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The making and breaking of the counter culture

Last week I came across a small book called The Making of a Counter Culture, written in 1969 by an American historian called Theodore Roszak. I loved it. Roszak was the first to coin the phrase ‘the counterculture’. His book gives one a whiff of the heady atmosphere of San Francisco (and Paris, and London) in 1968-9, when imagination was liberated and all things seemed possible.

Roszak sensed something in the air. He sensed there was a cultural revolution happening among university students, and it was in many ways a religious revolt, a wave of Gnostic mysticism, a throwing-off of the iron cage of technocracy in favour of intimacy and ecstasy. It was a religious revival, but not as the evangelicals imagined it. Aldous Huxley was closer to the mark. Roszak writes:

in the 1950s, as Huxley detected the rising spirit of a new generation, his utopian image brightened to the forecast he offers us in Island, where a non-violent culture elaborated out of Buddhism and psychedelic drugs prevails. It was as if he had suddenly seen the possibility emerge: what lay beyond the Christian era and the ‘wasteland’ that was its immediate successor might be a new, eclectic religious revival. Which is precisely what confronts us now as one of the massive facts of the counter culture. The dissenting young have indeed got religion. Not the brand of religion Billy Graham or William Buckley would like to see the young crusading for – but religion nonetheless.

Just as Huxley predicted, the new religious landscape which appeared in the 1960s was eclectic, with young people trying out many different practices, from Zazen to the I-Ching, from indigenous psychedelic rituals to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Did they understand it all? Not entirely. Roszak wrote:

At the level of our youth, we begin to resemble nothing so much as the cultic hothouse of the Hellenistic period, where every manner of mystery and fakery, ritual and rite, intermingled with marvellous indiscrimination…No, the young do not by and large understand what these traditions are all about. One does not unearth the wisdom of the ages by shuffling about a few exotic catch phrases – nor does one learn anything about anybody’s lore or religion by donning a few talismans and dosing on LSD. The most that comes of such superficial muddling is something like Timothy Leary’s brand of easy-do syncretism: ‘somehow’ all is one – but never mind precisely how. Fifty years ago, when Swami Vivekananda first brought the teachings of Ramakrishna to America, he persuaded a clique of high-society dilettantes to believe as much. The results were often as ludicrous as they were ephemeral. Yet things are just beginning in our youth culture.

Huxley (like Blake before him) complained that rationalist western culture had marginalized mystical ecstasy in favour of instrumental technocracy. We have become estranged from the non-rational aspects of our consciousness. Roszak blames academia for this spiritual estrangement:

As the spell of scientific or quasi-scientific thought has spread in our culture from the physical to the so-called behavioural sciences, and finally to scholarship in the arts and letters, ,the marked tendency has been to consign whatever is not fully and articulately available in the waking consciousness for empirical or mathematical manipulation, to a purely negative catch-all category (in effect, the cultural garbage can) called the ‘unconscious’…or the ‘irrational’…or the ‘mystical’…or the ‘purely subjective’. To behave on the basis of such blurred states of consciousness is at best to be some species of amusing eccentric, at worst to be plain mad.

Hippy students rejected this and demanded an education for their whole selves. He wrote:

I think we can anticipate that in the coming generation, large numbers of students will begin to reject this reductive humanism, demanding a far deeper examination of that dark side of the human personality which has for so long been written off by our dominant culture as ‘mystical’.

It is quite impossible any longer to ignore the fact that our conception of intellect has been narrowed disastrously by the prevailing assumption, especially in the academies, that the life of the spirit is (1) a lunatic fringe best left to artists and marginal visionaries; (2) an historical boneyard for antiquarian scholarship; (3) a highly specialized adjunct of professional anthropology; (4) an antiquated vocabulary still used by the clergy, but intelligently soft-pedalled by its more enlightened members. Along none of these approaches can the living power of myth, ritual, and rite be expected to penetrate the intellectual establishment and have any existential (as opposed to merely academic) significance. If conventional scholarship does touch these areas of human experience, it is ordinarily with the intention of compiling knowledge, not with the hope of salvaging value.

He saw the counter culture as a marriage between New Left politics (the anti-war movement, the free speech movement, the principles laid out in the Port Huron statement of the Students for Democratic Society) and the bohemianism and spiritual eclecticism of the commune. He called it ‘the politics of consciousness’:

We grasp the underlying unity of the counter culture if we see beat-hip bohemianism as an effort to work out the personality structure and total life style that follow from New Left social criticism. At their best, the young bohemians are the would-be utopian pioneers of the world that lies beyond intellectual rejection of the Great Society.

He suggests one can see students’ appetite for spiritual experimentation and mystical experience in the free university movement. In the second half of the 1960s, students and teachers across the US started up alternative campuses offering free classes. At one of the most famous, the Mid Pensinsula Free University near Palo Alto, visiting teachers included Joan Baez, Stewart Brand, Herbert Marcuse and Richard Alpert / Ram Dass. It offered classes in everything from LSD to psychodrama, from Taoism to non-violent resistance. It was a manifestation of Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts’ dream of an integral education that included the mystical and connected it to the political and ecological. ‘The natural state of man is ecstatic wonder’, declares its syallabus. ‘Why settle for anything less?’ Why indeed! I’ve had to censor the images from their syllabus…


Their syllabuses look so wonderful from the perspective of 21st century technocratic academia, when even a course on happiness seems a bit out there. But we’ve seen the faint stirrings of a similar mystical wave in recent years. The Occupy Wall Street / Occupy London protests included free universities, and those movements have continued at Occupy KCL, Occupy LSE and other campuses, although these don’t strike me as very spiritual movements. We’ve also seen the growth of adult education organisations offering psycho-spiritual education (for a price). In London, you have places like The Psychedelic Society, Rebel Wisdom, The Weekend University, the London Philosophy Club, the House of Togetherness, Mantra and the Experimental Thought Company. Still pretty tame compared to MFU.And yet these spiritual stirrings still feel quite marginal to mainstream western culture. The capitalist technocracy was not overthrown, like Roszak predicted, nor was even university education much affected. Why didn’t the counter culture establish itself as the mainstream culture? Why did it fail?

One reason is that 1968 was the peak of a mystical wave, and those waves always pass. The flame of charisma requires the coal of institutions, with proper business plans, otherwise the flame soon burns out. The free universities didn’t have proper business plans (they were free). People need jobs.

A second issue, one identified very well by Roszak, was that the counter culture fetishized psychedelics as the only route to enlightenment. Huxley and Alan Watts said they were a route, one not to be taken without proper preparation. But Timothy Leary (who Huxley called an ass) tried to create a religion of LSD, insisting everyone should take it, even teenagers – his own teenage daughter took acid, went mad and later committed suicide. Most American teenagers simply didn’t have the cultural or emotional equipment to make sense of psychedelics. Roszak writes:

There is nothing whatever in common between a man of Huxley’s experience and intellectual discipline sampling mescaline, and a fifteen-year-old tripper whiffing airplane glue until his brain turns to oatmeal. In the one case, we have a gifted mind moving sophisticatedly towards cultural synthesis; in the other, we have a giddy child out to ‘blow his mind’ and bemused to see all the pretty balloons go up. But when all the balloons have gone up and gone pop, what is there left behind but the yearning to see more pretty balloons?

At the level of disaffiliated adolescence, the prospect held forth by psychedelic experience – that of consciousness expansion – is bound to prove abortive. The psychedelics, dropped into amorphous and alienated personalities, have precisely the reverse effect: they diminish consciousness by way of fixation…What is obvious….is that the psychedelics are a heavyweight obsession which too many of the young cannot get over or get around.

He quotes a ridiculous article in the Village Voice, which asks: ‘CAN the World Do Without LSD? Can a person be human without LSD?… The answer, as far as the writer of this article can see, is a highly qualified, cautiously rendered, but emphatic, definitely NOT. BUT the psychedelic experience is not exclusively tied to LSD. There are at least give other effective psychedelic drugs.’

Another reason, perhaps, that the counter culture fails is it was badly marketed as a revolt against all previous traditions and against one’s elders. As Michael Pollan points out, mystical initiations are usually embedded in a culture, with elders initiating the youth through ritual. In the psychedelic counter culture, the youth initiated themselves through a ritual their parents couldn’t understand. Usually, ritual binds society together, in the sixties, it tore it apart.

The counter culture was also, in Roszak’s telling, a revolt against science and reason. He writes that, to bring back ecstasy,
‘nothing less is required than the subversion of the scientific worldview, with its entrenched commitment to an egocentric and cerebral mode of consciousness. In its place, there must be a new culture in which the non-intellective capacities of the personality take fire’.

That’s a mistake. As Huxley said many times, you need the best of both worlds – the rational and the non-rational, the scientific and the aesthetic, the mystical and the practical. Roszak’s revolution sounds like mystical fascism, particularly when he calls for a collective assault on the ego:

[the counter culture] attacks men at the very core of their security by denying the validity of everything they mean when they utter the most precious word in their vocabulary: the word ‘I’. And yet this is what the counter culture undertakes when, by way of its mystical tendencies or the drug experience, it assaults the reality of the ego as an isolable, purely cerebral unit of identity.

I am all for building a culture dedicated to ego-transcendence. But the process both for the individual and for society needs to be gentle, slow, and voluntary, not some sort of Manson-esque revolt where you put LSD into the water.

When the 1968 mystical revolt failed, when it failed to overthrow capitalism, failed to stop the election of Richard Nixon, failed to stop the Vietnam War, then the counter culture turned nasty – Timothy Leary and many others embraced violent revolution and spiritual enlightenment through bombs. The MFU went Maoist. Most of the baby-boomer generation simply grew up, got a job, and conducted their spiritual and sexual experimentation in their private lives, at the weekend. Roszak writes sadly:

It would be one of the bleakest errors we could commit to believe that the occasional private excursions into some surviving remnant of the magical vision of life – something in the nature of a psychic holiday from the dominant mode of consciousness – can be sufficient to achieve a kind of suave cultural synthesis combining the best of both worlds. Such dilettantism would be a typically sleazy technocratic solution to the problem posed by our unfulfilled psychic needs, but it would be a deception from start to finish. We have either known the magical powers of the personality or we have not. And if we have felt them move within us, then we shall have no choice in the matter but to liberate them and live by the reality they illuminate.

Well, that’s exactly what happened. People wearily accepted five days of technocratic capitalism, and then a bit of cocaine at the disco on Saturday night, and maybe a car-key party for afters.

Maybe now the baby-boomers have grown old, the counter culture is finally becoming mainstream. Maybe ego-transcendence is becoming more accepted, even in academia, even in scientific research. It’s a bit late now, with the Earth hotting up in real time. But perhaps something will survive, and a better, more mystical-ecological culture will emerge out of the ashes.

For a great website all about the Mid Peninsula Free University, go here.

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