Colin Wilson’s Levels of Consciousness

billiardsIn his book, Super Consciousness: The Quest for Peak Experience, Colin Wilson lays out his philosophy of life, which I wrote about in my last post. Toward the end of that book, Colin Wilson, began thinking about how many levels of consciousness he could identify.

The levels reflect how much “power consciousness” we possess, that is, how much capacity we enjoy to know that life is intrinsically meaningful, good, and beautiful. When we know this directly—and this knowing according to Wilson requires dedication and discipline—we will not experience what he calls “life failure”. Life failure was the fate of many of the Romantic poets and French existentialists who became depressed and alcoholic. Typically, they had one of Maslow’s peak experiences, but when they came back “down to earth” they lacked the capacity to generate these on their own (through intensification and concentration). This left them disillusioned and persuaded that life was a dull, grey, and flat affair. But in truth, says Wilson, these men got arrested at a low level of consciousness. Here’s the map. Where do you find yourself in this map?

Level 0: Deep, Dreamless Sleep: Pre and Perinatal

Level 1: Dream Consciousness

Level 2: Basic Waking Consciousness: “The kind of consciousness a sleepy child experiences when too tired to take much interest in anything”.  Here, consciousness acts merely as a mirror reflecting back the external world. Awareness, but not self-awareness. This is “animal awareness” according to Bucke.

Level 3: The French existentialist philosopher, Sartre, calls this nausea. Greyness and boredom. You are trapped in a world not of your making. This feeling of being trapped and feeling sick is like psychologist, Stan Grof’s 3rd stage of birth, when the contractions have started, but the cervix hasn’t dilated. There is nowhere to go, and it’s dark, very dark.

Lower Level 4: This is “ordinary consciousness”, the kind we take for granted as “normal”. You no longer feel like “its too heavy to move, but in the lower ends of Level 4, it feels like hard work. It feels to me like it is depressive, but not full blown depression. Just not a lot of fun. I wrote about the robot in my last post. The robot accounts for over 50% of our life experience at this level.

Upper Level 4: We begin to feel like we’re winning, that we have agency, that we can make things happen. Wilson says that Maslow’s peak experience happens at the upper stages of Level 4, as a “kind of spark that leaps the spark-gap between Level 4 and Level 5.

Level 5: Wilson calls this “spring morning consciousness”. The whole world is “self-evidently fascinating and delightful”. Or as T.E. Lawrence put it, “one of those clear dawns that wake up the senses with the sun, while the intellect, tired after the thinking of the night, was yet abed”. Here, you know life is good. You can see that the gloom of Level 3 was a delusion. (I would disagree here. It was true, but temporary. When we confuse the feeling of being trapped with reality, and then make up a story about it, we can get trapped in depression – but the darkness is real). And then, once we know that, we must make a concerted effort to remember that those feelings are a memory, not reality.

Level 6: Think Christmas morning! This is pure magic as in pure delight. It’s magic also in the sense that you know that you participate directly in the construction of reality, and with this knowledge of responsibility comes freedom. It’s level 5, but stabilized over longer periods of time.

Level 7: Faculty X, when the mind seems so relaxed or focused that other times and places are as real as the present. I find this level particularly interesting, and wonder if it’s similar to what Jean Gebser called “diaphaneity” or integral consciousness. Here you have time. Time no longer has you.

Level 8: Mystical consciousness, life is a series of paradoxes: “I am nothing” and “I am everything”. Life is tragedy. Life is comedy. Wilson is concerned however with the first seven levels, not level 8, as he claims that this is “not our affair” – by which I suspect he means that we have no control over it.

Wilson notes that halfway up level 4 is when you begin to feel like “we’re winning”. It’s halfway to level 7. The peak experience boosts us up into level 5, and then beyond when life is magic. Faculty X kicks in. The peak experience is the sudden recognition that this is a possibility, just when you thought “Van Gogh’s misery” would never end.

Wilson thinks that most North Americans and Europeans are living somewhere in the middle of level 4, and that we entered this level as a species around the year 1740, when large numbers of people began to use their imagination. (This is the date when Samuel Richardson published the first novel, Pamela, and a whole generation of Europeans began to use their imagination). Just as a fish is a creature of the water, and a bird is a creature of the air, this is when we discovered that we are creatures of the mind—and we are learning to master this medium.

For Wilson, living with “power consciousness”—imagination plus will—occurs as we master the capacity for attention. When we’re low and tired our attention scatters, like billiard balls over the billiard table. Paying attention it is as if the billiard balls come back together. He continues the metaphor: “If I become deeply interested in something, it is as if they press together so tightly that they begin climbing on top of one another, forming a second row. Then when I relax my attention, they separate and fall apart”.

In these states of focused attention we catch a glimpse of the level up. We see that eventually the billiard balls could form a stable pyramid that would never collapse. We would pass the point where “regress” would even be possible and be sustained “by the sheer perception of meaning”. We would, in this case, be one step closer to becoming gods according to Wilson.

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1 Comment on “Colin Wilson’s Levels of Consciousness

  1. Hi Bruce!
    This is all so intriguing. The fact that we have a brain with two “sides” and two capacities has always fascinated me. And, to think that our task may be to learn how to make the two sides work together constructively, well, that is food for thought. I like the focus on imagination, on bringing it to the foreground and using the intellect as a tool to focus. When we are fully attentive in the present (that happens when I am gardening, for instance) we can feel a joy that is unrivaled. We are free from the gloomy story. We control our thoughts, they don’t control us. If that state can be summoned at will – then the human battle will be won.

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