212. Coming to meet (VI)
In deep midwinter, in the county of Devon, where the roads are a narrow maze of high hedges no more than one car’s width wide, the writer Colin Wilson set out to return home after he delivered a lecture. Snow had fallen deep and obscured a steep ditch that ran parallel to the road; if Wilson made a slight error with the wheel he would run into the ditch. In the years before mobile phones, this would mean a long overnight stay in the car or a cold trip to a phone box to call a garage to tow him out.
Wilson fancied neither option, so concentrated absolutely on the faint outline of the road for hour upon hour. When he arrived home, Wilson relaxed his concentration and felt a huge wave of euphoria; he looked at his world completely anew—even the mundane streetlights fascinated him now; he turned to gaze at them in wonder. From that day on, even on trips to the supermarket, Wilson made a tremendous effort to concentrate as much as possible on the road, so as to click his mind back to the wondrous euphoria.
While it is true that myths, stories, and continuity provide aspects of meaningfulness for our lives, none of these alone is sufficient to provide meaning—even if very compelling. Meaningful engagement with the world—a kind of re-enchantment with the world, as Wilson felt—is an experience. Indeed, Wilson related what he experienced in his car to Abraham Maslow’s notion of the “peak experience”, a kind of euphoric moment of bliss or realisation somewhat akin to satori or Zen enlightenment.
Maslow recorded these spontaneous experiences in ordinary people, experiences that ranged from a suburban mother who was suddenly overwhelmed while feeding her child one sunny morning through realisation of how fortunate she was to a soldier—just returned from an all-male tour of the Pacific—who was struck by how very different women are from men as he glanced at the first woman he had seen for years. Wilson related these peak experiences from Maslow, just as I relate them now, as examples of healthy psychological states. Maslow’s contention was that psychology suffered from its concentration on the sick and so missed the nature of psychological health, of which the peak experience was a constituent—if occasional—part.
Wilson simply rediscovered meditation on his snowy car drive; although, quite wedded to a scientific view, even of the occult, he wanted to conceptualise it in the scientific terms of Maslow’s psychology. It is meditation—similar techniques—that creates meaning and ecstasy. If the human mind is, as Hofstadter suggested, a strange loop, then the act of concentration—particularly on nature—could be seen as being akin to the finger that presses the reset button when a computer crashes, when a computer becomes stuck in a loop. Enlightenment is the resolution of a non-productive loop. We all know people who hide at work or with computer games and the attraction of these activities is really the concentration involved and the subsequent ecstasy of disengagement—a similar effect can be achieved, perversely, through alcohol or LSD; hence Jack Kerouac’s excessive alcohol consumption to achieve what he called “ecstasy of the mind”.
So not every form of concentration is equally beneficial; we are best, I suggest, to concentrate on nature, to let our loop mirror a garden or a pond, not the treacherous loops of man. But, nonetheless, the fastest way to deal with depression or a feeling of meaninglessness is to pick up a pen and concentrate on the tip for seven minutes—when you look away you will feel slight elation and a renewal of meaning, your environment will speak to you again; it will seem to call out to you. And, of course, the longer you undertake such exercises the more ecstatic and meaningful life becomes; hence monks and nuns of all religions tend to have a contented and positive disposition, being people of great concentration.