I’ve been reading a book about literary critic, novelist, philosopher and lay psychologist, Colin Wilson (26 June 1931 – 5 December 2013) by Gary Lachman, and another by Wilson himself. Although Wilson has written somewhere close to one hundred books, I had never heard of him until I read Lachman’s biography.
Born of humble stock in England, from a very early age he contended with a lot of boredom and suicidal thoughts, no doubt because of his amazing intelligence. From this early brush with despair, he pieced together his own psychology, grounded in his life experience, in the history of literature and the lives of famous authors. He learned that if he, (and our species) did not actively cultivate optimism we would fall into a pit of despair, anxiety, and hopelessness. He called out the French existentialists as intellectually lazy, confusing their refusal to focus on the real world (which was absurdly good), with reality.
His first book, The Outsider, is perhaps his most famous. In it, he tracks the lives of famous authors, who found themselves as outsiders because of their uncompromising search for what George Steiner called “the speculative lust for the drug of truth”—which invariably alienates the true seeker from conventional society.
One of the characteristics of many outsiders, including most of the Romantic poets, is that they enjoyed what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences”. These experiences are like Edmund and Lucy walking through the wardrobe doors onto a strange new land called Narnia. This is a reality, however, that is not other than what in ordinary consciousness we experience as our everyday life, but rather an intensified version of it. It is the ordinary, seen with “eyes that see”, through non-ordinary consciousness.
Actively cultivating this way of seeing brings forth the world in its full glory. This is precisely where the Romantics failed. They tasted into this realm of reality, but when they returned to ordinary consciousness, they lacked the discipline to teach themselves a new way of seeing. Many ended up depressed, alcoholic, and as failures. They’d been to the mountain, but couldn’t bear the dull, grey valley of life.
Non-ordinary consciousness is a way of seeing and feeling the world liberated from what Wilson calls “the robot”. This is the very useful part of us that is able to do tasks on our behalf without us even consciously thinking about it – like driving the car to work, while we think about other things. The robot is meant to serve us, so that we can do more important things with our liberated consciousness. But the problem is that the robot can colonize our life, if we let it. The robot even colonizes making love to our partners. We go on automatic. Taken to an extreme we actually become robots, not humans.
It’s the over-functioning robot that renders the world boring and flat, and makes us feel as though life is “just one damned thing after another”.
He points out that much modernist and postmodernist philosophy, which has no time for the soul, has concluded (along with scientific materialists), that we don’t actually have any freedom anyway – just the illusion of freedom. We are totally determined by physicalistic forces, including genetic material and brain synapses. In other words, they concede that we are indeed robots. To this, Wilson says, “piffle”! He has no time for dour existentialists who conclude that life is meaningless and purposeless, a conclusion he is convinced that is the result of laziness, lack of imagination and disciplined thought.
If we are robotic, it is our own fault. The remedy is good old-fashioned effort, a “will to health”, and the spiritual art of remembering what is real—identifying and remembering our peak experiences to such a degree that we actually feel them again. Over time, we don’t doubt that these peak experiences are showing us what the world is really like—beautiful and perfect beyond our wildest imagination.
This is the world that is shown to us during psychedelic experiences. It’s easy to make the mistake of believing that the heightened sense that beauty, truth, and goodness are intrinsic dimensions of a cosmos is no more that the chemicals playing a trick on us. This isn’t my experience, and it’s also important to note that the best medical research available, for example on LSD, reveals that before we get to glimpse this expanded reality, we are taken into the emotional trauma that is responsible for us not being able to “see with eyes that see”. (The absence of a place for trauma in Wilson’s work is a criticism I have of Wilson’s work.)
Wilson developed a theory he called “Faculty X”, the capacity to master time—effectively to time travel back to our peak experiences, feel them deeply again, and in doing so, shutting down the robot. (This mastery of time also involves being able to see the future, which he discovered when he was asked to write about pre-cognition, psychics, and the occult).
This is what happened to Proust and his famous madelaine. He was feeling depressed one day when he stopped for tea. He dipped a madelaine into the tea and was transported back to his childhood when his mother served him herbal tea and madelaines—a very good time in his life. In and through this experience he felt the presence of what he called “absurd good news”, that all was well, and that the world was a source of abundance and generosity. This, says Wilson, is reality. And if we are feeling depressed, cynical, and pessimistic about life it is because we have allowed the robot too much sway in our lives. When the robot takes over our lives, we leak energy and vitality. The batteries run down, and if we’re not careful we experience what the poet, W.H.Auden, called “life failure”.
When we’re in life failure, we have a tendency to play the victim, and construct narratives that legitimize our condition—e.g. the French existentialists. But it’s not actually true. And the only way out is to roll up our sleeves, focus, activate our imagination, remember our peak experiences, and recharge the batteries.
Wilson isn’t much into meditation. He thinks it is ultimately too passive. What some Eastern philosophies call “detachment” is little more than succumbing to the robot. And if you do find yourself in a bout of depression, the key is to have learned how to actively find your way back to reality.
What ultimately lifts us out of our depression is right thinking—the realization that consciousness is active. It is not a tabula rasa (empty slate), or a mirror which simply reflects the “real world” out there back to us. It is, as the French philosopher and father of phenomenology, Husserl, claims, active. It reaches out and grabs the world. Consciousness is active in the construction of reality, and in what it sees. If we are under the sway of the robot, our consciousness sees a world that is grey, flat, and meaningless.
But there is another source of power that we can call upon, and that is power consciousness. Wilson was fascinated by brain research, particularly the research around right and left hemispheres. He concludes, with many researchers, that we actually have two selves: the left hemisphere (in right handed people) is the scientist, the logician, the list maker, the one who is able to see parts very well. The right hemisphere is the poet or artist, who sees in wholes and is connected to the very power source of the universe itself. Modernity has privileged the scientist almost to the point where most of us (particularly men?) live almost completely dissociated from the power source. (Hypnotists are able to summon the unconscious enabling ordinary people with apparently very limited potential to accomplish surprising feats of strength and even intellectual feats, like transmitting complex ideas of dead philosophers).
(Incidentally, Wilson could have benefited from reading psychiatrist, Ian McGilchrist’s, wonderful book on the subject, The Master and the Emissary, which is more nuanced than Wilson’s presentation.)
Wilson says that the “trick” is learning to access this power source at will. And this takes practice and you guessed it, discipline. The reason it’s possible for the hypnotist, but not for us, is that the hypnotist speaks with authority and absolutely believes it’s possible, so the artist listens and sends forth the untapped power. But we are more feeble and unbelieving. (Jesus taught the same thing actually – about moving mountains).
I’ll say more in the next post about this, and outline Wilson’s personal stage theory of consciousness, that evolves from dreamless sleep all the way to bliss consciousness.
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