Prof. John Wren-Lewis
93/108 Elizabeth Bay Road
In our last feature of this issue of What is Enlightenment?, we are pleased to present the vivid and thoughtful account of a former spiritual cynics experience of being suddenly and unexpectedly catapulted into an altered state of consciousness. Fascinating as a unique expression of transcendent realization, John Wren-Lewis description of his powerful spiritual experience is deeply moving and profoundly inspiring. His perspective is unique, he claims, not only because his awakening was thrust upon him without him seeking for it, but also because, for that very reason, he questions many commonly held beliefs about the nature of spiritual awakening.
While his experience is undoubtedly genuine, as his description of it makes very clear, many of his conclusions about the nature and meaning of the whole event of spiritual transformation express the familiar view that beyond the ultimate fact of being itself, it is dangerous to draw conclusions about the meaning of being itself. We look forward to future dialogue with him to question some of his conclusions in the hope of bringing light to this most challenging area of religious thought, i.e., is there meaning and significance to life itself and to consciousness being aware of itself, or is the fact of life and consciousness meaningless beyond the fact that it simply is?
John Wren-Lewis is a man whose fearless and refreshingly irreverent stance makes him willing to question many ideas that for too long many would not dare to question. Andrew Cohen first heard of John Wren-Lewis when he received a letter from him in 1991 describing his experience and asking advice. In response, Andrew called him and they had a lively exchange. In March 1995 when Andrew Cohen was visiting Sydney, Australia, where John Wren-Lewis lives, they had several public and private meetings together. John Wren-Lewis is an awakened man who is unusual because, in spite of having many strong opinions based on a lifetime of intelligent exploration, he remains open-minded and ever-curious.
Before his experience occurred, John Wren-Lewis, mathematical physicist and humanist psychologist, was a primary exponent of the Death of God movement of the 1960s. He has published extensively and held several professorial appointments in the United States and the United Kingdom. He is currently hard at work finishing The 9:15 to Nirvana, a book that further elaborates on the subject of this article.
Some, if we believe what they tell us,
are born with God consciousness. Some struggle to achieve it by
strenuous spiritual practice, though by all accounts the success
rate isnt (and never has been) encouraging. I had God
consciousness thrust upon me in 1983, my sixtieth year, without
working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it, and this
has understandably given me a somewhat unusual perspective on the
whole matter. In particular, I wonder if discipline isnt
altogether counterproductive in this context and the idea of
spiritual growth totally mistaken.
Before I had my experience, I was a Freud-style skeptic about all things mystical. I wouldnt have called myself an atheist or materialist; in fact Id published extensively on the need for a religious world view appropriate to a humanity that has come of age in the scientific and technological area.(1) But I emphasized that such a faith would have to be essentially positivistic, focused on the human potential for creative change, which I believed could become as effective in the social realm as it has been in the physical realm. I even believed it possible that the creative human personality might eventually discover technologies for transcending mortality, but I saw mysticism as a neurotic escape into fantasy, due to failure of nerve in the creative struggle.(2)
What happened in 1983 could be classified technically as a near-death experience (NDE), though it lacked any of the dramatic visionary features that tend to dominate both journalistic and scholarly NDE accounts.(3) As I lay in a hospital bed in Thailand, after eating a poisoned candy given me by a would-be thief on a long-distance bus, there were some hours when the medical staff thought Id gone beyond recall. But I had no out-of-body vision of what was going on, no review of my life, no passage down a dark tunnel to a heavenly light or landscape, and no encounter with celestial beings or deceased relatives telling me to go back because my work on earth was not yet done. And although Id lost all fear of death when eventually resuscitated, this had (and has) nothing to do with believing I have an immortal soul that will survive death.
On the contrary, it has everything to do with a dimension of aliveness here and now which makes the notion of separate survival a very secondary matter, in this world or any other. In fact it makes each present instant so utterly satisfying that even the success or failure of creative activity becomes relatively unimportant. In other words, Ive been liberated from what William Blake called obsession with futurity, which, until it happened, I used to consider a psychological impossibility. And to my continual astonishment, for ten years now this liberation has made the conduct of practical life more rather than less efficient, precisely because time consciousness isnt overshadowed by anxious thought for the morrow.
I didnt even notice the change straightaway. My mind was too busy catching up on why I was in a hospital at night, with a policeman sitting at the foot of the bed, when the last thing I could remember was feeling drowsy on the bus in the early morning and settling down for a comfortable snooze on what was scheduled to be a seven-hour journey across the jungle-covered mountains. Id suspected nothing, because the donor of the candya charming and well-dressed young man whod been very helpful with our luggagehad left the bus some miles back. With hindsight, I guess he decided that retreat was the order of the day when he saw that my partner, dream psychologist Dr. Ann Faraday,(4) wasnt eating the candy hed given her. (Anns heroic rescue, when I started turning blue and the bus driver insisted I was just drunk, is quite a story in its own right, but not the point here.)(5)
The fact that Id undergone a radical consciousness shift began to become apparent only after everyone had settled down for the night and I was left awake, feeling as if Id had enough sleep to last a lifetime. By stages I became aware that when Id awakened a few hours earlier, it hadnt been from a state of ordinary unconsciousness at all. It was as if Id emerged freshly made (complete with all the memories that constitute my personal identity) from a vast blackness that was somehow radiant, a kind of infinitely concentrated aliveness or pure consciousness that had no separation within it, and therefore no space or time.
There was absolutely no sense of personal continuity. In fact the sense of a stop in time was so absolute that Im now convinced I really did die, if only for a few seconds or fractions of a second, and was literally resurrected by the medical team, though there were no brain-wave monitors to provide objective confirmation. And if my conviction is correct, it actually counts against rather than for the claim so often made by near-death researchers that personal consciousness can exist apart from the brain. My impression is that my personal consciousness was actually snuffed out (the root meaning, according to some scholars, of the word nirvana) and then recreated by a kind of focusing-down from the infinite eternity of that radiant dark pure consciousness. An old nursery rhyme conveys it better than any high philosophy:
Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of Everywhere into here.
Moreover that wonderful eternal life of everywhere was still there, right behind my eyesor more accurately, at the back of my headcontinually recreating my whole personal body-mind consciousness afresh, instant by instant, now! and now! and now! Thats no mere metaphor for a vague sensation; it was so palpably real that I put my hand up to probe the back of my skull, half wondering if the doctors had sawn part of it away to open my head to infinity. Yet it wasnt in the least a feeling of being damaged; it was more like having had a cataract taken off my brain, letting me experience the world and myself properly for the first timefor that lovely dark radiance seemed to reveal the essence of everything as holy.
I felt like exclaiming, Of course! Thats absolutely right! and applauding every single thing with tears of gratitudenot just the now sleeping Ann and the small jar of flowers the nurse had placed by the bedside, but also the ominous stains on the bed sheets, the ancient paint peeling off the walls, the far from hygienic smell of the toilet, the coughs and groans of other patients, and even the traumatized condition of my body. From the recesses of my memory emerged that statement at the beginning of the book of Genesis about God observing everything he had made and finding it very good. In the past Id treated these words as mere romantic poetry, referring only to conventionally grand things like sunsets and conveniently ignoring what ordinary human consciousness calls illness or ugliness. Now all the judgments of goodness or badness which the human mind necessarily has to make in its activities along the line of time were contextualized in the perspective of that other dimension I can only call eternity, which loves all the productions of time regardless.
It was mind-blowing even then, when I was taking for granted that this had to be a jumbo-sized mystical experience visited on me, of all people, as a kind of cosmic joke, from which I must quite soon return to normal. I envisaged making public recantation of my antimystical views and joining the formerly despised ranks of spiritual seekers. Because my skeptical bias had been recreated along with the rest of my memories, I toyed with the possibility that I might simply be suffering some aftereffect of the poison, which the doctors had diagnosed as probably being a heavy dose of morphine laced with cocaine. I didnt really believe this, however, because there was no trace of the trippy feeling that was always present when I took part in a long series of officially sponsored experiments with high-dosage psychedelics back in the late 1960s.
Later, when the eternity consciousness continued into the following days, weeks, months, and years, any ordinary kind of drug explanation was obviously ruled out. Moreover my bewilderment was intensified as I discovered how all kinds of negative human experiences became marvels of creation when experienced by the Dazzling Dark. To convey even a fraction of what life is like with eternity consciousness would take a whole book and Im currently in the last stages of writing one. It must suffice here to illustrate two features that have most impressed me and others who know me, notably Ann.
First, if there were a section in the Guinness Book of Records for cowardice about physical pain, I would be sure of a place there. But with eternity consciousness, pain becomes simply a warning signal which, once heeded (irrespective of whether a physical remedy is available), becomes simply an interesting sensation, another of natures wonders. The Buddhas distinction between pain and suffering, which I used to think was equivocation, is now a common experience for me. And second, my erstwhile spectacular dream life has been replaced, on most nights, by a state which I can only call conscious sleep, where Im fully asleep yet distantly aware of lying in bed. It is as if the Dark has withdrawn its game of John Wren-Lewising to a nonactive level where the satisfaction of simply being is totally unrelated to doing.(6)
The main point I want to make here, however, is that perhaps the most extraordinary feature of eternity consciousness is that it doesnt feel extraordinary at all. It feels quintessentially natural that personal consciousness should be aware of its own Ground, while my first fifty-nine years of so-called normal consciousness, in ignorance of that Ground, now seem like a kind of waking dream. It was as if Id been entranced from birth into a collective nightmare of separate individuals struggling in an alien universe for survival, satisfaction and significance.
Even so, there have been plenty of problems in adjusting to awakened life, because the rest of the world is still taking the separation state for granted, and my own resurrected mind still contains programs based on the assumptions of that state. So in the early days I made every effort to assume the role of spiritual seeker in the hope of finding help. It came as a real disappointment to find that no one I consulted, either in person or through books, had a clue, because ancient traditions and modern movements alike take for granted that the kind of eternity consciousness Im living in is the preserve of spiritual Olympians, the mystical equivalent of Nobel laureates.
Fortunately the mystical state seems to have a growth pattern of its own which is gradually enabling me to deal with the adjustment problemsand a fascinating process it is. In the meantime, however, Im very concerned that all the seekers I come across accept as a law of the spiritual universe that they have to be content with yearsperhaps many reincarnational lifetimesof hopeful traveling, rewarded at best with what T.S. Eliot called hints and guesses(7) of the eternity-conscious state, whereas I see that state as the natural human birthright.
My intensive investigations in this area over the past decade have left me in no doubt that proponents of the so-called Perennial Philosophy are correct in identifying a common deep structure of experience underlying the widely different cultural expressions of mystics in all traditions. Nonetheless I find no evidence whatever for the often-made claim that these traditions contain disciplines for attaining God consciousness that have been empirically tested and verified.(8) On the contrary, the assumption that God consciousness is a high and special state seems like the perfect defense mechanism for not asking whether spiritual paths are really leading there at all. Yet this is a very pertinent question, since many mystics whose utterances most clearly resonate as coming from life in the eternity-state have asserted that their awakening was an act of grace (or words to that effect) rather than a reward for effort on their part.
Indeed the more I investigate, the more convinced I become that iconoclastic mystics like Blake and Jiddu Krishnamurti(9) were right in asserting that the very idea of a spiritual path is necessarily self-defeating, because it does the one thing that has to be undone if there is to be awakening to eternity: it concentrates attention firmly on futurity. Paths and disciplines make gnosis a goal, when in fact it is already the ground of all knowing, including sinful time-bound knowing. To me now, systems of spirituality seem like analogues of those dreams which prevent waking up (for example, to wet a thirsty throat or relieve the bladder) by creating a never- ending nocturnal drama of moving towards the desired goal, encountering and overcoming obstacle after obstacle along the way, but never actually arriving.
In other words, Ive begun to realize that my former skepticism wasnt all bad. I think now that I was like the ignorant peasant boy in Hans Christian Andersens famous story who simply wouldnt go along with the courtiers wishful thinking about the emperors glory in his new clothes. My mistake was to put down the impulse that causes spiritual seekers to want a greater glory than ordinary life affords and makes them hope its there in the great traditions, even when they have no experiential evidence of it. Or to switch to an even older fable, I decided that heavenly grapes must be delusory when I could see that none of the ladders people were climbing in pursuit of them ever reached the goal.
Now I not only understand the urge to find something altogether beyond the shallow satisfactions and the blood, sweat, toil, and tears of this petty pace, but I know from firsthand experience that the joy beyond joy is greater than the wildest imaginations of a consciousness bogged down in time. But I can also see that the very impulse to seek the joy of eternity is a Catch-22, because seeking itself implies a preoccupation with time, which is precisely what drives eternity out of awareness. Even disciplines designed to prize attention away from doing are simply another form of doing, which is why they at best yield only occasional glimpses of the eternal Ground of consciousness in Being.
So what to do? One thing I learned in my former profession of science was that the right kind of lateral thinking can often bring liberation from Catch-22 situations, provided the Catch-22 is faced in its full starkness, without evasions in the form of metaphysical speculations beyond experience. This is the exploration to which my life is now dedicated. Its a research project in which anyone whos interested can join, because the very fact of being interested means that somewhere at the back of your head you are already as aware of the Ground of consciousness as I am. So rather than take up my little remaining space with any of my own tentative conclusions, Ill end with a couple of cautionary hints.
First, beware of philosophies that put spiritual concerns into a framework of growth or evolution, which I believe are the great modern idols. Both are important phenomena of eternitys time theater, but as paradigms theyre old hat, hangovers from the age of empire-building and the work ethic. We should know better today, when astronomers have shown that the kind of planetary destruction that was once imagined as a possible divine judgment could in fact be brought about at any time by the perfectly natural wanderings of a stray asteroid.
The I want it now attitude, so often deplored by spiritual pundits as a twentieth-century sin, is in my view a very healthy sign that we are beginning to be disillusioned with time-entrapment. A truly mystical paradigm has to be post-evolutionary, a paradigm of lila, divine play for its own sake, where any purposes along the line of time, great or small, are subordinate to the divine satisfaction that is always present in each eternal instant. Mystical gnosis is knowing the instant-by-instant delight of Infinite Aliveness in all manifestation, irrespective of whether, from the purely human standpoint, the manifestation is creative or destructive, growing or withering, evolving towards some noetic Omega or fading out.
My second warning is to mind your language, for the words we use are often hooks that catch us into time entrapment. For example, when we use the term self with a small s to describe individual personhood, and Self with a capital S for the fullness of God consciousness, the notion of the one gradually expanding into the other becomes almost inescapable, again concentrating attention along the time line. Mystical liberation, by contrast, is the sudden discovery that even the meanest self is already a focus of the Infinite Aliveness that is beyond any kind of selfhood.
Again, when the word home is used to describe eternity, there is an almost irresistible temptation to think of life as a journey of return, whereas mystical awakening for me has been like Dorothys in The Wizard of Oz: the realization that I never really left home and never could. Here too T.S. Eliot has the word for it: Home is where one starts from.(10) Finite life is a continual instant-by-instant voyaging out from the eternal Home into the time process to discover new productions of time for eternity to love as they arise and pass away.
Against this background, the main positive advice I would give to spiritual seekers is to experiment with any practice or idea that seems interestingwhich is what the Buddha urged a long time ago, though not too many of his followers have ever taken that part of his teaching seriously. Ancient traditions and modern movements alike may be very valuable as databases for new adventures, but to treat them as authorities to be obeyed is not only unscientificit seems actually to go against the grain of the divine lila itself, since novelty is apparently the name of the time game
I suspect gnosis comes as grace because there are as many different forms of it as there are people. Yet because were all in this together, sharing experience is integral to its fullness. Whatever experiments you make, share your failures, your hints and guesses, and your awakening too if it happens, with warts-and-all honesty, because everything that lives is holy.
1. See for example my book What Shall We Tell the Children? (London: Constable, 1971) and the quotations from my earlier writings in J.A.T. Robinson, Honest to God (London: SCM Press, 1963), the foundation work of the Death of God movement in the mid-1960s.
2. See especially my article Loves Coming-of-Age in C. Rycroft, ed., Psychoanalysis Observed (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1968).
3. The best overview of this subject is still C. Zaleski, Otherworld Journeys: The Near-Death Experience in Mediaeval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). There is now also a Journal of Near-Death Studies published quarterly by the Human Sciences Press in New York.
4. See Ann Faraday, Dream Power (New York: Berkeley, 1973) and The Dream Game (New York: Harper & Row, 1976/1990).
5. A fuller version of the story is told in my article The Darkness of God: A Personal Report on Consciousness Transformation through Close Encounter with Death in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 28, no. 2 (1988), pp. 105-121, and in my forthcoming book The 9:15 to Nirvana. At the time of this incident, we were on holiday from fieldwork in the Malaysian jungle which led to exposure of the Senoi Dream Tribe legend as a fraud. See Ann Faraday and John Wren-Lewis, The Selling of the Senoi, in Lucidity Letter, vol. 3, no. 1, (1984), pp. 1-2.
6. For further details, see my article Dream Lucidity and Near-Death Experience: A Personal Report in Lucidity Letter, vol. 4, no. 2, (1986), pp. 4-12.
7. See T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, 5, in Four Quartets (London: Faber & Faber, 1944/1959). As an example, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton (London: Sheldon Press, 1974) relates Mertons discussion with a very high Tibetan meditation master in which they both admitted to each other that breakthrough into direct realization still eluded them after thirty years of assiduous practice. A high Tibetan lama once told me he expected to spend many more reincarnations before reaching a state of continuing eternity consciousness.
8. See for example Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1944) and Ken Wilber, The Atman Project (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 1980).
9. For notes on Krishnamurti in this respect, with particular reference to recent reports of his alleged affair with a married woman disciple, see my article Death Knell of the Guru System?: Perfectionism vs. Enlightenment in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 34, no. 2 (1994), pp. 46-61.
10. T.S. Eliot, East Coker, 5, in Four Quartets.