From The Outsider onwards, published in 1956, Colin Wilson was concerned to investigate the nature of human consciousness: an ‘outsider’, a term he sought to refine later, was/is a person with a cast of mind different from the norm. In The Age of Defeat he is explicit about the way consciousness can be defined as ‘ordinary’ and extraordinary or ‘visionary’ – at any rate going way beyond whatever one might think of as ‘ordinary’. He quotes David Reisman (The Lonely Crowd) who makes a useful distinction between people whose consciousness is ‘tradition-directed’ (driven by ritual, common observances and standard belief in a fundamentally rigid orthodoxy of some kind), ‘other-directed’ (subject to the whims of other people, conformity to the norms of organisation, self-demolishing) and ‘inner-directed’. A consciousness which contains an impulse towards being inner-directed is one that can cope with change & confusion and has the self-discipline to drive towards self-chosen goals. Of course, these are not exclusive categories, just more or less clearly definable fixations (which can always be unfixed!).
Being other-directed, with a ‘…strong sense of society, of laws and taboos, a sense of constant responsibility to other people…’, tends to be associated with a feeling of inferiority (or ‘ordinariness’), lack of self-purpose and increased passivity. Dependency on the dictates of others results in the feeling that one can’t make decisions for oneself since other people are in charge and/or more clever at doing so. While individuals with some degree of inner-directedness are at least more able to channel their own energies; lack of it has the individual more reliant on socially defined outlets for energetic action.
How does one acquire true inner-directedness? As opposed to the inner-direction assumed by murderers, terrorists & discontented youth…
Complete isolation – that is what the Outsider is driving at. He knows that, if he could only achieve it, there is a completely different way of seeing the world – a way so different that one might almost say that it would no longer be the same world. The Outsider’s final problem is to become a visionary. The first and most obvious step is to cut himself off from other people, so as not to be conditioned by their way of seeing.
(Colin Wilson: Religion and the Rebel)
Isolation from other people, from ritual & obeisance to creed, from organisational conformity so as to develop the possibility of entry into a higher or even visionary state of consciousness. The latter kind of consciousness might be called the result of ‘mystical’ experiences bearing in mind that they ‘…are not experiences of another order of reality, but insights into this order [here before our very eyes & ears, experienced] with extraordinarily clear vision and greater concentration…’
All experiences can be used as the building bricks of a visionary consciousness if there is a conscious effort at assimilation… Not being supermen, our brains are not big enough to contain all the world at once: we have to select what is to be remembered; and we remember only those experiences that we allow to penetrate our indifference… The moments of supreme detachment, when we stand above our own experience and somehow see a meaning in it, come too rarely. In those moments, we feel unified, and have a keener sense of being alive; the world no longer presses on us so that it seems to flatten us; it is withdrawn, at arm’s length…
(op cit – my italics)
Wilson says that ‘…the mystic’s notion of psychology starts with the question HOW DOES ONE BECOME A VISIONARY? Rather than subscribe to something that sounds a bit high-flown, I have developed the habit of defining this state as being endowed with Meta-I consciousness – Mr G’s capital C Consciousness, literally standing above or outside experience, putting everything at arm’s length. A mysterious if not ‘mystical’ place to be. In 1957 Colin Wilson defined it as ‘existentialism’ – ‘the revolt against mere logic and reason… a plea for intuition and vision… recognising oneself as being involved in the problems of existence as a participant [and]… as a spectator…’ The Fourth Way perspective. But we get diverted from the Path by A Influences; there is an increasing tendency for people in general to be other-directed.
Here is modern man – for all his scientific knowledge, as stupid as his forefathers, and turning to all kinds of political charlatans for leadership – wanting only to be possessed, possessed by anything, by the latest politician or the latest crooner or film star – anything to escape his own futility and emptiness…
Among the many works by influential people Colin Wilson refers to in Religion and the Rebel, with great authority for one so young (the amazing number of books he’s already absorbed by then!), is Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. From it he draws out the idea that ‘…the ruling classes decline as they allow themselves to relax and become decadent, effete. Toynbee uses the Greek word for this, and calls it hybris, which can be translated pride, conceit, swelled-headedness, egotism…’ Having met the challenge of Hitler & Co successfully the ruling classes relax and get out of condition, and fail to meet the next challenges.
…Hybris, in one form or another, is the cause of the breakdown of civilisations. For instance, a nation that develops an effective army to meet the challenge of barbarians at its frontiers is likely to become militaristic, and the military mentality is invariably stupid. This stupidity prevents it responding to challenges that require intelligence, and also means that it suppresses Outsiders, and tries to drill them into a military mould… Having crippled its Outsiders, it crashes. Modern Western civilisation is in this position… individuals depend upon moral vitality to create and evolve: civilisations need it too…
As an antidote, Toynbee advocates self-determination, self-control, self-discipline, and mastery of one’s own problems. Inner-directedness – precisely what the Outsider is striving for, says Wilson… Some kind of spiritual renewal, defined in the widest possible way.
Religion and the Rebel concludes with this statement:-
The Outsider was an attempt to argue the thesis that man is not complete without a religion. The inspiration of the book was William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. James’ argument amounts to this: Man is at most complete when his imagination is at its most intense. Imagination is the power of [ANWhitehead’s concept of] prehension; without it, man would be an imbecile, without memory, without forethought, without power interpreting what he sees and feels. The higher the form of life, the greater its power of prehension; and in man, prehension becomes a conscious faculty, which can be labelled imagination. If life is to advance yet a stage higher, beyond the ape, beyond man the toiler or even man the artist, it will be through a further development of the power of prehension. This craving for greater intensity of imagination is the religious appetite.
I wonder if the whole book could not have been reduced to a study of the writings of ANWhitehead. In The Principle of Relativity, he talks about ‘bifurcation of nature’ the way in which Western philosophy has divided the world ‘…into things as they really are and things as they seem…’ Whereas ‘…our experiences of the apparent world are nature itself…’, just the way it is. We are part of the natural world and cannot possibly have experiences that are separate from it. The non-dualism of Zen is a more appropriate way of coming to terms with experience: we are part of what Whitehead calls the ‘organism’ called the world and must find some way of grasping its nature from within.
Whitehead developed the idea of ‘prehension’. Colin Wilson says this can be best defined by quoting a passage from Whitehead’s last book, Modes of Thought:-
…the notion of life implies a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment. This must mean a certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the word ‘prehension’ to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an ‘occasion of experience.’ I hold that these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which .., compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into the creative advance.
In other words, prehension is the somewhat mystical act of reaching out to grasp experience and make it your own possession.
Our sense-experiences are superficial, and fail to indicate the massive self-enjoyment derived from internal bodily functioning. Indeed human experience can be described as a flood of self-enjoyment, diversified by a trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation…
Religion and the Rebel was first published in 1957 while I was doing so-called National Service getting ready for full-blown pacifism, a year after the dubious success (as Colin Wilson at the age of 24 saw it) of The Outsider which ‘…stayed on the English & American bestseller lists for a long time …translated into a dozen or so languages…’ mostly because it was dumped in a category, all the rage at the time, of things produced by ‘Angry Young Men’. It had a great effect on me.
Twenty-seven years later a publisher asked Wilson if Religion and the Rebel could be reprinted. Because it had been ‘hatcheted by the critics, and sank without a trace’ the ‘Scrambled Egghead’ Colin Wilson had not read it since but he found the experience ‘pleasantly surprising’. He was ‘…fascinated by this insight into the workings of my mind at 25…’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘…for the first time I understood the miscalculation that had left me wide open to the barbs of the critics…’ – he had referred to ‘the Outsider’ ‘…as if it is a precisely definable type of human being, like an Eskimo or a cannibal. The truth is, of course, that most people contain an element of ‘outsiderism’ – a sense of alienation from society… the constant use of the term ‘Outsider’ gives the book an element of oversimplification…’
I finished reading it with the feeling that it was full of repetitive assertions (what the author recognises as ‘its crudities’) that a range of characters somehow fitted the label ‘Outsider’ but there was a constant feeling of losing track of the essential theme of the book. Certainly the main purpose was clear: those who think on our behalf, as it were, seemed to arrive at the general conclusion that some kind of spiritual renewal was necessary if humankind is to be rescued from its plight. The ‘Outsider Cycle’ continued into The Age of Defeat, The Strength to Dream, Origins of the Sexual Impulse, and Beyond the Outsider, with The New Existentialism as a postscript. Colin Wilson sought to make up for ‘…The debacle of Religion and the Rebel...’: it ‘at least taught me to stop throwing around the word Outsider…’ As well as the ‘…conviction that the Outsider is a lonely beacon of integrity in a sea of cheapness and futility’ he wanted to remove ‘90% of its references to ‘the Outsider’; he saw this as a ‘surely inevitable [desire] ‘when a man of fifty-two reads a book by a man exactly half his age…’ There is not a single reference to the offending word in The Age of Defeat! In a way one misses it but the approach to the subject of an outsider’s state of mind, when one links it to the previous analysis, is more subtle, if overdone.
The central issue as Wilson saw it in 1981 was to gain the ability ‘…to learn those mental disciplines that can raise us momentarily into states of ‘mystical’ perception…’ or the discipline of self-transformation. Or even conquering the mental slope that helps one to arrive at Maslow’s ‘peak experiences’, ‘…sudden glimpses of objective awareness,.. a sudden recognition of how lucky we are, avoiding the descent ‘…into self-pity, a tendency to look for somebody else to blame for problems…’ – ‘…if we lack ‘spiritual tension’, the cause lies within ourselves, not in the ‘botched civilisation’. That’s important.
Studying an extraordinary range of writers, Wilson came to the now familiar conclusion that ‘…the controller of intensity of consciousness – lies in the ordinary conscious mind: ‘…we have two people living in our heads, in the left and right cerebral hemispheres, and the person you call ‘you’ is the ‘conscious self living in the left brain. The right-brain self is a stranger, and is also the source of so-called ‘psychic powers’ and of the peak experience. Yet it is the left-brain ego, the [ordinary] conscious self, which is the controller of awareness…’ We just have to become aware of this dual function and take charge of it in cataloguing experience, to get the left brain, ‘the gatherer of power’, to take conscious charge of the process. Mr G’s ‘self-remembering’: me being me in the here & now.
Wilson was heartened that ‘by the mid-1960’s, the works of Hermann Hesse – which were almost unknown in the English-speaking countries when I discussed them in The Outsider – had become best sellers again. A new generation plunged with enthusiasm into the disciplines of Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, transcendental meditation and even ritual magic. No doubt many of these movements – like the psychedelic revolution – were mere fads, but there can be no doubt that the impulse behind them was a dissatisfaction with the quality of ‘everyday consciousness’, and the feeling that it ought to be possible to change it…’
Forty years later, where are we at now?
In the early 1960’s I began to define myself as an ‘Tolstoyan anarchist’ with many of the characteristics of Outsiderism and inner-directedness. This must have been the result of the influence of having read The Outsider when it first came out! Though I didn’t define it this way consciously, I took up the task of educating young minds (and much later, the older minds of executives and people in responsible positions in industry) in the same spirit. I don’t suppose that ‘ANWhitehead’ has the same resonance in the general populace’s consciousness as he has in mine…
POSTSCRIPT It has occurred to me now (as it should have done before!) that Reisman’s distinction between Inner- & Outer-directed fixations falls into the meta-program analysis in NLP. The Tradition-directed fixation is equivalent to the Must-do/Could-do meta-program; the Inner- & Outer-directed fixations are equivalent to the Self/Other meta-program. There are six other formally recognised meta-programs – which catalogue the ways in which we sort experience: same-as/different-from, internal/external observation, in-time/through-time, proactive/reactive and so on.
7 thoughts on “THE BENEFITS OF COMPLETE ISOLATION (R18)”
Your article about Colin Wilson has prompted me to reconsider my affiliation to him. No single author has influenced me as much. In 1967 when I read The Outsider (age 21) at Teacher Training College, I couldn’t have foreseen how much he would subsequently direct my path through life. I ‘became’ a Soto Zen Buddhist in 1985 (age 39) and during the next ten years I distanced myself from Wilson. I will attempt to outline why and how this change of heart came about.
As a 21yr old I was emotionally and psychologically vulnerable as a consequence of spending seven traumatic years at a Quaker boarding school. (Not that I recognised it as traumatic at the time). I not only saw myself as an outsider (‘individualist’ was the term I tended to use!) but shied away from socialising. Some psychologists use the term ‘Highly Sensitive Personality’ and this has some resonance with me. At school I’d accepted the label teachers gave me of ‘trouble maker’ – I inwardly rebelled but outwardly conformed at college. Given my various hangups it is no wonder I identified with Wilson’s outsider. At the time I didn’t have enough self-awareness to realise I was often acting from various defence mechanisms. What I was increasingly aware of was that this vague ‘dissatisfaction’ soon became hitched on to a more objective ‘search for truth.’ When I read the chapter about Gurdjieff, in The Outsider, I felt I’d discovered a great secret and a way forward. So, in the 1970s I joined a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford and stayed with them for 2 years. Looking back, it was exciting (we made an Index for All & Everything and put on a play in London) but somehow I never really got stuck in; I seemed to be always distanced from others. Years later, when I was married, I came under the spell of Krishnamurti before a big life-crisis saw me searching out a Buddhist monastery in the NE of England.
Alongside this spiritual search came the reading of the seemingly inexhaustible list of authors that Wilson wrote so enthusiastically about – writers such as Herman Hesse, William James, Dostoyevsky, Van Gogh (his incredible diaries), Ouspensky, Nietzsche, Thomas Mann and Kierkegaard. My musical tastes were even set in stone after reading Brandy of the Damned (Colin Wilson On Music). Up to the age of about 40 his influence was strong. What changed afterwards then? No doubt a certain disenchantment with youthful enthusiasms is common: we look back on these early enthusiasms with a little embarrassment (while retaining some affection).
So, what about the reservations? Firstly, even his uncritical admirers would admit he is very repetitive. His life-long reference to his ‘own genius’ is cringe-worthy. He tends to make assertions (as you point out Colin) that we are supposed to take on trust. His marshalling of ideas can be riveting and we too easily get carried away without rigorously examining the arguments. He is gullible, as evidenced by his belief in Uri Geller and many of the case histories in his ‘occult’ books.
From my Buddhist perspective he often appears simplistic and naive. He doesn’t seem to have an understanding of what the historical Buddha revealed about suffering and the causes of suffering. Here I need to put my cards on the table: I regard the insights of Buddhism as the most ‘accurate’ analysis of the human condition which will stand for all time. (I realise therefore that to non-Buddhists my criticism may seem over-harsh.) All I can say is that the ‘way of Soto Zen’ has provided me with self-understanding and enabled me to survive in some very dark places. Not that Soto Zen is a kind of therapy; no, it is much more than that; it’s mainly about finding a deeper reality. (Of course Wilson also would seem to be pointing to this deeper reality but isn’t he always operating from an exclusively intellectual level; is he truly committed to inner transformation?)
Soto Zen is a practice of non-duality whereas Wilson talks about strengthening the ‘will’ and ‘striving’ to gain a higher level of consciousness. This is anathema to Buddhists; over-striving, especially in spiritual matters, is seen as a big part of the conundrum. Somewhere Wilson describes ‘screwing up his eyes’ and tensing his face muscles in order to induce a peak experience! This surely smacks of a school-boy mentality doesn’t it? In Buddhism we are more content to go with the flow and cultivate patience and compassion, a gentle on-going process of daily life; no heroics or ‘storming heaven.’ Here is a paragraph from a Buddhist magazine to give a flavour of the practice:
Each of us has an essential basic lesson that we need to learn from the life that has come to us. This is the spiritual work we were born to do. For one it may be to trust themselves, for another to be content. The koan (the central issue of unresolved confusion) arises naturally in our ordinary daily life, which is our training ground. . . [We can ask of ourselves.] Am I bringing harmony or disharmony to this situation? Are my actions helping or hindering?
With daily zazen (meditation), making ethical choices and practising ‘letting go’ of mental attachments, the essential Self is gradually uncovered (usually referred to as ‘buddha-nature’) and we are hence in a better position to act for the benefit of all. I am not claiming to be a Zen exemplar; I’m just arguing that Wilson’s preoccupations are somewhat different from mine!
However, I am far from dismissing Wilson altogether. His enthusiasm when he summarises the ideas of writers is infectious. I think his literary criticism (which he labels existential criticism) in books like Eagle & Earwig is original and thought provoking. His fiction is always readable. He has engaging quirks such as including analytical tables for his non-fiction. That he has an original voice as far as imaginative fiction goes can be seen in his fantasy series, Spider World, a series surely asking to be filmed.
His basic assertion (which could be stated in a paragraph) that we humans all too often go through life acting habitually to events and consequently don’t allow a connection to deeper reality cannot be denied. In Blake’s world view, our innate inheritance can see ‘a world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower and eternity in an hour.’ But we obscure the view through allowing ourselves to identify with such things as career, status, ambition and a host of other kinds of conditioning. We too easily believe we live in out heads: Urizen rules in Blake’s mythology.
Wilson does champion the Blakean view as evidenced by your quotes; it’s just the sound of tub-thumping which seems to be a turn off for me now. Perhaps I can still hear the coffee-bar philosopher trying to change the world when we know that is a pipe dream, and an immature stance.
On balance I could say that Colin Wilson lit the fuse of my spiritual inquiry and was ultimately responsible for me finding Buddhism twenty years later. For that I will always be grateful.
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Thanks for your critical and insightful comments here, Eric! I will return to this page and re-read them when I finally get around to reading ‘The Outsider’ myself. I wonder how first encountering Wilson at my age (72) will differ from yours (21) and Colin’s (24) more youthful respective ages. Hopefully I won’t wait too much longer to find out!
Also, can you provide me with the complete reference for that Buddhist magazine paragraph you quoted? I’d like to read for the full article.
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You will definitely find reading The Outsider a different experience reading it in your 70s Tom! The quote is from an article in the Journal of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives; Summer 2009. ‘Contemplation and the Mind that Seeks the Way. You may be able to get a copy if you contact http://www.shastaabbey.org
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Thanks so much, Eric! I’ve just had a look at the Shasta Abbey website, and it appears that (1) back issues are available only as far back as 2009; and (2) the specific article from which you quoted is not included among the selection of digital articles available for download. But at least I have the paragraph you embedded in your comment to Colin! And the abbey itself seems like it could be a very helpful resource in my continuing effort to expand my understanding of Buddhism beyond the Theravada tradition in which I started my practice. I expect to return to their site and investigate further.
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Hi Tom! I was 19 actually when I first read ‘The Outsider’! At 84, as I continue my Wilson Binge,I’m beginning to think that he more or less wrote the same book many times. I’ve been filling in the gap between 1956 and 2013 when he died but I shall have to re-read ‘The Outsider’ now to keep up with you, Tom!!
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Thanks for your response, Eric. As I’ve said, I read The Outsider when it first came out in 1956. Then I was engaged in becoming a pacifist while doing so-called National Service and I seem to remember that it contributed to my beginning to understand what a fraud and obscenity the whole military machine was. I find it really interesting that the book itself was so valuable to us both, resulting as it did in our different life development. In 1967 I was in a fourth year of teacher training, being in the first cohort of people chosen to do the new B.Ed degree. What a year that was – three three year honours degree subjects in a year! Reading The Outsider also contributed to my escape from the horror of office desks into teaching and a life I began to thoroughly enjoy. A great change in consciousness which is what this sequence of Globs is really devoted to.
I wouldn’t therefore class the influence of The Outsider as being to cause me to rebel or even think of myself as an ‘outsider’ but I know that it contributed greatly to a shift in consciousness which had already been stoked up by my absolute devotion from the age of 15 to the writings of Richard Jefferies, who, looking back now, I would class as the complete outsider. I think I was already there! Colin Wilson doesn’t seem to have come across RJ but it is all there.
I spent my secondary school years in a minor public school passing out with a meagre 5 O Levels, having behaved very well but secretly modelling myself on a bunch of completely eccentric teachers to whom I am forever grateful. Come to think of it, they were all outsiders, not out of step but ‘marching to the sound of a different drum’ (Thoreau). Relative Conformity snookered by Eccentricity…
In the 1950’s Gurdjieff/Ouspensky were constantly ridiculed by Beachcomber (a regular little column I read voraciously) in the Daily Express, the paper my Tory-voting parents took regularly. Being even by that time an arch ‘polarity responder’ the seeds were sown for my enthusiasm for The Fourth Way beginning in earnest in 1977. I’d read about it in The Outsider but it hadn’t really registered in my conscious mind.
Without any idea that there was a current Gurdjieff following, and having come to terms with his ideas on my own via Maurice Nicol, I joined a www,gurdjieffsite to find out what I had been missing only to find myself in what I came to call the ‘Gurdjiieff Wars’, being told that if I hadn’t been to a School I couldn’t possible know what I was talking about, one or two staunch friends excepted. The G/O advice is to put up with the unpleasantness of others as a principle, so I did for 18 months, keeping my cool and learning a lot about Vanity and its effect.
In 2020 I at last I gritted my teeth and put thirty years of 4th Way ruminations into self-published book-form. There Must Be Something More to Life than This is about the practical detail of the non-system system rather than the simple account of G/O life events in The War Against Sleep.
In terms of practice I find that the 4th Way links easily to Zen, Sartrean existentialism, NLP, even Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits and the Enneagram, all of which I have taught from time to time and would continue to teach if it wasn’t for the Plague.
In Sartrean fashion I try to escape labelling myself but I am also devoted to Zen teaching – it informs my approach to the writing of haiku.
I think I feel another Glob coming on…
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Colin – Thanks for this overview of both ‘The Outsider’ and Colin Wilson’s subsequent works. All of his books have had a place of my ever-expanding to-read list for several years now, and this glob has certainly pushed them up a bit higher on that list.
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