Shining Light on Transcendence: The unconventional journey of a Neuroscientist, by Peter Fenwick
Reviewed by Robert A. Charman
The title of this book (blurbed by Rupert Sheldrake and Larry Dossey) refers to a sense of light experienced when in a state of mental transcendence during which the distinction between self and non self is felt to dissolve away into a sense of ineffable Oneness. Now in his mid eighties Dr Peter Fenwick is a distinguished British neuropsychiatrist with a lifelong interest in the mystery of the brain-mind relationship and the nature of mind. The subtitle refers to his arduous journey in his search of attaining ‘cosmic transcendence’ and is unconventional in the sense that few, if any, of his fellow neuropsychiatrists have apparently wished to accompany him on this particular journey. Following a Foreword by David Lorimer, Director of the Scientific and Medical Network, the book is divided into a Prologue and twelve chapters, headed consecutively as The Birth of a Seeker; Exploring Mind and Meditation; The Search; A Philosopher with a Difference; The Battle for the Ego; The Group, Working with Dream; Light and Energy; Investigating Light and Energy; Examining Brain Activity during Light Giving; The Proof of the Pudding, and Becoming Cosmic? With two appendices it is referenced but not indexed.
In the prologue and first three chapters ending on page 40, Fenwick tells us that he grew up in Kenya where his parents had a coffee farm within sight of the Mount Kenya, which at 5,199m (17,051 ft) is the second highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro. In 1956, aged 21 and back home spending a few weeks relaxing and reading between graduating from Cambridge and continuing his medical studies at St Thomas’s hospital he was fascinated by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider presenting the concept of an independently existent transcendent reality with which creative minds connect during times of creativity. He read that ‘art, science, music and creativity in all its forms stemmed from this ability to connect with the transcendent reality in some way’. If true, this implied that our everyday state of awareness offers a very limited view of reality, rather like viewing a room through the keyhole. Fenwick had already read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and The Doors of Perception in which, based upon Buddhist and other Eastern philosophies, Huxley had proposed that Consciousness is a Universal, and instead of the brain somehow creating consciousness (which is the working hypothesis of neuroscience) the brain acts as a ‘reducing valve’ normally allowing just enough of the universal consciousness through to form an ego capable of meeting everyday practical requirements, but through meditation and/or drugs such as mescaline the brain could be ‘opened up’ to allow more of the universal consciousness to stream through. A part time course in philosophy also introduced him to P.D. Ouspensky concerning the illusory nature of man and time and how to enter true reality. From then on Fenwick decided to devote his life to trying to answer the ‘burning question of what is consciousness and how does it relate to brain function? And also who am I? what am I? and why am I here?’ (p. xvi). He has spent his life trying to develop ‘a creative synthesis’ between the measurable, objective, world of neuroscience and the immeasurable, subjective, world of experiencing, including near-death experiences and related ESP phenomena (see Fenwick & Fenwick, 1995, 1999, 2008).
In pursuit of his aim Fenwick has meditated twice daily, initially using a mantra-based approach similar to the one popularised and taught during the late 1960s and onwards by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Beatles relationship fame known as Transcendental Meditation (TM). Every now and then he experienced ‘an entirely new part of myself opening up’ that convinced him that he was on the brink of a new understanding and needed to go further. In his professional life he found that the rapid development of brain scanning techniques through the well-known acronyms EEG, CT scans, fMRI scans to magnetoencephalography (MEG), the latest technique that can track whole brain activity correlated with mental activity in real time, has led to a huge increase in our knowledge concerning which areas of the brain can be correlated with which different mental activity, but this information of itself, while clinically very valuable, remains one sided, and while confirming the brain-mind relationship has not led to any real increase in our knowledge of the nature of mind and consciousness.
I found this early part of the book fascinating, including his teenage foray when at Stowe school into successfully hypnotising a fellow student and his later recording the EEG of George Harrison of Beatles fame while Harrison engaged in TM. Of particular interest is what happened one day in the family kitchen during the 1970s spoon bending fever, provoked by Uri Geller, when, as Fenwick says ‘children all over the country seemed to spend more of their mealtimes hopefully massaging their spoons than eating with them’. In his own words:
Ours were no exception, and we took very little notice of it until one day we were all standing around in the kitchen chatting and our ten year old daughter was idly and inattentively rubbing a spoon she was holding in her hand. And then suddenly, as if the spoon handle had turned to plastic, the head of the spoon dropped. She stared at it. We all stared at it. I was very excited and wanted to take her straight down to the laboratory of a professor at King’s College who was investigating claims of individual spoon benders, but Natasha burst into terrified tears and said that she wanted nothing more to do with spoon bending. But her spoon, still kept safely on a high shelf in our kitchen, did show me that personal experience is far more effective than reasoned argument in overcoming scepticism.
From the opening of chapter four A Philosopher with a Difference on page 41 onwards to the end of the book (some 149 pages) it is all surprisingly about his much younger mentor Alain Forget (who he met through an introduction by David Lorimer), and Fenwick’s consequent relationship with him as student. Alain Forget (henceforth AF), now in his late 60s, is an Italian born in Paris of a wealthy landowning family whose parents divorced when he was 18 months old. Brought up by his father - his mother had no legal access to him until he was aged seven when his father died of a heart attack in front of him. His mother then obtained custody, but their relationship remained strained throughout her life. Unruly at school AF left at 16 with no qualifications and was sent to London to learn English. Here he lived with an Australian woman for 18 months before they moved to Australia where he lived for another 18 months before returning to France. Financially supported by a trust fund AF lived the life of girls and fast cars, learned to fly and had his own aeroplane. In 1974 at the age of 22, he tired of this way of life, wanting to learn ‘who he really was’ through engaging in a process of self-discovery. Living in Monaco he has spent the rest of his life learning how to ‘collapse of his ego and restructure his personality’ to gain access to ‘cosmic transcendence’.
In pursuit of this goal AF met his first teacher, Dr Rene Ropars, who taught him to sit in silent meditation for hours in Chartres, Notre Dame, and in the Chapel of the Miraculous Miracle, la Rue de Bac, and other churches where ‘strong transformative energy’ is present. In between he read widely on Eastern philosophy and Christian mystics together with modern western philosophers such as Franklin Merrill-Wolf, Eckhart Tolle, and Wei Wu Wei (Irishman Terence Gray). After meeting another teacher, Jean Tissier, AF started to put together his own system and philosophy, the goal of which is to destroy the ego by clearing out ‘innumerable psychological blockages built up through childhood onwards’ and achieve a breakthrough into a state of self-less transcendence. This has required hundreds of hours of introspective meditation and ego dismantling, yet according to Fenwick, such is the selfish ego’s tenacity, AF still requires some two to five hours of daily meditation ‘working on himself’ as ‘Life for him is all about understanding and experiencing wider states of consciousness. Practicing silence and writing down and analysing his dreams are key to this and to his system.’ (Appendix 1 lists AF’s system of numbers in dream analysis such as 1. Everything is possible. 2. Hidden feminine structure. 7. Blocked power, and so on, plus a Dream Lexicon, such as ‘Snow-what slows you down’ and ‘Flying – developing your body of light’ etc.).
Fenwick writes that around 1995 ‘AF realised that when he meditated he could bring energy down into his pelvic region and dissolve the psychic blocks that were there, and thought that if he could do this to himself he could also do it for others’ (this is meaningless AF jargon to me). He claims that he can see coloured auras around people enabling him to understand their character, and ‘the psychic energies now running through his system cleans many of the psychic channels such as the chakras’. When they look at AF during a teaching session his pupils, including Fenwick, apparently see him as a being of light and feel the energy of this light as it flows into them.
In the Battle for the Ego Fenwick tells us that in AF’s philosophy our personalities are limited by the layers of negative emotions of guilt and fear engendered by our parents and others in our formative years that have been repressed but still drive our lives; that the light/energy that he transmits to others when they look at him helps dissolve these emotional blocks, and through engaging in prolonged periods of intense introspection and metaphysical questioning the stubborn ego eventually collapses allowing us to access higher energies to become ‘made alive at a cosmic level and propelled along our evolutionary path to build a body of light’.
AF has devised an armoury of psychological tools ‘in the battle against the ego’ that he calls the 4D’s. Distancing, in which you watch your thoughts, desires and emotions from a distance, so you do not become immersed in them; Discernment in which you endlessly ask ‘who is saying this?’ ‘who wants that?’ ‘what are you protecting?’ etc to free yourself from the ego’s bondage; Disidentification in which, as a result of successfully practising Distancing and Discernment, you realise that your former ego and all its emotional attachments were nothing more than ‘fake news’ from which you can free yourself to learn the true news, and Discrimination in which, as a result of focussed metaphysical inquiry, you eventually understand your universal nature as ‘your personality becomes fully dismantled and the mechanical structure of subject/object (your former narrative self) collapses. You are now universal’. All this can be found on AF’s website and in his book How to Get Out of this World Alive in which he expounds his belief that by destroying the ego through engaging in such practices as the 4D’s a person’s consciousness can be evolved to such a point that it can ‘get out of this world alive’.
After introducing AF and describing his 4D system of ego destruction much of the rest of the book is devoted to an account of Fenwick’s dogged, and to me obsessive, determination under AF’s direction to destroy his ego that repeatedly and stubbornly fights back so that he can attain his goal of entering into a state of ‘cosmic transcendence’. In many places I found this an embarrassing and distressing read as in the outcome of the following story. Fenwick’s mother was a general surgeon. He was the youngest of three children and his mother had left hospital work to look after them, but when WW2 broke out his mother returned to work fulltime which included running the local hospital, and the three children were sent to boarding school some 150 miles away. In memory, his childhood was extraordinarily happy with plenty of freedom and independence, whether at boarding school or with various nannies when at home. Academically brilliant he was then sent to Stowe School, Buckinghamshire where he received an excellent education, and then on to Trinity College, Cambridge and medical training at St Thomas’s Hospital, London. His long marriage to Elizabeth and family life with three children, and now nine grandchildren, has been exceptionally happy, his professional life both fulfilling and successful and he has travelled widely. What, you might ask, could possibly be so wrong with all that?
AF is very into symbolic analysis of dreams as in Appendix 1, so when, during a group session, Fenwick described a previous dream in which he saw a Victorian house, that it was raining and he had painted a red sealant on it, AF interpreted the Victorian house as standing for his mother (how?) and that red stood for anger, so he must still have repressed anger at being abandoned to boarding school as a young child. During the group session Fenwick grabbed a towel from the table, put it in his mouth and screamed insults into the towel at his mother while striking a cushion and repeatedly calling her a bitch. After the emotional storm had spent itself AF sent him light and energy into his lower abdomen ‘dissolving the structure that was there’ (again this meaningless AF jargon) and he then realised that his mother had sent them to boarding school because she was running a hospital single handed. But this was no new realisation, Fenwick and his fellow happy sibling knew all this when they were growing up.
In this same session he says AF found that he was very resistant ‘to the concept that I had within me this fundamental layer of evil, a fiend of utmost ferocity, a killer who would take pleasure in killing’ but AF and other members of the group kept telling him that ‘You are not a nice person because you have never cared for anyone’. They were, he said ‘all clearly seeing something about me which I could not recognise’. Feeling deeply depressed he went back to his room and later that night went through a period of ‘blackness, despair and anger’ spiralling into ‘a black hole which contained violence and depravity, all of which belonged to me’. Tortured by grotesque forms of huge black ants that eventually transmuted into white ants and then harmless termites he managed to distance himself from this nightmarish anguish and return to normality. There are more uncomfortable disclosures like this which, to me, sound like AF driven episodes of emotional debasement and self-flagellation.
AF, it seems, also has the ability to give ‘qualities’. For example, when, after a particular fraught session, a desperately exhausted student had been emotionally stripped down to ‘a basic layer of his personality’ AF then, with much repetitive hand waving, gave him ’qualities’ of goodness, love, honesty and creativity. Fenwick writes that at the time he had not progressed far enough to be given such qualities as they ‘needed a certain degree of vibration and sensitivity’. Eventually he manged to:
... climb to the lowest level of vibration from which I was able to obtain a quality. I certainly felt something going into me. In my case it seemed to go and settle in my head. AF said “I have just given you a quality that will enable you to act with more power”
When he told his wife she said that it seemed more like a flaw than a positive quality. Fenwick goes on to say that:
The ego is stupid. When attacked it always defends itself in the same way … AF will point to a block, the ego knows it is threatened and immediately defends itself’. You are swamped with irrelevant emotion, tears well up quite out of proportion to what is going on. Another defence is mental fog in which you become confused and muddled and lose track of the situation.
And so it goes on and on. I wish he had never written these personal revelations and I wish I had never read them. They should have remained private. But there it is.
As for AF’s ‘light giving ability’ as perceived by his students it was not found to be detectable photographically, so presumably it is a mentally mutual experience. EEG and fMRI tests on AF showed increased brain activity during such times, including an increase in the high frequency gamma band (Appendix 2 summarises these findings). Assuming, as in paired healer/healee EEG studies when the healee’s brainwaves come into close entrainment with the healer (Cade & Coxhead, 1979) it seems that the same occurs with AF and his students so they then experience his mental state of light when they look at him but not when wearing glazed goggles (Fenwick et al., 2019). In The Proof of the Pudding Fenwick says that in his evening meditation he experiences a bright light behind his eyes and feels energy running through his body: ‘I have felt the heart opening and sensed divine and cosmic love. This then flows down into the gut/pelvic region where it starts to dissolve the many blockages that I have’ (what on earth does this mean?). In the final Becoming Cosmic? chapter he writes that:
Much of what I thought about myself was not based in reality. My reality was unreal. My own ego being eroded, barraged with explosions of self-perception. For someone so immersed in self-development this was a shocking revelation. Maybe this was the culmination of my 60 year journey and search. Not the final awakening that I hoped for, but a process of self-discovery, somewhat late in life but one that I hope may continue as long as I do.
I have to say that I have really struggled with this review, so must urge readers to read Fenwick’s account for themselves as a counterbalance. Personally, I take great exception to the How to Get Out of this World Alive title of AF’s book. To me, this claim is nothing more than transcendental snake oil. Assuming the possibility of life after death it implies that out of the 56 million or so who die each year only the few who have successfully mastered the 4Ds and beaten their selfish egos into submission will survive bodily death. Yet in their well-researched book The Art of Dying the Fenwicks include dozens of accounts of the dying person seeing relatives and friends who have previously ‘passed over’ come to welcome them into the afterlife. Not only that, but sometimes the carers and relatives at the bedside say that they have seen them as well. It seems that they and their intact egos, whether selfish or not, have apparently survived death without AF’s ego demolishing 4D help. To me, AF’s 4D method, his interpretive dream analysis and so-called philosophy reads as dangerous psychobabble. What if, for example, Fenwick’s night of dreadful ‘blackness, despair’ had turned out very differently?
As for the brain/mind relationship, even during the sense of ‘cosmic transcendence’ this remains intact. Fenwick’s own EEG research on AF as in appendix 2 has shown that in this life there is no escape from brain-mind correlation. If your brain, for some reason, is unable to form the correlation necessary for a transcendental experience you won’t have one. On the other hand, like the Canadian psychiatrist Dr Richard Bucke, you might be lucky enough to have one quite spontaneously without AF’s ego destructive help. Art, music, a magnificent view or a glorious sunset may trigger such an ecstatic experience. But it remains an experience rooted in this life.
Cade, M, C., & Coxhead, N. (1979). The Awakened Mind: Biofeedback and the Development of
Higher states of Awareness. New York: Delacorte Press.
Fenwick, P., & Fenwick, E. (1995). The Truth in the Light: An Investigation into over 300 Near-Death
Experiences. London: Headline.
Fenwick, P., & Fenwick, E. (1999). Past Lives: An Investigation into Reincarnation Memories.
Fenwick, P., & Fenwick, E. (2008). The Art of Dying: A Journey to Elsewhere. London: Continuum.
Fenwick, P., Di Bernadi Luft,C., Ioannides, A,A., & Bhattacharya, J. (2019) Neural correlates of
transmitted light experience during meditation: A pilot hyperscanning study. NeuroQuantology,
Robert A. Charman can be reached at email: firstname.lastname@example.org