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Altered states

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

‘This is just a test’

Apologies for the delay in writing. I’ve been in California for the last three weeks, immersed in preparing for Burning Man, then going to Burning Man, then recovering from Burning Man. I have so many impressions from this month I can’t yet structure them into a neat essay, so consider this a postcard instead.

If I was going to sum up San Francisco, it would be the fact that in 24 hours, I met two separate people who firmly believed they were going to live forever, thanks to technological breakthroughs in the near future. Also within 24 hours, I saw two homeless people shooting up in the street. There’s a combination of evangelical optimism in the power of tech to save the world, and an anxious sense that everything could fall apart any moment – every day, an eery earthquake siren rings out over the city, followed by the words ‘this is just a test’.

I wanted to visit the Bay Area, and maybe even move here, because it’s a visionary place, a place of bold spiritual experiments. In the UK, talking about ecstatic experiences feels a bit weird. Here, halfway through a talk on ecstasy at Burning Man, I looked out over my small, stoned audience and realized they’d probably had more ecstatic experiences that morning than I’d had in the last five years.

Bay Area experimentalism goes back at least as far as the 1950s, when Alan Watts helped to kickstart the San Francisco Renaissance, infusing Zen and Daoism into American culture. Down the highway in Big Sur, Michael Murphy launched Esalen, an educational institution devoted to the ‘religion of no religion’ – I met him two weeks ago, friendly and still excited, and spoke to him for four hours about his memories of Watts, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard.

Esalen was a hot-tub of new ideas – it helped to develop transpersonal psychology (a psychology open to the spiritual experiences and spiritual potential of human beings) as well as gestalt therapy, holotropic breathwork, somatic therapy, shamanic healing, encounter sessions, ecstatic dance, deep ecology, and many of the other approaches which are now mainstream in the ‘spiritual but not religious’ global culture.

Murphy struck me as, firstly, a great researcher and fine mind; and secondly, an amazing spiritual entrepreneur. At 31, he’d set up an institute that is still going, persuaded luminaries like Huxley and Abraham Maslow to help, worked out a working business model, and attracted grants for research projects with universities and organisations. Five separate research institutes have been spun out of Esalen, helping to influence everything from legislation on alternative health to new approaches to diplomacy.

The Bay Area has also long been a site for experimentation in new forms of living – Stewart Brand helped to inspire the back-to-earth commune movement with his Whole Earth Catalogue, Watts lived in his houseboat with other artists, where he ran a centre for comparative religion, and thousands flocked here in the summer of love to shack up in houses or sleep in the parks. You still meet many people living in intentional communities – I gave a talk at one, Kaleidoscope, visited another – a marvellously kooky house called Embassy, and met a designer living at an ‘intergenerational commune’ called Magic in Palo Alto. It made me sad to move back to my single-dweller existence back in London.

It’s a place where people devote themselves to lifelong learning and new forms of higher education mushroom up, like Esalen, like the California Institute of Integral Studies (which Alan Watts helped set up), or online learning platforms like Masterclass and Udemy. The San Francisco Free College provides free classes to everyone in the city.

It has been, and still is, a place of experimentalism in sex and drugs. It was down the road, at the Golden Gate Park in 1968, that Timothy Leary announced the world should ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. It was also in the Bay Area that Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters organized their acid tests in the mid-60s. And psychedelics are still a BIG part of Bay Area culture – everyone seems to take them, from the AI engineers and venture capitalists down to the hippies on Haight Street. The California Institute of Integral Studies is the only educational institution in the world which has a masters in psychedelic therapy. At one commune dinner earlier this week, my fellow guests traded stories of their experiences on esoteric chemicals, like Londoners casually swapping suggestions for the next box-set.

Free love is also explored with the same earnest, slightly techno-engineering approach. I was told of a recent workshop in ‘relationship anarchy’ where people wore badges showing different shapes indicating the type of structures they were open to (dyads, triangles, dodecahedrons and so on). Michael Murphy also told me of a chart at Esalen, one year, called the ‘Fuck-O-Rama’, indicating all the participants in a retreat, with lines showing who fancied who and who had fucked who. A flow-chat for polyamory – how very Bay Area.

All of this utopian experimentalism flowed into Burning Man, a situationist happening in the desert that has morphed into an experiment in urban planning and communitarian living. For one week, Black Rock City rises out of the dust, with a population of 70,000, making it the third-biggest city in Nevada, with its own airport, ranger force, psychedelic harm reduction tent, orgy camp, vast desert art gallery, and everything else one could possibly dream of (except a library, natch). And then, after a week, it dissolves back into dust.

And the area is home to some of the young companies that have changed the world and defined all of our virtual lives – Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Twitter, Netflix, Tinder and so on. It’s exciting to be close to where reality is being re-made. It’s also alluring – there’s so much money sloshing around, surely some of it will find its way to me!

But any place with so much utopian optimism is also going to have a pretty massive shadow. Silicon Valley is going through a period of soul-searching. Bay Area residents always thought of themselves as the plucky outsiders, the rebels, the Burners. But from another perspective, they’re the 1%, the new global elite, dancing at the top of Maslow’s pyramid of needs while the rest of society struggles to adapt.

Suddenly, the rebels have the power, and they’re not used to it. Steve Jobs urged entrepreneurs to ‘make a dent in the universe’ – but what if the dent is in something important, like democracy, or civility, or job security, or our capacity to pay attention? It reminds me of the Mitchell and Webb sketch where they play two SS Nazis and Mitchell says: ‘Have you noticed our caps have got little skulls on them? Hans…are we the baddies?’

Alan Watts preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ when he moved here, and the Bay Area has, in fact, been exporting insecurity around the world, through disruptive algorithms that take away people’s livelihoods. I asked one venture capitalist how worried we should be about automation and AI replacing jobs. ‘Extremely’, he replied. He, like several other tech entrepreneurs, thinks the necessary response is some sort of universal basic income, to support people while their jobs are taken away.

The mash-up of spirituality and extreme wealth can leave a weird taste – you’re always networking, even at an orgy. Your latest incredible epiphany becomes a way to impress people and secure funding. You emerge from your 5meo-DMT trip convinced the universe wants you to launch your new app. You’re a superhero, a divine god– why shouldn’t you be a billionaire? I’ve met shamans who run ayahuasca ceremonies to consult the spirits about new business ventures, or retreats offering ‘sacred upgrades’. I can see a scene at the Pearly Gates, when Jesus asks ‘what did you do for the starving and the marginalized’ and they (or rather, we) say ‘well…I did go on this amazing ayahuasca retreat and really connected to my highest self’.

Gurus flutter around the millionaires like hummingbirds. They remind me of the court priests of Versailles, or Mr Collins, the oleaginous vicar in Pride and Prejudice. The gurus cater to the spiritual needs of their fabulously wealthy clients and assure them of their cosmic mandate. To be honest, it’s partly why I came here – I thought I could perhaps get rich selling philosophy to Silicon Valley. But I’m not sure I want to be Mr Collins.

Meanwhile, the rents are so high in San Francisco, I met one person who pays $1300 for a bunk-bed in a communal room; a trip to the doctor to check out an ear-infection reportedly costs you $10,000; gun crime is out of control – one of my uber drivers lost her cousin to a random shooting the week before;  and there are so many drugged-out or mentally ill homeless on the streets, it’s like walking into the zombie apocalypse.

Some entrepreneurs are already dreaming of the next escape, to new cities built at sea, or to New Zealand, or to Mars. They plan, after all, to live forever. ‘What do you want to do with forever?’ I asked one of the transhumanists I met. ‘Oh, solve human suffering, have fun, explore space.’ There can be a lack of humility in the spiritual culture here (we are gods), which stems partly from a disconnection to the earth – humus – and a gnostic desire to escape matter, Earth, death, to escape shit (there’s concern about the amount of human feces in the streets here, but luckily someone has invented an app to help navigate around it).

Meanwhile, the Bay Area itself is threatened by climate change, by rising sea levels, forest fires, and the drying up of arable land. But maybe, if humans do come up with an amazing idea to deal with climate change, it will emerge from here.

Yesterday I met another Brit who’d moved here 20 years ago, and who works in a network dedicated to ‘restorative economics’, trying to find a better model for humanity to live in harmony with the planet. That sort of deep ecology also emerged here, in the work of Bay Area thinkers like Joanna Macy. The Brit told me he was inspired to move here partly by Alan Watts, and his insistence that humans are just one part of the natural ecosystem and shouldn’t think of ourselves as separate.

I asked him what he thought would happen to the Earth this century. ‘Well, the arctic is releasing methane, which is not good news. The IPCC’s predictions seem overly optimistic, so I expect sea levels to rise over the next few decades. That will lead to serious geo-political instability in response to mass migration, and potentially nuclear wars.’ I imagined seeing a mushroom cloud in the distance, as I kayaked down Piccadilly Circus. ‘And what about the longer-term?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Hopefully some humans will survive.’ And the strange thing was, I still enjoyed the rest of the day.