Salt of the Earth


Aldous Huxley said paraphrasing Jesus, “… if those who are the salt of the earth lose their savour, there is nothing to keep that earth disinfected, nothing to prevent it from falling into complete decay.”  Huxley was not speaking about Jesus, however.  He was discussing mysticism and its “tragic” death in the late 17th or early 18th century.

It is quite by chance that I came across Huxley’s book, Grey Eminence (1941), in my school’s library.  I was searching for another book which I couldn’t get, though.  The blurb of Huxley’s book, which is a biography of one Father Joseph who died in 1638, caught my attention: “Huxley stresses the point that mystics alone can help us in our present plight, and can save the civilised world from total self-destruction.”

Huxley (died in 1963) devotes an entire chapter of the book to mysticism.  At the end of the chapter he laments the death of mysticism.  “The mystics,” says Huxley, “are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion.  A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane…. We are dangerously far advanced into the darkness.”

Huxley’s argument is that mysticism springs from the subconscious mind which is also the seat of our impulses, cravings and aversions.  We should recall here that Freud who made an elaborate psychological theory of the subconscious and unconscious  died in 1939.  [I’m mentioning certain years in order to give a proper historical perspective to the contents of this post.] Freud’s contention was that the unconscious stores all experiences, memories and repressed material, as well as needs and motivations which are outside the sphere of conscious control.  Most psychological functioning exists in the out-of awareness realm.  Freud’s psychoanalysis was meant to make the unconscious motives conscious so that the individual could exercise choice and live a more meaningful (rational) life.

Huxley did not aim at making life more rational.  In fact, too much of rationality is the problem with the post-Enlightenment world, according to Huxley.  Reason and analysis can lead one to virtue by disciplining one’s external behaviour.  Huxley views such disciplining as superficial.  Real ordering should take place at the subconscious level.  Mysticism is the means.

Mysticism is an intuitive knowledge of the self and the external world.  It leads one to understand one’s essential unity with everything else.  Huxley says that in literary form, the mystical tradition makes its first appearance in the Hindu Upanishads.  The Upanishadic phrase Tat tvam asi summarises the mystical theory and shows that the ultimate reality is at once transcendent and immanent.  The job of mysticism is to reveal that unity to the mystic.  We may recall here William James’s (died in 1910) view that the mystic experienced an oceanic feeling: a feeling of oneness (immersion) with the ultimate reality (ocean-like).  It is such oceanic feeling that prompted the Sufi mystic, Al-Junayd of Baghdad (died in 910), write such lines as: “Now I have known, O Lord, / What lies within my heart;/ … / So in a manner we / United are, and One; / Yet otherwise disunion / Is our estate eternally.”

From the 18th century onward man was alienated from such feelings of oneness, argues Huxley.  Many psychologists, especially the Existentialists, spoke also about self-alienation.  We are alienated not only from the ultimate reality but also from ourselves.  I think both the alienations go hand in hand. 

Alienation is a separation from our roots.  A self-alienated person lives a life that is quite different from his inner nature.  Our contemporary civilisation encourages such a living.  The constantly changing, ever-fleeting, fashions, gadgets, technology, and other things keep us far away from the depths of our real selves.  We exist at the most superficial level of life.  We exist in the temporary worlds of our fashions, gadgets, etc and even live-in relationships.  Even relationships have been rendered as superficial as they can get.

Huxley would say that mysticism is the remedy to our woes, to all the terrible things we do such as terrorism and violence of all sorts, to our insatiable greed, our jealousy, to the apparently rational but really insane existence to which we have condemned ourselves.  I’m not sure I would agree with him entirely. 

Mysticism is a highly individual affair.  It requires much training too.  There have been too many mystics who crossed the limits of what would be considered sanity, though such trespasses won them the saint’s pedestal in the Catholic church.  I wouldn’t be able to appreciate such mysticism.  Even Huxley crossed certain limits of sanity in his personal life.  He took recourse to drugs in order to experience the “ultimate reality.”  We can read about his experiences in his books, The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956).  [The former of these is listed in the catalogue of my school’s library but I have never been able to locate it; probably censored by a discerning teacher!]

I would, however, agree with Huxley that the contemporary human being is a highly alienated person.  Many psychologists tried to deal with that problem effectively.  Carl Rogers (1902-87), for example, said that people who enter psychotherapy often ask: “How can I discover my real self?  How can I become what I deeply wish to become?  How can I get behind my facades and become myself?”  Rogers developed an approach that sought to help people to become “fully functioning persons.”  I am of the opinion that Rogers’ fully functioning person is a saner person than any of the mystics.

Carl Rogers’ daughter, Natalie Rogers, has developed a psychological approach based on the premise that the expressive arts like drawing, painting, music, etc can help an individual make an inward journey which will enable him to understand his feelings and drives.  This inward journey helps us not only to discover our essence or wholeness, but also our relatedness to the outer world. 

Our inner wholeness and our relatedness to the outer world – this is precisely what mysticism is about.  This is also what too many people lack today.  But I wouldn’t recommend mysticism to the people.  I would recommend reflection, meditation, and even psychology.  The world will certainly be a far better place with at least some people who are in touch with their own deepest cores.  The genuine savour will be restored to the earth!


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10 Responses to Salt of the Earth

  1. subhorup says:

    great piece, sir. the perennial philosophy that runs through all cultures says the same thing, that fragmentation is at the root of all individual dilemma/conflict. the developments of the last few decades have forced many of us to adopt a worldview that is at odds with our inherent nature. this crisis is not helped in any way by religion or what is commonly understood as psychology today. what is needed is a deep reflection, as you have noted. while you have distanced yourself from recommending mysticism, sustained meditation or reflection, or mindfulness or even psychology in its truer sense will ultimately lead to the mysticism that you speak of. this mysticism is often perceived as being contrary to the norm or to sanity, but perhaps that is only because we can look at it from the perspective of the known, the explicable and the acceptable.

    • matheikal says:

      Thanks, Subhorup, for your views. Perhaps, the one thing that makes mysticism unappealing to me is my lack of faith in god. I am an agnostic, though I respect other people’s beliefs. I am even in favour of people believing in god if such an “illusion” or “delusion” can bring meaning in life to them. I think man cannot live without certain illusions. I agree entirely with the last part of your comment: deep reflection, meditation, will make kind of mystics of us.

  2. Savitri Ananda says:

    I love that definition of mysticism: “an intuitive knowledge of the self and the external world.” Too often it seems the word is relegated only to the world of visions.

    Thanks for mentioning “Grey Eminence”–I’m not familiar with it. I loved Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy”–a nice compilation of the wisdom from various traditions.

    • matheikal says:

      One of the tragedies of our civilisation is precisely that relegation of the vision. The inner world has been ignored almost totally. Too many things in the external world have caught all our fancy. Hence most of our serious problems.

  3. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    Matheikal, I believe you were referring to me in one of your comments on an earlier post when you said that you expected barbs from “someone” on that (ignore this portion of my comment if I was wrong). But, this time I am going to point out somethings that may not sit well with you.

    You say, ““The mystics,” says Huxley, “are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane…. We are dangerously far advanced into the darkness.””

    I am not sure whether you agree with what Huxley says (you have implied that you agree with him on a few things). Now, I DO NOT AGREE WITH HUXLEY AT ALL, for the simple reason of the condescension evident in his thinking.

    It is not as though mystics will make things better. Without mysticism, the universe is fully blind and ignorant. This is arrogance.

    What does it mean by “totally unmystical world”? Can we ever identify it? Can it ever be? Can mysticism be classified as good and bad, how to identify the line between them? If mysticism is a personal thing (“Mysticism is a highly individual affair”), how would good or bad carry a meaning?

    The argument is that “too much rationalism” is bad. I have no problem with that, but what is “too much”? In mysticism, as in all the so-called spiritual ways of thinking and acting, one has to think above oneself, above that, and above that … till thinking stops and come down in cascades along a different path to recognize the unity of life. This is what the cliched “God is one, but appears in different forms to different people” means, if it means anything at all.

    But rationalism has a different way and it does not need to climb up and down. All it takes for you is to acknowledge, with a little amount of “faith” thrown in, that all human beings are different assemblages of genes from a vast gene pool of humans. Then, you automatically recognize the universality of human life. Simple. You are looking horizontally, at all the others who are co-travellers in this journey of human life. That is. You are them and they are you, in a much stronger sense than what the spiritualists ask you to believe in.

    You say, “I would, however, agree with Huxley that the contemporary human being is a highly alienated person. ” I WOULD NOT. In fact, before human beings recognized the horizontal connectivity of ALL human beings they were alienated. They may still be, but to unalienate themselves they do not have to look or climb up and down. It is set out before them like a buffet spread. This is not what spiritualism brought out but what rationalism has landed upon.

    However, the above DOES NOT MEAN RATIONALISM CANNOT LEAD YOU ASTRAY. You haev cited the Austrian Freud. I will cit another Austrian, Hitler, as the example where rationalism went way beyond all bounds, of humanity. There, of course, are others, many of them of the spirtiual type too!

    • matheikal says:

      Raghuram, where do I begin, as usual with some of your comments?

      Ok, let me begin with your question whether I was referring to you in one of the comments. I added the smiley just to avoid a possible misunderstanding that I was writing a scientific view of god particle. Even you might think so, I thought. When one person praised me for the satire in the post I was immensely happy. It was a satire. And you wouldn’t understand that.

      For the rest of your comment, I can only say that I have always understood you as an enlightened person. A person who lives up to his principles whatever they may be. They don’t always go hand in hand with mine. Fine. Nobody has to go hand in hand with me. I live alone. I want to live alone. Except for the “shit” I throw around in my blog.

      I understand every word of what you say because I’m intelligent enough to understand you. But, tell me, how many people will understand you? I agree that reason is the best thing, the only thing that has given us electricity, and atoms, and what not. But is man going to be happy with all that?

      I cannot answer your questions rationally. Call me a fool, if you wish. Leave my writing if you wish. (You will be one of the hundreds who left me and so it won’t hurt me!)

      Are you happy with all the science that you have tucked up in your sleeves? I was never happy with science. So I turned to literature. Then I turned to psychology. In the meanwhile I learnt philosophy, thanks to the Catholic Church which had made me a slave. Where is the truth?

      Your comment never gives me THE truth, except the scientific truth. And that’s not the truth. I am not scientific. So, am I failure? I am not political. So, have I no right to exist in this world? I don’t belong to anybody or anything. So…?

      No, Raghuram, I can’t answer you. I accept my defeat.

  4. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    It was not, and I never meant it to be, a question and answer type of comment. No Matheikal, I have not tucked up any science anywhere, they all hang out. I am not unmystical. But, my mysticism tells me that my “faith” is tentative. This is precisely the reason I stay away from the so-called revealed/received religions (and all religions are either one or the other of this dyad!)

    If you have noticed, I too do not try to gather a crowd behind me. A number of positions I have taken are far out in the wilderness. I tread my own path, but I do keep my eyes and ears open for discordant sights and sounds around. I react, like I have done here.

    Matheikal, I am not seeking THE TRUTH, because I don’t even acknowledge it exists. I move from wherever I am, forwards, backwards, sideways, using the gaits, like galloping, pacing and trotting, that my mind can accommodate.

    It is VERY TRUE that I will not understand satire. That is why a couple of times when you called what I had written satire, I was scratching my head 🙂

    There is no question my leaving your space (unless you block me). Till such time I am allowed the freedom to read, enjoy, smile, frown, even get dispirited at times by reading what you write, I will keep at you.

    If you have the faith that there is THE TRUTH, my simple suggestion will be for you to look around and what you, and all the other human beings are made of. Indeed you look at what all of life is made of; then go wider and see what all animate and inanimate objects are made of. You would find the universality of whatever you are seeking. My point is you have to look wide and not deep.


    • matheikal says:

      Raghuram, I look both wide and deep. Perhaps, a mistake. There is nothing much in the depths in the end. It may be a genetic fault in me that I have to keep digging and I will die digging.

      When I look “wide”, I see loathsome sights. [Tha’t why I look deep, I think.] When I look wide, I see people preaching one thing and doing the opposite. Even apparently genuine people! In the width lies politics. In the depth lies solitude. I prefer the solitude.

      The latest is that I might migrate to the Himalayas 🙂

  5. A little bit of magic always helps, I recommend a bit of mysticism too. Let me know what you think of this post…..

    • matheikal says:

      Yes, I read that blog of yours as well as quite a few others. Unfortunately I am not able to post my comments as I am not able to “prove that I am not a robot” by deciphering the computer-generated “words”! Have I become a robot? 🙂

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