Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley: Who Are We?

This is a somewhat meandering lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Who Are We?".  

A few pieces I find interesting:

  • What we think of as "I" is really a small part of what is going on in our "mind-body." Our conscious self is not our total self. Huxley uses the example of raising our hand. We aren't consciously flexing the necessary muscles; we will it, and it just happens. Likewise there are a host of processes our body completes without our explicit effort (digestion, circulation, etc.). He also uses the example of a parrot (5:10), which somehow has the ability to mimic sounds. Huxley refers to these unconscious processes as a "type of intelligence" that we experience, but are not consciously producing. The identity and nature of "the self" is a massive ongoing debate within religion and especially in contemplative forms of religion. A takeaway for me is simply that, when thinking about "who we are," things are not as straightforward as they first seem.

  • (11:20) Huxley here speaks about his famous image of the "brain as a reducing valve," in the sense that its primary function might be to limit the amount of reality we consciously experience, selected for survival value. We simply can't be aware and conscious of all that is going on around us as we would be too overwhelmed. Huxley believes that this reducing valve can be opened, and has been opened, by the great mystics and that similar experiences can be induced by various substances.

  • (21:00) We experience the world in terms of concepts, not direct immediate experience. Right now I think of myself as sitting on my couch and typing on my computer. In fact, I am experiencing a huge variety of sensations including various color impressions, a variety of sounds in my basement and from outside, many touch sensations coming from virtually all parts of my body, etc. When we experience life conceptually, we are actually one step removed from out immediate experience. This is one aspect of reality that vipassana meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) helps us to realize. Language and concepts are always "fingers pointing at the moon" of actual experience.

  • (36:50) "We have to combine relaxation with activity." In art, sport, the intellectual life, the spiritual life, etc. we are at our best when we get out of the way of inspiration. The painting paints itself, the song writes itself, the dance dances itself, the life lives itself. We are at our best when we are passive channels of what might be called "inspiration." In the contemplative/spiritual life, this might be spoken of as "letting God live through you."

  • (44:40) How do we open ourselves to God / The Ultimate? How do we get rid of the "partial, relative, ego-centered view of the world?" At 51:54, Huxley discusses various spiritual exercises including concentration practices, and eventually seems to describe vipassana at 54:00, which he sees leading to "an awareness of consciousness," or "consciousness without thought." I would also posit Centering Prayer as a method of reaching this state. In my mind the practice of Centering Prayer is actually a more natural fit for reaching the state that Huxley describes. Of course one's experience of a particular practice is a personal matter and how each practice uniquely affects the mind is up for debate.

The Mystics are Boring

"Nevertheless, insofar as they are saints, insofar as they possess the unitive knowledge that makes them 'perfect as their Father which is in heaven is perfect,' they are all astonishingly alike. Their actions are uniformly selfless and they are constantly recollected, so that at every moment they know who they are and what is their true relation to the universe and its spiritual Ground. Of even plain average people it may be said that their name is Legion— much more so of exceptionally complex personalities, who identify themselves with a wide diversity of moods, cravings and opinions. Saints, on the contrary, are neither double-minded nor half-hearted, but single and, however great their intellectual gifts, profoundly simple. The multiplicity of Legion has given place to one-pointedness— not to any of those evil one-pointednesses of ambition or covetousness, or lust for power and fame, not even to any of the nobler, but still all too human one-pointednesses of art, scholarship and science, regarded as ends in themselves, but to the supreme, more than human one-pointedness that is the very being of those souls who consciously and consistently pursue man’s final end, the knowledge of eternal Reality...

...Among the cultivated and mentally active, hagiography is now a very unpopular form of literature. The fact is not at all surprising. The cultivated and the mentally active have an insatiable appetite for novelty, diversity and distraction. But the saints, however commanding their talents and whatever the nature of their professional activities, are all incessantly preoccupied with only one subject— spiritual Reality and the means by which they and their fellows can come to the unitive knowledge of that Reality. And as for their actions— these are as monotonously uniform as their thoughts; for in all circumstances they behave selflessly, patiently and with indefatigable charity. No wonder, then, if the biographies of such men and women remain unread. For one well educated person who knows anything about William Law there are two or three hundred who have read Boswell’s life of his younger contemporary. Why? Because, until he actually lay dying, Johnson indulged himself in the most fascinating of multiple personalities; whereas Law, for all the superiority of his talents was almost absurdly simple and single-minded. Legion prefers to read about Legion. It is for this reason that, in the whole repertory of epic, drama and the novel there are hardly any representations of true theocentric saints."

                                                                                      – Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy


Real Simplicity

"In the world, when people call anyone simple, they generally mean a foolish, ignorant, credulous person.  But real simplicity, so far from being foolish, is almost sublime.  All good men like and admire it, are conscious of sinning against it, observe it in others and know what it involves; and yet they could not precisely define it.  I should say that simplicity is an uprightness of soul which prevents self-consciousness.  It is not the same as sincerity, which is a much humbler virtue.  Many people are sincere who are not simple.  They say nothing but what they believe to be true, and do not aim at appearing anything but what they are.  But they are forever thinking about themselves, weighing their every word and thought, and dwelling upon themselves in apprehension of having done too much or too little.  These people are sincere but they are not simple.  They are not at their ease with others, nor others with them.  There is nothing easy, frank, unrestrained or natural about them.  One feels that one would like less admirable people better, who were not so stiff.  

To be absorbed in the world around and never turn a thought within, as in the blind condition of some who are carried away by what is pleasant and tangible, is one extreme as opposed to simplicity.  And to be self-absorbed in all matters, whether it be duty to God or man, is the other extreme, which makes a person wise in his own conceit – reserved, self-conscious, uneasy at the least thing which disturbs his inward self-complacency.  Such false wisdom, in spite of its solemnity, is hardly less vain and foolish than the folly of those who plunge headlong into worldly pleasures.  The one is intoxicated by his outward surroundings, the other by what he believes himself to be doing inwardly; but both are in a state of intoxication, and the last is a worse state than the first, because it seems to be wise, though it is not really, and so people do not try to be cured.  Real simplicity lies in a just milieu equally free from thoughtlessness and affectation, in which the soul is not overwhelmed by externals, so as to be unable to reflect, nor yet given up to the endless refinements, which self-consciousness induces.  The soul which looks where it is going without losing time arguing over every step, or looking back perpetually, possesses true simplicity.  Such simplicity is indeed a great treasure.  How shall we attain to it?  I would give all I possess for it; it is the costly pearl of Holy Scripture.  

The first step, then, is for the soul to put away outward things and look within so as to know its own real interest; so far all is right and natural; thus much is only wise self-love, which seeks to avoid the intoxication of the world.

In the next step the soul must add the contemplation of God, whom it fears, to that of self.  This is a faint approach to the real wisdom, but the soul is still greatly self-absorbed; it is not satisfied with fearing God; it wants to be certain that it does fear him and fears lest it fears him not, going round in a perpetual circle of self-consciousness.  All this restless dwelling on self is very far from the peace and freedom of real love; but that is yet in the distance; the soul needs to go through a season of trial, and were it suddenly plunged into a state of rest, it would not know how to use it.

The third step is that, ceasing from a restless self-contemplation, the soul begins to dwell upon God instead, and by degrees forgets itself in Him.  It becomes full of Him and ceases to feed upon self.  Such a soul is not blinded to its own faults or indifferent to its own errors; it is more conscious of them than ever, and increased light shows them in plainer form, but this self-knowledge comes from God, and therefore it is not restless or uneasy."

– Francois Fenelon, quoted in The Perennial Philosophy



Island Universes

Ok, one more Huxley quote and I'll be done with him for a bit.  He's just such a fascinating writer.

Here he talks about how we can't ever truly share an experience with anyone.  We are "locked inside" ourselves, and there's really nothing we can ever do about that.  Just interesting to think about...

"We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves.  The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone.  Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain.  By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude.  Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.  We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.  From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes."

– Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception

Agnostic Meditation

As I continue to develop this site, I am starting with the practices that I feel I know the most about.  My primary spiritual practice is Centering Prayer, what you might call "resting in God," beyond thoughts, images, ideas, and emotions.  You can check out the Centering Prayer page under the Spiritual Practice tab for more.

While I'm in my Centering Prayer writing mode, I wanted to include some extended quotations from an essay by Aldous Huxley entitled Symbol and Immediate Experience from his collection The Divine Within: Selected Writings in Enlightenment.  

What I find most interesting is not only his discussion of a certain type of mystical experience (which I find similar to what can happen during Centering Prayer), but also the idea that you don't have to hold certain religious beliefs to practice these disciplines.  The Transcendental Meditation movement has really moved in this direction and uses almost completely secular language, even though it comes from the explicitly religious Vedic tradition.

So, a few quotations.  Huxley starts by describing "the mystical experience":

"Very briefly, let us discuss what is the mystical experience.  I take it that the mystical experience is essentially the being aware of and, while the experience lasts, being identified with a form of pure consciousness – of unstructured, transpersonal consciousness, lying, so to speak, upstream from the ordinary discursive consciousness of every day.  It is a non-egotistic consciousness, which seems to underlie the consciousness of the separate ego in time.  Now, why should this sort of experience be regarded as valuable?  I think for two reasons: First of all, it is regarded as valuable because of the self-evident sensibility of value, as William Law would say.  It is regarded as intrinsically valuable just as aesthetically the experience of beauty is regarded as valuable.  It is like the experience of beauty, but so much more, so to speak.  And it is valuable, secondarily, because as a matter of empirical experience it does bring about changes in thought and character and feeling which the experiencer and those about him regard as manifestly desirable.  It makes possible a sense of unity, of solidarity, with the world.  It brings about the possibility of a kind of universal love and compassion..."

I might alter his statement by saying that this is a mystical experience.  Huxley himself wrote about his experience on mescaline in The Doors of Perception, which he would take to be "mystical" but clearly a different sort of experience than he his describing here.  But "consciousness beyond thought" or "pure consciousness" is, in my opinion, a fair secular way to describe the state potentially reached by Centering Prayer, Transcendental Meditation, and Zen.  

Huxley goes on to discus a method of getting to this state:

"Now, very briefly, I must just touch on the means for reaching this state.  Here, again, it has been constantly stressed that the means do not consist in mental activity and discursive reasoning.  They consist in what Roger Fry, speaking about art, used to call "alert passivity," or "determined sensitiveness."  This is a very remarkable phrase.  You don't do anything, but you are determined to be sensitive to letting something be done within you.  And one has this expressed by some of the great masters of the spiritual life in the West.  St. Francois de Sales, for example, writing to his pupil, St. Jeanne de Chantal, says: 'You tell me you do nothing in prayer.  But what do you want to do in prayer except what you are doing, which is, presenting and representing your nothingness and misery to God?  When beggars expose their ulcers and their necessities to our sight, that is the best appeal they can make.  But from what you tell me, you sometimes do nothing of this, but lie there like a shadow or statue.  They put statues in palaces simply to please the prince's eyes.  Be content to be that in the presence of God: he will bring the statue to life when he pleases.'"

This alert passivity or determined sensitiveness could easily describe what we're trying to do in Centering Prayer.  Although Huxley says he is discussing a method for reaching this state, he doesn't touch on an actual methodology.  Centering Prayer, Transcendental Meditation, and Zazen each, it seems to me, have their own ways of getting you there.  In Centering Prayer you are releasing thoughts and setting an intention to be open to God; in Transcendental Meditation you are focusing the attention on a mantra; in Zazen, you are typically focusing the attention on the breath.  These practices aren't "all just the same thing," but I do think each could potentially take you to this state of consciousness beyond thought.

Huxley concludes by stating that you don't have to have any particular religious belief to experiment with this type of meditation:

"And of course if anyone does not want to formulate this process in theological terms he does not have to; it is possible to think of it strictly in psychological terms.  I myself happen to believe that this deeper Self within us is in some way continuous with the Mind of the universe, or whatever you like to call it; but you don't necessarily have to accept this.  You can practice this entirely in psychological terms and on the basis of a complete agnosticism in regard to the conceptual ideas of orthodox religion.  An agnostic can practice these things and yet come to gnosis, to knowledge; and the fruits of knowledge will be the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, and peace, and the capacity to help other people.  So that we see then, there is really no conflict between the mystical approach to religion and the scientific approach, simply because one is not committed by it to any cut and dried statement about the structure of the universe..."

As we find ourselves in an increasingly secular society, this idea that you don't have to hold certain religious ideas to find a contemplative practice clearly removes a barrier for a lot of people.  I'm with Huxley in that I interpret contemplative experience in religious terms.  But I think we will continue to see contemplative practices "unbundled" from their religious contexts.