I know these thieves.
They have invaded my house too often.
Sometimes I have actually invited them in. I rented a movie because I had to entertain a friend. I watched an over-hyped, inane television program because I was bored. I made a half-dozen trips to the refrigerator to get something to eat when I wasn’t really hungry.
But most of the time, thieves come uninvited and work with more subtlety. They morph themselves into hungry sponges that soak up my here-and-now consciousness. They rob me of present awareness. For some unknown reason I seem compelled to think about stupid mistakes I’ve made in the past or to worry about things that will inevitably happen in the future such as illness and death.
Like a cow’s cud, my mind keeps repetitively chewing on the same issues. I walk down the street so absorbed in thought that I barely have enough present awareness to avoid bumping into buildings or other people. I get into my car and automatically turn on my favorite 24-hour news station (new problems and conflicts to worry about) or my favorite music station (love songs that make me melancholy and sad for the good times past). Very rarely do I totally inhabit the present moment.
This is how my mind works—ever vigilant, so busy defending my body and enhancing my social or economic standing that I miss much that is around me. (And I am considered reasonably sane!)
What awaits my attention is not limited to the fantastic natural complexity of plants, animals, and minerals. There is even more than that. Humans are born into culture which is part of our human nature. We have created technological jungle to satisfy our desire to be warm and free and healthy and loved. Our creations fascinate us. Why shouldn’t they?
You have probably noticed that the window seats of airplanes are the first to be taken. It is not just a matter of having a headrest but also having a free “picture show.” At night, as the plane lifts off the runway, most passengers strain to see the colored rivers of light that flow over the jagged contours of the city. If the city is large, the passengers can see at one moment over a hundred miles of lights. The destiny of the passengers does not, of course, depend on what they see. Quite the opposite. Their destiny depends upon what happens in the small, concealed, dimly lit cockpit where the pilots rely on miniature gauges to control massive pneumatic pressures hidden beneath the silvery covering of the plane. The city, like a fading electric jewel, slowly disappears in the darkness of space. The plane levels off, and the passengers rest as technology attempts to remove the constraints of space and time.
If the passengers enjoy this visual experience, it is more or less accidental. The lights of the city have not been placed along the streets or in the building for the enjoyment of air travelers. Nor do many travelers fly at night merely to see the haphazard splendor of a lighted cityscape. Most of them are intent on getting somewhere for some other purpose. Therein lies the beauty, waste, and danger of the technological jungle.
If we wish to move individuals from one “state of being” to another–from, say, from illness to health, from ignorance to wisdom, from anger to happiness–we should be able to specify certain characteristics of the “vehicle” used for the transformation and the nature of its expected course. Clearly this has started in evidence-based medicine, but psychology lags far behind.
Contemporary practitioners of psycho-technology include anesthesiologists, motion picture producers, video game designers, psychiatrists who prescribe psychoactive drugs, “street chemists,” bartenders, manufacturers of amusement park apparatus, interior designers, and musicians. Perhaps a primary goal of these practitioners is to draw a person like me out of my repetitive, worry-oriented thought patterns. Yes, I want to be free from the prison of chattering thoughts, but if all I get is another vacuous bauble on the Christmas tree of consciousness, I am robbed again of an opportunity for authentic creativity, inspiration, and effective action.
Two contemporary, brief, popular books that I have found useful in temporarily stopping my internal obsessions are: Eckhart Tolle’sThe Power of Now (New World Library, 1999) and Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs (Penguin Putnam, 1997). These writers recommend no gadgets or chemicals (but some might be useful).
We are alive. That is why, for us, the world blooms.
“It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary fact, in the field and roadside, in the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart, it will raise to a divine use the railroad the insurance office, the joint-stock company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist’s retort in which we seek now only an economical use.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays: First Series (1847)
Some commentary of this sort was published in a book by my brother and myself (before we changed our family name to “Gable”): Robert L. Schwitzgeble & Ralph K. Schwitzgebel, Psychotechnology: Electronic Control of Mind and Behavior. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973.
Thieves of Consciousness: Part II– Poisoning
The Darkness of God
A Personal Report on Consciousness Transformation
Through an Encounter with Death
By John Wren-Lewis
[Excerpts from Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Spring 1988, Vol. 28, No.2, pp. 105-122.
Sentences and phrases have been deleted, usually without indication, for the sake of brevity and focus. Only about 1/3rd of the original article is condensed here. You are encouraged to read the original which has become a classic in the study of consciousness.]
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.
…To start with the material facts—I had just emerged unscathed from a year in the Malaysian jungle with my wife. 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 their wallets and luggage while they dozed, or of the sensational case where one pathological killer poisoned a whole coachload of people.1 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 crowed 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 dosed 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, 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 awhile, 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 back to Surat Thami hospital by hitching a ride in a van. The doctors were not at all 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 2 and had some extraordinary experiences, including an apparently transcendental experience of blissful white light under LSD, but my experience in the Surat Thami hospital was nothing like that. It was altogether calmer, without any perceptual distortion, yet at the same time far more impressive.
I tried a technique. I lay on the bed, relaxed, and began to take myself back in imagination. 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.
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. I 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 every essence, it seemed, of aliveness, prior to any individual living beings.
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 to “clinical death.” And, subjectively, my experience was not of leaving the body, or 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. 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 limitations.
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. My experience completely shattered this whole line of thought, for it was utterly unlike any fantasies I have ever had of heaven. But more important even than that is the fact that what I experienced was, quite precisely, the extinction of the individual selfhood that the mind is supposed to find too terrifying to face. …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 coming back from a heavenly state or “place” in the narrow world of physical existence.
I have put all of 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 long 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 sense is a whole world that seems to be coming fresh-minted into existence moment by moment. 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 experience, I often get the sense that when I perceive, say a chair or a tree, I am the chair or the three perceiving itself, and I did a double take when I recently came across 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 experience myself and the world. I have no urge or need to make any drastic changes in my life-style. I still take pleasure—more pleasure than before—in good food or wine or music and other pleasant experience, 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 possible wish for. I have no more knowledge than I had before about whether John Wren-Lewis is going to reincarnate, or survive death in some nonmaterial form, or simple 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. …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 mechanism to give up for just long enough to break the spell.
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 Thami 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. After “coming back” from my near death experience, I had resigned myself to the idea that my “enlightenment” must be of a very inferior kind, since it apparently gave me none of that immunity to suffering that is supposed to characterize the enlightened person in Eastern thought. [Then] 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 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. My first post-near-death experience cold was a startling revelation of hitherto unexpected capacity for pleasure: delight in nose, throat, and head sensations that in the past I’ve always loathed. 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. I am sure that the maya or illusion of which Hindu or Buddhist philosophy speaks is…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 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.
1 Nevelle, R. & Clarke, J. (1979). The life and crimes of Charles Sobhraj.London:Cape.
2 Wren-Lewis, J. (1971). What shall we tell the children?London: Constable.
Check out Eckhart Tolle’s work [http://www.eckharttolle.com/home.php] for a related spiritual perspective. A large, amusing, irreverent summary of the credibility of “independent spiritual gurus” can be found at Sarlo’s Guru Rating Service [http://www.globalserve.net/~sarlo/Ratings.htm].
Check out the Snow Man ▼
The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow,
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.