Tag: Husserl

A New Book – And Sex!

My new book, Dreaming Ahead of Time, about my experiences with precognitive dreams, synchronicity and coincidence, will be published by Floris Books this January. In it I look at some of the dreams I have been recording over the last forty years, in which bits and pieces of the future have turned up. How does this happen? Beats me, but I am as convinced that it does as I am about anything else. In the book I look at some of the ideas about precognitive dreams of earlier explorers, J. W. Dunne, J. B. Priestley, T. C. Lethbridge, and also at Ouspensky’s ideas of a “three dimensional time,” Jung’s synchronicity, some very remarkable coincidences, and Colin Wilson’s notion of Faculty X, which allows us to travel to “other times and places.” I have a premonition you will enjoy it

Here are some thoughts about sex that I’ve had to cut from a book I am working on. They seemed too interesting to leave in my files.

Sex and Imagination

By

Gary Lachman

In a book I’ve been working on recently, sex has turned up quite a bit. Here I’d like to spell out in some detail ideas and intuitions about it that, at least where the male of the species is considered, strike me as being of fundamental importance. This should not be surprising. Nietzsche once remarked that “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reaches up into the topmost summit of his spirit.” What I hope to briefly explain here is exactly how that can be the case.

My analysis is based on the “phenomenology of the sexual impulse” carried out by the existential philosopher and novelist Colin Wilson. For readers not familiar with the term, phenomenology simply means a close observation and descriptive account of experience, of, that is, phenomena, whether they appear to our senses or to our mind. The tree that we see in the garden is a phenomenon; so is the one we see in our mind. Phenomenology is interested in how each of them “appear” to consciousness. There is, of course, a whole philosophical school based on the work of Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, with much lively debate about its aims and premises, but that needn’t concern us here. Fundamentally phenomenology is about observing and understanding our inner states. Put in the simplest terms, it is about paying attention to what is going on in your head. It is essentially a method of grasping the “structures” or processes making up our conscious experience, of becoming aware of the interior gestures, we could say, that allow for that experience to take place.

An example would be biting into an apple and enjoying the taste: that’s the experience. A phenomenological analysis of the experience would seek to grasp how it is that you enjoy it, what mental “acts” are involved in the enjoyment. The enjoyment is not in the apple, or at least not solely in it, because there are times when, for whatever reason, we don’t enjoy apples. So where is it? Listening to music is another example. We are carried away by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. Then we decide to listen again and try to grasp how Mozart achieves his effect with such surety and simplicity, and not in musical terms, but in those of our own inner structure. This may spoil our enjoyment – it often doesn’t bear thinking about, hence the unpopularity of that pursuit – but we can come to understand it, and what mental acts we perform that enable us to enjoy it, acts of which we are usually unaware, that is, of which we are unconscious.

It may seem that our enjoyment of the music requires no acts at all: it simply happens. Husserl says no. At a level below your enjoyment, making it possible, your consciousness is reaching out to meet the music, as it were. If we are distracted, or bored, or something else “takes our mind away,” as we say, we no longer hear the music, although the CD may still be playing. The soundwaves may be hitting our ears, but the signal isn’t getting through. Our attention is elsewhere. The opposite experience happens when a piece of music we have heard countless times and that we think we know very well indeed suddenly sounds new and fresh, and we are surprised at the enjoyment we are receiving from it. How does this happen?

Husserl’s answer, and the basic premise of phenomenology, founded on empirical observation, is that our perception, our consciousness is intentional, although we are not immediately aware of this.[1] To put it simply, our consciousness does not merely reflect a world that is “already  there,” as a mirror reflects what happens to be in front of it. Consciousness reaches out and “grabs” the world, as our hands do the apple we have just bitten, and indeed, as our teeth do the apple as we bite it. It “intends” it. Its relationship to the world, to experience, isn’t passive, but active. I could extend this metaphor and say that we “digest” experience just as much as we do the apple. And just as we can have a weak or strong “grasp” on our experience, we can digest it well or badly too.

I say  “consciousness intends,” but what I really mean is that we do, my consciousness and your consciousness, but at a level below our surface awareness. That is why I think that when I bite into an apple and enjoy it, it “just happens.” It doesn’t. As Wilson writes, “there is a will to perceive as well as perceptions.” Most of the time we are unaware of this will; our acts of intentionality occur below our conscious awareness. We are usually only aware of our perceptions, not the will behind them. But there is one intentional act that we can become aware of, and it occurs in a heightened state of consciousness, one more intense than our usual passive state. This is the sexual impulse.

In a series of books written over several decades, Wilson developed what we can call a kind of “sexistentialism,” a phenomenological investigation of exactly what is behind the sexual impulse; what, that is, it “intends,” its aim.[2] Exactly what that aim is, was the question Wilson posed himself. Or, as he put it, he wanted to “be able to express the meaning-content of the sexual orgasm in words.”

When it comes to the orgasm, most men are satisfied with groans; and to them the answer to the question of what the sexual impulse aims at would be glaringly obvious, as obvious as a hungry man’s aim in having a meal before him. Wilson wanted to articulate the intentional structure of the sexual orgasm, and in doing so, he soon saw that the relation of the male sexual impulse to its object is almost nothing like that of a hungry man to a steak. What makes for a satisfactory sexual experience is far more subtle than what makes for a satisfying meal, although both can be enhanced with a bit of spice. Wilson’s conclusion was that, far from being driven by an insatiable libido, as Freud would have it, sex in human beings – male and female – has more to do with achieving states of intensified consciousness than with satisfying any animal appetite. That is, it has to do with our evolutionary drive, our inherent urge to grow. And that intensified consciousness, that growth,  is rooted in the imagination. Wilson anchors this point in the very observable fact that if we are hungry, an imaginary meal will not satisfy our appetite, nor will an imaginary drink satisfy our thirst. But an imaginary sex partner can satisfy our “sexual appetite” as much as – and often better than – a “real” partner can. This is why more than one writer on sex has remarked that masturbation can be a more gratifying means of sexual satisfaction than “real” sex.

For most of us, sex is the closest we get to anything like a mystical experience – if, of course, we are lucky: it is not absolutely reliable and there are no guarantees. But when it does work – and what we are looking at here is precisely why it does, when it does – it is an experience of tremendous power, beyond anything we experience in everyday life, what Nietzsche called “the Dionysian,” referring to the ancient Greek god of drunkenness, ecstasy, and abandon. Some of us are so impressed with this power that we spend our lives seeking it out, or at least seeking out the experience that enabled us to feel it. We call these men Don Juans or Casanovas. There are female equivalents, although the urge behind nymphomania is not the same as that behind the seduction addict. And of course, there is a whole body of literature relating to the spiritual and mystical aspects of sex, from Tantra to various other kinds of spiritualised sexuality. As Wilson writes, “The ‘origin of the sexual impulse’ is not the ‘libido’, “it is an intentionality that is not confined to sex alone, but that also projects the ‘meaning’ of man’s aesthetic and religious activities.”[3] This is why Wilson argues that the same “intentional act” that transforms a two dimensional image in a magazine into an object of intense sexual excitement – i.e. a centrefold – so that it can elicit the same physiological response as the “real thing,” is the same intentional act that allows us to enjoy Van Gogh’s Starry Night or to see the flower in the garden as beautiful.

Like sex, art and religion are other means of intensifying consciousness. What all three have in common is that they can temporarily lift us out of our everyday, ordinary consciousness, and make us aware of wider horizons of meaning and of deeper areas of our being, that are ordinarily obscured. Religion and art have always been associated with man’s higher nature, his values and ideals, with, we can say, his evolution into something more than an animal. Sex has rarely, if ever, shared this status, at least in the west.[4] In fact, it has more often been vilified as a regrettable remnant of our animal past, although in fact, human sexuality is as unlike that of animals as it could get; we do them and ourselves a disservice when we speak of “beastly lusts.”

Why?

Because as mentioned, sex in human beings has more to do with the imagination, with what is going on in the mind than in what is taking place in the genitals. Many of us are all too familiar with the fact that it is invariably the case that if the mind isn’t involved – if we aren’t “into it” – then it is easy for the genitals not to be too. As far as we can tell, there is little going on in the minds of animals as they mate; often enough the operation is over too quickly for them to have had any thoughts about it, were they were capable of having them. This is why the Russian religious existentialist philosopher Nicolai Berdyaev could say that “It is quite possible to say that man is a sexual being, but we cannot say that man is a food-digesting being.”[5]

Clearly, sex has to do with organs – penises and vaginas – in the same way that digestion does, but it isn’t limited to them as digestion is limited to our stomachs; it reaches beyond them to permeate our entire life. I love food as much as the next man – indeed, Bernard Shaw said there was no greater love -but I am unaware of any great works of art based on digestion; there is, I believe, no Romeo and Juliet, no Carmen or Tristan and Isolde inspired by an appetizing dinner. And we rarely have to be “into it,” in order to enjoy our meal; we simply have to have an appetite. Indeed we often read, watch television, or carry on a conversation while eating, in a way that we couldn’t while engaged in sex. And if our sex partner were so involved in some additional activity as these, it would, more than likely, put us off. With sex, there is a need to focus our consciousness in order to get its full benefits in the same way that an artist needs to focus his consciousness on his work and that we need to focus ours on his finished product when we stand before it in a gallery.

Because of this, Wilson argues that it is a mistake to see sex as a “low” or “base” drive, as Freud did, or as an annoying but unavoidable necessity for perpetuating the species, as the church does. The truth is that the drive behind sex is exactly the same as that behind the highest forms of human creativity. That is, it is a drive for greater consciousness.

How did Wilson arrive at this conclusion? From a study of sexual perversions – or I should say from becoming aware of the difficulty in determining what sexual behaviour counted as a perversion. This was – is- difficult because we don’t have a clear idea of exactly what constitutes “non-perverted sex.” Which is another way of saying that we don’t have a clear idea of what “normal sex” is, although we may think we do. For nature’s purposes, sex means offspring; that is, its aim is procreation, and for the most part, animals do not engage in many perversions about it. Clearly, humans mate in order to have children, but they do not mate only for that reason, and I think it is safe to say that most of the sex we engage in isn’t concerned with that at all; indeed we go out of our way to ensure that no progeny will result from our revels.[6] The Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev wrote a book, The Meaning of Love (1892), that rejected the utilitarian or Darwinian views of sex as a means of improving the race through selective breeding, and argued instead for its transformative power for the individuals concerned. Wilson agrees. The question he asked himself was “What part does sex play in man’s total being?,” to which we’ve seen replies from Nietzsche and Berdyaev.[7] But this only raises the question of what we mean by “man’s total being?” Wilson concluded that “the problems of sex and the problem of teleology (man’s ultimate purpose) are bound together, and neither can be understood in isolation.”[8]

But if offspring – bigger and better ones – aren’t the aim, or at least not the central one, of the sexual impulse, then what is? Wilson argues that the notion of “sexual fulfilment” is linked to what we perceive as the limits of “human nature,” limits that the sexual orgasm undeniably exceeds – hence its popularity. Its power suggests “an intuition of some deeper, more ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction for the individual.”[9] If this is the case then, as Wilson writes, “A satisfactory notion of ‘ultimate sexual satisfaction must be bound up with some larger mystical vision about the purpose of human existence.”[10]

The notion of some “ultimate sexual satisfaction” leads us into the realm of perversion because it is in quest of such satisfaction that perversions arise. If one was satisfied with the usual roll in the hay, they would not appeal. What do sexual perversions actually do? They act as a spice, making the ordinary, normal act more interesting, just as cayenne pepper puts a kick into your casserole. We know how a spice works on food. How does it work with sex? What exactly is the spice that is added?

For Wilson, it is “the forbidden.” “The major component of the sexual urge is the sense of sin – or, to express this more moderately, the sense of invading another’s privacy, of escaping one’s own separateness.” “The idea of the forbidden is essential in sex; without the sense of the violation of an alien being, sexual excitement would be weakened, or perhaps completely dissipated.” “Sex can never, on any level, be ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. It always depends on the violation of taboos – or, as Baudelaire would have said, on the sense of sin.”[11] And as Wilson points out, “the forbidden” is an idea and needs to be grasped by the mind, by, that is, the imagination. You need to know you are breaking the rules in order to get the kick out of breaking them.

Yet, in our time, this requires a certain amount of self-deception. Why is it that now, in the twenty-first century, when we all know sex is just a normal part of life and that there is really nothing “wicked” about it, we nevertheless still talk of being “naughty” and having a “dirty weekend,” and of acting out some of our kinky “secret desires?” Escort services cater to this frisson of “transgression,” offering a variety of fantasies in which the client can indulge in a spectrum of “forbidden” activities from fairly standard perversions like sodomy and oral sex, which are by now more or less mainstream, to sadism, masochism, and more acquired tastes such as urophagia (drinking urine) and coprophagia (eating faeces), to any number of role-playing sex games involving nuns, schoolgirls, even aliens. The fetishism that drives these forbidden acts is itself proof that the main element in sexual satisfaction is the imagination, for what else bestows the seemingly magical power of evoking considerable sexual excitement on ordinarily non-sexual items such as a raincoat, an umbrella, or an apron, to name just a few? And I should point out that the same intentional act that animates these otherwise ordinary items and transforms them into objects of sexual excitement is the same intentional act that makes you “into” the sex you are having with your partner. In this sense, even a real partner is a fetish – and those who understand this remark have understood the point I am trying to make.

Yet, as Wilson points out, these spices soon lose their savour, or rather, we soon grow used to them and require something a little more spicy to get the same kick. Readers of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom are soon weary of the spices he provides, heaping them up on each page, and which fairly soon have very little to do with sex and more to do with providing any kind of shock possible. And what exactly is the kick? It is a sudden vivid awareness of the reality we have let slip from our mental grasp, which in this context is the sexual act. (And it is the same reality that we catch glimpses of in aesthetic, mystical, and ‘peak’ experiences.) That is, it is increased, intensified consciousness. This is why some couples install mirrors in their bedroom, so that they can see themselves in the act. (These days perhaps they take selfies…) The spices – or perversions – serve as “alarm clocks,” to take a metaphor from Gurdjieff, that “wake us up,” reviving our flagging consciousness so that, if only for a brief moment or two, we feel that “intuition of some deeper, more ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction” in the throes of the orgasm. The sense of the forbidden, the prospect of something unknown and new tightens the mind, unifies our being and gives us a taste of what human consciousness should be like, but which we feel now only rarely, if at all. It is this unity of being that is the object of the sexual impulse. And as Wilson has pointed out in his many studies of the psychology of murder, some individuals so lack it that it is only in the most brutal acts of violence that they can feel some sense of it.

It is that tightening, that focus, that concentration, that is the source of the ‘god-like’ state of satisfaction – not the spice, whatever it may be. But the devotees of perversions – those with a jaded palate in need of heavily spiced food – do not grasp this, and rather than discipline themselves to achieve this focus through their own efforts, believe their “ultimate sexual satisfaction” will come through ratcheting up their intake of spices yet one more notch, oblivious to the law of diminishing returns inherent in the procedure. For just as a drug addict needs stronger and stronger doses of his poison in order to feel any effect, the sexually perverted – in the sense we are speaking of perversions – need greater and greater stimulants to “get it up.”

Yet achieving that focus through one’s own efforts, and not being reliant on the stimulus of the “forbidden,” would not only make sex more exciting, that is more real, but everything else too.


[1] The interested reader may wish to consult Herbert Spiegelberg’s classic The Phenomenological Movement (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1976). To get an idea of Wilson’s approach to phenomenology see Colin Wilson Introduction to the New Existentialism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967)

[2] See Origins of the Sexual Impulse (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963), Order of Assassins: The Psychology of Murder (London: Rupert-Hart-Davis, 1972),  and The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders (London: Grafton, 1988). Wilson has also used the novel as a means of exploring his ideas about sexuality: Ritual in the Dark (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2020); Man Without a Shadow (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2013; and The God of the Labyrinth (Kansas City, MO: Valancourt Books, 2013). For a summary of Wilson’s ideas about sex, see my Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: Tarcher Perigee, 2016) pp. 105-08.

[3] Colin Wilson Origins of the Sexual Impulse (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963) p. 239.

[4] In the east it is a different matter, as the Christian missionaries who encountered religious sculptures depicting explicit sexual acts on Hindu temples discovered.

[5] Nicolai Berdyaev The Meaning of the Creative Act (New York: Collier’s, 1962) p. 168.

[6] From the procreation point of view, one could argue that any number of perversions would be acceptable and ‘normalised’ if in the end, sperm entered the womb and fertilised an egg. It would also seem to legitimise rape.

[7] Wilson 1963 p. 15.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p. 96.

[10] Ibid. P. 98.

[11] Ibid. pp. 147, 155, 247.

Two Reviews of Beyond the Robot

 My new book, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, will be published on August 30. If you haven’t decided yet whether or not to get a copy, these reviews by seasoned Wilson scholars should help you make the right choice. David Moore is a brilliant Wilsonian; I had the great pleasure of meeting him at the First International Colin Wilson Conference held on July 1, 2016, at Nottingham University, home of the Colin Wilson Archive. I have not met Thomas Bertonneau, but I have read his work and am happy  that he found the book worthy of an extensive and detailed review.  If you know others who are as yet undecided, encourage them to read these reviews, and to recognize that it is high time for all of us to get beyond the robot.

Rejected Knowledge

This is the text of a talk I gave recently for the Marion Institute, part of their Living in the Real World seminar. The event was a great success, and the other speakers, Ptolemy Tompkins and Mark Booth, both gave excellent talks. The aim was to present ideas about different ways of living in the world, ones closer to what reality is really like, rather than the ubiquitous misrepresentation of it common to our time.

 

Rejected Knowledge:

A Look At Our Other Way of Knowing

This evening I’m going to look at a tradition of thought and a body of ideas that the historian of the occult James Webb calls “rejected knowledge.” I’m going to see if we can arrive at answers to four questions:

What is this tradition?

Why is it “rejected?”

Why is it important?

What does it mean for us?

Now before I start I’m going to ask you all to engage in a bit of philosophy. I’m going to ask you to perform a simple but very important philosophical exercise. This is something called “bracketing,”  and it was developed in the early twentieth century by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl is important for founding a philosophical school and discipline called phenomenology. We needn’t know a great deal about it and I’m not going to burden you with a lot of history or definitions. Put briefly, Husserl was scandalized by the mess that western philosophy had gotten itself into by the late nineteenth century and as he loved philosophy – he was obsessed by it – he thought the best way to proceed was to start from scratch. Now, I should point out that wiping the slate clean and starting from scratch is a well-tested tradition in philosophy, so Husserl was not doing anything radically new. But then, in another sense he was.

Phenomenology is essentially a method of describing phenomena, which means the things that appear to us, whether physical objects in the outer world, or my thoughts, images, feelings and so on that seem to reside in my inner world, my mind. If you look a tree, that is a phenomenon, and if you then close your eyes and imagine the tree, that is a phenomenon too. Both are objects that are presented to consciousness, and Husserl was interested in how phenomena present themselves to consciousness, and what role our own minds have in this presentation.

What Husserl suggested is that to begin this study, what we need to do is put aside everything we think we know about our object of observation. So if you were in his class and you were given an object to observe – say a book, a flower, or a chair, it doesn’t really matter – he would say “Don’t tell me what it is; tell me what you see.”

Now for any philosophers in the audience I admit I am simplifying things very much, but for what I am going to ask you to do that is all we need. The method of  putting aside everything we think we know about something is what Husserl called “bracketing.” Basically it means to put aside your presumed knowledge of whatever you are observing, and place it in brackets. Placing it in brackets means that you don’t reject your knowledge, you don’t deny it or change your mind about it. You simply put it aside for the duration of your phenomenological work. You take it out of the equation for the time being. You don’t throw it away. You simply pick it up as it were and put it over there for a time. It was in this way that Husserl wanted to arrive at what he called a “presuppositionless philosophy,” basically a philosophy that begins without any preconceived ideas.

Now what I’d like you all to do is to become phenomenologists for a short while, at least for the duration of this talk. I’d like you to “bracket” everything you think you know about the world, about reality, about the universe and our place in it. Again, I’m not asking you to forget this or to reject it or to deny it. I am simply asking you to put it aside for a short while. In Husserl’s case this  usually meant putting aside questions about the “reality” of something, about whether it was “true” or not, about its “essence,” and any “explanations” that could account for it, whether materialist ones or idealist ones. Phenomenologists don’t ask those questions, at least not at the beginning. What they try to do is describe the objects of consciousness and get some idea of what is involved in how they appear to us.

What this exercise is supposed to do is to make whatever you are observing “strange,” “unfamiliar,” “unknown,” “mysterious.” One definition of philosophy that I like very much and which can apply to our exercise here in “bracketing” is that it is “the resolute pursuit of the obvious, leading to radical astonishment.” Because one outcome of a successful exercise in “bracketing” is that it transforms something you believed you knew very well, into something quite mysterious. Something, perhaps, that surprises you.

So, let’s see if we can all be phenomenologists for a short time and temporarily put aside everything we know about the world we live in and our place in it. This means bracketing the Big Bang, Darwin, and all the scientific explanations about the world  that we’ve been offered over the years, about atoms and electrons and Higgs-bosons and selfish genes and DNA and so forth. Take all of that and put it in brackets.

Okay? Have we done that? Good.

The tradition of rejected knowledge that I’m going to talk about is what we can call the Hermetic tradition, or the Western Inner Tradition, or the Esoteric Tradition, or the Occult tradition. I should point out that “Hermetic” comes from the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of philosophy and writing, about whom I’ve written a book, The Quest for Hermes Trismegistus. Esoteric means “inner” and occult means “not seen.” Each of these names has a very specific sense but in a broad, general application they all refer to the same thing. They refer to a body of ideas and philosophies and spiritual practices that were for many centuries held in very high regard in the west, but which in the last few centuries – since the rise of science in the 17th century – have lost their status and been relegated to the dust bin of history.  They are rooted in several what we can call mystical or metaphysical philosophies and religions of the past, Hermeticism, Gnosticism, Kabbalah, neo-Platonism and related belief systems. We needn’t know exactly what these are now and we’ll try to get some idea of some of them as go along. We now think of these things and the practices associated with them as superstitions, as myths, more or less as nonsense. I’m thinking of things like astrology, alchemy, magic, mysticism, the Tarot, or of experiences like telepathy, precognition, out-of-the-body experiences, of mystical experiences, of feelings of oneness with nature, with the cosmos, of what we can call “cosmic consciousness,” of belief in life after death, in consciousness existing outside the body, of astral travel, of visionary experiences, of contact with angels and other spiritual beings, of strange states of mind that lead to sudden, accurate knowledge of and insight into the workings of the universe, and into the mystery of our own being, of dimensions beyond space and time, of the experience of the soul and the spirit.

Experiences of these and similar things and a real knowledge about them were for very many centuries accepted by both men and women of learning and also by the everyday people, the common folk. These people lived in a world in which such things were possible. More than this, they lived in a world in which such things were considered of the highest importance. Much more important than the everyday, physical world they inhabited. That has gained a supreme importance only in the last few centuries, and it has gained this importance through diminishing the importance of what we may call the “spiritual” or “invisible” side of reality. We’ll return to this shortly.

To give you an idea of how important this tradition of thought was considered, let me mention a few of the people who believed in it and occupied themselves with it.

Given that he is considered the father of modern science and the modern world in general, it is surprising to know that Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientific mind in western history, was a passionate devotee of this tradition. Newton wrote more about alchemy than he did about gravity. Gravity itself is an “occult” force. “Occult” simple means hidden, or unseen, and as far as I know, no one has seen gravity. Newton’s investigation into the physical laws of the universe – that have allowed us to put men on the moon and probes out into the deepest regions of space – emerged from his life-long interest in alchemy, in understanding the secret meaning of the Bible and, like Stephen Hawking in our own time, knowing the “mind of God.”

Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and much else, was an early member of the Theosophical Society, the most important occult, esoteric or spiritual society in modern times, founded in New York in 1875 by that remarkable Russian emigre, Madame Blavatsky. Along with all the other inventions he is known for, Edison was very interested in “spirit communication,” and for a time he worked on developing a way of recording messages from the “other world.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was deeply involved in Freemasonry, a society that in its early years was profoundly informed by Hermetic, esoteric ideas. Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, is a kind of initiation ritual in music. Beethoven was also interested in Freemasonry as was Franz Joseph Haydn and several other famous classical composers. I might also mention that the earliest operas were based on alchemical ideas. I should also mention that it is well-known that George Washington and other of America’s founding fathers were Masons.

William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, and one of the great teachers at Harvard,  had a powerful interest in mystical experiences – so powerful that he experimented with nitrous oxide in order to have one himself. He was also deeply interested in the paranormal and he investigated several mediums. His friend, the French philosopher Henri Bergson, a Nobel Prize winner and for a time the most famous thinker in the world, shared James’ interest and was a president of the Society for Psychical Research.

Many poets and writers and artists were very keen on this tradition of “rejected knowledge.” The German poet Goethe practiced alchemy. W. B. Yeats – another Nobel prize winner – was a Theosophist and also a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, one of the most important occult societies of modern times. The Swedish dramatist August Strindberg was an alchemist too and also a great reader of the Swedish mystical thinker Emanuel Swedenborg. I should mention that Johnny Appleseed, the early American ecologist, was also a devotee of Swedenborg, as was the poet William Blake, who saw angels as a child and had conversations with spirits and inhabitants of “other worlds” throughout his life.

The Renaissance, the revival of classical thought that took place in the 15th century and produced some of the most treasured works of art in the western world, works by Michelangelo, Botticelli, and others, was saturated in Hermetic, esoteric thought.  The Renaissance is generally seen as a time when the works of Plato and other Greek philosophers were re-discovered after being lost for centuries. But it was even more a time when the ancient teachings of Hermes Trismegistus, thrice-greatest Hermes, the founder of magic and writing, were rediscovered after being obscured for a millennia.

Some of the early church fathers were followers of some aspects of this tradition and before them Plato, the greatest philosophical mind of the west, was, if not a devotee, certainly a fellow traveller, and we have reason to believe that much of Plato’s philosophy was informed with ideas and insights gathered from this tradition.

This list could go on. I mention these names here just to show that, although this tradition is “rejected” by modern thinking, some of the most important figures in science and the arts embraced it whole-heartedly. This, of course, doesn’t prove anything, but it does suggest that if world-renowned scientists, Nobel Prize winners, influential poets, musicians, and philosophers – and again, this is just a fraction of the important people with an interest in this tradition – had the time for it and devoted much energy and thought to it, it must have something going for it. Or should we accept that Newton and Mozart and Goethe and the others were simply “superstitious,” weak-minded, gullible characters who were simply not as smart as modern sceptics ,who consider the tradition these men of genius felt themselves to be a part of sheer nonsense?

I don’t know about you, but I hesitate to call Newton or Goethe or Mozart weak-minded and gullible. So if they weren’t, why were they interested in something we in the modern world reject?

This leads me to my second question: why was this tradition rejected? And who, exactly, rejected it?

The short answer is that it was rejected because of the rise of science, which began its road to dominance in the 17th century. The story is actually more complicated than that and involves the church and the rise of humanism, an outgrowth of the Renaissance, but for our purposes it is sufficient to contrast the way science sees the world with the way the rejected tradition sees it. Or, I should I say, the way in which science knows the world and the way in which the rejected tradition knows it. Because fundamentally, this is the issue. All of the different philosophies and teachings that are rooted in the rejected tradition – magic, alchemy, astrology, mysticism and so on – all share in common a particular way of knowing the world. And it was this “way of knowing” that science, or what became what we call “science,” rejected, along with the knowledge accumulated through that knowing.

Now as “knowing” is something we do with our minds, it is something directly related to our consciousness. Knowing is an activity performed by a consciousness, whether yours, mine, an alien’s, or, perhaps, an intelligent machine’s.

One of the things that Husserl and other phenomenological philosophers discovered is that different kinds of consciousness, or different modes of the same consciousness, can “know” things in different ways. Conversely, they also discovered that they can also know different “things.” We can see this from our own experience. I know, say, my name, what the product of 2×2 is, and also how to ride a bicycle. But I know these in different ways. I know my name because at some point someone told me what it was, and by now I have accumulated boxes of documents confirming this. I know that 2×2=4 because logic and reason tell me it does. Try as I may to “know” that 2×2=5, I can’t because it doesn’t. Of course, I can be coerced into agreeing that 2×2=5, as the people in Orwell’s 1984 are, but this isn’t really knowing. And I know how to ride a bicycle because, after many failed attempts I finally “got the knack” of doing it. But if you try to tell someone how it is done, as if in a step-by-step manual, you will find that it is not so easy to do. I can show someone how to do it, but to give a clear and adequate account of how I do it is actually quite difficult.

Another example. I mentioned Mozart, Beethoven and other composers. I know that Beethoven’s late string quartets are about something deeply moving and profound, but I would find it just as difficult to say what they are about as I would if I tried to tell someone how to ride a bike. I can’t say exactly what the music is about, but I would also reject any account that said it was just vibrations of air, which, physically, is what the music is. It’s about something more than that, about something deep, profound, even mystical, but exactly what, I can’t say.

Or say you have a hunch or an intuition about something and are very certain it is important. A friend asks “But how do you know?” All you can say is “I don’t know, but I do!”

This other kind of “knowing,” the kind that recognizes something deep in music, or in poetry, or in works of art, or accepts intuitions and hunches, that knows with the gut, as it were, is, it seems to me, related to our rejected tradition.

Now what differentiated science – and again, let me say I know this is a huge generalisation, and let me make clear that I am no enemy of science, but of what we can call “scientism,” which is a kind of “fundamentalist science” in the way that we have “fundamentalist Christianity” or “fundamentalist Islam” – what made it different from earlier modes of knowledge and methods of acquiring it is that it focused solely on observing physical phenomena and, in a way, did its own kind of bracketing by forgetting any ideas about what might be behind the phenomena, making them happen. Roughly this meant jettisoning God, or the angels, or spirits, or soul, or any kind of purpose or mind at work in nature. It puts aside any theories or traditional ideas and just watched and saw what happened. This approach to understanding the world had its roots in the philosopher Aristotle, who was Plato’s pupil. But where Plato was interested in understanding what we can call the invisible higher realities behind or above the physical world – what he called the Ideas or Forms, a kind of metaphysical blueprint for reality perceived through the mind, not the senses – Aristotle did just the opposite. He devoted himself to observing the natural world.

Aristotle’s theories dominated the west for centuries but eventually were discarded. But between the two – he and Plato – we can see the different ways of knowing. Aristotle is the first “research scientist, “ collecting data and devising theories to account for why things are the way they are. Plato is much more interested in the higher reality of which the physical world is just a shadow. He often uses myth in his accounts and started life as a poet. Aristotle started the tradition of the unreadable philosopher. He also started systematic logic, in which A can only be A and never Not A and so on. For Aristotle, something is or it isn’t. There’s no middle ground. He sees an “either/or” kind of world rather than a “both/and” sort of one.

But along with paying attention to the physical world, which people had been doing all along, science brought to its investigation a powerful tool: measurement. It discovered that the forces at work in the physical world could be measured. Speed, mass, weight, acceleration, space, extension, and so on could be quantified. And what was remarkable about this is that with enough knowledge of these quantities, events could be accurately predicted. It is this predictive power of measurement that enabled men to get to the moon and space probes to shoot past Pluto. Needless to say this was truly an achievement and it has enriched our lives and the lives of our ancestors immeasurably – if you can forgive an atrocious pun. But one result of this is that it split the world in two, basically between the kinds of things that could be measured in this way, and the kinds of things that can’t.

The person who made this split official was Galileo. What Galileo said was that all the things that could be measured were primary phenomena. They were “really real,” and existed in their own right. They were objective. The other things were less real. They were subjective, which meant that they only existed in our minds, our psyches. So the brilliant, moving colors of a sunset are our subjective experience of the objective reality, which is wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Color, scent, texture, taste, are all subjective. They don’t exist on their own. We add them to our experience. But they don’t “really” exist, at least not in the way that the primary things, that can be measured, do. We can’t measure the awe and wonder we feel looking at the sunset, but we can measure the electromagnetic radiations we are being dazzled by.

This worked well for science. It gave it something hard and solid to hold on to. But this was at a cost. Because what we value in experience are precisely those things that science has told us for some centuries now are not real.  The things that science can measure accurately and make effective predictions from are things that no one except scientists get excited about. And the kinds of things that thrill all of us, science has explained to us are only in our head. The world really isn’t beautiful. We see it that way. But it itself isn’t. Not really.

The other thing the new way of knowing did was to break things up into smaller and smaller bits and pieces, which were subject to cause and effect. There was no pattern holding things together, no “great chain of being,” no “web of life” or “whole” into which everything found its place. A world of atoms subject to physical forces could account for everything. The world really was a huge machine, a mechanical cosmos that needed no mind or intelligence or spirit or anything else to run, merely blind physical forces.

Now, what does all this have to do with our “rejected tradition?”

Well, the kind of knowing associated with that tradition is the polar opposite of the kind that made science so successful. And I should point out that science is successful because it is immensely helpful in our attempt to control the world. It has immense utilitarian and practical benefits. It gets results. It makes things happen. The kind of knowing associated with the other tradition isn’t like this. It isn’t practical or utilitarian in that sense. It isn’t a “know how,” more a “know why.” It’s a knowing that isn’t about controlling the world – which, in itself, is not bad, and absolutely necessary for our survival – but of participating with it, even of communicating and, as we say today, interacting with it.

Probably the most fundamental way in which these two kinds of knowing differ is that in the new, scientific mode, we stand apart from the world. We keep it at a distance, at arm’s length. It becomes an object of observation; we become spectators, separated from what we are observing. With this separation the world is objectified, made into an object. What this means is that it loses, or is seen not to have, an inside. It is a machine, soul-less, inanimate, dead. We object to this when it happens to us, when we feel that someone is not taking into account our inner world, our self, and is seeing us as an object, as something without freedom, will, completely determined.  But it is through this mode that we can get to grips with the world and arrange it according to our needs.

Whether we are scientists or not, this is the way in which we experience the world now, at least most of the time. There is the world: solid, mute, oblivious, and firmly “out there.”  And “inside here” is a mind, a little puddle of consciousness in an otherwise unconscious universe.

The mode of knowing of the rejected tradition is the opposite of this. It does recognize the “inside” of things. It does not stand apart from the world and observe it from behind a plate glass window. It participates with the world. It sees the world as alive, as animate, as a living, even a conscious being. And it sees connections, links among everything in this world. Where the new mode worked best by breaking the world down into easily handled bits and pieces that were best understood as subject to physical laws of cause of effect, the kind of knowing of the rejected tradition saw connections, correspondences among everything in the world, it saw everything as part of a total living whole. We can say that where the scientific mode works through analysis, the other mode works through analogy and synthesis. Elements of the world are linked for it not by mechanical cause and effect, but by similarity, by resemblance, by a kind of poetry, by what we can call living metaphors. Plants, colors, sounds, scents, shapes, patterns, the position of the stars, the times of day, different gods and goddesses, angels and spirits were woven together into subtle webs of relations, where each echoed the other in some mysterious way. In ancient times, this was known as “the sympathy of all things,” the anima mundi, or “soul of the world.” We can say that instead of wanting to take things apart in order to see what makes them tick – and the machine analogy here is telling – the rejected tradition wants to link them together to see how they live. And where the new way of knowing worked with facts and formulae, the other way worked with images and symbols.

The most concise expression of this other way of knowing is the ancient Hermetic dictum, “as above, so below.”  This comes from the fabled Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, a work of alchemy attributed to Hermes but which makes its appearance round about the eight century AD. This means that there is a correspondence between the things in heaven and the things on earth. In one sense, this is understood as a correspondence between the position and movements of the stars and human destiny. This is astrology. But in a broader, more fundamental sense it means that man, human beings are a kind of microcosm, a little universe, and that we contain within ourselves vast inner spaces, that mirror the vast outer spaces in which our physical world exists. In the rejected tradition, the whole universe exists within each of us, and it is our task to bring these dormant cosmic forces and realities to life. If in the new, scientific tradition we have begun to explore outer space, in the rejected tradition we turn our attention inward and explore inner space. And just as they do on Star Trek, we find inside ourselves “strange new worlds.”

This is a very different picture of humankind than what we get with the scientific mode of knowing. There we are just another collection of bits and pieces pushed and pulled by a variety of forces, with no special role to play or purpose to serve. Physical forces, biological forces, social forces, economic forces have us at their beck and call. There is no universe inside us. Our minds are a product of purely material forces and are driven by physical needs and appetites.

The rejected tradition sees humankind as very different, as central to the universe, as the answer to the riddle of existence. And this is why it is important to understand its place in our history.

One of the consequences of the scientific mode of knowing is that it ultimately arrives at a meaningless, mechanical universe. This is why the astrophysicist Steven Weinberg can say that “the more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless.” He is not alone in thinking this. With the rise of science and the decline of religion, the idea that there is any meaning to existence also declined. Science did not set out to arrive at a meaningless universe, but it was driven to do so by the force of its own logic. If the only “really real” things are the sorts of things that are amenable to measurement – basically, physical bits and pieces – then things like “meaning” or “purpose” and other “spiritual” kinds of things are not really real. And if the universe is pointless, then human existence must be too. There is no reason for our existence. Like everything else, we just happened.

This is pretty much what the accepted picture is in the modern world. For the past few centuries we’ve slowly become accustomed to the idea that life is ultimately meaningless. Science presents one version of this insight, and much of the literature and art and philosophy of modern times does too. A great deal of this sentiment is summed up in the existential philosopher Jean-Paul-Sartre’s remark, “man is a useless passion.” “It is meaningless that we live,” Sartre said, “and it is meaningless that we die.” Martin Heidegger says we are “thrown into existence.” Albert Camus talks of the “absurd.” These thinkers from the last century were at least troubled by these reflections and sought to arrive at some stoic endurance of fate, some meaningful response to meaninglessness. But today, in the postmodern world, we’re not fussed. Life’s meaningless? Okay. We’re lost in the cosmos? No biggie. We’ve been there and done that and got the tee-shirt. We have accepted as a given what the writer and philosopher Colin Wilson called “the fallacy of insignificance,” the unquestioned belief that each of us individually and humanity in general is of no significance whatsoever.

The problem with this is that such a bland acceptance leads to a cynical, shallow view of life. It reduces it to a bad joke. It makes it small, trivial, and shrinks everything to an anonymous, uniform, “whatever.”  I don’t think it takes a great deal of observation to see that we have become addicted to trivia and are up to our ears in methods and techniques of distraction. We have become used to nihilism, to the idea that “nothing matters.” In many ways we like it, because it lets us off the hook. We no longer have to think about serious things or take ourselves seriously. And in a world in which there are no “spiritual” values, the only thing worth pursuing is material gain. Needless to say there’s quite a lot of that going on. But even that can only go so far. My own feeling is that soon even it will be seen to be pointless. What we will do after that to entertain ourselves is unclear, but I shudder to consider the possibilities.

I would also say that our pressing ecological, environmental, economic, social and other crises have their roots, ultimately, in this “fallacy of insignificance” in the lack of belief in any values other than material ones.

Now this rather bleak spiritual landscape is a result, I believe, of our overvaluing one way of knowing at the expense of the other. It is a result of our understandable over-appreciation of the new way of knowing. And I should make clear that I am not saying the new way of knowing is bad, or evil, or that we should get rid of it and return to the older way. Developing the scientific way of knowing was a true breakthrough and a necessary and indispensable part of the evolution of consciousness. But as I’ve tried to point out, it has its drawbacks. While a return to a pre-scientific time is neither possible nor desirable, what we can do is see if the rejected tradition can offer anything to even out the imbalance. Can we learn something from it to help us move through this rather uninspiring time? Can we salvage some of our “rejected knowledge” and see if it can inform us and help us make creative, positive decisions about ourselves and the world? Can we accept some of this knowledge so that it is no longer rejected?

Let’s take a look at it.

We’ve already seen that it sees the cosmos as living, even conscious, rather than as a dead, empty mechanism.

We’ve seen that it sees connections running throughout the elements of this cosmos, patterns, correspondences, analogies, sympathies, echoes, communication. Blake, a student of the Neo-Platonic tradition, wrote that “A robin redbreast in a cage puts all Nature in a rage.” There is the sense that everything is connected in some way with everything else, is in a way integrated. This would mean that the other mode of knowing sees the world as “dis-integrated,” as broken up, fragmented, as things jumbled up in a box rather than a whole.

It also recognizes realities that the other way of knowing does not. Invisible forces and energies, subtle influences, spirits and souls, but also values like beauty, truth, the good, the values that make up what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called the “higher reaches of human nature” and which we associate with a spiritual orientation to life, rather than a material one.

We have also seen that the other way of knowing enters into the world, rather than remaining detached from it. And this I think is the key thing to grasp. Because it is this through this kind of “participatory consciousness” that everything else follows. And it is something that we can experience for ourselves.

Probably the most difficult part of the rejected tradition that someone firmly convinced of the accuracy of the scientific picture of reality will have accepting, is its attitude toward consciousness. To put it simply, in the scientific, modern view, consciousness is a product of the material world. Whether it is neurons, electrochemical exchanges, or elementary particles, in some way consciousness is explained via some physical agent, and it is something that takes place exclusively inside our heads. I address this belief – for this is what it is – in my book A Secret History of Consciousness, where I look at several philosophies of consciousness which take a very different view. This other view is the polar opposite of the scientific one. In this view, consciousness is primary, and the physical world, the world “out there,” the world we are all inhabiting is in some way produced by consciousness.  This means that you and I, right here and now, are in some way creating the world around us, are responsible for it. This is why the nineteenth century French Hermetic philosopher Louis Claude de Saint-Martin said that we should not explain man by the world, as material science tries to do, but the world by man, as the Hermetic, esoteric tradition does. This is also what is meant by the Hermetic belief that man, the human being, contains an entire universe within him, is a microcosm. Within his mind, his spirit, there are infinite worlds. The world we see here and now is only one of them. If you change consciousness, you change the world.

Perhaps you can see why at the beginning I asked you to perform an act of “bracketing.” Everything we have been taught throughout our lives has in one way or another told us the complete opposite of what I just said. We have grown up within what Husserl called “the natural standpoint.” I should point out that by “natural standpoint,” Husserl was not thinking of “nature,” or a “natural” way of living. He simply meant the accepted, the usual, the ordinary, the everyday, the unquestioned. When we open our eyes in the morning we see a world “out there” and we assume quite naturally that all our perception is doing is reflecting it, as a mirror would. We, ourselves, our consciousness, have nothing to do with forming or shaping or providing that world. It is “there” and we simply “see” it. Husserl believed that the first step in philosophy, in understanding ourselves and in achieving self-knowledge is to challenge this. He believed we needed to step out of the “natural standpoint,” which in effect means to make the world strange. Not by distorting it as, say, surrealism does, or altering it as, say, what happens when we ingest a mind-altering substance, or seeing it as threatening, as happens in certain abnormal mental states. But simply by withholding assent to what we have hitherto never questioned, by bracketing what we “know” about the world and trying to see it from a different perspective. This is the “resolute pursuit of the obvious” which leads, if done correctly, to “radical astonishment.” The most obvious thing in the world is the world itself and it is also obvious that we are just a part of it, like everything else. Husserl and, in its own way, the Western Inner Tradition, asks us to put this belief aside and to try to see things differently.

I should point out that Husserl was not a devotee of this tradition. He was a genuine Herr Professor working all his life in the academy on questions of logic, mathematics, and epistemology. What is fascinating to me is that the sort of shift in our focus of consciousness that he asks for is in many ways the same as required in the Hermetic, inner tradition. Both ask us to put aside certain habits of thought, for this is all that the “natural standpoint” and the most rigorous expression of it, the modern, scientific mode of knowing, are. They are ways of perceiving, of knowing, and of thinking that have been built up, arrived at, over time. This is not to devalue them in any way, merely to show that they have evolved. They are not simply “given” as natural. This suggests that other ways of perceiving, knowing, and thinking can also evolve. And this is where we come in.

One of the first effects of “making the world strange” in the way that Husserl suggests is that it makes “you” strange too. The consciousness that has stepped out of the “natural standpoint” and taken an active stance toward “the world” rather than a passive acceptance of it, becomes aware of itself in a way that it never does when remaining in the “natural standpoint.” It becomes aware of itself as an activity, as a source of action. It feels more lively, more alive, more present, and becomes aware that what it had believed up till then to be absolute fact may not be as absolute as it had thought. Most important, it becomes aware of itself as a willed activity. Not wilful, in the egotistic sense – along with everything else, the everyday self  that is associated with “wilfulness” is bracketed too – but in the sense of feeling its own “participation” in the “world” – it, after all, is doing the bracketing. Up till then it had simply accepted “the world” as something “there,” with which it had nothing to do aside from passive reflecting it. It becomes more aware of “I” as a living, vital, experience. It understands what Buckminster Fuller said when he remarked that “I seem to be a verb.” It overcomes its “forgetfulness of being,” in Heidegger’s phrase, and “remembers itself” as the esoteric teacher Gurdjieff believed we all needed to do. (In light of what we said about a “dis-integrated” consciousness, “re-membering” seems particularly apt.)

There are moments when we already feel this kind of “participation,” although we mostly are not explicitly aware of it and don’t speak of it in this way. But the effect of great art, poetry, music, literature, natural beauty, love, religious and spiritual practices all tend toward making us more aware of our inner life. They widen us, expand our interior, give us glimpses of that inner universe the rejected tradition tells us resides within us all. They are the “peak experiences” that Maslow believed came to all psychologically healthy people, and what he meant by “psychologically healthy people,” were people who rejected the “fallacy of insignificance” and who strove to actualize the “higher reaches” of their nature, the aspects of human being that are the central concern of our rejected tradition. And I should point out that as we actualise these “higher reaches,” the world around us is actualized too. We no longer see it as something solely to exploit or to abuse, as a dead, oblivious, mechanism, but as something living with which we can develop a relation. We develop an attitude of care toward it, we become, as the title of one of my books has it, “caretakers of the cosmos,” rather than insignificant accidents produced randomly within it.

And just as our present consciousness has evolved out of earlier forms, a new consciousness, more aware of the kind of knowledge and knowing that informs our rejected tradition, can also evolve. I am of the opinion that this is happening already and has been happening for some time and that we, now, are in a very good position to help it along. We are the inheritors of both traditions, both kinds of knowing, and we can see where and how the two need to be balanced and integrated. This is precisely the theme of my latest book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World, a historical-evolutionary overview of the place of the rejected tradition within western culture. It is my sincere hope that our other tradition no longer remains rejected and that its teachers and what they have to teach remains a secret no longer.