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The Talented Mr Huxley

As you may know, I’m researching a book about Aldous Huxley and his friends Alan Watts, Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard, and how these four posh Brits moved to California and helped to invent the modern culture of ‘spiritual but not religious’.

Of the four, Huxley is my greatest inspiration. My last book, The Art of Losing Control, owes him a profound debt. Writing a biography of someone is a bit like moving in with them – you start to notice all their annoying habits. Huxley definitely has some but, having now read pretty much everything he’s written, I can still say he’s a truly great thinker.

He’s clearly not a great novelist. When he died on November 1963, on the same day as JFK and CS Lewis, his contemporaries thought he would be remembered principally as the scabrous and shockingly irreverent comedic novelist of the 1920s and 1930s. His peers felt he’d lost his edge when he’d moved to California and become a hippy guru.

In fact, the opposite is true. His early satirical novels like Antic Hay or Point Counter Point, when read today, aren’t at all shocking, or funny. They’re just second-rate, and the snobbish elitism of early Huxley is all too apparent – the references to squalid little people, the calls for eugenics and an end to liberal democracy.

Brave New World, written in 1932, is easily the best of his novels. It’s inspired every great utopian and dystopian novelist since, from JG Ballard to Anthony Burgess to Margaret Atwood to Michel Houllebeq. It predicted the extent to which advances in chemistry and biology would alter our ideas of self, sexuality, family and politics. Huxley, the grand-son of TH Huxley, was an early prophet of biochemical self-fashioning.

But Huxley was also the grand-nephew of Matthew Arnold, the great humanist and author of Culture and Anarchy. Like his grand-uncle, he sought to know how culture and education could help us find our centre within the bewildering changes of modernity.

He was interested in mysticism even at school, although he tended to mock it in his earliest writings. But he started treating it more and more seriously from the mid-1920s on, until it becomes the central focus of his attention from the mid-1930s. Having been celebrated as a ‘prophet of meaninglessness’, he suddenly – in Ends and Means (1937) – declares that the ultimate goal of the individual and society is the realization of the divine. Everything else should be geared towards that end.

I think his greatest claim to fame is his analysis of humans’ urge to self-transcendence. I’ve read a lot of people on this topic – William James, Ken Wilber, Emile Durkheim, the great mystics. Huxley is the greatest analyst I know of this central domain of human experience.

He took from William James and his friend FWH Myers the idea that the conscious ego is just an island on top of a much larger ocean of human personality. There is also a ‘subliminal self’ which we carry around with us, which occasionally intervenes into our awareness. There’s all kinds of junk down there but – as Myers was the first to claim – there are also latent powers of healing and inspiration. At the deepest level, Myers suggested (and James and Huxley agreed), the not-self of the subliminal mind merges into the Atman, super-consciousness, Mind-at-large.

Huxley insisted – decades before Abraham Maslow – that humans have a ‘basic drive to self-transcendence’. We exist in our small, conditioned, utilitarian egos, cut off from our deeper selves, but it’s boring and claustrophobic in there, and we long for a holiday. Maybe the soul in us yearns to get out of the cocoon and unfold our wings.

Huxley’s genius was to appreciate all the different ways humans seek these holidays from the self: alcohol, drugs, dancing, art, reading, hobbies, sex, crowds, rallies, war. Having tried to cover this enormous terrain myself, I can tell you that no one else comes close in terms of having a bird’s eye view of the landscape. James, for example, only analysed ‘religious experiences’, which he defines as man’s solitary encounters with the divine. This is just a tiny corner of the field that Huxley covers – it doesn’t even take account of collective religious experiences, let alone all the transcendent experiences that humans have which don’t explicitly involve God.

Huxley also brought an acute historical analysis to the topic. He was an early pioneer of the history of the emotions, and the history of medicine (I could make a case that he actually invents the history of the emotions, with his essay on accidie in 1923). He suggested that, while humans have basic drives, such as the drive to self-transcendence, those drives may take different forms depending on a person’s temperament, physique and culture.

He argued – and this was one of the principal themes of my book The Art of Losing Control – that mystical transcendence had been marginalized and pathologized in western culture, starting from around the Reformation. It became embarrassing and ridiculous to admit to the sorts of mystical experiences which were highly valued in medieval culture. ‘We keep them to ourselves for fear of being sent to the psychoanalyst’, he said.

Lacking in role models or institutions for genuine mystical transcendence, western culture instead offers us what Huxley called ‘ersatz spirituality’ – package holidays from the self, such as consumerism, gadget-idolatry, booze, casual sex, and nationalism, which Huxley thought was the dominant religion of the 19th and 20th centuries (it’s returned with a vengeance in the 21st century).

What’s the solution? Rather than preaching a return to Christian orthodoxy, as TS Eliot, WH Auden or CS Lewis did, Huxley beat out a new path, which has proved much more influential in western culture: learn spiritual practices from the world’s religious traditions, test them out using empirical psychology, and find the ones that work for you.

He outlined this approach in his 1946 anthology, The Perennial Philosophy. I’ve loved this book since I was a teenager (I still have the copy I stole from the school library). It first introduced me to the likes of Rumi, Traherne, Chuang Tzu, Hakuin and Meister Eckhart, and helped me realize how much the world’s wisdom traditions share. But now I can see its flaws.

This was a book born out of historical despair. Huxley had played a central role in the British anti-war movement, and then abruptly abandoned it in 1937 to move to the US, ending up living with his wife in a hut in the Mojave desert. He thought western civilization was heading for destruction, and that literally our only hope was for a handful of people to dedicate themselves to mysticism at the margins of the general awfulness, like the Essenes seeking gnosis in the desert.

The only hope was if the Perennial Philosophy became generally recognized and embraced by humanity. He insisted the world’s great mystics all agreed on all the core points. But this was an argument born more of political despair than calm scholarship. It over-emphasized the extent to which mystics of different traditions agreed. And it ended up ranking mystical experience – only emotionless encounters with a formless, imageless divine are ‘true mysticism’, while any encounters with the divine in a particular form are considered second-rate.

You can understand how this is important to Huxley’s political dreams (humans fight over particular forms of the divine, so it’s better if we all meet in the Clear Light). But it’s pretty outrageous for him, a new convert to mysticism with hardly any practical experience, to lay down the law as to what is or isn’t a genuine encounter with the divine. How the hell does he know?

There’s an obvious anti-Abrahamic and pro-Hindu/Buddhist bias in his vision. He hates any religions that are time-based (ie with a historical vision), and thinks Buddhism and Hinduism are more tolerant because they’re more focused on the ‘eternal now’. Odd to argue for Hindu tolerance at the precise moment millions of Hindus and Muslims were massacring each other during the Partition.

But in more practical terms, it’s a very lonely, intellectual and bookish sort of spirituality that he offers (that must be why it appealed to me). There’s no mention of the role of community, or elders, or collective rituals. Just the intellectual and his books in the desert. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’.

And it’s a hard path. Huxley, in effect, says that the only possible route for humanity is straight up a sheer cliff face. Anyone can be a mystic, he says. You just need to be completely detached from all worldly things and totally focused on the divine. No biggie.

It turned out to be very difficult. He suffered several hard years of failure and self-disgust, during which he wrote Ape and Essence, his most horrible and despairing book. He admitted at the end of his life that he’d never had a mystical experience. God will not be rushed.

But by the 1950s, he’d relaxed, and moved into his mature spirituality. Rather than insisting on the sheer cliff face of ascetic mysticism as the only route to salvation, Huxley accepted there were lots of practices one could do here in this world to make yourself healthier and happier on your long, multi-life journey to enlightenment.

He understood more and more the importance of the body to well-being and realization, and was an early supporter of gestalt therapy, the Alexander technique and hatha yoga. He finally found a place for sex in his spirituality – Island includes elements of Tantric practice. He also found a new appreciation for ecstatic dance – notice the children in his utopia, Island, practice ecstatic dance to ease themselves of anxiety. This was a decade before Gabrielle Roth developed 5Rhythms at Esalen. It’s a pity we never got to hear his thoughts on Beatlemania – they were certainly into him, and put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.

He was also a big fan of hypnosis, and taught himself to be a hypnotist (his friend Igor Stravinsky claimed Huxley was a healer, and had cured him of insomnia). And, of course, he discovered that psychedelics offered a short-cut to temporary ego-dissolution. Those were the only times he ever really got a glimpse of the divine – when he was high.

It was tremendously shocking that this great English man of letters should preach the chemical path to liberation. But Huxley quite rightly pointed out that humans have been using psycho-active plants for religious rituals for several millennia. Other spiritual exercises rely on alterations in body chemistry, such as chanting, fasting or flagellation. That an alteration in body-chemistry is the means to a spiritual experience doesn’t mean that experience is only bio-chemical.

In the last decade of his life, the disgusted prophet of the desert became an unlikely hit on American campuses, lecturing to thousands of students at a time on visionary experience and integral education. This is his second great claim-to-fame. He had a vision that universities could offer an integral education which avoided over-specialization and over-intellectualization, and which instead educated the whole person – their body, their subliminal mind, their intellect, their social and political self, their relationship to nature, and their higher consciousness.

That vision of education proved hugely popular with baby-boomers, and yet somehow – such is the inertia of the university system – it’s had very little impact on what universities offer in the sixty years since then. They still offer the same over-specialized and totally intellectual learning experiences to undergrads, alas. His vision was, however, a defining influence on alternative colleges like Esalen, the Garrison Institute, CIIS and Schumacher College.

Today, we are all Huxley’s children. The ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic is the fastest growing in the US. Contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation. We are all influenced by ‘empirical spirituality’ like the science of mindfulness. Most westerners say they’ve had a mystical experience. And the psychedelic renaissance that Huxley called for 60 years ago may finally be happening.

Huxley wrote that, as a result of psychedelics,

What was once the spiritual privilege of the few will be made available to the many… My own belief is that, though they may start by being something of an embarrassment, these new mind changers will tend in the long run to deepen the spiritual life of the communities in which they are available. That famous ‘revival of religion’, about which so many people have been talking for so long, will not come about as the result of evangelistic mass meetings or the television appearances of photogenic clergymen. It will come about as the result of biochemical discoveries that will make it possible for large numbers of men and women to achieve a radical self-transcendence and a deeper understanding of the nature of things.

We shall see!

I’m doing a talk on Huxley at QMUL in London on the evening of January 23rd. Tickets available here. 

If you want to support my research on Huxley and the other mystical expats, please get in touch. I need to spend several months in Los Angeles at the UCLA and Huntington archives, and will make all my research publicly available in book form and possibly a podcast too. I need about £30,000 to get it done. You can also make a monthly contribution to my blog on Patreon

The secret of success? Self-loathing

Last week, I watched Free Solo, a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan in 2017. It’s a horror film. You watch squirming in your seat, as this likeable young man dangles by his fingertips 2,300 metres off the ground in Yosemite. Even the cameraman can’t watch.

Yet he manages it, grinning all the way.

What powers this superhero? Honnold is quite frank about the secret of his success. He’s driven, he says, by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. His father died when he was young, and his rather icy mother didn’t hug him or show him much affection, but instead told him repeatedly that ‘nearly is not there’ and ‘good is not good enough’.

That’s what powered him to success – a critical mother, plus an unusual amygdala which doesn’t really feel fear, plus layers of Stoic armour.

He’s able to climb to the top of his sport because he has no fear, and no attachments. He lives in a van. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He eats his dinner straight from the sauce-pan with a spatula. He is totally focused on climbing. He accepts that ‘everyday you may die, and there’s nothing wrong with that’.

The problem is, Alex falls in love.

He meets Sanni, a beautiful bubbly and basically adorable woman, at a book signing. He decides to give it a go though he is barely committed to her at the start of the film.

Gradually, we see Alex let down his Stoic armour and allow Sanni in.

That’s when he starts to have accidents.

The first is her fault – she lets go of a rope and he falls on his back. The second is his fault. While climbing with her, he just lets go, falls ten feet, sprains his ankle.

He blames it on her: ‘I’ve never had an accident, then I meet her, and I have two in a year.’

He is beginning to feel fear, because he recognizes that he is vulnerable. He has something to lose.

His friend explains. To free solo effectively, you need to be single. Have no attachments, nothing to distract you.

And now he has an attachment. An emotional rope. She loves him, she doesn’t want him to die.

He buys a house with her. She’s excited, imagining where all the furniture will go. He couldn’t give a shit. ‘I could just sleep on the floor’ he shrugs. His indifference drives her mad.

As they become closer, she asks him tentatively, would you consider making longevity more of a priority? Absolutely not, he replies. It’s nice that you care if I live, but no.

He reflects out loud one day, as he drives to El Cap, that Sanni has different goals in life. She cares about things like relationships and happiness and contentment. But ‘nobody achieved anything great by being happy and cosy’.

He tells her he doesn’t want her around in the days before the free climb. She hugs him and drives off. As the camera stays on her, her lip begins to tremble, and then her face crumbles. She can’t bear the thought of not seeing him again.

He climbs El Cap. Sanni calls him at the top, and she bursts into tears with relief and love. ‘Don’t cry, you’ll make me cry. Maybe it’s OK to cry’, he says, trying to figure out what he feels.

Will he settle down now that he’s achieved climbing immortality? Will he commit to a long life with Sanni? Or will he carry on, and probably die in the next decade? I don’t know.

I thought about Alex, and his remark about achievement versus happiness, when I listened to a Tim Ferriss interview a few days later.

Ferriss is a self-declared ‘Type A’ personality.

He’s written five best-selling books, he has several million subscribers to his newsletter, his podcast has been downloaded three million times. He’s been an early investor in companies including Uber, Facebook, Twitter and Alibaba. He’s a world champion of tango, a polymath, a body-builder, an oenologist, an archer.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

I first became Interested in Ferriss back in 2011, because of his love of Stoicism. I wrote about him in Philosophy for Life.

I was interested in him because he’s such a self-improvement freak. There was something fanatical and obsessive about his self-experimentation and his obsession with being the best he could be in all facets of his life.

But I can’t say I liked him. He seemed like a plastic action figure rather than a genuine human I’d want to hang out with.

Since he launched his podcast three years ago, I’ve grown to like him a lot more. In conversation with his guests, he’s warmer, softer, humbler. And he’s opened up about his mental health issues.

It turns out, he’s a mess.

He said in this week’s podcast: ‘For the vast majority of my adolescence and high school I came to the conclusion that I was not designed to be happy. And that was OK – I would be an instrument of competition and learn to be very good at things that were valued at college and in the business world. I would focus on being the best competitor possible.’

While amassing the accolades he went through ‘many bouts of extended depression’, and ‘came very, very close to killing myself in college’.

He carried on being unhappy but mega-successful all through his 20s and 30s, and then burned out after writing The Four Hour Cook-Book in 2012. That’s when he launched the podcast and started exploring mental health, meditation and psychedelics.

Like Alex Honnold, he has reflected on the connection between success and self-loathing. He says:

If I were happy, I wouldn’t be contributing to the things that are very clearly contributing to my success… I don’t just not love myself, there’s a deep sense of loathing – how could you be so stupid, how could you be so lazy. Toughen the fuck up. You may not have control over all things but you could get really get at absorbing pain. Then maybe you can be ‘successful’.

The stories of Tim and Alex show us that self-loathing can be the ultimate life-hack. Self-loathing is the lacerating edge to self-improvement culture.  We hack ourselves into a more acceptable mental, emotional and physical shape, because we’re obviously not good enough as we are.

We don’t see this honestly acknowledged in self-improvement books or workshops. I think it’s a gap in the market. ‘Klutz: How to hate yourself and build the life you dream of’. ‘Blank: how my emotional emptiness powered my success’.  ‘Where’s Daddy? How my absent, abusive father made me the man I am today.’ ‘I’m shit, you’re shit.’

Alain de Botton, for example, has built an international self-help empire, offering lessons in self-love to CEOs and yummy-mummies (and daddies). But what actually drives him, underneath the bonnet? What dirty fuel keeps him motoring? It’s the fact he had a violent tyrannical father who never accepted little Alain or made him feel good enough. All his books, he has said, were an attempt to connect with Pater Horribilis. The School of Life should offer a workshop in Radical Self-Loathing.

Given the close correlation between success and self-loathing, will we lose our edge if we learn to accept ourselves regardless of external achievements?

It all depends on your definition of success. If your definition of success is to have a life that looks incredible from the outside, but which is actually quite lonely and depressing on the inside, then whatever you do, don’t stop hating yourself. Keep that edge of self-loathing well sharpened. You will stay unhappy, toxic, and alone. But you will probably amass some accolades before you die. Woo-hoo!

Alternatively, you can change your definition of success.

To my mind, true success, true achievement, means dedicating yourself to helping all beings suffer less. Helping them be happier, wiser and more liberated.

‘All beings’ includes yourself. The deep well of compassion for others begins when we become kinder to ourselves.

If you’re being unkind to yourself, the poison from your self-loathing will seep out and affect other people, whether you mean to or not.

Imagine bringing all the dedication and energy and drive that Alex brings to climbing mountains, or that Tim brings to being a successful author, to the goal of relieving suffering. That’s what I see happening in Ferriss these last few months. And it’s beautiful. He’s helping millions of people be more aware of mental health.

Of course, awakening doesn’t happen instantaneously. Your ego comes along on the ride. You want everyone to know how spiritual you are. You want to be the best at meditation, have the most intense spiritual experiences, take the coolest psychedelics. Ferriss can’t help name-dropping the famous friends who told him about meditation and psychedelics. He’s still, to some extent, running on the dirty fuel of approval-neediness. So am I.

It’s a long road, which perhaps we travel over many lives. But hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.


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