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John Wren-LewisJohn Wren-Lewis (1923-2006) lent a fresh perspective to contemporary spirituality john wren-lewisbecause, for many years, he viewed mysticism as escapism. Mystical beliefs were no better than religious or scientific beliefs—to believe was not the same as to know. When, in 1983, Wren-Lewis had a profound mystical experience, he was free to describe it in his own words and not in the terms of any spiritual tradition. See:

Originally published in Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements in 1987.


A Reluctant Mystic Looks At Spiritual Movements

John Wren-Lewis

I had spiritual consciousness thrust upon me in my sixtieth year without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it.

Some, if we believe what they tell us, are born with spiritual consciousness. Others appear to achieve it by prolonged practice of meditation and other disciplines or by attachment to a guru. I had spiritual consciousness thrust upon me in my sixtieth year without working for it, desiring it, or even believing in it. As a result, I have been presented, amongst other things, with a somewhat original perspective on understanding cults and spiritual movements, which is the occasion for this article.

The crucial event was a shattering, out-of-the-blue mystical experience in 1983 which, to the astonishment of everyone who knew me, and most of all myself, left me with a permanently changed consciousness, describable only in the kind of spiritual terms I had hitherto vehemently discounted as neurotic fantasy-language. Not that I would have called myself an atheist or materialist--indeed I had published extensively on the need for a religious world-view appropriate to this scientific age. But I was emphatic that such a faith would have to be essentially humanist in orientation, focused on creative action in the physical/social realm. [1]


I regarded mystical experience and the whole idea of spiritual search as escape into unreality, fully justifying Freud's diagnosis of religion as humanity's universal neurosis. [2] Even when I collaborated in extensive psychological research on mind-altering drugs in the late 1960's, and shared many of the strange experiences that turned a whole generation on to the mystics, I remained quite unconvinced that such things were more than temporary aberrations of the brain. Psychologically interesting though they undoubtedly were, I found nothing that seemed to justify mystical expressions like God-consciousness or eternity or the pearl of great price, or for embarking on any kind of spiritual quest.

What happened in 1983 would nowdays be called a near death experience or NDE, though it differed in several notable ways from most of those I'd read about in the rapidly-growing literature on this topic (which I had, incidently, dismissed as yet another manifestation of the mind's capacity for fantasy.) In the first place, I had none of the dramatic visions which have hit the headlines in popular journalism and occupy a prominent place even in serious scholarly studies like Raymond Moody's Life after Life and Kenneth Ring's Life at Death. [3]

As I lay in the hospital bed in Thailand after eating a poisoned sweet given me by a would-be thief, I had no out-of-body awareness of the doctors wondering if I was beyond saving, no review of my life, no passsage down a dark tunnel to emerge into a heavenly light or landscape, and no encounter with angelic beings or deceased relatives telling me to go back because my work on earth wasn't yet finished.

I simply entered—or, rather, was—a timeless, spaceless void which in some indescribable way was total aliveness—an almost palpable blackness that was yet somehow radiant. Trying to find words for it afterwards, I recalled the mysterious line of Henry Vaughan's poem The Night: "There is in God (some say) a deep but dazzling darkness". Re-reading the NDE reports collected by Moody, Ring and others many months later, I found some accounts with echoes of my experience, but in nearly all the near-death literature even the most blissful darkness—experience seems to be regarded as a preliminary stage before transition (with or without the famous tunnel) into light. The condition I entered, on the other hand, seemed so complete in itself that light would have been quite superfluous.

An even more marked difference from the general run of near-death experiences, however, was that I had absolutely no sense of regret or loss in coming back from this joy-beyond-joy, this peace past understanding, into physical life. In fact my experience as the hospital's ministrations restored the body's vital signs was nothing like a return. It was more like an act of creation whereby the timeless, spaceless Dark budded out into manifestation, and what manifested was simply not the same me-experiencing-the-world that I'd known before: it was Everything that is, experiencing itself through the bodymind called John lying in a hospital bed. And the experience was indescribably wonderful. I now know exactly why the Book of Genesis says that God looked upon all that He had made, not just beautiful sunsets, but dreary hospital rooms and traumatized sixty-year-old bodies, and saw that it was very good.

What I am trying to describe (and have attempted to describe in fuller detail elsewhere [4]) is no vague feeling of "good to be alive." On the contrary, I no longer cared if John lived or ceased to be altogether, and the change of consciousness was so palpable that, to begin with, I repeatedly put my hand up to the back of my head, feeling exactly as if the doctors had removed the skull and exposed my brain somehow to the infinite blackness of space. Occasionally I still do so, for the new consciousness has remained with me ever since, which is the third and most significant difference from what happens in the general run of near-death experiences, and also from the altered states experienced with psychedelics.

This is in no sense a high from which I can come down. The sense of awe-ful wonders has at the same time a feeling of utter obviousness and ordinariness, as if the marvel of everything-coming-into-being-continuously-from-the Great Dark was no more and no less than just the way things are.

From this perspective, the term altered state of consciousness would be a complete misnomer, for the state is one of simple normality. It seems, rather, as if my earlier state, so-called ordinary human consciousness, represents the real alteration, a deviation from the plain norm, a kind of artificially blinkered or clouded condition wherein the bodymind has the absurd illusion that it is somehow a separate individual entity over against everything else.

In fact, I now understand why mystics of all religions have likened the enlightenment-process to waking up from a dream, but even so I had no thought, to begin with, that the awakening could be other than a temporary glimpse of Reality, which would all be gone by morning. So powerful was this expectation that the next day I spent several hours packing up to leave the hospital and deciding where to go next in precisely the old way, as if I were an isolated individual coping with his environment (after a very interesting experience the night before). Only as I was walking in the hot sun to the police station to report the crime was I struck by the sense of loss that the Dark was missing, and my first thought then was, "Ah well, you've had the Vision—I suppose now you'll have to join the ranks of all those Seekers who spend their lives trying to attain Higher Consciousness." And then, to my amazement, I suddenly saw it was all still there just waiting, as it were, to be noticed, the Dark behind my eyes and behind everything else, bringing again the perception that of course everything exists by emerging fresh-minded from the Dark now! and now!, with a shout of joy yet also in absolute calm.

And still I thought it must all fade away soon; only after the whole cycle of drifting off and snapping back again had been repeated several times a day for some weeks did my mind start getting round to the fact that I might not be going to revert to the old permanemtly-clouded condition. The NDE had evidently jerked me out of the so-called normal human state of chronic illusion-of-separateness, into a basic wakefukness interrupted by spells of "dozing off," simply forgetting the Dark until the sense of something missing from life brings about instant re-awakening with no effort at all. I apparently wasn't destined to become a seeker in any ordinary sense--I'd been handed the pearl of great price on a plate. But my awakening had brought no instructions of the kind reported by some mystics (and by some near-death experiences [5]), about what it was all going to mean for the future conduct of my life. I had an overwhelming wish to pass on the awakening to others somehow, but had received no divine commission to be a guru, and indeed hadn't a clue what to suggest, since I could scarcely recommend taking a potentially fatal dose of poison.

So I began feverishly researching the once-despised world of mystical literature and spiritual movements in quest of understanding and guidance. Indeed as my research progressed I became irritated and concerned by the way most systems protect themselves in advance against any expectation of substantial success-rate, by representing enlightenment as a very high, difficult achievement requiring years or perhaps lifetimes of intense effort; the most articulate modern cartographer of the spiritual life, Ken Wilber, actually makes the comparison with becoming a master musician, scientist or athlete. [6] Such a model is totally at odds with the key feature of God-consciousness as I know it in my own firsthand experience, namely its quintessential ordinariness and obviousness—a feature actually emphasized by many mystics from whom Wilber himself quotes. While I wouldn't go as far as Krishnamurti by totally denying that mediation and other disciplines could ever help towards realizing God as "just the way things are," I know absolutely from my own case that such intensive training isn't necessary, and I see no evidence either from history or from modern movements that it's any kind of sure road to awakening.

In fact, after four years' intensive research I've come to the conclusion that in ancient traditions and modern spiritual movements alike, theorizing about God-consciousness and enlightenment has totally outrun firsthand experience, often to the point where the oystershell gets mistaken for the pearl (or the finger for the moon, in the famous Buddhist proverb). And I do agree with Krishnamurti that probably the most pernicious theory in this regard is that of the guru as a Master requiring obedience and submission.

Krishnamurti calls it pernicious because it enshrines what he believes to be a fundamental fallacy, namely that the act of submission is a way of transcending the illusion of separate selfhood, when in fact, he believes, it must inevitably confirm that illusion in an insidious way. On this point I wouldn't be quite so dogmatic; while I'm sure submission is indeed subtly ego-confirming in many cases ("I can surrender better than you can"), I'm prepared to believe that on occasion it really might move someone towards seeing through the illusion of separateness and hence awakening to only God as simply the way things are. My own reason for regarding the Master-concept as pernicious is that it imposes an almost irresistable temptation on guru and disciples alike to keep quiet about and/or rationalize away any experience that might detract from the guru's claim to infallible authority justifying surrender.

The classic illustration of this is the pathetic spectacle of spiritual movements insisting that reports of less-than-perfect behavior on the Master's part are either wicked lies put about by enemies or, if evidence cannot be denied, are explainable as the Master's deliberate attempts to shock followers out of uptightness with outrageous behavior, or test their capacity for total surrender. Before my NDE I used to seize eagerly upon such scandel-stories as evidence that gurus were either frauds or madmen or both. Now I know the explanation is more complicated; a few frauds and madmen there may be, but I'm quite sure now that some of the teachers who've been involved in scandals do have first-hand experience of God-consciousness. Things they say or write, often some of their little stories, carry the ring of a truth that couldn't have been culled from secondhand sources.

And for me as an outsider there is no conflict here. In the first place, I know from my own firsthand experience that God-consciousness doesn't abolish human appetites. When I'm in it I don't lose my taste for meat or wine or good company or humor or detective fiction—I actually enjoy them more than ever before. I don't cease to enjoy sexual feelings, nor do I see anything inherently dirty about money. What the consciousness does bring is the cheerful equanimity of knowing that satisfaction doesn't depend on any of these special preferences of John's bodymind being met; it is inherent simply in being, in the Great Dark which is (in G.K. Chesterton's marvellous phrase [7]) "joy without a cause." This, of course, does have a profound ethical effect, since it means that cravings have no power to run my life—but since it's so easy to drift out of the consciousness from time to time, I can and do also lapse from such detachment. (In my particular case, the commonest and nastiest lapses are into impatience, bad temper and argumentation when I drift into the soap-opera called "they're trying to push me around.")

This was of course another issue on which I initially hoped for some help from mystical writings or a spiritual movement: was there anything I could do, like meditation or diet, to reduce the frequency of drifting out? I was extremely puzzled when my research turned up almost no reference to any such possibility. Krishnamurti is the only spiritual teacher I know whose writings hint at experiences similiar to mine in this respect; everywhere else, it's taken for granted that one is either a disciple on the path, practising meditation or guru-darshan or whatever to reach God-consciousness, or else a Master who is supposed to be in it permanently. Now while I'm quite prepared to believe there may be Masters who enjoy the consciousness uninterruptedly, the total silence about the drifting-out which I experience daily seemed highly suspicious. I was therefore very interested to come upon Agehananda Bharati's important book The Light at the Center [8], in which he asserts quite categorically that "permanent enlightenment" is only a conventional fiction of the guru-system, possibly never actually realized, but maintained in order to foster the total surrender which is believed essential for the system to work.

The trouble is that once such a system is swallowed, the guru cannot admit to lapses without completely discrediting his claim to have any enlightenment to pass on. So from the highest possible motive, a sincere desire to share his God-consciousness, he is tempted to rationalize, probably even to himself. Sexual advances toward attractive disciples become tantric exercises or studies of the chakras, a beer-belly is due to the descent of shakti-power, outbursts of temper are to weaken disciples egos or to test their devotion, collection of money is needed for spreading the Word, gifts are accepted because the disciples wish to show their devotion, and so on through the whole hackneyed catalog. Even worse, there is a tendency for the wish to spread the Word to pass over into the most insidious of all power-trips, with the Master thinking of himself as God rather than vice-versa, the phenomenon Jung called inflation. I know about this from personal experience; some of my worst lapses into impatience come when I'm wanting to get on with writing about God-consciousness! But because I'm not claiming to be a Master, no-one gets sucked in and I'm soon forced to come off it. When the Master-disciple relationship has been established, disciples have to go along with the Master's rationalizations or abandon the hope they've placed in him.

And from the wider human point of view, I believe the closed, self-confirming guru-system has an even more important defect, even with Masters who manage to avoid such temptations, namely that there is little or no opportunity for theories and techniques to be evaluated against their experiential results and exchanged for better ones. For example, Maharishi Maresh Yogi has given his authority to a scheme of seven ascending stages of consciousness through which disciples are supposed to pass. In my experience the first of his stages, readily attained during meditation, has nothing much to do with God-consciousness at all, and I recognize no others except the two highest, the sixth, which is characterized by worshipful gratitude to the divine, and the seventh, the totally obvious recognition of Unity, of "I am That." Moreover, for me these are not two stages in a process at all, but simply opposite sides of the God-consciousness coin, not withstanding the paradox that by conventional logic gratitude would seem to require someone to be grateful to, and who is there, if I am That? I have no idea what this discrepancy between my experience and Maharishi's theory means, since I've yet to find any of his disciples who've "gotten that far," and he himself remains hidden behind the Master-role, unavailable for discussion. Is he reporting firsthand experience in some way different from mine (maybe more advanced), or has he adapted his God-experience (which I'm sure he's had) to fit traditional yogic theory? The Master-system prevents such questions from being investigated.

Adi Da

I have a similiar, though different, problem with the system of Da Free John, who claims to experience sahaj samadhi, the simple consciousness of only God in everyday life, and then speaks of having gone beyond it into the ultimate mystery of bhava samadhi, the eternal Preluminous Void prior to all manifestation. In my experience these again are not stages on an ascending path, but simply he two sides of That. The world-process of manifestation is the continuous outpouring of the Great Dark in self-giving love, and the Great Dark is not the ultimate Home to which we aspire to return, for none of us ever left it; when we are prodigal sons and daughters we don't really go into any far country, because there can't be such a place--we just forget the Home we never left and can't possibly leave. Now is there some deep difference of experience involved here from which I could learn, or is Da Free John merely interpreting his experience into the traditional upward path framework as a way out of the folly of seeking enlightenment (he says seeking merely confirms the self-sense, which he calls Narcissus), in practice his whole movement seems locked into climbing the rungs of a ladder, while his statements about his own experience, at times refreshingly frank, at others show the same old reticence of the Master-role.

I believe the world desperately needs a new, totally experimental mysticism that will set all the traditional theories on one side and try to find out, more in the spirit of science than of religion, what factors really bring about awakening, which can only happen if those who've experienced awakening eschew the Master-role and discuss their firsthand knowledge openly, lapses and all. That, at any rate, is the cause to which I've decided to devote whatever years remain to me before My FDE (Final Death Experience). If any readers of this article are to help, by writing honestly about their experiences (for instance, if anyone really has made it through Maharishi's seven stages), I'd be delighted to hear from them. For myself, I have to report that over the past four years the Consciousness seems in some strange way to have taken over more of my life quite of its own accord, so that I now drift out much less—and there have been some remarkable side-effects, which I've described elsewhere. [9] Meanwhile, since an essential part of this whole exercise is the ruthless exposure of the fact that Masters have lotus feet of clay, I salute from across the world the work done by this admirable journal.


Originally trained (at Imperial College of Science and Technology, London University) as a mathematical physicist during World War 1, and after a period of wartime research moved to the chemical industry, rising via management of fundamental research laboratory to the post of Assistant Research Controller of one of the world's largest industries. During this time was elected Fellow of the Institute of Mathematicas and its Applications and of the Royal Society of Arts, and served as Chairman of the International Committee on Morphological Crystallography and External Examiner in Technological Forecasting to the University of Lougfhborough. Meantime developed strong interest in problems of relationship between science and religion, leading to frequent broadcasts and to over 300 articles in leading periodicals, as well as contributions to numerous books.

Appointed Distinguished Visiting Lecturer to the University of Leeds, Gunning Lecturer at Edinburgh University, Stephenson Lecturer at the University of Stirling. Gave memorial lectures for Bishop George Bell and Dean Vaughan, and was first H. G. Wells Memorial Lecturer at Imperial College. Inaugurated "Technology and Society" lecture/seminars at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. During the 1960's also developed strong interest in psychology and religion, leading to publication of the now famous essay in Psychoanalysis Observed and to appointment as Advisor to the Association of Psychotherapists in the United Kingdom. In 1970 was founder-chairman of the Association for Humanistic Psychology in the United Kingdom. In 1971 left industry to become Visiting Professor in Religious Studies at the University of California and thereafter at New College, Sarasota, Florida. Book, What Shall We Tell the Children? is widely used as study of the basis of religious education in a scientifically oriented culture, but is probably best known for having influenced Bishop John Robinson to produce the controversial Honest to God.

Follwing a near-death experience in 1983, John Wren-Lewis has embarked on research on mystical consciousness in association with the International Association for Near-Death Studies at the University of Connecticut.


[1] See my book, What Shall We Tell the Children? (London: Constable, 1971).

[2] See especially my essay Love's Coming-of-Age in Psychoanalysis Observed, edited by Charles Rycroft (Baltimore, MD: Penguin, 1966).

[3] Moody, R.A.—Life after Life (N.Y.: Bantam, 1977) and Ring, K., Life at Death (N.Y.: Coward, McCann & Goeghegan, 1980) For an absolutely superb review of this whole field of study, including the best critical survey yet published of writings both ancient and modern, see Carol Zalesky's Otherworld Journeys (N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[4] "The Darkness of God: An Account of Lasting Mystical Consciousness Resulting from an NDE," in Anabiosis: The Journal for Near-Death Studies, 5, No. 2, Fall 1985. A still fuller and more analytical account is due to appear in the Journal for Humanistic Psychology sometime in 1988, under the same title.

[5] See Kenneth Ring's second book, Heading Towards Omega (N.Y.: Morrow, 1984), and Return from Death by British researcher Margot Grey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985).

[6] See for example Wilber's book Eye to Eye (Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor, 1983)—but the point is common to all his books.

[7] See my article "Joy without a Cause" in The Chesterton Review, XII, No. 1, February 1986.

[8] Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center (Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976).

[9] See (4) above, and also my first venture into what Charles Tart calls "state-specific science" in: Dream Lucidity and Near-Death Experience, Lucidity Letter, 4, No. 2, 1985 (Dept. of Psychology, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls).


Talks With Sri Ramana Maharishi (Three Volumes).

The Art of Happy Living by Baba Faqir Chand.

Enlightenment of the Whole Body by Da Love Ananda (alias Da Free John; Bubba Free John; Franklin Jones).

Tibetan Book of the Dead, edited by Evans-Wentz.

UNDERSTANDING CULTS AND SPIRITUAL MOVEMENTS A short-lived research journal published three times a year in the 1980s and designed to analyze critically new religious groups and their leaders. David Christopher Lane, its editor, defined its goals:

"With the continuing growth of new spiritual movements, it is imperative for both the scholar and the seeker to be able to discriminate between groups which are fraudulent and manipulative and those which are genuine and beneficial. The failure to do so has troublesome consequences: witness Jim Jones and Jonestown. What is necessary, therefore, in the examination of religion and its mystical claims—be they old and traditional like Roman Catholicism or new and emerging like Eckankar—with unbridled rational scrutiny. That is, the opportunity to fully investigate every facet about the particular spiritual movement: from the biography of its founder, the history of its organization, the value of its teachings, to the practical application of its techniques, etc." Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements is "... interested in promoting rational inquiries into the entire cult phenomenon. Editorially, it does not hold to any particular religious doctrine, nor does it have any church affiliation. Thus, in this way, it is an open system of study primarily concerned with documented appraisements which help in developing a keen sense of critical discrimination."

Lane established a high standard of scholarly reporting and investigation. Lane has become a leading authority on the history of the Radhasoami spiritual movement, and much of the emphasis of Understanding Cults and Spiritual Movements was directed to an examination of the new religions that emerged out of that tradition. Most of the writings originally published in the 1980s have been republished as a book, Exposing Cults. Lane now teaches in Los Angeles.

—Excerpt from THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF OCCULTISM AND PARAPSYCHOLOGY edited by Dr. J. Gordon Melton (Gale Publishers)

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