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Civilization and its Discontents

Enough

The closest I’ve come to enlightenment was the two minutes when I was lying in a bloody heap on Valsfjell Mountain in Norway. This was back in February 2001. While skiing down a steep slope, I crashed through a fence, flew off a cliff, and landed with a thump, breaking my leg and several vertebrae. That moment, my consciousness was transported to somewhere or Something, where it was enveloped in a white light and told ‘you’re OK’.

This was after I had suffered from post-traumatic stress for six years. I felt fundamentally broken, and struggled to trust and connect with other people. I was in a vicious loop of social anxiety, and shock at having ‘lost my self’.

IT gave me this information: ‘Your soul is infinitely precious. Its value can’t be added to or taken away. Nothing can harm it or destroy it, not even death. Relax and trust the treasure within. Rest in the inner garden. Stop worrying so much about others’ approval. Praise doesn’t add one krone to your value, criticism doesn’t lower it.’

In the weeks after that off-peak experience, I felt re-centred and rejuvenated. After years of begging in the street for others’ approval, I suddenly realized I had the keys to a mansion. This wondrous soul, this well of love and power within us, makes us the wealthiest, most blessed beings, if we could just shift our perspective and realize it.

That experience was 18 years ago. Since then, I have often forgotten who I am, and gone back to begging in the streets. Unless you’re Eckhart Tolle, you’re not constantly bathing in the warm light of the divine, not consciously anyway. You’re catching the occasional ray. Meanwhile, you need to find your way in this material dimension. Work, taxes, relationships, family, pension. And sometimes, you feel like you don’t have enough of something – love, respect, money, confidence – and you can easily switch back into feeling deficient, empty and hungry for external validation.

How does one balance a feeling of inner sufficiency with the need to go out there and hustle for a living?

I read a good book recently that talks about the power of feeling enough, and how this can play out in work, in the economy, and the environment. It’s called The Soul of Money, by Lynne Twist.

Lynne urges us to become more conscious in our relationship to money, and the assumptions and myths we hold around it, so that we become capable of seeing money as a vehicle for our ideals.

Lynne is a very successful fund-raiser. She has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for various charities, particularly The Hunger Project and, more recently, an organisation called The Pachamama Alliance, that works with indigenous Amazonian people.

She says our relationship to money is often shaped by three basic myths: ‘there is not enough’, ‘more is better’, and ‘it’s always been this way’.

The first two, she says, create a Hobbesian mind-set of scarcity, in which the world is a harsh battlefield, a brutal scrabble for survival. There will be winners and losers. There is not enough, so you’d better get yours quick, and the more the better.

That mind-set comes from a place of deep insufficiency, an inner emptiness, pain and spiritual hunger. ‘There is not enough’ is closely connected to another deep myth:  ‘I am not good enough’. I am flawed and unlovable, therefore I need to prove my worth through external things, like sex, power and status. The habitual cravings come from a fear of our ego’s emptiness and an ignorance of who we really are.

The Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes:

For so many of us, feelings of deficiency are right around the corner. It doesn’t take much—just hearing of someone else’s accomplishments, being criticized, getting into an argument, making a mistake at work—to make us feel that we are not okay. As a friend of mine put it, ‘Feeling that something is wrong with me is the invisible and toxic gas I am always breathing.’ When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency, we are imprisoned in the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are.

The trance of unworthiness ‘makes it difficult to trust that we are truly loved. Many of us live with an undercurrent of depression or hopelessness about ever feeling close to other people. We fear that if they realize we are boring or stupid, selfish or insecure, they’ll reject us. If we’re not attractive enough, we may never be loved in an intimate, romantic way. We yearn for an unquestioned experience of belonging, to feel at home with ourselves and others, at ease and fully accepted. But the trance of unworthiness keeps the sweetness of belonging out of reach’.

How can we wake up from this trance of unworthiness, this dream of ‘not enough’. Lynne Twist writes:

All the great spiritual teachings tell us to look inside to find the wholeness we crave, but the scarcity chase allows no time or psychic space for that kind of introspection. In the pursuit of more we overlook the fullness and completeness that are already within us. [This scarcity chase] is the driving force for much of the violence and war, corruption and exploitation on earth.

We need to wake up to our inner richness, to the natural resource of consciousness, the renewable energy of wisdom, love, relationships, creativity. We need to realize we have enough resources to meet the challenge of the present. Twist calls this attitude ‘sufficiency’:

Sufficiency is an act of generating, distinguishing, making known to ourselves the power and presence of our existing resources, and our inner resources…When we live in the context of sufficiency, we find a natural freedom and integrity. We engage in life from a sense of our own wholeness rather than a desperate longing to be complete. We feel naturally called to share the resources that flow through our lives.

From a development perspective, sufficiency means not thinking western donors can or should save poor third-world countries from their helpless destitution (the Band-Aid school of development), but instead realizing those countries and communities already have skills and assets which they can draw on, and we can learn from (like the incredible botanical knowledge of indigenous Amazonian tribes). It means working with them rather than trying to save them.

From a personal perspective, embracing sufficiency means not focusing only on the problems and deficiencies in your life, but instead appreciating your strengths and gifts – including the gift of consciousness – which you can draw on to meet the challenges that arise. When you appreciate all you are and all you have, you can begin to open in confidence and love to others, rather than defensive neediness.

She quotes a beautiful poem by the Bengali mystic Rabindranath Tagore to illustrate this shift from a scarcity to a sufficiency mind-set:

I lived on the shady side of the road and watched my neighbours’ gardens across the way reveling in the sunshine.

I felt I was poor, and from door to door went with my hunger.

The more they gave me from their careless abundance the more I became aware of my beggar’s bowl.

Till one morning I awoke from my sleep at the sudden opening of my door, and you came and asked for alms.

In despair I broke the lid of my chest open and was startled into finding my own wealth.

Since the late 1990s, Twist has worked with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon called the Achuar, through the Pachamama Alliance. She says she became aware of the Achuar after taking part in an Amazon ‘dreaming ritual’ (ie an ayahuasca ceremony) in which she saw the tribe in a vision. She tracked them down and they, apparently, were expecting her. They’ve worked together ever since.

This is where mysticism, environmentalism, psychedelics and economics interact. We need to change the dream we’re in, change the myths we live by, to move from a ‘not enough’ anxious scrabble for survival, to a mind-set of ‘there’s enough for all of us’. That involves waking up to the ‘enough’ within, to the natural wealth of our consciousness and the joy of connection to other beings. It also means recognizing the power of our minds, myths and imagination to shape reality.

Twist writes that her work with Pachamama Alliance involves a sort of political dreaming:

The future we dream, and which is emerging as reality, is one in which these pristine ecosystems are protected and the indigenous people who are the natural custodians of these forests are respected for their intelligence and vision.

She adds:

we must think and talk about money as part of a true ecosystem—a single system in which we view the economy and the ecology as fundamentally bound together. For too long the economy has been viewed as separate from ecology, but nature has showed us that the two are inextricably joined. In fact, the economy is a subset of the ecology.

How does this exciting vision relate to my life and plans at the moment? Well, as regular readers know, I’m trying to shift my relationship to money this year, from a ‘broke writer’ mind-set to something else. I want to build an organisation, a home for wisdom research and practice, and that involves asking funders for money. This involves a shift for me, from the ‘I’m-a-freelancer-so-I-don’t-care-if-you-reject-me’ mindset, to a more collaborative mindset of ‘work with me and help me build something worthwhile’.

It means having the courage to ask others to help me, and risking rejection and failure. Lynne Twist is great at this. She says:

I love to ask people for money. Fund-raising is a calling for me, not the dreaded assignment or burdensome obligation it is sometimes made out to be. Fund-raising is hard work, but I also believe fund-raising is sacred work… a great fund-raiser is a broker for the sacred energy of money, helping people use the money that flows through their lives in the most useful way that is consistent with their aspirations and hopes for humanity…

This is a great attitude. ‘I love to ask people for money.’ It’s not Law of Attraction, not quite. It’s having a strong vision, and calling others to help, but doing that from a sense of your own sufficiency, rather than from a place of neediness and deficiency.

The next stage for me, I think, involves developing from a very independent and people-suspicious writer (who secretly craves community), to growing more of an organisation, community, and working culture where all of our consciousness is allowed to show up. I’m sure it will involve me confronting various myths and dreams of unworthiness in myself, and going through various setbacks and growing pains.

But in some ways, it’s just a game. We can try to play the game well, and enjoy the process, without betting our self-worth totally on the outcome. My soul, your soul, are fine as they are. We are infinitely loved, our souls are infinitely precious. We can work from a sense of sufficiency, a sense of play, an openness to what we’re feeling, and joy as we realize our potential.

Here is a little poem I sometimes say to myself, which helps me turn off the demented secretary of my ego and rest in my soul for 20 minutes or so.

Nothing to do

Nowhere to go

No-one to impress

No-one to become

Nothing to add

Nothing to take-away

Nothing to improve

Nothing to reduce

Nowhere to get to

Nowhere to escape

Nowhere to be

Except 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