Super Consciousness, by Colin Wilson

Super ConsciousnessWhy this Book: I’ve read many of Colin Wilson books and have been a big fan of his since I was in college. After reading Stealing Fire on ecstasy and the ecstatic experience, I was inspired to read what Colin Wilson had to say about “peak experience.”

Summary in 3 sentences: This book provides numerous case studies to describe and explain “peak experiences” –  what they are, what they indicate about us, and how to engender them.  He says that the peak experience is available to all of us, and drawing on his work with Abraham Maslow, argues that they are fundamental to true happiness and to “self actualization” at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.   The peak experience is a merging of what he calls the worm’s eye view in our day to day “robotic” experience, and the bird’s eye larger perspective, and while peak experiences can happen spontaneously –  most often when we get out of our comfort zones – they can also be engendered with an act of will and focus.

My Impressions:  This book is a great companion to Stealing Fire. Both books explore various approaches and efforts to find ecstasy, or a happiness or fulfillment that is “out-of-our-heads,”  but Wilson brings a more traditional perspective, with references to many earlier philosophical, psychological, and literary efforts to understand happiness and peak experiences.   But like Stealing Fire, Super Consciousness is all over the map and lacks focus.   That said, I got A LOT out of the book.

Super Consciousness  is Colin Wilson’s exploration of the idea of “peak experiences” that he borrows from Abraham Maslow, who he knew well and with whom he collaborated earlier in his life.  The peak experience is a moment of intense appreciation of one’s experience and one’s surroundings. You can learn more about this concept in an article in Wikipedia.

My own impression is that there is a spectrum of peak experiences.  On the low end, they may be a relatively mild ‘Wow!’ experience, in which we momentarily step out of our role as practical doer of deeds and actor in the world, and simply surrender to a sudden  full appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the situation in which we find ourselves.  On the high end of this peak experience spectrum, it may be a satori-like mystical experience infused with qualities described in Stealing Fire  with the acronym STER: Selfless, Timeless, Effortless, and Richness.  While the literature on peak experiences focuses on the later, Wilson’s description seems to include a spectrum: On the more “mundane” end, a sudden infusion of joy, wonder and appreciation; on the other end, the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

Wilson’s key claim is that we can will ourselves to have more peak experiences by recognizing them, acknowledging them, valuing them, and opening the door to them.  He points out that over 50 years ago, when Maslow described peak experiences to his students and asked them to describe their own similar experiences at each of his class sessions, the more they described them to each other, the more often they occurred.  Maslow associated peak experiences with the apex of his hierarchy of needs – self-actualization – and there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between peak experiences and being self-actualized.   They seem to reinforce each other.   Self-actualization is associated with a strong sense of fulfillment coming from living in accordance with one’s personal sense of meaning and purpose. And the peak experience (as I understand Wilson’s interpretation of Maslow) is a guidepost to that sense of harmony with one’s world.  It is an experience that not only shows the way – it may also be the way.

Wilson is an existentialist philosopher and as such, gives the individual ‘full responsibility” for his/her experience.    He argues that we can choose to seek peak experiences , and will them to happen more frequently.   Or we can choose to simply be practical, or morose, or victims of whatever our environment imposes upon us.   He argues that many of the existential philosophers of the 20th century sought and chose to live in a meaningless and uninspired world, dismissing those happy souls who experienced joy and appreciation as naive, and blind to life’s tragedies and senselessness.  In Super Consciousness Wilson detailed (too much so from my perspective) Samuel Becket’s pessimism and joy-denying philosophy, and also argues against Sartre, and Kant, and others who he believed did not recognize or accept the life-affirming possibilities of an optimistic approach to life.

Wilson claims that the experience of intense of joy, and appreciation of the simple things in life is just as valid as the experience of meaninglessness, boredom or nihilism that many in the intelliegentsia have come to regard as a more sophisticated interpretation of our daily experiences.   So why not choose to experience joy rather than boredom, or an ecstatic sense of wonder and one-ness, rather than debilitating pessimism and meaninglessness?

Good question. Why not?

In the forward of Super Consciousness, Wilson states, “I am now 75 and most of my life has been devoted to a search for what might be called ‘the mechanisms of the Peak Experience’ or ‘power consciousness.’   This book might be regarded as a DIY manual on how to achieve it.”  I don’t think the book quite fulfills that promise, though it does open the door and begin the discussion.

So how might we have more Selfless, Timeless, Effortless, and Rich experiences of sudden joy wonder and appreciation?  Wilson is not overly specific, but he points to how such experiences often follow periods of intense concentration on survival and/or avoiding harm or tragedy.  He argues we have to get out of our routine, out of our comfort zones to increase the likelihood of peak experiences.  Building on Maslow’s claim, his argument is that heightened awareness of our capacity for such experiences can be an important part of having them, and we must constantly be aware of our often “robotic” approach to life. And when appropriate, fight it.

Wilson’s claims that we each have a  “robotic”  level of consciousness in which we take care of practicalities, and when in this mode, we go about our lives like a machine – just taking care of the business of life, not experiencing the joy of life.  The robot is indeed necessary, and helps us to identify and deal with threats, simplify our environment, and make ourselves safe and comfortable. But if we let the robot take over our lives, we miss the joy, the newness, the wonder that is part of the fully self-actualized person.  Wilson describes peak experiences as being infused with childlike wonder,  amazement, and surrendering to the fascination of seeing things as if for the first time.  They are like the experience of being in love, when the world seems to glitter.   This is the peak experience, which Maslow and Wilson say is key to living a fully self-actualized life.  The more of these we can have, the better.

Wilson says that in order to control our robot, we must be aware of, understand and even appreciate it.   But if we let the robot take over, we miss beauty and joy – we miss peak experiences. Our robot doesn’t appreciate the beauty of a sunset or the wonder of a child’s first steps, or how amazing it is that somehow things happen as they do.  Wilson says we have to keep the robot on a leash, otherwise practicalities will take over our lives.  In his own case, he says he sometimes even catches himself in his robotic mode  making love to his wife!  Whether we let ourselves get caught in entirely robotic living is up to us.  It is a choice – an act of will.  One way to open the door to peak experiences is to take the robot from the steering wheel, and put him/her in the passenger seat.

Wilson says on a day to day basis, our robot experiences life from a “worm’s eye view,” seeing only that which is in front of us. This he contrasts with the bird’s eye view available to us when we consciously step back and look at the big picture.  Wilson says the peak experience occurs when the worm’s and bird’s eye views suddenly and spontaneously merge – and when this merged full perspective is infused with energy and appreciation.

The peak experience requires energy – psychic energy to fuel the experience of total immersion joy, wonder, and gratitude that are characteristic of the peak experience.  I am reminded of how in his book The Pursuit of Happiness, Bertrand Russel argued that to be happy, we need periods of relative boredom – to let our energy build, to allow us to fully enjoy new experiences.  I think that this insight is particularly valid in todays overstimulated and hyperactive world.  And I also must take heed.

Just like Sam Harris’s Waking Up, and Stealing Fire, Wilson talks about the need to get the thinking mind out of the way, in order to let the peak experience in.   I recently attended a seminar on the Wim Hof method of using the mind to control environmentally imposed stress (heat, cold, other environmental factors.)  Wim Hof also pointed to the necessity of getting our pre-frontal cortex out of the way to let the limbic system – the seat of emotions and intuition – the freedom to allow us to reach our full potential.

It seems to be a common theme.

Super Consciousness is not Wilson’s best work, but rather a compilation of much of his thinking built around Abraham Maslow’s concept of the peak experience.   I doubt if there is anything truly original in this book, but I truly like Wilson’s writing style and approach and I got a lot out of the book. It is an easy and fun read and I believe has a very important message.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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3 Responses to Super Consciousness, by Colin Wilson

  1. Monergyguy says:

    It’s all about accessing the right energy to obtain peak experiences.

  2. Pilar Moreno says:

    I enjoyed the book very much and it got me thinking a lot in the different ways of approaching one´s realities.

  3. Pingback: The Philosopher’s Stone, by Colin Wilson | Bob's Books

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