Some weeks ago I had an odd experience. Like many other people, I have spent the past few months under a voluntary “house arrest,” following the rules the government has set out in order to combat COVID-19, the coronavirus that has stopped the world in its tracks.
I am not the most gregarious of people and so being asked to practice social distancing, to self-isolate and stay at home, was not, as it was for many others, that much of a hardship. I missed being able to see friends or to sit at a café or loiter in bookshops, but to be honest I spend most of my time reading or writing at home anyway, and my neighbourhood in North London has many quiet, leafy backstreets, so my daily ration of exercise, taking a walk or riding my bicycle, was pleasant. I also have a small garden where I can stretch my legs and putter around outdoors. Lockdown, then, was more of an inconvenience for me than a burden.
I hasten to add that I am aware of how lucky I am. The last thing I would want to appear is callous, insensitive to how difficult things have been for many people less fortunate. In fact, the odd experience mentioned above is directly related to this, the inveterate human habit of “taking things for granted.”
What happened is this. One morning, when the usually dull London spring had brightened and the day promised to be fine, I stepped out of my backdoor and into my little patch of garden, a cup of coffee in hand. The air was unusually fresh – a collateral benefit of lockdown, which left hardly any traffic on the streets – and as I took a deep breath, I stretched and looked up. Whether it was the cleaner air or simply the fine weather, what I saw surprised me. I can think of no better word.
What did I see? The sun. The sun had surprised me.
When I say that the sun surprised me, I don’t mean that it poked its head from behind a cloud and said “Peekaboo!,” although, to be sure, that would have been even more surprising and perhaps cause for concern. No, the sun didn’t do anything unusual. It was just there, as it usually is, bright, yellow-white, and too dazzling to do more than glance at. Nevertheless, I found myself asking “What is that?” As soon as I did, I realised what I had asked.
What is that? It’s the sun, of course, something you’ve seen all your life and which has been around for close to five billion years and which is expected to be around for another five billion. It is a middling size star set in a galaxy among billions of other stars, in a universe of billions of galaxies. It is a great ball of fire, ninety-three million miles away, in which hydrogen is being transformed into helium, and it could swallow more than a million earths. And so on. I “knew” all this, but this knowledge somehow didn’t answer my question, nor did it explain why I should suddenly see something as ubiquitous as the sun as strange. I was genuinely surprised by it, and if any of my neighbours were in earshot that morning, they may have wondered what it was that I was giggling about.
This sense of being surprised by something I took for granted and rarely devoted much thought to, was related to an odd exhilaration I felt at the beginning of the corona crisis. Although I was not as badly affected as many others, I still had to change my routine. After a few trips to my usual market resulted in a tour of empty shelves, I decided to go to smaller ones that hadn’t yet been pillaged by hysterical hoarders. Even there I had to make do with what they had. The smaller shops were further away, so I used the daily food run as an extra bit of exercise, pulling on my backpack and heading out on my bike. I took all the advised precautions, wore gloves – at that point touch seemed the main means of transmission – wiped down my supplies with antibacterial agents, and washed my hands after that. I was in “crisis mode,” but the odd thing was that I found myself feeling more that I was on holiday.
Again, I know these past months have been anything but a holiday for many people, and my sympathy goes out to them, and to all the frontline workers who had to deal with a very dangerous and very deadly situation – and are still dealing with it. What was odd was that, as I mentioned, I was not actually doing anything very different from my ordinary routine. Yes, I had made a few changes but nothing too upsetting. But there was something odder still. Recognising that something unusual was happening to me, I decided to try to analyse exactly what that was, to apply a bit of phenomenology to my consciousness. The result was that I realised that the essence of the strange exhilaration I felt was paradoxically a sense of freedom.1
Freedom? During lockdown when my movements were severely proscribed and what I was allowed of them were saddled with various precautionary measures? How could I feel free, in a very real sense – certainly more than I usually do – when, to all intents and purposes, my freedom was limited, more than it usually was? And if this wasn’t paradoxical enough, my reflections led to an even odder insight. It was that the “freedom” I was feeling was not one that I had recently been granted – as some people, celebrating the easing of lockdown in some places may be feeling now. No. It was a feeling for the freedom I already possessed but had become used to. It was a freedom the “crisis” had reminded me of, just as I had been reminded of the strange reality of the sun, although I thought I knew all about that. I had taken the freedom I already possess for granted, just as I had taken the sun for granted. The sun had surprised me and so had my freedom.
When it came to me that this was the source of the odd happiness – I can’t think of a better word – I was experiencing, I had to laugh. Why? Because I realised that I was experiencing exactly the kind of shift in consciousness that Colin Wilson describes in many of his books, a shift from what he calls “the robot” to “real me,” or, in your case, to “real you.” This odd transition is at the heart of Wilson’s work, and it was apparently something I already knew, as I had written a book about Wilson’s life and work entitled Beyond the Robot. I may have known it, but I had taken it for granted, just as I had taken the sun for granted. Now I saw that I had had an experience of this phenomena, and I knew, with the kind of knowledge that comes from experience, that Wilson was right.
What is the robot? It is a labour-saving device that we have developed over thousands of years of human evolution. Its main function is to perform laborious, repetitive tasks with a minimum of energy, thus freeing up consciousness for more complex operations. Think of some skill that you now possess but which cost an immense amount of effort when you were first learning it. It can be anything, from tying your shoes or learning how to type, to riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument. At first, it is discouragingly difficult; we have to expend much energy and focus our attention on each little step, making sure we put our finger on the right letter on the keyboard or turn the handlebar in the right way. We fail, make mistakes, fall down, grumble.
But if we keep at it, one day something miraculous happens. We discover that we can ride our bicycle, type a letter – or email, these days – or play a tune. We have learned how to do these things, which means we no longer have to think about where to put our fingers on the keyboard but can think instead about what we want to say in our email. What has happened is that our robot has taken over the grunt work, freeing “us” up to consider other things. He is a kind of automatic pilot that keeps us flying while we can enjoy the view and think about what we’ll do when we reach our destination.
This is why the philosopher Whitehead said that “Civilisation advances by extending the important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”
If it wasn’t for the robot we would never learn anything and would have to start from scratch each time we wanted to type, ride a bicycle, or use any other learned skill. Animals have robots, but theirs are not as versatile or capable as ours. You can teach a young dog new tricks, but even their capacity to acquire new skills is severely limited. A dog may fetch your morning paper – although these days I suspect that is a lost art – but it can’t learn French or how to sew (and of course this is also true of many people…)
So the robot is a handy, indispensable tool and we simply couldn’t do without it. But there’s one hitch. He does his job too well. The robot is like a valet who is eager to do everything for us. He is happy to take things out of our hands and never complains about the tasks he has to perform. Such an eager helper can overstep his brief. He begins to do things that we would rather do ourselves. He is such a good automatic pilot that we forget that we really should get back at the controls. And this is not his fault. To extend my metaphor, he hasn’t hijacked the plane from us; we have allowed him to infer that we would like him to take control. And, accommodating fellow that he is, he is happy to oblige.
The problem is when we allow the robot to do everything for us, life begins to lose its savour. As Wilson writes, the robot has “one enormous disadvantage.” What is that?
“If I discover a new symphony that moves me deeply,” Wilson writes, “or a poem or a painting, this bloody robot promptly insists on getting into the act. And when I listen to the symphony for the third time, he begins to anticipate every note. He listens to it automatically, and I lose all the pleasure. He is most annoying when I am tired, because then he tends to take over most of my functions without even asking me. I have even caught him making love to my wife.”2
(Wilson does not mention it, but one wonders if his wife ever caught her own robot in the act as well.)
Eventually, by allowing the robot to do everything for us, life begins to feel slightly unreal, or at least not as real as it used to feel. It is not a sudden change; it happens gradually, imperceptibly. But at some point, the moments of delight that we used to feel at a sunset, a starry night, or simply relaxing with music and a glass of wine, begin to dwindle. “The shades of the prison-house begin to close,” as Wordsworth tells us, and the “intimations of immortality” we received in our youth no longer arrive. We have “grown-up.” That is why we have a nostalgia for our childhood, although, as Wilson points out, we develop our robot precisely in order to help us deal with the emotional and psychological turbulence of youth. In “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot asks, “Where is the life we have lost in living?” Wilson answers: “In the hands of the robot.”
Sometimes the feeling of being cut off from life is so acute that it can lead to suicide or, conversely, to sudden outbursts of violence, just in order to “feel alive” again. This is the thesis behind Wilson’s “existential” study of murder and sex crime, in books such as his Encyclopaedia of Murder and Order of Assassins. Some individuals, who have allowed their lives to become almost completely automatic, periodically erupt into a murderous rage, the violence throwing off the robot temporarily. More often, we resort to expedients like alcohol or drugs, which achieve their effect by putting the robot to sleep for a while. That is why after a glass of wine or two, things that struck us as uninteresting take on a strange glow of meaning. It’s no coincidence that poetry and wine have long been linked. The problem here is that by putting the robot to sleep, our own efficiency is hampered; that is why we are advised not to drive while drunk. Wine may inspire poetry, but the actual writing is best done while sober.
Wilson discovered there was another way to get the robot out of the driver’s seat. Crisis has the effect of putting the robot in his place – or rather, of putting “us” in ours. This is why so many of the “outsiders” Wilson wrote about – people with a high appetite for purpose and meaning, “life more abundant,” which the modern world can’t provide – followed Nietzsche’s advice and “lived dangerously.”
As an example, Wilson offers the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre who said he never felt as free as when he was a member of the resistance during the German occupation of Paris and was in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo. Another more extreme example is the novelist Graham Greene. As a teenager, Greene suffered from acute boredom, and when he discovered his brother’s revolver, he decided to play Russian Roulette. He put a bullet in a chamber, spun the cylinder, took the gun out to the common, and put the barrel to his head. Then he pulled the trigger. When Greene heard the hammer click on an empty chamber, he experienced an “extraordinary sense of jubilation… as if a light had been turned on… and I felt that life contained an infinite number of possibilities.”3
Greene had been so bored that the thought of blowing his brains out seemed appealing. Nothing had changed except something in him. The “infinite possibilities” were always there; Greene had simply been blind to them. He didn’t see them because his robot was on the watch, and he isn’t programmed to see possibilities but to perform functions with a minimal expenditure of effort.
As Wilson points out, as he pulled the trigger the thought that he could die caused Greene to concentrate his mind in a sudden psychic spasm, into a kind of mental fist. When he heard the hammer hit an empty chamber, he relaxed. The sudden contraction of his attention, in effect, told his robot that “this is important,” and so it handed over control to Greene. That is why when he relaxed, “he” was seeing life’s infinite possibilities. “He” was living again, briefly, not the robot.
Something similar, Wilson tells us, happened to Dostoyevsky when he faced execution and received a sudden reprieve: an immediate, overwhelming insight that “all is good.”
Greene’s experience is summed up in a quotation from the English man of letters Doctor Johnson that Wilson is fond of quoting: “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.” Greene’s mind was thus concentrated. So were Sartre’s and Dostoyevsky’s. This is why the philosopher Heidegger and the esoteric teacher Gurdjieff both suggested that the one sure way for humans to overcome their “forgetfulness of being” was to maintain an awareness of their inevitable death. The thought of the reality of our death causes us to make a sudden inner effort and we momentarily push the robot aside.
I was not going to be hanged in a fortnight, nor was I in danger from the Gestapo. But the change in my routine prompted by the “crisis mode” I had adopted had, I believe, a similar effect. I somehow felt more alive. This, I believe, is the same phenomenon that led many Londoners who survived the Blitz to remember it as the most exciting times of their lives. Many of them said that they never felt more alive or more free. They could be blown up at any moment, and this added a certain savour to everything. What had happened, in Wilson’s terminology, is that I had lowered my “indifference threshold.”4
This is the term Wilson uses to highlight the fact that when we have allowed the robot to take over our lives, things that we would otherwise find pleasant and agreeable elicit no response from us. We are indifferent to them. “We” do not enjoy the music we listen to or the book we are reading or even the love we are making, because “we” are not really involved. We all know how difficult it is to cheer someone up when they are deeply depressed or bored. Wilson discovered, though, that where something pleasant fails, an inconvenience can succeed. It can shake us out of our indifference and break through the “I can’t be bothered barrier” many of us spend much time behind. Somehow, the inconvenience prompts us to respond, and when it is overcome we find ourselves in a better mood than we were in before the inconvenience. Paradoxically, it has “cheered us up.”
When I was surprised by the sun, it was because “I” was seeing it that morning, not the robot. And because “I” was more real, so was the sun. Gurdjieff captured this in the title of his last, unfinished book, Life is Real Only Then, When “I Am.” Gurdjieff knew about the robot; his way of speaking about it was to say that we are all mechanical, machines, not real human beings. Or that we are all asleep, believing we are awake. This is the most dangerous part of “living on the robot”: we accept this half-life as the real thing and don’t realise that we are actually unconsciously “de-valuing” life by involuntarily ignoring a great deal of it. Not in some physical sense – I hadn’t ignored the sun all these years and now suddenly got a glimpse of it. The robot edits out everything that he considers inessential, so the world he presents to “us” is stripped down to practical concerns; all the “extras” are omitted. Just the facts, no meaning. This is why when he is given a holiday, everything seems more “interesting,” rather like the effect of colour being added to a black and white sketch, or a sumptuous soundtrack to a silent film.
We simply don’t understand that most of the time we are “living” in name only, and accept our moments of non-robotic consciousness as “gifts” or “treats,” short breathing spaces we deserve before getting back into harness. These moments, what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences,” are really moments when our consciousness is working as it should, and not at the “energy-saving” levels the robot usually has it set at. We all have much more energy and power than we know, but because we have come to accept the minimum levels that the robot limits us out of habit, we never draw on these supplies. Gurdjieff again knew this; that’s why he developed a whole system of what we can call “artificial inconvenience” or “induced crisis,” to push his students past those limits.
Yet, like genuine crisis, the artificial kind can become habitual too. Greene eventually stopped playing Russian Roulette because the kick of not blowing his brains out lost its thrill; it’s a wonder he survived to write his gloomy novels. Gurdjieff had to develop more and more difficult exercises and create more inconvenience in order to keep his students on their toes. In his last days in Paris, Gurdjieff’s students “lived dangerously” by piling into his car and driving at breakneck speed to parts unknown until the petrol ran out; Gurdjieff was an appalling driver, and they would have to find petrol in order to get back. As some reports suggest, at times the crisis Gurdjieff induced proved too great and a student collapsed. And as Wilson points out, we have created civilisation in order to minimise crisis, so there is something absurd about having to put a gun to your head in order to feel alive.
This led to Wilson’s insight that we can apply two other methods to free ourselves of the robot, neither of which involve actual physical danger. One is to put more effort and attention into everything we do. Wilson often quotes this line from Hermann Hesse’s allegorical novel The Journey to the East: “A long time devoted to small details exalts us and increases our strength.” Devoting time to small details strikes us as a bore, and as soon as we feel this, the robot is there to take over. But if we put, say, twice as much attention into some “boring” task – such as cleaning our flat – we can find that we actually enjoy doing it.5 Why? Because “we” are doing it, not the robot. The enjoyment is not from the task itself but from our being “alive” while doing it.We can see this as a version of the exercises Gurdjieff gave to his students; the sense of “being alive” is what he called “self-remembering,” which, in fact, is what we are doing when we “feel alive.”
Another method is to use the imagination to create a crisis “in the mind.” This is the same as Heidegger suggesting we maintain an awareness of the reality of our death. You can try this right now. Take a look at your life and focus on everything that is important to you. Now, imagine how you would feel if those things were threatened. Say your house has burned down or you have been diagnosed with a fatal, incurable disease. Imagine, as Doctor Johnson suggests, that you will be hanged in a fortnight. If you are able to imagine this vividly enough, you should get a taste of what it would feel like if it was real.
But we can go a step further. If you can imagine the loss of what is important to you, you can also use your imagination to evoke a sense of the reality of those things you would lose, for this is what the crisis does: it puts the robot in the back seat so that “you” are in touch with reality. So, rather than focus on the negative impact of loss, you can focus on the positive impact of remembering that you now possess what you would regret losing. The essence of both exercises is to evoke a sense of reality, and the shock of a positive reality can be just as effective as that of a negative one, as well as being a lot less gloomy.
This, I believe, is what happened when I was surprised by the sun, and when I felt an odd exhilaration at the start of the corona crisis. I had taken my freedom for granted. Now, when that freedom was constrained, this inconvenience reminded me of it; hence the paradox that I felt more free. The crisis mode I had adopted made “me” more “present” and I remembered how much I possessed and had to feel grateful for. It was a collateral benefit of a difficult time. With any luck I will not need another crisis to be reminded again.
1. “A single obsessional idea runs through all of my work: the paradoxical nature of freedom.” Colin Wilson The Occult (London: Watkins Publishing, 2015) p. xxiii.
2. Colin Wilson “Existential Psychology: A Novelist’s Approach” in The Bicameral Critic (Salem, NH: Salem House, 1985) p. 39.
3. Quoted in Colin Wilson Frankenstein’s Castle (Sevenoaks, UK: Ashgrove Press, 1980) p. 122.
4. Space does not allow me to tell it here, but the story of how Wilson arrived at this insight is worth telling. I do in Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2016) pp. 33-34.
5. We can also employ what we can call the “Tom Sawyer effect,“ and pretend that we are enjoying it and then find that we actually do. This refers to the scene in Mark Twain’s novel when Tom pretends he is enjoying painting the fence and by doing so, tricks his friends into paying him to let them have a go. They do enjoy it, so the trick is really on Tom. He has convinced them that painting is fun and their enjoyment ironically proves him right.
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