to be true protagonists – true heroes. And as Joseph Campbell pointed out again and again, we are all heroes. The word protagonist comes in part from the Greek word agon, which means “contest.” The word agony, of course, also comes from it, and it is hard to deny that life is an agonizing struggle – for some people most of the time, for most people some of the time. But it’s a struggle that leads somewhere. With the contest, the agon, of his earthly life completed, Huxley departed, leaving behind the one piece of information we have to remember on this level, just as Ebert did. This world is not all there is. There is a larger one, of which this seemingly complete earthly world is the tiniest slice. That larger world is ruled by love, and we are all on our way home to it, so we should never despair.
As you can see, the idea of homesickness and a return to our true home has come up again. I can't help but think of Homer's Odyssey, an epic story of homecoming that has endured for more than 2500 years and still has strong emotional appeal today. Could it be that in the tale of the shipwrecked wanderer who finally makes his way home we are seeing our own story?
Although The Map of Heaven mentions the Odyssey only in passing, the larger point is made by the authors in an eloquent summing-up:
It’s the one true story, fighting its way back to us. The reality of heaven, and of our place in it, is breaking back through the walls of denial we have built up over the last few centuries, and we are hearing its message again: We are loved. We are known. We belong.
I enjoyed this book and learned something from it. Why not put it on your Christmas list?