The great British cult polymath philosopher Colin Wilson celebrated his 80th birthday in June. His prodigious output has included a dizzying variety of subject matter since his first book The Outsider in 1956. Starting from an investigation of the psychology of famous mavericks, ranging from Nietzsche to Lawrence of Arabia, the dancer Nijinsky and the mystic Gurdjieff, Wilson later went on to cover the occult and paranormal, serial killers, UFOlogy, ancient civilisations, literature and sexuality. He sometimes experimented with pulp-fiction formats to produce crime and science fiction novels that served as vehicles for his greater ideas that could be broadly termed (after the title of one of his books) a New Existentialism.
For those interested in personal development and higher states of consciousness, and what that means in everyday moment-to-moment terms, perhaps the most accessible zone in Wilson’s vast corpus concerns his friendship with Abraham Maslow and the fruitful ideas this produced.
Here is an extract from the section The Psychology of Thelema in my Aleister Crowley and the Aeon of Horus. It can hopefully serve as a little taster for those who might want to investigate Wilson and Maslow more. It is also the foundation of the presentation on the subject I shall be giving in Glastonbury on August 10th. (See Events )
American psychologist Abraham Maslow realised that the theories of Freud and Jung had been developed through studying people who considered themselves to be sick or to have problems of some kind. The same kind of attention had never been given to those who felt healthy, sane, and fulfilled. Maslow decided that this potentially meant that the various psychoanalytical approaches might be unbalanced or incomplete and undertook research to rectify this.
He discovered that people from all ages, genders, and backgrounds reported what he came to call “peak experiences,” a phrase that has passed into general cultural vocabulary. In all kinds of different circumstances, a sudden feeling of extraordinary well-being and elevated sensibilities might descend on people. For example, a young drummer talked of occasions when, after extensive practising, he suddenly found himself in a superb focused state where it was if the drums played themselves. There are now so many reports of similar phenomenon in sport that a whole literature and psychology has grown up around it. A mother preparing breakfast for her husband and children went into a state of profound joy and fulfilment when a ray of sunshine suddenly lit the scene. It seemed to simultaneously illuminate her higher emotions. She felt profound gratitude for what her everyday consciousness had started to take for granted. Once peak experiences were discussed, people began to remember many others. They also started to have new ones with increasing regularity. The psyche responds readily to all intimations of transcendent wholeness.
This sort of thing would be called gratuitous grace by Catholics. They are often simple transient versions of the states recorded by the more famous mystics. Maslow believed that the ground can be prepared for them but they can’t really be induced to order. The preparation involves meeting the demands of what he called the Hierarchy of Needs. We have primal desires for food, shelter, and breeding. Freud developed a whole theory of human behaviour and the nature of society on the basis of these factors, feeling they were sufficient to explain everything. Maslow believed that if the basic needs are met, there is another dynamic that arises and also requires urgent fulfilment. He called it “Self-Actualisation”. People need to have a sense of inner worth, of distinct individuality, of growth. Some kind of creativity seeks expression. Denial of these urges produces alienation, inertia, all manner of dysfunctional grief.
Colin Wilson knew all about this problem. His first book, cult classic The Outsider, was a study of the self-destructive path of many confused artistic types who had sought an outlet for their inner dynamism in a society that could not adequately accommodate them. The painter Van Gogh, the dancer Nijinsky, and philosopher Nietzsche, were all examples of intense talents that imploded. Their urge to super-consciousness came up against consensus pessimism, a major symptom of the sleepwalking trance of humanity that Gurdjieff had explained to Ouspensky. Wilson went on to write an Outsider series. One of them, The Age of Defeat, attracted the attention of Maslow in 1959 and the two began to correspond. Wilson had railed against the sense of doom and despondency that characterised European cultural thought. It led to people feeling passive, insignificant, and unable to lead a happy life or make a difference in the world. Colin Wilson considered this to be a fundamentally flawed and dangerous attitude. It could be summarised in the modern world as the “everything’s bollocks, let’s get the beers in” syndrome that I had even seen in evidence in university professors. Maslow told a story about how he had once asked one of his student classes which one of them would make significant contributions in their field in the future. None had raised their hands. “If not you, who will?” They got his point.
Colin Wilson speaking on Peak Experiences and Maslow.
Eventually Colin Wilson wrote one of his most important works, New Pathways in Psychology, on “Maslow and the Post-Freudian Revolution.” Where Wilson diverged from Maslow was in his belief that we don’t have to wait for the peak experiences. We have many ways to cultivate them as part of intentional self-actualisation, a kind of new existentialism. The study of the psychology of health and sanity should form a vital part of any education.
In 2009, Colin Wilson returned to the subject, producing Super Consciousness, his considered verdict on over fifty years of pondering these vital topics.
It’s most useful to contemplate how these issues have also been dealt with by the American cultural institution of Self-Help books. Long before Maslow, in 1908, Napoleon Hill was challenged by the fabulously wealthy philanthropist steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to dedicate twenty years studying what the most successful people across the whole spectrum of life in America had in common. The result was the Law of Success, a gigantic compendium of functional intelligence with practical guidance in its achievement. Hill’s most famous and contentious work was Think and Grow Rich. This must-read text can be seen as the foundation for subsequent popular works such as The Secret with their central idea of the Law of Attraction. It could very easily be seen that the process of inner training necessary to cultivate it successfully might be considered as a form of applied intentionality. I leave it for the interested reader to see how these various ideas can cross-fertilise eachother for our greater benefit.
For a doorway into Colin Wilson’s thought
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