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The Talented Mr Huxley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huxley wrote that, as a result of psychedelics,

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

We shall see!

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

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

Managing your nervous system

Last week, I saw a good talk on somatic experiencing therapy. I’ve heard about it, and in some ways what I heard was quite obvious, but it was good to have it spelled out.

Somatic experiencing is one of several body-focused psychotherapies that have risen to prominence in the last two decades, partly as a reaction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’s narrow focus on cognition.

Body-focused therapies include everything from mindful body-scanning, to focused relaxation, to EMDR and tapping, to traditional practices like yoga and Tai Chi, or arts practices like dance and singing, or indeed sports, nature – basically, anything that involves more than sitting in a chair thinking and talking.

Somatic experiencing therapy was developed by Peter Levine in the 1960s, while he was hanging out at Esalen, the human potential college in northern California. But don’t worry, it’s not New Age, as far as I can tell. Like I said, it seems pretty common sense to me.

Somatic experiencing focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), how it affects our emotions and consciousness, and how we can learn to regulate the ANS so it doesn’t burn out. The ANS controls the automatic functioning of our body – skin, body-temperature, circulation, digestion, breathing- and the release of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

There are two systems in the ANS. First, the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re not safe, there’s a threat nearby’ and preparing you to respond to that threat.

The eyes dilate, the mouth goes dry, the skin feels prickly, you may start to sweat, the heart beats faster, the breath is quicker and shorter, blood goes to arms and legs in preparation for action (this is why one can feel dizzy), digestion stops (or you may throw up, or piss or shit yourself).  The kidney and hormone glands release a surge of chemicals to prepare you for action, such as adrenalin, cortisol and epinephrine. This boosts your short-term energy but leaves you feeling very tired afterwards.

The second system in the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘rest and digest’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re safe’ and letting the body rest, recoup, and digest. The breath and heart-beat slows, the stomach digests, inflammation goes down.

When the two systems work well together, the body achieves homeostasis. It’s like a car driving well with the accelerator, gears and brake.  It responds to threats appropriately but also finds time to relax, digest and heal. When the ANS stops working, the body becomes stuck in fight-or-flight mode. It’s in a state of constant vigilance and defensiveness. This is extremely wearing to the body and the immune system. It’s like driving across the country with the hand-brake on. It damages the immune system and can lead to chronic stress, insomnia, burn-out, heart conditions and psycho-immune disorders like in ME / CFS, Fibromyalgia, POTS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also lead to dysfunction in the ANS. A traumatic event triggers the freeze response, which is an ancient animal survival technique – playing dead in front of a predator. During the freeze response, the mind can dissociate, by either blacking out or separating and observing from outside the body (as it were) or from behind a glass wall of derealization. When the ancient freeze response is activated, younger or higher systems in the brain go offline, such as the social engagement system. Our face freezes and we’re not capable of even altering our facial expression, much less socially interacting. With PTSD, one is easily and frequently triggered into this freeze response.

Hearing the talk took me back to 20 years ago, when I had PTSD and social anxiety. I remember how physically tiring it was – my body was constantly releasing stress chemicals, and never getting the chance to re-charge.  I would sometimes go into moments of derealization when I felt the centre of attention – everything would suddenly seem unreal, like I was watching from far away, and my body would feel awfully anxious. I still sometimes get that.

I would make myself go to social events and try to be friendly, and then I would end up in arguments. I couldn’t understand why. The CBT theory was that I was merely perceiving arguments that weren’t really there, but this was not the case. In fact, going to a party triggered the freeze response in me, and this would shut down my facial expressions, making me look angry and arrogant, and people would respond defensively to that. It took me a while to figure out this was what was happening, and that the way to break the feedback loop was to focus on my self-acceptance rather than other people’s reactions.  I eventually drew this graph to explain it to myself.

The only way I could manage my nervous system, back then, was through booze. It didn’t work very well, because I would over-drink and behave inappropriately; the hangover the next day made me more anxious; the booze stopped me ever learning better coping methods; and I could easily have become addicted. I still use booze to calm down during socially stressful situations, but slowly, Buddhist practices, in particular the teachings of Pema Chodron, are helping me learn to tolerate uncertainty, physical anxiety, and social ambiguity (her teachings really fit well with Somatic Experiencing, by the way – she mentions it in her latest course, I’ll put the full quote in the comments).

Back in my 20s, CBT / Stoicism was certainly helpful for me. It slowly trained my automatic self-talk, so that instead of saying ‘this is a threat, this is a disaster!’ it said ‘this is a threat, oh well, big deal’. I learned to shrug. But that was a long, slow process. Luckily, the CBT course I followed – Overcoming Social Anxiety Step By Step – incorporated body-focused exercises like relaxation and slow-reading. Traditional CBT does not pay sufficient attention to the body and the ANS.

We can join up the two approaches – the Socratic and the somatic. After all, Epictetus said ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’; while Peter Levine has said ‘trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event’. The cognitive and the somatic are connected – both involve judgements, they merely process those judgements in older and younger systems. A good therapeutic approach will work with both systems.

Here are five ways to manage your nervous system:

  • Deep breathing

Last week, I went to play tennis, and noticed my mind and body were all over the place. I switched into 5/7 breathing – breathing in for five seconds, breathing out for seven seconds – and did that between every point and between every game. It totally turned my game around. Before, I’d been very agitated, swearing at myself every time I hit the ball wrong. Now, I shifted into a Zen-like calm, and gradually my body relaxed and I hit the ball like I wanted to. I go into 5/7 breathing whenever I notice I am slightly stressed, in a meeting say, or on the Tube. It activates the vagal nerve at the back of the neck, and switches our body into the parasympathetic nervous system. I suppose one could over-use this technique – sometimes one is too relaxed on the tennis court, and one needs to shout at oneself a little to get one going. Homeostasis doesn’t mean being totally relaxed all the time.

  • Connection

Last year, I wrote about learning to scuba dive in the Andaman Islands, and how, on my first deep dive, I got into trouble and started to hyperventilate. For a second, I thought I was going to die. My instructor reacted perfectly. She saw I was panicking, and gave me a hug. This calmed me down sufficiently that I started breathing more slowly, and could continue the dive. Hugging tells our body we’re safe and OK. Physical connection is an important mammalian healing response after trauma – look at how chimps groom each other following a clash. Some universities have tried to de-stress students by introducing petting zoos, which is a nice idea but might be stressful for the animals. As soon as my life is a bit more settled, I plan to get a dog – dogs are incredibly healing, especially for the English, because it helps us communicate affection at a non-verbal level, something the English struggle with.

  • Come to your senses

Tuning into our senses can help us switch out of physical stress. The therapist David Field calls it ‘orientating yourself to beauty’. Rather than heeding your internal rumination narrative, you focus outside, on the beauty of the sensory world. On my second deep dive in the Andaman Islands, I was worried I would panic again. Instead, I focused outside of me, and was totally absorbed in the beauty of the underwater world. That was tuning in to vision, but one can equally tune in to touch, taste, sound or smell. Last year I interviewed Anthony Fidler about how he has learned to navigate occasional psychotic episodes using spiritual practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, connection practices and flower remedies. It’s interesting how embodied his practice is – he suggests that part of being prone to psychosis is having a very sensitive nervous system. The technique that sounded a bit idiosyncratic to me was the flower remedies. But I guess he’s tuning into smell and using that to navigate highly stressful moments. It reminds me of a moment, on an ayahuasca retreat last October, when I felt very scared. I asked for assistance from the facilitators, and a lovely guy called Joel came and sat next to me. He said ‘you’re going to find that perfume bottle very helpful’. We’d all been given a bottle of magic perfume, called Agua Florida, which Latin American shamans are very fond of. We were advised that we could use it in ceremonies if we felt anxious – just dab a bit of it on our face or arms. This sounded like crazy advice to me – how was cheap eau de cologne going to help me? But now I think, maybe it did. It helped me come to my senses, rather than going into a fight-and-flight or a freeze response.

  • Sing and dance

David Field suggests that trauma – the freeze response – shuts down the part of the brain that’s capable of nuanced thinking, so we become very black-and-white in our thinking, shaping the world into simplistic narratives of goodies and baddies. Someone in the audience said ‘that sounds like Israel and Palestine – they’re traumatized, and stuck in black-and-white thinking’. That’s what my brother is researching at the moment – how political polarization is connected to trauma. But how can a community collectively respond to trauma and process it? One method humans have evolved is singing and dancing together. It feels good, it synchronizes our breathing and heart-beat, it releases pent-up emotions, it articulates our inchoate suffering, and it directly affects our vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. I remember watching the Manchester One Love concert, a few weeks after the bombing, and feeling incredibly moved. I thought how powerful music is as a means of collective response to trauma. Dancing alone or together is also a powerful means of healing. Aristotle suggested in his Politics that the good society should have ecstatic rituals to help citizens find catharsis and shake off the nervous discontents of civilization. Any form of shaking – from jumping up and down to running or even bouncing on a trampoline – can help us shake off nervous tension. Think how central shaking is to ecstatic rituals, from the Quakers to Shakers to Holy-Rollers to the head-banging worshippers of Cybele.

So: deep breathing, connecting, coming to your senses, and singing and dancing. Those are some basic ways one can affect one’s vagal nerve, increase your ‘vagal tone’ (which is your ability to go into threat-response and then calm down quickly), and activate your parasympathetic nervous system to rest, heal and bond. All of which makes me think how important rituals are – they absorb our consciousness, slow our minds and bodies down, engage our senses, and give us the opportunity to sing and dance together. That’s how humans have healed ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Socrates and his rational talking therapy is a relatively new approach. The old ways still work too.

By the by, what I’ve described here is a fairly personal take on somatic therapy – I’ve missed out many of the key concepts and methods of Somatic Experiencing, so if you want to learn more I recommend you seek out the writings of Peter Levine or a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which people often recommend to me but I haven’t read yet.