This book has its flaws, but it is fucking devastating and it is beautiful. It is also everything I didn't bother with or avoided for years of literarThis book has its flaws, but it is fucking devastating and it is beautiful. It is also everything I didn't bother with or avoided for years of literary reading. I was a fool. ...more
The truth is that while the introductory biographical stuff is interesting, and the extensive and somewhat dull guidance at the end is probably usefulThe truth is that while the introductory biographical stuff is interesting, and the extensive and somewhat dull guidance at the end is probably useful to people who are less inclined to eye-rolling at some of the content, the real meat of the thing, what people still come to this book for, the fancy-design-groovy-as-hell heart of the book, which I assume is the original pamphlet, is actually worth checking out.
Man, it's fun to flip through. And stare at. And it contains some real wisdom that no amount of eye-rolly irony can simply dismiss. I am not inclined to agree with everything here, or even most of what is here, but the thing is just way too interesting a document to just ignore. This is from before alternative religious thought in the West became all pastel and insane; it's when Western self-proclaimed saddhus used to just give it to you straight, all the shit about having to die to this world to be reborn into enlightenment, when they'd talk about death and the darkness and light of the universe without sugarcoating it.
If you haven't read this, and for some reason are interested in reading what the first man in the 20th century to get fired from a tenure-track position at Harvard for feeding psilocybin mushrooms to undergrads then devote to a guru in India has to offer as an introduction to a particularly psychologically-driven version of Eastern religious thought, married with some Perennialist tendencies and even stuff about how Christ is plenty groovy and the Bible's a real trip, too (man), but all in the context of a very 60s outlook, then you should probably read this.
All that said, you could probably dismiss a lot of this with just a line or two from Blake. ...more
Despite the above expressed sentiment, the one star is not an indication of seething hatred as much as simple dislike.
I'm sure that the book hBlech.
Despite the above expressed sentiment, the one star is not an indication of seething hatred as much as simple dislike.
I'm sure that the book has given much to people who don't wish to do more serious work in (or read more serious work on) investigating the areas and issues covered. And there's really nothing wrong with pop treatises such as this one. They're just not for me, and I wouldn't recommend them to most people I know.
I fully expected not to be wowed by the content, but what surprised me is just how clumsy the style is. Plain prose is fine for stuff like this, but it's not even efficient plain prose, and the book is structurally more than a bit of a mess.
I also suppose that some of my reaction just has to do with not being particularly moved or interested by stuff that moves and interests others. That's fine, too. I suppose.
So blech, again. Except some of the motorcycle stuff was neat. ...more
I was tempted to give this one star at times, three at others.
The most laudable thing about this book is that Falk avoids the traps many other anti-cuI was tempted to give this one star at times, three at others.
The most laudable thing about this book is that Falk avoids the traps many other anti-cultists fall into: -treating new religious movements (popularly called cults) as categorically different than (and less respectable than) old religious movements -assuming that the Abrahamic faiths (especially Christianity) somehow have, by default, less potential for harm than Asian spirituality and religion -failing to recognize that cults form in many quite secular contexts: e.g. frats, the military, workplaces, and so on. As a graduate student in literature, I am most thankful that Falk recognizes that both Freud and Jung were leaders of classical cults of personality that followed the same tactics and urged the same dogmatism that religious cults, UFO cults, and so on rely on.
On the other hand, the book is written with such bile-laden ferocity and anger (Falk had a rough time of things in the Self-Realization Fellowship) that one is tempted not to take it all too seriously, even when the evidence compiled has its own force. Indeed, the whole thing has an air of immaturity about it. It really is just a book of gossip, mostly with a charmless, sneering tone.
Of course, when a lot of the "gossip" is about really fucking serious allegations of abuse, it's most certainly worth taking a closer look at. When it's about such allegations. I use italics there because much of the book isn't about such allegations. The chapter on Ram Dass, for instance (there are some other examples), is so devoid of anything shocking or even particularly troubling that one wonders at its inclusion. I also wonder at how reliable some of his sources are. Some really are reliable; there is a lot of good, valuable, important information here about the abuses that people get away with in the name of religion and spirituality. In some cases, however, the sources appear to be of the "this guy I knew said his brother's friend who was in this cult said that his girlfriend's mother's friend said that..." form.
The issue is that both reliable and somewhat sketchy sources are used. I am not denying the importance of exposing information from reliable sources.
There is also way too much sneering at consensual sexual relationships in spiritual commmunities (oh no! yoga teachers in the West have sex with their students?????!!!!! Who knew?!!!) [yes, there is often a power imbalance, but are we really going to rail against every relationship someone has with someone in their social circle who's higher up the ladder than they are? That would invalidate a large portion of relationships as abuses of power] and at drug use and at various other fairly mundane stuff.
I'd like to note that Falk did get me thinking about the parallels between BDSM and spiritual devotion. I really do not mean to be too fashionably unholy here. The interest in the parallels is genuine. His only comment on BDSM in the book seems to see it as pathological and necessarily problematic; this is also how he sees devotion to a guru, to God, etc. The reason why seems to be that Falk assumes that submission by choice is indication of seriously poor self-esteem, when there's a reasonable amount of anecdotal and social-psych/sex-psych stuff that suggests otherwise. He also assumes that playing the dominant role is necessarily always a matter of actual control, of genuine sadism. He displays no understanding of the dynamics of necessary care, of profound trust, and of very serious intimacy involved (as some have told me; I would of course know nothing personally of BDSM).
Do we have the ability to make such choices in the way we're often assumed to? I do not know, but I do know that this is not the place to try to resolve the millennia-old question of whether or not we have free will. Even the less complex subsidiary questions of influence-after-having-been-initiated and so on are immensely difficult to answer. My own feeling is that such influence is most often inescapable after initiation into a cult or culture or professional group or whatever it is. Critical thinking helps, but doesn't solve all problems. Advertising being the best example of this in the global cult of capital to which none of us alive, as far as I know, even asked to be initiated into.
Of course, the issue of blurred lines is always there in BDSM and always there in spiritual communities. In the use of certain drugs as well as in intense meditative practice, there is the possibility of ego death, often resulting in what have been called "bad trips" and "dark nights of the soul," respectively. In BDSM play, too, the issue of ego death looms large. Falk is no fan of ego death. But I don't think it's a simple matter (by the way, fascinatingly enough, "spiritual vanity" identified by Falk among ashram members seems quite analogous, to me, to the vanity displayed, I'm told, by many BDSM submissives and some doms; the notion that these egos are anywhere near dead is itself quite suspect [you'll also not have to struggle too hard to find LSD users who will endlessly flatter themselves about their special insights]).
Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to get at is that I see plenty of evidence that many BDSM circles have worked out ways to keep the lines from blurring and to turn what is often, in the world at large, actual abuse and actual psychological violence, into something quite contrary. And I think that many spiritual communities also have checks in place that mostly work.
Falk's assertion is we should "just say no" to most spiritual seeking and (I gather) pretty much all organized religion. I would contend, though, that by the same logic, we should "just say no" to power dynamics everywhere (and they are everywhere). Oh, and perhaps join together with others to create communities without power dynamics (I'm extrapolating here).
Oh, shit, that didn't tend to turn out too well, either, did it?
So let's just be freegans, then. But, damn it, we need support when we're hopping trains, and some of us are better dumpster-divers than others, so fuck, we're in trouble again.
I could go on, but I won't. In essence, I think what I'm driving at is that most human societies and communities contain some elements of fuckedupednness. Perhaps, and I know I'm being pessimistic, there's just fucked up shit that happens when people band together, and we can't seem to avoid banding together, given how profoundly bad it is for us to be genuinely alone. I am thoroughly convinced of the shittiness of some of the groups and leaders Falk discusses here, but thoroughly unconvinced that some of the others are all that terrible or that any of this is somehow unique to spiritual communities. Shit, even Falk doesn't seem to think it necessarily is unique to them.
Very important: none of the above is to imply that we should raise our arms in surrender when abuse does happen and pretend it didn't. One of Falk's most valuable points is that it must be possible to critique and to reform.
When compared to the work of dunces (Sam Harris) and raving ideologues (Hitchens, Dawkins) that constitutes the new atheism, Paul Kurtz's The TranscenWhen compared to the work of dunces (Sam Harris) and raving ideologues (Hitchens, Dawkins) that constitutes the new atheism, Paul Kurtz's The Transcendental Temptation, which predates the work of the new atheists by a couple of decades or so, is rather good. It covers much of the same ground, but actually provides much reasonable and detailed argumentation in doing so.
The major fault of the book emerges from the fact that it is not merely a critique of religion and new agey woo-woo stuff. It is also an argument for secular humanism. And while I find secular humanism, in the abstract, to be noble and beautiful, and while I was thoroughly one of these folks for a few years, I have become increasingly convinced that it is a dream of the well-educated philosopher or poet, seated in armchairs, meeting in beautiful rooms to discuss how stupid everyone else is for believing in magic sky fairies or seeing God in everything.
Kurtz devotes a chapter to Mosaic revelation and the history of the Jewish people. He takes great pains to stress that he is not anti-semitic, before making the declaration that a secular humanist must make if he is to stick to his logical guns: that the history of the Jewish people is a tragic history of a people who fell for the prophecies of and stuck to the laws of a charlatan and that much of the persecution Jews have suffered is due precisely to their unwarranted faith in their God and their scriptures. Much the same is said of Christians and Muslims, but given the lack of a proselytizing component to the Jewish faith, this chapter stands out.
It stands out because it illustrates the fact that Kurtz is proselytizing his faith in secular humanism. And while it is true that science and rational inquiry do not require faith in the same way religions do, secular humanism is not identical to science or philosophy. Secular humanism involves passionate belief in the power of its own tenets to lead to progress and, presumably, some sort of greater good in the world. It is, in short, a belief system. Secular humanism is not identical to simply lacking belief in religion and the paranormal and a refusal to stand in the way of science and philosophy. Secular humanism also involves much universalizing and a globalizing tendency that has already been critiqued sufficiently well enough that I need not bother doing so here.
There is also the small question of what cult(ure) formerly deluded folks are meant to join after they leave their deluded (by Kurtz's estimation) cult(ure)s? The globalized capitalist engine? It is quite unlikely that every atheist, agnostic, or secular humanist become a Bertrand Russell, and far more likely that they become another dipshit consumer who worships the box store aisles and tech products in place of more out-of-fashion gods.
It is very convenient for Kurtz to designate Marxism as a religion. He seems not to think that secular humanism could go the way Marxism has gone. But let us imagine a world led by a council of Christopher Hitchenses. Contemplate the neoliberal bullshit masquerading as enlightened secular humanism that could come of that.
Also worth noting here that Kurtz repeatedly mentions Freud and Freudian ideas as if they are perfectly sensible and rational and have any empirical or scientific or philosophical validity whatsoever. I've read a fair amount of Freud and found some of it pretty good, but as much of it complete woo-woo crap virtually indistinguishable in terms of validity on empirical or logical grounds from stuff you'd read in new age books (some of which also contain much insight, despite their pukey covers and placement in appalling "metaphysical" bookstores).
Kurtz has a lot of ammo to use against the major Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and against whatever minor prophets and charlatans and psychics and UFO cults an so on that he chooses to pick on. These are, in many respects, very easy targets. His (very brief) chapter on mysticism is extremely weak by comparison, yet this is precisely where he ought to have focused some more nuanced argumentation (given that his book is called The Transcendental Temptation. His strategy is largely to suggest, without outright claiming it in some cases, that mystics and drug users and others who have had experiences outside the realm of Kurtz's experience are probably experiencing some form of pathology or psychosis. That they must be nuts, or at least they're driving themselves nuts. Oh, and sexual repression. That Kurtz appeals to Freud to counter the experiences of mystics and to launch not-so-sly personal attacks against people who seek to overcome worldly temptations reveals very much indeed.
The result is that Kurtz is more dogmatically anti-spiritual than even Sam Harris. Even Harris, due to an experience with MDMA, is convinced of the potential value of spiritual pursuits and the often mysterious or at least complicated and unsimple character of reality.
On a bit of a tangent, I want to mention that Kurtz doesn't really discuss Hinduism, which, notably, is the least worldly, most transcendental, most mystical, most out-there of the top three world religions, but which also has the most non-violent (to outsiders, anyway) record of them all, the one that has contributed the least amount of fucked up shit into the world. Yes, Hindu extremists exist, who have recently persecuted Muslims and Sikhs (nothing in comparison to Muslim persecution of Hindus in centuries past, it must be noted), but given the magnitude of this religion's history, its record is pretty remarkable. And, again, it is the most transcendental.
And hey, what if you swapped every bloodthirsty, intolerant mainstream religionist of the Abrahamic faiths for their mystical counterparts, for Kabbalists, Christian monks, and Sufis? What if, in addition to those, you had a bunch of new age hippy types with their crystals and so forth and a bunch of occultists? Would they battle science the way mainstream religion has done? I sincerely doubt it. They may not aid in progress, but what is this dogmatic progressivism? I may wish to simply maintain a small plot of land with a couple of goats and some plants and, when not tending the land, make love to my wife and perform superstitious rituals. Why the fuck not? If there were any proof that being an atheist or a secular humanist necessitated superior contributions to the world, that may be an argument against indulging in the transcendental temptation. Kurtz seems to think it's important that we all do stuff. I wish to appeal to the following paraphrase of Pascal: wouldn't shit be a lot better if more people just learned to sit quietly in their rooms?
The error Kurtz makes is in attacking the transcendental and assuming that mainstream Abrahamic religion's deleterious effect on the world is rooted in its lack of acceptance of the way Paul Kurtz views the world. Mystical spirituality is probably the best weapon against the violent frothing fervor of the religious mainstream: this is my belief statement. Secular humanism is probably not. The reason why is identified by Kurtz himself. He ends the book by noting that secular humanism will need to have similar appeal, similar grandeur, similar mythic significance for it to power itself into the place of established religions and transcendental practices. But what would be left of secular humanism at that point? Would it not have emerged as something of an intellectual/political cult and would it not be liable to fall into the same traps that every thing and every person who gains real power seems to fall into?
Kurtz's book is nowhere near as confident in itself as some of the newer stuff in this area. It is clearly the work of a good academic philosopher. It is also a work revealing of great bias and of a lack of understanding of social nuances and the nuances of spiritual exploration and spiritual community. ...more
I liked this much more when I read it a few years ago. But I am a different person now, though not different enough to not still think Huxley's writinI liked this much more when I read it a few years ago. But I am a different person now, though not different enough to not still think Huxley's writing w/r/t the infamous Chair is, alone, worth the price of admission.
The truth is that this essay is neither *woah mindblowing maan* nor stupid drug-addled drivel. Both positions reflect, I think, biases brought to the reading of the essays.
The latter species of reactionary dismisses without much consideration the possibility that certain chemical substances might be useful and even important (one reviewer here compares the experience of reading Huxley's sober account of his experience with mescaline to the experience of being sober in a car full of drunks. One small problem: mescaline is not alcohol. Another problem with this general account of things, which usually makes the "lol he's chemically altered he's lost touch with reality" appeal, is that it fails to take account of how we are all a bundle of chemicals constantly being altered by our experience of the world, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the exercise we get or don't, etc. etc., and that the experiences possible through drugs are often possible without drugs and that individuals can experience reality in very, very different ways without being insane and without losing touch of some common ground on which to communicate... [I mean, as a depressive who until a couple of years ago spent much of his life mired in deep, dark, anhedonic unipolar MDD, I can assure you that the depressed person's experience of reality is absolutely and unequivocally not the not-depressed person's experience of reality]).
The former species of reactionary probably read on some website that members of the Native American Church take peyote, and somehow believes it logical to transition from that assertion to the conclusion that mescaline has some inherent profundity. This type of person reads The Doors of Perception and goes: "right on, man." Probably.
Huxley's actually not representative of either of these species, which unfortunately tend to dominate the discussion on synthetic, semi-synthetic, or naturally occurring substances in relation to the human brain. The reason why Huxley is not a member of the *woah maan* club is that he is primarily writing about potentialities and not about certainties. That's not to say he doesn't get a lot wrong and that there aren't problems with his argument in these essays. I would not present Huxley to anyone as a particularly good philosopher. I should also note that my present reading of Huxley's position probably has to do with my just having read his The Perennial Philosophy, which outlines his position on mysticism.
Huxley has a point and he has a case. Sharp prose and a dry sense of humour give the essays a bit of an edge over most things of this kind, and Huxley's Oxford education and mid-20th-century-Englishmanness make the thing quite dramatically unlike most similar things in the drug-lit canon. Most similar? Maybe DeQuincey, except DeQuincey's just way more interesting [despite writing on a seemingly less interesting drug] and has a much more sophisticated account of what constitutes (at least) reality-for-the-individual attained through sensory and perceptive and cognitive faculties. His position on altered states of consciousness also appears to be quite different than Huxley's. But that is something not to be commented on at just this moment. ...more
The title gives you an idea of what to expect, but the book is still a (mostly pleasant) surprise.
Albert Hofmann, as everyone knows, is the Swiss cheThe title gives you an idea of what to expect, but the book is still a (mostly pleasant) surprise.
Albert Hofmann, as everyone knows, is the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD. The standard narrative is that he's not at all like most of the people who have taken LSD since the fateful afternoon on which he became the first to experience an acid trip while bicycling home from his laboratory. The truth is more complicated. Hofmann does view LSD as his "problem child." He has a disapproving attitude regarding the use of the drug as a recreational inebriant.
What one ought to expect from the book, but probably doesn't, is that this is very much a scientist's book. It is not what certain types of human have been known to refer to as "trippy," despite containing what are known as "trip reports." Hofmann is a fairly dry writer, and assumes that the reader is as interested as he is in accounts of the chemistry of LSD and other psychiatric drugs. Wade Davis' writing on psychedelic drugs in One River is something like these parts of the book, from an ethnobotanist's perspective. This makes for a very pleasant and welcome departure from the nature of most psychedelia, which tends to be about somehow approximating the psychedelic experience or the various rantings and ravings of those who believe their minds to have been expanded.
And what's most curious about the book is that, while it is very much a book written by a chemist, it is also a mystic's book. So Hofmann is both chemist and mystic, man of science and man of well, if not God, then something of that general order. Suitably enough, given that psychedelics are both chemical molecules and gateways to mystical experiences (as shown by the Good Friday experiment at the Harvard Divinity School and the recent Johns Hopkins studies). Now, whether a mystical experience is "real" in that it literally involves meeting the "spirit realm" is not something I want to deal with. My personal feeling is that everything is reducible to some sort of material explanation, but that mystical experiences are, in themselves, a remarkable and peculiar species of experience, and one that might aid the world in general, no matter how annoying the people are who result from such experiences. And I think Hofmann comes across as being more or less in the same camp as I am, although he has spiritual beliefs I do not have.
It is not a very well-written book, and the content veers from this to that so often that it can get disorienting, hence the three stars and no more. But at the heart of the book is an accurate and serious account of a fascinating molecule and a plea for its reasonable and sensible use in therapeutic contexts. This book was written some time ago, but it is only now that the potential of psychedelic drugs in therapeutic contexts has come to the attention of largely white Euro-or-Anglo-oriented therapists. And that renews the importance of this account by the father of LSD.
If you intend to purchase this book, buy the MAPS edition. 100% of profits go to "psychedelic psychotherapy research."
To begin, I must note that I am not "spiritual," if spirituality is taken to indicate belief in spirit, to point to crystals and new-agey-ness and tarTo begin, I must note that I am not "spiritual," if spirituality is taken to indicate belief in spirit, to point to crystals and new-agey-ness and tarot and so on. I also do not consider myself "enlightened," but I think I get on a gut level a basic idea of what that state might be like.
The greatest fault Huxley's book has is its attempt to force varying traditions of mysticism into one "perennial philosophy." The Perennialists, Huxley included, seem not to acknowledge the diversity of views within the mystical tradition. That is a shame. And yet there is a category known as the mystical, to which various traditions speak. It is a real category of experience and, as far as I'm concerned, is totally fascinating. The book is mostly Huxley's commentary, but a very large portion of it is quotations from various texts, either mystical or interpreted as such by Huxley. It is well-written and, as single-volume accounts go, a pretty good one. And buried within Huxley's sometimes frustrating notion that he is capable of uncovering the esoteric truth of esoterica are some pretty excellent observations and some very good writing. For instance:"Samsara and Nirvana, time and eternity"; "Nirvana and Samsara are one"; for instance: "the path of spirituality is a knife-edge between abysses"; for instance: "to be diabolic on the grand scale, one must, like Milton's Satan, exhibit in a high degree all the moral virtues, except only charity and wisdom."
Huxley also does a pretty good job of explaining why mysticism is not equivalent to sticking one's head in the sand, and why its denial of self-separateness is not the same as the dangerous forms of collectivism and indifference to difference. For instance, he identifies "political monism" as something very different to monism in its more genuine sense. There is a cult of unity that is not the religion of unity, but is "only an idolatrous ersatz." He gets at everyday ignored truths in a blunt and (to me) refreshing way: he notes that "bondage to self-will" is "the root and principle of all evil."
It's often really hard to explain my interest in the mystical, given that it coincides in me with much its opposite. Some of it is just having been obsessed with The X-Files and the esoteric in general, but never having donned a tinfoil hat or purchased crystals. That's not so odd in itself. But mysticism? Unity with the One that is all, whether you call it Brahman or the Tao or the Nature of Things or Allah or God? How can someone be interested in that but be almost anti-religious, and think that everything has a material explanation at some level?
I think Huxley's book has helped me understand my interest in mysticism. A lot of it has to do with how mysticism is not boring, but very interesting as a way of perceiving the world. And there is also great ethical potential in all this, which is to an extent simply about a species of passivity combined with profoundly active awareness, in which one is neither an unaware imbecile nor an overactive shit-stirrer. I almost wrote "not boring as a mode of thought." Except, of course, meditative states, "centredness," certain experiences possible through psychedelics, and so on do not necessarily revolve around thought or knowledge. They do not revolve around the self, around your past or your future or your dreams and desires and attitudes.
They revolve around the realized real, something almost indescribable (and I cannot describe it or pretend to) that happens when one engages in contemplative practice. And this practice and what happens within it are so fucking fascinating precisely because it's just something you have to do to get there and because it will dramatically affect your everyday experience of the world. "the saving truth has never been preached by the Buddha, seeing that one has to realize it within oneself"- Sutralamkra. There is the possibility of pure(-seeming) awareness. Awareness without the ego's involvement. Experience of reality, in other words, without the mediation of time-oriented, result-oriented thought. This awareness is a way out of the self, a way out of what David Foster Wallace has famously called our default setting, in which I am and you are and everyone is at the centre of their own little universes, in which one's self is what processes all incoming information. Huxley says: "there has to be a conversion, sudden or otherwise, not merely of the heart, but also of the senses and of the perceiving mind... metanoia, as the Greeks called it, this total and radical 'change of mind'." This change of mind is about, in large part, "the elimination of self-will, self-interest, self-centred thinking, wishing and imagining." Underpinning all this is an understanding of the difficulty of the transition and of its potential value. At the risk of sounding like the shittiest Beatle not named Ringo, imagine a world in which self-interest is not merely questionable, but is blasphemy, in which "individual self-sufficiency" is a thoroughly blasphemous idea.
I am talking in terms of psychology. That's important to emphasize. Yes, it's still my brain processing input. But what is different in the throes of the mystical experience is that the software running from the hardware (let's pretend that's a valid way of looking at it) changes entirely. Everything begins to look different. That is still a chair, but it is no longer my chair, my pain, my love, my anger, my ambition. And that sort of dissociation (a dangerous psychological disorder according to the DSM, that great manual of the Cult of Self) is but a fraction of the larger picture. Freud is more Fraud than ever before. Jung starts to make sense in a way previously inaccessible to me. The categories of Western psychology start to reveal themselves as deeply mistaken and even stupid, and the Buddhist philosophers are revealed as the greatest psychologists and phenomenologists to date. The issue is not with the Western psychologists' accuracy of description. It is that they have an extremely narrow account of reality and of the possibilities of the human mind, and make their system make sense by excluding anything out of the ordinary, making it disorder and insanity. To quote Huxley: "one of the most extraordinary, because most gratuitous, pieces of twentieth-century vanity is the assumption that nobody knew anything about psychology before the days of Freud." Unfortunately, we are still dragging that nonsensical baggage behind us, even as we enter into a larger and more comprehensive understanding of mind and brain.
I suspect that my meditative practice has led me to what the mystics call the "divine" anyway. I just don't think it's divine. So a large portion of what Huxley talks about here and what is central to the mystical tradition makes sense to me, because I have had what counts as "mystical" experiences. That is not to say that mystical experiences are a matter of divine contact, only that there is such a thing as a "mystical experience." I mean that there is a sort of experience that many human beings have and have had that matches a list of criteria that makes it count as this certain sort of experience. An experience that often leads to a taste of beatitude, blessedness, which as Huxley notes is "something quite different from pleasure... [it] depends on non-attachment and selflessness, therefore can be enjoyed without satiety and without revulsion."
And it is no wonder that the mystics, whether Sufi, Catholic, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, etc. consider this experience a matter of unity with the divine. For the experience is a profound alteration of consciousness, a gaining of distance from the myopic, obscenely self-centred, violently egotistical standard mode of operation of the human being. And this standard mode has coloured most religious practice as well as led to our obscenely disgusting obsession with consuming and retaining material goods. The mystical is a way out of what Huxley calls "a certain blandly bumptious provincialism which, if it did not constitute such a grave offence against charity and truth, would be just uproariously funny."
Of course, not all those in the mystical tradition are all that concerned with God. Huxley neatly steps past Orthodox Buddhist thought to focus on the more spiritualist Mahayana practices, for instance. He ignores the possibility, recognized by some, that several prominent Sufi mystics come very close to denying to the "divine" any of the characteristics that make it properly divine. The amazing thing about the mystical tradition is that it repeatedly de-emphasizes and even annihilates everything bad about religious practice and belief.
The mystical tradition's view of God also bears so strong a resemblance to Spinoza's discussion of God that one might ask of it the same things one asks of Spinoza: is he a pantheist, a panentheist, an atheist? After centuries of debate, nobody's figured out with any certainty what Spinoza is. And that's that!
The contemplative tradition is one that needs to be taken account of. It is, instead, largely ignored (or, even more bizarrely, equated to the dangerous and dark forms of religious practice more common among humans). Why? Because it leads one to mysterious places and we want to pretend we know everything with certainty.
To end, I'll note that the book contains some unexpected surprises, including Huxley's various interesting, if not (in my mind) accurate, readings of various poems and the like. Also some psychological and philosophical perspectives on mind that I had never encountered before.
Three of the many quotations I underlined:
"Do not build up your views upon your senses and thoughts, do not base your understanding upon your senses and thoughts; but at the same time do not seek the Mind away from your senses and thoughts, do not try to grasp Reality by rejecting your senses and thoughts. When you are neither attached to, nor detached from, them, then you enjoy your perfect unobstructed freedom, then you have your seat of enlightenment"- Huang-Po
"With the lamp of word and discrimination one must go beyond word and discrimination and enter upon the path of realization"- Lakavatara Sutra
"Nothing burns in hell but the self"- Theologia Germanica...more