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Higher education

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

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.