Huxley and hope

Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy is an anthology of world thinkers from over thousands of years who have affirmed “the metaphysics that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds.” Further than metaphysics, Huxley attempted to include psychology and ethics, including

the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, Divine Reality, [and] the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being — the thin is immemorial and universal.

Huxley’s book emerged from the wrenching history of Western violence and chaos in the 1930s and 1940s with an implicit appeal for the restoration of peace and civilization embedded in the fine discourse of the many authors he selects. In that regards, the work is a n expression of hope, or at least of optimism. Huxley had skillfully weaned his list of sources to exclude scholars, theologians, commentators, interpreters, and ecclesiastical or institutional figures, instead giving full voice to the most original people in history: saints, sages, mystics, and spiritual figures. Not unexpectedly, however, the selection of sources is decidely Western, familiar and prominent names, not always pure in their spirituality, some devotional, some scholastic. But the effort largely succeeds

This concentration on figures who lived their perceptions versus those who commented on the letter of the ideology or religion rescues the work not only for posterity’s readers but also for Huxley’s contemporaries, who may well have come to see the institutional and scholarly apparatus as the core of the problem, the source of the culmination of the 20th-century chaos. Huxley deliberately did not include a critique to that tradition because he was interested in the positive and hopeful message that a transcendence was possible.

This view was popular in Europe in the late 1940s but encounters two obstacles. In the first place, the sages, saints, mystics, and spiritual thinkers he cites were not consciously presenting a political or social agenda for a failing contemporary civilization. Indeed, the great spiritual figures, while living their virtue and insight, offer material applicable to everyday ethics, but not for advancing the infrastructure of a moribund culture.

A pointed example of a 20th century spiritual figure, of India, is Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950). Aurobindo aptly fulfills Huxley’s criteria for a sage and spiritual thinker. (He is only mentioned once by Huxley, however.)

Sri Aurobindo, educated in British universities, returned to his native India determined to participate in political and social activism promoting Indian independence. He did so, leading meetings and editing a radical pro-independence periodical. He was arrested and imprisoned for a year (in the 1920s) for his seditious activity. During that solitary year, Aurobindo rediscovered the classics of his Hindu tradition, and decided to pursue a spiritual rather than activist path, concluding that the masses he sought to influence would not understand their social situation and its needs until they had raised their spiritual consciousness. Aurobindo went on to write prolifically on spiritual and mystical themes, never returning to worldly affairs. (Aurobindo eventually founded an ashram; a French widow and patron extended his ashram to a larger community. The institutionalizing of his thought tarnishes the singularity of his writing.)

A second factor challenging Huxley’s (and others’) hopes was the reality brought to the forefront by the existential tradition that succinctly expressed the pain and suffering of that era. As already mentioned, Huxley unwittingly bolsters the established Western historical traditions in the metaphysics, psychology and ethic represented in their own cultural contexts and eras. These historial contexts could not be reproduced in the 20th century, however well intentioned the reparative effort. The challenge for Huxley and his followers was how to maintain the spiritual fruits without continuing the ossification of Western culture.

Huxley may have striven for hope, that deep value that holds a faith regardless of circumstances. But once popularized, hope easily becomes optimism, a shallow version of hope but also a more palatable one for the mass reader. And as Miguel de Unamuno notes in his classic 1912 Tragic Sense of Life:

It is not usually our ideas that make us optimists or pessimists, but it is our optimism or our pessimism, of physiological or perhaps pathological origin, as much the one as the other, that makes our ideas.


If there exists in a man faith in God joined to a life of purify and moral elevation, it is not so much the believing in God that makes him good, as the being good … that makes him believe in God. Goodness is the best source of spiritual clear-sightedness.

While these critiques are pointed, they also conjure the gentle pessimism of Kierkegaard, the tragic sense of Marcus Aurelius and Unamuno himself, the cautionary insight of the more mystical spiritual writers recruited by Huxley. This is not the cynicism of Schopenhauer or the egoism Nietzsche. The 20th-century’s civil and world wars, genocides, nuclear weapons, and global tensions confirmed the pessimist’s view. The 20th century had already outrun the optimism of Huxley in the proliferation of technology and the institutionalization of the very sources that had engendered the pessimism.

But Huxley’s service was for all that invaluable. It refocused on the source of enlightenment and action, which is the individual, focused on a rich tradition that would outlast the diverse happenings that have snaked through the river of subsequent history. Huxley’s saints, sages, spiritual beings, and mystics, constitute a refuge for the individual thrown into a world where not merely people and structures tighten their grips on the organs of power, but even overthrow collective efforts of spiritual awareness. Huxley’s book echoes an old and happy optimism, perhaps, but is a valuable sourcebook that can still invite us to enter a great spiritual path.

Kalanithi’s ars moriendi

Ars moriendi or the “art of dying” was originally a specific religious essay composed as a comfort during the Black Plague of the late middle ages. Today, the term may be applied to a religious or philosophical essay on the subject. Because life is overshadowed by the “letting go” of inevitable death, the genre is not only addressing conscious last days of life but may today be aplied to the entire art of living, of living well, wisely, and consciously, in the face of inevitability.

Ars moriendi is universal. From stoics in the West to Japanese death poets in the East, classics on dying with the understanding that living correctly is always an urgency do share important insights without divisive metaphysics or speculation.

The genre may today, by analogy, be authored by wise physicians, even if the weight of how to livee well is only offered as an opportunity to the wise reader. How We Die, the influencial 1994 book by surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland, described the process of aging and death as a natural phenomenon versus the catalog of diseases gleefully assigned to each symptom of decline by the medical and pharmaceutical establishments. Not that dying has even been the happily painless ideal of going to sleep without awakening, as Nuland notes. The impulse to arrest and frustrate a natural course even when the prospects of reversal are nil commonly delineates medical discourse, even now when palliative philosophies and practical methods of palliative care have emerged. Death “with dignity” is an older negative mindset, but even palliative care still requires insight about time, space, quality of life, consciousness, and suffering — no easier to understand as science. But any death carries the urgency to embrace the expression of ars moriendi.

Ars moriendi cannot be an art taken up too late for comprehending what happens in the long or short course of time. This urgency is illustrated by the fate of the brilliant young neuro-surgeon Paul Kalanithi, who was also thoroughly familiar with literature and the ars moriendi genre. He died very young, barely finishing his medical residency, but managed to wrie an autobiographical manuscript When Breath Becomes Air (2016), describing his days from lung cancer diagnosis through reacting, coping, then eking out life to the end.

This memoir can be readily added to the repertoire of arts moriendi, made special because the author is a physician. Like Being Mortal by Atul Gawande — which, however, addresses as third-person research the life and death of patients, plus the life and death of his father — Kalanithi’s book fits this new expression of the ars moriendi genre. In Kalanithi’s book the modern jugernaut of technological and pharmaceutical progress is contrasted with tenuous quality of life prospects. No better person for composing such a book is Kalanithi because the author is both a terminal cancer patient and an informed physician and scientist who can both recount his careful medical decisions as a practicing neuro-surgeon while assessing the signs of impending death more professionally and philosophically than other people in this life stage, and, perhaps, better than other writers of ars moriendi.

The value of the art of dying, considered when in health and vitality, is to practice a clear mindset long before consciousness is swayed by fear and suffering. Kalanithi was originally a formal student of literature because of its clear psychological insights, but eventually he pursued the study of medicine and neuroscience for their physical and descriptive insights, for knowledge about the mechanical and biological aspects of the unitary body/mind that constitutes our identity. Science is the priveleged knowledge afforded by modern times, but as Kalanithi wrote in his final year, literature uplifts the burdens of the self. Poetic passages classical and modern sprinkle the author’s pages, and one sees a divergent contrast of art versus science gradually unified in fact and elevated in spirit.

In the end, said Joseph Conrad, we live as we die — alone. Or, rather, we die as we live. To each personality is alotted an art of dying, an extension of the art of living, providing a perfect continuity if we learn the art well.

Saving vs. Enlightenment

The Dalai Lama’s book A Profound Mind (2012) is a non-polemical summary pf Buddhist thought, specifically Mahayana and Tibetan. These include teachings on dependent origination and emptiness derived from Nagajuna, and the creating of a mental disposition toward individual enlightenment, Bodhicitta, and compassion, derived from Shantideva.

The Mahayana trajectory of saving others while saving oneself, however, has always been a later development — or accretion — that has never settled well with the Theravada and Zen traditions. A social agenda to inner tranquility, even of the society in mind, is inevitably horizontal re enlightenment, and suggests a busyness and disippation of resources uncomfortable with or incompatible with the goal of an otherwise worldly aspiration such as saving others. The argument against Jesus, that he would save others but could not save himself, is taken as a literal admonition by the Mahayana tradition (by analogy, of course,since the saying never reached this far East).

Granted that, as the Dalia Lama puts it:

If we have not developed the required inner peace, then even if we are living the life of a hermit, our minds will be overwhelmed with anger and hatred, and we will have no peace.

This comment about hermits is understood in every eremitic tradition, but revises the burden for pursuing inner peace, which must be fulfilled before the pursuit of eremitism. Eremitism is not a concomitant position. But there is no allusion here to the physical and natural setting that fosters inner peace in the first place, or to the fact that the most successful setting has historically not been a social setting, at least not a complex or busy social setting. Otherwise the process of pursuing inner peace may become incompatible with saving others whether by teaching, preaching, engaging others, or even wish-intention.

The notion of the saving of self and others is derived from the solitary enlightenment experience of the historical Buddha followed by his preaching activity to “save” others. But the teaching was of how to achieve inner enlightenemtn, not how to save others, which is the external or extroverted act of preaching, not the act of achieving enlightenment. Without the latter, there likely is no saving of others, for who, even among the disciples of Buddha, is “enlightened”? We don’t know or ever will, especially in the context of thousands of years later among contemporaries.

The relevance of meditative practice to society is thus conflated with two different goals. The Dalai Lama discourages what he calls asceticism, which he considers extreme. But the asceticism criticized by the historical Buddha is nowhere practiced. It is, perhaps, a straw man. The issue today is the extreme of indulgence, not the extreme of asceticism.

The Dalia Lama writes:

It is best, I believe, for a lay practitioner to remain involved in society, while leading a spiritual life. Though some exceptional individuals may be capable of dedicating themselves totally to pursuing meditative practices, I myself try to follow a middle path, balancing spiritual and worldly responsibility.

This sentiment is safe and acceptable, but dilutes the traditions that constructed practice in the first place, leaving spiritual expression largely to clerics, monks, and scholars, a bifurcation familiar in the West, undertaken perhaps to make making Buddhism more adaptable to Western tastes and lifestyles.

Blindness revisited

A recent post touched upon benign examples of blindness in literature and art: naive innocence, virtue following the notion that “justice is blind,” that blindness does not take into account appearance or superficiality in judging or interpreting. In literature, an example was the character DeLacey in Shelley’s Frankenstein. Blind characters abound in popular film. To Sir With Love, to cite an example, features a blind female student enamored of her male teacher – she does not realize that he is black and therefore she can afford to ignore the conventions of society because she does not judge by appearance. In art, blind hermits are depicted accompanied by angelic figures, as if confirming the hermit’s enhanced powers of the perception of virtue.

Tiresias, the ancient Greek mythological prophet, provides a transition in judging the “powers” of blindness, for he has been blinded by the gods but has acquired the gift of divination, which, however, is a weighty and dubious gift when consulted by Oedipus.

Blindness is a physical condition and usually attributed to the absence of insight, sometimes ominously. Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, makes blindness a horrible miasma that overcomes an entire city, unleashing the true character of people with evil results. Saramago himself is blind.

Rudyard Kipling’s first novel, The Light That Failed, features an ambitious protagonist who is a military artist, sketching warfare in what was called Anglo-Sudan in the 19th century. He is wounded in a blow to the head. On his return to England, he seeks out a childhood friend to share his artistic gifts, but she rejects him. Disillusioned, he undertakes the portrait of a perfect woman, but then realizes that he is losing his sight, and does so before his masterpiece can be completed. He then convinces a military friend to take him back to the scene of his original work, and he is killed in a firefight, as he wanted to be.

Granted that there are no blind characters in Joseph Conrad’s last novel, Victory, but the elements of physical and spiritual isolation are intense, and suspense is made a blindness intrinsic to characters battling fate. The novel deals explicitly with a solitary man’s fate. Employed by an export company in distant Pacific Islands, the protagonist finds himself adrift when the company folds. He sets up household on a deserted island, and alludes to his father’s grand philosophy of life in quotations from Schopenhauer. In the Dutch supply town, the protagonist rescues a young woman from hostile circumstances and brings her to the island, while a pair of sharp frauds pursue him for his imagined buried treasure. The climax of the novel is not only the resolution of the conflict but the destruction of the cast of characters, which in retrospect the author sees as a victory for the integrity of both self and solitude.

Every spiritual tradition uses the vocabulary of sight, insight, coming to realize, enlightenment, and so forth. The analogy with physical sight is well established, but the notion of enhanced versus deteriorated physical sight is often made culture’s touchstone analogy. Culture itself, however, represents multiple assumptions about what it can “see,” understand, and convey as norms and values. Just as true meditative practice is a falling away of assumptions about environs and worldliness, so too must physical sight be not an assumption of insight but a report of context, a literal report to our true organs of discernment, which cannot reside in blindness or non-blindness alone.

Millennial minimalism

Naming American generations and characterizing them is a fanciful exervise but can yield some points for thought. Here are a few with likely themes.

Great Generation (WW2) – “The world is a mess and it’s everybody else’s fault.”
Boomer Generation (50s & 60s) – “The world is a mess and we could have/should have/would have/almost/ fixed it.”
Generation X, “Me” generation (70s-90s) – “The world is a mess and I’m hunkering down with what’s mine.”
Generation Y, “Millennial” generation (2000s) – “The world is a mess but there are so many cool things going on.”

Today’s millennials (Y generation) often describe themselves as minimalist, though not as art or aesthetics but as an entire lifestyle. The degrees of minimalism vary in kind and consistency, but is largely based on the economic and technological backdrop of 21st century life in developed countries.

Previous generations to that of the last two decades were accustomed to locally-based manufacturing, production, communication, and travel. Millenials no longer see any of this with the dominance of outsourcing, outdated technologies, disappearance of labor replaced by service jobs, and a world as tense and violent as ever.

The dominance of the Internet and social media has dominated and displaced communication technologies. The millennials’ argument for fewer possessions is as much based on increased capacities of modern technologies that at the same time are physically smaller than ever. The multiple functions of a smart phone or tablet displace many previous technologies. The application of new technologies to everything from automobiles to banking to shopping to learning foster the illusion of simplicity even while increasing dependence on larger infrastructure, corporate control, and easier surveillance. But the marketing of consumption continues and grows even while touting a new simplicity in getting rid of objects — or rather miniaturizing them.

Thus millennial limiting of possessions such as books, clothing, and furniture can be lauded when based on values of simplicity, but less so when motivation is ease of replacement via web-based vendors, two-day delivery, easy credit and downloadable access. In this case, minimalism is resistance to the temptation to buy too much because of minimal living space rather than the virtue of abstinence.

In this millennium, many professional jobs have been outsourced in developing coutries, leaving an information and economic gap between professional-level jobs and service jobs that basically “service” the professional classes. The college graduate serving at the coffee shop is a typical example. Such an economy is then bolstered, complemented, or designed to limit labor and benefits of job stability, and stability of residence. Such mobility in jobs and residence used to be the provenance of upwardly-mobile professionals, but in this century it characterizes the millenial with less money and fewer prospects for better work. Hence debt and the hustle to work become full-time concerns, and the aspiration to minimalism a motive that is primarily economic.

Simplicity in the stable (middle) class was and remains an effort to declutter life, closets, and garages from too many attachments, possessions, and gratuitous clingings. The millenial has necessarily passed this stage from sheer economic pressure and technological capacities. The millennial does not have mutiple shoes, multiple coats, and multiple CDs and DVDs because technology and apartment rental (they are either mobile or cannot afford a house — or both) doesn’t make it practical or economical. At least this is a millenial aspiration though doubtless not all share it.

Today’s generation may find its way nimbly while an older generation simply adds the new technology to its clutter. The angst of the boomer is surpassed by the gluttony of the “me” middle-agers, and now succeeded by the cautious millennials. May their minimalism resemble neither a Beckett stage nor a Potemkin impoverished village but a reconciliation to the future, which is certainly dim and foreboding, as the millennial knows well — or ought to. The assault on nature and the destruction of sustainability makes simplicity not only a necessity but a strategy, which, hopefully can be reconciled to the deeper and sustaining values that every generation of sages has practiced.