I recently read an excerpt from the controversial number one bestseller Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander in Newsweek magazine. In it he describes, with a powerful self-confidence, a dramatic near-death experience that occurred after suffering from an extreme form of meningitis. Apparently, within hours of coming down with the infection, he fell into a coma and was hospitalized. After seven full days, just as he was about to be pronounced dead by his colleagues, he opened his eyes and explained that while his body had been asleep and his brain had appeared to be dead, he had been on the most extraordinary spiritual adventure.
He described in stunning detail the experience of a technicolor afterworld of infinite space illumined by the light of a thousands suns where, riding on the wings of a giant butterfly, he’d been welcomed by an angelic being in the form of a beautiful young woman with golden hair who affectionately made clear to him that he had always been loved, that everything was good, and that in this realm beyond the world, he could do no wrong.
I’ve had some truly amazing spiritual experiences in my 57 years of life. In fact, a couple were so powerful that they literally transformed me in the most profound and irrevocable ways. I have, many times over the years, touched depths of Being, dimensions of knowing, and moments of clarity and insight that have been and continue to be for me a powerful source of spiritual self-confidence. And in spite of this, while I find stories like the one I shared above both compelling and inspiring, they simultaneously stretch my rational mind’s willingness to embrace the unknown.
One of the last times I visited my own spiritual teacher, the first thing he said upon seeing me enter his room was, “I’m glad you have found a friend that you will never be able to see.” I had not seen him for many months and he recognized that because of the mystical experiences I had had, I now was imbued with a confidence and conviction in the metaphysical dimension of reality that I had not had before. The Buddha called this domain the “Unborn” or the “Uncreated.” The great religious traditions of the world have their own words to describe this deepest dimension of Reality itself. In Jewish mysticism this is called Ein Sof. In Sufism it is called ‘Adam. In Hinduism, Brahman. And in Christianity, I Am.
All of these names are metaphors for the perennial mystical insight through which human beings from all the world’s wisdom traditions have found spiritual emancipation and inner freedom. That is the direct cognition or knowing of that which is infinite. Beginningless, endless, ungraspable, and ultimately unknowable by the rational mind. Traditionally, this kind of experience is called “Gnosis.” Some modern thinkers have called it “trans-rational” knowing.
This was the friend I would never be able to see. The important part of this phrase, for me, is never be able to see . . . As a self-confessed mystic and spiritual teacher myself, I have dedicated my life to bearing witness to this invisible yet fundamental and primary dimension of reality. And yet whenever Spirit seems to speak to us or display itself in specific forms and discernable shapes like giant butterflies or beautiful women with long golden hair, or the often-talked-about communication from disembodied souls speaking to us from the other side of life and death, I find myself growing uncomfortable. I sometimes worry that in these ways we may be unintentionally obscuring the literally inconceivable nature of Spirit’s true face.
And at the very same time, I have to be honest—I also want to believe, word-for-word, these compelling and rapturous testimonies of freedom beyond corporeal existence. While I do hold the strong conviction that we are all part and parcel of a creative process that is literally infinite and that therefore this human lifetime is but a chapter in an ongoing adventure, I hesitate to be too sure of what that adventure will look like when this body falls away. As much as I’d like to know, I get a much deeper sense of spiritual self-confidence because I don’t have to.
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