They were also much too close together. A skydiver leaves a super-turbulent stream of low-pressure air behind him. If a jumper gets into that trail, he instantly speeds up and can crash into the person below him. That, in turn, can make both jumpers speed up and crash into anyone who might be below them. In short, it's a recipe for disaster.
I angled my body and tracked away from the group in order to keep from adding to the tumbling mess. I maneuvered until I was falling right over "the spot," a magical point on the ground above which we were to open our parachutes for the leisurely two minute descent down to the target on the drop zone. I looked over and was relieved to see that the disoriented jumpers were now also tracking away from each other, dispersing the deadly clump.
Chuck was there among them. To my surprise, he was coming straight in my direction. He stopped directly beneath me. With all of the group's tumbling, we were passing through 2,000 feet more quickly than Chuck had anticipated. Maybe he thought he was lucky and didn't have to follow the rules—exactly. He must not see me. The thought barely had time to go through my head before Chuck's colorful pilot chute blossomed out of his backpack. His pilot chute caught the 120-mph breeze coming around him and shot straight towards me, pulling his main parachute in its sleeve right behind it.
From the instant I saw Chuck's pilot chute emerge, I had a fraction of a second to react. For it would take less than a second to tumble through his deploying main parachute, and—quite likely—right into Chuck himself. At that speed, if I hit his arm or his leg I would take it right off, dealing myself a fatal blow in the process. If I hit him directly, both our bodies would essentially explode.
People say things slow down in situations like this, and they're right. My mind watched the action in the microseconds that followed as if it were watching a movie in slow motion.
The instant I saw the pilot chute, my arms flew to my sides and I straightened my body into a head dive, bending ever so slightly at the hips. The verticality gave me increased speed, and the bend allowed my body to add first a little, then a blast of horizontal motion as my body became an efficient wing, sending me zipping past Chuck just in front of his colorful blossoming Paracommander parachute. As I passed him I was moving at over 150 MPH, or 220 feet every second. Given that speed I doubt he saw the expression on my face. But if he had, he would have seen a look of sheer astonishment. Somehow I had reacted in microseconds to a situation that, had I actually had time to think about it, would have been much too complex for me to deal with.
And yet... I had dealt with it. It was as if, presented with a situation that required more than its usual ability to respond, my brain had become, for a moment, super-powered.
How had I done it? Over the course of my twenty-plus year career in academic neurosurgery—of studying the brain, observing how it works, and operating on it—I had plenty of opportunities to ponder the question. I finally chalked it up to the fact that the brain is simply a truly extraordinary device: more extraordinary than we can even guess.
I now realize that the real answer to that question is much more profound. But I had to go through a complete metamorphosis of my life and worldview to glimpse that answer. This book is about the events that changed my mind on the matter. They convinced me that, marvelous a mechanism as the brain is, it was not my brain that saved my life that day at all. What sprang into action the second Chuck’s chute started to open was another, much deeper part of me. A part that could move so fast because it was not stuck in time at all, the way the brain and body are.
This was the same part of me, in fact, that had made me so homesick for the skies as a kid. It's not only the smartest part of us, but the deepest part as well, yet for most of my adult life I was unable to believe in it.
But I do believe now, and the pages that follow will tell you why.
Copyright © 2012 by Eben Alexander. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.