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Higher education

What universities can learn from Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley

On Monday, I’m teaching undergraduates for the first time at my university, Queen Mary University of London. It’s launching a ten-lecture course on health and well-being, and I’m doing two of them – one on the philosophies of well-being, another on ego-transcendence.

It’s a small step towards the dream I’ve had since I was an unhappy undergrad at Oxford 20 years ago, of introducing courses in wisdom to higher education. It’s been such slow progress. I’ve been working in British academia for seven years, and this is the first lecture I’ve done to undergraduates, because what I teach (wisdom / well-being etc) doesn’t really fit into the history curriculum, so I’ve only run occasional workshops or events on the fringes of the university. This course is run by the psychology department, who I only met last year.

That’s what it’s like at British universities – departments rarely talk to each other. They sometimes come together briefly to try and win funding, but interdisciplinary courses are few and far between.

I initially envisioned a wonderful interactive course in the good life, with small groups of students engaged in Socratic reasoning. Instead, I was told we don’t have the budget for small groups, so it will be a large lecture instead, and not to expect much student participation. We also don’t have the budget to mark long essays, so the course will be assessed by multiple choice and marked by a machine. Not quite what Socrates had in mind, but there you go. Small steps.

Last year, I tried to launch a ‘well-being hub’ at Queen Mary. There are lots of people working on emotional well-being there – some on student mental health, some on postgrad and staff mental health, and then some academic researchers studying mental health in the general population. None of these different groups communicate with one another. Why not set up a hub to connect to each other?

This was meant to be a small step towards a greater goal of setting up a ‘well-being centre’, which would unite research and practice in well-being. There are a handful of well-being research centres at British universities, but they do all their research outside of the university – there’s no connection to the student curriculum, or to student and staff well-being. In fact, student and staff well-being is often outsourced, and is generally considered completely separate to education.

Why not combine research and practice in one centre, which could both provide courses in meditation, CBT, positive psychology and wisdom, and also collect data on what works?

Well, we didn’t even get past the first step. There was very limited enthusiasm for the idea of a well-being hub, never mind a well-being centre. Academics are too busy with their own departments, their own teaching and research. There’s a weariness around new initiatives which demand people’s time, a suspicion of other departments, and no real incentive to try new experiments. It’s like soldiers in the Somme: just survive until Christmas. The leadership of the university doesn’t seem that bothered either. My impression of western universities is they are like England during the Wars of the Roses – powerful fiefdoms (ie departments) and not-very-powerful monarchs.

If a university genuinely wants to take student and staff well-being seriously, and not merely provide more counselling but make it a core part of what the university teaches and researches, then it needs leadership from the top – from vice-chancellors. It needs someone in charge of co-ordinating well-being education and research. And it needs money. I think it would then bring returns to the university, in terms of improvements in student experience, leadership in research, and good publicity.

But we are so far from that in the UK. The University of Buckingham is one place trying to make well-being a central focus of teaching and research – Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor, wants to make it the first ‘positive university’. We’ll see how much progress he makes in getting staff and students onboard with his vision.

In the US, I have applauded university courses in things like happiness, positive psychology, contemplative education, the good life, justice and so on. Such courses tend to be hugely popular with undergraduates, and to attract a lot of positive publicity for the university. They’re also in alignment with universities’ historic mission to teach young people not just how to be a historian, say, or a dentist, but how to be a good person.

And yet even in the US, universities don’t really take this sort of education that seriously. Last month, I met Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. He’s thought and written more than most on what the purpose of universities should be, and whether universities are fulfilling those purposes – he’s written six excellent books on the topic and is working on the seventh. He’s sympathetic to the idea that universities should teach wisdom, and interested in how they could evaluate success in that effort

He told me:

There are alternative approaches to education that we should look at seriously – things like meditation and Positive Psychology. They deserve a good try. Demand [for such courses among students] is far ahead of our capacity to fill it. There are a lot of professors now who teach meditation and take it very seriously, but there are very few universities where they would say ‘our professor responsible for meditation has left, we must find a successor’. That’s not one of the holes you must fill, like teaching Shakespeare. When it is taught and then someone moves on, there’s no great hue and cry to replicate it. Our students are really hungry to think in new ways about what kind of a person they want to be, and we don’t do anything about it. It’s terrible!

I’m very much in favour of more experimentation. But when someone does experiment there’s no effort to evaluate – it just comes and goes, and lost in the mist of history. Nothing is gained. You want to know what is the lasting value of this course ten years on. We should do a lot more to ask people years later what really mattered to them about college. With courses on the good life you have to wait for them to have lived awhile before you ask them, did any of this help? I’m very dubious about student self-reports in general, but when people have been out of university for a while, they’re in a better position to evaluate.

I was surprised to hear Bok sound so pessimistic – after all, he was president of Harvard, and even he, with all his institutional power and all his interest in teaching wisdom / happiness / character etc, was unable to make any permanent changes to the Harvard curriculum, as far as I know. How come?

He said:

The great problem is the complete control over the curriculum exercised by the faculty, who are willing to teach only what they’re trained to think. And they don’t feel concerned that we should try and fill the demand for this sort of course from students.

I went to meet Bok and his wife Sissela to talk about Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard and Alan Watts – the ‘mystical expats’, who moved from England to California in the 1930s and helped to invent the Californian counter-culture. Bok’s mother, Peggy, was a great friend of Huxley, Heard and Isherwood, and Derek grew up with them and still has vivid memories of them. It was wonderful to hear his reminiscences about them, and genuine fondness for them. He showed me this unpublished photo his mother took of Huxley playing with his cat.

Bok told me he can’t remember them ever talking about higher education. Maybe not, but they certainly wrote about it, a lot. And they had a really fascinating vision for what universities could be and do. Heard, Huxley and Watts, in particular, thought students could be taught not just knowledge, but wisdom – emotional, physical, creative and spiritual wisdom.

They were connected to three of the best experiments in higher education of the last 50 years – Schumacher College in Devon, the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. Heard taught at Dartington College – out of which Schumacher College grew – and ran a meditation group there. Alan Watts taught at the early version of CIIS – imagine having him as a lecturer on Zen and Daoism! And all three were key influences on the Esalen Institute and its vision for an integral education which develops humans’ ethical, emotional, physical and spiritual potential.

Huxley laid out his vision for higher education in one of his last books, The Human Situation. It’s actually the transcript of a lecture course he gave at the University of California in Santa Barbara, in 1959.

In the first lecture, on ‘Integrated Education’, he warns about the danger of over-specialization in education, and says: ‘an ideal integrated education calls for an approach to the subject in terms of fundamental human problems. Who are we? What is the nature of human nature? How should we be related to the planet on which we live? How are we to live together satisfactorily? How are to develop our individual potentialities? What is the relationship between nature and nurture?’

And then, because he had guts, he tried to answer just those questions, with lectures on the environment and the environmental crisis, on war and nationalism, on the world’s future, on the ego and the unconscious, on language and art, on religion, mysticism and ‘latent human potentials’.  Just imagine you’re an undergrad and you get to see Huxley lecture on mystical experiences!

I’m sure the course wasn’t perfect – it sometimes goes off on Huxley’s strange hobby-horses. But at least he tried to offer a whole, integrated education to students. What did I get at Oxford? Three years on English literature, without any introduction to psychology, economics, ecology, physics and biology, sociology, business, politics, theology, or wisdom in general. Who really needs to study English Literature – and only English Literature – for three years? That’s only a useful education if you intend to become an English Lit. academic.

Alas, Huxley’s bold attempt has also disappeared into the mists of history, and it was never evaluated – though we know at least that the final lecture on ‘human potential’ inspired the founders of the Esalen Institute to launch their experiment.

Meanwhile, as levels of student debt balloon and demand for student mental health services soars, we still have no idea what university is for, or if its meeting that purpose. There are endless headlines about the crisis in student mental health, but very few new ideas.  We need bold ideas and bold experiments, including perhaps the creation of alternative institutions, like Esalen, CIIS and Schumacher College.

As for established universities, I hope at least one university in the UK or elsewhere will take well-being education seriously enough to establish a centre and put some money into it. Meanwhile, I’ll take another tiny step on Monday, and teach my first lecture.

The Philosopher and the Magus

Last week, if you remember, I was at a Buddhist seminar in the Colorado mountains, taught by a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This was quite different to other Buddhist retreats I’ve been on. There wasn’t much meditation, instead there was four hours of teaching every day, over nine days.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche first came over to the US to work as a philosophy lecturer at Naropa University, the Buddhist university founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder in 1974. His talks were mind-blowing. I’ve never actually been to a philosophy lecture before, and it’s a head-trip, trying to follow subtle arguments about the non-existence of the phenomenal world, in real time, for two hours.

Rinpoche said: ‘People like dharma teachings to be like opera [ie very emotional]. They’re lazy, and don’t want to grapple with philosophical arguments. In Buddhism there are two kinds of people. Those who are faith-orientated, and those who use discriminating intelligence. The Buddha encouraged the second kind of path.’

This immersion in Buddhist philosophy made me think about the difference between studying philosophy in western academia, and studying it in a Tibetan monastery.

The main difference is there is a specific goal for the student of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to reach: enlightenment, for you, and for all beings. Philosophy is not something to be studied for the sake of a degree, a PhD, or tenure, it’s meant to be studied as part of the total transformation of the student’s mind and heart. It’s never just theory, it’s always tied to contemplation and to how one lives. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘you may be fluent in the lecture-room, but out in the street you’re miserably shipwrecked.’

In Buddhism, as in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, the journey to enlightenment happens over many lifetimes. Rinpoche taught within this context – he said we may not fully understand Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in this life but ‘if you get it in 10 lifetimes, or 50 lifetimes, I will be happy’. So there’s a longer time-perspective than the traditional three-year PhD. The Guru is your supervisor over countless lifetimes (tough if you don’t like him).

Imagine your university lecturer saying, as Rinpoche did, ‘I am confident you will all reach enlightenment!’ Yet this model of philosophy has a lot in common with ancient Greek philosophy. There’s the idea of philosophy as a medicine for the soul. There’s the idea of philosophy as a way of life. There’s the idea of philosophy as a training for death – and books of philosophy as guides for the afterlife (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Plato’s Phaedo, which Cato read as he died).

There’s the idea that emotional disturbance comes from misperception, or inaccurate seeing – tsul min yiche in Tibetan. Epictetus famously said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.’ Likewise, the Indian Buddhist philosopher Tilopa told his student Naropa: ‘It’s not appearances that bind you, it’s your attachment to appearances.’

In Stoicism, and in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we heal ourselves by realizing how our opinions cause our emotions, and how the opinions may be wrong. The example I use in talks is that you walk into your office, and see Jennifer frowning, and you immediately feel offended and angry. The Stoic philosopher would get you to realize how your opinion caused your emotion – you thought something like ‘Jennifer is frowning at me, she doesn’t like me, what a bitch’ etc. Your view may be inaccurate – she may not be frowning at you, she may not hate you. And it may be unwise – even if she is frowning at you, so what? Is it wise or helpful to hate her back?

Buddhism likewise suggests that everything depends on the view you take of it. Machib Ladrong, the 12th century Tibetan teacher, told her students: ‘You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma.’ As Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘Life itself is but what you deem it.’

But the Buddhist goes even deeper in dissolving the opinion ‘she offended me’. Jennifer doesn’t really exist, as a separate, independent, permanent self. She is a bundle of a trillion constantly changing conditions – her genes, her ancestors, her beliefs and culture, her body, how she slept last night, and so on. You don’t really exist either, not as a separate, independent, permanent self. There is no separate ‘she’ nor a separate ‘me’.

For three days, we dug into the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, or sunyata, as developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century AD in the south of India. He took the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination – nothing exists independently, everything arises and passes based on causes, including samsara and nirvana – and developed it into a rigorous systematic philosophy of emptiness.

All theories of the phenomenal world can be undermined through his ‘tetralemma’ (like a dilemma, but four possibilities rather than two):

The phenomenal world is not born from itself.

The phenomenal world is not born from something else.

The phenomenal world is not born from itself and something else.

The phenomenal world is not born without cause.

For each of these positions he gives various philosophical arguments (I won’t go into them here, as I don’t fully get them yet!) In general, his ‘Madhyamaka’ school of philosophy tries to undermine both the essentialist or eternalist school of philosophy, which argues that things can be reduced to some eternal and indestructible essence such as God or atoms; and the nihilist school, which argues nothing really exists. It tries to find a middle way – things don’t exist in the way we think of them at the gross or relative level, but they do exist in a relative sense.

A rainbow does not exist in a permanent or independent sense. It arises from certain conditions, from a certain perspective. However, it’s still there, in a relative sense. It’s still beautiful, in a relative sense. The problem is, we grasp at things as solid, real and permanent – we particularly grasp at the self as real, permanent and eternal. We chase the rainbow and try and find the pot of gold (ie to ground the self in permanent security, pleasure and contentment and to defend it from all threats). This chasing rainbows is what leads to grasping, which leads to negative emotions, which leads to samsara.

It’s a very radical view. All theories are empty. They all depend on polarities like ‘high/low’ or ‘good/bad’, which depend on each other and don’t really exist as independent terms. There is no God, no Platonic One, no ultimate and permanent Good. Nor is there an ultimate Zero – you mustn’t get attached to nihilism either. You could say, as Heraclitus did, ‘everything flows’, and what we call the self is really a bundle of continuums – continuum of the body, emotions, mind etc. But even the continuums don’t really exist in a permanent or absolute sense.

The theory of emptiness is also empty, as are all Buddhist teachings. They’re not the truth itself, they’re a raft to the truth, which is inexpressible. Over-attachment to any philosophical theory causes suffering – this reminds me of the ancient Greek school of Scepticism.

As the famous heart sutra teaches, revealing the dharma itself to be empty:

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

The heart sutra, by the by, was supposedly taught in the Buddha’s time, and then hidden by underwater serpents until humanity was ready to receive it. One legend has it that Nagarjuna – a magician as well as a philosopher – travelled to the underwater kingdom and was presented with it. Hence his name, which means something like ‘lord of the water-snakes’. He also taught that external reality should be seen as a dream or a magic show – it’s beautiful, but don’t get hypnotized into thinking it’s real.

‘You see the moon reflected in a pond’, said Rinpoche. ‘You know it has no reality, so you don’t try to grasp it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could relate to our life in that way, without churning emotions?’

So, I had a glimpse of an alternative conception of philosophy, an alternative path to the one taken by western academic philosophy, without the Reformation or Descartes or Kant or the Positivists. Wouldn’t it be great to study at a Tibetan monastery?

Well…yes and no. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy reminds me of boring Aristotelian scholasticism – endless lists which the student is expected to memorize, like the 18 dhatus or the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Monastic philosophy also seems rather authoritarian and static – how could a young monk disagree with a supposedly enlightened Rinpoche? Ideas did change in western scholastic philosophy, but they changed extremely slowly. And of course, western monasteries often became corrupted, as many apparently still are in Asia. Imagine if tenure was granted not through achievement, but inheritance!

Still, I’m glad that the ascetic or practical or eudaimonic model of philosophy is gradually returning to the west, via Buddhism and Stoicism.

There is another side to Tibetan Buddhism, which I’ll end by discussing briefly, and that is its love of magic ritual. The last two days of the seminar were spent on a Tara empowerment ritual, which took ten hours, all in all, of chanting, ritual cleansing, visualizing and various other ritual actions – including visualizing Tara in various forms, with a flower on our heads, standing on a magic bicycle (no, really) and taking some grass back home to put under our beds, to inspire prophetic dreams.

This obviously felt quite alien to me – not least because the chanting was in Tibetan, most of which I didn’t quite catch, so God knows what I actually said. I’m all for using imaginative visualizations in meditation, but I’m not familiar with imagery of Tara, so abruptly summoning up an image of a white girl with seven eyes led to rather monstrous results.

I also found it off-putting because it seemed like operational magic to me. By operational magic, I mean rituals designed to create effects in the world. The Tara ritual, like all tantra rituals, supposedly grants great powers, or sidhis – such as longevity, magnetism and enrichment. Other tantra rituals supposedly grant powers like the destruction of enemies. We’re told Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the ultimate Buddhist teachings – the most secret, the most exclusive, the fastest way to enlightenment. But, to be totally frank, this aspect of it reminds me more of folk Catholicism, prosperity theology, or even the Law of Attraction. It risks becoming a grasping after power – at least, that’s how it struck me, as a novice outsider.

And with that grasping after power comes spiritual pride and hierarchy: we’re the special ones, specially empowered in a rare and exclusive ritual. The front-row of the tent were extra-special – his closest students were called up for special direct empowerments by the Rinpoche. This included his dog.

I was piqued that his dog got preferential empowerments. And I was also put off by the divination rituals to discover what sidhis Tara would grant us. Would we have lesser or supreme accomplishments? We cast a stick onto a mandala to discover. I got the lesser power of magnetism. Doh! Can I try again?

I also had a dream, after I put the magic grass under my bed. In the dream I was with friends, and we came across a party, where everyone was wearing white. We weren’t wearing white, but we tried to blag our way into the party. ‘Is this a…vajra party?’ I asked. ‘We’re into vajra too.’ Sorry, we were told, you’re not on the list. I don’t know if that was Tara telling me I’m not called to Vajrayana Buddhism, or my subconscious telling me that spiritual hierarchies always make me afraid of being left out. And esoteric magic always has hierarchies – you’re a ‘level 7 wizard’ or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not so into the magic side of Tibetan Buddhism (there was plenty of operational magic in Platonism, Stoicism and Renaissance Neo-Platonism, by the way). But the teachings of emptiness? I haven’t totally understood them yet. It’s OK, I have another 49 lifetimes before my essay deadline.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a vajra party, y’all