A later version of this essay was published in the Journal of the D.H. Lawrence Society, 2001-2.
When D.H. Lawrence died at the age of 44 in 1930 he was most widely known as the author of scandalous novels like Women in Love and The Rainbow, which treated sexual relations with an openness which his age wasn’t ready for.
Originally he’d become famous as a nature writer with marvellously vivid powers of description, and also as a ‘working class writer’ who portrayed the life of the Midlands mining village where he grew up. At that time, early in his career, Lawrence showed all the signs of going on to be a best-selling writer and a member of the literary establishment, but then a visionary and prophetic tone began to enter his writings which his previous readers found hard to stomach. His books began to be filled with savage denunciations of modern life, a sense of horror at the growing materialism and industrialisation he saw around him, and even a sense that the human race was doomed to make itself an extinct species. People had become alienated from the natural world and from their true selves, he said, they’d begun to exist as just egos instead of real beings, and only lived inside their heads instead of actually in the world. He saw the repression of sex as another sign of modern man’s separation from the natural order of things, and in the end he decided not to care about being published and just to write about sex as openly as he wanted. This was in his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which wasn’t published until 33 years after his death.
It’s probably this novel which is mainly responsible for the popular image of Lawrence as a writer who deals with sexual themes and celebrates the life of the instincts against the suppressive forces of so-called civilised society. To other people he’s still mainly important as a nature writer or a working class writer, while at various times he’s also been labelled (and misinterpreted) by literary critics as a fascist and a misogynist. It’s been very rare, however, that the most important aspect of Lawrence as a person and as a writer has been paid attention to: namely, the fact that he lived his life in what we could call a ‘mystical’ state of consciousness, and that, even though he rejected his Christian upbringing and had no interest in any other forms of religion, he was a mystic in exactly the same way that religious figures like Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa were.
The Mystical View of the World
The mystic experiences life in a completely different way to ordinary people. We normally experience ourselves as egos enclosed inside our minds and bodies. We’re ‘in here’ and the world and all the things in it – including other people – are ‘out there’.
In a way we exist in a state of solitary confinement – we receive information about the world through the ‘windows’ of our five senses, and we can communicate our thoughts and feelings to other people by using language, but we’re always essentially alone inside ourselves. The world we live in also seems like a fairly dreary place to most of us ; all of the natural and man-made things which it consists of are so familiar to us that we scarcely bother giving our attention to them. In fact in a sense the world is even a dead place to us, because it seems to be made up of things which are inanimate, which we perceive as just ‘objects’ with no being of their own. And it’s also clear to us that all these things exist in separation to each other, just as they exist in separation to us.
But the mystic lives in a different world to this. He or she lives in a state of unity with the world rather than a state of separation. Their sense of being isn’t confined to their own mind-body complex like a genie in a bottle – they realise that at the ground of their being they’re one with everything, that the substance of their being is the substance of the being of the whole world. All the things around them seem incredibly beautiful and alive to them too ; everything seems to shine with its own inner radiance and to have a being of its own. And to the mystic these things don’t seem to be separate and discrete objects. There is a different level on which their superficial separateness melts away and they are seen as different forms of the same thing, pervaded by an underlying oneness. This is what, in the Hindu Upanishads, is called Brahman – the pure consciousness or ‘divine energy’ which pervades the whole of the universe and is the essence of all things.
In this mystical world the normal human ideas about time and mortality don’t apply either. Instead of linear time with a future and a past there’s only an ‘Eternal Now’, and since the ground of our beings is divine energy which is timeless and spaceless, the mystic also realises that we are, in essence, immortal.
Most of us have brief flashes of this kind of consciousness every so often – perhaps when we meditate, when we’re out walking in the country, or when we’re listening to music. But people who’ve actually lived in a mystical state of consciousness are few and far between. In fact to find examples of them we have to turn to the great spiritual figures of human history – the Buddha, Jesus Christ, St. John of the Cross, Jakob Boehme, and comparatively recent Indian saints like Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharishi. And, strange though it may sound, one of the most fully developed mystics of recent times was D.H. Lawrence.
Lawrence’s Mystical Vision
To compare D.H. Lawrence with people like Jesus and the Buddha probably seems ridiculously far-fetched, so it’s probably best to proceed slowly and carefully, by looking at different aspects of the mystic’s vision of the world in turn and showing how he expressed these in his writings.
Lawrence wrote an enormous number of books in his short life-time, including poetry, plays, travel books, literary criticism, and philosophy. His mystical vision of the world is, however, most visible in his poetry, which is where I’ve taken most of the quotes below from.
There is no separation between us and the world and all the things in it. We are the world.
Lawrence’s lack of ego-isolation meant that he could enter into the beings of other people and even other creatures, and experience life as they experienced it. We can see this in his collection of poems Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, where he shows, in the words of the critic Keith Sagar,
an almost occult penetration into the being of other creatures. It’s also evident in his poem ‘We Die Together’, where he describes the living death which millions of people in industrial England are experiencing, and feels that he’s literally dying with them, that even though he lives in the Italian countryside he is
A mill hand in Leeds, and the death of the Black Country is upon me. And this lack of ego-isolation meant that he felt no sense of separation between himself and the natural world. In his poem ‘Mana of the Sea’, for example, he writes:
And is my body ocean, ocean, whose power runs to the shores along my arms…I am the Sea! I am the Sea!
All things are alive
Lawrence knew that it’s not just human beings, animals and even just plants which are alive, but also the things which we normally consider to be inanimate, like rivers, clouds, and even the moon. We can see this in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when Lawrence describes how Lady Chatterley’s view of the world changes when she’s walking home after making love to her gamekeeper:
The universe ceased to be the vast clockwork of circling planets and pivotal suns which she had known. The starts opened like eyes, with a consciousness in them, and the sky was filled with a soft, yearning stress of consolation. It was not mere atmosphere. It had its own feeling, its own anima. Everything had its own anima.
Everything is divine energy. Brahman – or ‘God’ – pervades all things.
Lawrence sensed the presence of this everywhere around him, and follows the tradition of the Christian mystics in giving it the name ‘God.’ In his poem ‘There Are No Gods’ he writes:
Whose is the presence/That makes the air so still and lovely to me?/…I tell you, it is no woman, it is no man, for I am alone./ And I fall asleep with the gods. While in another poem, ‘Name the Gods!’, he writes,
All the time I see the gods :/ the man who is mowing the tall white corn, suddenly, as it curves, as it yields, the white wheat,/ and sinks down with a swift rustle, and a strange falling flatness, / ah! the gods, the swaying body of God!/ ah! the fallen stillness of god.
This divine energy is the essence of our beings as well
In the very darkest continent of the body there is God. And from Him issue the first dark rays of our feeling, wordless, and utterly previous to words.
The purpose of life is attain the bliss and fulfilment of mystical union with the world.
In one of his most moving poems, ‘Pax’, written while he was dying of tuberculosis, Lawrence writes:
All that matters is to be one with the living God/ Like a cat asleep on a chair/ at peace, in peace / feeling the presence of the living God..
There is no such thing as death.
To Lawrence death was something to rejoice in rather than to be afraid of, because in a deep intuitive part of his being he sensed that death doesn’t mean extinction, but is rather the beginning of what he called ‘a great adventure’, where we attain the fulfilment which may have avoided us during this life. In death, he writes in his poem ‘Gladness of Death’,
the winds of the afterwards kiss us into the blossom of manhood, and
after the painful, painful experience of dying there comes an after-gladness, a strange joy.
Lawrence as Spiritual Teacher
Perhaps the main difference between D.H. Lawrence and more traditional mystics like Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa (and Jesus and Buddha) is that he didn’t think of himself as a religious teacher, and didn’t make a conscious effort to try to show others the path to enlightenment. But if we look closely at his work, we can see that he’s also left us with some ‘teachings’, and that these are essentially the same as those of most mystics throughout history.
As the Hindu and Buddhist traditions see it, the main obstacle that stands between us and enlightenment is our over-developed sense of ego, which separates us from the divine inside and outside us. The ultimate aim of their philosophies is to subdue the ego and break down this sense of separation so that we can attain a state of oneness with the world. And D.H. Lawrence echoes this : as he sees it, our problems stem from what he calls ‘The knowledge of the self-apart-from-God’. If we can overcome this sense of separation a new world lies in wait for us – as he writes in ‘Terra Incognita’,
When man has escaped from the barbed wire entanglement of his own ideas…there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life. To this end, Lawrence tells us to switch the centre of our being from our egos to our senses and our feelings. He tells us to ‘wholly attend’ to the present moment and to our surroundings, and live by our instincts instead of by our thoughts.
In some Tantric sects of Buddhism and Hinduism sex is seen as a sacred act which symbolises mystical union with the universe, and enables us to directly experience the bliss which is the nature of absolute reality. And this was essentially D.H. Lawrence’s attitude to sex as well. Sex was so important to him because it can bring about a temporary dissolution of the ego and bring us into union not just with the person we’re having sex with but with the whole world itself. It can bring what he calls
the strange, soothing flood of peace, the sense that all is well, and plunge us into the incredibly alive and beautiful world which Lady Chatterley became aware of when she was walking home from her gamekeeper’s house.
Our over-developed egos aren’t just an obstacle to spiritual growth as far as Lawrence is concerned, though, they’re also dangerous, and he warns us over and over again that unless we re-develop a sense of connection both to the world around us and to our true selves our future is bound to be catastrophic.
If we do not rapidly open all the doors of consciousness, and freshen the putrid little space in which we are cribbed, he writes prophetically,
the sky blue walls of our unventilated heaven will be bright red with blood. Our present day ecological problems have proved Lawrence right here, since the root cause of the problems is surely our sense of separation from the natural world and our inability to perceive the ‘alive-ness’ of natural things, which have meant that we see nature as something alien to us which we have no respect for and are entitled to abuse.
It’s possible to see the whole of Lawrence’s work as an urgent call for us to ‘wake up’ so that we can prevent this catastrophe, and also so that we can begin to live fully as individuals. And perhaps most prophetically of all, despite all his pessimism, Lawrence had a strong sense that this awakening would eventually occur. We can see this in perhaps the most inspiring passage in all of his work, the last two pages of his novel The Rainbow, where he describes the industrial horror which is spreading over his home county of Derbyshire, and the ‘living dead’ colliers with ‘the eyes of those who are buried alive.’ But then a rainbow forms itself over the hills, and this becomes a symbol of the new world which is coming into existence, and of the new human beings who will live in it.
And the rainbow stood on the earth. She [the novel’s heroine, Ursula] knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their spirit, that they would cast off their horny covering of disintegration, that new, clean bodies would issue to a new germination, to a new growth, rising to the light and the wind and the clean rain of heaven. She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.
The massive popularity of the present day self-development – or New Age – movement seems to suggest that this new germination of the Earth is taking place now. And when it comes to full fruition, perhaps in another few decades or so, D.H. Lawrence will surely become known as one of its prophets.