Who Are We?

April 3, 1955

A lecture held at the Vedanta Society of Southern California’s Hollywood temple, in which Huxley goes into some depth about core issues about human existence, asking the primal question: what is our true nature?



My subject today is Who Are We? Now, of course, in its totality, this is an enormous subject. But to answer it in its fullness we would have to consider the relationships between men and nature—their natural environment, animate and inanimate—or between men (individual men) and other individuals and groups and whole societies, between individuals living now and the past time, between cultural traditions of their own society and of other societies. And this, of course, would be a theme for many lectures given by many people over a long period of time. But what I propose to speak about today is a limited field: what are we? What are we, that is to say, in relation to our own minds and bodies or—seeing that there isn’t a single word, let’s use it in a hyphenated form—our own mind-bodies? What are we in relation to this total organism in which we live?


Well, this seems pretty obvious. We go about, we live our life, and this seems to present no problem at all. But actually, this is simply because familiarity has bred a kind of contempt of the problem altogether. The moment we begin thinking about it in any detail we find ourselves confronted by all kinds of extremely difficult, unanswered—and maybe unanswerable—questions. Let us take a few examples.


I say I wish to raise my hand. Well, I raise it. But who raises it? Who is the I who raises my hand? Certainly, it’s not exclusively the I who is standing here talking, the I who signs the checks and has a history behind him, because I haven’t the faintest idea how my hand is raised. All I know is that I expressed a wish for my hand to be raised, whereupon something within myself set to work, pulled the switches with the most elaborate nervous system, and made thirty of forty muscles—some of which contract and some of which relax at the same instant—function in perfect harmony so as to produce this extremely simple gesture. And, of course, when we ask ourselves, “How does my heart beat?” “How do we breathe?” “How do I digest my food?” We haven’t the faintest idea. The whole procedure is left to somebody else. Somebody, incidentally, who is more or less infallible, provided we leave him alone. After all, this is the entire theory of psychosomatic medicine. Most of our diseases, as doctors are coming to see now, are caused by we, ourselves, this personal self, interfering with the functioning of the deeper physiological intelligence which—when it is left in peace and not pushed or deranged by means of negative thought—is, as I have said, almost infallible. And then there are still other, more curious problems, because one could say, well, these are what used to be called the vegetative soul. This—the vegetative soul—is built in, it’s something we inherit, which just does this sort of thing—like digestion and regulating heartbeat—automatically.


But then we have to reflect that there is also another kind of indwelling self which functions in a way entirely different from instinctive ways, which performs what I may call acts of ad-hoc intelligence—acts which have never been done before in the biological history, and yet, which it performs with extraordinary skill without the conscious self being in the least aware of how this is done. And this goes on on levels far below the human. Let me quote an example which most of you must have been familiar with at one time or another: the fact of a parrot imitating a human voice, or imitating the barking of a dog, or imitating laughter. Well, what goes on when a parrot does this sort of thing? Presumably, the parrot has some kind of a conscious life. It hears the voice, it hears the barking or the laughter. And—presumably, in some sort of way corresponding to our wish to do something—it wishes to imitate this. But then, what happens after this? When you come to think of it, it’s one of the most extraordinary things you can imagine. Something incomparably more intelligent than the parrot itself sets to work and proceeds to organize a series of speech organs—sound organs—which are totally different from those of man. After all, man has teeth, a soft palate, a flat tongue. A parrot has a round tongue, a beak, and no teeth. And it proceeds to organize this absolutely different apparatus to reproduce words and laughter so exactly that we are very often deceived by it, and think that what is in fact the parrot talking is the person himself making an utterance.


Well, the more you reflect on this, the stranger it is because, obviously, in the course of evolutionary history, parrots have not been imitating human beings from time immemorial. This is a purely ad-hoc piece of intelligent action carried on by some form of intelligence within the parrot which is quite different, as far as one can see, from the parrot itself. And we see the same problem of imitation comes up in relation to very small children; they way that they will imitate. You make a face at a child and it will imitate the face. Well, again: who is doing the imitation? Somebody within the child is organizing—for the first time in its history; this has never happened before—is organizing a whole mass of muscles connected with an elaborate nervous system to pull this muscle up, this muscle down, let one go, let another be tensed, in order to reproduce this grimace which the child has seen on the face of an adult. Well, this also is a most mysterious thing.


So that what we find, really, is that we—as personalities, as what we like to think of ourselves as being—are in fact only a very small part of an immense manifestation of activity, physical and mental, of which we are simply not aware. We have some control over this inasmuch as some actions being voluntary. We can say “I want this to happen” and somebody else does the work for us. But meanwhile, many actions go on without our having the slightest consciousness of them. And, as I said before, these vegetative actions can be grossly interfered with by our undesirable thoughts—our fears, our greeds, our angers, and so on—which may lead to very serious psychophysical derangements.


Well, the question then arises: how are we related to this? Why is it that we think of ourselves as only this minute part of a totality far larger than we are? A totality which, according to many philosophers, may actually be coextensive with the total activity of the universe? After all, in the West you go back as far as Leibniz with his conception that every monad was potentially omniscient. And in modern times you have the same conception in Bergson, the same conception in William James, both of whom were of opinion that the consciousness that we have is simply a kind of filtering down of some form of universal or cosmic consciousness, narrowed down for the purpose of helping us to survive, biologically, on the surface of this particular planet.


And this leads us, of course, to the whole problem of what is the relation between mind and brain? And again, it’s quite obvious that there is a relationship. At one time it was thought that a thought was just produced by [a] brain—that was a charming phrase used at the end of the eighteenth century: the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile. A remark which is—the more you think of it, the sillier it is because, after all, bile at least is of the same nature as the cells of the liver, whereas thought is of a radically different kind from electrochemical events in the brain. Again: here, both Bergson and James were of opinion that the brain is not productive of thought, but acts—so to speak—as a kind of reducing-valve, preventing us from being too omniscient. Because obviously, if we have to get out of the way of the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, it’s no good being aware of everything that’s going on in the universe—we have to be aware of the approaching bus. And this is what the brain does for us; it narrows the field down so that we can go through life without getting into serious trouble. But—as many people have experienced, and as all the teachers of the great religions have insisted should be the case—we can and ought to open ourselves up and become what, in fact, we have always been from the beginning. That is to say, omniscient—or, anyhow, much more widely knowing in an obscure kind of way than we normally think we are. That we should realize our identity with what James called cosmic consciousness and what, of course, in the East is called the Ātman-Brahman. That the end of life—according in all the great religious traditions—is, of course, the realization that the finite manifests the infinite in its totality. This is, of course, a complete paradox when it’s stated in words. Nevertheless, it is one of the facts of experience for many people—or for some people, at least—and a fact which should be a fact of experience of all.


Now, we have to—let’s go on considering a little more about this problem of how we are related to this deeper Self. The superficial self—the self which we call ourselves, which answers to our names, and which goes about its business—has, of course, a terrible habit of imagining itself to be absolute in some sense. I think we may say that this is a [missing audio]. If we look at it from the metaphysical point of view we can say that this is a mistaken placement of the absolute. We know in an obscure and profound way that, in the depth of our being—what Eckhart calls the Ground of Our Being—we are identical with the divine Ground. But what we—and we wish, of course, to realize this identity. But unfortunately, owing to the ignorance in which we live—partly a cultural product, partly a biological and voluntary product—owing to this ignorance, we tend to look at ourselves, this wretched little self, as being absolute. We either worship ourselves as such, or we project some magnified image of the self in an ideal or a goal which falls short of the highest ideal or goal, and proceed to worship that. Hence, of course, the appalling dangers of idolatry. When one reads in the Ten Commandments the warning against idolatry, I remember, as a boy, wondering why such a fuss should be made about this because, after all, who cares whether people take off their hats to a statue or not?


But, of course, it’s much profounder than this. Idolatry is, in fact, the worship of a part, especially the self or projection of the self, as though it were the absolute totality. And as soon as this happens general disaster occurs. After all, nothing is clearer in this present mid-century, midpoint of the nineteenth century, than that the religion of the twentieth—(did I say nineteenth century? I beg your pardon… wish-fulfillment. twentieth century!)—that the religion of the twentieth century is, in fact, idolatrous nationalism. But there are denominal religions—Christianity, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so on—but in fact, if you inquire what the actions of people mean, in fact it’s perfectly clear that the real religion is nationalism: that we worship the national state, that, in fact, we make use of the traditional religions to buttress the national state, and that new religions like communism are also used in the service of this great national idolatry. I mean, actually, Karl Marx made a grave mistake in underrating nationalism. He seems to have imagined that, under the influence of socialist and communist doctrines, the masses of the people would give up nationalism. Not at all! He never foresaw what has in fact happened: that communist and socialist doctrines have become the servants of nationalism, the instruments of a particular nationalism just in the same way in which, I’m afraid, it looks as though orthodox Christianity and orthodox Mohammedanism and orthodox Judaism are fast becoming the instruments of their respective Western, Middle Eastern, or Jewish nationalism. This is one of the grave tragedies and, of course, it confirms the profound wisdom which we find in the Old Testament, condemning idolatry as being a thing of unutterable danger.


Well, as I say—return to the individual. He, of course, worships himself or—if he thinks he’s altruistic—he’s what may be called an [???]-egoist: he worships some prediction of himself. And in this absolutization of himself he is, I think, assisted by the fact that he is a creature with a language. Now, we can never overestimate the importance of language in the life of human beings. Actually, that which causes us to be human rather than [???] the apes is our ability to speak. This has given us the power to create a social heredity so that we can accumulate the knowledge amassed in past times, and has given us the power to analyze experience which comes to us in a very chaotic way, and to make sense of it for our particular biological and social purposes. As I say, this is the greatest gift which man has ever received or given himself: the gift of language.


But we have to remember that although language is absolutely essential to us, it can also be absolutely fatal because we use it wrongly. If we analyze our processes of living we find that, I imagine, at least fifty percent of our life is spent in the universe of language. We are like icebergs, floating in a sea of immediate experience but projecting into the air of language. And, I suppose—I think we’re about 910 or 45 underwater and 15 above—but I would say we are considerably more than that above; I should say we are the best part of fifty percent, and I think some people are about eighty percent above in the world of language, but they virtually never have a direct experience. But they live entirely in terms of concepts. And, of course, this is inevitable. I mean, when we see a rose we immediately say, “a rose.” I mean, we do not say, “I see a very delicate shading, a mere roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks.” We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept and, of course, this was—I mean, in the history of art this has happened not infrequently: that painters who have passed from conceptual representation of the world to direct representation have been thought completely insane. It’s difficult for us to imagine now, but for about thirty years the impressionists were regarded as mad and as being absolutely false to nature when, in point of fact, they were the only painters at that period who were absolutely true to nature. They painted exactly what they saw and didn’t bother about the concepts in terms of which other painters did their seeing and their painting.


And, as I say, we cannot help living to a very large extent in terms of concepts, and we have to do so because immediate experience is so chaotic and so immensely rich that, in mere self-preservation, we have to use the machinery of language to sort out what is of utility for us—what, in any given context, is of importance—and to, at the same time, to try to understand. Because, obviously, it is only in terms of language that we can understand what is happening. We make generalizations, and we go into higher and higher degrees of abstraction which permit us to comprehend what we’re up to, which we certainly wouldn’t if we didn’t have language. And in this way it is an immense boon which we could not possibly do without.


But language has its limitations and has its traps. To start with, every language has been developed for specifically biological purposes in order to help men to cope with life on the surface of this planet. And most languages are remarkably poor in terms, above all, expressing the inner life of man, and also terms which would describe the continuousness of experience. It’s a very significant fact that, if we have to talk about the universe as a continuum, we cannot do so in terms of any of the existing languages. It has to be done in terms of the calculus, a special language invented for the express purpose for talking about the world as a continuum. We cannot do it in terms of ordinary language. Well, as the world is a continuum, one sees immediately that ordinary language does deceive us all the time. It is one of the reasons why we have this mania—so frequently stressed in all the oriental texts—of thinking of ourselves and of every object in the world as being separate and self-subsistent when, in fact, of course, they’re all part of a universal One. And, unfortunately, the nature of language being what it is, we can’t get ’round this without paying a great deal of attention, carefully making ourselves aware of what we are doing and thinking when we use language. This is the only way of bypassing the intrinsic defects of language.


Well, added to the intrinsic defects there are all kinds of traps which we lead ourselves into by taking language too seriously. This, of course—we’ve been constantly warned against this. St. Paul is full of it; he speaks about the “newness of the spirit,” the “oldness of the letter,” “the letter killeth, the spirit giveth life.” And this, of course, is absolutely true. If we take the letter too seriously we actually prevent ourselves from having certain types of direct experience, which St. Paul was describing in terms of the word “spirit.” So that what we have to do is to be profoundly aware of the language we are using, not to mistake the word for the thing. In the terms of Zen Buddhism, we have to be constantly aware that the finger which points at the Moon is not the Moon. In general, we think that the pointing finger—the word—is the thing we point at. And, of course, if you look at almost any literature, philosophy, or religion you will find this again and again: this obsession with words as though they were things. This mania for—after all, in reality, words are simply the signs of things. But for many people—many people treat things as though they were the signs and illustrations of words. When they see a thing they immediately think of it as just being an illustration of a verbal category which, of course, is absolutely fatal—again: because this is not the case. And yet, we cannot do without words. We have to—the whole of life is, after all, a process of walking on a tightrope: if you don’t fall one way, you fall on the other, and each way is equally bad. We can’t do without language, and yet, if we take language too seriously we’re in an extremely bad way and we somehow have to keep going on this knife-edge—every action of life is a kife-edge—being aware of the dangers and doing our best to keep out of it.


Well, I think some progress has been made in recent years in the analysis of language. I mean, this is actually one of the great pieces of intellectual progress of the last 50 years, I would say: the linguistic analysis, the semantics which became extremely popular at one time, and then the logical positivists and so on who’ve done very valuable work on the whole of the new development of logics since Boole and Peano and Russell. All this is of immense importance because it does permit anybody who wishes to do so to understand the pitfalls which lie within this necessary and vital medium of language.


Of course, the logical positivists went a great deal too far. I mean, they got to a point of saying that if you couldn’t—in terms of language—make a sentence which was logically foolproof, then the question asked was meaningless. But this is not true. This is actually a way, very often, of evading the question. There are plenty of questions which it may be one can never frame in terms of a sentence which shall be logically correct and to make linguistic sense. I mean, take a question like “Is the soul immortal?” I’m quite sure that a logical positivist would have no difficulty in saying that these words are perfectly meaningless. But at the same time, the question still has a significance even though we cannot frame it in any form of words which are available to us in such a way that it will make logical sense. And I do think that the logical positivists have evaded many difficulties simply by saying that questions which, in fact, have a meaning have no meaning because they have no meaning merely in terms of words. They have a meaning on another level. And one of the problems, of course, of any kind of spiritual or intellectual or moral development is to get beyond the merely verbal level to this level of immediate experience. We have, again, to combine these two things, to walk on this tightrope, to have the experience to be able to analyze it in terms of language, at the same time to be able to drop the language and to go on into the experience. It is a very, very delicate and difficult task, as, of course, every aspect of human life is delicate and difficult.


Well, we must briefly consider contemporary education—in fact, education as it’s always been, as far as I can see—which is, of course, predominantly verbal. Children are taught an enormous number of things in terms of words. Practically all teaching is verbal. And, I mean, if you look, for example, at what are called the liberal arts—well, the liberal arts are a little better than they were in the Middle Ages, but in the Middle Ages the liberal arts were entirely verbal. The only one of the liberal arts which was not verbal—well, there were two; I beg your pardon. One was astronomy and the other was music. There was some faint attempt to look at the outside world in astronomy, and even in music it wasn’t too much of the non-verbal, because music was regarded as a science and not as a pleasure. It was entirely the theory of music that was taught. And, fortunately, of course, in the Middle Ages, there were a number of mitigations to this. I mean, the life was so extremely and so often very unpleasantly close to nature that one couldn’t be wholly verbal. I mean, the amount of cold and dirt and wild animals and so on kept people on their toes in a way which, in a modern city, they are not. I mean, we can live in a modern city as though we were living in a kind of paradise of words, or in those embodiments of words, which are machines and gadgets. And this, I think, is a very unwholesome situation.


Well, as I say, most education is predominantly verbal and suffers, therefore, from the defects which the great religious teachers like St. Paul have pointed out: that the letter killeth—it is a stultifying and dangerous thing. And one of the strangest facts, I think, about education is that although for hundreds of years we’ve been talking about mens sana in corpore sano: the healthy mind in a healthy body—we really haven’t paid any serious attention to the problem of training the mind-body, the instrument, which has to do with the learning and which has to do with the living. Children [???] compulsory games and little riddle, and so on, but this really doesn’t amount, in any sense, to a training of the mind-body. We haul this verbal stuff into them without in any way preparing the organism—which is given this pabulum—without preparing it for life or for understanding its position in the world: who it is, where it stands, how it’s related to the universe. This is one of the oddest things. And we don’t even prepare the child to have any proper relation with its own mind-body.


And this is all the more remarkable because, Professor Dewey—who’s, after all, the prophet of modern education—was extremely preoccupied with this problem. I’ll briefly touch on this because I don’t think it’s very important: Dewey had a first-hand knowledge of the work of F. M. Alexander, who’s an Australian who’s still alive—he’s in his eighties now—who developed this remarkable technique by which he showed that the proper mental and physical functioning could not take place unless there was a certain normal and natural relationship between the trunk and the neck and head. And Dewey speaks of this in several passages. He said that Alexander’s Methods of training stand to education in general as education in general stands to ordinary life—which shows the enormous importance he attached to it. And yet, although literally millions of teachers now look up to Dewey as the great prophet, practically none that I know of have ever paid the smallest attention to this fact, to this method, which Dewey regarded as a capital importance. I think one of the reasons is—for this—is that this particular kind of teaching doesn’t fall into any academic pigeonholes. This is one of the great problems of education and academic life: everything takes place in a pigeonhole, and when you get a thing like the Alexander work—or, indeed, like any system of general synthesis—who looks after it? It’s neither biology, nor psychology, nor sociology, nor history, nor anything. Therefore, it doesn’t exist. What is obviously needed in academic institutions now—I mean, the pigeonholes must be there because we can’t avoid the specialization. But what we do need is a few people who run about on the woodwork between the pigeonholes, and peep into all of them and see what can be done, and who are not closed to disciplines which don’t happen to fit into any of the categories considered as valid by the present educational system.


And I don’t think I can go into any other examples of methods of training the mind-body, but I think I can risk a generalization here. Many of such methods, of course, have been empirically devised for particular purposes. And if you examine them all you will find that they are all illustrations of one single principle, which is that, in some way—we’re back again at the paradox—in some way, we have to combine relaxation with activity. Take the piano teacher, for example: he always says, “Relax, relax.” Well, how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? But they have to relax. The singing teacher says exactly the same thing, the golf pro says exactly the same thing, the tennis pro. And we get, then, of course, into the realm of spiritual exercises: the person who teaches mental prayers is exactly the same thing. We have, somehow, to combine relaxation with activity. Well, I think if we take the analysis one stage further—going back to what we said originally about the personal conscious self being a kind of small island in the midst of an enormous area of consciousness—what has to be relaxed is the personal self, the self that tries too hard, that thinks it knows what’s what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the powers—these multiple powers at work within the deeper and wider self—may come through and function as they should. In all psychophysical skills we have this curious fact of the law of reversed effort: the harder we try, the worse we do the thing. And we have, therefore, always to learn this paradoxical art of combining relaxation, maximum relaxation of the surface self, with the maximum activity of the lower selves—or higher selves, whichever you like it to be; the not-selves—which we carry about with us and which give us our being, actually.


And this, as I say, is the principle which every one of these empirical discoveries in every field of psychophysical skill quite clearly illustrates: we have to learn, so to speak, to get out of our own light because, with our personal self—this idolatrously worshiped self—we are continuously standing in the light of this wider self—this not-self, if you like—which is associated with us and which… this standing in the light prevents… we eclipse this illumination from within. And the whole point in all the activities of life—from the simplest physical activities to the highest intellectual and spiritual activities—our whole effort must be to get out of our own light, yet we mustn’t abdicate our personal conscious self. And here, again, we’re up against a paradox and a tightrope: we can’t let go and just go to sleep and hope this will happen, we have, somehow, to permit this to come up, and yet to organize it with the surface conscious mind in a way which shall be useful to ourselves and to others. It is—it’s what in theological terms is called “cooperating with grace.” And don’t let’s forget: grace exists on every level. I mean, there is what may be called animal grace, which is the grace of normal-functioning perfect health, which we’re constantly interfering with—hence all the psychosomatic disorders. Well, we must cooperate with this grace, there are various things which can be done to cooperate with it. Similarly, we must cooperate with what may be called intellectual grace. There are, after all—as everybody who has worked in any field knows quite well—there are hunches and inspirations which come through in the greatest works of art. These are the inspirations of genius. But as has been remarked, genius is both inspiration and perspiration: you have to work at these things, otherwise they are no good. And to anybody who wants to read a most illuminating study of this problem I recommend F. W. H. MyersHuman Personality, which I’m glad to say has at last been reprinted. The chapter on genius there is of first-rate importance and he illustrates very clearly, by many examples, of this necessary collaboration with what may be called intellectual grace.


Well, and then about that—we have to use these special metaphors—is what may be called spiritual grace, is the awareness of the total universal consciousness, the awareness of God, the awareness that the finite is in some sort a manifestation of the total infinite. And again, we have to get out of the way and un-eclipse ourselves to permit the light to come through. And these, as I say, seem to me be all extremely important facets of education which have been wholly neglected. I don’t think that in ordinary schools you could teach what are called spiritual exercises, but you could certainly teach children how to use themselves in this relaxedly active way, how to perform these psychophysical skills without the frightful burden of overcoming the law of reversed effort. You could probably teach them how to greatly increase their perceptive powers. This has been done, for example, in a most remarkable way by Professor Renshaw at the University of Ohio, who’s immensely increased both the powers of perception and the powers of memory by applying Gestalt psychology in a perfectly sensible and simple way. Why children are not taught this one cannot imagine. It’s just—as I say—it doesn’t happen to have entered into any of the academic categories, and so it has never been brought into the general system.


Well, now, we come to the final problem. The problem of becoming aware of what James called the cosmic consciousness, of the Ātman-Brahman, of the unifying principle. In the Chinese conception, the universe is perceived as the yin and the yang: the negative and the positive principles, which are equally valid in the world—after all, we have it in the Indian philosophy too: the goddess of self-creation is also the goddess of destruction, the negative is correlative to the positive—but the two are reconciled in this fundamental principle, the Tao. And this, I think, is the basis of all mystical religion. You see it very clearly in the writings of Eckhart just as you do in the oriental philosophy. And the practical problem arises: how do we get ourselves into a position where we can collaborate with grace? How can we open ourselves up to the grace of seeing God—to use Eckhart’s word—seeing God with the same eye that God sees us? How do we do this?


Well, this, of course, is an immense problem, and I think innumerable ways have been developed to help people to achieve this final end of man. Some are satisfactory, others, it seems to me, are not. On general principles I would say that the means employed for this purpose should resemble the end envisaged. For example, the end envisaged is a form of consciousness entirely free from the partiality of individual ego-consciousness. We are partial, of course: we see the world in a partial way because we see ourselves as absolutely distinct, and virtually divine and absolute as ourselves. And this is, of course, a perfectly partial and perfectly untrue way of looking at the universe. I mean, if I’m desperately preoccupied with myself it means that I’m ignoring the immense majority of all the events in the universe. Naturally, we can’t know all the events in the universe, but we must be aware that this totality of things is going on and that this partial view is, of course, a totally warped and self-stultifying view. I mean, we try to help ourselves in this way, but he that finds his life shall lose it and he who loses his life shall find it. All these paradoxical sayings which keep cropping up in every religion refer to this same thing: this necessity of getting rid of the essentially partial, limited, ego-centered view of the world.


And, as I say, I think in order to cultivate this point of view, two things are necessary. First of all, we must obviously have an intellectual preparation. It’s no good saying you can work without any theology at all. You have to have some theology, and it’s rather important it be correct. And the, I think, this basic—what may be called the basic theology of the identity of the finite with the infinite, the total manifestation of the infinite in the finite, the identity of Saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa, the one being expressed totally in every particular aspect of the many—this is the end. And this we have to—seems to me—we have to approach through, first of all, a cultivation of a rumination of this doctrine—which is a doctrine to many people not familiar—but I think we have to keep ourselves continually remembering that this is the case. We have to remind ourselves in the very beautiful words of Matthew Arnold, where he says that, to God:

Every minute in its race

Crowd as we will its neutral space

Is but a quiet watershed

Whence, equally, the Seas of Life and Death are fed.


That minutes, in themselves, are essentially neutral. That both the positive and the negative, both life and death, go on in it. But then, this… God sends his reign upon the just and the unjust. That there is an essentially equal you of the world. Although, naturally, as biological creatures we cannot accept our own destruction, we have to—as intellectual creatures—to admit that the negative powers have exactly the same right to exist as the positive powers. Although, of course—again, another paradox: we have to do our best to preserve the positive powers in every way we can; the positive aspects of the world. But intellectually we must be aware that every moment is “a quiet watershed whence, equally, the seas of life and death are fed.” And this is a sort of reminder we have to go on making. Of course, it won’t necessarily console us in moments of grief or crisis, but it’s a preparation. It prepares the ground for what is the final end: this seeing of the world with the impartial eye of the divine intelligence.


Well, then there is the problem of particular spiritual exercises. This is a very difficult problem. My own feeling is that, in some systems of spiritual exercises, too much emphasis has been laid on the use of the imagination and of concentration. I mean, a particular form is imagined, or even—in the higher forms of meditation—a formlessness is imagined. But this is the imposition of something upon the natural process of life. I mean, this is actually in an attempt to get to a non-dualistic outlook. It is, actually, an assertion of dualism. I mean, that somebody is imposing this upon the flow of life. And again, I would think even that these intense practices of concentration—although they may produce very remarkable psychical results—are not the best way of getting to this entirely impartial view because, again, this is a suppression of an enormous area of life. I mean, that you are suppressing with one part of your mind something which is going on in another part of the mind. And it has always seemed to me—I may be wrong—that the most variable spiritual exercise is to permit thoughts to come—these often pointless and foolish thoughts which occur—but just to say, “Do what you like, but I will pay attention to you.” And if one does this—this is a very curious phenomenon—if one pays attention to the irrelevances which keep cropping up in the mind, the irrelevances stop of themselves for a short time. And for a moment you do get this sense of a consciousness of consciousness, an awareness of just being aware without any particular content. And which—this is, of course, not enlightenment or anything like it, but it is, I think, a variable preparation which will permit this impartial view of the world to be realized in its own good time. We cannot, of course, press this thing. Nothing we can do will actually produce this thing. All we can do is to get out of our own light, to use our will to will ourselves away. Eckhart has, again, another curious remark: he says, “God and God’s will are one. I and my will are two.” And we have, somehow, to use our will to get rid of our will in order to collaborate with this totality of the universe, to accept events as they come in this impartial spirit, yet doing everything we can to promote the positive side of life.


Well, I think I’d better draw this to a close now—when one could go on talking about this subject because it’s immense for a very long time—even about this limited area of the subject I’ve chosen, one could go on talking a very long time. But I think I’ve said enough to make it clear that the principles, at any rate, are simple. That we, as we think of ourselves, are a very small part, even of the physiological and subconscious life immediately available to us. That we don’t control our bodies, we just—and we don’t even control our thoughts. After all, the popular language is very clear on that subject: we say a thought came to me, this flashed upon me. We don’t say I invented this thought. We accept what comes to us, and we have to learn how to take what is given by something which is not ourselves in any sense that we think of ourselves. And this, as I say, applies to every level of activity from the simplest physiological acts to acts of psychophysical skill going up to the most complicated ones, like playing the violin and playing the piano, and so on.


And finally, it’s exactly the same principle which holds good in the religious life, where the aim is somehow to get out of the light, get out of what the Quakers call the Inner Light; we have to get out of the inner light and let it shine. And most of our lives, of course, are spent eclipsing this light with all possible means at our disposal. And the methods of doing this—I mean, they’re fairly clear. I mean, we have to live a life with the minimum of negative emotions, the minimum of malice, the obvious moral commandments have to be fulfilled. And then there is this intellectual preparation of the seeding that the nature of the universe is such that our pretensions to be absolute and separate are ridiculous—not only ridiculous, but fatal. We have to remember this all the time, as often as we can. And, I think we have to do this preparation of the—in one way or another—preparing the mind to accept this up-rush or down-rush—whichever you like to call it—of the greater not-self, which we can also spell as Self with a large S, the Ātman-Brahman. This, I think, is as much as I can say at the present time.



Now, the gentleman [???] talk about the gentleman having an idea of what he meant [???] didn’t you have an idea that what you meant—what you, in your talk, talk about as having certain people [???] themselves as running around the woodwork and saying [???] thinking together different [???] and trying to develop a unitary approach. I wonder if you could expand what must be on your mind about that, and possibly offer some way that might be realized?



There have been, of course, cases of this. I mean, take the development of the ecology, for example, as a discipline of biology. I mean, this is, actually, a thing on the borderland of many different disciplines which now—I’m glad to say—is a discipline of its own and is an immensely fruitful idea. I mean, I would regard ecology as one of the most fruitful modern ideas. And in this way I would think that a number of things could be brought together. I mean, sociology—I should think—would be considerably enlivened and intensified by bringing in certain psychological and religious factors more than has been done now. And then this whole question of, I mean, of the training, say, of the psychophysical organism: it involves theoretical considerations of physiology, psychology, even sociology and metaphysics, perhaps. And, I mean, you have to have theoretical [???] and [???] physiotherapy and actual gymnastic training, which would [???] again quite different. And it seems to me very [???] place for a thing like [???].



Mr. Huxley, now what about the sublimation of things that would escape…



You mean the sublimation of violence, and things like that?



Of things that would escape, not necessarily physical. Or escapes [???] when I’m speaking of sublimation of the things that we would escape from.



Well, an example of… let me see, what sort of…



I was talking [???] the example from you.



[???] have it in your mind. I don’t have it in my mind.



Well, I’ll try to put it a bit more clearly if that’s possible. We seem to be infected with various that affect us unpleasantly. And we would, if we can, get away from those things. And our escape is usually of a mental nature; we don’t actually escape. We just [???] terribly [???] from to come back to again. Now, when I use the term ‘sublimation’ I speak of a term like in the sense of Freud [???] to sublimate, to change the aspect for the mental image of it. To change the mental image of the thing that we would escape from. Is that clear?



Yeah. I mean… I see what—I mean, there are obviously forms of compensation. When we think [???] acts of compensatory images then, I suppose, there are changes in attitude where… I mean, it should be ideally possible [???] not to regard this as a mitigative [???] number of things that we do so regard [???]. This is an ideal condition, I would say.



How do you react to the idea that [???]. Now, how would you react to the idea about taking the [???] all-ness and the oneness of God as being a point of departure for unifying the various fields of knowledge and [???]? In other words, if we can begin, again, interpret not only who we are, but what the chair is, and what [???] is, [???] the next galaxy, from the standpoint that it’s a manifestation [???] of the One or the divine, would we not, then, have the proper fundamental frame of reference from which to begin to unify?



Well, of course, that’s the danger of such a over-comprehensive frame of reference. I mean, this may be the ultimate frame of reference, but the difficulty with such a frame of reference is that it’s exceedingly difficult to do anything with it in certain cases. I mean, it seems to me you have to start with smaller variants of your indication, because if you start immediately with the ultimate, well, then it’s exceedingly difficult to see how you’re going to apply this in a given case. Whereas, if you start at an earlier level, I mean, then you can fit this into journal of metaphysical theory. This is the difference between theoretical and applied science, pure science and applied science. I mean, there’s pure metaphysics and then what may be called applied metaphysics, which I would say is mystical practices, and religion, and so on. But the pure metaphysics, taken as such, can’t do very much for you. I mean, it’s not—to use the word which is so frequently used in modern physics—it’s not an operational conception. Although it may have a very great value on a theoretical basis, you then have to find a field in which you can apply these ideas, and necessarily apply it on a smaller scale, and see how it fits and works back into the original conception. I mean, I think your concept is correct, but I don’t know quite what to do with it. That’s the point. You’d have to start on a smaller scale.



That begs the question: [???] looking what to do with something like that when [???] the answer to begin with?



Well, I mean—we have to know, of course. But, I mean, can you know without doing? I mean, after all, theoretically you can say that God is the One. But as Swamiji’s been talking here for some time, as you know, that to realize this fact there are many things you must do. The nature of your knowing depends upon the nature of your being, and the nature of your being depends, in some measure at least, on the nature of your doing, the nature of your thinking. So that you can’t separate them. You have to have some point from which these extremely wide generalizations can come down and be handled in some way or other. I mean, actually, processes of meditation may be described as methods of handling an immensely wide metaphysical conception which, in itself, can’t do very much good because it’s essentially a theoretical conception.



Do you think that the development of a completely new language [???] premise of the oneness and all-ness of God [???] conduct in which the whole mass of terminology would be retranslated into [???] the aim of the translator into a divine language: how does God think? What language does God use in his thoughts? [???] his language?



We’re getting extraordinarily interesting experiments! [???] anybody would talk it, but [???] a few pages written in this, which would be extremely enlightening. I mean, there’s no question that you can do the most intensive. Fascinatingly interesting to see what can be learned in terms of an entirely different type of language.

Aldous Huxley


Document Options
Find out more