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hallucinogenics

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 era of magical thinking

Instagram witch Harmony Nice

Recently, I’ve noticed several friends and acquaintances – mainly millennials – getting into magick.  A 30-year-old successful professional woman who pays to consult a globe-trotting voodoo-priestess about her love life. A 33-year-old musician who’s left a humanist community and joined a coven. Stephen Reid, formerly a leader of UK Uncut, who then set up The Psychedelic Society and now runs magick rituals. 

I get the sense our culture, and particularly millennial culture, is having a magickal moment. But why is now the witching hour?

Several possible reasons – these are just guesses. 

Millennial women are attracted to magick perhaps because it offers a form of spirituality that empowers young women, rather than subjugating them. The image of magick has gone from middle-aged bangly suburban women to hip young urban influencers like Lana Del Rey, or ‘witches of Instagram’ stars like Harmony Nice. Witches, says Cosmopolitan, are ‘the new social media influencers’. Magickal symbols increasingly show up on the catwalk, in music videos, or Netflix shows like the re-boot of Sabrina. Young women sign up to astrology apps, read Sabat magazine, and swap copies of Women Who Run With Wolves. There’s a networking aspect to it – covens are the contemporary equivalent of the 70s feminist circle, or the female equivalent of Masonic lodges. 

Magick has also flourished thanks to the internet, both as a medium for dissemination (wicca forums, astrology and tarot apps), and as an ethos. As the writer Erik Davis has explored, Silicon Valley tech-heads have been drawn to magick since the 1990s – it fits well with the idea that one can use tools or algorithms to conjure up virtual worlds, which in turn alter material reality and make you powerful and rich. Think of the opening scene of The Social Network. Eduardo writes an algorithm on his dormitory window and – abracadabra! – the whole of Harvard is in uproar within an hour.

 

More broadly, the rise of magick is part of the growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ demographic, particularly among millennials. Contemporary spirituality is decentralized and anti-hierarchical. We’re suspicious of gurus and priests, we’re not even sure we’re into a monotheistic God. We want our spirituality close to the Earth and nature, we prefer local spirits to transcendent principles. We want rituals, but prefer to make up our own rather than fit into crusty established ceremonies. Magick fits well with this DIY, bricolage spirituality.

Both shamanism and tantric Buddhism have proved popular in Western spirituality, and both incorporate the magickal idea that you can use your imagination and intention to channel divine energies and change your reality. In some ways, it’s a ritualized version of the Law of Attraction – visualize the future you want, and it will happen. Both promise quick results. 

And who knows, maybe millennials are particularly drawn to magick because they grew up on Harry Potter. My generation grew up on Star Wars so we’re more drawn to eastern wisdom (Yoda). 

Magical politics

I also wonder if we’re having a magick moment because of our desperate political situation. It strikes me that both Amazon shamanism and Tibetan tantric Buddhism are religions of the oppressed. These cultures, both at the mercy of foreign invaders for centuries, turned to magic out of despair, when they are outnumbered and the facts of material reality are against them. Are young Westerners also drawn to magick today out of political despair?

I’ve been reading, this week, about the Kalachakra ritual, one of the highest tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s the Dalai Lama’s favourite ritual – he’s conducted the three-day ceremony 11 times in public, twice in the West, and once, in 1985, to 200,000 people in India.

The ritual has different levels, open to different levels of initiate. The highest level apparently involves a male initiate having sex with one or more mudras, or female consorts. The male adept then takes on the female’s energy and becomes highly empowered by balancing male and female energies within him (the woman is typically an accessory to male empowerment in Tibetan tantra).The Dalai Lama has hinted he’s taken part in this highest-level sex magick – it’s curious to think this kindly old man, global symbol of inoffensive spirituality, is also a high-level sex magician. Hey, if he can still do it at 83, good luck to him.

The lower levels of the Kalachakra ritual are more open to the lay-person, and the Dalai Lama has authorized the English translation of the ritual. It’s basically a very long and extremely complicated visualization process. The initiate imagines entering a palace shaped like a mandala, then imagines seeing various deities and spirits, and becoming one with them. It’s a feat of both imagination and memory to keep this extremely complicated picture in your mind. I took part in a Tara tantric empowerment once, and I was lost after five minutes.

The Kalachakra mandala, painted onto sand, is then visualized by initiates as a magickal, reality-altering symbol

It’s interesting to consider, in passing, how important the imagination is to Tantra, to shamanism, to Sufism, and to Christian meditative traditions like the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. In all of these traditions, the imagination is a divine power which can transform the psyche and also transform the body (meditate on the Passion intensely enough and you will receive the stigmata). Modern psychology has learned a certain amount from these wisdom traditions, but I don’t think it has a deep appreciation of imagination – what it is, what it can do, how we can use it to change ourselves.

But these traditions don’t think the imagination can just change the mind and body. They also think it can change the world.

The Kalachakra ritual, for example, is more than just a ritual of personal transformation. It’s a magickal rite of political transformation, a weapon of war for a dispossessed people. The text mentions the myth of the magical hidden kingdom of Shambhala. Supposedly, in the future, the world will descend into chaos and barbarism. The armies of darkness – described in the text as mlecchas – will come together under a world-emperor. At that point, the magical kingdom of Shambhala will reveal itself, and its king will ride out with his armies and magical weapons,and utterly rout the enemies. Then Tibetan Buddhism will be established as the world religion, and the Earth will enter a golden age of peace and prosperity.

This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of Jihad. The mlecchas are identified as the followers of Mohammad and Jesus. Contemporary Tibetan Buddhists, naturally, say the jihad is just a metaphor for an inner revolution, but that was not the case historically – the myth seems to have arisen when Buddhist communities were being attacked by Muslims in Afghanistan and north India, and pushed back into the Himalaya. This grand fantasy of revenge was born out of historical defeat and despair. I wonder – does the Dalai Lama think that initiating hundreds of thousands into the Kalachakra today will help save Tibet from Chinese occupation?

Perhaps millennials are also drawn to magick out of a need for sense of control amid bewildering global change. The Atlantic asked earlier this year why millennials are so into astrology and came to a similar conclusion – they’re an anxious generation at a difficult historical moment, and astrology gives them something to hold onto (even if they don’t totally believe in it). Certainly I find myself paying more attention to astrology in times when I feel stuck and unsure what to do. 

Perhaps the turn to magick expresses this sort of political despair and hope for a miracle. I noticed Stephen Reid, formerly of UK Uncut and now director of the Psychedelic Society, organized a magickal ritual in Parliament Square as part of Extinction Rebellion – in eight years he’s gone from traditional socialist activism, to psychedelics, to magick. Myths of the apocalypse or golden age are also coming back into the mainstream – the myth of Shambhala has struck a chord with some environmental activists like Joanna Macy (here she is talking about it). Friends warn me of the astrological turbulence set to hit the world in 2019, or the Maian prophecy, or the end-time warning of some Amazon elders. 

This is exactly what you’d expect to see happening now, when we’re going through a historical crisis comparable to the birth of modernity in the 15th to 17th-centuries. Back then, as the historian Norman Cohn explored, Europe was filled with end-time prophecies and sudden millenarian movements – the prospect of apocalypse propelled many unlikely prophets to temporary prominence. They would inspire their followers with their incredible certainty, seize control of the historical moment, proclaim the coming of a Golden Age, and then inevitably, be routed as their dream failed to materialize.

I see contemporary western politics as increasingly prone to magical thinking. Like medieval peasants, we suspect our enemies have access to secret occult powers. We blame the rise of Donald Trump on chaos magick, and try to use our own magick against him. We try to concoct the magical spell, formula or symbol that will galvanize the masses and save the world. We rely on imagination to save us from the present quagmire. ‘What’s money really?’ asks Russell Brand. ‘It’s just an imaginary concept. We can just stop believing in it.’

It’s true that, in the short-term, magickal techniques – stories, symbols, mantras, ceremonies – can have surprisingly large political impacts, because politics is partly a question of trying to seize the public’s imagination. This is what scholar of the occult Gary Lachman calls ‘meme magic’. You come up with a mantra like Take Back Control, or Make America Great Again, and see if it spreads in the imagination of the masses. You come up with a symbol like the Guy Fawkes mask beloved of the Occupy movement, which was created by comic magician Alan Moore. Or you conjure a utopia to aim for, like the Shambhala myth, or a dystopia to avoid, like the Tory party’s Project Fear.

The comic writer and magician Alan Moore goes to Occupy London and sees the magickal symbol of rebellion he created (in V for Vendetta) playing out in this world

So in that sense, political magick does work. But if it isn’t backed up by effective policies in the material world, the city in the sky dissipates into thin air.  Look at Trump’s magical MAGA spell, for example. He very effectively conjured a dream into his followers’ fevered imaginations. Hillary is a crook, a Satanic witch. The elite are evil, possibly demonic. He is going to save America, drain the swamp. He’s going to build a wall, and Mexico is going to pay for it. But, two years into power, the intoxication is wearing off, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious, there’s no wall. Where’s the magic wall? The more Trump and his government insist the wall is a reality,the more they sound like Hitler in his bunker in 1944, insisting the war is nearly won. The magic trick is exposed.   

I expect we will turn to increasingly far-out forms of magical politics this century, in our desperation to avoid the grim facts of material reality.  Still, we do need a miracle. We need hope. At the very least, we need to be able to imagine a future beyond the collapse of the status quo.

If that’s magical thinking, pass me a wand.