Monday, October 6, 2014

The Divine Within

'The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment' is a selection of essays and talks by Aldous Huxley originally printed in 'Vedanta and the West', the journal of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, whose editors included Christopher Isherwood (pictured here, left, with Huxley).

They are elegant, lucid and readable, packed with memorable aphorisms. Occasionally Huxley adopts the poise of a Victorian pamphleteer earnest upon us adopting the right course but the dominant tone is of a compassionate man, embarked on a journey towards a deepening spiritual experience. This experience of ultimate reality is embodied in the life of certain saintly practitioners (of every major tradition) and is the standard by which we must all be judged. What matters is realisation and the loving life that flows from this. What matters is responding to our invitation to holiness, wholeness, an invitation that is open to all.

Huxley is never an apologist for religion - in many of its forms it has palpably been a force for evil. What people believe, and what they do with that belief, matters and there is no excusing our ability to believe evil things and make them absolutes. At the same time, there is, at religion's heart, an account of reality that can be verified in each and every person's experience if they are willing to follow the instructions of the mystic(s) and taste and see for themselves.

In a beautiful essay at the book's end, Huxley quietly dissects the differences between a religion of direct experience from religions embodied in myth and religions embodied in conceptual frames and the manipulation of symbol. All three, of course, hang together but validity only fully lies with the former: one that sets down words, is sceptical about absolutist claims and lures one towards a life of perpetual transformation, ever passing on into the deepening mystery of God (to quote St Gregory of Nyssa).

He would not have excused the Islamic State, for example, from being the products of religion. Their barbarity of prideful egotism is one of the options down which a need to believe has always flowed. He would have never imagined too that their nasty pursuit of an absolute idolatry was the final word. The truth in its uncapturable compassion keeps breaking through. (Nor as a pacifist would he have imagined that bombing IS would yield much result either - and would have pointed out that our 'urge to do something' has a long history of deleterious consequence).

Huxley's own journey is deeply fascinating from satirical agnostic, haunted by God, to compassionate witness to human possibility, grounded in God. Both the most articulate imaginer of a dystopia, rooted in the manipulation of our biology, and a most articulate defender of the reality of consciousness being prior from which all else is emergent, including our constraining biology.

Most vividly of all is the clarity of his sentences - they simply unfold both the most complex matters and the most confoundingly simple with grace, wit and style. It is a delight to know that all of his major works remain in print and that they continue to be added to, of which this volume is one.

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