Super Consciousness: The Quest for the Peak Experience
Colin Wilson, with a new foreword by Colin Stanley
Watkins Publishing (UK £14.99 / US $19.95, December 2019)
A central achievement of Colin Wilson was to empower us to gain understanding of our infinite potential and special place in the universe through an expansion of consciousness.
He also showed how human history has reached the stage at which we can actually choose the direction in which evolution will best take us.
What Wilson was searching for was the means by which, through an elevated consciousness, we could meet our deeply rooted need for transcendence without the use of drugs or other stimulants or the aid of religious institutions, and how we could assist what he saw as an evolutionary momentum towards this goal.
Ever since his first book The Outsider (1956), which has never been out of print, he was sure that humanity was on the point of an evolutionary leap to a higher phase.
Wilson established himself as a true pioneer in the field of consciousness studies long before the phrase entered academic general usage in the mid-1990s; indeed, he might be said to be one of the founders of this area of study.
The last book he wrote was Super Consciousness: the Quest for the Peak Experience, published by Watkins Publishing in 2009 and now the latest in a number of Wilson titles issued in new editions since his death, testifying to the durability of his works.
Super Consciousness is being reissued by the same publisher to mark the sixth anniversary of Wilson’s passing. It was this very book that I chose to write about as my contribution to Around the Outsider: Essays presented to Colin Wilson on the occasion of his 80th birthday (O-Books, 2011), edited by Colin Stanley.
In Super Consciousness – the phrase conveying the sense of above, over or beyond normal waking consciousness – Wilson merges the philosophical and psychological streams of his thinking in a concise and conversational rendering of his ideas about consciousness and of his lifelong quest to understand and harness the mechanics of the ‘peak experience’.
As Colin Stanley writes in the foreword, the book makes an ideal starting point for readers seeking an accessible primer for Wilson’s works. Indeed, Wilson himself describes it as ‘a kind of DIY manual’ on how to achieve ‘power consciousness’.
It was in the 1960s that the American existential psychologist Abraham Maslow (1908-70) took up the study of transcendent or intensity experiences, introducing the term ‘peak experience’ and, in subsequent decades, Wilson built on Maslow’s work to establish a theory for the attainment of an intensified or higher consciousness, and its inducement.
The final chapter of The Outsider and the Autobiographical Introduction and first chapter of Wilson’s next book, Religion and the Rebel (1957), presage his detailed consideration of the peak experience from 1969 when he was asked to write a biography of Maslow.
The question of how people can achieve those strange ecstatic moments of inner freedom, of sheer delight, when we feel our energies are more than adequate to cope with any challenge – those moments of ‘wonderful optimism about the future, the feeling that life is infinitely complex and infinitely exciting’ as Wilson describes them at the start of Super Consciousness, is crucial in Wilson’s huge and diverse body of work.
Such brief occasions of intense well-being are in stark contrast to normal or everyday consciousness in which we seem to sense our energies are never quite up to the mark, or feel ourselves to be in the grip of impersonal forces which are much stronger than ourselves.
Peak experiences, or epiphanies as they might also be called, have the potential to alter a person's values and outlook on existence. Their purpose seems to be to reveal something that everyday consciousness and the worldly dimension cannot, to bring about an affirmation of life, to 'move more closely to a perfect identity' as Maslow said in his Religions, Values and Peak Experiences (1974), and create a sense of fulfilled purpose.
I believe the terms epiphany and peak experience, along with transcendent ecstasy, mystical experience, cosmic consciousness, awakening experience or breakthrough or power consciousness, are a variety of labels for what is essentially the same phenomenon undergone by individuals at varying degrees of intensity. I think Wilson would have agreed with this view.
Even if the 'oneness with the universe' feeling of the mystical experience may be absent from the secular epiphany, or peak experience, it still provides one with a moment of profound insight or revelation and, in my view, the respective experiences are intimately related.
Maslow says the peak experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment which carries its own intrinsic value with it: 'There seems to be a kind of dynamic parallelism or isomorphism between the inner and the outer [...] as the essential Being of the world is perceived by the person, so also does he concurrently come closer to his own Being (to his own perfection, or being more perfectly himself)' (Toward a Psychology of Being, 1968).
Maslow argues that precisely those persons who have the clearest and strongest identity arising out of the peak experience are the ones most able to transcend the ego or the self and to become selfless, or who are at least relatively selfless and egoless.
However, for Maslow, the peak experience was essentially a passive experience, of being overwhelmed by ecstasy, and he thought that it could not be induced, but Wilson was sure it could.
In his Beyond the Occult (1988), towards the end of the book, Wilson introduced his idea of seven basic levels of consciousness, a model to which he would afterwards refer frequently and to which he returns in Super Consciousness; assisted by the peak experience and the recognition of potential that it brings, one’s consciousness can ascend this hierarchy towards a higher self.
Briefly, Level 1 is dream consciousness, Level 2, mere awareness, Level 3, ‘greyness and boredom’, Level 4, ordinary everyday consciousness and Level 5, excited ‘spring morning consciousness’, with the peak experience acting as a kind of spark that ‘leaps the spark gap’ between levels 4 and 5.
Level 6 is elated ‘magic consciousness’, Level 7, ‘Faculty X’, Wilson’s term for when the mind is so energised that other times and places are as real as the present. Level 8, mystical consciousness, ‘is not, at present, our affair’, Wilson writes. ‘Our business lies with the first seven.’ This is because climbing above Level 4 is possible by sheer effort – a question of focused attention combined with ‘readiness potential’ – while Level 8 is beyond the reach of the will.
At present, the human race stands ‘on that dividing edge between uphill and downhill’: Level 4. Most healthy people spend much of their time in the upper part of the fourth level, while many have gone beyond that stage. ‘All we need now is to recognise it consciously, to grasp it,’ Wilson adds in the closing chapter of Super Consciousness, and, in so doing, enhance our sense of meaning: for the human race to be sustained by sheer perception of meaning would be ‘a decisive step to becoming something closer to gods’.
Models, such as Wilson’s levels of consciousness, in whatever field or discipline, can allow us to understand potential in particular ways and act accordingly. Just as acceptance of the Newtonian model of universe paved the way for the industrial revolution, as acceptance of an Einsteinian universe opened up a nuclear future, as quantum science undermined the notion of a materialist universe, so Wilson’s ‘seven levels’ model opens an evolutionary route to an expansion of our concept of consciousness as well as an expansion of human consciousness itself.
In Super Consciousness, Wilson says his life has been given an inner consistency by the search for the formula of the intensity experience, for which the human capacity is greater than we realise: 'We are misusing ourselves out of ignorance of our capacities.'
The process of creation, he wrote in Poetry and Mysticism (1970), is a matter of driving oneself, of creating oneself, but the 'passive fallacy' means that a person feels somehow permanent and unchangeable; he or she should not accept this low condition as normal – this admonishment being the foundation of Wilson’s positive or active brand of existentialism, the ‘new existentialism’ of which he was founder.
The 'trick' of heightening consciousness, of attaining the mental act that needs to be mastered, he says, is to make consciousness stand still by an act of attention, to arrest the normal flow of everyday consciousness in order to elevate it to a peak experience, such states of ‘super-consciousness’ heralding a step forward in human evolution.
In The Craft of the Novel (1990), Wilson asserts: ‘Reality is not what happens to be most real to us at the moment. It is what we perceive in our moments of greatest intensity. And the peculiar power of the imagination enables us to cling on to this vision after the intensity has vanished.’ (Wilson’s italics).
In the moment of the peak experience, a sudden breach occurs in the boundary between individual and universal consciousness, and intense feelings of joy and often of oneness with the universe flood through. One understands it as an important potential gateway to the realisation that consciousness itself is the ultimate underlying reality: Wilson sometimes seemed about to embrace this idea but never came to spell it out in so many words.
However, he did believe the prevailing materialist scientific paradigm was false. Today, the post-materialist position on consciousness, that it is primary and fundamental, vindicates his investigations of, and conclusions about, the paranormal and the peak experience which informed so much of his thought.
Indeed, Wilson anticipated post-materialism before the term was invented (see my essay, ‘Reality Check: Colin Wilson and consciousness theory in the 21st century’, under the Features menu on this website.
Evolutionary Metaphors: UFOs, New Existentialism and the Future Paradigm
David J Moore
O-Books (UK £10.95 / US $16.95, May 2019)
The skewed logic underlying the UFO phenomenon realigns approaches to meaning through what David J Moore calls the ‘evolutionary metaphor’ in his edifying and interdisciplinary investigation of one of the most perplexing mysteries of our time.
In a valiant and far-sighted attempt to get to grips with the phenomenon as ‘an archetypal challenge to our cultural limitations’, Moore draws on the optimistic ‘new existentialism’ of Colin Wilson, offering a spiritual and philosophical base for the ‘creative integration of our consciousness towards anomalous experience’.
In doing so, Moore – who says his outlook developed radically from gloomy existentialism to Wilson’s optimistic philosophy after seeing a UFO in 2008 – also explores the diverse occult, esoteric, imaginative and creative speculations that have arisen from ufolore. Attainment of a revitalised vision of human existence through a cogent understanding of the UFO experience and its bizarre abduction scenario, and what constitutes ‘reality’, he believes, could ‘integrate our evolutionary minds’.
Certainly, it’s my belief that the creative, or authentic, use of imagination is to work with intellect and intuition to form new consciousness in the evolution of mind.
To explore the possible esoteric, philosophical and cosmological frameworks with which one could begin to understand the mystery of the UFO, Moore decided to begin from the fundamental recognition of what he saw at the heart of Wilson’s new existentialism: that consciousness is intentional and can, willed or unwilled, reach out and grasp the essential meanings implicit in existence – in the contents of consciousness, I would add. At higher levels of individual consciousness one becomes aware of increasing meaningfulness.
In a penetrating analysis of the UFO enigma, through the esoteric and phenomenological lenses provided by Wilson and others, what emerges for Moore is a symbol and metaphor for a future paradigm in which the role of both human and non-human consciousness in evolution and reality is of crucial importance, and far exceeds its lowly position in our current materialistic climate.
By way of some background here, Colin Wilson, in his autobiography Dreaming to Some Purpose (2004), upon returning to discussion of Alien Dawn (1998), his own in-depth investigation of the UFO mystery, refers to Professor John Mack, the Harvard psychologist who believed there was no way of making sense of UFO reports ‘within the framework of our existing views of what is real or possible’.
Wilson wrote that since his first book The Outsider (1956) was about people who felt there was something ‘deeply wrong’ with consensus reality, and that we needed to broaden our views about what is real or possible, he found ‘instant rapport’ with Prof Mack.
‘I ended by coming to believe that although UFO phenomena seem to contradict consensus reality, they do not contradict the reality described by quantum physics,’ Wilson continued, ‘Or, for that matter, mystics. All the evidence seems to show that we should not regard UFOs as “spacecraft”, but as unknown energy forms.’
He concurred with the view of Prof Mack and of the French ufologist and astronomer Jacques Vallée – both of whom Moore discusses along with other well-known ufologists – that the purpose of UFO phenomena seemed to be heuristic – ‘that is, they are designed to teach us something, to change our attitude towards reality’. [Wilson’s italics].
Moore agrees with, and Evolutionary Metaphors brings a profound new dimension to, this theory. The essential overall effect of the UFO experience, he says, can be summed up by Wilson’s parallel remark, in Alien Dawn, that: ‘…if an important part of the purpose of these [UFO] phenomena is the effect on us, then that purpose would seem to be to decondition us from our unquestioning acceptance of consensus reality’. [Wilson’s italics].
Alien Dawn advances our deeper understanding into the unusual and powerful forces that urge us to bridge two worlds, says Moore. Wilson provided the intellectual and spiritual tools necessary to navigate these new territories ‘within the evolutionary mind’.
Wilson points to ways out of the UFO mystery’s ‘maze of absurdity’ and a more integrative understanding, both of the phenomenon itself and ourselves. Thus Moore says his book is an attempt to continue in the spirit of where Alien Dawn left off, and to throw ‘some auroral illumination into this phenomenological twilight zone’.
Long before, writing in Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966), Wilson said life works ‘in terms of symbols and language’ and when the ‘flame of consciousness is low, a symbol has no power to evoke reality, and intellect is helpless’. Thus Moore takes the symbol of the evolution of human consciousness as a possible solution to the enigmas that the UFO represents, fitting it into a general philosophical bracket of the ‘evolutionary metaphor’: ‘that playful extrapolation of something beyond the ken of ordinary perception’.
So if the UFO experience is an ‘evolutionary metaphor’ for a new understanding of reality, what would this new understanding actually involve? I suggest it would involve accepting the mental nature of reality, according to which self and the world are manifestations of a spatially unbound universal consciousness: apparently physical structures, including UFOs and their ‘extraterrestrial’ occupants, are circumscribed by consciousness, and not the other way round.
Moore seems to be open to such a conclusion when he writes that the UFO, like the occult, becomes a poignant symbol of inner transformation. Yet the UFO is an entirely seen phenomenon, pointing to another realm of being, and beings. In this sense, it is the occult world made manifest and, in a particularly notable phrase, ‘a curious reminder of our state of spiritual neglect’.
Such forces of the occult seem to live through us, and their language is suited to wonder and the symbolic. And it is the evolutionary metaphor, ‘that symbol of potential from the inner worlds, that urges us to actualise it into reality’.
Significantly, Moore suggests that if UFO entities originate in between our inner and outer lives, then the often symbolic content and communications of encounters with them might presage a new relationship to consciousness. Indeed, although it could be that, ultimately, we’ll find there’s no distinction between our ‘inner and outer lives’, between inner and outer space, in that they’re aspects of a fundamental reality, a universal consciousness which anomalous data is helping us to appreciate through our self-reflexivity.
Consensus reality itself, as well as anomalous phenomena, can be construed as trying to persuade our intellects to ask key questions about their provenance, to jog the ‘unconscious’ mind into bringing to the surface truths which can enable direct experience of a transcendent reality.
We receive hints of these possibilities, as Moore seems to suggest, through the mythopoeic imagination – he uses the example of the Romantic visionary consciousness and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s composition of ‘Kubla Khan’ – and Jung’s procedure of ‘active imagination’, a means of interrogating the unconscious by temporarily halting the thought-stream.
Apposite to these ideas, Moore says UFO phenomena can be ‘read’ as if it were an unfolding story, authored by someone or some ‘thing’, or that we’re ‘self-authoring’ it in some deep sense. He feels that instead of being adrift in a meaningless universe, we instead inhabit a reality with an emergent evolutionary context to which consciousness contributes.
In the very actions of the UFO phenomenon, its ‘theatrical and absurdist performance’, it might be a kind of initiation: ‘That is, representative of a challenge that is to be overcome – a kōan designed to integrate a deeper understanding into the nature of reality, and particularly consciousness’ role in the making of that reality’.
It’s of relevance to mention here comments made by the philosopher-scientist Bernardo Kastrup, from whom I believe Moore takes an insightful cue, that ‘calls of the absurd’ – anomalous phenomena, such as UFO encounters – can be physical and measurable in nature, even if elusive, and can also be objective in the sense that multiple and independent observers often report events in the same way. Thus they can leave ‘nuts and bolts’ evidence.
They can also trigger introspection and intuitive insights. Jacque Vallée concluded that 'calls of the absurd' were leading to a shift in human consciousness and our conception of reality, although, conceivably, it could be the other way round: that it is an accelerating shift in consciousness since the 1940s (when modern UFO flaps began) that accounts for the tremendous increase in reports of anomalous phenomena since that time.
In Meaning in Absurdity (Iff Books, 2011/2018), Kastrup suggests a world-view to which Moore’s is complementary: where logic is itself a construction of the mind and rationality a veneer over an 'unfathomable core of the unformed', the meaningful non-rational, the domain of the imagination.
Coming to terms with this might be the greatest existential challenge the human race has faced, but one that could represent the best opportunity ever to re-shape our existence with, as Moore says, a ‘much-needed re-evaluation of our reductionist culture’.
Referring to Wilson’s essential ‘Outsider cycle’ of books (1956-66), Moore says: ‘In many of the Outsiders as well as [UFO] abductees, there is a vision of a new modality of being that infers meaning that is fundamentally practical and personal and, once actualised in the individual, becomes applicable to society at large.’
Such a vision could inculcate what I have termed elsewhere a transcendental pragmatism to aid the evolution of consciousness, entering into a region of experience in which the rational and the non-rational are unafraid to cohabit and can produce new sets of correspondences and connections leading to a deeper insight into the way of the universe.
The approach is transcendental in the sense of a philosophy that lays emphasis on intuition as a means of knowing an ultimate reality, and which embraces the belief that an order and purpose pervades nature and humanity; and pragmatic in the idea that a theory or concept should be evaluated in terms of how it works, what its consequences are, and what are its standards for action and thought – in Moore’s words‚ ‘practical and personal’.
Moore adds: ‘The evolutionary metaphor is the working hypothesis that navigates implicit realities into explicit ones…’, a conclusion complementary to Wilson’s in Alien Dawn, that both the UFO and occult phenomena are forcing us to accept a multidimensional understanding of reality, that they’re trying heuristically to alter and widen our concept of it.
Evolutionary Metaphors is Moore’s first book. One of a welcome new generation of Wilson commentators, it must be remarked, he writes distinctively with an unusual turn of phrase and a perspicacity that comes from being well read; thus he deserves to be encouraged in his researches. He gave talks at the first two international Colin Wilson conferences in 2016 and 2018, his work has been published by Cambridge Scholars, and he has a regular blog.
More than the existential outsider: Reflections on the work of Colin Wilson
Paupers' Press, Colin Wilson Studies #29 (UK £7.95)
Review by Piet Nieuwland
I first read The Outsider in 1978 on a forestry school field trip to Harihari on the remote South Island West Coast of Aotearoa/New Zealand. This was at a time when the future of West Coast indigenous podocarp and beech forests were being debated. The experience was enlightening on the possibilities of humans and humanity.
I share this because recollections of first encounters of the works of Colin Wilson seem quite revealing. Vaughan Rapatahana begins his reflections with an account of when he first encountered The Outsider while living in a caravan in South Auckland. The experience led Rapatahana to complete a doctoral thesis on existential literary citicism, and lifelong interest in Colin Wilson.
I’ve not read any Colin Wilson since my first encounter, focusing on poetry instead. So this book seems a perfect introduction to a wider sweep of his ideas. This is usefully conveyed via an interview, articles from Philosophy Now, several obituaries and an essay on a range of issues discussed and written about by Wilson. These include Wilson’s optimistic new version of existentialism compared with the European existentialists, and the need for a new language to articulate the stepping stones to a fully realised consciousness, transcendental ego, peak experiences and intentionality.
Central to the argument is Dr Rapatahana’s view that Wilson strove to unite the so-called Continental and analytic traditions of philosophy into one seamless endeavour. The book is effectively a case arguing the Wilson be taught in university philosophy courses, and it is enthusiastically put by one who is well qualified to make it.
It does naturally raise a several questions for me. The path of philosophical discourse seems to build upon itself, incrementally, over the decades. So what about other philosophers such as Robert Pirsig who were very popular in the 1970s; how does he relate to Wilson if indeed he does?
Then there is the question or challenge posed by Wilson of the need for a new language on those stepping stones. Surely one needs look no further than Buddhism or other eastern perspectives for exquisite articulations on that. Was Wilson aware of their existence? There is certainly more room for discussion and debate, in universities and elsewhere, too.