Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Saturday Ramble: Losing your mind in peak experience

Colin Wilson

Colin Wilson

With the recent death of prolific author, Colin Wilson, I thought it appropriate to reprise one of his favourite themes: the peak experience.

Neurologist David Eagleman describes how our conscious mind knows nothing of what is happening in the brain where our lives are plotted out in detail well in advance of our knowing about it and acting on it. We are nothing but puppets on a string, according to science.

That basic template might be true as far as it goes, except that the process takes place outside the physical brain, which may be just a translation device, an interface, into the body.

Moreover, simple mystical techniques can return control of even the most shadowy of activities.

In my forthcoming book, provisionally titled A different way of looking at the world, the theme is developed beyond the stage of “seeing into the nature of reality”, the centrepiece of the first volume*. It covers the ground of the genuine mystic as a scientist of immateriality, by which I mean the physically unknowable: the cloud of unknowing.

It centres on a relentless pursuit of firsthand knowledge, a single-minded drive for the perfection of experiential knowing that can’t be mistaken for the truth because it is the truth.

A motor racing driver is a good analogy. He risks life and bones to arrive at a state where every bodily response to unpredictable circumstances is controlled by apparently automatic impulses. Indeed, to “think” about anything at all would spell disaster. Daydreaming or calculation would mean death at this level of performance. It could almost be described as an advanced form of meditation.

The reward is a sustained sense of elation, as consciousness seems to split from normal mind patterns and the inhibitions of daily existence. Total immersion in this state releases an experience close to spiritual exaltation, as slow, clunky thought processes give way before the unity of body and soul.

Many of us have experienced moments of peak experience when playing sports. Suddenly everything seems to go right: balls hit the right side of the line in tennis time and again, or the back of the net in football; there’s a surge of ecstatic energy in running or rugby; we’re suddenly stroking the ball to the boundary in cricket. For a while we can do nothing wrong. Our opponents watch in dismay. It doesn’t last, but we sure as hell remember it.

A mystic would observe that the “normal” mind is nowhere to be found during peak periods. The American psychologist Abraham Maslow has written extensively on these experiences; for a broad coverage of the field, see Colin Wilson’s New Pathways in Psychology.

These are just the foothills of dedicated mystical experience, but it illustrates the splitting off, and falling away, of normality required for full-blown experience of the ineffable. Paradoxically, this turns out to be more real than life itself.

Both my books explores the fundamental workings of what lies beneath the material world through experience, not through an electron microscope.

Physics always struggles to separate the scientist from the object under observation, straining for objectivity. Contrarily, the mystic plunges into the object area, observing it from within. Both quantum mechanics and mysticism demonstrate that objectivity is a deception by the egoic mind.

You won’t learn how to swim without jumping into water. Textbooks and all the mathematical demonstrations in the world won’t crack it. Experience of the actuality is essential.

Mysticism is not incompatible with science, as Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and, in recent times, others such as Fritjof Capra have shown. It represents the essence of who we are, from which we arise, and whence we return.

We need both sides to give us anything like a complete picture of the world, as all the spiritual texts ever written firmly attest.

* The Eternal Quest for Immortality

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming soon: Practical Mysticism: A different way of looking at the world.

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Midweek Mysticism: The still, small disruptive voice

FearMost of us are aware of a voice, apparently in our heads, that chatters away much of the time. It is not totally coherent and seems to flit over a variety of subject areas in a rambling manner. We think of it as “me”.

It isn’t.

In severe cases it can overwhelm an undisciplined mind and drive an individual to the brink of madness. But why is it there? What purpose does it serve?

When we are deeply interested in something, the intense force of our concentration overrides the chattering imp and silences it. Close observation of our mind, as in meditation, soon shows the voice who’s boss. Watch a cat stalking a mouse or a bird. It’s a masterclass in total integration of body and mind, embodied in silence.

Modern humans are split in many ways. The voice is only one indication, but the most apparent. The trouble is, we can’t abide silence and use many props, such as radio, TV, cinema and telephone, to overcome random silence.

Yet, in that silence lies sanity and wholeness. We are not the voice. We are the awareness in which our whole being floats.

To centre ourselves in that awareness is to be wholly who we are, free of the self-generated noise and din of the busyness we take for life. When we are wrapt in a book, or even writing one, we become like the cat, fully ourselves.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

To be published soon: Practical Spirituality: A different way of looking at the world.

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Midweek Mysticism: The Soul — does it exist and can we experience it?

Out of body

The soul is usually understood as a mythical entity in our sceptical — I was going to say scientific — age, although that is only a half-truth. The word is occasionally used in a poetical sense as the essence of a person, but with no corresponding reality.

Again, some people hedge their bets by doubling it up as in “the heart and soul” of someone, where the words are practically synonymous. Modern humans get very confused about their souls.

Soul is often coupled with the adjective immortal — “my immortal soul”. What is the truth? Do you have a soul? Does everyone? And what does it look like? What does it do? Is it really immortal?

As a lifelong student of mysticism I have, as it happens, arrived at impeccable conclusions, backed by evidence, which being personal, even though various, might not satisfy the most sceptical of “scientific” minds. It was ever thus.

We are generally aware that our being has two distinct parts: body and brain. Although the brain is part of the body and dies with it, we nevertheless regard it as, in some way, separate. In terms of sentience, we should refine that to: bodily senses and mind. We know where we are with these, we see and feel them in action every day.

But most people are aware that there is more to it than physicality, overwhelmingly present though that is. Could there be a “ghost in the machine”?

There really has to be if we are to explain so many apparently peripheral activities and unexplained happenings. The links at the bottom of this piece represent a data trail that builds up a compelling picture of the soul and its connections with the world we live in.

The precise two-part reality of humans is body and soul, where the soul has a spiritual nature that only tangentially impinges on the physical. Once you have experienced your own soul — and it is there to be experienced with the necessary effort and concentration — you will have grasped the fundamental nature of humanity and its place in the firmament.

You will know that it is fundamentally different from the physical body and brain. It has to be experienced rather than explained. No form of words can express the magnitude of its reality. My own reaction to its appearance in my consciousness was, “So it’s all true! There is nothing missing now.”

And indeed what else is there to say?

Links. Regular returners will have seen them before, so skip if you must.

The soul revealed
Divine Light experience
Mind and consciousness defined
Nirvana defined
What is God?
Mysticism is the soul of science
How does the body fit in with mysticism?

There are many more on this site if you want to pursue them.

John Evans

To be published soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world.

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Christmas Mysticism: Angels are like shards of light


One of the doubts I have always held about the Catholic Church is that it treats its followers a bit like children. When I see the standard-issue stories about Heaven, Hell, Angels, God, the Devil, and all the other guys in the band, it’s easy to recognise “the old rhetorical language of the Church”.

People today are much more sophisticated than the peasantry of old. Universal education, science, well-informed television news and documentaries, plus daily newspapers, keep even the poorest up to speed. It is utterly counter-productive to impose a paternalist overview on “the flock”. Headless chickens, they are not.

Pope Francis seems to have recognised this temporal disjunction and set about reforming it. Rome has now opened a second front: Angels are “shards of light,” not humanoids with wings.

“Angelologist” Father Renzo Lavator, speaking at a conference on angels in Rome, said: “They are a bit like sunlight that refracts on you through a crystal vase,” which is both a poetic and a precise picture of what appears.

Now, I’m sure that various psychologists, who did not experience this, will write about “hallucinations” and “seeing what they want to see”.

Humanoid visions, perhaps, but angels as shards? I don’t think so. As a trained psychologist myself, I retort (in advance of their inevitable response), grow up and recognise that you do not know everything, nor have you experienced this “out of body state”.

The good Father is also an optimist, as mystics should be: “Pope Francis talks more about the devil than about angels and I think rightly so. But it’s still early, he will get round to the angels too.”

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

Coming eventually: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world..

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Christmas Mysticism: Contemplatives in action


In his book Grey Eminence, Aldous Huxley wrote: “The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be completely blind and insane.”

Many would agree with that assessment, although Richard Dawkins and his followers might take some persuading.

The Spanish founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius Loyola, thought that a mystic was “a contemplative in action”, which brings us on to our title theme.

If we take Natural Theology to be knowing God through the reason, or intellect, howsoever that differs, and Revelatory Theology through scripture and other outside forces, such as nature, Mystical Theology is the direct, personal apprehension of the divine by contemplative experience.

Its character is qualitatively different from any other form of knowledge, a fact only appreciated by those who have realised it. There is really very little to separate the true mystic and the contemplative, unless we add a preference for action, as Ignatius suggested.

Let’s now take at a look at the words, contemplative and contemplation. The former, nominally an adjective, has taken on the character of a noun — a thing, rather than a way of being a thing. It is not a word that is used much these days, except among the Church’s religious, another word that has curiously leapt into noun status.

New Agers almost never talk about contemplatives. The man in the street wouldn’t be caught dead using the term, and if you mentioned it in a pub, you would probably be barred for your pains. It has become rather technical in its usage and very much a niche subject.

Contemplation, on the other hand, has a wider range of uses: jocularly, as in “contemplating one’s navel,” or with gravitas, as in “you should seriously contemplate your future, young man”. It covers a kind of thoughtfulness, a reverie or, as used to be said, a brown study.

Chambers considers it “attentive viewing … a meditative condition of mind”. The Concise Oxford Dictionary prefers, “gazing, or viewing mentally,” which to my mind, doesn’t quite crack it.

Christmas Humphreys, the late Buddhist Judge, was more precise still: “If concentration were the means, and meditation the instrument, contemplation is the goal.” Perfect!

Most mystics would agree with that, and the Christian texts certainly use the word as defining the highest stratum of their art. As an aspiration, it is a constant attending to God, the “one simple thing necessary” of The Cloud of Unknowing.

Consider this passage from Luke (10 38-42), which indicates Jesus’s high regard for the contemplative life over the active one: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, you are careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Jesus recognises Mary’s calling to the contemplative life and gives his approval, even though it means her neglecting the commonplaces of daily living. His religion is not essentially corporatist or social, as our version of it has become, but has strong elements of the personal and inward. We should say, contemplative.

The contemplative then, is one who, through his personal experience, has outgrown the need for institutional support. He, or she, is a mystic without the external trappings, who reaches beyond Augustine’s ideal life of reading, meditation and reflection.

To leave out the supernatural (as dictionaries tend to do) or, in Aquinas’s phrase the operant grace, is to denude him of his essence. All true contemplatives receive an infusion of what Christians call the Holy Spirit (see John 14 15-18 and 15 26, 27), and Zen masters call Satori.

But what is the best definition? It is this: a contemplative is one who seeks and has found contemplation, which is spiritual enlightenment, and nothing less.

John Evans

Publishing soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world.

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