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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Friday, December 19, 2008

New Conscious Wisdom

Spiritual exploration and the debunking of religion were other features of the 60s that people have tended to either ridicule or denounce, but we seem to be revisiting those themes as well. Before the presidential campaigns kicked into high gear, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote an essay called "The Neural Buddhists." In it he called arguments defending the existence of God against atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins easy, and predicted that the real challenge would "come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits." He continued: "In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That's bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation."

The phrase "neural Buddhists" calls up the ways in which the conclusions of modern neuroscience and a collection of ancient meditation practices developed in Asia have come to similar experiential and empirical conclusions about a number of things, including the ultimate nonexistence of the individual self or surface social ego. Such ideas, of course, are part of a much broader interest in "mysticism" and "spirituality," themselves, perhaps ironically, markers of that quintessentially modern and eminently democratic turn to the individual as the most reliable source of religious authority and insight.

Significantly, the modern, Western use of those terms — mysticism and spirituality — arose in the middle of the 19th century at the exact moment that science, in the form of an ascending Darwinism, was first seriously challenging institutional religion. This, of course, is a cultural war that is still very much with us in the present debates around religion and science, belief and atheism, creationism and evolution. Add to that volatile mix the violent terrorism of radical Islam, the likely role of modern technology and carbon-burning fuels in global warming and the environmental crisis, and the ability of institutions and governments to monitor our thoughts and words in extraordinarily precise and effective ways, and you have all the ingredients for ... what?

What do neural Buddhists, individualist spiritualities, cultural wars over science and religion and creationism and evolution, a nature-hating technology, the violence of extreme religious belief, and potentially omniscient government surveillance all have in common? They were all core elements in the life and work of the literary prophet Aldous Huxley (1894-1963).

Perhaps not coincidentally, a kind of Huxley renaissance is under way. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brave New World is being made into a film, to be directed by Ridley Scott and produced by George DiCaprio, starring his son, Leonardo. New editions of Huxley's books are in the works, and serious global interest in his writing is on the rise, particularly in Eastern Europe. It is worth returning to Huxley, then, not as he has been for us in the past — the author of the prophetic, dystopian Brave New World — but as he might be for us in the future.

Huxley was an iconic literary figure who embodied many of the tensions and coincidences of our contemporary intellectual scene, particularly those orbiting around those warring twin Titans, science and religion. On the scientific side, Aldous was the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, the great English defender of Charles Darwin — winner of the first great cultural war over religion and science — and the man who, in 1869, coined the word "agnosticism." Other than Darwin himself, T.H. Huxley, a biologist, probably did more than anyone else to lay the cultural foundation for our present scientific worldview. The results, as is well known but not always admitted, were devastating for traditional religious belief. W.H. Mallock captured the tone in 1878: "It is said that in tropical forests one can almost hear the vegetation growing," he wrote. "One may almost say that with us one can hear faith decaying." One can only guess what Mallock would say now.

Aldous's older brother was Sir Julian Huxley, a well-known evolutionary biologist. Sir Julian thought that there is "one world stuff" that manifests both material and mental properties, depending upon whether it is viewed from without (matter) or from within (mind). The mental and the material aspects of reality, in other words, are two sides of the same cosmic coin. Aldous would arrive at a nearly identical position, drawn not from science but from comparative mysticism, and described in his still popular The Perennial Philosophy (1945). His primary inspiration seems to have been Advaita Vedanta, a classical Indian philosophy that captured much of elite Hindu thought and practice in the 19th century and subsequently influenced the reception of Hinduism among American intellectuals and artists in the 20th.

But Huxley was suspicious of gurus and gods of any sort, and he finally aligned himself with a deep stream of unorthodox doctrine and practice that he found running through all the Asian religions, which, he proclaimed in Island (his last novel, published in 1962), was a "new conscious Wisdom ... prophetically glimpsed in Zen and Taoism and Tantra." That worldview — which Huxley also linked to ancient fertility cults, the study of sexuality in the modern West, and Darwinian biology — emerges from the refusal of all traditional dualisms; that is, it rejects any religious or moral system that separates the world and the divine, matter and mind, sex and spirit, purity and pollution (and that's rejecting a lot). Put more positively, Huxley's new Wisdom focuses on the embodied particularities of moment-to-moment experience, including sexual experience, as the place of "luminous bliss."

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Posted by Ajay :: 3:10 PM :: 0 comments

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