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Lewis Thompson (1909 – 1949). Hippy, Poet, India wallah, who spent 18 years in India and died in Varanasi
A Totnes friend, Rob B, kindly gave to me a truly remarkable compact book, Mirror to the Light: Reflections on Consciousness and Experience by Lewis Thompson, an Englishman from Fulham, London, who died aged 40 in the scorching summer heat of Varanasi, India in 1949.
The book consists essentially of a series of insightful and poetic aphorisms revealing a depth of perceptions and understanding of the field of experience.
Lewis Thompson sits comfortably with the long-standing tradition of ancient India of the sages, who employed short verses, poems, sutras/suttas and aphorisms to communicate deep truths. Such sages felt that they could state more about truth and reality in a few lines than extended writing in large volumes of texts.
Arranged in 25 short chapters, Lewis Thompson addressed such spiritual themes as actuality, truthfulness, presence, the bridge to the real, humanism and consciousness. Richard Lannoy, the editor of the book, provides a fascinating biography into the remarkable journey of Thompson, who uncovered a wealth of spiritual and psychological insights through his years of exploration of spiritual India.
These aphorisms become meditations and reflections encouraging us, the reader, to dive deeply into his discoveries. He shows an intensity of application to the inner world and our relationship to the immediate world. Mirror to the Light is not an easy read. Far from it. It takes focussed concentration to sense the light he reveals.
His aphorisms often run for a few lines while his reflections on a theme extend to a few paragraphs. He manages to convey an unusual wisdom, both contemporary and classical. Thompson’s writings communicate an austerity, a rigor of enquiry, clearly born from his first-hand experience and long-standing meditations, during two decades of a nomadic lifestyle in India.
He would summarily right down his insights on postcard size pieces of paper in precise writing with the date at the top of the page. He stored these notes away for years. In a rather fastidious manner, he placed these slips of paper in cardboard boxes and indexed them. He wrote his brief expositions, sometimes with only subtle differences between one aphorism and another.
Thompson advocated that one must withdraw to the “extreme sceptical poverty of the aphorism, atomic enough, to evade and perhaps even to attack humanistic criticism.
“The purity of the aphorism is that it continues in a certain direction only by repetition, by apparent rearrangement: it retains penetration and fatigue is the one-dimensional intellect by never sacrificing its superficiality.”
Mirror to the Light runs to 160 pages serving as a constant reminder for personal reflection on his words if the reader is to come to terms with his literary offerings.
The ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967 took place in Lewis’s native London 18 years after his untimely death. The hippy generation of love, of peace and harmony took root in Britain, the USA and elsewhere. The cultural heroes of Lewis Thompson also became exactly the same heroes for those of us committed to a revolution of lifestyle and expansion of consciousness.
I recall in April, 1967 leaving Croydon, Surrey, England, to go on the road through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the Himalayas. We adopted as our cultural masters the likes of the Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, William Blake, French poets, Baudelaire, (1821 – 1867), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891), Pascal, Dostoevsky, the Sufis and Bhavagad Gita. We followed in the spiritual/cultural footsteps of Thompson, who referred to Jesus as the “Supreme Poet.”
On poets he wrote: “The poet lives the organisation of his actual thought, for whom, by this economy, there is no longer accident but only symbol. Beyond the poet stand the absolute silence and beyond that silence the terrible present splendour.”
“I prefer to use immediate images, to speak in human, poetical terms.” Thompson appeared to acknowledge that his life and work, like everything else, will not come to any kind of proper completion. “I go on being my own unfinished Opus.”
Born on January 13, 1909 in London, Lewis Levien Thompson had two younger sisters. His father was partly Jewish while his mother had an Irish background. He rejected university and preferred to develop his own kind of education through direct experience and reading literature. The family spent their holidays in a West Molesey, Surrey, a short journey outside London. His discovery of Rimbaud shifted his priorities to poetic statements and away from literature of metaphysics. Rimbaud led a hippy lifestyle growing his hair and smoking hashish. Like Rimbaud, Thompson also wanted to “possess the truth in one soul and body.”
Throwing away his manuscript that he had worked on for five years, Thompson shifted his priorities to a series of sparse statements that would reveal underlying truths. Aged 20, Thompson departed from the restrictive climate of London to start travelling through rural France. Attending festivals and wandering in Provence, he attended in April 1931, a classical Indian concert led by Uday Shankar, brother of Ravi Shankar, the revered sitar player. The concert inspired him to go to India.
Lewis Thompson and the Hippy generation
Thompson wrote: “My reading in Hinduism, Buddhism and the Chinese tradition from about my 13th year made it easy for me to feel from the beginning that in the West one could find very distorted and fragmentary pictures what in the East was clear, classical and complete. Thus as soon as in my inner life things came to full crisis, the natural movement was once to India.”
The words of Thompson convey a strong resonance with those of us belonging to the hippie generation. Like Thompson, we also developed a love affair and intimacy with spiritual India, its philosophy, yoga, vegetarian diet, meditations, culture and variety of gurus and gods.
Thompson boarded a ship in Cardiff in July 1932 bound for India. He arrived virtually penniless and died penniless. Preferring the company of India’s yogis, spiritual teachers and pundits, he ignored contact with the British civil servants and military in this time of the British occupation of India, known as the British Raj. He preferred to concentrate on the transformation of consciousness and the depth of human experience.
Around 35 years after his departure from England, the Summer of Love of ‘67 saw a steady stream of young men and women with long hair, backpacks and little money in their pockets setting off on the hippy trail to India. We carried with us the same books of literature that Thompson so dearly loved.
“My life is entirely a transition. I don’t exist at all. I have no place to sit down.” He wrote these words in a letter to a friend after 12 years of travelling the length and breadth of India from the Himalayas the tip of the subcontinent, plus occasional boat trips across to Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon in his time.
Those of us, who extended our time in the East to several years, could share exactly the same sentiments as Thompson of life in transition with nowhere to stop. Like Thompson, we also preferred to wear kurta/pyjamas, the Indian way of dressing, rather than trousers and tee-shirt. His independent spirit saved him from becoming the disciple of a particular guru. Nevertheless, he reported the benefits from one particular Jnani (One of Liberating Knowledge).
He took up residence in Varanasi at the Rajghat School, founded by Krishnamurti, the Indian spiritual teacher, and then resigned in 1943. He continued to live in Varanasi. Various writers and artists, Indian and Western, would visit Thompson, who declined to seek out himself the company of others.
In one letter he wrote “Friendship is an art and I’m concerned not with our but with personal truthfulness. If I see or write to you in the future, it must be as what I am, a solitary. I have no more use for friendship than has – let me modestly say, a cat.”
“The only thing that interests me in this world is poetry and all that serves it. As a spiritual being, I am at once very passionate and very sceptical – searching, exigent: the tension is the highest possible, and that is how I see reality. I’m interested only in real reality this passion (a force of that reality itself!) Will endure any hell rather than accept or delude itself with any less than absolute enjoyment.”
Upon his return to Varanasi, he spent the last days of his life living in an attic room with a corrugated iron roof enduring temperatures of 47°C (111 .F). Three days before his death, he received a letter from his mother, who wrote “God bless and keep you well and happy dear son so far away”
The day before Thompson died on June 23rd, 1949, he wrote his last words on: “the discipline of fidelity to the non-mental in poetry… is to me an immediate and congenial means of beginning to “go beyond the mind” – of attaining and establishing a purely trans-mental vision and speech.”
After his death, people in the building arranged for his cremation with his ashes scattered over the River Ganges. One Austrian woman referred to Thompson as “one of God’s unfinished masterpiece.”
He never hesitated to make statements that cut to the bone. “There is only one thing to be done – to keep the flame of the necessary purgatory pure, to refuse every irrelevance.”
Thompson certainly lived that way. From his teenage years, he knew instinctively that superfluous knowledge and preoccupation around material success got in the way of profound experiences, deep intuitions and significant changes in the presentations of consciousness.
While reading Mirror to the Light, I began searching for information on the Net about Lewis Thompson. His book has been out of print for 30 years but then I saw a new, extended edition published in 2006. His book is a worthy edition to any spiritual library. Thompson left us an exceptional text on spiritual wisdom..
MAY MANY PEOPLE FIND THEIR WAY TO THE WRITINGS OF LEWIS THOMPSON.
MAY MANY PEOPLE REALISE HIS ‘TRANSMENTAL’ VISION.
MAY ALL LIVE A LIBERATED WAY OF LIFE