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Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality, a review by Patrick Horn
Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality, a review by Patrick Horn

Aldous Huxley is among the most important thinkers of the 20th century. He was a key figure among a network of intellectuals and writers interested in transcendence and transformation, and he enormously influenced the Human Potential Movement, the 1960s psychedelic counterculture, the New Age Movement, and deep ecology.

In Aldous Huxley and Alternative Spirituality, Jake Poller reviews Huxley’s investigations and experiments in sociology and mysticism in comparison to the differing perspectives on similar themes in his fiction, including Brave New World (Chatto & Windus, 1932) and Island (Chatto & Windus,1962). Poller skillfully shows the modern literary influence of H.G. Wells and D.H. Lawrence on Huxley’s early aesthetic and also defines a cultic milieu for the Perennial Philosophy, which is contrasted to historical antecedents and similar variations. The author draws heavily from the literary criticism of David Bradshaw and cites Wouter J. Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal in positing a Western esoteric tradition. Finally, Poller situates Huxley in a sequence of mind-altering drug champions that include P.D. Ouspensky and Aliester Crowley as predecessors, scientific researchers Humphrey Osmond and Albert Hoffman, and popularizers such as Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna.

Huxley critiqued the aims of Gerald Heard’s Open Conspiracy Club, which envisioned a collective eschatology in Western psychology when an elite group of scientists and industrialists displace nationalist states with a rational, technocratic planetary government. During the first phase, the vague beginnings of organization sought to define the aims with proposals and propaganda, intimate contact with educational reformers, and actual development of the Earth’s resources in a global economy and world banking system. Huxley, who was a member of Heard’s Peace Pledge Union, worried about the dangers of machines intended to elevate humanity instead enslaving people, and he also warned about the possibility of exploitation when humans are trained (and drugged) to be obedient workers and predictable consumers. Huxley believed that peace is not possible without a religious philosophy agreeable to all nations. He rejected behavioralism in favor of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism and proposed a Minimum Working Hypothesis and FourFundamental Tenets of the Perennial Philosophy, which is not universal (found in all religions at all times) but recurs in several traditions. Huxley was intrigued by examples of socially and spiritually mandated forms of sexual promiscuity, and his ideal politics would make the world safe for mystical experience.

Poller traces the varieties of perennialism starting with definitions: “spiritual” is neither secular nor is it institutional religion; “alternative” is not mainstream culture. Mysticism (as defined by William James and Rudolf Otto) is not esotericism (a Renaissance synthesis and polemic Other to Enlightenment discourse) which is not occultism (like Theosophy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn).

Moreover, Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy is historically distinct from both De Perennis Philosophia (the Vatican librarian’s response to Luther’s protest) and also Marsilia Ficino’s Prisca Theologia (a Platonic worldview derived from the wisdom mythologized in legends of Moses, Hermes Trismegistus, Zoroaster, Orpheus, etc). The late 19th-century and early 20th-century cultic milieu was strongly determined by three inspirations: The Secret Doctrine by Madame Helena P. Blavatsky (Theosophical Publishing Society, 1875), which proposed hidden masters attempting to reconcile all sects and nations under a common system of ethics (later interpretations by Annie Besant and Alice Bailey expanded this concept into administrative offices of a planetary government); Traditionalism (represented by Rene Guenon, Julius Evola, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Frithjof Schuon) which claimed to transmit a superior but partially corrupted and incomplete ancient knowledge which is inaccessible except through initiation rites similar to the Sufis and Freemasons; and, Neo-Vedanta which emerged from the cross-pollination of Unitarian Christianity and American Transcendentalism and produced a “New Dispensation” that claimed right guidance and practice will enable correct perception of the truth which has been concealed or distorted.

Huxley drafted the prospectus for Heard’s Trabuco College of Prayer, an intentional community imitating the charity and compassion of religious orders. It was imagined as an undogmatic, nonhierarchical, nondenominational club for mystics and rest center for social workers. It was open to maladjusted youth seeking to regain control of themselves and return to an integrated life in the world. Heard was interested in the regeneration of the individual (168), but he also believed the only hope for our derelict civilization is in the emergence of Neo-Brahmins who have attained the next stage of evolution and assumed leadership of humanity (158). Heard practiced an idiosyncratic discipline seeking a telepathic connection to an impersonal psychic field which had no resemblance to Patanjali’s yoga or Swami Vivekananda’s program (151). Huxley visited six times, once with Jiddu Krishnamurti who was disturbed and declined to return. Heard judged his attempt to be a failure and donated the compound to Swami Prabhavananda. Huxley’s interest pivoted toward tantra, which Poller compares to descriptions by Heinrich Zimmer, John Woodroofe, and Hugh Urban.

Huxley believed human progress results not from an evolutionary leap or paranormal training, but through cultivating existing potential aided by pharmacology. Heard also promoted LSD as an educational tool to right-wing Libertarian groups and introduced the drug to the engineers at the Sequoia Seminars who were in pursuit of a man-machine symbiosis through computer-augmented and artificial intelligence. Huxley regarded LSD as “moksha-medicine” (liberation) and the cure-all for modern problems. He took psilocybin at MIT with Leary, who dosed members of the Vedanta Center in Boston using Ganges water in a chalice. Huxley advised Leary to “turn on the elites” and advocated appropriate set-and-setting, but Allen Ginsburg persuaded Leary to reach out to the public instead. The movement that emerged was chaotic and dangerous. 

There was a time when perennialism flourished in the counterculture (through Alan Watts) and in the academy (through Mircea Eliade). However, this important branch of intellectual history and associated figures (including Carl J. Jung, Joseph Campbell, and Huston Smith as exemplars in their respective fields) was stigmatized and rejected in the postmodernist demolition project. Poller rescues Huxley from the disdain heaped on his “synthetic Yoga-Buddhic-Christian religion” and shows the connection between Huxley’s experiments in lived ideology as reflected in his creative literary achievements. Poller’s compelling book enhances appreciation and deepens respect for Huxley’s fiction and visionary mysticism. About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick Horn is a Public Scholar and the Membership Committee Chairman for the Religion Communicators Council Board of Governors. Date of Review: July 30, 2020 About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jake Poller, Ph.D. (2010), Queen Mary University of London, is the editor of Altered Consciousness in the Twentieth Century (Routledge, 2019). 

Buddhist Times News – Ladakh’s Covid-19 Numbers low, Say Experts
Buddhist Times News – Ladakh’s Covid-19 Numbers low, Say Experts

By  — Shyamal Sinha

The first COVID-19 case in India was detected on January 30, the same day that WHO declared it a public health emergency of international concern. India went into lockdown almost two months later.

With 1,327 cases and six fatalities in four months, the trajectory of COVID-19 in the cold desert region of Ladakh validates the view that people living at altitudes of 3,000 metres and above are less likely to get infected compared to those in lowland areas, say experts here.

On June 15, the average testing rate in India was 4,972 per million. Ladakh had the highest testing rate at 38,170 per million, followed by Goa (27,568 per million), Jammu and Kashmir (20,400 per million), and Delhi (14,693 per million).

The recovery rate of the disease in the union territory is 82 per cent, substantially higher than the national average of 64.24 per cent. While 1,067 have recovered, there are 254 active cases, according to the Directorate of Health Services on Tuesday. All are under medical supervision in hospitals, corona care centres or in home isolation and none are on ventilator.

“The good news and the most surprising finding was the timely recovery of all infected patients despite the fact that majority of the patients belong to an area where environmental silicosis is prevalent which impairs lung defence mechanism,” said Tsering Norboo, retired physician and MD of the Ladakh Institute of Prevention. This, he said, led researchers to look at the epidemiology of COVID-19 in other high altitude regions such as Lhasa in Tibet and Wuhan in China.

A recent study, “Does the pathogenesis of SAR-CoV-2 virus decrease at high-altitude?’, by researchers at the University Institute of Cardiology and Respirology of Quebec, Canada, backed the finding. “The finding of COVID-19 pandemic appears to indicate a decrease of prevalence and impact of SARS-Cov -2 infection in populations living at high altitude over 3000m. The result possibly could relate to both physiological and environmental factors,” it said.

High altitude environment, it added, is characterised by dry climate, drastic change in temperature between day and night, and high ultraviolet radiation at heights may act as a sanitiser. UV rays are capable of producing alterations in the molecular bonds of the DNA and RNA (the genetic material of the viruses). “All together, these factors may dramatically reduce ‘survival’ capacity of the virus at high altitude and its virulence. Furthermore, due to lower density of the air and the greater distance between molecules at high altitude, the size of the airborne virus inoculum must be smaller than at sea level,” the study said.

Norboo added that the findings vindicated the belief that studies of high altitude natives, its environment and high altitude adaptation process can give clues to understanding the disease and therefore its treatment. “The recovery rate in Ladakh is very good. The patients we receive have mild symptoms and are not serious ones. Also, we do not have any patient who is on a ventilator,” said Tashi Thinlas, consultant physician at Leh’s SNM Hospital.

Of the recovery rate of 82 per cent, Leh district counts for 64 per cent and Kargil district 94 per cent. Of the six deaths, three have taken place in Kargil and three in Leh. The total number of samples tested till July 28 is 17,976. Since January 31, 73,016 people were screened at airport, intra district and inter district check points.

According to Phuntsog Angchuk, director, Health, Ladakh, the first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in was reported on February 28 in Chushot Gongma village. It was also the first containment zone in the country. “In the initial stages, the patients were all pilgrims returning from Iran. Up to mid- May, only 45 positive cases were reported out of the total sampling of about 3,700. The surge occurred due to the heavy influx of local residents, students and labourers from different parts of the country,” he said.

Though the incidence of the disease is less compared to many other states and union territories in the country – India’s virus tally has mounted to 14,83,156 with 33,425 deaths — there are challenges aplenty. Thinlas said there is a shortage of manpower and quarantine facilities in his hospital.

“We never thought that this virus will hit Ladakh but it came so quickly. There are many administrative lapses,” he said. There is one testing lab in Chushot Gongma. A second one in DIHAR, Leh, is yet to start functioning fully.

“At present, the DIHAR laboratory is not fully functional. Analysis and trials are going on. It’s almost set up and will be functional within a week,” said Sonam Angmo, in-charge of the Chushot lab. Ladakh has also been sending samples to NCDC, Delhi, and PGI Chandigarh to ease the load.

Discussing the challenges ahead, she said winters will be tough. Laboratories need heating facilities as temperatures drop down to below freezing point and machines are very sensitive. According to Norboo, this is the most opportune time for Ladakh to establish a state of the art Molecular Biology Laboratory with the support of the Indian Council of Medical Research and links with institutes such as Pune’s National Institute of Virology and Delhi’s Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology.

In the longer term, what is required are investments in health infrastructure, ensuring continuity of regular health services, and improving health emergency preparedness. India will have to cautiously adjust spending, attract industrial investments to spur growth, and address rising unemployment. But over the next year, India can expect to remain in crisis mode

COVID-19: UN chief outlines path to sustainable, inclusive recovery in Southeast Asia
COVID-19: UN chief outlines path to sustainable, inclusive recovery in Southeast Asia

António Guterres has released his latest policy brief on the crisis, which examines impacts on the 11 countries in the subregion and recommendations for the way forward that put gender equality at the centre of response efforts.

“As in other parts of the world, the health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across Southeast Asia – hitting the most vulnerable the hardest”, he said in a video accompanying the launch.

Sustainable development off track

Southeast Asia comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Viet Nam.

Prior to the pandemic, countries were lagging behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.

Despite strong economic growth, the policy brief reveals that the subregion was beset by numerous challenges including high inequality, low social protection, a large informal sector, and a regression in peace, justice and robust institutions.

Furthermore, ecosystem damage, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality were at “worrying” levels.

Inequalities revealed, tensions surfacing

“The pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities, shortfalls in governance and the imperative for a sustainable development pathway. And it has revealed new challenges, including to peace and security”, the Secretary-General said.

The current situation is leading to recession and social tensions, while several long-running conflicts have stagnated due to stalled political processes.

“All governments in the subregion have supported my appeal for a global ceasefire – and I count on all countries in Southeast Asia to translate that commitment into meaningful change on the ground”, he added.

Regional cooperation praised

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and the pandemic was declared in March. Globally, there have been more than 16.5 million cases, with nearly 657,000 deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Wednesday.

While the disease arrived in Southeast Asia earlier than in the rest of the globe, the UN chief commended governments for acting swiftly to battle the pandemic.

On average, they took 17 days to declare a state of emergency or lockdown after 50 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, according to the policy brief.

“Containment measures have spared Southeast Asia the degree of suffering and upheaval seen elsewhere,” said Mr. Guterres, who also praised cooperation among the countries.

Four critical areas for response

The Secretary-General underlined four areas that will be critical to ensuring recovery from the pandemic leads to a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future for Southeast Asia.

The first – tackling inequality in income, health care and social protection – will require short-term stimulus measures as well as long-term policy changes, he said.

Mr. Guterres also advised countries to bridge the digital divide so that no one is left behind in an ever-more-connected world.

ILO/Marcel Crozet

Factory workers in an assembly line in Cambodia.

Due to the over dependence on coal and other industries of the past, he encouraged “greening” the economy, including to create future jobs.

Upholding human rights, protecting civic space and promoting transparency are all intrinsic to an effective response, he concluded.

Advance gender equality

“Central to these efforts is the need to advance gender equality, address upsurges in gender-based violence, and target women in all aspects of economic recovery and stimulus plans,” the UN chief said.

“This will mitigate the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on women, and is also one of the surest avenues to sustainable, rapid, and inclusive recovery for all.”

Though the challenge is formidable, the Secretary-General underlined the UN’s strong commitment to helping Southeast Asian countries achieve the SDGs and a peaceful future for all.