Thirty years ago, Leo Galland, MD, lost his son Christopher at age 22. Christopher’s life had been full of challenges—he had been brain-damaged since birth. His death would present a life-altering challenge for his father.

Within days of Christopher’s death, two incredible things happened that forced Dr. Galland, a physician celebrated for his pioneering research into gastrointestinal microbes and gut health, to reevaluate the very nature of human existence.

At the moment of Christopher’s death, Dr. Galland and his wife together experienced a vivid vision of their son. Although he was 150 miles away, his spirit filled the room they were in. They actually saw it. Later, as the family drove through New York City on their way home from Christopher’s funeral, one of the distinctive balloons that had been released the day before at the funeral drifted by and hovered over their car.

If Dr. Galland had seen these things on his own, he likely would have dismissed them as grief-induced hallucinations. But two people experienced the vision…and a carload of five people saw the balloon. The odds against that balloon drifting 150 miles to a spot along their route seemed astronomical.

Dr. Galland came to see these events as evidence that the spirit lives on after the body dies. He is not alone in this belief, but it is rare that someone prominent in the sciences concludes that he has personally witnessed evidence of the human spirit after death…and rarer still for him to put his professional reputation on the line by going public with his story.

However one views Dr. Galland’s ­experiences, it is notable that this man of science came to a conclusion that he could easily have dismissed as nonscientific. Here’s how he says he was able to integrate his rigorous intellectual training and this profound personal experience…and the lessons his story offers about exploring beyond one’s preconception…

Understand what it really means to think scientifically. “Science” is not a set of established facts that we learn in school, and believing in science should not mean automatically accepting what the scientific establishment tells us is true. Science is a system of knowledge based on a rational, unbiased interpretation of experience.

My experiences after Christopher’s death did not fit with the conventional modern understanding of life and death. That left me with a choice. I could ignore my experiences…or I could accept them and attempt to understand them. Which of those options is the more scientific?

Clearly it’s the latter, which means my belief in science did not prevent me from considering my experiences—it demanded that I do so. And when I considered my experiences, I concluded that the most plausible explanation was that Christopher’s spirit had not departed from Earth immediately upon the death of his body. That doesn’t mean it was necessarily the correct explanation, but it did seem to me the most plausible—and to claim anything else would require me to value my preconceptions more than the evidence that had been placed before me. That would be ignoring science, not embracing it.

Takeaway: Accept facts, but do not automatically accept other people’s ­interpretation of those facts. The biological processes that occur in the body when we die are facts, but what that might mean about the spirit still is a matter of interpretation.

Know that your greatest strength could become your greatest weakness. My rational, realistic nature has been a great strength for me in my medical career, but if that were the only way I had to look at the world, it would become a weakness. It would have stood in the way of my experiencing a revelation about my son and the nature of existence.

There’s a hidden downside to having an area of strength—it’s easy to fall into the trap of relying upon that strength even in situations when it isn’t appropriate. Example: If your great strength is data analysis, you might reflexively turn to this when confronted with an upset spouse without considering that your spouse wants emotional support, not analysis.

It can be hard to see that we’re overrelying on our strength because the strength has served us so well for so long that we start to assume that it’s always the answer. Perhaps we turn to it without even realizing we are doing so. (Overreliance on an area of strength also makes us predictable. That can open the door for others to exploit us in competitive situations.)

Takeaway: Think of your greatest strength as only one tool in your toolbox. Continue to put it to work for you—but each time you do, ask yourself whether you are using this strength because it truly is the most appropriate approach for your current situation…or simply because it’s your favorite tool. Work to cultivate additional areas of strength, or build partnerships with people who have different areas of strength, to reduce the odds that you will reflexively rely on your great strength in the future without considering other options.

Reflect upon how little we know for certain about reality. If you think people who believe in spirits living on after death are not facing reality, consider how little we really know for certain about reality and how extraordinary some of the scientifically accepted possibilities are. Example: Some respected cosmologists now believe that our entire universe might be only a tiny part of a far larger “multiverse” and that seemingly obvious, immutable scientific truths that apply in our universe might not apply in all of the others. Even time itself might not exist everywhere. (If you’re interested in learning more about the incredible possibilities of the multiverse and quantum physics, check out the work of University of California, Berkeley, physics professor Yasunori Nomura, PhD, one of the coauthors of the book Quantum Physics, Mini Black Holes, and the Multiverse.)

Takeaway: Sometimes science provides facts, but many other times it can point only to questions and possibilities. There’s a whole lot we don’t know.

Don’t bemoan the fact that life is hard. It’s hard for just about everyone…and I’ve come to believe that it’s hard on purpose. Life is meant to be a training ground for the spirit—a training ground where we learn to transform the pain and anger we experience into love. If life were easy, it wouldn’t be very good at teaching us to do this.

All of this came to me as I lay sick in bed after Christopher’s death, thinking about the struggles Christopher faced in life and my grief in facing his death. It came to me so clearly that I wasn’t sure whether the words were coming from inside me or outside, and whether it was my voice I was hearing or Christopher’s. But after I came to this conclusion, my body felt lighter and my mind felt clear.

Takeaway: Every life has its share of challenges—some have more than their share. There is no way to change this. What we can change is how we respond to the challenges we face. We can see them as misfortunes sent to stop us…or as training exercises sent to educate and strengthen us. The former interpretation can leave us feeling bitter. The latter can leave us feeling grateful.

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