Eben Alexander, MD, was an academic neurosurgeon for over 25 years, including 15 years at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Children’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston. He has a passionate interest in physics and cosmology. He is the author of the New York Times #1 bestseller Proof of Heaven, The Map of Heaven and Living in a Mindful Universe.
1. Walk us through your typical workday.
During my active time in clinical neurosurgery, my day began with morning rounds at 6:30 a.m., meeting up with medical students and residents, with colleagues in neurosurgery and allied specialties, and with nursing staff involved in the care of my patients. By 7:15 a.m., it was off to the operating room, where cases begin at 7:30 a.m. sharp. I dealt with a wide variety of neurosurgical conditions: benign and malignant tumors of the brain and spinal cord, aneurysms and vascular malformations, broad spectrum management of refractory pain syndromes (microvascular decompressions, thalamotomies, cordotomies), deep brain stimulators for movement disorders, spine surgery for traumatic and degenerative disease, etc. The average day involved 3-5 cases in general. Between cases, I would evaluate patients in the emergency room and outpatient clinic, and, as a consultant, evaluate patients on other services.
As an academic neurosurgeon, my practice extended beyond the surgical suite to include analysis, research and documentation to progress the field. I collaborated with a whole host of fellow physicians and associated faculty and staff in carefully analyzing our patient care routines, always optimizing our practices to yield the greatest efficacy of treatment with the fewest side effects and complications. Thus much of my time during the day, and often into the evening, was devoted to the careful study and analysis of our results, usually in preparation for a publication to help advance the field. Consequently, my curriculum vitae includes a bibliography with over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers, over 50 invited chapters, and nine books. My major research interests and contributions involved developing linear accelerator-based stereotactic radiosurgery, a process that uses precisely directed beams of high intensity radiation to treat various tumors, vascular lesions and functional disorders of the brain. Additionally, I worked as the main neurosurgical liaison with General Electric to completely redesign the MRI so that we could operate on patients while imaging them in the MRI scanner. This procedure has yielded tremendous new capabilities in our attempts to tackle more difficult operative management of various tumors and vascular lesions. I further helped to develop focused ultrasound surgery, often guided by MRI, as a powerful tool for managing various tumors, strokes, Alzheimer’s and other afflictions addressed through neurosurgery.
Since my coma experience in 2008, my daily life has slowly shifted from the clinical neurosurgical life described above to one more focused on the study of consciousness, the metaphysical underpinnings necessary to better comprehend reality, and the work as an author, speaker and global thought leader on this profound shift coming to humanity over the nature of the mind-brain relationship. Since 2012, my daily activities more and more have come to involve my life partner, Karen Newell, who is my co-presenter for speaking engagements and workshops, as well as the co-author of my third book, Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness. For most hours of the day and into the night, Karen and I engage in a rich interchange and discussion of ideas, concepts, experiences, and worldviews, in our ceaseless odyssey to come to a deeper understanding of the world around us, shared with all humanity.
2. Share any productivity tips and other things that keep you motivated and grounded.
I have come to live by several guidelines that have helped me to avoid excess frustration, both in the demanding world of neurosurgery, and in my more recent life as an author and speaker addressing the modern scientific understanding of mind, brain, and the nature of reality:
- Avoid procrastination: there is no better time than the present. This approach applies especially in a world such as neurosurgery, where things can go wrong in fairly rapid order if not properly attended to, in a timely fashion.
- Double down now on any task or situation that I seem to be avoiding – the things we avoid are usually the things that need our most urgent management.
- Seek the deepest connections through meditation and elaboration of that connection with primordial mind. The rational/logical analysis so ingrained in our culture as the pathway towards truth is greatly complemented through opening our minds to allow such “out of the blue” enrichment of our creativity and insights that meditation can provide.
3. Talk about your workplace – office, the work environment, coworkers, etc.
Most of my professional career in neurosurgery (1980-2012) was spent at major medical centers, such as Harvard Medical School, where I worked as an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Brigham & Women’s and Children’s Hospitals in Boston (1988-2001), or UMass-Worcester Medical Center, where I mainly ran the deep brain stimulator program. Such work was heavily focused on teaching medical students and residents both in the O.R. and elsewhere in the hospital, and I devoted a tremendous amount of time to clinical research in a driving effort to improve the practice of neurosurgery globally. Co-workers included not just the medical colleagues and nurses, but also numerous engineers and scientists collaborating on the major projects to improve the field. I shifted into private practice when I moved to Virginia in 2006, with a practice geared a little more towards spine surgery than the heavily cranial surgery-weighted practice I had become known for while at Harvard and UMass. Since my 2008 coma and near-death experience, my work has shifted further, as I have taken on the roles of author, speaker and scientific collaborator on all manner of exploration of consciousness. My daily work environment now is filled with endless exchanges of ideas and experiences with my life partner, Karen, in our work of elucidating and sharing such a personal odyssey with the world.
4. What does a typical weeknight look like? Do you do any work at night?
Clinical neurosurgery was for me a 24/7 activity. Emergency and urgent situations demanded neurosurgical correction immediately, or as soon as practically possible, and a substantial portion of that activity can occur at night. On the more typical weeknight when I might not be committed to providing neurosurgical assistance, the professional and academic nature of my career involved a tremendous amount of work, study and writing, much of which was best accomplished in the evening. Since my coma, I have come to recognize the profound mystery of the nature of consciousness and the value of exploring it. I have developed a practice over the last eight years or so of “going within” or meditating an hour or so every day. I used to meditate in the evening, although more recently my ideal meditation time has moved to the late morning or early afternoon. After-work activities involve ongoing spirited interchange and discussion with Karen, in our mutually exciting and passionate efforts to better understand the nature of consciousness and to develop specific tools to enhance the process of exploration. Karen co-founded the company Sacred Acoustics with her business partner Kevin Kossi. It specializes in auditory brainwave entrainment embedded in sound meditations that can aid those wishing to cultivate a much richer inner connection with guidance in seeking their life’s purpose.
5. What is your wind-down routine at night?
Winding down often involves maintaining our connections in the world – phone calls and emails to family, loved ones, friends and colleagues. Karen and I also love to watch videos and movies that connect us with current society to more directly enable interventions that might hasten our overall awakening, or just for relaxed entertainment.
6. Do you participate in any weekend activities?
Work-life balance is very important to success in life, and much of that life-balancing occurs on weekends and during vacations. Most importantly, it involves activities with others, especially family, loved ones and close friends. The types of group activities I have enjoyed have varied widely throughout my life, beginning with a four-year span of freefall skydiving while I was a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (1972-1976). Group freefall formations involve up to 20 or more fellow jumpers in a spectacular array. SCUBA diving, especially on ocean shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, was a favorite sport earlier in life. And, I have especially enjoyed snow skiing along with whitewater rafting/canoeing with my two sons. Currently I enjoy maintaining a 2,600-gallon koi pond with 18 colorful fish (all named) and a 75-gallon saltwater aquarium with even more colorful fish. Together, Karen and I enjoy bicycling, gardening, cooking and free-wheeling it on the grill, walking and playing with our two dogs, depending on the season and the weather. I also enjoy reading, most of which is related to my professional writing projects about the mind-brain relationship and the nature of consciousness. When I give myself permission for such frivolities, I might also pick up a good fictional work, particularly while on vacation. On rare occasion, I may really pamper myself and read a science fiction novel, occasionally a new one, but more often one of the classics of SciFi, perhaps an older story that I somehow have missed over the years.