John Wren-Lewis (1923–2006) was a British-born scientist who taught at universities in Great Britain and the United States of America. He became known for his publications ranging over the fields of science, psychology, education and religion. He played a leading part in the so-called “Death of God” movement in Britain. In later life, after a traumatic near-death experience in Thailand in 1983, he wrote and taught about the meaning of mysticism and a broad spectrum of spiritual teachings.
Wren-Lewis graduated in applied mathematics from the Imperial College of Science, University of London. In the 1950s and 1960s, while working as industrial research executive with Imperial Chemical Industries, he became known for his publications as scholar, author and lecturer on topics of science, psychology, education and religion. As of 1970 he was president of the British Association for Humanistic Psychology, which later became the European Association for Humanistic Psychology.
Participating in the Regents’ Lectureship Program in the UC Santa Barbara in 1971–1972, he moved to the United States in 1972 with his life partner, the dream psychologist Ann Faraday. In 1972 he joined New College of Florida in Sarasota as visiting professor of religious studies and member of the faculty until 1974. Faraday and Lewis worked with the Esalen Institute since 1976. He has taught at universities in Great Britain and the United States of America.
John and Ann left the US to undertake three years of extended travel to India and the Far East. They spent the year 1982 together in Malaysia. Earlier, in her publications relating to dream theory, Ann Faraday had cited writings of Kilton Stewart, who had seen great potential in what he had called “Senoi dream theory”, and similarly Patricia Garfield referred to techniques of the Senoi when describing her work on dreams. However, Faraday and Wren-Lewis did not find any evidence supporting the use of dream control education in local culture.
In 1983, traveling with Ann, he was nearly poisoned to death in Thailand in the course of an attempt of robbery and underwent a near-death experience which profoundly changed his world view, and which has since been cited as a well-known example of experience of transcendent consciousness. Having been a convinced sceptic up to that point, he changed perspective. He said of the movie Fearless by Peter Weir that it conveyed “the actual feeling of a dimension beyond the life of space and time”. He has described his changed view of perception in the words:
“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.”
In 1984 the couple moved to Australia. He later said of himself that at that moment he was “still reeling” from his experience of a year before. He became honorary associate at the Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney.
He and Ann Faraday together wrote a so far unpublished book The 9:15 to Nirvana about his near-death experience. As recorded in the Ryerson Index, he died on 25 June 2006 at Shoalhaven, New South Wales, aged 82 years.
After his near-death experience, Wren-Lewis was no longer a sceptic of mysticism as such, yet remained critical of endeavours aimed at attaining personal growth and spiritual awakening by following existing paths of practice, in particular when undertaken with the aid of a guru. His change in viewpoint was reflected in his later work:
“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. […] 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.”
The psychologist Imants Barušs has interpreted this as a notion of a pre-physical substrate with similarity to the implicate order, as it has been postulated by theoretical physicists David Bohm and Basil Hiley.
In his book review of Ken Wilber’s book Grace and Grit: Sprirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber, he wrote:
“My conviction, which I share with Jean Houston and many others, is that the human race is entering a new phase, a new dispensation if you will, wherein we can develop a more truly empirical mysticism than has ever existed in the dogma-dominated cultures of the past.”
From his work “The Dazzling Dark, A Near-Death Experience Opens the Door to a Permanent Transformation”:
“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 isn’t (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 isn’t 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 wouldn’t have called myself an atheist or materialist; in fact I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d 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, I’ve 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 isn’t overshadowed by “anxious thought for the morrow.”
I didn’t 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. I’d suspected nothing, because the donor of the candy—a charming and well-dressed young man who’d been very helpful with our luggage—had 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) wasn’t eating the candy he’d given her. (Ann’s 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 I’d 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 I’d had enough sleep to last a lifetime. By stages I became aware that when I’d awakened a few hours earlier, it hadn’t been from a state of ordinary unconsciousness at all. It was as if I’d 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 I’m 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 eyes—or more accurately, at the back of my head—continually recreating my whole personal body-mind consciousness afresh, instant by instant, now! and now! and now! That’s 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 wasn’t 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 time—for that lovely dark radiance seemed to reveal the essence of everything as holy.
I felt like exclaiming, “Of course! That’s absolutely right!” and applauding every single thing with tears of gratitude—not 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 I’d 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 didn’t 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 I’m 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 nature’s wonders. The Buddha’s 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 I’m 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 doesn’t 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 I’d 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 I’m 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 problems—and a fascinating process it is. In the meantime, however, I’m very concerned that all the seekers I come across accept as a law of the spiritual universe that they have to be content with years—perhaps many reincarnational lifetimes—of 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, I’ve begun to realize that my former skepticism wasn’t all bad. I think now that I was like the ignorant peasant boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story who simply wouldn’t go along with the courtiers’ wishful thinking about the emperor’s 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 it’s 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. It’s a research project in which anyone who’s 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, I’ll 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 eternity’s time theater, but as paradigms they’re 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 Dorothy’s 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 interesting—which 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 “unscientific”—it 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 we’re 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 “Love’s 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 Merton’s 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.
An interesting film in which John interviews U.G. Krishnamurti: