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meditation

Perennialism and fascism

Aldous Huxley and Rene Guenon

While I was in San Francisco, I got the chance to meet Michael Murphy, one of the founders of the Esalen Institute. It’s a cross between a spiritual retreat centre and an adult education college, perched on the cliffs of Big Sur next to some hot springs. It’s been very influential on transpersonal psychology and American spirituality.

Murphy and I discussed the cultural influence of the ‘mystical expats’ – Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Alan Watts and Christopher Isherwood – on the vision of Esalen and on American culture in general. They helped to popularise the idea of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – the idea there is a common core of wisdom at the heart of all the great religious traditions, and one can use spiritual practices from various traditions. That idea is now at the centre of American culture – being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is the fastest-growing demographic in American religion.

It was a treat to hear Mike’s fond reminiscences about them – how he and Esalen co-founder Dick Price were turned on by hearing Huxley lecture on ‘human potentialities’, how they went to meet Gerald Heard in LA and came away mesmerized and burning with the desire to found Esalen, how Huxley and his wife Laura came to meet them in Big Sur and insisted on seeing the local butterflies, how they first dropped acid with Laura, how Alan Watts was the greatest spontaneous speaker Murphy ever heard.

I was particularly interested to hear Murphy make the connection between the San Francisco Renaissance – the cultural movement ranging from the Beats to the Hippies and arguably still ongoing in Silicon Valley – to the Bengal Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Bengal Renaissance was a cultural flowering involving creative thinking in politics, science, the arts and religion. One of its chief ideas was the perennial philosophy.  One finds perennialism in the religious movement called ‘Brahmoism’, which was started by the great Bengali thinker and reformer Ram Mohan Roy in around 1850, and which suggests that all religions are partial formulations of the transcendent divinity within us. One also finds perennialism in the teachings of Vivekananda, dashing Bengali prophet of Vedanta, who caused a sensation when he visited the Parliament of Religions in Chicago and declared that all religions are true.

I often encountered the same cheerful perennialism while travelling in India last year – in the Theosophical Society’s headquarters in Chennai (which has temples to all the major religions), in the integral philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, in the teachings of Ramana Maharshi. I spent two weeks in a Zen / Jesuit retreat in Tamil Nadu, where we bowed to both Christ and the Buddha. This perennialism was a breath of fresh air after a period of desperately trying to be a Proper Christian.

Murphy pointed out to me that the ‘mystical expats’ helped to transmit the perennialist fire from Bengal to California. Heard, Huxley and Isherwood popularised Vedanta, the Hindu mysticism brought to the West by Vivekananda; while the evolutionary spirituality of Sri Aurobindo was transmitted into the Bay Area through the American Academy of Asian Studies – a small college that Alan Watts helped to found, which evolved into the California Institute of Integral Studies (Murphy was a student there). Watts also helped to transmit Zen and Daoist thinking into San Francisco, inspiring everyone from Jack Kerouac to John Cage. The perennialist spark caught fire in American culture, and now it’s widely accepted.

Perennialism and renaissances

It’s interesting that the ‘perennial philosophy’ was transmitted from one famous cultural renaissance to another. It got me thinking about perennialism and renaissances. If one looks back at the ‘American Renaissance’ – the sudden flowering of American literature led by Ralph Waldo Emerson and including Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville and others – one also encounters the perennial philosophy, particularly in Emerson and Thoreau. The stern Puritan soul of America suddenly relaxes, expands, and sees its smiling reflection in other cultures – in Platonism, in Hinduism, in a blade of grass.

One also finds the hot spring of the perennial philosophy bubbling up in the Romantic era, in Coleridge and Blake (‘all religions are one’) and, earlier, in the Italian Renaissance, at the Platonic Academy of Marsilio Ficino, who translated the works of Plato and ‘Hermes Trismegistus’, and sought to find a harmony between Christianity, Greek philosophy and Kabbalah. The optimism and creativity of this movement sings in the ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’ of Pico della Mirandola, and shines in the radiance of Botticelli and Raphael.

The perennialist stream bubbles up yet again in the Islamic Renaissance (more usually known as the Islamic Golden Age), which is usually connected by scholars to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars translated the works of Greek and Roman philosophers and scientists.  One can trace the connection between the perennial philosophy and cultural flowerings all the way back to the Athenian Golden Age of the fifth century BC, when again, the human soul looks up from narrow tribalism, and smiles. Socrates declares: ‘I am a citizen of the universe’, leading the Stoics to suggest that all humans have a spark of the divine logos within them.

These are important moments of collective epiphany and cultural evolution in the story of homo sapiens. What they seem to have in common is a strong sense of cultural self-confidence – ‘we are Indians!’, ‘we are Americans!’, ‘we are Athenians!’ etc – with an openness to other cultures and the best they have to teach. And there’s a sense of optimism in progress, a sense of humans rising up and realizing their inner divinity – you see this in Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration, in Emerson’s great sermon on self-reliance, in Huxley’s lectures on human potential.

The varieties of Perennialism

But then I thought, perennialism isn’t always optimistic and hopeful. While researching the perennial philosophy, you can’t help but come across a movement called Traditionalism. It was started by a French thinker called René Guénon in around 1920. Like the mystical expats, he was initially inspired by Vedanta, then he flirted with Catholicism, got into Taoism, before moving to Egypt and becoming initiated into a Sufi order. He inspired other traditionalists including Fritjof Schuon, Julius Evola and Mircea Eliade.

There’s a lot of similarities between Huxley et al’s Perennial Philosophy, and Guénon et al’s Traditionalism – they share the idea that western civilization has lost its soul in mechanical materialism, and that only a return to the core of wisdom at the heart of the great religious traditions will save civilization from collapse.

And yet Traditionalism is a much more pessimistic movement. Guénon and his successors, like the followers of Gurdjieff, thought wisdom could only ever be esoteric, reserved for the initiated elite. The masses would never get it. Traditionalists were constantly joining or creating esoteric secret societies, like the Gnostic Church, the Masons, the Maryamiya, the ‘Fraternity of the Cavalier of the Divine Paraclete’, or the ‘Legion of the Archangel Michael’.

They typically despaired of democratic politics, and flirted with the far-right – in Julius Evola’s case, this flirtation was quite explicit, as he tried to ingratiate himself first with Italian fascism and then with the Nazis. Mircea Eliade also had connections to the Romanian far-right. Where Huxley et al became cheery prophets of human potential, the Traditionalists were doom-mongers of the Apocalypse – they insisted we’re in Kali Yuga, a Hindu dark age of conflict and spiritual mediocrity. Humans aren’t ascending, we’re on the down-elevator, so the elite should withdraw and prepare for the deluge, or possibly seize power.

Reading about the Traditionalists yesterday, it struck me how human destinies can flow in such different directions from similar plateaus. I can well imagine Huxley et al becoming authoritarian Traditionalists. Huxley, like many modernists of his generation, was an aristocratic elitist – whenever he writes about bourgeois or proletarian mass culture, he invariably uses the word ‘squalid’. He and Gerald Heard often wondered if the perennial philosophy was suitable for the many, or just the initiated few. They pondered this in the 1950s and 60s with regard to psychedelics (Huxley decided they should just be for the intelligentsia). Heard, who in his last years became a guru to wealthy libertarian CEOs, suggested that spiritual education should focus on an elite – whom he called the ‘neo-brahmins’ – who could then rise to power. Particularly during World War 2, one finds the same note of deep cultural pessimism in Huxley and Heard’s writings as one finds in Guénon and Evola.

Why, then, did the mystical expats not become gloomy quasi-fascist Traditionalists? One reason is surely California. While Guénon was fulminating in a Cairo bedsit, Huxley and his gang were picnicking with Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin in the Hollywood Hills. They were living in gorgeous pads in Santa Monica. They were having too much fun to be fascist. Maybe the LA weather made them cheerier. Or maybe they found a culture more hospitable to their ideas – they were on the radio, on TV, lecturing away on campuses and at places like Esalen. Perhaps that gave them an optimism in human potential.

Another reason is Huxley and Heard had more faith in scientific progress than Guénon, who thought the urge to quantify everything was a symptom of the Kali Yuga. Huxley and Heard thought psychology could shed new light on the human psyche, that new psycho-spiritual methods could be discovered and disseminated, new drugs discovered. They may be right, although quantified spirituality has all kinds of risks – both Huxley and Heard can be over-credulous in their faith in new research.

Whatever the many causes, their lives ran in a different direction, and they took a bet on democratic mysticism – mysticism for the many, not the few.

Today, more and more of us are perennialists – a quarter of adult Americans are ‘spiritual but not religious’, and 35% of American millennials. Yet we can still see how many different directions a tide can break. We can see that Bay Area spirituality can easily become elitist – we the 1% are the spiritual supermen, the rest of society is screwed, let’s move to New Zealand, or space. We see that the perennial philosophy can still become deeply pessimistic and quasi-fascist – Steve Bannon and other alt-righters sing the praises of Julius Evola (my dark namesake) and argue that western civilization needs to re-embrace spiritual wisdom before it is over-run by immigrants.

I feel a strain of cultural pessimism in me too. Are we in an age of cultural ascent, or cultural decline? I’d probably go with Guénon and say we’re in the Kali Yuga. Thanks to people like Watts and Huxley, we have a very wide spirituality, with more and more people practicing wisdom techniques from Stoicism / Buddhism / Hinduism etc. But the width of participation seems to come at the cost of the height of attainment – where are the saints? Where are the masters? Every guru turns out to be a sex-pest. And, like Huxley, I worry about over-population and the damage we are doing to the ecosystem. It seems more likely to me that this century will be one of cultural collapse than spiritual ascent.

Clearly, I need to move to California and cheer up. Anyway, width of participation in spirituality is probably more important than height of practice. If several million people learn a bit of wisdom and suffer a bit less, that seems good to me. The ascent of humanity is very slow, but we’re getting there, together.

The Quakers on how to balance inner and outer work

Last week I visited Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat centre outside Philadelphia, nestled between the gorgeous Quaker liberal arts colleges of Haverford and Swarthmore. I made a sort of mini-pilgrimage there as part of my research into the ‘mystical expats’ – Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and Alan Watts, four English writers who moved to California in the 1930s and helped invent the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ demographic (which is now 25% of the US population).

Gerald Heard is the least remembered of the four, but in many ways, he was their guiding light. In the early 30s, he was a BBC science journalist, the Brian Cox of his day, who became interested in the idea of man’s social and spiritual evolution. He thought the next stage of man’s evolution would involve an exodus beyond tribal authoritarian religion – people would learn to practice and study techniques for self-transformation from a variety of religions, testing them out with empirical psychology. He called for new institutions of education – somewhere between a monastery and a college – where adults could come to study and practice these psycho-spiritual techniques, thereby sparking man’s evolution to a higher level of group consciousness.

This marriage of psychology and contemplation was very influential for Huxley and Isherwood, for the founders of Esalen (the 60s adult development college in Big Sur), and for western spirituality in general. In fact, it’s only in the last decade that contemplative science has become mainstream, and contemplative education has begun to influence university curricula. Heard’s vision is still ahead of our time.

Gerald Heard (left) and Christopher Isherwood with Swami Prabhavananda in California

During World War Two, Heard and Isherwood both spent a lot of time at Pendle Hill. Heard wrote several pamphlets for the Pendle Hill press on Quaker topics, and helped set up a Quaker journal on contemplation, called Inner Light. For a while, he thought the Quakers could be the vanguard for the next stage in western culture’s spiritual evolution. Quakers didn’t claim a monopoly on salvation – they thought all humans have an ‘inner light’ connecting them to God. They rejected ritual and priestly hierarchy; and they still practiced a rudimentary form of meditation in their silent worship. He hoped there might be a contemplative revival in the Quakers, as they absorbed insights from ancient contemplative practices and modern depth psychology.

But how would this contemplative revival fit with the Protestant focus on good works, on mission and evangelism, on social action, bearing witness to injustice, and the burning question of what to do in response to Nazi aggression? Heard and Huxley had been prominent pacifists in the UK. But in the US, with the war in full swing, both seemed to withdraw from politics and go within. Heard declared that a peaceful politics was impossible with man at his present level of evolution – humans needed to evolve to a higher stage of consciousness. Until we did the inner work, all outer work would end badly.

This is an important question for our own time. I’m part of the culture that Heard et al helped usher in – ‘spiritual but not religious’, psychologically literate, trying to do inner work while not joining any particular religion. But this path risks becoming selfish, spiritually proud, consumerist and individualist. At the same time, I’ve seen too many people who dedicate their lives to charitable or development work burning out and doing damage to themselves because they’re not taking care of their own souls. So how do we balance care of our souls with the outer work of trying to build a fairer and kinder world?

Rufus Jones

One Quaker who thought a lot on this question was Rufus Jones, who Isherwood ironically dubbed ‘the Pope of Quakerism’. Jones taught philosophy at Haverford College and often visited nearby Pendle Hill. He was a great friend of an ancestor of mine, Yorkshire Quaker John Wilhelm Rowntree. The two met in the 30s and immediately felt a spiritual affinity.

Both of them were mystically-inclined – JW Rowntree had a spiritual experience in his 30s, after being told by a doctor that he was rapidly going blind. He left the clinic, walked out into the streets of York, and suddenly felt filled with the inner light of God’s love. Jones, meanwhile, travelled across the Atlantic to visit JW Rowntree, and on the journey he woke up in his cabin and felt a sense of anguish. That was succeeded by a deep sense of peace, love and divine support. On arriving in England, he discovered his beloved son had died that night.

Jones and Rowntree felt a shared sense of mission. They wanted to reframe Quakerism as a liberal, mystical religion, an empirical spirituality flexible enough to respond to scientific and historical criticism, which recognized the value of spiritual experiences in other religious traditions. But they also wanted to show, through historical research, that this mystical Qnuaker religion was not some flaky modern innovation, but a re-connection to a deep, central tradition in Christianity.

So they embarked on a project to re-position the Quakers within this mystical tradition, thereby uniting the warring liberal and traditionalist factions of the Quakers and re-animating the movement for the sceptical and scientific 20th century. Alas, JW Rowntree died aged 37, while visiting Jones in Philadelphia. I discovered on this trip that he’s buried next to Jones in the Quaker cemetery in Haverford, a few miles from Pendle Hill. I went there and found a corner of a foreign field that is forever Yorkshire.

Jones continued the project alone, and wrote Studies in Mystical Religion and many other books and essays on mysticism. He helped to reframe the idea of mysticism for American readers, who still had the traditional Protestant suspicions of the word: mysticism was considered introvert, solitary, morbid, sectarian, and completely opposite to the American cheery, practical, civic ethos.

Jones rebranded mysticism by insisting it meant simply ‘direct first-hand fellowship with God, and the deepened life-results that emerge’. The true mystic feels a ‘marked increase in joy’ and an increase in productivity and effectiveness too: ‘Under the creative impact of their experience, they have become hundred-horse-power persons, with a unique striking force against gigantic forms of evil and with a remarkable quality of leadership’. Very American eh? The mystic as super-powered manager.

Jones is a pretty biased historian of mysticism. He rejects almost all medieval monasticism – except for the Franciscans – and prefers obscure Protestant dissenter movements like the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and the Seekers (it’s thanks to Jones’ fascination with this 17th-century group that we got the modern term ‘seeker’ for restless spiritual searchers). He also barely discusses eastern mysticism and its attempt to overcome the illusion of this world. The true mystic, for Jones, doesn’t deny the world – they affirm it and work vigorously to improve it.

The Quakers have, of course, been incredibly effective at reforming the world. Although a tiny denomination with rarely more than a hundred thousand members, Quakers were at  the forefront of the movement to abolish slavery; they led humane reforms in asylums and prisons; they did important work in supporting the minimum wage and the introduction of the welfare state (particularly thanks to JW Rowntree’s brother, Seebohm); they have a central role in the history of adult education and adult literacy; and they’ve also played a key role in championing pacifism and non-violent resistance.

Jones found time, while teaching philosophy at Haverford College and writing histories of mysticism, to help set up the American Society of Friends Committee (ASFC), which re-settled thousands of Jewish refugees during the war – Christopher Isherwood volunteered for them and lived at Haverford for a year or so. The ASFC also helped feed a million German children after the war. They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.

I personally find Quaker contemplation a bit limited. To me, it’s too non-hierarchical, too non-structured. There is no sense of the structured journey through the psyche that one finds in Buddhism or medieval mysticism, nor any sense that we need guides and rituals on that journey. It’s like an orchestra where no one admits that some people play better than others, and sometimes you need teachers, a conductor and a score.

I’ve often criticized the tendency towards guru-worship in Buddhism and Hinduism. But perhaps the Quakers go too far the other way. People need help and guidance in tapping the deep well of consciousness within them. I’m not surprised that the Quaker renaissance that Heard called for didn’t happen, and that instead millions of westerners turned to Eastern practices like Vipassana, Zen, yoga, Daoism and Vajrayana Buddhism. We want to be taught by contemplative experts.

Nonetheless, the Quakers – and Rufus Jones – have an important message for us. What’s the point of all this inner work if it doesn’t make us kinder and less egocentric, if it doesn’t turn us outwards towards our fellow beings, including particularly those who are hungry, homeless, rejected, uneducated, locked up and abused? How can we combine eastern contemplative practices with Christianity’s emphasis on not accepting the world as it is, but rather trying to improve it? How do we avoid spiritual pride and the idolatry of priest-worship?

The Quakers also show us the importance of socializing your spirituality, connecting it to networks of friends and groups. It’s when our spirituality is knitted together with others into a quilt of community that we become much more effective at working to help others. As a chronic individualist, I need to remember this.