About the Author
Eben Alexander, MD, has been an academic neurosurgeon for the last twenty-five years, including fifteen years at the Brigham & Women’s and the Children’s Hospitals and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He is the author of Proof of Heaven and The Map of Heaven. Visit him at EbenAlexander.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Ptolemy Tompkins is a former editor at Guideposts Magazine and the author of seven books. His writing has been featured in Beliefnet, Harper’s, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Best Spiritual Writing, and The Best American Spiritual Writing.
The Map of Heaven Introduction
I am the child of earth and starry heaven, but my real race is of heaven.
—FRAGMENT FROM AN ANCIENT GREEK TEXT GIVING INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE NEWLY DEAD SOUL ON HOW TO NAVIGATE THE AFTERLIFE
Imagine a young couple at their wedding. The ceremony is over, and everyone is crowding around on the church steps for a photo. But the couple, at this particular moment, doesn’t notice them. They’re too concerned with each other. They are looking deep into each other’s eyes—the windows of the soul, as Shakespeare called them.
Deep. A funny word to describe an action that we know can’t really be deep at all. Sight is a strictly physical affair. Photons of light strike the retinal wall at the rear of the eye, a mere inch or so behind the pupil, and the information they deliver is then translated into electrochemical impulses that travel along the optic nerve to the visual processing center in the rear of the brain. It’s an entirely mechanical process.
But of course, everyone knows just what you mean when you say you’re looking deep into someone’s eyes. You’re seeing that person’s soul—that part of the human being that the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus was talking about some 2,500 years ago when he wrote: “You would not find the limits of the soul even if you travelled forever, so deep and vast is it.” Illusion or not, it is a powerful thing to glimpse that depth when it presents itself.
We see this depth manifested most powerfully on two occasions: when we fall in love, and when we see someone die. Most people have experienced the first, while fewer, in our society where death is so shunted out of sight, have experienced the second. But medical people and hospice workers who see death regularly will know immediately what I’m talking about. Suddenly where there was depth there is now only surface. The living gaze—even if the person in question was very old and that gaze was vague and flickering—goes flat.
We see this when an animal dies, too. The direct avenue into what the twentieth-century scholar of religions Titus Burckhardt called “the inward realm of the soul” goes dead, and the body becomes, in essence, like an unplugged appliance.
So imagine that bride and groom looking into each other’s eyes, and seeing that bottomless depth. The shutter snaps. The image is captured. A perfect shot of a perfect pair of young newlyweds.
Now jump ahead half a dozen decades. Imagine that this couple had kids, and that those kids had kids of their own. The man in the picture has died, and the woman now lives alone in an assisted living facility. Her kids visit her, she has friends at the facility, but sometimes, like right now, she feels alone.
It’s a rainy afternoon, and the woman, sitting by her window, has picked up that photo from where it sits in a frame on a side table. In the gray light filtering in, she looks at it. The photo, like the woman herself, has taken a long journey to get there. It started out in a photo album that was passed on to one of their children, then went into a frame and came with her when she moved to the facility. Though it’s fragile, a little yellowed and bent at the edges, it has survived. She sees the young woman she was, looking into the eyes of her new husband, and remembers how at that moment he was more real to her than anything else in the world.
Where is he now? Does he still exist?
On good days, the woman knows he does. Surely the man she loved so much for all those many years could not have simply vanished when his body died. She knows—vaguely—what religion has to say on the matter. Her husband is off in heaven: a heaven that, through years of more or less steady church attendance, she has professed belief in. Though deep down she has never been all that sure.
So on other days—days like today—she doubts. For she also knows what science has to say on this matter. Yes, she loved her husband. But love is an emotion, an electrochemical reaction that goes on deep inside the brain, releasing hormones into the body, dictating our moods, telling us whether to be happy or sad, joyous or desolate.
In short, love is unreal.
What is real? Well, that’s obvious. The molecules of steel and chrome and aluminum and plastic in the chair she sits in; the carbon atoms that make up the paper of the photo she holds in her hand; the glass and wood of the frame that protects it. And of course the diamond on her engagement ring and the gold of which both it and her wedding ring are made: those are real, too.
But the perfect, whole, and everlasting bond of love between two immortal souls that these rings are meant to signify? Well, that’s all just pretty-sounding fluff. Solid, tangible matter: that’s what’s real. Science says so.
The inside is your true nature.
—AL-GHAZALI, ELEVENTH-CENTURY ISLAMIC MYSTIC
The root of the word reality is the Latin word res—“thing.” The things in our lives like car tires, skillets, soccer balls, and backyard swing sets are real to us because they possess a day-in, day-out consistency. We can touch them, weigh them in our hands, put them down, and come back later and find them unchanged, right where we left them.
We, of course, are made of matter as well. Our bodies are made of elements like hydrogen, the earliest and simplest element, and more complex ones like nitrogen, carbon, iron, and magnesium. All of these were cooked up—created—at inconceivable pressure and heat, in the hearts of ancient, now long-dead stars. Carbon nuclei have six protons and six neutrons. Of the eight positions in its outer shell where its electrons orbit, four are occupied by electrons, and four are vacant, so that electrons from other atoms or elements can link up with the carbon atom by binding their own electrons to those empty positions. This particular symmetry allows carbon atoms to link together with other carbon atoms, as well as other kinds of atoms and molecules, with fantastic efficiency. Both organic chemistry and biochemistry—massive subjects that dwarf chemistry’s other subsets—are exclusively devoted to studying chemical interactions involving carbon. The entire chemical structure of life on earth is based on carbon and its unique attributes. It is the lingua franca of the organic chemical world. Thanks to this same symmetry, carbon atoms, when submitted to tremendous pressure, lock together with a new tenacity, transforming from the black, earthy stuff we associate it with into that most powerful natural symbol of durability, the diamond.
But though the atoms of carbon and the handful of other elements that make up most of our bodies are all essentially immortal, our bodies themselves are transient in the extreme. New cells are born and old ones die. At every moment our bodies are taking matter from, and giving it back to, the physical world around us. Before long—the blink of an eye on a cosmic scale—our bodies will go back into the cycle entirely. They will rejoin the flux of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, calcium, and other primary substances that build up and disintegrate, again and again, here on earth.
This insight is nothing new, of course. The word human itself comes from the same root as humus, earth. So too does humble, which makes sense because the best way of staying humble is to realize what you’re made of. Long before science came along to explain the minute details of how it happens, cultures all around the world knew that our bodies are made from earth, and that when we die our bodies go back to it. As God says to Adam—a name itself derived from the Hebrew word adamah—“earth”—in Genesis: “Dust thou art, and to dust thou will return.”
Yet we humans have never been completely happy with this situation. The whole history of humanity can be seen as our response to this apparent earthiness of ours, and the feelings of pain and incompletion that it creates. We suspect that there is something more to the story.
Modern science—the latest and by far the most powerful of our responses to this ancient restlessness about our mortality—grew in large part out of an ancient technique of manipulating chemicals called alchemy. The origins of alchemy are lost in history. Some say it began in ancient Greece. Others say the first alchemists lived much earlier, perhaps in Egypt, and that the name itself derives from the Egyptian Al-Kemi or “black earth”—presumably a reference to the black, fertile soil on the banks of the Nile.
There were Christian alchemists, Jewish alchemists, Muslim alchemists, and Taoist or Confucian alchemists. It was simply everywhere. Wherever and whenever it did begin, alchemy grew into a fantastically complex and widespread series of practices. Most of these were concerned with turning “base” metals like copper and lead into gold. But the prime goal of alchemy was recovering the state of immortality that the alchemists believed humankind originally possessed, but lost long ago.
Many of the tools and methods of modern chemistry were invented by alchemists, often at considerable risk. Messing around with physical matter can be dangerous, and in addition to poisoning or blowing themselves up, alchemists risked getting in trouble with the local religious powers. Like the science it gave rise to, alchemy was, especially in Europe in the years leading up to the Scientific Revolution, a heresy.
One of the major discoveries of the alchemists in the course of their quest for immortality was that when you submit a chemical or element to what alchemists called a “trying” process—if you heat it, say, or combine it with some other chemical with which it is reactive—it will turn into something else. Like so many other gifts from the past, this knowledge sounds obvious to us now, but this is only because we didn’t do the work to discover it to begin with.
The first age was golden.
Why were the alchemists so interested in gold? One reason is obvious. The lesser alchemists—those who didn’t understand the deeper, underlying spiritual element at work in it—were simply trying to become rich. But the real alchemists were interested in gold for another reason.
Gold, like carbon, is an unusual element. The nucleus of the gold atom is very large. With seventy-nine protons, only four other stable elements are heavier. This big positive electrical charge causes the electrons that circle the nucleus of the gold atom to move at exceptional speed—approximately half the speed of light. If a photon comes to earth from the sun, the heavenly body most associated with gold in the alchemical texts, and bounces off an atom of gold, and that photon then happens to enter into one of our eyes and strikes the retinal wall, the message this delivers to the brain creates a curiously pleasant sensation in our consciousness. We humans react strongly to gold, and always have.
Gold powers much of the economic activity on our planet. It is beautiful and it is relatively rare, yet it has no great utilitarian value—nothing like the one we have placed on it, in any case. We have, as a species, decided it has value; that’s all. That’s why alchemists, both through their material experiments and the inner, meditative practices that often accompanied those experiments, sought it so desperately. Gold, for them, was the solidified, tangible representation of the heavenly part of the human being—the immortal soul. They sought to recover that other side of the human being—the golden side that joins with the earthy side to make us the people we are.
We are one part earth and one part heaven, and the alchemists knew this.
We need to know it, too.
Qualities, like the “beauty” of gold, and even its very color, are, we have been taught, not real. Emotions, we have been taught, are even less real. They’re just reactive patterns generated by our brains in response to hormonal messages sent by our bodies in response to situations of danger or desire.
Love. Beauty. Goodness. Friendship. In the worldview of materialist science, there is no room for treating these things as realities. When we believe this, just as when we believe it when we are told that meaning isn’t real, we lose our connection to heaven—what writers in the ancient world sometimes called the “golden thread.”
We get weak.
Love, beauty, goodness, and friendship are real. They’re as real as rain. They’re as real as butter, as real as wood, or stone, or plutonium, or the rings of Saturn, or sodium nitrate. On the earthly level of existence, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
But what you lose, you can get back.
Unlettered peoples are ignorant of many things, but they are seldom stupid because, having to rely on their memories, they are more likely to remember what is important. Literate peoples, by contrast, are apt to get lost in their vast libraries of recorded information.I
—HUSTON SMITH, RELIGION SCHOLAR
Human beings have been around in our modern form for about one hundred thousand years. For most of this time, three questions have been intensely important to us:
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings didn’t doubt for a moment that the spiritual world was real. We believed that it was the place each of us came from when we were born, and that it was the place we would return to when we died.
Many scientists today think we are right on the verge of knowing just about everything there is to know about the universe. There is much talk these days, among certain of these scientists, of a “Theory of Everything.” A theory that will account for every last bit of data about the universe that we currently possess: a theory that, as the name suggests, will explain it all.
But there’s something rather curious about this theory. It doesn’t include answers to a single one of those three questions listed above: the questions that, for 99.9 percent of our time on earth, were the three most important ones to answer. This Theory of Everything makes no mention of heaven.
The word heaven originally meant, simply, “sky.” That is what the word that translates as “heaven” in the New Testament means. The Spanish word for heaven, cielo, also means “sky,” and comes from the same root that our word ceiling does as well. Though we now know that heaven isn’t literally up there, many of us continue to sense that there is a dimension or dimensions that are “above” the earthly world in the sense that they are “higher” in a spiritual sense. When I use “heaven” in this book, and talk about it being “above” us, I am doing so with the understanding that no one today thinks heaven is simply up there in the sky, or that it is the simple place of clouds and eternal sunshine that the word has come to conjure up. I am speaking in terms of another kind of geography: one that is very real, but also very different from the earthly one we are familiar with, and in comparison to which the entire observable physical dimension is as a grain of sand on a beach.
There is another group out there today—a group that also includes many scientists—that also believes we might indeed be on the verge of discovering a Theory of Everything. But the Theory of Everything that this group is talking about is quite different from the one that materialist science thinks it’s on the verge of discovering....
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