Thankfully, very few of us have ever witnessed or been through what journalist Alan Pearce has experienced. Apart from covering some of the world’s most harrowing conflicts as a BBC war correspondent, he has also been put under death threats and was almost throttled to death by a Taliban soldier. Yet, he says that during his time in hostile environments he often witnessed ‘the worst and the best of humanity all in the same day.’ The best gave him renewed hope. Due to his constant exposure to violence and death, Alan developedposttraumatic stress disorder, and this has affected the way he perceives his own mortality and his relationship with consciousness. Currently he is researching his next book WHAT GOES ON BEHIND CLOSED EYES: The Beautiful and Disturbing World of Coma Survivors.
Sue: Welcome, Alan. I am fascinated to hear more about the book you are writing, but I would like to start with your work as a war correspondent and how this has impacted your relationship with life and death.
Alan: I worked for a long time as a stringer or correspondent on contract for the BBC. I was based in South East Asia in Bangkok, where I covered all kinds of conflicts, such as in Burma and also Cambodia. After the Khmer Rouge were kicked out, I based myself in Phnom Pehn. I was there for years, and for a time, ended up as editor of the Phnom Penh Post. I just fell in love with the country and with the people. I had to stop because I got quite sick as one does as a journalist. I went back to the UK and I found myself doing night shifts at the BBC World Service, but something was totally missing from my life. I realised that after covering wars everything seemed to lack any flavour. People talking about their new cars or the weather or going on holiday seemed utterly pointless. So, I applied for the Kabul posting in Afghanistan. This was a good thing and also a terrible thing because I spent ten months under Taliban siege in Kabul. My job was to file reports on things like rockets being fired into crowded marketplaces and people being murdered.
Sue: Traditionally journalists are meant to be the observer, but how can you remain in that role when you are witnessing things like this?
Alan: Well, I saw two sides, the good and the bad. I would see terrible things, like body parts everywhere and people being viciously angry. Then, at the same time. I would meet people who were just magnificent. I particularly remember two aid workers, Tom and Libby who were optometrists working on people’s cataracts. That restored my faith in human nature. So, one minute you were standing under a tree with a human foot hanging from a branch, and in the evening, eating with Tom and Libby. It was two different worlds within one world. I owe my life to them because they helped smuggle me out on a Red Cross plane after hiding me for a few days when things turned bad. I was gutted when I heard Tom had been later murdered by the Taliban.
Sue. I know you had death threats while you are in Afghanistan. What was it like to have this hanging over you?
Alan: The first time I knew about it was at the first press conference given by the Taliban in the Presidential Palace after they took over Kabul. In their second announcement they said the BBC correspondent Alan Pearce is being sentence to death by Mullah Omar – and I am sitting there in front of them, thinking, ‘Okay…’ After the press conference ended (no-one came for me) I mentioned it to my other journalist colleagues, and we decided we weren’t going to report it as it wouldn’t actually help my situation. I called the BBC desk and was told not to worry about it as this was quite normal and to just carry on!
Sue: Did this death threat play on your mind?
Alan: Thing is, you’re in such a strange environment – so strange that it didn’t seem any stranger than anything else to be honest. It may have, but I soon got preoccupied with something else such as living in Taliban controlled Kabul and crossing the front line to talk to the former regime. One time we approached the checkpoint – and you can tell when things are not good because the Taliban soldiers were jumpy. I told my driver to put the car in reverse, but he panicked and put the car into first gear and knocked two of the Taliban guys who were standing in front of us to the ground.
Instead of spraying automatic fire through the windshield, which is what I expected, they started smashing the windscreen. Then the door came open, they threw the cameraman’s equipment on the ground and grabbed hold of me. One of them started shouting, ‘It’s the journalist from the BBC. Kill him.’ They started looking round for somewhere to hang me, but there weren’t any trees so after a kafuffle, decided to throttle me.
Sue: What a terrible situation. Did you think this was it?
Alan: I was getting whacked where I was pinned up against the side of a vehicle. They were hitting me with their AK-47s. When you’re in these situations, everything happens so fast – I guess I thought I was dying. But I had been shot down in a helicopter in Cambodia, so this wasn’t a totally unique experience. I can’t say I was calm, and I certainly wasn’t panicked either. But then this guy starts putting his hands around my throat and throttling me. It was like a Vulcan death grip. I just went black.
When I came round sometime later, I was in the back of the BBC Land Rover being driven off. I recovered, filed my report and carried on as normal. I didn’t know anything was wrong with me. I had a bit of a sore throat and my hips were really tender from being whacked by the AK-47s, but I wasn’t thinking about my neck. I came back to the UK after my contract finished, and about three months later one night woke up in dire pain and my arms wouldn’t work. The guy had actually broken my neck.
Sue: Did you start to look at people very differently after what happened to you?
Alan: I don’t even know how to begin to answer that. I am who I am now because of what happened. How I’ve changed, I don’t know. But I have been very affected by one particular incident where I witnessed a horrible, grisly hanging. At the time, I felt in my head that it had taken on a kind of cartoon movie quality. Some part of my brain was cushioning me from the reality of what was happening and that allowed me to cope. But I couldn’t stop seeing their faces in crowds for weeks afterwards. What happened disturbed me probably more than anything else I saw or witnessed. If I shut my eyes now, I can still see the scene very clearly.
I came out with post-traumatic stress disorder, not necessarily from looking at the horror show of everything, because I think I was coping with it really well. But the big thing for me was I felt I didn’t receive the right support after I came back. I used to get horribly angry or emotional all the time – little things would set it off. I was also drinking a lot and movies or documentaries about kindness and bravery in particular, would bring a lump to my throat. It’s easier now – this was all twenty years ago – but it’s still there.
Sue: Has this changed or affected your relationship with death?
Alan: This is going to sound ridiculous, but I have no fear of death whatsoever. I feel like I’ve had so many close calls – I’ve had artillery shells land a few feet in front of me, and for some reason I remained entirely unscathed. I’ve also I had an antiaircraft round hit the truck I was in right in front of my head and land between my legs. So many things happened like that. I know this sound strange, but in some cases I somehow felt that I died in these instances, but I just carried on in some kind of alternate life – some parallel universe. For instance, when the Taliban guy throttled me and I completely blacked out, I’m not entirely sure that I actually carried on with my existing life. Did I actually drop into a parallel life – that I somehow kind of switched lanes into a different world? This is a sensation I have never actually been able to shift.
Sue: So, you feel like you’re living as you but in some kind of parallel life?
Alan: I don’t know. But I do have the sensation that sometimes this is the case. I find it remarkable how I appear to have got through so many ridiculously close calls in Cambodia, including being in a helicopter brought down by ground fire. I can’t say I actually felt scared looking back. I remember thinking, ‘Okay, this is how it’s going to end.’ We hit the ground quite hard; pilot was brilliant and no-one was killed. But, I could have died – and I may have died then. I can’t say, but I’m left with this peculiar feeling that maybe I switched lanes.
Sue: The podcast I host is called Embracing Your Mortality, so I’m curious about what that could possibly mean to you after what you’ve been through?
Alan: I’ve found in recent years a more spiritual way of looking at the world and I’m researching a book at the moment into the experiences of people inside comas. This is not about medical or clinical care, but what goes on inside their heads. I’ve been speaking to people who have literally died, who have touched heaven, and then returned. I am convinced there is infinitely more to life than we know, and I feel really comfortable with it. I wish I’d had the feeling I have now when both of my parents died. I would have felt a lot more at ease with losing them. So, in that sense, it has brought me to see things completely differently since being a roughty-tuffy journalist, where death doesn’t bother me – well, obviously it does. But your brain has mechanisms of dealing with that to keep you sane within a particularly insane environment.
Now I’m just looking at death when I’m not the one who’s likely to stop a bullet or see people dying every day. Rather, I’m actually talking to people who have died to all intents and purposes, have come back, and have learnt something remarkable from the experience, just like people who have near-death-experiences. From those I have spoken with, 100% categorically say, ‘I am no longer scared of death. It is a continuation of my existence on another plane.’ I have absolutely no trouble accepting that.
Sue: When I was working with Dr Peter Fenwick on a research study into end-of-life experiences, it was clear that many of the dying were living in a different reality, and the vast majority of them were ready ‘to go home.’
Alan: Yes, there is this sensation in the back of my head that I know there is more to this than just being meat machines who live and die. I have no evidence, but I’m gaining evidence researching this book, because they can’t all be the subjects of hallucination. The word ‘hallucination’ comes up endlessly to describe the experiences of people within comas. The definition of hallucination is, ‘to see something that is not there.’ Yesterday for example, I was talking to a hospital chaplain who himself had been in a coma. He could not possibly see what was going on in the room, and yet he could read the monitors [while he was in the coma]. He said that was an hallucination. Well, in a sense it was, because he was seeing something that wasn’t ‘there’ while he was in the coma. I came across another account of someone who had been placed in a deep coma. A nurse then took out his dentures and put them in a drawer. When he came out of his coma, he asked for his dentures. The nurses didn’t know where they were, so he said, ‘ask the nurse over there. She put them in a drawer.’ Now, he couldn’t have possibly seen her do this. There are lots of accounts like this.
Sue: I know Sam Parnia is doing extraordinary research into near-death-experiences with people who are admitted in hospital with heart attacks, are clinically declared dead and then come back to life again. There are some incredible accounts from these people. I think these are now beginning to be taken seriously by scientists, which I find really exciting, because, for me, I feel the next step for humanity is to really address our fear of death and dying. Books like yours are going to help people to do that.
Alan: Yes, I’m discovering that there is an awakening within the scientific and medical worlds. If you don’t know where the mind is or what the mind is and the same applies to consciousness, you can’t really provide an answer that’s conclusive. It’s like saying that before the microscope, you couldn’t see certain things, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.
We haven’t got the tools or the ability to see beyond what we’ve currently got here, but many doctors and scientists are now looking for – if I use the word ‘spiritual’ it takes us automatically in a certain direction. So, I am thinking that spirituality is just a word we use for a different form of consciousness – and using the word consciousness takes this slightly loopy edge off things.
Sue: Yes, I now use the word consciousness rather than spirituality too.
Alan: I’m also exploring in my book other attainable levels of consciousness either voluntarily or accidentally. For instance, maybe people have had a head injury and they’re getting the most incredible visions. So, I’m looking at everything from transcendental yoga, and what that does to people, right through to the psychedelic experience with substances such as mushrooms and LSD. There’s a lot of work going on now, for example, looking at psychedelics which help people to cope with end of life experiences.
This is so much to grasp all at the same time here, but I’m getting this overall sense that there is so much more and so little is understood of our existence. People have always sought other levels of consciousness. When you look at the experiences of people who’ve been taking psychedelic substances, it closely resembles accounts of the near-death-experiences. They again, say precisely the same thing, ‘I am not scared about death anymore.’
Sue: I think it’s really interesting that native cultures and ancient cultures have always used some form of psychedelic herbs, particularly the shamans of the tribe, to help them access other realms for information in however they need it. It was part of our own ancient culture, but we just got closed down to that through religious dogma which arrived around the time of the Roman invasion. We were told that God was no longer part of who we were, but some external force. That completely changed our relationship with God.
Alan: Yes, I was reading about Native Americans and their views of the afterlife, and it closely resembles what we hear about near-death-experiences. The one thing that the Christian missionaries had difficulty with when they entered the New World was telling them about Christ in the gospels. The Indians were saying, ‘Yeah, okay. But these are just fables. We actually know what’s happening on the other side because we’ve been there!’ But they lost that – had it knocked out of them.
Sue: Obviously the whole world is going through such chaos and change now, but it does seem to me that riding with this change is how so many people are thinking differently about religion and spirituality and also about death and dying. Perhaps this is because death is being shoved in our face every day, but not necessarily very positively. I do take issue with how it’s being reported.
Alan: It can be made positive if people choose to explore, or other people who’ve done exploration, can share the message. Probably everybody reading this has known someone who’s died. We are exposed to it on a daily basis – if not actual death itself, the fear of death is all around us and it is making people seek other explanations. Of course, it’s not happening right across the board. People are experiencing huge grief and just closing down because of it. But at the same time, other people are looking further afield.
For example, I can’t actually tell you why I am writing a book about the experience of comas. I have absolutely no idea – it just came to me. I started looking it up and I haven’t stopped since. Every day I go on some remarkable journey only because somehow a door opened for me. I don’t know if it is being opened by some other means or whether I’m opening it. But somehow, I’m on this journey and it has completely changed the way I feel about things.
All I know through speaking to people who’ve been there is that there is much more to life or to consciousness than we’ve been led to believe. Traditionally people would go to their local church or mosque or whatever, but they’re not always providing the right answers. They’re provided with stuff that’s written in the books – which are really instruction manuals – and they’re not necessarily looking beyond this.
Sue: My own perception now is that rather than it being a linear life where we are born, live and die, I see it more as if we’re just passing through this physical existence. Our birth is one book end, and our death is the other book end, and the life we live is the sandwich in between. When we die, the book closes on this particular life and we have finished passing through this particular physical existence. What’s your take on it?
Alan: Well, I’m also wondering why we have to pass through this physical existence? When you talk to people who’ve had psychedelic experiences, for example, they keep talking of oneness with the Universe – how they can feel the trees, how they can see the grass breathing and all the rest of it. It’s just so beautiful, so warm and welcoming. So perfect.
If I started out that way, then what the heck am I doing here in this life? Okay, there are good bits and bad bits, but I would be much happier just floating around feeling joy and being at one with the Universe than looking at my tax returns.
Sue: Do you feel that we’ve come here to experience love in the physical form and that perhaps we take what we learn about love back into the soup of consciousness – and maybe we’re co-creators in that sense?
Alan: I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I think about it a lot and I’ve had in my mind for some time that we are here on this plane to learn something. Now, what it is we’re learning I don’t know. Maybe the lessons are different for each of us. For instance, some people have got to learn humility. Maybe some people have got to actually understand the meaning of physical love and appreciation. I do feel, although I have never quite put my finger on it, that I’m here to learn something. I do look at some people and think, ‘you really are learning nothing, and you will just go through life grabbing what you can.’ Maybe, they will have to bounce back again to do this once more until they actually pick up that lesson, and then they can move onto another plane. This is a feeling, and not even a theory.
Sue: I’m just wondering, because you’ve been so exposed to death and witnessed people being so horrendous to towards each other, where does that fit into what you’ve just said?
Alan: Yeah, the expression, ‘what goes around comes around’ comes to mind. If you have a life where you’re just taking the whole time and you’re taking advantage of people, you’re not really happy by the time you reach the end of your life, because you’ve achieved nothing. So maybe you’re going to have to come through the door again. I don’t know, but I really feel that those people who take and don’t give are wasting their opportunity.
I can’t really express this properly because it’s not something I’ve ever really talked about. It’s just something somewhere in the back of my mind – a sensation of feeling, a possibility, a yearning for more perhaps.
Sue: I am curious about something you said earlier about how when you were working as a war correspondent, you were exposed to horror in the morning and then in the evening you would have a meal with two people who you found incredibly inspiring. Do you feel there’s always hope however dark and desperate things get?
Alan: Yes, but not necessarily in the physical world. For example, you could be in a concentration camp, go through the whole process and then be murdered. There’s no hope there necessarily – but maybe there is once you’ve come out of the other side of that. When you’ve passed through to another level of consciousness and maybe you have taken on board one heck of a lesson of some kind.
I mean, we just happen to be humans. We could easily be born an octopus or something – who knows what they experience. I don’t doubt that octopuses are any less intelligent than people. I just can’t really put these things into words. There’s just something I feel inside, and I know there is more. I know somehow there are lessons to be learned. I’m in my 60s now but it’s only in the last few years any of this has started to come together – has started to make sense of things.
I’ve been on a remarkable and in some cases, crazy journey. I’ve reacted in different ways for different times, and here I am in the latter part of my life and it’s all starting to jell and come together. I’m seeing that there are different levels of consciousness and we ought to learn to know how to be part of this ‘something.’ You can’t fully be part of something unless you understand and except there is something.
Sue: Yes, I know a lot of people who just believe that when you die that’s your lot. I would imagine when they think about death it must be quite scary, and I know some people are fine knowing you turn off the switch into oblivion. But after having had a profound mystical experience, where I was shown the Love of the Universe, I believe I am going home.
Alan: Well, that certainly gives you hope. We need hope when we are struggling with one thing after another – you know, bureaucracy, money problems, your children – but there has to be more to it than that. Hope lets me get up in the morning and start my day. And, it’s with this hope in mind, which I’ve only started to glean later in life, that allows me to go through my day and actually appreciate the good and the bad for what they might be.
I am, in fact, learning lessons that these are strands which are all coming together, and I just know I’m on a quest. I feel like Christopher Columbus. He knew there was something over the horizon and I’m also heading towards it. That’s where I’m going.
A note from Sue: Thank you for visiting this page. You may be interested in my Granny Mo children’s books, which help adults to talk with children about death and dying, and my books for adults on death and dying may help as well. You can also listen to a host of fascinating guests on my Embracing Your Mortality podcast and enjoy reading their interviews on my blog.