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Observations placeholder

Wren-Lewis, John - THE DARKNESS OF GOD: A Personal Report on Consciousness - Transformation Through an Encounter with Death



Type of Spiritual Experience


Moksha = "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."

A description of the experience

From THE DARKNESS OF GOD: A Personal Report on Consciousness:Transformation Through an Encounter with Death by John Wren-Lewis

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 out of the deepest darkness I had ever known, which was somehow still there right behind my eyes.

One of the NDEs reported to Kenneth Ring (1980) was from a woman 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 to 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 palpable absence 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.

The source of the experience

Wren-Lewis, Professor John

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