I know I’m talking a lot, here, about my personal story. But I’m trying to use it to talk about something else, something not always so easy to get hold of. It is as Henry Thoreau said in Walden: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me.”
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Colin Wilson’s body of work revolves around one 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 not much else that could be called parapsychology or occult (or, now, New Age). My mental world was filled with history, biography, politics, current affairs.
The only thing in my life touching on what people call 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 another time.) As to drugs, I went to George Washington University, a very conservative school, slow to catch up with the times. Also, 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.
But I had been raised a naturally pious, naturally mystical Catholic in the time before Vatican II. 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 20th-century postwar America and the other set equally firmly in a medieval worldview whose assumptions about reality were radically different.
Because I had embraced both, without feeling tension between them, and without putting them into watertight compartments in my mind, I experienced a certain freedom. 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. Not only was I very metaphysically inclined by nature, I was also 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!)
This wasn’t the only reason, of course. I was unwilling to admit anyone’s right to tell me what to read, say, or think. 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. But as I see it now, primarily I was disappointed in God and creation.
Those were my Downstairs reasons. I do not mean to imply that they were not real to me. But I can see now that they were not the whole story. Upstairs had its own agenda, which involved being sure that I would be free to go where I needed to go. I couldn’t do that and stay a good Catholic too.
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.
So I cut my anchor to the church, and wound up drifting. It was Colin Wilson’s work , and then Carl Jung’s (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, first), that helped me find a rudder to steer by. We’ll talk about that rudder by and by.
The fact is, we have a hard time living in the earth because physical matter is not fully our home. Our bodies are of the earth, our animating spirit is not. And the closer you get into touch Upstairs, the clearer this is. We are an uneasy combination of matter and spirit, which makes living in physical matter possible, but doesn’t make it easy. Psychic powers? Of course you have psychic powers. No spirit incarnating could exist without them. One might as well suppose that people could live without breath, or heartbeat. The problem is that our society has marginalized those who are most aware of these abilities.
That kind of awareness may manifest in various ways. Depending upon your background, constitution, and awareness, you may feel special affinity toward mysticism on the one hand, or toward magic, on another hand, or toward strict religious discipline, on the third hand so to speak.
A spiritually alive and responsive society based on real knowledge of who we are and what we are here to do — rather than knowledge of dead things, economics, and the ability to manipulate material things for material ends — would provide outlets for each of these inclinations, supporting them in a web of social relationships. Instead, it places the subjects in the realm of unimportant things, and defines the mainstream by what one might call a spiritual lowest common denominator.
Because I became an editor for a New Age publishing house, and because I was conducting my own investigations at The Monroe Institute and with others, I came to number among my friends writers and psychics and psychic writers. Various experiences with psychics taught me quickly that a person’s psychic abilities, whether natural or developed, do not necessarily reflect a comparable level of maturity or wisdom or even goodwill. The gift of access does not imply moral or intellectual superiority; it’s just a gift. Psychics like anyone else can be charitable or patient or wise, or all of these things, or they may be malicious or petulant or foolish — or all of these things.
Psychic’s Disease, I call it: the certainty that whatever one feels strongly is true. The unwillingness to question one’s own motives. The sometimes hysterical denunciation of anyone perceived to be in opposition. The assumption that anything and everything one wants is obviously for The Higher Good. The identification with God or with the Forces of Light or whatever, not as a matter-of-fact choosing of sides (“I stand with good against evil”) but in an inflated manner that often seems merely overcompensation for an inferiority complex.
Now — you ask, seeing that description of common human frailty — how is that different from any other collection of fallible humans? The answer is, only in that genuine psychics have a specific talent that tempts them to regard themselves as set apart from other people, subject to different rules.
Indeed, to a degree they are subject to different rules, because they experience their lives differently, and live in a manner that, in our tone-deaf time, is outside the accepted way of doing things. By contrast, in an American Indian tribe, for instance, the shaman is recognized as the bearer of a specific gift; his specific social role comes complete with expectations and allowances, somewhat as in our society our expectations and allowances for artists, say, are different from those we have of businessmen.
But in our secular society, psychics have to operate as if they lived in the same world the rest of us live in. Living by listening to the inner voice, experiencing the world in a radically different manner from those who experience it primarily through the senses, they cope as best they can, but these circumstances make it easy for them to go off the beam, unnoticed by themselves, because they have so little external support to balance them.
Someone living closely responsive to the inner voice doesn’t easily listen even to constructive criticism by those who live only by external rules. The psychic knows that to live by external rules is death to the spirit. The psychic is correspondingly likely to forget that while in the body one cannot live exclusively in the spirit. Cannot. Should not. That’s not what we’re here for.
It can be impossible to get this across to them.
In a society that had made an accepted place for these people, those gifts would be more easily available and reality checks would be easier for them to come by. They could more easily rely on reality checks not merely from each other, but from the culture at large, as in Joan Grant’s vision of ancient Egypt. There is no inherent reason for psychics to have to function on the fringe of society, except that society has made clear to them that they are fakers or freaks, to be tolerated so long as they behave themselves; to be put in mental institutions or prisons if they step too far, or express themselves incautiously.
Freaks? We are all psychic. We can’t help being psychic; it is inherent in being human. Only our society’s view of what it means to be psychic distorts our awareness of how it fits in with the rest of the life that we take for granted. Thus we misidentify the abilities we use every day, and doubt or deny those that must be developed or that come by unlooked-for circumstances or by fortunate birth.
We all know how hard it is for fundamentalists, the mainline religious, and what are called New Agers to live together. Although the three groups all believe in the reality of spirit, in a very real sense they live in radically different worlds, because they perceive different realities.
But those three at least believe that we are a blend of body, mind and spirit. Materialists eliminate spirit as “unscientific,” whatever that means. Behaviorist psychologists, if I understand their arguments, eliminate even mind, regarding thought and all internal human existence (presumably including their own) as an accidental by-product of chemical processes of the brain.
How can people holding such different viewpoints live comfortably together?
Well, we can’t. Not very comfortably. Strained tolerance is about as well as the various sides usually do. Each sees its own values under assault; each feels that its values are not respected by others or by society as a whole; each (to cite yet a third case of the same thing seen differently) sees others living in a fantasyland and forcing others to live there as well.
For each of the participants the stakes seem infinitely high, because of two connected assumptions. The first is: “It’s us against them, and only one can win, and the result will determine human life for the indefinite future.” The second, acknowledged or not, is: “We’re on our own.” And disagreement over high stakes breeds fanaticism.
This is where wars between cultures begin, and that’s precisely what is going on today throughout the world.
To resolve this culture war without anyone losing, we’d have to find a common starting place, which surely can only be agreement on the facts underlying human existence. If we could agree on the facts, we could fight about interpretations and values later. But where is agreement on the facts to come from? Divine revelation? Scientific theory? Abstract reasoning? Intuitive knowing?
The authorities one believes in are partly determined by one’s values, and in turn those authorities help shape those values. It is a reciprocating process. But one man’s authority is another man’s superstition. Fundamentalists feel about Evolution the way materialists feel about the Bible: They see it as a superstition that warps the intellectual processes, and thus ultimately the values, of those who believe in it.
I would argue that what we believe comes partly from what we have been taught (implicitly and exquisitely) by our life experiences, partly from what we have reasoned out or resonated with (in other words what we have more consciously chosen), and mostly from personal experience. What I know, because I’ve been there, is in a different category from what I only believe. This is true even if what I “know” is wrong.
What we feel we know, we do not need to defend with vehemence or anger. It is what we believe — that is, what we cannot be sure of — that may tempt us to kill one another, for what we are unconsciously unsure of, we defend with redoubled vehemence.
The scriptures say Jesus came that we may have “life more abundantly” — which I understand to mean life deeper, wider and richer than commonly experienced. I certainly believe that life more abundantly is possible. In fact, I know it, from personal experience, which is the only way we really know anything. Those who have been imprisoned know what freedom is in a way that those who have not, do not.
For a certain type of mind and personality, religion is the best, perhaps the only, avenue to that greater life. For other types, religion may serve not to open up the way, but to close it off. Just as humanity comes in different races and nationalities, so it comes in different psychological types, and members of each of these types can fulfill themselves only in a certain way. It’s no good expecting fundamentalist Christians to find their spiritual growth in shamanic practices, or to expect Episcopalians and atheists to find their own growth in the same way. A path exists for each, and what is a path for one is trackless wilderness for another.
To be an enemy of religion per se is as foolish as being an enemy of spirituality, or of expansion of consciousness, or of any other way of achieving growth toward becoming what we are meant to be. I do not see a necessary contradiction among them.
There are many paths, and we all have similar needs and similar intuitive certainties — certain things that seem to all of us self-evident. After all, at a level far beyond our conscious reasoning, we come out of the same world and are part of the same world, within the sensory realm and beyond it. As our experiences are not necessarily mutually contradictory, neither are the explanations — unless one says “this interpretation is the only valid interpretation.”
But of course this is exactly what usually happens. It is too bad. Arguing over which path is best wastes precious energy that could be used to better purpose.
I was living in the Hampton Roads, Virginia, area, age 40, in my first year as Associate Editor for the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, writing editorials, columns and book reviews, all very happily. I belonged to no church, but I lived, or tried to live, according to my silent prayer, “Dear God, show me the way.” There are many worse ways to live. Indeed, at my best I live that way now, though I define things differently. (As usual, religious experience unites; religious opinions divide.) Yet whenever I sat down to work on the novel whose first-draft I had written eight years before, or on my study of “Thoreau and Mr. Emerson,” begun even earlier, I dried up. And I had other problems, including my marriage and, notably, my health.
I was experiencing chronic intense back pain. Any little thing, like building a cold frame for some lettuce seedlings, reduced me to near-immobility. I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down comfortably. My chiropractor sent me to get x-rays, and one Tuesday she showed me the x-ray films. They showed a thinning of pads in the hips, which was pretty serious, and heavy deposits of calcium on the bones: On the x-rays it looked like frosting! And nothing could be done to remove it. It looked like I was beginning to become an old man, and I was only 40. So along with the pain came depression, of course — I not realizing that this was the low point.
My wife suggested that I might want to watch “Out on a Limb,” actress Shirley MacLaine’s two-part TV special. I dislike and distrust television, and I didn’t have any particular interest in Shirley MacLaine’s spiritual searchings. But I was in pain, without anything better to do. Why not watch a little TV? So I watched the first night’s program. The longer it went, the more intensely interested I got — and the damnedest thing happened.
When I got up at 11 p.m. to go to bed, I suddenly realized that for the first time in days, my back didn’t hurt! What’s more — to jump the gun on the story — the arthritis of the spine disappeared, and never troubled me again. I had years of back pain yet ahead, but never again from arthritis.
It would be years before I learned the “how” of what had happened, but even at the time I took it as a wake-up call. Thinking I was leading a God-centered life, I had still let externals distract me. No wonder I felt like I was dying! I decided to go to the first of the Higher Self Seminars, which (in honor of Edgar Cayce) was going to be held in nearby Virginia Beach. It would cost $300, no small amount for us then, but I decided to take the chance that it would be worthwhile. After all, that was quite a wake-up call. And so I was one of the 600-plus people who filed into the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach Saturday morning.
The newspaper ad had said that the seminar would offer: “Group meditations, techniques in visualization, chakra-raising sessions, questions and answers relating to past-life recognition, how we create our own reality, and the final connection with the Higher Self.” I saw, clearly enough, the expert manipulation that had been used in the wording of the ad, but reading it again all these years later, I judge that what she offered is what she delivered. And she delivered it, as a seasoned show-biz professional, by knowing not only how to employ sound-effect techniques but how to mobilize and use group energy. In the very first visualization exercise, her voice led us to visualize crossing a river to where the Higher Self would be waiting. To my astonishment, there indeed was an image, one I never would have consciously chosen.
My Higher Self appeared as a unicorn! A unicorn, a magical, mythological beast. For the first time, I realized why my father–who could be symbolized as a loyal, dependable work horse–had always been so dismissive of my beliefs. He thought I was “really” a horse too–and what was he to make of a horse who thought he was a unicorn? My unworldliness had worried him. By telling me (against my active resistance) “the way things are,” he had tried to protect me. The gift of the situation, besides all the practical things he did teach me, was that living with him provided me with protection against (that is, understanding of) skeptics and cynics.
On the other hand — I realized that weekend — I’m not a horse. I am what I am! I am different, and that the difference is to be prized. This visualization, more than any single event in my life, removed my shame and doubt about who and what I was.
I had asked myself in my journal, that morning, what I wanted from the seminar, and after some false starts had decided that “what I’d chiefly want is to be spiritually, physically, mentally whole. I’m so tired of being a fragment, and a crippled fragment at that.” That weekend of healing brought me part-way toward wholeness (which means, health). I got something of what I wanted.
Because I attended Shirley MacLaine’s Higher Self Seminar, I contacted what might be called my Higher Self. Because I honestly and openly reported what had happened to me there, I set out upon the path that has brought me to a vastly expanded universe.
When I got home from the Higher Self Seminar weekend, I wrote up a 2,000-word piece for my newspaper, to appear the following Sunday. I didn’t try to describe meeting my “higher self,” because for a general audience a third-hand description would be worse than none at all. (Third-hand, in that they would have had to interpret my interpretation of my experience.) It is one thing to describe a thing to someone who may use that description as a guide or as a trail-marker. It is quite another, futile, thing to describe it to those who will then judge its validity offhand, without having had the experience and without making any attempt to have the experience. Yet I didn’t hide behind the journalist’s facade of pretended impartiality. I was more willing to be called a fool than to pretend that nothing had happened to me.
But I admit, I had qualms when, on the Friday before publication, I saw the lead article in the “Commentary” section page proofs! They had made my suggested headline (“Shirley MacLaine’s not the only one out on a limb”) into a subhead, and had used “In the spirit” used as the head. “Oh God,” I thought, “what have I done?” Nothing in the piece was phony or shallow. But it was so open and unprotected! I suddenly wasn’t so sure I wanted it so widely distributed.
On the Monday following, I went to work braced for a wave of criticism or ridicule. Instead, I got reinforcement. Reporters and editors talked to me (carefully!) in the hallways, showing intense but strictly private interest, even fascination. I might have known. It was my first experience of how much underground interest there is in the subject.
This turned out to be my introduction to the local New Age community, because in 1987, a newspaper article giving “inside” (and favorable) coverage of a metaphysical event was unprecedented. The article drew some favorable phone calls, and a local radio host had me on his show to talk about the seminar. But it wasn’t long before we received a wave of letters to the editor.
A few were positive, but far more were critical. And although my article had criticized materialism, rather than fundamentalism, nearly all the adverse letters came from fundamentalists rather than from materialists. (Maybe science-worshippers considered the subject beneath their notice.)
I was bemused. My piece hadn’t attacked their religious beliefs even implicitly. Contacting your higher self needn’t be done within a Christian framework, yet certainly may be, and has been for nearly two thousand years, as I had explicitly said. And (like Bob Monroe, but three years before I read his books), I had written in a very low-key, matter-of-fact manner, sensing that dramatization is falsification, and that descriptions of metaphysical pursuits are very prone to just this error. I had done my best to get through to as many people as possible. Yet here were people saying that getting in touch with our higher selves was the work of the devil.
One man wrote that as “a person’s spirit becomes open, the susceptibility to demonic influences increases. I know this to be true because at one time I touched on the occult and received a very bad experience.” He suggested that searchers “do it under God’s guidance by way of a qualified person such as a pastor or priest in an established church.” As if people like me would have been still searching if we had found what we need there!
Another said Shirley MacLaine “offers more abstraction and vagueness to a large group of desperate souls in search of a quick fix in their spiritual lives.” He said she “came to town to peddle an ancient, rehashed version of sorcery and nether-world indulgence.” He added that she had been his favorite actress, but was “now someone who must be avoided at all costs. The Holy Spirit demands it.” This name-calling was justified, presumably, because he knew what The Holy Spirit demands.
Another said she was “shocked and appalled at the publicity your newspaper gave the seminar,” which she termed a “rip-off.” Ms. MacLaine, she said, had used “various brainwashing techniques such as `visualization'” and was “playing with fire.” I was to learn in years to come that many fundamentalist churches fear — perhaps more than any other single thing — individual attempts to commune with spirit in the absence of whatever version of the Bible that church happens to believe in. Some teach that meditation is dangerous as “Satan can insert thoughts into open minds.” God, apparently, can’t.
Well, I knew I could trust the Higher Self, and knew I could trust God. But each of these labels came with its own emotional nuances, and they didn’t fit all that well together. It’s too easy for the idea of God to overwhelm our experience of any larger spiritual reality. Higher Self was a pretty vague concept, but that didn’t really matter. I didn’t know just what I had connected to at the seminar, but I did know that I had connected to something. I now had something that I didn’t just believe, but knew first-hand. It was a start.