In a recent issue of What is
Enlightenment? magazine [now EnlightenNext magazine - ed.], Ken Wilber described
enlightenment as the 'radical realization of the ever-present condition of
all conditions, a radical freedom in its radical fullness, an infinite
Release in the midst of misery, a tacit realization that you are utterly one
with all that is arising moment to moment in any and all domains, high or
low, sacred or profane.' To which the Enlightened John Wren-Lewis replied,
"Well, yes, except on Thursdays! What in the hell does that mean!?!"
My curiosity about the
seventy-seven year old author and skeptic-turned-mystic was sparked at a
Self-Knowledge Symposium (SKS) meeting at Duke University in the fall of 1998,
when Augie Turak brought 'The Dazzling Dark,' an article John had written for
What is Enlightenment? (Volume 4, No. 2). The article recounted his
near-death experience and subsequent immersion in 'eternity consciousness' or
what is more commonly called spiritual Enlightenment. Raised Roman
Catholic, I've always been uneasy with the idea of 'Enlightenment,' and the
more esoteric things we talk about at the SKS. When I went to Australia for a
semester abroad last spring, a few of the SKSers suggested that I find John
Wren-Lewis and ask him about his experiences in person. Why not? I thought.
In Sydney, I found his number in the phone book. I called him up to ask him
if he would like to meet for coffee, but ended up in a more than three-hour
phone conversation with him. In his insightful, kind, rambling, rational,
and witty manner, John did the best he could to answer all my questions about
his experience and Enlightenment in general.
Once an outspoken skeptic of mysticism, he was thrust unexpectedly into
Enlightenment in 1983 as a result of a near death experience. On a
long-distance bus in Thailand, John ate a piece of poisoned candy from a
would-be thief. Though he didn't have an out-of-body experience, didn't see
any bright white lights or meet any spirits, John woke up in a hospital bed
in a new state of consciousness, which he would later come to call 'the
Dazzling Dark.' John had been a long-time spiritual skeptic and was a strong
proponent of the 'Death of God' movement in the 1960s. Although after his
experience he realized that the mystics had been right all along, John has
stayed true to his scientific roots and has been working hard to make
Enlightenment understandable to the average person. Bringing Enlightenment
'down to earth' is the main theme of his upcoming book, The 9:15 to Nirvana,
in which he tries to explain simple things, such as how Enlightenment makes
your corn flakes taste different.
After our initial conversation
over the phone, we met in the city, where my friend Colin and I helped him
carry a second-hand MacIntosh back to his place so he could finish his
book. He lived in a picturesque location: it was on the coast, overlooking
the Sydney harbor bridge. And John looked just like I thought he would
energetic and alert, especially considering his age. As we spoke in his
one-bedroom apartment, cluttered with the spiritual research and notes for
his book, John enthusiastically offered me insights into the truth of
existence. This time I came armed with a tape-recorder so as not to miss
"My first realization after the
accident was that nature did not involve suffering at all, it was only the
human mind that was out of step with natural consciousness," explained
John. "Human consciousness is unaware of the unconditional love of the
universe!" John is now aware of that love but says that he spends only
about 50% of his day in eternity consciousness, since concentration of any
kind causes the eternal, or the 'Dazzling Dark,' to temporarily recede. He is
working towards perpetual eternity consciousness, and though some gurus have
claimed to have reached it, he doubts if it is possible. John experiences
two types of regressions into normal consciousness: the first he calls a
'slip-out,' which happens once or twice a week; the second he calls
'screening.' When John needs to concentrate on something, the Dazzling
Dark is pushed to the background, and the 'role' of John Wren-Lewis takes the
attention on the forefront of his mind. He used the metaphor of a camera
shutter closing briefly then re-opening so he can see the world 'correctly'
(in eternity consciousness) again. Occasionally, the camera shutter gets
'stuck,' and this results in the slip-out. But he falls back into
Enlightenment as soon as he remembers the Dazzling Dark, and no harm is done.
The other kind of regression,
screening, is a more extreme slip-out the shutter closes, and John cannot
relocate the Dark. This has happened to him only a couple of times, and
it has always been associated with severe physical or emotional pain.
John describes the time when he is apart from eternity as his own 'dark night
of the soul.'
One thing about the prospect of
Enlightenment has always bothered me: the notion of the complete loss of self
and identity. I ask John about this is it true? Do you really
cease being who you are?
In his enlightened state, John
says it is as though nothing has changed and yet everything has changed.
He has retained his personality, needs, desires, but now is aware that the
entirety of his existence is simply one of the infinite ways the universe is
expressing itself moment by moment. When I asked him if it was worth it, he
says definitively that "Yes, this is the best thing that's ever happened to
me and it's the natural birthright of everyone and I haven't got a clue how
to reach it!" In fact, he feels that most methods people practice to try to
reach Enlightenment are counter-productive in that they concentrate on
self-effort and think along the lines of time and causality. Although the
acausality of enlightenment may sound like bad news at first, John says that it
is also good news in a sense because there is no need to kill yourself with
spiritual practices or worry about making irreversible mistakes on the
spiritual path. In the sixteen years since his experience, he has sought
out other people who have had permanent Enlightenment experiences. He has
thus far found fifteen, and only two had previous spiritual backgrounds.
Just as we are all different people, John told me, there is an infinite
variety in the types of Enlightenment experiences that people have. John says
the eternity/God/Dazzling Dark loves the variety. The best you can do in the
meantime is be aware and to 'travel hopefully.'
"And besides," says John, "Death takes you straight there anyway!"
Now he really had my
attention. I realized more acutely than ever before that the primary
motivation behind my interest in spirituality was my fear and fascination
with death and the prospect of life after death. So I popped the question:
"What happens to you after you die?" "I don't know. I haven't died yet!" John
said with a laugh. What he really meant was that he didn't know specifics
about what part of a person survived death or what exactly happens to it, but
he could tell me that some sort of 'personal essence' returns to the
unconditional love of the Dazzling Dark. Partly this knowledge derives from a
real sense of closeness that John feels with family and friends that have
passed away, a feeling that what was 'good' in them is still contained in the
Dark somehow. However, John is quick to point out that it is more than just a
'sense' that there is 'life' after death he knows.
"The Dark," he says, "is constantly there, producing everything at every
moment, from the big bang to the final whimper. When you die, the Dark in
you lives on." John likens the whole space-time universe to a theatre in
which eternity is playing out the 'time game.' The only place to go when your
personal 'time game' is over is offstage, and back to the Dazzling Dark. No
judgment, no hellfire and brimstone, simply a return home to eternal love.
"The entire concept of a fallen angel is ridiculous," says John. "I can't
imagine anyone choosing not to have Enlightenment!" The fact that there is no
hell is not to say that there is no universal morality, for as Christ taught,
that which is not in accord with unconditional love is still 'immoral;'
however, there is no sin that goes unforgiven.
As a great sigh of relief echoed
through my Catholic soul, I felt a new sense of vitality and freedom. But at
the same time, I felt an overwhelming aimlessness due to the fact that there
no longer seemed to be a huge 'agenda' for life. So I asked John, "If you
were in my shoes, twenty-one years old and unenlightened, with a world of
opportunities before you, what would you do?"
Characteristically, the playful
John Wren-Lewis quoted Shakespeare, saying, "'There is nothing serious in
mortality.' Live mindful of the fact that life is nothing but a grand
play," he advised, "and become more settled day by day in the knowledge that
death is but a return home. Remember that happiness is in the moment and
its value is itself."
And with that, I was at peace,
maybe for the first time ever. After years of mental turmoil and anguish over
parting with constrictive Roman Catholic beliefs, and subsequently moving
into a more worldly, open-minded, and rational spirituality, my feet had
finally found some stable ground. In retrospect, John told me little that I
hadn't already theorized or suspected, but being an extreme skeptic (just as
he had been), I needed to see it to believe it. It is truly transforming to
look into a man's eyes as he sincerely tells you, "I know God." John
Wren-Lewis did not bring my spiritual journey to an end, but to a new
beginning. He replanted in me a mustard seed of faith that had long been
uprooted. And for that, I thank him.