What’s going on with out of body experiences? Those hanging around the outside would like to know.


The Secret of the Golden Flower from Chinese book of alchemy and meditation.

I’ve been hearing the last few months about a neurosurgeon, Eban Alexander, who had a near death experience that should have been impossible if NDE’s are really caused by lingering subtle brain activity as most skeptics believe.  Evidently, the part of his brain necessary to support such lingering brain activity was destroyed by a raging bacterial meningitis infection so that explanation, in his case anyway, is out.

It’s a fascinating case and gives some of the most compelling evidence I’ve heard to date that our consciousness might actually arise from something other than just the physical brain (which has some broad and controversial ramifications.) In addition, the story of what he experienced internally while “dead” is strange and beautiful and filled with a lot of hope…which makes for a very good listen indeed.

BTW, if his conclusions about what he experienced wind up holding true for a broader swathe of the rest of us, it’s good news. I like it anyway. He recently published a book documenting the whole thing if you’re interested.  I haven’t read it myself but it’s available on Amazon here.

I track this type of development because I basically have two conflicting minds when it comes to this kind of esoteric stuff.  On the one hand my scientific mind tenses up and rolls her eyes, even though she knows there’s no evidence-based proof either way.  Traditionally, something like NDEs isn’t a topic that science is supposed to weigh in on because it’s not measurable, so I know she shouldn’t even have an opinion which makes me squirm.

On the other hand, the rest of my mind swivels around in her chair to stare at the scientific side in disgust and says What the hell are you rolling your eyes about?  You’ve been experiencing this kind of shit since you were three.  Don’t be a hypocrite.  And because that’s true, again, I squirm.

From what I can tell, most people seem to experience something that’s scientifically unexplainable at some point during their lives, NDEs are just one example. The list covers everything from deja vu, to knowing who’s on the other end of the phone before it’s answered, to seeing or sensing deceased loved ones, to so-called hauntings, to the feeling of being watched, to psychokinesis, etc. etc. etc.

And, while none of us are usually encouraged to talk about it afterwards still, these experiences often leave long impressions, for better or worse.  And in such cases we remember and stash their memories away in safe and secret places where we can finger them again in private moments when no one’s looking.  Because even though sometimes these experiences are just small and curious and insignificant, sometimes they’re life changing.  And, at the extreme ends of the spectrum, they can wield some extreme influence, either destroying lives or saving them.

One of mine happened when I was eight or nine years old and riding in the family station wagon when we lived in Hawaii.  We were outside Honolulu on our way to one of my gymnastics meets and there was a van full of people driving along parallel to us in the next lane.  I was studying the driver, a man, wondering very intensely what it would be like to be him, driving wherever he was going, in his completely different world.

Suddenly, my physical viewpoint radically changed and I found myself looking back at our station wagon from the driver’s seat of the van.  I was stunned and looked wildly around for a moment…at the mountains beyond the station wagon and the highway just ahead of the van…and then felt a wave of panic as I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about this man’s life and certainly didn’t want to be in it.  At that point my viewpoint radically shifted again and I found myself once again sitting in my own body in my own car with my own family in my own life, and my terror quickly faded.

Being eight or nine years old I didn’t really care about explaining what happened, I was just glad it was over.  But ever afterwards I was a little more cautious about wondering that intensely about other people’s lives.  (Even so, the same thing happened a couple other times over the years and was, again, quite scary.)

I also go in and out of periods where I have intense and vivid dreams about people or events that turn out to be true.  Like the time when I dreamed that an old high school friend I hadn’t seen for ten years was happy and pregnant.  The dream made me want to reconnect and when I finally tracked her down and explained what prompted me to call, we were both amazed when she told me that she was indeed pregnant with her first child.  It happened again with a dream about another woman I’d once known in Los Angeles whom the entire community had always looked up to as having the strongest marriage around. In the dream I saw she was having severe marital problems but didn’t think much of it after I woke up.  Six months later though, I heard she had just decided to divorce her husband and everyone was surprised and shocked.  I, on the other hand, remembered the dream and thought, hmm.

To be honest, I don’t really like this particular type of experience when it happens because I don’t know what to do with it. I’d prefer to stick with my own body and life, not roam around peering into somebody else’s like some kind of creepy voyeur.  There’s so very much that I’d rather just not know.

Anyway, I guess part of why Eban Alexander’s account is so intriguing to me is because, for a variety of reasons, staying in my body has always felt a little hit and miss.  My consciousness seems to be more jellyfish than oak with a tendency to drift rather than root.

For instance, due to some early trauma I developed the trick of leaving my body whenever things got too scary or painful (which I know sounds really strange to people who aren’t familiar with it but it’s actually a common coping mechanism called dissociation.)  Then there’s a sweeter, friendlier way to float up and out that happens sometimes in deep meditation or prayer.  And I occasionally experience the vivid physical sensation of sliding back into my body again just as I’m waking up from sleep.

Then there’s this other related experience where I’m both inside and outside my body at the same time, experiencing both simultaneously, which can be either beautiful or disruptive depending on what’s immediately around me.  (Nature is wonderful, people are pretty disorienting.)

And I’ve just never dared do heavy drugs.

For all these reasons and more, the question about whether the seat of consciousness is strictly brain-based or something else feels kind of personal to me.  For the sake of my mental health I’d dearly love to have more consensus about what’s really going on.  I’ve always wished it was safer to talk about more openly…to probe and explore and have intelligent, non-biased discussions in a search for explanations and possible constructive uses.  But up till now that’s been tricky.  One runs the risk of being turned on by either a pack of rabid scientists or a pack of rabid spiritualists.  Maybe Mr. Alexander’s experience will open the door to some common ground.  I hope so.

I suppose I should probably start the calmer conversation with the two conflicting parties in my own head.  I mean if I can’t be more respectful of my own experiences and doubts and questions, then how likely is it I’ll be able to listen respectfully to anybody else?

Anyway, anyone else want to weigh in?  I’m very curious to know what others are thinking and/or experiencing out there.  Leave a comment if you’re feeling brave.