Colin Wilson’s huge early influence on me

News of Colin’s passing sends me back not to the friendship we began in 1995 but to the very early days, when he didn’t know I was on Earth, but changed my life. I wrote about it in my book Muddy Tracks:

For more than forty years I endured the long, hard, solitary road. Yet I had gotten a startling glimpse of the existence of a better way of living one night late in February 1970, when I was a few months from turning twenty-four. I was in a drugstore checkout line when a strong impulse led me to pick up a paperback book off the rack. Oddly, for some reason the thought came to me that I might steal it. I still don’t know why that thought came across, unless merely to underline for me the importance of that book, a science-fiction novel called The Mind Parasites, by an author I’d never heard of named Colin Wilson. I bought it, and that moment turned my life.

The plot was simple enough. Two scientists at the end of the twentieth century (then more than thirty years in the future) discover that we are all the unsuspecting hosts to—well, to mind parasites, creatures that sap our vitality and our sense of purpose. After sundry adventures, the scientists learn to defeat the parasites, and for the first time begin to take possession of humanity’s unsuspected abilities, including a host of powers then usually called occult.

When I read that book, I was seized with the conviction that the author was telling the truth. We do have such powers, and they are inexplicably beyond our grasp. What is more, it was clear to me that the author believed it too. The strength of his conviction ran like a strong current beneath the surface of the story, and was spelled out clearly in his preface.

His preface mentioned that he had begun his career (at just about my age then) with The Outsider, an international best-seller. I went looking in the local public library for any other of his books, the beginning of a lifelong habit. I soon found that, whatever form he uses—and he has written novels, volumes of criticism, biography, history, essays, plays—the same underlying message comes through. It came through to me that night, and filled me with excitement. Something within me went click! and said, “This is how it is.”

For a while I pressed this book on all my friends, and was disappointed and puzzled that it didn’t turn their lives as it had mine. But it had turned mine because it was the right book for the right person.

Chance? Coincidence? I would have thought so then. I don’t now. Today I know that the words “chance” and “coincidence” are shorthand terms covering mental laziness or, perhaps, fear of a world that is seamlessly purposeful. Neither was it predestination, karma, destiny, or fate; at least, not as commonly understood. Today I would call it guidance, but what I mean by that and what I don’t mean and why I think the way I do now probably will take the rest of the book to explain.

I emerged from college in 1969 with a B.A. in history and still no idea what to do. I took for granted that I would run for Congress in 1974, at age twenty-eight, basically since Kennedy had first run for Congress at age twenty-nine. (Our two lives had no other parallels, but I didn’t notice.) But I laid no groundwork, and wouldn’t have known how to go about doing so.

That was entirely typical. I was very unworldly. All the time I was in college, I never gave a thought to how I would make a living afterward. Particularly shortsighted it was, in that I had had to work my way through college. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know the value of money, or how hard it could be to earn. But my ideas were as limited as my experience. I seriously thought that I might have to go back to work in the factories after I graduated college. I couldn’t imagine a path.

But things happened, as they do. In the Washington, D.C., race riots of April 1968, I took a walk past police lines into the riot zone, wrote up my impressions, and sent them to the editor of my hometown newspaper. The following year, I began working for that paper as news reporter, beginning the Monday after my last exams, a week before the graduation ceremony, which I didn’t bother to attend. A couple of months later I was married, and in February of 1970 there I was, buying this book by a man named Colin Wilson.

 

Wilson’s entire body of work revolves around the same premise that is central to the story line in The Mind Parasites, a premise that could be summarized as follows: “There is something wrong with life. The unsatisfactory way we live isn’t the way it should be or has to be. We possess vast unsuspected powers and abilities of which we are slowly becoming half-aware. It is our task to exert the intelligently directed will to learn to develop and use these powers.”

That message filled me with excitement partly because it was pretty much without precedent. I had read Jess Stearn’s Edgar Cayce—the Sleeping Prophet, and Ruth Montgomery’s A Gift of Prophecy, but to the best of my recall now, all these years later, not that much else that could be called parapsychology or occult (or now, New Age). There must have been some, but my science fiction stage had not yet been replaced by fondness for what I call weird stuff. My mental world was filled with history, biography, politics, current affairs. After all, I was going to be a statesman!

The only thing in my life touching on the paranormal was the fact that in college I had hypnotized a couple of my fraternity brothers, eliciting stories that purported to be past lives of theirs. (More about this later.) As to drugs, George Washington University was a very conservative school, slow to catch up with the times, and I was a very conservative person—and a timid one—who had his future political career to consider. I graduated without having tried any drug stronger than alcohol and tobacco. So much for what I would now call a Downstairs view of things. Upstairs saw it differently, as it usually does.

I suppose I will have to explain how and why I use the terms Upstairs and Downstairs, though many will find them self-evident. Others use Inner and Outer. Either way, it’s a spatial analogy describing a non-corporeal yet intimate relationship. In the 1970s I had no idea that I had an Upstairs. I lived in, and operated from, the kitchen, so to speak, and thought that was all there was.

As a naturally pious, naturally mystical Catholic in the time before Vatican II—that is, in the 1950s—I participated thoroughly in that mental and spiritual world. The Latin Mass and all it symbolized—the entire theology—was as real to me as secular, technological America. And that was the gift of the situation. I lived with one foot set firmly in twentieth century postwar America and the other set equally firmly in a medieval worldview whose assumptions about reality were radically different. My freedom from both came from the fact that I had embraced both without feeling tension between them. Looking back, I realize that most of my contemporaries and probably most of the clergy lived by constructing separate mental compartments and making sure the contents of one stayed separate from the contents of the other. But I—for reasons I never troubled to examine, because I never realized the situation—did not. To me, there was no split between being a good medieval Catholic and a good twentieth century technological American. For one thing, I was very metaphysically oriented by nature. (I didn’t discover how much so, and why, until I was forty-seven.) Also, I was either intellectually lazy about reconciling different compartments of my mental world, or was particularly shielded. Or both.

I left Catholicism intellectually with a violent lurch in my teens, though it took much longer to leave it emotionally. My reasons (my Downstairs reasons, I should say) don’t do much credit to my emotional maturity or even common sense. Certainly they show that eleven years of Catholic school had left my theological understanding essentially untouched. I didn’t want to believe in a God who could let Kennedy be killed. (That’s how closely I identified with JFK!) I didn’t any longer believe that the Church’s rules were ordained by God. And I couldn’t believe that God would condemn people to hell when I knew I wouldn’t. I had many reasons. In fact, as I see it now, Downstairs I was disappointed in God and creation. Upstairs, though, had its own agenda, which involved being sure that I would be free to go where I needed to go.

This seeming digression about Catholicism is mostly to assure you that my Upstairs/Downstairs concept is not a disguised remnant of theology. This will become obvious after a while, but it seems as well to spell out the fact now. And there is another, seemingly contradictory, reason. What I had been taught in the medieval Catholic Church was not merely fairy tales made up to enhance an institution’s control of its members. I from personal experience learned that what I had been taught was someone’s best shot at describing what I now see and experience in a radically different framework.

About Downstairs. I came to learn that I as an individual am much more than I used to think I was. A man was born in 1946 and eventually died. (In 2023, as I have been told? We’ll see.) He formed around an ego that centered, by design, in one particular time and space. That self, what Carl Jung used to call self number one, is the self I usually think of as me. It isn’t as simple as that, but for a shorthand description, it will do. This intellectual and emotional and physical unity, I call Downstairs. (Some today might think this a description of the functioning of the left brain, but that is so vast an oversimplification as to amount to falsehood.)

This unit operates on sensory data, and logic, and emotion. It plans and executes. It functions, and unconnected millions are aware of nothing more than this level of functioning. Certainly, for much of my life, despite substantial clues to the contrary, I stumbled along thinking that this unit was all there was to me. This Downstairs consciousness thinks it is alone, and struggles through its life, alone, as best it can. It may form close emotional bonds with family or friends; may fall in love; may identify with the idealized existence of others (as I did with Churchill, for instance, and JFK). Nonetheless, it feels alone. It may believe in God, or the Higher Good, or All That Is, or it may believe in Marxism or history or evolution, and identify with any of those, or even with nothingness. Regardless, it lives and dies feeling alone.

Or rather, it does unless at some point it experiences connection, in which case it discovers Upstairs. Unless and until that connection is experienced, one lives life alone, regardless of belief, for I am speaking here not of a theological concept but of an experienced reality. Many a bishop lives only Downstairs, I suspect, and many atheists would be horrified (or possibly amused) to realize that they themselves live more firmly connected Upstairs than do many believers.

So what is Upstairs? For now, let us say that we Downstairs individuals are to Upstairs as individual computer terminals are to computers that are networked together. Upstairs has access to vastly more data and wisdom, and remembered purpose. It has the wider view of our lives, our personalities, and our meaning. Upstairs is where unsuspected “coincidences” nudge our lives to keep certain possibilities continually available to us. Available, not inevitable, for it is up to us to choose. That is what we are here for, Downstairs: to choose. And, as I see it now, nudging is exactly what was going on when I picked up Colin Wilson’s book that night, shortly before Dave Schlachter’s father called to tell me that Dave was dying.

 

4.

 

Dave had been one of my closest friends in college; in some ways the closest. There were things we could share with each other that couldn’t be shared with anyone else. For instance, in the autumn of 1968, when the guys in our fraternity house came back to school, it was Dave and I who stayed up into the early hours one night, talking about how we had reacted to the news that Bobby Kennedy had been killed, and how we had spent the rest of that long summer. In that regard and in others, Dave and I were instinctively on the same wavelength, even though he was a well-motivated, scholastically successful, solidly middle-class Jewish Midwesterner, and I was none of these.

(That we were on the same wavelength we took for granted; only in 1987, in the course of a past-life regression by an amateur hypnotist, did I startle myself by seeing me as having in another lifetime been Dave’s star pupil. I told myself then that that explained why he and I were so close in certain ways. Not that I was fully convinced, and not that I see things quite that way now, particularly the question of reincarnation. But that’s getting far ahead of the story.)

In our senior year, only a few weeks before he was to graduate, Dave suddenly began seeing double. He was hospitalized, and within hours became paralyzed. The doctors said this was the result of the sudden growth of a brain tumor that must have been lying in wait since he was perhaps two years old. An operation removed the paralysis by removing the pressure of accumulated fluids, but it also revealed that the tumor was in an inoperable place. A few weeks later Dave walked out of the hospital and was able to return home, but the doctors made it quite clear that there was no long-term hope. He might live a year, two years, even twenty—who could know?—but ultimately it would kill him.

My reaction was fierce: Fight this thing! Something told me that Will would have more to do with Dave’s survival than anyone was admitting. And I wanted desperately to help. Had the feeling that I could help, if I only knew how. But no one could tell me how. Our mutual friends were defeated by it. I read in their eyes that they thought I was merely refusing to accept reality. We were in our early twenties, what did we know? The doctors knew. The adults knew. Dave had been given a death sentence.

The worst of it was that I could see that Dave thought so too. I told him to fight it, the last time I saw him, the last time we had a few quiet moments together while he was in GWU hospital that summer. But he was too weak, too discouraged, and there was nothing around him to give him any realistic reason to think he could successfully fight fate. In those days, even more than today, the surrounding culture called despair realism. The terms “alternative medicine” and “distant healing” hadn’t even been coined then, so far as I know. In any case, they weren’t current with anybody I knew.

In 1970 the consensus was that his only hopes were medical intervention or spontaneous remission (whatever that was supposed to mean) or a miracle. Medical intervention had failed, spontaneous remission wasn’t happening, and I don’t think anybody in Dave’s hospital room believed in miracles. I did, I suppose, but I sure didn’t know how to summon one.

He would have many more options today. Nearly thirty years later another friend of mine, Dave Wallis, was hospitalized at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville after an accident. What a difference! During the two days he was in a coma, his friends, instead of having to sit in a waiting room holding up the walls, spent time around his bed, sending healing energy. We each did what we knew to do, doing a lot of energy work. Not only did the UVA hospital personnel not object, they were supportive. They had seen therapeutic touch and other therapies work before. In fact, an orderly told me that one of the doctors on staff wouldn’t operate without the assistance of prayers from the patient’s loved ones. Charlottesville in 1998 was a far cry from Washington in 1970. We as a society have come a certain distance along the road.

Indeed, one time in 1998, when three of us were around Dave’s bed, sending him healing energy, I looked around and got choked up as it hit me how beautiful it was. I thought, “This is how it’s supposed to be. This is how it will be.” The doctors will use their skill and others will send love and support and will use what they know, and the whole process of recovery from illness and accident will be so much more human. Also, we’ll be able to do so much more.

How I wish I could have given Dave Schlachter anything of what I know now. If that was his time and pattern to go, all right, but in different circumstances, it might have had a different result. Circular logic, of course.

Dave died in his hometown on March 2, 1970. Several of us had come out to Iowa to be with him. In those last moments, one of our friends held his mother, another held his girlfriend, and I put cooling cloths on Dave’s head and stroked his forehead, and maybe talked to him, though I don’t remember. Then it was over and we walked out of his hospital room feeling terrible. The following week we were in northern New Jersey, where his father had family, and on a bitter Friday we buried him, as the rabbi and his father said the ancient words that probably none of his friends believed in.

My friend Dennis, who was Dave’s closest friend, was there, having obtained compassionate leave from the army. (He had been drafted soon after graduation.) While we were standing as pallbearers, he leaned over to me and quietly quoted Kahlil Gibran: “Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses the understanding.” I had plenty of pain, but not much understanding. I couldn’t even understand why I had pain. Intellectually, I knew Dave was better off dead than trapped in a malfunctioning body. Intellectually, I believed he was now free. Intellectually, I believed in reincarnation, so intellectually I couldn’t see death as a tragedy, right? (This from the same brain that was still lacerated from the murders of JFK and RFK, two famous men it hadn’t even met!)

Intellectually was one thing. Emotionally was another. Emotionally, I was a wreck. I said I shouldn’t feel, and thought that ended it. Many years later, I treated myself to a spell of Jungian analysis, and there I finally learned that feelings can be ignored, but not dictated, and that we ignore them at the price of deadness.

 

So what does this have to do with Colin Wilson? At this point, I have no idea. I thought I knew, when he first came up, but I see now I am blank about it. Let’s have a word from Upstairs. Gentlemen, can you assist me here?

Of course. And welcome to you, reader. What Frank calls The Gentlemen Upstairs, at your service. Perhaps he will not mind if we cast some of this in the third person. It will be easier for him to hear, and easier therefore to slip it through his mental filtration.

Frank was functioning exclusively Downstairs, as he calls it, all the years from the time he was shut down at about age seven until he gradually learned to consciously reopen the tap as a middle-aged man. The point of these early sections is to remind him—and you—of what it is like to live continuously Downstairs, without conscious access to other levels of your being. It isn’t “wrong” to do so, in any moral sense. It isn’t even “incorrect” to do so, for all paths are good, and all lead to growth one way or another. But while it isn’t wrong, and isn’t incorrect, it certainly is doing things the hard way. People do things the hard way sometimes because they are stubborn, and sometimes because they feel they have no choice. But usually they stop doing it the hard way when they learn that there is an easier way.

One purpose of this book is to convince you to try the easier way.

When Frank’s friend died, and in a way even more so when his earlier “friends”—his heroes—were killed, he had to deal with it exclusively from his Downstairs resources, and not even all of those. Because he thought he shouldn’t fear death, or mourn it, he convinced himself that it shouldn’t hurt, and that therefore it didn’t. Unable to acknowledge his feelings, he was of course unable to process them, and they remained violently alive within him. (So it seems to you in bodies, anyway.) Repressing awareness of feelings takes enormous amounts of energy, even when much of the emotion becomes locked into the physical structure. The violent unacknowledged feelings sloshing around inside made him prone to violent, unpredictable, uncontrolled mood swings, as those who were around him then could well testify. And the situation divorced him increasingly from the world around him, as he tried to cope with the world—with others—strictly from unacknowledged, therefore unknown, feelings. People were already a puzzle to him; they became even more so. He had no feel for who they were, or why they were as they were. He couldn’t understand the simplest things about what motivated them. And he had no idea how he appeared to others. Some were attracted to him, some were contemptuous, some puzzled. In no case did he have any idea why.

What all this has to do with Colin Wilson jumps the gun a bit, chronologically. Frank’s helplessness in the face of his friend’s death appalled him—though he scarcely realized it. And his dissatisfaction with his own life was so acute, his belief in the reality of any realistic path so nonexistent, that he was feeling trapped. He thought in terms of writing books, making lots of money, and living an independent existence not requiring him to go to work five days a week, but to his puzzlement he made little attempt to do the writing that would lead to the goal. He thought in terms of running for Congress in 1974, but made no attempt to lay any groundwork for the plan. He was stranded. At a deeper level, he was purposeless. (We speak here strictly of the Downstairs level that he experienced.)

Colin Wilson’s books gave him an opening he could believe in: the development of mental powers! The achievement of supernatural abilities, paranormal skills! He didn’t know whether he could believe in them or not, but here was a writer who was investigating reports of such things, and doing so from a point of view quite similar to his own: open and inquiring, yet skeptical and wanting to make sense of it all, rather than merely accepting someone’s word for it.

Wilson’s book came into Frank’s life—something he is about to learn as we bring him to write this—at just the time needed to provide him a bridge across despair. The Catholic Church had failed him, or so he would have put it, in that its rules and its perceived completeness and rigidity left no room for things he somehow knew were not as they had been described. (He called that knowing intuition then, not yet thinking in terms of layers of being.) The materialist worldview had no appeal; he similarly knew that was even less true than what he took the Catholic Church’s position to be. He was looking for a way out of his logical prison that said, “There is no God; or anyway, not as I have been taught; yet we are more than the accidental collection of chemicals.”

Wilson was there, to lead him to many others. The Mind Parasites inflamed him with the non-rational certainty that mental powers were there waiting to be developed. The Outsider and the succeeding books in Wilson’s Outsider cycle were crammed with references to others who seemed to see the world, if not just as Frank saw it, at least closer than anyone he knew in the flesh.

 

3 thoughts on “Colin Wilson’s huge early influence on me

  1. well. all i can say is that i loved reading this, and think my husband will big-time resonate to bits, too… thanks.

    1. I have to say, when I was reading The Mind Parasites, and then anything else of his that I could find, I never dreamed that (a) I would one day be publishing some of his books, or (b) he would write an introduction to my first non-fiction book. As I said to him more than once, when i finally met the much-admired author, the man in the flesh was not a disappointment.

  2. ps my husband grew up in DC, and is nearly eleven years younger than i am (me- b 1947, he 57)… but I was encamped at Resurrection city , and he was still ‘growing up’ there in ’68… His grandma and her consort owned the Market Theatre..

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