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Adult education

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 future of work and the future of education

Roy Bahat is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg. He also works on the future of work, and – like a lot of people in Silicon Valley – is a vocal supporter of Universal Basic Income (UBI). I met up with him in San Francisco to talk about the future of work and the importance of lifelong learning. 

How worried should we be about automation and AI threatening our livelihood?

Extremely. The narrative on it is mostly wrong. The typical narrative is ‘the robots are coming and in the future your job will be eliminated and you should worry in the present’. The right way to think about it is that all of our jobs are constantly being eliminated all the time, it just happened over a longer time scale in the past, so people could basically tough it out. The classic example is the transition from an agricultural to a mercantile economy, where the received wisdom is humanity weathered it just fine. What really happened was the parents stayed on the farm and the children moved to the city. If I think about the timescale of transitions now, all of us are mastering new tools to do our work at a rate that is much more rapid. The amount of uncertainty is going up, so the right response is preparedness, vigilance and an attitude of constant learning and reinvention. People often ask me what percentage of jobs will automation eliminate and the answer is 100%, but we don’t know over what timescale.

Hopefully it will create new jobs too.

Sure. I just went to a small town in California, where there is no large export employer. The largest employer is the hospital, the second-largest is the university and so on. And I met a number of people working in ministry – they were in the practice of creating spiritual and religious venues, generally Christian, where people could come and pray and gather. That’s an area where there is limitless demand. Culture and ideas, there’s also limitless demand. So we will continue to define whatever we spend our days doing as ‘work’, and maybe the social definitions evolve. I do think there will be jobs – or ‘work’ anyway. There’s a valid question of whether that work will pay a sufficiently high wage for people to thrive and have the material needs in life. That’s why I’m involved in the guaranteed income question. There’s no rule that just because you’re working the market clearing wage will be sufficient to live on. One of the issues we’re seeing now is, in part because of automation, the market-clearing wage for many jobs is below what is required what to exist. People say ‘oh if you’re doing empathetic jobs you’ll still be OK’. That’s BS.

Why?

Because nobody knows what will be safer or less safe. There are bedtime stories we tell ourselves to feel safe, but those stories provide reassurance, not actual information. It’s very clear that people are perfectly happy to accept the care of the machine. There’s a great book called The Man Who Lied To His Laptop about how we anthropomorphize our machines.

In Japan, for example, there’s a lack of labour in elderly care so those roles are being filled by machines.

Sure. There’s a great little indie comedy called Robot and Frank, about an ageing man with dementia and the love-story with his robot caretaker. It’s part of the movie Her too – he falls in love with a robot. I always think what’s the first trigger in many of the changes in our cultural views about technology, and I can’t find an earlier trigger than science fiction. The earliest indications for many of the transitions we go through come from story-tellers. One reason is the variety of experimentation that can take place when the physical cost of it is zero. The other is we don’t appreciate how rule-bound fiction is. Reality obeys fewer rules that narrative – narrative has a structure that is quite constraining and therefore powerful for focusing the imagination on possibilities. I’m involved with a non-profit that did a contest for science fiction stories about futures that include guaranteed income. Just to start to imagine what that might like feel like in a more complete way than policy thinking which is often ‘introduce a change, imagine one effect of the change’ which makes it hard to imagine the system of unintended consequences.

Are there sci-fi writers you really rate at the moment?

I don’t think I can rate them on their predictive value, it’s unknowable, but…

Who do you like?

Well, Charlie Jane Anders is a science fiction writer who I read recently. Octavia Butler. All the science fiction traditions that emerge which are not straight white men probably will have a different imaginative substrate than what we’ve got in the past from nerdy straight white men. What I’m looking for is focused imagination and trying to discover other sources of insight. That was with a non-profit, but Bloomberg Beta is also often thinking about what ideas to introduce into the conversation about the future of work. We’ve had film directors, including the director of Robot and Frank, we’ve had the author of a sci-fi story called After On, about a machine that gains consciousness. Those conversations between practitioners building things and imaginers framing how those things may unfold is a really valuable dialogue.

What’s your working story about a future with Universal Basic Income (UBI)? How is it different to now?

In many ways. My fear scenario is that a culture outside of the West does it first, and then we’re copying an example from Chinese culture, say – it will be very different for different cultures, and I  don’t want us to over-generalize. Setting aside many difficult implementation questions, I believe there is a possibility of much less human suffering – instead of being forced to live within distant-commuting range of a service job that barely pays you enough to cover your commute, you could choose to live somewhere else. In the woods, say. My family is Israeli, and the kibbutz model of families pooling their resources feels very familiar to me, and a guaranteed income might facilitate guaranteed income communes, I don’t know. So there could be unpredictable stuff in terms of geography. There is a case to be made that many people will refuse to do work that is demeaning and low paid, which is both bad – if the economy needs those jobs done – and good, in the sense of honouring the humanity of those people. There’ll be an interesting tension there. I also think people will take more risks professionally.

And creatively?

Yeah. It’s difficult to imagine risk without creativity.

I think of artists like Geoff Dyer talking about how important their early years on the dole were for creative experimenting.

I love that, and should read more about it. I feel the difficult thing about the dole is it binds together two things – a resource which enables you to practice your creative profession, and shame. It’s hard to flourish creatively, or has been for me, when I feel shame. One of the cool things about a universal guaranteed income is it allows people to subsist while feeling proud to participate in the commons. That would be very cool, I don’t think we’ve seen that before, other than artists’ patronage. It’s sort of like patronage in everybody and a belief in inherent human potential before it’s proven, and without dependence on a single person’s favour, which is the danger of the patronage model.

There’s also the view that necessity is the mother of invention. You can have rich kids who struggle to find meaning because they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, I think that’s valid in the sense that, sure, people could sit in their mother’s basement, watch Netflix and play video games. They do that already by the way. It’s foolish to think that having something makes you stop wanting more. If anything it allows them to escape the poverty trap that prevents them from participating fully in the profit-motive-oriented society. We don’t know. That’s why I’m looking so closely at experiments – Stockton, California is doing one. There’s 20 programmes doing some kind of cash transfer, and I’m curious to see what unfolds as a result. The thing that is hardest to predict is what the received wisdom will be: what will we call this? How will we think of people who choose to live on this? We define work right now as labour in exchange for wage. That is not a decision given by the physical laws of the universe, that’s a consensus formed by propertied white men who said ‘it will be hard for us to count in gross domestic product domestic labour, if money is not exchanged it may not be valuable’. People exchange things other than money. They exchange love. For all the people who care for an elderly relative without being paid, guaranteed basic income is an opportunity to recognize that and allow people to do that and feel proud of what they do. We have in the US the beginning of relatives being paid to be nurses to their relatives through state programmes, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

What’s the probability of UBI being introduced?

Great question…I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see an alternative to it. The best is the continued expansion of the welfare state, but we see how poor government is in general at administering programmes, and the complexity and size of government creates as many difficulties as it solves. The most interesting questions may come in countries which already have healthcare figured out. In the US, if we give someone a guaranteed income without figuring out how to pay for healthcare, have we actually helped them at all? We’ll need solutions to both those issues simultaneously, along with others like housing and education. So I’d say it feels necessary, not sufficient, and I have no idea on the timing.

What’s your working scenario if UBI doesn’t happen?

We did a year-long study with an NGO called New America to try and envision some scenarios. In all of them there were some common features – individuals need to be less reliant on corporations to provide the benefits required to sustain modern life, so more self-sufficient. All the things that I think are inevitable in the future probably already exist now – as they say in science fiction, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I’ve been freelance since I was 25, I have a portfolio career of a few different streams, quite self-reliant but still attached to larger institutions. Is that the way things are going?

It’s an option for some people. Another model is the campaigns model – you work intensively for some time. Why is the retirement all bunched up at the end. They may work hard at one thing and then stop for a while.

Will people invest a lot in self-development? You see that a lot in the Bay Area.

Yeah. As societies get better at handling the bottom level of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy – food, clothes, housing – what remains is investment in our own minds and hearts. The particular brand of North Californian self-development is a peculiarity of a single place at a single time, I don’t know if Burning Man is a fixture of the future.

If we’re all more self-reliant, how will we find belonging?

I think finding belonging through the work-place is a relatively new phenomenon.

But think about the longer history of humanity – the tribe, or your place in a feudal system.

Sure. One of the issues is the activities you spend your days doing were very much attached to social class and place. But work can be detached from your class, your place, your gender. Workplace identity might get attenuated, but there’s lots of alternatives, everything from which sports team you’re part of, or what religion, secular or otherwise.

What do you think of secular religion?

Well, religions have historically provided a place of belonging theoretically open to everyone. But as science has gained in authority, it’s been harder for people to believe in theistic religions. There may be alternatives to it. A journalist used the phrase ‘contingent families’ – we spend longer now living with friends who are not your family, forming familial bonds with them. I do think we’ll see a multiplication of sources of identity and belonging.

How do we educate people for the future of work?

This is a topic I’m deeply interested in without claiming much expertise. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is interesting on this. The central argument, that modern school prepares us for institutional life, to me is borne out. Educational reformers say the skills you should teach are empathy, creativity and problem-solving. That’s valuable for top-level institutional managers. I’d offer some other contenders, like how to manage risk, how to set priorities, how to sell. Why isn’t there a secondary-school level on salespersonship. Those are vocational skills deeply involved in the tradecraft of economic self-determination.

Is that best done in big or small educational institutions?

Universities come from the legacy of teaching clergy how to be clergy, and teaching academics how to pursue knowledge. We’ve grafted onto that professional training and it feels an awkward fit. There are new models emerging, like Olin College, which was ranked by MIT the top engineering college, and they’re teaching the method of creating new things. It’s a powerfully different view of what higher education might be. And, back to unpredictability, we probably need more lifelong education. San Francisco has Free City College, which is interesting because it allows citizens to choose what to learn themselves. I don’t know how effective the education is but the intent feels spot on.

Does your fund invest in adult education?

Sure, all the time. There’s a company called MasterClass that provides online video classes with world-famous experts like Werner Herzog or Margaret Atwood. The cost of communication is so low we can access our heroes, which we’ve done in many ways through media, now we can do it focused on this use. General Assembly is an example of a company that does in-person teaching. There are many experiments right now – we’re in the Cambrian Explosion period of adult education. The cool aspect of it is that everyone is focused on the student experience. It’s worth looking at the educator perspective. We’ve assumed educators should be professional educators or academic researchers who teach on the side, most of whom don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that the right way to practice the learning of these skills is through practitioners who spend some of their time practicing and some of their time teaching. Imagine 50 mid-level managers of Intel sharing some of their insights on day-long courses.

Absolutely. That’s what the senior managers at Rowntree’s did – they invested a lot in adult education and would teach themselves every weekend.

Everything old is new again. Invention is recombination suited to its time.

I guess you’ve seen various different moods in Silicon Valley, from 90s optimism to the present shock that maybe tech disruption is making the world worse. Do you see that?

Yes, for the culture as a whole. I’m unsure how that plays out at specific company. Google just had a letter from employees asking them not to work with certain military clients. It’s a function of power. When you’re powerless, which the internet was at the beginning, it’s easy to focus on principles. Now the facts are the facts of power, it includes wonderful things like the ability to organize a democratic process, and awful things like the ability to put citizens under surveillance at a level we’ve never seen before. The management of power is the new challenge.

Does that mean that tech engineers are having to consider ethical questions for the first time?

Well, they don’t have to, because clearly they’ve done things without that. Should they? Of course. The question is how skilled people are at anticipating consequences and understanding different ethical frameworks. These are the ageless right-versus-right questions which Silicon Valley is grappling with for the first time.

Perhaps the incredible optimism that entrepreneurs need can blind them to unintended consequences?

Yes…The unreasonable nature of the most successful founders can blind them to lots of things. Or sometimes they can be painfully aware. We want these tidy stories that makes sense to us, and reality is not that tidy. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who worry deeply about the consequences of things. How that plays out is a major question for our world. That’s why when we invest in companies we give their managers the opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas from outside the tech monoculture, in the hope that their worldviews and skills will become more developed.

It was great to talk to such a thoughtful investor as Roy. I asked him at the end whether he thought I could successfully set up an adult education venture in California. He gave me some great advice. He said there are various different models of the CEO – the CEO as general, the CEO as servant and so on. He likes the CEO as scientist. ‘Make small experiments and see how they work out.’ Be prepared for surprises and respond to the results. I like that advice.