Eben Alexander III, MD on Overcoming Struggles and Finding Spiritual GrowthMay 30, 2018
What is something that you struggled to overcome professionally or personally?
My most profound personal struggle relates to the fact I was given up for adoption by my birth mother when I was 11 days old. Much later in life, I came to realize that remnants of such a perceived abandonment seemed to represent a “smoking crater” at the core of my life’s origins. An infantile hunger strike, clinically known as “failure to thrive,” was the diagnosis at the end of my two-week hospitalization that began when my birth mother left me in the hospital at age 11 days. In essence, my sadness was so deep that I instinctively refused life-sustaining nourishment – an affirmation that being left behind by my mother was the ultimate existentialist challenge. No longer having that primary caregiver meant it was time to “cease to exist.”
Later, growing up in a home with a father who just happened to be a neurosurgeon (and thus should know something about memory), I was informed that I could not possibly remember any events from such a young age. Given the prevailing view that most of our memories seem to be strung together using language through linguistic and narrative relationships, recovery of any memory from before the “age of reason” (around 7-8 years of age, when our brains have reached a certain “adult” level of development) seemed most challenging. To believe one cannot recall memories of such an early event sounded reasonable, yet I have discovered that such a profound emotional experience as abandonment by a birth mother does leave a very powerful imprint and record in memory. But it is most difficult to access using the dominant rational mind with its linguistic relationships, since they were not at all formed at that very early age.
Like many adoptees, I was especially afraid of being abandoned again, and thus adopted an attitude of wanting to please those around me and not rock the boat. Note that in families with two adoptees, they often take opposite roles: one, a people-pleaser like me; the other, the rebel. My older sister was also adopted, and, looking back, it’s easy to see how she took on the role of rebel throughout our childhood. My memories of childhood and young adulthood are generally favorable, although I believe that an “abandonment wound” played a role in many of my interpersonal relationships. There was always an underlying rule to avoid the pain of being abandoned again, which I believe came into play in some of my closer relationships.
At the core of it all was the open question of my own “lovability,” which was not a cognitive question at all, but an emotional challenge of existence, requiring constant reassessment. For someone as focused on the rational and logical approach to problems as I was, it was quite challenging to acknowledge the deep emotional turmoil, let alone to effectively address it.
What did you do to overcome it?
I first became aware of the depths such a wound can play when I entered an alcohol rehabilitation program in 1991. Although alcohol addiction never interfered with my work in medicine, it created problems during my time off, in my family and personal relationships. Addiction to alcohol and other substances points to the existence of a spiritual hole in the core of one’s being that the person is actively trying to fill with non-spiritual filler. But such a hole cannot be filled, except with “spiritual matter” – the connection of ourselves with others and a greater power, and a sense of meaning in life. The role of “spiritual lack” as a root cause of the addiction seemed evident in me and in every recovering soul I encountered. In my case, spiritual emptiness could be correlated back to that abandonment by my birth mother. Filling that void with alcohol may have eased the underlying pain, but only temporarily. While I was able to straightforwardly eliminate alcohol from my life, I continued to wonder about my birth mother and sought ways to reconnect with her. However, North Carolina laws were strictly designed to avoid such reunions, and so I persevered.
A profound spiritual experience while deep in a meningitis-induced coma, my near-death experience in November 2008, proved to be an effective catalyst in bringing that abandonment wound to the forefront, up close and personal, where I could directly address it. Not only was I reunited with the birth sister I had never known (as described in my book Proof of Heaven), but I was also awash in the ineffable unconditional love of a divine force that reassured me, repeatedly, I would always be loved and cherished no matter what. This force is ever-present, as described by the vast majority of those who have had a near-death or similar spiritually-transformative experience, but most people are less aware of its power and influence in their daily lives.
I now understand the feeling of abandonment as a universal wound of detachment from Source, present in most, if not all, of us in varying intensity. I realize now that my personal struggle seemed to be related to the abandonment by my birth mother, but ultimately was a lack of sensing and knowing a loving connection with the spiritual realm. This cognitive understanding was a necessary first step in addressing the layers of visceral intensity, but intellectual knowledge seemed to have little effect on remedying the vast depth of emotional trauma present in my system. Nothing rational or external made much of a dent in the feelings that would arise when confronted with this issue. It was necessary to go much deeper into the subconscious part of my mind, the part where my infantile-self stored its original feelings of abandonment.
What was the best advice you received pertaining to this struggle? How did you implement it in your own way?
Struggling with this issue has been a huge focus during the last decade, as I have come to terms with the lessons of my NDE odyssey. Even after being exposed to the spiritual realm of my coma journey, and reuniting with my birth family, I found it challenging to bring that powerful loving force into my daily life. I was quite taken with the intellectual lessons of my journey – that our scientific understanding of consciousness was completely off-base – but I was less adept at dealing with the profound emotional implications.
I began to explore ways to reconnect with those spiritual realms by using differential-frequency sound brain-entrainment technologies and came to realize that the answers lie within. To access my answers, I had to more fully develop my emotional awareness and then begin to address this primordial existential issue. I credit my life partner, Karen Newell, with helping to awaken me to the power of “heart consciousness,” of feeling the reality of my emotional states and identifying with that resonant and wholesome ownership of my emotions. In our co-authored book, Living in a Mindful Universe, Karen demonstrates the difference between acting out the verb “love” for self and others, and becoming the love that each and every one of us, as a spiritual being in a spiritual universe, fundamentally is, at our very core. I discuss how, using the reference point of my near-death experience, I focused more on generating love from within, really feeling it, and that over time, the abandonment wound in the depths of my soul began to ease.
Is this still something you are battling or has the issue dissipated?
I have made tremendous progress on this issue, especially in the last decade since my coma, yet I feel it remains one of my soul’s driving lessons for this lifetime. I am occasionally triggered by events in my life that bring the feelings of being unworthy of love more to the surface. With my newfound understanding, I now view each instance as an opportunity to further address the deep layers of emotional trauma, releasing a bit at a time. Especially given the ubiquity of this abandonment wound far beyond the confines of the adoption community, I am committed to playing a role in its better elucidation and resolution in order to help heal our ailing world. After all, one of the most profound lessons of my spiritual odyssey was that the majority of the world’s problems result from our not loving ourselves enough, at least as the interconnected divine spiritual beings that I believe we are. Learning how to recover that love of the universe for self, and expressing it by serving as a conduit of that primordial love for all fellow beings, will absolutely make this world a far better place for all.
Who or what has helped you most along your way?
Much of my personal liberation has resulted from a major shift in worldviews: from my former conventional scientific one of physicalism, which says consciousness is simply the confusing epiphenomenon of the physical reactions in the brain, to a far more powerful view expounded on in our book Living in a Mindful Universe, the Primordial Mind Hypothesis (PMH). The PMH is based on a metaphysical position of ontological idealism, wherein all of the physical universe is projected from a dominant organizational realm of Mind. The other elements of the PMH take this mentally focused view of the universe and expand on it through the notion of filter theory, in which human consciousness is a direct extension of that universal mind or God force, and where the brain serves as a reducing valve or filter that allows only a trickle of that primordial mind consciousness into our normal waking consciousness.
The other main ingredient to the PMH is an appropriate interpretation of the measurement paradox in quantum physics, elaborating more precisely how Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, applied to the tightly confined ionic channels and microtubules of the neurons of the brain, allows consciousness to project the appropriate physical neuronal states that correspond to the specific phenomenology of consciousness itself.
A practice of regular meditation using the audio technology of Sacred Acoustics has become an essential part of my daily routine. By placing the voice of the ego in time-out and expanding my consciousness beyond the here and now (as well as developing awareness beyond the false boundaries of what we call “self”), I am able to reach further depths of understanding. By engaging my neutral inner observer, I can view any problems from a wider perspective and choose innovative ways of managing them.
My life partner and main professional collaborator, Karen Newell (co-founder of Sacred Acoustics), continues to be an essential teacher on this pathway of discovery. We have spent countless hours in meditation and discussion, all in a grand process of trying to make better sense of the mind-brain relationship and the fundamental nature of consciousness. With recognition of the overwhelmingly subjective nature of human experience, and the profound implications of increasingly refined quantum mechanical experiments that point to the shocking conclusion that there is no objective physical universe independent of the observing mind, this odyssey called life is far more exciting and revolutionary than anything I could have imagined before my coma.
What advice would you give to others in the same situation?
One cannot simply reason their way to the most fundamental truths about the nature of reality – exploring deep within one’s own consciousness is essential. Seeking answers within, through centering prayer and deep meditation, provides a setting for developing your own connection to the observer within (an extension of Primordial Mind). Follow your heart, and intuition. Trust in the universe to provide that which you need. Be mindful of your loving connections to others, and always strive to make as many choices as possible out of love for all fellow beings, beginning with self. Develop a rich relationship with your “higher soul” and primordial mind (God consciousness), never becoming slave to the outrageous demands of the ego. Seek the win-win situation, through maintenance of a broad enough perspective that you can always glimpse how “all is well.”
What was your most influential decade? Why?
The most recent decade (2008-2018) provided the fertile ground of my NDE and its aftermath. Profound spiritual experiences such as I had are powerfully transformative and impossible to ignore. My entire worldview was upended while simultaneously I was forced to reckon with profound emotional scars dating back to my birth. Although this decade has been a time of exponential growth, I suspect I will continue to refine my analysis, assessment and healing around this issue for the remainder of this lifetime (if not beyond).
What advice would you give to someone else?
Looking back at life, various hardships and challenges such as disease, loss of a loved one, relationship issues, financial difficulties, among others, often serve as catalysts for spiritual growth. Identify patterns in your own life and note if there are any outward signs of imbalance that might have underlying causes unknown to your conscious mind. Consider that the external circumstances that seem to be causing ongoing non-beneficial patterns in your life might merely serve as a reflection for your own internal turmoil. Developing a connection with your neutral inner observer can serve to bring a fresh perspective to any situation.
- [Looking from the soul perspective] There is a symbiotic web in which we exist, and we tend to incarnate in soul groups. Although our individual souls are each on a journey of learning and growth here, we are always part of a larger whole. We might not always recognize the role we play for others, but we touch others daily by thoughts, words and actions. And it is healthy for us to acknowledge the essential rescue or support others have given us at multiple points in our lives either through tangible assistance, words of encouragement or challenge, or even global acts of service by a preceding generation that forged a path for our health, communications or deeper understandings. For example, the vital importance of other people in our lives, regardless of relationship, was exemplified by the doctors and nurses who kept me alive during my second week of life. And, every day parents choose to create new families through adoption, while others provide caregiving of the adopted, disabled or elderly in their communities. Never discount the role you play in another’s life, or their connection to yours.
- Abandonment is a big fear and trauma many face in our world. Trauma of all types can begin with an initializing event that imprints on our emotional system well before our cognitive and rational self can process it, and continues to impact us throughout our lives at least until we grow spiritually beyond whatever physical healing transpires. Throughout our lives we may continue to store similar trauma on top of trauma, more or less intense than the first, within our emotional field. In this way, each successive event compounds a problem that our adult mind should otherwise understand and be able to put into context, but cannot do effectively since it is rooted in the nonverbal, noncognitive realm. Clearing or healing such trauma can occur through greater spiritual awareness and soul perspective, and complete healing may evolve over a lifetime, as in my case.
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