In honor of Gary Lachman's latest publication, The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination, we're reprinting an interview conducted by contributor David Halpin, which originally appeared on Occultum.net in 2016. It has been modified slightly to reflect more recent events.
Gary Lachman is one of today’s most respected writers on esoteric and occult topics. His many books - written on subjects including Madame Blavatsky, Swedenborg, Carl Jung and Rudolf Steiner - have received international acclaim.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Lachman studied philosophy, managed a New Age bookshop, taught English Literature, and was a science writer for UCLA. A founding member of the band Blondie, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Gary, if I could ask you first of all how your Colin Wilson biography came along?
It turned out to be much longer than I had anticipated, about twice as long in fact. Wilson had a long life and he wrote an enormous amount. His work is packed with ideas so there was a lot to write about. I've tried to keep an even pace between telling his story and exploring his ideas, but his life was so much his work that the two blend together, so it is a kind of biography of ideas.
I was struck by the line at the end of Dreaming to Some Purpose where Wilson writes, “I see my task as a writer to explore, and at times create what Rhea White calls ‘exceptional human experience.'” In your view, what will become Colin Wilson’s most important legacy?
I think Wilson will be recognized for developing an important philosophy of consciousness and for what he calls his "new existentialism," an analysis of human experience based on meaning and purpose, rather than the negative conclusions reached by Sartre, Camus, and other "old" existentialists. Wilson spent his entire life trying to penetrate a central mystery of human existence, what he called the "paradoxical nature of freedom." Human beings crave freedom more than anything else, but when we get it, we often don’t know what to do with it and it becomes a burden.
This was something Wilson’s “Outsiders” experienced, and he devoted his life to cracking this riddle. He found clues in the work of Abraham Maslow, Edmund Husserl, Gurdjieff, and many others, but it was his own remarkable ability to synthesize these and add to them his own insights that make his work so important. One of his central themes, what he calls “Faculty X,” is, for me at least, a true recognition of a kind of “power” we have that we are not aware of having. It is a kind of power over time, an ability to grasp the reality of other times and places, instead of being stuck, as we usually are, in a very limited present. It is a kind of inner freedom and spaciousness that stretches out over time and history.
Throughout the ages, occult thinkers seem to have gravitated towards places where they can preach and experiment with their ideas away from the masses and within communities receptive to their philosophy. In this social media age do you think our next generation of radical thinkers will be the owners of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, or is physical human contact essential for new thinkers within the esoteric movement?
There are aspects of esoteric teaching that are said to be able to be transmitted only from a teacher to a student, from one person to another. I would think this is true in the same sense that any good or inspiring teacher conveys something of his or her own charisma or personality to the student. And in some schools this idea goes even further, with a special kind of energy or force passing from one to the other. This may be true. I can’t say I’ve experienced it, but I have read accounts of those who have. But such teachers are not easy to find and one has to be wary of poseurs.
But the main ideas of what we may call esoteric philosophy can, I think, be conveyed on the printed page – or I guess computer screen these days. There is of course a difference between knowing intellectually and knowing experientially, but one can experience ideas as real, living powers, and they can have an impact on one as powerful as any sensory experience. I believe that what is important is to use our minds, to think actively, to feel ourselves as active agents trying to understand our world rather than passive recipients of sensory data.
The internet makes an enormous amount of material that would be difficult to find available, but it is also crowded with a lot of rubbish. We need to develop our powers of discrimination accordingly. Many people join groups and embrace a teaching in order to avoid the inconvenience of thinking for themselves. Many think themselves out of any experience, feeling they “know it all.” Personally I tend to be solitary. It’s nice to socialize, either in the real world or online, with people who share your interests, but the real work gets done on one’s own.
During an interview for Caretakers of the Cosmos with Miguel Conner a couple of years ago, you spoke about the importance of human interaction and repair, and the whole idea of Tikkun. There still seems to be a lack of traction when it comes to this concept. Is this fundamentally due to materialistic egotism or something else entirely?
The idea of tikkun or of somehow “repairing” the world has been around for some time but as you say it seems that in recent times there is little evidence of its efficacy. Well, I can’t argue with you about the obvious problems facing us in the outer world, environmental, social, economic and so on. The world is in a mess and there doesn’t seem to be anyone cleaning it up. I think Isaac Luria, the Cabbalist who developed the notion of tikkun, would agree, but I think he would point out that the world has been in a mess since creation – that, in fact, creation itself is a mess, or at least has a few kinks in it that God or whoever is responsible didn’t manage to sort out.
That’s why we – Man – appeared, in order to correct God’s mistakes. How good a job we are doing is at least debatable. But the work of tikkun is not the same as major operations to protect the environment or to limit greenhouse gases, as important or as imperative as these may be. It is more of a kind of inner work, in which each of us, on encountering the sparks of the divine that were captured by matter at the beginning of the world, are able to release them, so that they can return to their source. In doing this, our own souls are released too. It is a way of recognising the spirit in others, in all things. If enough people were to practice it, then we would be able to work on the obvious repairs that need doing in the outer world. We can only hope they will.
The mystic philosopher Evelyn Underhill seems, like Wilson, to be quite overlooked within today’s esoteric community. I was struck by the cutting edge work of neuroscientist David Eagleman and his observations with respect to the restrictions of our biological senses and perception of ultimate reality. Underhill, Henri Bergson and, indeed, Aldous Huxley, all seem to have come to this conclusion long before we had such an advanced scientific understanding. Is the awareness of our biological limitation a higher, instinctive knowledge that comes from the mystic experience, in your opinion, or simply the result of a particular existential stage?
Yes, Evelyn Underhill’s work deserves to be better known. I first read her years ago and recently went back to her classic Mysticism when working on The Secret Teachers of the Western World. I’ve visited her grave in the cemetery at Hampstead Parish Church a few times; A. R. Orage, editor of the New Age and a student of Gurdjieff, is buried there too, also the philosopher C.E. M. Joad. It was Bergson who first pointed out that there are very good evolutionary reasons why we don’t have mystical consciousness all the time. If we had, we wouldn’t have evolved.
Our brains, Bergson saw, do not produce consciousness, as some contemporary neuroscientists and philosophers of mind believe. Our brains are filtering devices for limiting the amount of reality into consciousness, for reducing the amount of consciousness available to our individual psyches. It is not, as the old existentialists and materialists of all sorts have said, that the world is meaningless. Far from it. It is positively overflowing with meaning, so much that if we were aware of it, we would be stopped in our tracks – which is exactly what happens to people who have mystical experiences or for whom for some reason the veils obscuring real reality are parted, and they truly see. In order to deal with the world, we need to limit the amount of information competing for our attention.
So, Bergson argued, the brain evolved into a kind of editor, siphoning off “irrelevant” information and only allowing, as Huxley said, enough to enable us to get along on this planet. What seems to happen in mystical experiences is that for some reason, this filter is removed, and Reality appears in all its glory. That the filter was developed by the force behind evolution as a necessity suggests that as we become more capable of grasping and assimilating this excluded reality, our filter can ease up and allow more reality into our awareness. All spiritual exercises and disciplines are aimed in some way at achieving this. There is no sense in being overwhelmed by mystical experience. We need to be able to grasp it, to understand it. Then slowly we will be able to absorb more reality and then we can do without our mental filters more.
I really enjoyed your Steiner biography and found your accounts of his willingness to understand opposing viewpoints very admirable. It seems Anthroposophy itself now encompasses many diverse ideas. What do you think Steiner would make of how his work is perceived today?
I’m sure Steiner would be pleased to see that the results of his practical work have grown immensely since he first laid down the basics of Steiner education, architecture, farming, medicine, therapies and so on. In that sense, his is probably the most successful esoteric teaching of the modern age. And I’m sure he would also be pleased to see that his more philosophical work, aimed at epistemology and the phenomenology of consciousness, has laid foundations for thinkers that came after him, such as Owen Barfield and Henri Bortoft.
Bortoft, who sadly died a few years ago, especially focused his work on Goethe’s ideas about “imaginative knowing,” the kind of phenomenology of consciousness that emerges from his work on plant morphology. Steiner started with this and with it developed his ideas about “supersensible perception,” a perception of the inner world, of spirit. I think he could feel gratified that his work was being carried on in new ways and in new directions.
It seems one thing we tend to forget about esoteric philosophers is their broadmindedness and willingness to embrace new knowledge. In many cases it is the followers of a particular path that create the dogma as opposed to the founder. Do you think this has happened to Jung, for example, and what would Jung himself have made of the Nag Hammadi texts? Although he was alive for their discovery, he seems to have pre-empted so much we have learned about Gnosticism since then.
Yes, the followers of a thinker or teacher can often be more royal than the king. Believers tend to want to protect their guru, which is understandable, especially in a time when teachers like Jung and others were subject to much criticism. It is unfortunate that what begins as a new, creative, vital current of ideas and insights can easily turn into a dogma and set of rules. This is unfortunate but it seems almost inevitable, and people like Swedenborg and Bergson and others have cautioned about it.
Bergson talks about “dynamic” and “static” religion, and how the one transforms over time into the other. One thing I always do if I am speaking to a group devoted to one particular teaching, say Steiner or Jung, is to talk to them about others, include them in the conversation. We really don’t need to protect our little camps, but to find common ground among them. For example, Jung, Steiner, and Swedenborg all had what we would call “visionary” experiences – Jung’s “active imagination,” Steiner’s “Akashic record,” Swedenborg’s trips to “heaven and hell.” All were different, yet all shared certain similarities, all took place within what Henry Corbin called the “imaginal world,” an inner yet objective dimension of reality. So what can we learn if we compare their experiences and the means they used to have them?
And Jung, you know, has one of the Nag Hammadi codices named after him. I’m sure he would take argument with some of the ways in which our understanding of Gnosticism and the Gnostics has developed, but he would be glad that we were still bothering about it. There is always a tension between wanting to maintain the original vision and exploring new avenues of thought. Dogma and routine is the hazard of one; losing sight of the original insight is the other. Each can help keep the other alive and vital.
Gary’s latest book is The Lost Knowledge of the Imagination. Get it from an independent bookseller here.