John Wren-Lewis (real name) was originally trained as a mathematical physicist in wartime England. He came to humanistic psychology from an industrial research career in which he was one of the world pioneers of scientific futures studies. In the 1950s and 1960s he became well-known on both sides of the Atlantic for his writings urging a humanistic faith capable of transcending the limitations of both dogmatic religion and materialistic scientism, and he is often cited as one of the initiators of the “death of God” movement. In the early 1970s he dropped out of industry to become a wandering scholar, in partnership with dream scholar Dr. Ann Faraday. His first country of call was the United States, where he was invited to undertake visiting lecturing and professorial appointments at several universities and colleges. Later travels have taken them to Central America and the Caribbean, and then to the Orient, where they spent several years in India and a year in the Malaysian jungle with the Senoi tribe. They have now settled in Australia, where John has become an Honorary Associate of the School of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. (The above introduction is taken from the journal article introduction.)
Normally TASTE only publishes experiences which have not appeared elsewhere, but I found John’s so extraordinary – and have since become only more and more fascinated in my contacts with him and await his forthcoming book, The 9:15 To Nirvana which will expand this account so much – that I am privileged to be able to reprint his 1988 article here. It is so rare to have someone with no previous biases and commitments to a particular spiritual system have such a profound spiritual experience. When The 9:15 To Nirvana appears it will be one of the most important books ever written on transcendent experiences, and I will add reference information on getting it to this site.
Dr. Wren-Lewis has, regretfully, no email address, but can be contacted by mail at the Religious Studies Department at the University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.
As a side note, the Senoi tribe referred to in the article were reputed to be masters of lucid dreaming, sharing dreams communally in the mornings, and having extremely good mental health as a consequence. The “myth” of the Senoi was spread widely by my reprinting an article, “Dream Theory in Malaya,” by Kilton Stewart, in my 1969 Altered States of Consciousnessanthology (listed as out of print, but available via mail order from my www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart/ site). I say “myth,” for at the time I decided to reprint the article I knew its claims could not be readily checked for historical/factual accuracy, yet the idea of dream control was so intriguing and was reflected so well in my own personal experience that I thought of it as true “in principle,” and things have turned out that way. Modern research, including that by John Wren-Lewis and Ann Faraday, has shown that Kilton Stweart’s understanding of Senoi dream practices was probably mostly a projection of his own ideas rather than a reality: yet when people have tried them, they work!
THE DARKNESS OF GOD: A Personal Report on Consciousness Transformation Through an Encounter with Death
This article describes a radical and lasting change of consciousness that has overtaken the author as a result of nearly dying by poisoning in 1983. The initial experience lacked almost all the dramatic features that have attracted popular attention in the many accounts of “near-death experiences” appearing over the past decade such as “out-of-body” travel, passage through a tunnel, review of earlier life, or encounter with apparently supernatural entities. It was more in the nature of a dissolution into a Nirvanic or void-state of undifferentiated aliveness, but it produced a major and apparently permanent awareness-shift far beyond the emotional reorientations that are commonly reported to follow close encounters with death. The change seems to correspond closely with traditional religious descriptions of mystical “awakening” to experiential unity with the essence of all being, from which viewpoint the mystical perception of reality is seen as simple normal consciousness rather than an “altered state,” while so-called ordinary consciousness is recognized to be a clouded condition wherein awareness has become bogged down in an illusion of separate selfhood confronting an alien environment. This change of viewpoint represents a complete antithesis to the author’s prior religious background, which involved total skepticism of all mystical claims and of near-death experience reports.
The overall experience provides independent confirmation to the change of direction that was becoming apparent, unbeknownst to the author, in the main body of research on near-death experiences (NDEs) in the early 1980s. Interest was being focused on the changes of consciousness that undeniably sometimes occur in crisis-situations, as phenomena of great scientific and human interest in their own right, rather than on inevitably contentious arguments about whether or not NDEs provide glimpses of another world beyond the grave. By viewing NDE phenomena in this new perspective, the author is able to suggest a possible psychodynamic mechanism underlying the clouding of everyday consciousness and, on this basis, to propose guidelines for future research towards less drastic means of inducing “awakening.”
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of god.
T. S. Eliot
“Deathbed visions” have occupied a prominent place in popular lore from time immemorial, but during the past decade, reports of strange and apparently religious experiences accompanying close encounters with death have for the first time become the subject of serious scientific study. In prescientific cultures, such reports tended to become so quickly incorporated into the prevailing dogmatic or mythological thought-patterns that the separation of experiential fact from wishful fancy or didactic elaboration was virtually impossible: Who can say, for instance, how much of the story of Nachekita’s visit to the kingdom of death in the Katha Upanishad, or of Plato’s story of Er, or of Dante’s Divine Comedy, sprang from any kind of mystical experience, and how much from intellectual invention designed to make philosophical points? It seems to have been necessary for our culture to pass through a period of total skepticism before the subject could be studied in a fashion that established a solid factual basis for such stories; even though the majority of medical and scientific opinion probably remains skeptical about whether or not these “near-death experiences” have any religious or metaphysical significance, there is now no serious doubt that they occur (Lundahl, 1982). According to a recent poll reported by George Gallup, Jr., in the book Adventures in Immortality, probably many millions of people-5% of the adult population (if not more) in North America-have had such an experience (Gallup, 1982). The phenomenon has indeed achieved the ultimate dignity of being initialized to NDE, and there is a highly respectable International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) based at the University of Connecticut, publishing a first-rate scientific journal, Anabiosis. (See References for particulars.)
Journalists have not been slow to make capital out of this development. This usually takes the form of sensational claims that, thanks to modern medical advances, more and more people are nowadays being snatched back from the very jaws of death and are giving reliable testimony of having glimpsed the hitherto undiscovered country; the idea has even been made the subject of a movie titled Beyond and Back. And sensationalism notwithstanding, this could be considered a legitimate, if over-dramatic, extrapolation from the way the subject was approached by the first major pioneer investigator, American psychologist Raymond Moody, in his now best-selling book Life After Life(Moody, 1975). This inevitably provoked skeptical counterattack along three main lines: (1) if resuscitation occurs, it is surely arguable that clinical death never really occurred whatever the dearth of vital signs; (2) the common features of the accounts, which for Moody and other early investigators seemed so impressive, actually pale into insignificance when set against the wide differences; and (c) similar “religious” experiences have been reported by people in other kinds of stressful conditions where there is no question of clinical death, for example, when life seems to be threatened by a fall over a high cliff, or by a vehicle bearing down at great speed, yet the accident is completely averted by landing on unexpectedly soft snow or by the vehicle swerving at the last second (Noyes & Kletti, 1976). Skeptics argue that such considerations make hallucination a much more likely explanation of NDEs than any kind of “glimpse Beyond”-and an especially strong reaction along these lines has come from the psychiatric community concerned with care for the dying and bereaved, who suspect that behind all the fuss about NDEs lies their old bête noir, the escapist impulse to deny the reality of death.
In the past few years, however, an important change of emphasis has taken place amongst near-death researchers that renders all such skeptical considerations largely irrelevant. The specific content of NDEs, while undeniably interesting, tends now to be seen as secondary; primary significance is given to the unquestionable fact that a close encounter with death, whether clinically or only in a life-threatening situation, seems to produce in many cases a remarkable change of consciousness, which is worthy of study in its own right, and which, on any reasonable reckoning, is highly significant for our estimates about what kind of creature the human being is. In fact, psychologist Kenneth Ring, founder of IANDS and author of the first major scientific study of NDEs (1980), concludes in his new book Heading towards Omega (1984) that NDE studies are now emerging as a new and important subsection of the more general study of mystical and religious consciousness in the tradition of investigators such as William James (1958), R. M. Bucke (1923), and Sir Alister Hardy (1981). One might add that this makes the subject very much the business of humanistic psychology and, on that premise, I submit here an account of my own NDE in 1983, which pointed very clearly in the direction of Ring’s conclusion long before his book came out and before I had read any of the NDE literature seriously. (A cursory glance at Moody’s book had left me with very much the skeptical view outlined above.)
My NDE was much less dramatic in content than many that have hit headlines. I had no “out-of-body” vision of myself supposedly dead in the hospital, nor any clairvoyant perception of the medical staff discussing whether their emergency treatment had come too late to save me. I was given no overview of my life and no experience of hurtling through a dark tunnel to a heavenly realm beyond. I saw no unearthly landscape, celestial light, or marvelous colors, heard no angelic music, and met no deceased relatives or supernatural figures telling me to go back to my body because my work on earth wasn’t done yet. On the other hand the aftereffects of the experience were dramatic indeed, and I have yet to read of anything quite like them in the NDE literature. The experience has remained with me ever since, not just as a changed attitude to life, however radical, but as a totally altered state of consciousness that has what I can only call eternal quality right here and now, so that I no longer worry about what happens after death.
To start, however, with the material facts-I had just emerged unscathed from a year in the Malaysian jungle with my wife, dream psychologist Ann Faraday, seeking to establish the truth or otherwise of reports about a special dream-culture amongst the Senoi tribe quoted in her books (Faraday, 1973, 1976; for our findings, see Faraday & Wren-Lewis, 1984). After a rest on the beaches of Ko Samui off the east coast of Thailand, we embarked on a long-distance bus to Phukett on the west coast. We knew nothing then of reports in the international press about thieves plying travelers with drugged sweets or drinks before making off with their wallets and luggage while they dozed, or of the sensational case where one pathological killer poisoned a whole coachload of people (Neville & Clarke, 1979). We heard one or two rumors, but having experienced nothing but generosity from everyone we’d met so far we discounted these as scaremongering tales spread by hippies who’d eaten too many of the magic mushrooms that are on sale everywhere in Thai resorts. We had no suspicion whatever of the nice, well-dressed young man who helped us with our luggage and then, on this crowded vehicle in broad daylight, offered us Cadbury’s toffees. They tasted distinctly musty, but I sucked on to the (literally) bitter end out of politeness; Ann, less inhibited, spat hers out; thanks to this I am now alive to tell the tale, for that particular thief evidently went in for injecting his toffees with overdoses and, had we both dozed off, we would have slept our way into eternity.
When the young man saw Ann wasn’t eating her sweet, he realized his plans were foiled and left the bus hastily at the next stop (the last before we set off across country), just as I was beginning to feel drowsy. When my head dropped on my chest and I began to drool, Ann grasped what had happened but felt there was nothing to do now but let me sleep it off, so she stretched me out on the seat with a sleeping bag under my head. After a while, however, as the bus plunged on into the countryside, she noticed with alarm that I was going blue around the lips and had no detectable pulse. With difficulty, she persuaded the driver to stop (he thought I was drunk) and, after some hassle, managed to get me back to Surat Thani hospital by hitching a ride in a van. The doctors were not at a hopeful of saving me but made the optimistic assumption that my total lack of response to deep pain was due to the drug (they suspected morphine, which is very cheap in Thailand) rather than to imminent death, and they plied me with oxygen and antidotes by intravenous drip. It was about 7 hours before I showed any evidence of coming around, and they decided to put us up for the night in a private room.
It was some hours later still before I really surfaced to find someone asking if I wanted supper. For some time after that, I was so occupied getting in touch with what had been going on, I just didn’t think about anything else; it was only after everyone else was asleep that I began to wonder why that rather shoddy hospital room seemed transcendentally beautiful. My first thought was, “Hey, is this why people get hooked on morphine?” But second thoughts told me that after all this time any drug effects should have worn off (a conclusion since confirmed by pharmacological experts). What is more, I had taken part in extensive research on psychedelic drugs in England in the late 1960s (Wren-Lewis, 1971) and had some extraordinary experiences, including an apparently transcendental experience of blissful white light under LSD, but my experience in the Surat Thani hospital room was nothing like that. It was altogether calmer, without any perceptual distortion, yet at the same time far more impressive. I began to wonder if I’d had some kind of “Moody” experience while “out,” so I tried a technique that Ann and I have sometimes found useful when we wake up knowing we have just had a vivid dream but cannot get back any details.
I lay on the bed, relaxed, and began to take myself back in imagination, in a series of steps, right to the point of coming round. “Here I am, lying on this bed, with someone asking if I want supper; here I am, just before that, becoming aware of someone shaking my arm; here I am, before that again, with my eyes closed, and. . . .” Often this process brings back the dream one has forgotten, but what came back this time was nothing like a remembered dream. What came back flooding back was an experience that in some extraordinary way had been with me ever since I came around without my realizing it. It was as if I’d come it of the deepest darkness I had ever known, which was somehow ill there right behind my eyes.
One of the NDEs reported to Kenneth Ring (1980) was from a roman who said she had been enveloped in “a very peaceful blackness. . . a soft, velvet blackness,” and I know just what she meant-but I feel the need to say something stronger to do justice o my experience. A phrase that has since come to mind occurs in an ancient alchemical text; we now know that alchemy was concerned more with psychological and spiritual changes than chemical ones, and in one old book it is said that there occurs a point in the transformation where the operator “falls into the black sun” and experiences “a palpableabsence of light” (an interesting psychological anticipation of “black holes”?). The darkness I experienced was in some extraordinary way radiant, and I cannot help thinking of the poem Night by Henry Vaughan, with its strange line: “There is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness.”
I am not trying to push any particular theological or metaphysical conclusions when I use the word “God” here. On the contrary, my readings in theology and metaphysics in earlier years never conjured up to my mind anything remotely like this experience. I am simply saying that since the experience, Vaughan’s line and a whole host of other statements made by mystics in all religious traditions seem to make sense as word-straining attempts to describe the strange state in which I found myself; for instance: the Hebrew poet’s cry in Psalm 139 that “the night shineth as the day,” or Mohammed’s statement that he experienced “the Night of Power,” or the assertion of St. John of the Cross that he encountered God as “a dark cloud illumining the night.” I am even led to wonder if similar experiences, rather than mere cosmological speculation, underlie references to “cosmic darkness” in some of the world’s primordial creation-stories such as the “darkness on the face of the deep” in Genesis or the “darkness at first by darkness hidden” in the Rig Veda, or Te Po, the “first night” of the Maori creation story. I wonder if the Hebrew story came straight out of the experience of Abraham when he “fell into a deep sleep” at sunset and “lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12).
Most stories about-near-death experiences mention darkness only as a prelude to some greater experience of light, usually the famous dark tunnel. Now of course, I can’t say categorically that I didn’t experience going through a tunnel-I simply don’t remember any transition into the darkness-the only thing I recall before that was feeling drowsy on the bus. But I can say that it would seem utterly silly to think of the darkness, as I experienced it, as an intermediate state to anything else at all, for it seemed utterly complete. One of the rare exceptions to the rule in the near-death stories occurs in Raymond Moody’s Life after Life, where a man reports a darkness “so deep and impenetrable that I could see absolutely nothing, but this was the most wonderful, worry-free experience you can imagine.” I, too, felt utterly secure in my darkness, knowing that all life’s struggles were over and I had “come home” to a state beyond all danger, where I no longer needed or wanted anything because everything I could possibly want or need was already mine. That shining darkness seemed to contain everything that ever was or could be, all space and all time, and yet it contained nothing at all, for the very word “thing” implies separate entities, whereas what I experienced was an utterly simple being-ness without any kind of separation-the very essence, it seemed, of aliveness, prior to any individual living beings. Another paradoxical expression, this time from Eastern mysticism, seems the only one that is remotely adequate-“the living Void,” an idea echoed in Christian mysticism by Meister Eckhart’s description of the Godhead as “empty, as though it were not,” or in Jacob Boehme’s reference to the deity as “a suprasensual abyss” (Eckhart, 1981; Boehme, 1970).
Another man reported to Raymond Moody that he found himself “just floating and tumbling through space,” and then added, “I was so taken up with this void that I just didn’t think of anything else.” The idea that a void could possibly be interesting would have seemed nonsense to me before, but it now makes total sense. In fact, the state I am trying to describe seems to defy all ordinary canons of logic, and my deepest resonance is to Buddha’s classic description of Nirvana, which simply piles one contradiction upon another:
Monks, there exists that condition wherein is neither earth nor water nor fire nor air; wherein is neither the sphere of infinite space nor of infinite consciousness nor of nothingness nor of neither-consciousness-nor-unconsciousness; where there is neither this world nor a world beyond nor both together nor moon-and-sun. Thence, monks, I declare there is no coming to birth; thither is no going; therein is no duration; thence is no falling; there is no arising. It is not something fixed, it moves not on. That indeed is the end of ill. (Pali Canon, 1968)
And even “the end of ill” has to be contradicted too if I am to do justice to my experience, for it was in no way merely negative. It was indeed “a worry-free experience,” “a very peaceful blackness,” but there was nothing at all lifeless about it; it was “the peace of God that passeth understanding.” Words like bliss or joy are equally inadequate, for they are far too limited, which I think must be why the Katha Upanishad says that when its young hero Nachekita went to the kingdom of death he discovered a new kind of Self, the Universal Self, Brahman, who is “effulgent Being, joy beyond joy” (Hume, 1974).
Here again I must emphasize that I am not trying to push any metaphysical idea about a place or realm in which the soul survives after death. In purely medical terms I certainly came very close indeed to dying, but from what the doctors told me, I have no reason to suppose that I actually crossed the border of “clinical death,” as is alleged in some NDE reports. And, subjectively, my experience was not of leaving the body, or of going into an apparently heavenly realm: It was not of going anywhere, but more like everywhere having somehow become present to me, or, more precisely, of somehow becoming present to consciousness without there being any more “me” to be conscious. And that is why I can so immediately identify with young Nachekita in the Upanishad: In that nirvanic condition there was aliveness or awareness, and, therefore, in terms of human logic, I have to say that there must have been some kind of Self, but the self of John with his personal history had ceased to be, finished. And I don’t mean that my former life was forgotten- rather, I had the sense that all personal histories, mine and my friends’ and those of all who have ever lived or will ever live, were now recognized as mere incidents in an infinite Aliveness that is beyond all history, beyond all space-time limitation. I feel-and feeling is what this is all about-that had I chosen to do so I could have reviewed my whole life, as many people have done in near-death experiences, or conversed with my long-dead relatives, or said hello to “angels, archangels and the whole company of heaven,” but in that shining dark there was no desire for such separate experiences, since All was already present.
Skeptical psychologists and psychoanalysts often try to explain away near-death experiences by the theory that the mind conjures up fantasies of heaven in a desperate attempt to avoid the imminent prospect of its own extinction. I used to believe something like that myself, for although I was not an atheist, my Christian beliefs were of a very liberal-humanist-modernist kind, and I dismissed all mysticism as neurotic escape from life (Wren-Lewis, 1966). My experience completely shattered this whole line of thought, for it was utterly unlike any fantasies I have ever had of heaven, either in childhood (when my religious ideas were of the crudest possible Jesus-in-white-robes type derived from Sunday-school pictures) or in adult life, when I was repelled by the whole idea of Nirvana as I then understood it. But more important even than that is the fact that what I experienced was, quite precisely, the extinction of individual selfhood that the mind is supposed to find too terrifying to face. I think I have been privileged to have the experience promised by the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Evans-Wentz, 1957)-that the approach to physical death provides an opportunity for the ordinary limited self to “die,” to give up grasping its little separated identity, whereupon the discovery takes place that selves are not separate, but simply manifestations of the only real Selfhood, infinite Aliveness. My guess now would be that all religious “fantasies,” as the skeptics call them with some justification, and even those palpable visions of heaven that psychologists have to explain as hallucinations, are the mind’s attempts to put pictures to its intuitions or occasional glimpses of this universal Aliveness underlying all individual existence, which in itself is beyond all picturing and all theological theories.
What makes me so convinced of this is that the nirvanic bliss was not just something I glimpsed once, while I was (from the doctors’ points of view) unconscious: I brought it back with me when (from the doctors’ viewpoints) I “came round,” and I have had it with me ever since. Words and logic come under greater strain than ever when I try to describe the process of “coming back”; indeed that very expression is misleading from any other viewpoint than the purely clinical one, for as I said at the beginning, when I “clicked back” to the darkness by using the dream recall exercise, I found it was still right there with me at the back of my consciousness, as it were, and had been all along without my focusing the fact. And subjectively, I am up against something that makes no sense in terms of ordinary logic when I say that I came or moved out of a state where there is no time, for how can there be movement without time? In fact, I again find myself faced with a logical difficulty that occurs in the doctrines of all religious, the problem of trying to say how anything but God can ever exist if God is everything, as “God” must be by definition, and how time can ever get started when the very notion of “start” implies time. I used to think these were abstract metaphysical problems and probably meaningless word-juggling; now I feel sure those doctrines were originally attempts to express just the kind of impossible transition I went through from Nirvana to the rebirth of John.
So I can only say that it seemed as if the impossible happened, and a movement took place in eternity, which is beyond all movement. In the Jewish Kabbalah, (Schaya, 1973) it is said that the en sof, the Limitless, created (or creates, for this is beyond time) a space within itself so that limited being can also exist. In the Taittiriya Upanishad (Hume, 1974) it is said that Brahman changed from the pure Unmanifest to the Manifest (though of course there is nothing Other than Brahman for Brahman to manifest to!) To coin my own phrase, it was as if the personal me “budded out” from that eternity of shining dark, without ceasing to be the shining dark-which I suppose is what Hindu theology is trying to express by its famous statement that the Atman, the individual self, is identical with Brahman, the universal self.
And the whole process was blissful, which is another way in which my experience differs markedly from most near-death reports, where there is almost always a terrible sense of regret at coining back from a heavenly state or “place” into the narrow world of physical existence. The physical world to which I “came back” was in no sense narrow-it was glorious beyond belief, and to be manifest seemed merely another mode, as it were, of the blissful dark. I resonate to those wonderful words attributed to God in the Book of Job: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth, when the morning stars sang together and all the songs of God shouted for joy?” I feel I know exactly why the Bible says that God looked upon the creation and saw that it was good. But before my experience, the idea of God creating the world always conjured up images of a superpotter or builder at work, whereas the “feel” of my experience of creation was nothing like that. It was more like Aristotle’s idea of created things being drawn into existence by the sheer radiance of divine beauty; the bud that was me opened out, as it were, in response to that black sun that was also, in some utterly paradoxical way, my-Self. I was alpha and omega, the beginning and end of the creation-process.
I have put all this in the past tense, a description of something that happened to me in Thailand, but that leaves out the most astonishing thing about it, namely that it is all still here, both the shining dark void and the experience of myself coming into being out of, yet somehow in response to, that radiant darkness. My whole consciousness of myself and everything else has changed. I feel as if the back of my head has been sawn off so that it is no longer the 60-year-old John who looks out at the world, but the shining dark infinite void that in some extraordinary way is also “I.” And what I perceive with my eyes and other senses is a whole world that seems to be coming fresh-minted into existence moment by moment, each instant evoking the utter delight of “Behold, it is very good.” Here yet again I am constantly up against paradox when I try to describe the experience. Thus, in one sense, I feel as if I am infinitely far back in sensing the world, yet at the same time I feel the very opposite, as if my consciousness is no longer inside my head at all, but out there in the things I am experiencing. I often get the sense that when I perceive, say, a chair or a tree, I am the chair or the tree perceiving itself, and I did a double take when I recently came across the statement of Meister Eckhart: “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.”
I hasten to add that my consciousness isn’t like this all the time, though I wish it were. I constantly drift back into my old way of experiencing myself and the world, and at first, in Thailand, I again and again caught myself thinking, “Oh, God, it’s gone,” but as day succeeded day I began to realize that “gone” was the wrong way of putting it. Plotinus wrote that the Supreme is always with us but we do not always look at it (Gould, 1963) and I now know what that strange statement must have meant. If anyone had tried to tell me before this happened that something as amazing and delightful as this consciousness could simply escape one’s notice, I would have said it was impossible; but I now know from experience that it is plain fact-I can, and constantly do, just forget that the shining darkness is there, and go back to being what I always used to be. Then suddenly I stop in my tracks and wake up to the fact that something is wrong, whereupon it all comes flooding back-the shining dark void and the experience of everything coming into glorious existence now! and now! and now! with every moment a new creation. In fact, I now know exactly why the Christian mystics insisted that it is we who turn away from God, not God from us.
And as I lived, week after week, with this process of drifting away from God-consciousness and clicking back to it again, I came more and more to feel that in some strange way, the God-consciousness wasn’t really extraordinary at all. It was like coming home to something I’d always known deep down, which I suppose is what Plotinus meant when he said that the Supreme is not “other”; it is we in our so-called normal consciousness who are “other,” estranged from the true ordinariness of reality. As a practical expression of this, I found I had no urge or need to make any drastic changes in my life-style. I have remained recognizably John; I’ve not lost my taste for meat or wine or good company or humor; and I have found no wish to spend long periods in meditation. I have for some years enjoyed half-hour spells of meditation without finding the process any big thing, and while I certainly enjoy these withdrawn periods more with the new consciousness, this is no different from my increased delight in other experiences, including sleep; I don’t find that meditation, diet, or any other kind of discipline makes any difference to the frequency with which I slip out of the con-sciousness, nor my ability to click back into it. I entirely understand now the statement of a modern American mystic that before enlightenment he put himself through all manner of disciplines, but on the day he became fully realized, he simply went home with his wife and watched TV.
What the new consciousness has brought about is a subtle but radical change in attitude to life as a whole, for which the best name I can find is the Buddhist term “nonattachment.” It’s the practical counterpart of the paradox of creation that I’ve just been describing: that Brahman nirvanic consciousness has no need to manifest since it is totally complete in itself, yet it takes delight in manifesting. In the same way, I still take pleasure- more pleasure than before-in good food or wine or music and other pleasant experiences, but I’m no longer very much bothered about whether I have them or not, since the Darkness at the back of my consciousness is already all the satisfaction. I can possibly wish for: There is total satisfaction simply in moment-by-moment being, though along the line of time, the body-mind’s biological system still pursues its individual interests much as it has always done. And by an extension of this principle, I find I no longer have any fear of death, even though I have no more knowledge than I had before about whether the individual John Wren-Lewis is going to reincarnate, or survive death in some nonmaterial form, or simply come to an end as far as time is concerned. I understand why the mystics of all religions have said that the pearl of great price is not immortality but eternal life, which is lived in every moment.
On this last point I join hands with the majority of those who have had near-death experiences: Although I have not come across any account of a total consciousness-change of the kind I have been describing, it is very common indeed in NDE reports for the person to enjoy life much more afterwards and yet, paradoxically, to be quite unworried at the prospect of dying. Moreover, this is reported not only by people who are pulled back from clinical death as I was, but also by some who brush with death in the quite different sense of thinking they are certain to die in life-threatening situations; and even by some who have been in crises, where there is no direct threat of death at all, such as solitary confinement; and, of course, there have been mystics, like the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Ramana Maharshi, who entered “eternity-consciousness” by putting themselves through an imaginative simulation of dying (Mahadevan, 1977). It seems to me that the conclusion to which all these experiences taken together point is that we lose contact with “God,” the universal moment-by-moment aliveness that is our birthright, because our consciousness somehow gets bogged down in the survival mechanisms of the individual body-mind system, so that we never-know what true life-enjoyment really is until some kind of shock causes the survival mechanisms to give up for just long enough to break the spell. In other words, that “special grace of dying” that the Tibetan Book of the Dead describes is also available to the living-for once consciousness is liberated from the spell, the survival-mechanisms can start up again and carry on with their proper work of keeping the organism alive, without ever again being a barrier to the infinitely larger enjoyment of simple present being.
I have been taken by surprise again and again as I have seen this principle working out in my own life since the NDE; but perhaps the biggest surprise of all was the discovery that the moment-by-moment delight of “Behold, it is very good!” was not only unaffected by whether I had a good thing I wanted or not, but actually continued in situations I would normally have called depressing, like the Surat Thani hospital room, or even down-right unpleasant, like a filthy wet day or a heavy cold. This last revelation bowled me over completely, for I have always been a coward about pain and physical disease, and although I knew from the very first that my fear of death was a thing of the past, after the NDE, I had no such assurance about pain. In fact, I speculated on that first night in Thailand that the total contrast between my delight in “coming back” to physical existence and the feeling of regret reported in so many near-death experiences might be due to my lack of pain, possibly through stimulation of the brain’s natural endorphin anesthetics by the drug, so different from the suffering bodies of cardiac arrest or accident victims. And, over the next few weeks, I found that headaches or travel sickness did indeed distract me from the new consciousness, forcing me to wait until they had passed for it to take over again.
Then, just as I had resigned myself to the idea that my “enlightenment” must be of a very inferior kind, since it ap-parently gave me none of that immunity to suffering that is supposed to characterize the enlightened person in Eastern thought, I began to notice changes. The feeling of being “open to the void” at the back of my head seemed to have spread, without my noticing it, down my spine to the middle of my back, and around the same time I found that the tinnitus (hissing in the ears) from which I’ve suffered for some years had changed from being a mild annoyance that I could at best manage to forget at times, to a positively delightful sound that I welcomed as an old friend whenever it forced itself on my attention. I also found myself actually enjoying tiredness and the many minor pains that beset a 60-year-old body, a startling verification of Freud’s contention that pleasure and pain are often a matter of how we perceive precisely the same sensation. Then came my first post-NDE cold, which was a startling revelation of hitherto unexpected capacity for pleasure-not just the enjoyment of wallowing in the in-dulgence of a day in bed, but positively delight in. nose, throat, and head sensations that in the past I’ve always loathed. And about that time I became aware that my whole back now seemed “open to the Dark,” right down to the buttocks (an upside-down version of the Hindu kundalini-energy that is supposed to flow up the spine to the head?) (Sonella, 1975).
It seems as if, slowly and entirely at its own sweet will, the consciousness is taking me over more and more, and I have no idea where it will all lead. I am now quite prepared to give credence to stories of saints and martyrs praising God in the midst of suffering, which I’d hitherto dismissed as a masochistic affirmation made through gritted teeth-though I hasten to add that I haven’t become Instant Hero: I have no intention of “tempting God” by inviting greater pain; I still keep aspirin in the house and would have no qualms about using it if I found pain blocking out the new consciousness. Nor would I dare presume to exhort anyone else to try to transcend their pain: I now under-stand how it is that mystics, apparently in defiance of logic, can simultaneously work harder than most for the ordinary relief of suffering, or for making a better world, and praise God for everything just as it is. Along the line of time I am as aware as I ever was that tinnitus or a cold are biological malfunctions and would not hesitate to accept a cure if it were offered, even though in moment-by-moment awareness I enjoy them thoroughly. And on the same principle, something like a sore or a wound or a mangled body is no less an evil requiring remedy along the line of time, just because it can also be experienced, from the different perspective of “eternity-consciousness,” as an unbelievably glori-ous dance of atoms or whorls in space-time or whatever. I am sure that the maya or illusion of which Hindu or Buddhist philosophy speaks is not material creation as such-else why would Bud-dhists make lovely gardens?-but the illusion of mistaking our own labels like “wound” or “mangled body” for ultimately real being, when they are simply phases of a limited biological process.
I do not yet, and maybe never will, know how to formulate a satisfying intellectual answer to the age-old “problem of evil,” of how a world involving real suffering can possibly be worthwhile, or “justified,” as an expression of ultimate good or bliss. All I know is that the overwhelming feeling-tone of this new con-sciousness (which seems, as I have said, to be the truly ordinary human consciousness) is immense gratitude for the privilege of being part of it all-and that too is a defiance of logic, since if “I am That” then there’s nobody to thank! I have no wish to exhort anyone else that they should be grateful: I know enough psy-chology to be aware that if anyone feels like railing against God for creating the world, it is far healthier to express the anger than to repress it; I cannot help recalling that it was Job, who went ahead and cursed God, and not his mealy-mouthed comforters, who was given the Revelation. But when that Revelation came, Job’s anger gave away to that gratitude which, in Blake’s words, “is heaven itself.” This is the message of all the mystics-and for myself, personally, I am overwhelmingly grateful to have been plunged into this new adventure of consciousness that would be dizzying if it weren’t so exciting, a research project far more intriguing than anything that ever came my way in my years as a scientist. (For some first results of that research, see Wren-Lewis, 1985 and 1986.)
Anabiosis: The Journal for Near-Death Studies. Published biannually by the International Association for Near-Death Studies, Box U20/Psychology/258, 406 Cross Campus Road, Storrs, Connecticut 06268. Ed note: IANDS can now be found on the web.
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