Essays - Spring 2015

Meeting the Mystics

My California encounters with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley

By Sissela Bok | March 4, 2015


In April 1955, a month before I was to be married, at age 20, to Derek Bok and fly from Paris across the Atlantic to take a chance on finding lasting happiness in a new life, in a new country, I sat down to ask, in my journal, about my hesitations and questions: Would I, after leaving friends and family, be able to find new roots in America? Would I seize the opportunity to grow, flourish, give myself for what I love? Above all, would I at my death look back and discover that I had found happiness by making others happy?

Now I am 80, and these three questions still serve as touchstones as I remember encounters with people who helped me think through each one. Among them were Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley, whom I met soon after arriving in the United States. Derek had known them since childhood; now he wanted to introduce them to me.

When we went to Gerald Heard’s house in Santa Monica for lunch, we timed our visit to take place after his morning meditation. I had never seen anyone so knowingly inhabiting the role of a mystic. Christopher Isherwood wrote in his diary in 1939 of seeing Gerald again after some years: he was no longer the “exaggeratedly clean-shaven—barbered and tailored” agnostic, the liberal BBC commentator who wrote books about evolution and prehistory. Instead, “here was a new Gerald—disconcertingly, almost theatrically Christlike, with his beautiful little pointed beard, which tilted the entire face to an upward, heaven-seeking thrust; artistically, even dramatically shabby, in a sort of blue painter’s smock, washed-out blue jean pants and sneakers.”

That was the Gerald I met—66 years old at the time, sitting under a tree in his garden, his lined face serene as he completed his meditation, his eyes twinkling with pleasure at seeing Derek, whom he had known since first arriving in Los Angeles from England in the late 1930s. Derek recalls how Gerald would sit with him and his older brother and sister in their garden as dusk fell, telling ghost stories such as “The Monkey’s Paw,” and the sheer terror and thrill when Gerald, at the crucial moment of this story, would reach out and clutch his arm. Derek loved him as a family friend, relished his dazzling conversation, and admired his breadth of knowledge, without finding the slightest appeal in his efforts, through strict spiritual disciplines, to achieve “union with the divine in himself.”

As a 19-year-old college student, having been asked to write about what he had done during spring vacation, Derek had told of hearing Gerald speak at a Vedanta temple just off Hollywood Boulevard: “Listening to Gerald is always a wonderful experience, not only because he is our lifelong friend but also because he is easily the best speaker I have ever heard.” There were very few seats left in the temple, and those who did not find seats would have to hear Gerald’s voice piped into an overflow room:

At last, a door behind the altar opened, and Gerald appeared—a slight man with deep, sunken eyes and a beard which made one wonder what he would look like clean shaven. He began to speak. The esoteric and the exoteric. I leaned forward, trying to concentrate on each sentence. Out tumbled the words, arguments, facts, examples—drawn from history, art, religion, science. What a difficult task he had chosen, trying to convince the audience that they must abandon all that they had hitherto valued and sought after in order to find meaning in their lives. … A few, perhaps, were convinced—the strange and the malcontent, grasping for a dogma to lean their lives against.

That day at lunch, I came to know just what Derek meant as I listened to Gerald speaking in his clear, resonant British voice with perfect enunciation, as if he were giving a lecture to us alone. A spellbinder, he had a way of providing one with a sense of being more vibrantly alive for having talked with him, feeling both more harmonious and more stretched intellectually and emotionally in his presence.

As we drove away from Gerald’s house, Derek and I talked about the multitude of ideas he had led us to think about—from extrasensory perception and psychical research to what it takes to fully reconnect with and release one’s creativity. Then we went bowling and were cheered—though not really surprised, given what Gerald had intimated about enhancing one’s inborn human potential—to find that we both bowled much better than usual. Perhaps, we speculated, talking with Gerald had somehow lifted our games, however temporarily.

We had too few chances to visit him again before he died in 1971, at 81, after a long illness. But I have a sense of having carried on a dialogue with him over the years, as I have listened to tapes and recordings of his lectures and read a number of his books. With titles such as The Third Morality, Man the Master, and The Five Ages of Man, stuffed and overstuffed as they are with speculations, the books remain tantalizing, however hard to fathom some of their conclusions might be. In The Five Ages of Man, for example, Gerald speaks in cosmic terms of a fifth stage of human development, that of the postindustrial (or “leptoid”) man who has the opportunity to take a leap into vastly expanded consciousness, close to that exhibited by the great mystics of earlier times. But exactly what characterized that kind of consciousness? And just how does it resemble that of the great mystics?

Gerald often invoked a line in Matthew Arnold’s sonnet “To a Friend” that refers to Sophocles as one “Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole.” Perhaps the last time Gerald did so was in a brief posthumous homage to his friend Eva Greene, coeditor of The Chance of a Lifetime: An Anthology for the Ageless. In 1966, when he composed the piece, he was himself one of the older readers for whom Greene had assembled the passages in her book. After quoting Marcus Aurelius’s saying that “Life is a stranger’s sojourn, a night at an inn,” Gerald suggests that whether one is an absolute ruler or a private person, life’s one pivotal choice is to be either a pilgrim or a vagrant, a wanderer who has lost his way. And when it comes to seeing life as a journey, Greene herself can give her witness to the Stoic advice, respice finem, consider the end, the goal:

Look at a tapestry with a microscope: all that appears is a tangle of threads. Look at it when the shuttles are flashing in and out of the dense thicket of the web: again it is hard to recognize any design. Stand back when the weaving draws to a close and the pattern stands out unmistakably. … To be able to “see Life steadily and see it whole” one must have worked at Life’s loom so that as it reaches its culmination what is manifest to all is meaning worthy of the effort. The loom of Life works with the weaver; with those who choose to believe it is a crazy tangle, so it turns out to be. … Those who choose to see its pattern can weave the great design of comprehensive Meaning.

This piece speaks more directly and personally to the reader about themes that Gerald had cared about all his life, but that mattered more than ever now that he could see his life drawing to a close. He had been a sojourner and a seeker, not a vagrant who had lost his way. It mattered to consider the end, the goal. Respice finem. But it now mattered equally to take the several meanings of those words: not only to consider but also to respect the end, and to look at the end as not only a goal but also the end of his life. It is here that seeing life steadily and seeing it whole comes in, along with the metaphor of a life as a tapestry, the pattern of which becomes apparent only when one stands back to look at it as a whole. One must have the end in sight even in the last stages of living.

For Gerald, the hoped-for end was that of mystical enlightenment allowing him to escape the “wheel of life”—of life, death, and rebirth as affected by one’s past deeds—and he was quite specific when it came to the actual practices that would lead to such enlightenment. In addition to rigorous, life-long meditation, they included resistance to the three obstacles of addictions, possessions, and pretensions. At the same time, he had nothing against accepting the munificent help others offered in order that he might pursue his scrupulous practices undisturbed. In the early 1940s, he bought a tract of land in the Trabuco Canyon in the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains, some 60 miles south of Los Angeles. In this serene location, he started Trabuco College, an ashram, with Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and other friends and acolytes. It was meant to serve as a “club for mystics,” a retreat for the pursuit of comparative religious studies and practices.

One might see the three men among the visitors in white robes solemnly engaged in morning prayers or perambulating about the grounds. The reigning guru for the group, in addition to Gerald himself, was Swami Prabhavananda, who in 1930 had founded the Vedanta Society in Hollywood.

Aldous Huxley contributed an introduction to Prabhavananda and Isherwood’s 1944 translation of the Bhagavad Gita. Written with the zeal of a convert, the essay shows Huxley at his most categorical. He asserts that mystics in all the “higher” religions had attempted to “describe the same essentially indescribable Fact”: what he called the four fundamental doctrines of the “Perennial Philosophy.” The fourth doctrine holds that “man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.” All should know this fact if they have eyes to see; if they do not acknowledge it, this is because they have allowed themselves to forget it—that is, participated in their own blinding. Huxley belittled conflicting views as heresies and proclaimed his disdain for discursive reasoning and requests for proof of such assertions.

Some critics blame Huxley’s association with Gerald, beginning long before the two came to California together, for what they see as the loss of acuity in his perspective on society, much to the detriment of his gift as a novelist. It is certainly the case that Huxley veered sharply away from the elegantly expressed ironic misanthropy of his earlier novels such as Antic Hay, Point Counter Point, and Brave New World, which first brought him fame. In a passage that his son, Matthew, said mattered more to him than anything else his father had written, Huxley conveys, in Ends and Means, the great change that came over him after writing those books—a move away from his youthful nihilist convictions about the meaninglessness of human existence:

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. … There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.

The doctrinaire side that Huxley exhibited in his 1944 introduction to the Bhagavad Gita was not in evidence a decade later, when he came for lunch at the house of Derek’s mother, Margaret Kiskadden. I was eager to meet him, having heard Derek tell of meals and beach picnics with the Huxleys, of his mother’s close friendship with Maria Huxley, and of his own long walks with Aldous during his teens in the foothills above Hollywood, listening to discourses ranging from the most minute to the cosmic. At the time of our wedding, we had been thrilled to receive an exuberant congratulatory telegram from him, unlike any other sent to us. Instead of blandly wishing us happiness or joy or a blissful existence, it simply said: “Tarara Boom Dee-Ay, Tarara Boom Dee-Ay!”

Now Aldous ambled into the living room, peering at us in a kindly way from his great height. Sixty-one years old at the time, slender, intense, he looked like the embodiment of mind over matter. He had left Eton after being struck with near-blindness at 16. Even though he had gradually regained some of his eyesight, he wrote of the immense impact on his life of blindness, along with losing his mother to cancer at an early age and the suicide of his beloved older brother Trevenen. His lifelong struggles to improve his vision enabled him to develop a phenomenal memory for what he saw, heard, and read. Faced with the effort of rereading a book, remembering what he had read in the first place was simply more efficient.

When Aldous began to talk with us, his silvery, mellifluous voice poured forth ideas and thoughts perfectly expressed, his face luminous with concentration, often astonishment at the phenomena in nature and the human psyche he described—the dances performed by bees, for example, to communicate where nectar could be found, or laboratory experiments investigating extrasensory perception. I noted how often he used the expression “most extraordinary,” looking surprised, as if to underscore the mysterious nature of these findings.

The talk then turned to his having participated in a study of the effects of taking mescaline. In The Doors of Perception, published the previous year, he had described his first, transcendent experience with this drug, sitting in his study, looking at a small vase with three flowers:

A full-blown Belle of Portugal rose, shell-pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris. … The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss—for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to.

Aldous approached this experience as the lifelong seeker and self-experimenter he was—detached, in part because of his eyesight, from what most others take to be concrete reality. With his wife, Maria, he had tried out a great many efforts at self-improvement, whether to do with diet, mesmerism, palm reading, exercises to facilitate sleep, or holding gatherings for mediums claiming psychic powers. With regard to these experiments, he was a full-fledged convert, as he was with Vedanta, at least temporarily. The same was true of his endorsement of the Bates method for improving eyesight, including the advice not to wear glasses and to strengthen vision by exposing one’s eyes to bright sunlight.

Throughout his life, perceiving, seeing, and what Aldous called the “inner world of visions” dominated his efforts at understanding himself and others, as shown in such titles as Eyeless in Gaza, The Art of Seeing, and The Doors of Perception.

As Sir Kenneth Clark said at a memorial gathering for him, “Of Aldous Huxley’s many marvelous gifts, the most surprising was the gift of sight.” Clark remembers looking at a Seurat painting and seeing Aldous scrutinizing it from the distance of a few inches, then stepping back and seeing it in his mind as a whole: “I should have thought that he saw nothing but dots. And yet the fact remains, that what he wrote about painting proves him to have been one of the most discerning lookers of our time.”

Aldous had no premonition of the wave of drug-taking that The Doors of Perception would help to usher in. Should he nevertheless be held at least partially responsible for the human miseries that resulted? His friend and biographer Sybille Bedford concludes that he ought to have been more cautious in speaking of the wonders he had experienced without thinking of how others might react.

In retrospect, I might have brought up a reservation early on that he himself expressed in The Doors of Perception, after first taking mescaline—one that now leaps out at me: “In the recording of that morning’s conversations, I find the question constantly repeated: ‘What about human relations?’ How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel?”

It was only in his utopian novel Island (1962), the last one he wrote, that Aldous attempted to answer the moral questions raised by drug use. By what psychological and chemical means, he asked, could a society enhance human happiness without turning into the dystopia that he had satirized in Brave New World, with its soma pills, its Central Hatchery, and its Conditioning Centre of the World State?

In Matthew’s opinion, his father “had a lot invested in Island. It is what Brave New World should have been and wasn’t.” The society that his last book portrays had been founded in the hope that drugs would contribute to collective happiness and make better health, social reform, loving relationships, and cooperation possible as never before, reflecting “our wish to be happy, our ambition to be fully human.” Soma pills had been viewed as dismal and dangerous in the former novel; in the latter, he spoke of the transcendent beauties and forms of insight that drugs, properly administered and enjoyed, could bring.

Alas, in the novel, fulfilling that wish for happiness leaves people less than fully human for purposes of self-preservation. They are blissfully unprepared to meet the inevitable threats from the outside, which ultimately destroy all that the founders of the island colony had dreamed of and hoped for.

It is against this conflicted background, with its echoes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and its treatment of what it means to be partly or fully human, that Island gains depth and resonance for anyone asking, as I did before leaving for the United States, about rootedness and happiness. Like Brave New World, it explores different kinds of happiness, from the longing by adolescents for motor scooters to drug-induced quasi-religious ecstasy: “Felicity so ravishing, so inconceivably intense that no one can describe it. And in the midst of it God glows and flames without ceasing.”

Aldous Huxley died at 69 on November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Earlier that month, Christopher Isherwood had visited him in the Los Angeles Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Finding that Aldous clearly did not want to talk about death, Isherwood, feeling embarrassed, had brought up subject after subject at random. Each time, he noted, Aldous commented acutely, or remembered an appropriate quotation. “I came away,” Isherwood remembered, “with the picture of a great noble vessel sinking quietly into the deep; many of its delicate marvelous mechanisms still in perfect order, all its lights still shining.”

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