Robert Anton Wilson on how to integrate weird experiences

Jules Evans
12 min readJan 21, 2022

I’ve been reading Erik Davis’ magnum opus, High Weirdness. Davis is the pre-eminent chronicler of Californian spirituality, and this book masterfully explores a particular scene — the Californian counter-culture in the 1970s, when hippy optimism curdled into paranoia and conspiracy theories, and everyone suspected everyone else was a narc.

Davis looks at three cult prophets from the freak scene — Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick. All of them had spiritual experiences in the 1970s which were extremely messy, quasi-psychotic and baffling, so baffling that they came back to them again and again, trying to make sense of them for the rest of their lives.

The phrase one might use for such an experience is ‘spiritual emergency’, a term coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof, also in California in the 1970s, for a spiritual experience which is messy and quasi-psychotic, but which turns out fine in the end. That’s the term my co-editor and I used for this sort of experience, in Breaking Open, for example. But ‘spiritual emergency’ is too neat and confident a term for these three episodes. A better term, perhaps, is weird. Weird captures the sense that something damn peculiar happened, but what exactly is hard to pin down.

It seems to me that, of the three freak prophets, Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) emerges from his weird experience best, because he is best able to go on with his life. The other two seem to me to have become frozen in their epiphanies, unable to integrate them and carry on productively with their lives, and also to have become captured by rather lurid explanations of them.

And I wondered if RAW has practices we can use, for spiritual and psychedelic integration, and for navigating our own conspiritual times.

Here’s the background to his spiritual crisis.

In the early 1960s, two friends called Greg Hill and Kerry Wendell Thornley created a semi-serious joke religion called Discordianism. While all other religions are founded on the idea of an ultimate Cosmic Order, Hill and Thornley thought there is just as much evidence to suggest Cosmic Disorder.

Discordians worshipped Eris, goddess of discord. In the Greek myths, Eris is piqued at not being invited to an Olympian wedding, to which Aphrodite, Hera and Athena have been invited. So she throws in a golden apple inscribed with ‘to the fairest’, thereby successfully sowing discord between the goddesses (funny that in California in the 1970s, Steve Jobs should create Apple — fast forward to the Noughties, and what has done more to sow discord in western politics than social media and the iPhone?)

Discordianism grew in the late Sixties as an in-joke / semi-serious spiritual movement, with its own foundational text — Principia Discordia — to which followers were encouraged to add on their own content, its own rules (‘Everyone is a Pope’) and arcane symbolism.

In the late 1960s, Robert Anton Wilson was editing the letters page of Playboy magazine, with his friend Robert Shea. They were fans of Discordianism, and friends of Hill and Thornley. Wilson and Shea were amused by the letters they received at Playboy, which often recounted the most far-out conspiracy theories — this was the decade when conspiracies were beginning to blossom in the US, in reaction to the assassination of JFK and other political leaders, thanks in part to the John Birch Society, a right-wing political movement which believed an evil global elite were trying to build a New World Order.

RAW and Shea started to gather some of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and cobbled them together into a rambling Dadaist fantasy trilogy called Illuminatus! In it, the world is controlled by the sinister and evil Illuminati, who are trying to harvest humanity’s energy to revitalize their fascist elite. Opposing them are the Discordians, also known as the Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu, or the Jams (yes, the KLF were fans of Discordianism).

I haven’t read the book, but it sounds similar to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, written two years earlier, which emerged from the same 70s Californian milieu. Both booked are about the fine line between cosmic paranoia — what if everything is connected? — and cosmic nihilism — what if nothing is connected?

RAW, Shea and other leading Discordians then got involved in a game called Operation Mindfuck, in which they left various clues, hints and messages around popular culture to suggest that the Illuminati really were controlling everything. It was a game, but also a semi-serious exercise in ‘guerrilla ontology’ — trying to undermine people’s sense of the real to help them escape their reality-tunnels.

However, as we’ve seen in the last decade, these sorts of conspiracy-games easily get taken deadly seriously by the paranoid and the desperate. Millions of people started to think the world really is controlled by the Illuminati, who are harvesting our life-force to try and become immortal. Indeed, that idea fed into the Qanon conspiracy, which has shaken the world these last five years.

Even the Mindfuckers got mind-fucked. Kerry Wendell Thornley fell off the razor’s edge into full-blown paranoia, after he was investigated for his connection to the assassination of JFK. He’d known Lee Harvey Oswald in the Army, and wrote a novel about him before Oswald was arrested for JFK’s murder. When New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison started to investigate the murder and build his conspiracy theory, Thornley contacted him, only for the paranoid Garrison to decide Thornley was the ‘second Oswald’. Thornley then decided that everyone else was working for the CIA, including Robert Anton Wilson.

The Chapel Perilous

This brings us to RAW’s own melt-down. By the early 1970s, Wilson was making systematic experiments with his own consciousness, using psychedelics, yoga, Sufism and Tantric sex magic. He was inspired by Aleister Crowley’s pragmatist approach to magick, encapsulated in this paragraph from Magick in Theory and Practice:

In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.

This is the idea behind ‘chaos magic’, a pragmatist magic where you suspend belief about the entities you are contacting and instead focus on effects. It’s a very Jamesian form of religion. William James’ pragmatist approach to religion was: who knows if it’s really true, look instead at the fruits of your practice. Act ‘as if’ it’s true, and you may make it so.

As RAW practiced, more and more weird stuff started happening to him, particularly coincidences and synchronicities, around the number 23, and around figures like Crowley, Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts and Timothy Leary (the last two were friends of RAW). As he got higher, he too fell off the razor’s edge, and became convinced he had stumbled on Crowley’s secret message: for centuries, a few initiated humans have been using sex magic to connect to higher intelligences, who appear to be beaming from the dog-star Sirius, in order to assist our evolutionary advancement. Timothy Leary, by the by, had come to a similar conclusion around this time — in Fulsome Prison, he and his followers were receiving extra-terrestrial transmissions urging humanity to evolve and escape from Planet Earth.

RAW later called this spiritual-psychotic phase of his life the ‘Chapel Perilous’ — in the Grail myth, every seeker of the Grail has to enter the Chapel Perilous, where their virtue and sanity is tested. In Cosmic Trigger he writes:

Every thing you fear is waiting with slavering jaws in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason and the pentacle of valor, you will find there (the legends say) the Medicine of Metals, the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness.

RAW managed to come through this crisis, just about, by practicing a sort of critical agnosticism and ontological pluralism. He followed the advice of Crowley, who said no one should practice magick without a grounding in logic, the history of ideas, psychotherapy, experimental science and agnosticism (Crowley was a surprisingly big fan of Thomas Huxley, who coined the word ‘agnostic’).

We are all, RAW suggests, in ‘reality tunnels’ — we all exist in versions of reality which we have constructed, but which we usually think are totally true. Sometimes, humans see the walls of their tunnel through sudden epiphanies, and manage to escape. But invariably, they then insist their new ‘reality’ is the Ultimate Cosmic Truth. They sometimes become boring fanatics. Wake up sheeple!

We need to learn to be agnostic about all our models. RAW writes:

Do not believe anything…Belief is the death of intelligence…Belief in the traditional sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, “My current model” — or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel — ‘contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised.’…“reality” is always plural and mutable [another very Jamesian idea]…

I was enthused by RAW’s work this week because this is more or less where I find myself at the moment. From 2004 to 2012, I felt illuminated by my near-death experience, and enthused with sharing the insights of Stoicism (the principle insight being ‘reality is constructed by your beliefs’). From 2012 to 2017, I tried to understand my near-death experience better, and to gain an understanding of God. I even became a charismatic Christian — in fact, I dreamt of the vicar who helped convert me last night, Nicky Gumbel. He was topless in a techno rave.

From 2018 until today, I have felt quite agnostic about my capacity to know ‘ultimate reality’. All I can say is I am sure there is something going on, some sorts of higher intelligences which seem to interact with our lives, but I am ignorant of their exact nature — whether they / She are God, angels, aliens, my personal daemon, my future self, my subconscious. Who knows. I’ve stopped longing for certainty, and intend to spend the rest of my life enjoying the mystery while trying in a very small way to help my fellow beings.

In the last two years, New Age culture has been consumed by ‘conspirituality’. We have collapsed into over-certainty. Perhaps that is true of both sides of the COVID religious wars — the pro-science, pro-vax, pro-lockdown smug middle classes (of which I am one) have also perhaps fallen into fanaticism and scapegoating. We are all in the Chapel Perilous, and we all need to learn to be wary of over-certain beliefs and over-simplistic narratives. RAW, who was writing about conspiracies and disinformation decades ago, writes:

Everybody nowadays thinks they must have an “opinion” on everything, whether they know anything about it or not. Unfortunately, few people know the difference between an opinion and a proof. Worse yet, most have no knowledge at all about the difference in degree between a merely legal proof, a logical or verbal proof, a proof in the soft sciences like psychology, and a proof in the hard physical-mathematical sciences. They are full of opinions, but they have little ability to distinguish the relative degree of proof upholding all these various opinions.

I don’t know if his techniques are replicable for others in spiritual crises. But the take-aways for me would be:

- Agnosticism: don’t grasp too hard after gnostic certainty.

- Pluralism: don’t try and collapse reality into One narrative

- Compassion. Without compassion for oneself and other beings you can easily go crazy on the spiritual path.

These methods worked for RAW, just about. Although he still fell for another reality-tunnel. When you read Cosmic Trigger or his later book, Prometheus Rising, you see he got very into the Californian faith that humans are evolving into immortal superhumans. Timothy Leary fell for this faith as well — from the 1970s onwards, he left the gospel of LSD for the gospel of SMILE (Space Migration, Intelligence-Enhancement, Life-Extension). This is still the ruling faith of Silicon Valley, by the way, inspiring ‘oligarchs of the spirit’ like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Peter Thiel.

As I explore in my ‘spiritual eugenics’ project, this Darwinian-Nietzschean-Immortalist dream easily gets a little eugenicky: ‘we the special elite are evolving into immortal superhumans, and we will leave behind the rest of ignorant humanity’. One finds that elitist, exclusionary, eugenicky faith in Leary’s philosophy, and to an extent you find it in RAW’s work too. But he is just about aware enough to see the risk of elitism, and he’s sufficiently working-class and humane enough to avoid it. He wrote in 1988:

Nietzsche’s concept of the Superhuman has at last become meaningful for me, although not in the elitist form in which he left it. I now think evolution is continuing and even accelerating: the human brain is evolving to a state that seems Superhuman compared to our previous history of domesticated primatehood….I see no reason to believe that only an elite is capable of this evolutionary leap forward, especially as the new tools and training techniques are becoming more simple.

So, in RAW at least, everyone gets to be superhuman eventually.

He abandoned his agnosticism and fell into the Immortalist faith for personal reasons. His daughter Luna was murdered when she was 15, and he had her brain cryogenically frozen, in the expectation she would be resurrected in the near-future.

Maybe there’s a lesson there too. Perhaps, we all need something meatier than agnosticism when it comes to confronting loss and grief. But so far, I find it helpful. I have learned how to shrug.

Keeping it weird

By the by, weird coincidences often happen to fans of Wilson’s work as well, often connected to the number 23. I love this story:

In 1977, experimental director Ken Campbell turned Robert Anton Wilson’s sprawling conspirituality epic, Illuminatus, into an equally sprawling nine-hour play, with a young Jim Broadbent and Bill Nighy in the cast. The book is alot about weird coincidences, and I love the story of how Nighy came to be in the play:

Bill Nighy had been working at the Liverpool Everyman with the director John Roche and had followed him to Aberystwyth for the summer season. The gig turned out to be problematic and Nighy returned to London to report to Roche in Belsize Park. The director was leaving on a family holiday, but not before giving a copy of Illuminatus!

Nighy spent the first day in London reading it. He was hooked. The book was about many things, including the killing of John Dillinger outside the Biograph Cinema in Chicago in 1934, and the fact that the picture of George Washington on the American dollar bill was, in fact, a picture of a high-ranking Illuminati doppelganger.

“Now I’m not a seeker, or, indeed, a supposer of any kind,” says Nighy, “but I turned on the television after making a cup of tea and the first thing I saw was some ancient footage of John Dillinger being led backwards into a prison cell, flagged by FBI agents. I changed channels, in a nervous way, and the whole screen was filled with an American dollar bill.

“I felt slightly uneasy, and I hadn’t had a drink yet, so I figure I’ll go to the pub. I didn’t know the area, but I walk into the Belsize Tavern and order a pint of Guinness. I’ve got these three books under my arm and a bloke with bushy eyebrows comes up to me and says: ‘Ah, I see you’re reading Illuminatus!’

“And I say: ‘Well, yes, I am.’

“And he says: ‘Well, I’m mounting an enthusiast’s production of it at the Liverpool School of Language, Music, Dream and Pun.’ I told him I was an actor.

‘Ah’, he says, ‘then you can be in it!’”

The bloke with bushy eyebrows was, of course, Ken Campbell, but Nighy didn’t take him up on the offer (at least, at this point). I imagine he was thoroughly weirded-out by the evening’s cavalcade of coincidence, or maybe his parents once told him never to take parts from strangers. Who knows? You’d have to ask him.

In any case, things would only get weirder. Some months after the chance encounter in the London boozoir, Nighy visited some friends in Liverpool. He missed his train home, so went to a cafe on Matthew Street to grab a cup of coffee. Standing at the cafe counter was the bloke with bushy eyebrows..

“You made it, then,” said Campbell.

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