Class I: Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy
We sat together in the dark afternoon of the Dixon Place lounge and discussed Aldous Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy,” our introduction to the Great Books class on mysticism. Huxley’s work is “formulating,” and a perfect introduction to this obscure topic. “Formulating” in that it explores the core of all religions – that place where all religious paths meet – and offers a window into mystical thought. Mysticism being the desire to develop a direct relationship with the Divine Naught.
We moved into a discussion of personal point of view, and how this might affect our understanding of mystical ideas. How does personal psychology – issues of the kind which send us to the therapist’s couch – affect our understanding of spirituality, and our connection to the Divine, the universe and each other? What role does our age, our situation (lonely, happy, frustrated, sad, rich, poor etc.) influence how we think of the question mark at the heart of being. For that is what it is – mysticism – an appreciation and acceptance that at the very heart of ourselves and of the universe, there is no exclamation point, only a question. And nothing else.
Huxley assures that there is a place within each of us that is connected directly to the Divine Naught, and is untouchable by all things “time.” How can we appreciate and access this place?
We talked about how this idea of unbounded, personality-less eternity within terrifies “us” – each and every individual. And that running from this place of nothingness within – that which brings into question our sense of individuality and existential meaning (even existence) – through apps and headphones and cellphones and drink and fantasy leagues and strident politics, is actually symptomatic of a spiritual illness. And our society, riven into differing “camps”, hysterical in affect and unable to deal with our most pressing socio-political problems – is simply an external expression of this existential terror concerning what lies within. “Terrorism” begins in the soul of each and every one of us, and then necessarily metastasizes into the world “out there,” so that we might point at “it,” instead of the real problem, which lies within ourselves. The incongruity of having the Divine and untouchable “naught” at the heart of a being surrounded by our conscious sense of a definitive and individual “I.”
|Dixon Place lounge|
We spoke of purity. What is it? Can one engage with the world and remain “pure?” Is “purity” necessary to attain mystical realization, or acceptance, at least? Does “purity” mean devoting oneself to an ideal, at the expense of one’s own personal path? Gandhi (imprisoned/shot in the head), MLK Jr. (beaten/imprisoned/shot in the head), An San Suu Kyi (imprisoned for years/no family relationships), Nelson Mandela (27 years in prison) all sacrificed themselves for an ideal and succeeded. Countless others – some better known and some unknown – have made the same sacrifice and are forgotten, unknown or barely made a ripple in society’s vast fabric.
Action: We discussed the mysticism of action, a “poor” person’s mysticism. Is it possible that there might be an action that is good for one person without being bad for someone else? How can mystical thought – the single-minded attention to the ultimate truth of the universe – influence our day-to-day life? How we pass a homeless person in the street, how we move through a crowded store or sidewalk, how we decide to spend our moments?
We talked of religion and spirituality. How different paths overlapped, and how they diverged. What would a non-religious mystical practice look like? After all, mysticism – though often paths which are contrary to the religious vessels within which it is held – has historically been nurtured within one or another religious path, though in the end the mystics have more in common with each other (across religious boundaries) than they do with their co-religionists. Just look up the history of the Sufis, the early Hasidic leaders, the Christian Eckhart, even Merton. No religion has much truck for such a way of thinking – it damages the bottom line! The loyalty to the Elders and the $$$ and ¢¢¢ aren’t well tended by the mystic.
What would a religion-less path look like? We spoke of how we “fooled” ourselves into thinking that what we were undertaking a religion-less mystical practice (a sporadic drawing practice, sharing in various ways through teaching or giving, or an occasional yoga and/or meditation practice), though is reality, it was hardly the rigorous, all-encompassing experience of which the mystics speak. To be frank, none of what we discussed rose even to the level of common prayer. So what would a mystical practice look like? And if there is not the dedication and energy for such a thing, could one simply bypass personal salvation or understanding, and act like a mystic in the world? Bringing the kind of open-hearted acceptance occasioned by the best of mystical thought to bear on banal world in which we live?
We talked about the necessity of mystics – of spiritually-guided contemplatives to the health of this world. Both Jewish and Islamic thinkers believe that there are exactly 36 hidden mystics on earth at all times – some of them hidden even to themselves. The functioning of the world itself is dependent on their work. But the world is in a horrible situation and certainly not getting any better. Technology, far from solving our problems, has simply exacerbated our spiritual illness, and our symptoms have grown from local to cancerous: climate change alone might be enough to permanently alter, if not destroy the arc of human existence. Can mysticism still have any relevance or impact?
The few of us in the quiet and dark room on a Monday afternoon in New York’s Lower East Side had absolutely no idea. But we were there to try and wrestle the relevance and meaning of mysticism into our lives, and from there (perhaps) into the lives of one or two others, through our actions.
In the end, we discussed fear. Why did fear drive humans into cell phones, television programs, ever-more absurd reality TV, to cut themselves as middle schoolers and commit mass murder as high schoolers, to dive into divisiveness and blame and hatred and racism and anger? Why? The simple fear of non-being? Of death?
What is meaning? We asked. But of course, asked into the silence, there was no answer forthcoming. And so we took our leave and went out into the humid afternoon, the sky gently spitting and the Lower East Side smelling of rotting rubber, garlic and stale beer.