Heaven Can't Wait: A skeptic's guide to afterlife awareness

Jul 11, 2013 at 4:00 am
Heaven Can't Wait: A skeptic's guide to afterlife awareness
Mark Andresen

If death is the final, irrevocable cessation of life, the concept of life after death is a paradox and completely illogical. Once you stop believing in Santa Claus, it's only a short jump to stop believing in Heaven, too, at least the one where there are people in white robes and halos playing harps all day, and then to start scoffing at people who swear they were Catherine the Great or the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III in a past life. Why is it never acceptable to say you were once a cockroach?

Maybe your dog will die, or your grandpa, and you'll feel sad for a little while, maybe mess around with a Ouija board and light candles on Halloween and try to summon back their ghosts. At some point, ancient Greek philosophy may be thrust upon you, and, on long car rides late at night, you'll wonder about the notion of a soul and where all those souls go. But not (heaven forfend!) to Heaven. Maybe a soul is just confused with personality, a mess of protoplasm and electrical charges that, in the end, gets folded into a wooden box and dumped in the ground.

If you believe all that, you're a definite minority at the Afterlife Awareness Conference. There are 300 people in the main ballroom of the Sheraton Westport Plaza at the decidedly un-paradisical confluence of Interstate 270 and Page Avenue in Maryland Heights, most of whom paid several hundred dollars, not counting airfare and hotel, and gave up a perfectly fine weekend in June to be here. By the estimation of conference founder Terri Daniel, 30 percent are grieving, 20 percent are interested in finding scientific evidence of the afterlife and the abilities of mediums, and the remaining 50 percent are spiritual seekers. They are doctors and lawyers and hospice workers and filmmakers and storekeepers and cube farmers. The vast majority is of middle age or older, and a staggering number have parents or spouses or children who have died.

And yet...the keynote speaker, Raymond Moody, who has studied near-death experiences since 1965 and penned many a book on the subject with titles like Life After Life is the one who proposes to the crowd that the term "life after death" is an oxymoron. In fact, despite all his research, Moody claims, it was only recently that he began to believe that near-death experiences were real.

"I give up!" he tells the audience, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "When you try to come up with plausible accounts, you're trying to rationalize instead of facing straightforwardly what seems to be the case" — i.e., that the evidence points to some sort of afterlife.

And would that really be such a bad thing? The various lectures at the conference play on this notion, and play on it hard. Even if you've never had to live through a death that devastated the entire order of your daily existence, isn't there still a part of you that wants to sit down for a chat with your grandma or feel your cat's paws kneading your face? Don't you still miss them? Don't you wonder if there's something left of them besides a box in the ground or a pile of ashes?

Proof of Heaven

Some notions are easier to dismiss than others.

Daniel secured Dr. Eben Alexander to speak at the conference before his book Proof of Heaven was featured on Oprah and made the cover of Newsweek, and she considers herself extremely lucky. She reshuffled the schedule to make sure Alexander got one of the prime two-hour slots on Saturday morning, and the main ballroom is packed. He is, by far, the most popular speaker at the conference. Days from now Alexander will be the subject of an investigative report in Esquire, in which author Luke Dittrich exposes him as a charlatan. But at Afterlife Awareness, attendees are willing to stand in lines 50 people deep for the chance to exchange a few words with him.

Although most conferencegoers have already read Proof of Heaven, Alexander spends most of his lecture recounting his story. It goes like this:

In 2008 he was a successful 55-year-old neurosurgeon practicing in Virginia after spending 15 years at Harvard. He had a loving wife and two charming, intelligent sons. But he wasn't happy. Several years earlier he'd made an effort to contact his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption when he was just two weeks old. She sent word that it was not a good time in her life, and she didn't want to speak with him. The rejection sent him into a downward spiral: He lost much of his long-held Christian faith in the power of prayer and started drinking too much and having problems at work. (In his Esquire profile, Dittrich describes several malpractice suits, the suspension of surgical privileges at two different hospitals and, most damning, evidence that Alexander falsified medical records.)

Then one morning he woke up with a terrible headache and back pain. His doctors diagnosed him with a rare form of bacterial meningitis. He fell into a coma, and his neocortex, the main agent of consciousness in the brain, shut down. There was a 1 percent chance he would live, and even then he'd be a vegetable. But after seven days, he awoke with full mental capacity. Even now, Alexander tells his audience, doctors consider it a one-in-a-million miracle.

More to the point, however, while he was comatose he had a vision of a dark, miserable place that gradually morphed into an orb of light that played the most glorious music he'd ever heard. When he passed through the orb, he found himself sitting on the wing of a butterfly, accompanied by a beautiful woman, who turned out to be his birth sister, long dead and previously unknown to him. They flew over a storybook landscape, and beyond, into the presence of God, where Alexander finally understood all the mysteries of the universe. He felt utterly happy and at peace. It seemed more real than waking life.

When he awoke he remembered the vision with utter clarity and hastened to write it down before he forgot it. He read all the medical literature he could find about near-death experiences and the nature of consciousness. Though he paints himself as the worst of skeptics, his reading convinced him that the vision had not only been real, but that he had been privileged with a rare glimpse of something beyond life, something that proved that the soul was eternal and independent of the strictures of the brain, and that he should share it with the rest of the world. "I needed to die," he tells the crowd, "but others don't."

(Did he, in fact, die? Alexander's doctor tells Esquire that his coma was medically induced and intermittent, and that she would describe his state at times during that week as "conscious but delirious.")

Originally he wanted to call his book An N of OneN being a variable for the size of a scientific sample. His publisher changed the title to Proof of Heaven, even though it wasn't a proof in the scientific sense.

"It's a singular case," he admits in a phone interview in advance of the conference, "except that it's a case that proves the rule. Conventional science is clueless at explaining how consciousness emerges from the physical brain. You have to let go of the restrictions of science. It cannot explain this."

Naturally, after Alexander's book came out, scientists came forward to claim that it can. In an article for the Atlantic, Oliver Sacks, who recently published his own book about hallucinations, described various physiological explanations for visions during a near-death experience. (The "tunnel," for instance, is caused by the narrowing of blood vessels in the eyes.)

"The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander's case, then, is that his NDE [near-death experience] occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function," Sacks writes. "It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one. To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states."

Sam Harris, a professional skeptic with a PhD in neuroscience, attacked Proof of Heaven on his website and suggested that anyone can have an experience like Alexander's by tripping on psychedelic drugs.

Alexander doesn't pay the naysayers much mind.

"They point out that I'm not a neuroscientist, I'm a neurosurgeon," he tells the crowd at the conference, to appreciative laughter. "I had to learn a lot. I had to learn more than people like that know about consciousness. The only thing science doesn't explain is the one thing we all know, and that's consciousness. The brain does not create consciousness at all. Human beings are much more real than being here. This world is the dream. There's no reason to fear. With His infinite power, our Creator is always with us."

At this point you — the skeptic who has already read Alexander's book and who refuses to accept that the singular experience of this one (arrogant) man is irrevocable proof for everyone that Heaven does exist, plus his absolute certainty about his vision and his refusal even to consider other explanations for it, plus the fact that his speech about the Creator sounds remarkably close the Christian proselytizing (and will be the only mention of a Creator you will hear all day; the afterlife, after all, is for everyone, even non-Christians and atheists) — are thoroughly tired of scientific proof of Heaven.

It's time to go learn how to do astral projection.

Come Fly with Me

Astral projection, the art of a controlled out-of-body experience, sounds almost magical. You can go anywhere and see anyone, even if they're dead, because death is the ultimate out-of-body experience. Plus, you get to fly!

Flying, by the way, is workshop leader William Buhlman's favorite part.

Buhlman has written several books about out-of-body experiences and has come up with 40 different techniques to develop the ability to do it. It's a complicated process, involving mantras and raised energy levels and spiritual vibrations, but Buhlman swears that once you learn, it's immensely rewarding.

"To overcome fear," he instructs, "fly into the sun. Your fear burns away. You're like an onion being peeled. You feel all your crap and id issues being peeled off. It's liberating." (He means the spiritual sun, not the literal one.)

Once you leave your body, your spiritual form appears as you perceive yourself. In Buhlman's case, he's 30 years younger with a full head of hair and much thinner. The problem is, if you prolong your out-of-body experience, your extremities start to melt.

"Don't freak out!" Buhlman says reassuringly. "You're bringing more consciousness in. You become a globe of consciousness with 360-degree vision, and then you become a pinpoint. You have unlimited abilities. It's amazing. You have the capability to assume any form. It's beyond the mind to comprehend what capabilities we have. Most people are so locked in to their physical bodies."

Buhlman tried to prolong his out-of-body experiences indefinitely two years ago when he had stage-four cancer of the lymph nodes and wanted to escape the intense pain. He discovered that they can only last indefinitely if you're dead.

The best thing about out-of-body experiences is that anyone can have them, in theory. You don't have to have a rare form of bacterial meningitis. You just have to practice by doing daily exercises and make a habit of looking for openings between conscious states, like when you're falling asleep.

At this point, Nancy Bardenheier raises her hand.

"I feel like I'm too left-brained," she says, "and this is keeping me from this experience. By God, I want to have an out-of-body experience!"

Buhlman can't promise that it won't happen without a lot of work, but he happens to be a hypnotist, too, so he asks Bardenheier and the other participants in the workshop to close their eyes and envision a stone wall upon which they will carve — with a chisel or with power tools — the words "I intend to have an out-of-body experience." An out-of-body experience (if out-of-body experiences do exist and aren't just dreams) is probably one of those things, like juggling, that somehow becomes easier once you know you can do it.

Afterward you mention to Buhlman that you find his democratic and no-nonsense approach to something that, objectively, sounds sort of nonsensical, refreshing.

"Well," he says, "a near-death experience is not something anybody wants."

The Parlance

Christina Poteros actually has had a near-death experience, but she calls it a death experience. It was beautiful. Afterward she trained as a shaman, in Peru and at a seminar with the Dalai Lama in Madison, Wisconsin, so she could help other people "cross over," as she puts it, with grace, and to let them know that death is nothing to be afraid of. In the conference bookstore, she's also selling handmade jewelry and photos and paintings of her travels, both on earth and in other realms.

"You die more consciously by living more consciously," she says. "Intention is everything. Fear is the absence of love. If there's love, it's all good."

Poteros remembers two experiences in particular. One was with a woman at Mother Teresa's Kalighat Home for the Dying in Calcutta who was dying of starvation. The other was with a fifteen-year-old cocker spaniel named Abby. In both cases she sat with the dying and cleaned their chakras and then held them and comforted them until they passed. "The pain was there," she says, "but I could feel their souls crossing over. They both crossed peacefully."

Poteros says a few other things about soul journeys and chakras, but after a few minutes you start to think that that's just her language, what rhetoricians would called her "mode of discourse."

So you try to translate her language into yours. And this — you're pretty sure — is what she's saying:

Why should anybody, even a cocker spaniel, die alone and frightened?

Why Are We Here?

This is the third annual Afterlife Awareness Conference. Terri Daniel, a hospice worker and interfaith chaplain who lives in Oregon, organized the first one two years ago in order to provide an outlet for bereaved parents — herself included — who were curious about what Daniel calls "alternative healing practices" and the possibility of communicating with their dead children.

"Other national organizations that serve bereaved parents don't allow mediums or after-death communication or encourage non-mainstream types of spirituality," Daniel explains. "I wanted to create a place to have all that to help with the grief journey."

It's about 5 p.m., the bar opened a few minutes ago, and Daniel has a glass of red wine. You figure she has earned it: She planned and executed this whole thing singlehandedly and can't get through a conversation without someone running up with another question or a quick status report about one of the sessions.

Between interruptions Daniel explains that the conference has expanded from bereavement to include discussions about spiritual explanation and scientific proof of spiritual phenomena. "We're not so much focused on healing disease as we are on supporting the soul through its journey, whatever that may be," she says. "Some people aren't sure what they think, but they want to learn." She looks at you intently. "You're a skeptic, aren't you? It's OK."

She takes a sip of wine and continues. "There's no other conference like this. What makes it different is that it combines shamans and clergy and scientists and medical doctors in the same room, and they're all aligned with the same idea. There. Isn't that a good quote to use to end your story?"

The Scientific Method, Part 1

If you want to blame anyone for the death cliché of the tunnel and the bright light and the dead relatives lining up to greet you and the review of everything you've ever done in your life, Dr. Raymond Moody is your man, though if you ask him, he will give all the credit to Plato, one of his favorite philosophers, who started investigating the afterlife 2,300 years before Moody was born.

Moody began his formal investigation in 1965, when he was still a medical student at the University of Virginia. At that point he already had a PhD in philosophy and specialized in logic. But when a friend told him about his own near-death experience, Moody was intrigued. He began seeking out other people who'd had near-death experiences. Since the advent of CPR in the 1950s, there were a lot more than there had been previously. The doctors and nurses he knew were more than happy to hook him up. It didn't seem strange to them, Moody says, because they were more familiar with death than the average person.

In his first book, Life After Life, Moody outlines the typical near-death experience like a medical case, listing and describing each phase. He has read Oliver Sacks' work about hallucinations, and he admits Sacks may have a point: He knows that hallucinations can seem real, realer than real. But he's not sure Sacks' argument is philosophically sound.

"The biggest mistake you can make is to put things into a framework of other things you already know," he says during a phone interview before the conference. "Especially in the realm of the afterlife." Like Galileo: His idea of the solar system didn't make any sense until people realized that Earth was floating in space, too, just like the sun, moon and stars.

Besides, as he tells the conference attendees during his keynote address, he hasn't been able to find any medical explanation for the shared-death experience, a cousin to the near-death experience that happens to healthy people in close proximity to other people who are dying. They too see the tunnel and the light and the waiting relatives and, in the case of one of Moody's interviewees, watch the entire life review. ("It must be so embarrassing," Moody says, shaking his head in dismay. "I'm not even looking forward to mine.") But they're not injured. The oxygen flow to their brain isn't impaired. They're perfectly fine.

It was his investigation of the shared-death experience that pushed Moody over the edge. He tells the story of a trauma surgeon who was working on a man who had been in a horrific car crash that killed his wife. The surgeon knew the patient was going to be OK, though, because he followed him through the tunnel and into the light and then the patient's wife appeared to tell him so.

"The point is," Moody tells the conference attendees, "I give up. At the point a trauma surgeon was working on a patient, he had the flow of oxygen cut off to his brain?"

Maybe, he thought, he'd been going at the problem all wrong. As another of his favorite philosophers, David Hume, wrote, "By the mere light of reason, it seems difficult to prove the Immortality of the Soul; the arguments for it are commonly derived either from metaphysical topics, or moral and physical." Maybe after 2,300 years it was time to figure out a new sort of logic for discussing the possibility of an afterlife.

And here comes Moody's big announcement, the point of this whole speech:

If death is a gradual, rather than instantaneous, process, he asks the audience, wouldn't people in the process of dying have some insight into the process of crossing over if that is, in fact, what's happening to them? Unfortunately, a lot of them seem to be speaking nothing but gibberish. (You, the skeptic, have seen this. At the time, it kind of freaked you out.) But Moody has a plan to deal with that, too. He has found a hospice worker who studied linguistics who is going to try to find some logic in the rantings of the terminally ill.

"There will be a point when we will be able to detect when they shift from this state into another," he promises.

But he has already established a policy of having an open mind. "I always thought," he tells you over the phone, "who am I to say? This person had something happen to them that is medically impossible. Who am I to contradict them? I haven't been in this situation, but supposing I had?"

To you this sounds suspiciously like a rebuke.

The Forbidden Zone

The first rule of Eckankar is that we don't talk about Eckankar, at least not to the press, at least not without authorization from the group leader, who happens to be at a wake today. (Of all the ironies!) Pages of information and a sealed envelope of spiritual exercises, once eagerly proffered, are reclaimed once the woman behind the table in the conference bookstore bothers to notice the words Riverfront Times on your name badge.

They can't keep you from checking out the website, though, and thus you learn that Eckankar is a religion of light and sound whose members connect with God through a song called "HU" (pronounced like the word hue). There's also discussion of past lives, dreams and "soul travel," which seems to be another term for "out-of-body experience." The St. Louis ECK Center is in Winchester. Other ECK Centers sponsor wholesome activities such as ice-cream socials.

The secrecy makes you suspect that this is a front. Eckankar is clearly a sinister shadow organization bent on world domination.

The Scientific Method, Part 2

Raymond Moody isn't the only person at the conference who's trying to study metaphysical phenomena in a scientific way. Julie Beischel and her husband Mark Boccuzzi have established the Windbridge Institute in Tucson to perform scientific studies — using a thorough scientific method, with control groups and hypotheses — on mediums.

Like a lot of people at the conference, Beischel's interest in the afterlife was precipitated by a death, in this case her mother, who committed suicide when Beischel was in grad school. Beischel was studying pharmacology and toxicology (she eventually got her PhD) and turned to existing scientific literature to try to understand what happens after death. Eventually she hit on mediumship.

The studies at the Windbridge Institute operate under the assumption that mediums really do talk to the dead. Beischel says each of the twenty mediums she works with went through a rigorous blind testing process. "They can't just say, 'She loves you very much,'" Beischel explains. "They have to know about the dead person's personality, hobbies and interests, and cause of death. They're not getting the information from normal sources. The data demonstrates that they seem to be communicating with the dead."

Now Beischel is trying to determine whether there is something in a medium's psychological or physiological makeup that makes them particularly susceptible to a conversation with a dead person. She has already administered the Myers-Briggs personality test (the vast majority are type NF: intuitive and feeling) and plans to do blood tests before and after readings to see if there are any changes. None of the mediums gets paid for working with the center, so they have no incentive to lie.

That's all very well, you think, except that this whole thing is predicated on living people talking to dead people. And seeing dead people. Also animals. (Terri Daniel says that at last year's conference, medium Suzane Northrop saw two horses gallop through the hotel ballroom. A conference attendee claimed them; it had, apparently, been a bad year for his stable.)

Then you go see actual mediums at work.

hey Walk Among Us, Part 1

First up is Roland Comtois. He discovered his psychic abilities at age ten in 1971 when his recently deceased grandmother appeared in his bedroom. ("Was I afraid?" he asks rhetorically. "No! It was my grandmother!") Now he routinely encounters dead people bearing messages. Since 2005 he has written down the messages on large sheets of purple paper and hopes that, eventually, he'll encounter the people the messages are intended for.

"In all my years of channeling," Comtois tells the crowd in the main ballroom, where the lights have been dimmed for his presentation, "I have never heard a spirit say, 'Give 'em the bad news! Tell 'em I hate 'em!' Love is everlasting. I'm here because it's my mission."

Then the messages start coming, fast and furious. Comtois speaks quickly, almost hypnotically, sometimes sobbing, his Rhode Island accent thickening at more intense moments.

"He's waiting to talk to you," he tells a woman in the front row. "He doesn't creep around Heaven, he's not like that, he's creating a commotion from Heaven. He likes to razz you, he says, it gives him something to do, he says, he loves you, he says."

He turns his attention to a young woman sitting in the back row. "Girl with the wedding ring, he wants me to tell you he's hanging on to you. He says he wants me to talk to you about the wedding ring. He wants to give you another one, he says. He shoulda bought it himself, he says." The woman starts to cry. Comtois points to her companion, an older woman sitting next to her. "Hey, ma! He's got a lot to say. When you're sitting on the edge of the bed at 11:01 a.m., it's he that holds you together. He did what he had to do, he says. He had no pain, he says, no suffering. He didn't feel that. They carried him across to the other plane. Whoosh! Whoosh!" Comtois turns back to the younger woman. "'Will you take this ring?' he says. It's his heart and soul. You were his soulmate from the minute he saw you, he says. He loved you from the second you met."

The two women hold on to each other and sob.

Comtois goes on like this for an hour. Aside from a few people crying, the whole room is silent. Everyone is mesmerized. You begin to understand why mediumship was such great entertainment back in the 19th century. Evidently this room is packed with dead people jostling for Comtois' attention. A lot of them have the same message to deliver — that they're fine now and no longer in pain and that they send lots and lots of love. Either the afterlife is very uneventful, or people send very similar messages when they're short on time and individual attention.

Afterward you find the recipient of the most specific message, the girl with the ring. Her name is Sarah Treanor. The dead boy, Andrew, was her fiancé. He died in a helicopter crash last year. The older woman, Claudia Briell, is his mother. They traveled here from Texas. They spoke to Comtois briefly in the conference bookstore yesterday and mentioned that Andrew had been a helicopter pilot, but they never said anything about the ring (specifically that Andrew had commissioned Briell to buy it) or about the crash.

"He was normally very bold," Treanor says, wiping her eyes, "but I didn't think he'd be so obvious." She pulls one of Comtois' purple papers out of her bag. In the middle is a scribbled squiggle, which could be identified as the path of a helicopter rotor. "He said he made this back in April."

Treanor and Briell start crying again, and you feel like crying with them — though mostly because you can't imagine what it's like to lose someone so suddenly and miss them so desperately.

One of Julie Beischel's planned studies is about grief and mediums, specifically whether messages from the dead really do help the bereaved. Based on what you see here, it does seem to help, at least in the short run.

They Walk Among Us, Part 2

Suzane Northrop is more plainspoken and blunt than Comtois. The dead people she sees are sometimes demanding and rude — a pair visited earlier today while she was taking a shower — and sometimes kind of gross. "There's a big guy back there who's taking his teeth out of his mouth," she informs the audience. "Will you tell him not to do that, please?"

Northrop usually identifies people by calling out names and seeing who responds, though one audience member's mother makes herself known by singing "Goodnight, Irene," the same song she used to sing to him when he was small. Some people come in bringing animals. A little girl tells her mother that she's wearing lipstick and is that OK? ("She wouldn't have asked before," the mother says, laughing and crying at the same time.) A man tells his sister he's grateful she buried him with their mother. A young boy holding a fishing pole tells his mother he visits his father on his boat all the time and they go fishing. A man asks his mother if his living brother Bobby is taking good care of her, or does he need an ass-kicking?

In a phone interview, Northrop says she can only see people who have a connection of love with someone in the room, which is why she can't call up dead celebrities. Also most contact happens within the first year of a person's death, particularly the first three days. Unfortunately, she says, most of the time the living are still too sunk in grief too see the signs. The people who feel the most intense sense of loss are usually mothers.

About halfway through the 90-minute demonstration, you start wishing Northrop had a message for you, preferably from your grandma, who, you are sure, is the only dead person who really loved you. But in life your grandma wasn't the sort of person to shove her way through a crowd. And the two of you said everything you needed to say (unless she forgot to mention the money buried beneath the floorboards of her house — in which case it's too late now; the house has been sold), and what you feel for her isn't grief, just a nostalgic ache.

In short, you are not Northrop's or Comtois' target audience. Not because you are a skeptic, but because you don't need to believe that it's possible to talk to dead people or that the afterlife really is a better place than where we are now so that you'll be able to rationalize that there is maybe one good thing about the death of a child.

You still wonder, though, what the scientific explanation for the mediums might be.