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A review of Colin Wilson’s sequel to The Occult


Colin Wilson is one of the most thorough and prolific researchers and writers on the paranormal of recent years. Mysteries was written as a sequel to Wilson’s The Occult, and continues and extends the theme of that classic investigation into the world of the unknown.

Mysteries begins by floating the possibility that the “self” actually consists of a hierarchy of levels that may be likened to a ladder with higher rungs of shorter and shorter length (presumably meaning they are harder to experience, or are reached by fewer souls). Wilson adopted this concept after experiencing a series of panic attacks that were ended by his invoking a higher self (which he refers to as the schoolmistress effect).

Lethbridge, Dowsing and the Pendulum

The first part (4 chapters) is devoted to a detailed consideration of the work of Tom Lethbridge. Lethbridge was a Cambridge archeologist who found the ancient art of dowsing aided him in uncovering new finds. A good fit for the subject of Wilson’s earlier work The Outsider, Lethbridge eventually left Cambridge for Dorset where a neighbor, allegedly a witch, introduced him to the pendulum, a study that would consume the latter part of Lethbridge’s life.

Lethbridge constructed a variable length pendulum and discovered that different lengths responded not only to different substances but also to different concepts such as life, death, truth (and many others). By extending the pendulum he discovered that it exhibited similar responses to the substances and concepts at every 40 inches of extension. Lethbridge equated the second set of responses to another “dimension” beyond death, eg the “Spirit world”. This second set of responses is referred to later as the “second whorl of the spiral”.

Dowsing, and the associated use of pendulums, provide some of the best documented evidence of the existence of some kind of paranormal, ie phenomena that cannot be explained by current scientific thinking.

Innate Awareness of Natural Forces

Dowsing, along with the theory of ley lines and related philosophies such as the Chinese feng shui, and the plentiful occurrence of phenomena at significant sites such as ancient monuments suggest some kind of earth “energy” that is accessible to the sufficiently sensitive mind. But since these phenomena can operate remotely, eg with the dowser using a map, it seems the movements must be in response to the dowser’s subconscious which in turn is responding to psychic knowledge of the target.

Lethbridge also showed that physical matter can somehow become imprinted with strong emotions. This accords with the “stone tape” theory that might explain certain (ie non-responsive) hauntings.

Lethbridge’s theories are shown to correspond to other models of the “paranormal”. Eg, in discussing the nature of time and the possibility of precognition (eg through dreams) Lethbridge’s ideas are compared with those of J W Dunne whose An Experiment With Time details a number of precognitive dreams as well as postulating an explanation based upon multiple selves existing in different frameworks of time.

A Hierarchy of Selves

The psychological condition of multiple personalities is examined at length. In order to account for the many more distinct personalities exhibited by some patients Pierre Janet proposed nine levels of self development, each of which become integrated into a normally functioning adult but which may be fragmented by some trauma during development. This accords with Wilson’s hierarchy of selves but with no reason to limit the levels to nine.

The hierarchy of selves - we are not the simple, unified entity we may think, but the common idea of self is but a single level of a very long ladder extending into the depths of the subconscious (and possibly shared, collective subconscious as suggested by Jung) and to the heights of superconsciousness which opens extraordinary possibilities, including those deemed paranormal, eg telepathy, psychokinesis, poltergeists, ghosts, contact with the spirit realm etc.

Pressure and the Robot

Wilson likens human “energy” to “pressure”; indeed we use the expression “under pressure” to describe difficult times. We have large reserves of energy, but mostly these are uncalled on - our pressure is low, and we are mainly driven by the auto-pilot robot, the drudgery of daily routine scarcely requires us to think. But when the pressure increases, so more energy is released, our will takes manual, conscious control of our choices and actions.

The key to fulfilling more of our true potential might be to wrest control from the robot and take more conscious control of our destiny. The work of Gurdjieff, who concerned himself with man’s “war against sleep” and developed techniques to relegate the robot to its proper role of servant, is touched upon. Gurdjieff's teachings are explored further by Wilson in G. I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep.

The Nature of Magic

The ancient (pseudo?) science of alchemy is discussed in some depth and its true meaning debated, ie: is it simply scientifically impossible myth? Or is it a symbolic representation of bringing about psychological changes within oneself? Or does the alchemist merge his will with the forces of nature to bring about change, ie the definition of magic?

The Jewish mystical tradition of the Cabbala is considered in some detail. Essentially the Cabbala, or tree of life, is a diagram of ten interconnected spheres (sephiroth) that operate at different levels. Eg they can represent the development of the physical world (in which the lowest sphere is the earth), but equally can represent the human condition or the evolution of an individual’s consciousness. The sephirah themselves correspond to particular planets, colors etc and the 22 pathways linking them correspond to tarot cards as well as representing meditations designed to promote particular aspects of self-growth. The Cabbala clearly illustrates the ancient magical principle of “as above so below” and is worthy of study as a system of self-growth.

The Weight of Evidence for the Paranormal

Benefiting from Wilson’s breadth of research and objectivity Mysteries presents a multitude of well referenced evidence from numerous and varied sources. The sheer volume of unexplained happenings presented here (which, it must be remembered merely scratches the surface of the totality) suggests something unusual is going on. Applying Occam’s razor this is much more likely than every single one of the accounts being either mistaken or fraudulent.

Further, the evidence suggests that, despite the heterogeneity of the various experiences, they do fall into particular themes/types. This implies that rather than being just random failures of scientific laws they are indicative of some meaningful but hidden layer of reality.

This combined something unusual lies beyond the realm of current scientific understanding, and may be beyond even potential scientific explanation as a 2-dimensional being would be incapable of grasping depth.

A Proposed Theory of the Paranormal

Wilson concludes by proposing a theory that may go some way towards making sense of the “paranormal”. Essentially he believes the human self has numerous levels, of which we are generally only aware of a fairly lowly level. Before man became “civilized” we had the natural ability to climb to higher levels as we needed for survival. But as we have evolved, more and more functions have been automatized, ie assigned to that part of ourselves Wilson calls the “robot”. This allows us to get through modern life on autopilot, without ever really needing to engage full consciousness, and so those higher levels have become increasingly difficult to reach. One practical reason for this difficulty (in accessing higher levels of self) may be to act as a filter, preventing us from being overloaded by irrelevant information (much as we can be in the Internet age). However, it is by taking control from the robot that we are able to expand our consciousness to our higher levels and become the beings we really are.

Expanding Consciousness

This expansion of consciousness can occur spontaneously, eg after experiencing some trauma (one woman developed psychic powers after witnessing a serious road accident), or can be cultivated by various techniques. Wilson used one such technique that he refers to as gliding to escape the drudgery of a dead-end job. This was invoked by reading poetry that reflected his gloom and had the effect of reinstating his mental energy and producing a powerful identification with the poet. The term gliding relates to the initial difficulty in getting a glider of the ground followed by the ease with which it moves once airborne. Another method is to get into the habit of observing things intensely.


To fully absorb Mysteries’ message and implications takes many rewarding hours. Wilson avoids the highway, and takes the reader along a scenic route. It’s one of those few books that is well worth a re-read a couple of years down the line. The suggested explanation is a worthy contender for understanding the strange things that we’ve all encountered in one form or another, but the book leaves you free, indeed encourages you, to construct your own model of the fascinating reality of which we are all a part.

Purchase Mysteries by Colin Wilson



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