Over three-plus decades, a starry-eyed media, mostly secular, has done with near-death and similar experience exactly what fundamentalists have done with religion: They have literalized it, presented it journalistically as they would a new archeological find, turned experiences of the indescribable into the prose of factual reporting. And because NDEs so often sound very like traditional teachings about heaven and occasionally hell, not only the experiencers but religious and secular audiences alike take them as literal, factual truth.
Proof of Heaven! they cry. Evidence of Afterlife!
They make for great media. And great media creates stars of experiencers. She was right there, at the gates! He was actually in heaven, saw all this stuff! Wow. Special. You have been to the light; tell us what we are to do!
The problem is that NDEs and their kin are experiences, not of the material world but of the human psyche, and the psyche is not public domain but private. A whole psyche goes into an NDE—ego, shadow, temperament, concepts and all—so when the individual comes out with a brand new world view, a whole transformed sense of reality, that psyche is still grounded in the old ego, shadow, temperament, and all. Human may be transformed in some ways, but it is still human, and with a history.
What is needed is a few years of living quietly to process the event and integrate it into a reshaped wholeness that can survive daily life. (Not by accident did Jesus retreat to the wilderness, and the Buddha to sit under his tree, Teresa to her cell in Avila.)
But the media wants stories and stars now. There is no time to reflect. Producers and editors, managers, directors, and handlers all have ideas about how personal stories can be polished just a bit to create a particular effect, how details can be shifted for greater impact, how inconvenient information can be overlooked and titles made to sound more salable. And soon hustlers are saying, we want to build a new organization around you, hooking the experiencer further to the great “You are so special” machine, and the person finds himself on the tightrope walk between a genuine passion to share new understandings and the almost certain distortion of being managed, balancing old and new, private and public, all in the glare of public adulation, which is narcotic. It is an impossible do-it-yourself task.
Proof of Heaven! they cry. Evidence of Afterlife!
Now Esquire and author Luke Dittrich have produced a carefully researched, skillfully written article focusing on weak spots in Eben Alexander’s professional life and character. The article is so adroitly done–so well done, skeptics will say–it quietly manages to throw a heavy veil of distrust over Alexander, his book, and even his published NDE account.
Eben Alexander is not the first near-death experiencer or author of note to find himself trapped between his humanness, his NDE, and an unforgiving publicity machine. This has happened again and again…and again. But he began at an elevated social level (“He’s a neurosurgeon!”) and was very quickly marketed to the skies by a savvy publisher, media attention, public appearances, and astronomical book sales. He shares with most other NDErs a conviction of having privileged information of value to humankind.
It is only inevitable that while Alexander would come to believe at least part of that adulation, others would be looking for the clay in his feet. It is equally inevitable that the materialist culture would look for ways to discredit his non-materialist NDE and his conclusions about it. The trap is that he has shared, like his ardent NDE followers, in the passionate but naïve dream that if only a person of science claims truth for NDEs, a paradigm will shift and the world will believe.
Despite grandiose media depictions of individuals who have had exalted spiritual visions, what the Esquire article points out is that they hold their treasure in earthen vessels (St. Paul said it, I didn’t). We do well to keep our expectations of experiencers in check. Everyone has shadow. Everyone has secrets. Hubris may be hubris; but it is our own doing if we buy it without thoughtful reflection. No NDEr is perfect and no interpretation of an NDE is the only one possible. We share in this story. It is absurd to expect perfection and unfair to claim that authors’ failings necessarily make them charlatans.
The article’s fallacy, however, is basic: its author’s inability to see the real issues. Further, some clever factual twisting of his own suggests that Dittrich should not, perhaps, be the first to be throwing stones. The cynical responses of commenters reflect less on Alexander and more on their own credulity and lack of realistic perceptions, not to mention their absence of compassion for dragging someone else’s shadow issues through the public square.
Does Alexander’s history of shifting facts into his favor weigh against him? Of course. That is a personal message to him from his NDE; the Dalai Lama may have spotted his need to deal with it. But does that destroy the genuineness of his experience or the value of his insights? No, though it suggests we haul out our old discernment kit. The great spiritual leaders, the founders of the world’s enduring traditions, have always been flawed in one sense or another; yet the message flows despite, or even encouraged by, human failings.
Does that flawed personal history say anything about the worthiness of Alexander as a spokesperson? No. The myriad of people who have been helped by his words are no less helped now; his words can continue to help and heal. How he deals with this public exposure will answer the question of character.
Most importantly, does the Esquire article diminish the far larger question of what NDEs, including Alexander’s, may tell us about the limits of materialism and the existence of a spiritual dimension to human consciousness? Dealing only with personal attack, the article does not even notice those questions, which continue unabated. Meantime, while we wrestle with the paradoxical nature of the prophet, Eben Alexander is discovering the price of spiritual enlightenment.
Thanks to David Sunfellow at New Heaven, New Earth for alerting me to this story.