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!