“The Perennial Philosophy”, by Aldous Huxley – Religion, Spirituality, and the Fundamental Nature of Reality

1946 --- Aldous Huxley --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

On my way to reading 1,000 books before I turn 30, this was number 386.

I take notes on everything I read, with my notes organized by book and by year. I also have a single word document containing my most important notes from each book, and I use these to raise money for Doctors Without Borders, the international human rights and disaster relief organization.

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If you think about something all day every day, then you just have to write about it. That’s how I feel about books and literature, so here are some of my notes and thoughts on the book, “The Perennial Philosophy”, by Aldous Huxley. All quotes below are either from my notes, or from the book itself, unless otherwise indicated. Enjoy!

“The last end of every human being is to find out Who he really is”

From Amazon: An inspired gathering of religious writings that reveals the “divine reality” common to all faiths, collected by Aldous Huxley.

“The Perennial Philosophy,” Aldous Huxley writes, “may be found among the traditional lore of peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.”

With great wit and stunning intellect—drawing on a diverse array of faiths, including Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Christian mysticism, and Islam—Huxley examines the spiritual beliefs of various religious traditions and explains how they are united by a common human yearning to experience the divine. The Perennial Philosophy includes selections from Meister Eckhart, Rumi, and Lao Tzu, as well as the Bhagavad Gita, Tibetan Book of the Dead, Diamond Sutra, and Upanishads, among many others.


IN THE BEGINNING

In the autobiography of Alan Watts, he describes how Aldous Huxley was so incredibly interesting that when the two of them would go out to eat, all the surrounding tables would get really quiet, and they would all listen to hear Aldous speak.

This book is like that, and you get the sense that you are being let in on a really big secret.

But the idea here is that this secret is one that’s known intuitively to everyone at all times, though it gets obscured by charlatans and our worse natures.

Huxley explores how we can be religious without following a particular religion, and how the idea of God only works as a metaphor to describe existence itself.

Perhaps that’s why he and Alan Watts were such frequent dinner companions; they both understood that what you DO is something that the whole universe is doing, at a particular point that you call the here and now.

To echo Watts, you are something that the universe is DOING in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is “doing”.

And we don’t need crusades, religious persecution, slavery, homophobia, xenophobia, and every other kind of “phobia” in order to teach us the way of knowing all this.

We don’t need corrupt religious officials and hateful “believers” in order to help us find out Who we really are.

“The last end of every human being is to find out Who he really is”

The period during which one is veiled does not belong to one’s life, says Huxley, and we really grow into ourselves when we realize the interconnectedness of all life.

Indeed, the things we both love and hate the most about the “outside” world are literally a part of ourselves, and the idea of God is merely a projection of our own human powers of love and reason.

I haven’t been comfortable using the word “God” for a long time, mostly because it has all these weird associations which aren’t what I really mean.

It’s just a useful symbol for ALLUDING to what I really mean, which is the fabric and structure of existence itself.

“It is thus only by becoming Godlike that we can know God; and to become Godlike is to identify ourselves with the divine element which in fact constitutes our essential nature, but of which, in our mainly voluntary ignorance, we choose to remain unaware.”

“The eternity which transforms us into Ourselves is not the mere persistence after bodily death. There will be no experience of timeless Reality then, unless there is the same or similar knowledge within the world of time and matter. By precept and by example, the Avatar teaches that this transforming knowledge is possible, that all sentient beings are called to it and that, sooner or later, all must finally come to it.”

This satori moment, this moment of awakening, is the first day of the rest of your life.

You see clearly for the first time that there is nothing to strive for, nothing to attain, no one to compete against, and no one to hate.

Aldous Huxley is just one of the people who can lead you to this realization. There have even been eminent Christian theologians, like William Law and Thomas Traherne (who are cited quite often in the text) who have shown others the way as well.

It’s an enormous burden to feel as if you constantly have to win some divine entity’s good graces, or that you need to place yourself at the top of the pile in the struggle for success in business, or whatever.

All of this can fall away, Huxley repeats, if you just listen to what the universe is telling you. Life’s biggest questions don’t have any real answers, but real happiness, gratitude, and contentment are possible if you see rightly. It’s possible for you to learn the truth of the statement that: “Thou wilt learn more in woods than in books.”

“Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as celestial joys; having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the angels. You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in scepters, you can never enjoy the world. Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all ages as with your walk and table; till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made; till you love men so as to desire their happiness with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own; till you delight in God for being good to all; you never enjoy the world.”

-William Law

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CHARITY

What’s the point of all this? Why should we care about the fundamental nature of Reality if it doesn’t help us make our rent on time, or help us find a career? What about all that stuff we want? Should we just give up on it and settle into a contemplative life?

Perhaps, but there’s no necessity to do so.

On the contrary, the perennial philosophy is supposed to shake us up, and reveal what is possible for us. It also reveals what is possible for our human interactions at the level of daily life.

Because, I might plausibly ask, What are we here for if not to make life a little less difficult for each other?

“Charity, which lies in disinterestedness, tranquility, and humility, is the root and substance of morality”

What is asked of us is not found at a great distance, and charity should be one of the simplest things in the world. And it is, only we have become somehow estranged from it, except when it’s tied to religious belief in some way.

Most religious people today, or people who follow some sort of organized religion, are either greedy or afraid. They want what God can do for them, or fear God because of what He can do TO them, but there is a lack of genuine love or charity.

All the theologians reject this kind of false faith, yet somehow it’s everywhere. It’s to the point where I’m sure some people’s view of heaven is just this big shopping mall where they have an unlimited line of credit.

And the only reason why they don’t kill people who are different than them is that they fear divine retribution. Huxley, and all other proponents of the perennial philosophy, reject this as well.

“God, if I worship Thee in fear of hell, burn me in hell. And if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting Beauty.”

This is perhaps the most difficult of all mortifications – to achieve a “holy indifference” to the temporal success or failure of the cause to which one has devoted one’s best energies, says Huxley, and this seems to require a fortitude that few today actually possess.

“As long as I am this or that, or have this or that, I am not all things, and I have not all things.”

Everything is ours, provided that we regard nothing as our property. Charity should be extended to all, and withheld from none. Then, and only then, will the perennial philosophy’s true meaning really have sunk in.

But as long as people are looking for “proof”, of the correctness of their views, of the vileness of their enemies, charity is impossible.

The Divine Ground being self-evident, it needs no proof. Yet there are those who seek. We waste a lot of time, probably tens of billions of hours each year as a world population in clinging to an idea of an “other”, something outside of ourselves which we HAVE TO obey.

Words are not the things for which they stand, and there is no God “out there” that we have to suck up to in order to get stuff. Even the word “universe” doesn’t ACTUALLY describe it because the word “universe” is simply a concept INSIDE the concept that we are trying to explain.

“To rest in the consideration of objects perceptible to the sense or comprehended by the understanding is to be content with what is less than God.”

True charity, the charity which regards every other living thing as our equal, and as deserving of our care and respect, is ultimately based on humility. But humility isn’t self-defamation or denying our own talents and abilities; it’s the recognition of our place within the universe.

This is the perennial philosophy which Huxley and others espouse.

FREE WILL

I checked out of a philosophy class in university on free will so that I could organize a huge outdoor non-profit rock concert in India in support of Human Rights Watch.

So I’m no expert, and there’s certainly a lot of literature to wade through with respect to the question of whether or not human beings have free will.

“Knowledge of what is happening now does not determine the event. What is ordinarily called God’s foreknowledge is in reality a timeless now-knowledge, which is compatible with the freedom of the human creature’s will in time.”

My advice? Act as if.

The same goes whether you’re starting a company or picking up girls. Act as if you have the skills and ability to grow a profitable company, and you’ll begin to develop those skills. Act as if the woman you’re attracted to is interested in you, and she will be.

We need to act as if we have free will, or we will be paralyzed into inaction.

But if, as Huxley and other proponents of the perennial philosophy point out, our consciousness bleeds into the world and the world bleeds into it, then what we ordinarily call free will is simply something that the universe is “doing”, and since we are a part of the total process, our free will and that of existence itself is synonymous.

“That a temporal world should be known and, in being known, sustained and perpetually created by an eternal consciousness is an idea which contains nothing self-contradictory.”

“The present moment is the only aperture through which the soul can pass out of time into eternity, through which grace can pass out of eternity into the soul, and through which charity can pass from one soul in time to another soul in time.”

So, again, there’s no real answer. It all depends on how you look at it, and it doesn’t negate our responsibility to act as if, and to take responsibility for our own actions. But our existential freedom needs to be constantly exercised in the service of good, or we will stagnate. That much is clear.

“Selfishness and partiality are very inhuman and base qualities even in the things of this world; but in the doctrines of religion they are of a baser nature. Now, this is the greatest evil that the division of the church has brought forth; it raises in every communion a selfish, partial orthodoxy, which consists in courageously defending all that it has, and condemning all that it has not.

And thus every champion is trained up in defense of their own truth, their own learning and their own church, and he has the most merit, the most honor, who likes everything, defends everything, among themselves, and leaves nothing uncensored in those that are of a different communion.

Now, how can truth and goodness and union and religion be more struck at than by such defenders of it? If we loved truth as such, if we sought it for its own sake, if we loved our neighbor as ourselves, if we desired nothing by our religion but to be acceptable to God, if we equally desired the salvation of all men, if we were afraid of error only because of its harmful nature to us and our fellow-creatures, then nothing of this spirit could have any place in us.

He that would obtain this must have these three truths deeply fixed in his mind.

First, that universal love, which gives the whole strength of the heart to God, and makes us love every man as we love ourselves, is the noblest, the most divine, the Godlike state of the soul, and is the utmost perfection to which the most perfect religion can raise us; and that no religion does any man any good but so far as it brings this perfection of love into him.

Second, that in this present divided state of the church, truth itself is torn and divided asunder.

Thirdly, he must always have in mind this great truth, that it is the glory of the Divine Justice to have no respect of parties or persons, but to stand equally disposed to that which is right and wrong as well in the Jew as in the Gentile.”

RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE

The theme of religious tolerance runs through the entirety of “The Perennial Philosophy”, and indeed, it is central to it. Personally, I’m nothing. I don’t identify with any particular religion, in name or practice or anything else. I am a freethinking individual, with respect and love for all.

“Like the bee gathering honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different Scriptures and sees only the good in all religions.”

You can learn at least one thing from every single person that you meet, and my advice is to not let them go until you find out what that something is.

All people and all traditions have value, and have something in them that’s worthwhile. That’s what I believe, that’s what Aldous Huxley believed, and that is the mindset that will help to heal our world.

“As soon therefore as a person understands what has been said to him for his good, there is no further need to hear or to discuss; but to set himself in earnest to practice what he has learnt with silence and attention, in humility, charity and contempt of self.”

When we understand all this, it becomes our duty to go out and practice it in the wider world. And yes, it is a practice.

The subconscious fear of death, according to Terror Management Theory, places us at odds with those who think and feel differently from us. It’s because of the instability of our own beliefs, and the fact that other people have worldviews completely alien to our own, that we denigrate the belief systems of others in order to strengthen our belief in our own.

You don’t need me to provide you with examples. You’ve seen them already.

Rather, what you need to do is transcend the subconscious fear of death, and indeed all fear, and begin to see the value in all other people and all other viewpoints. There is no other way to peace.

“How shall I grasp it? Do not grasp it. That which remains when there is no more grasping is the self.”

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THE MODERN WORLD

I won’t belabor the point, but mass market capitalism has contributed to the psychological alienation of the greater mass of its members. Capitalism can be leverage for good, and indeed it has. But it has the same alienating quality that the prophetic Erich Fromm warned us about in such luminous books as “The Sane Society”, and “The Art of Loving”.

David Reisman wrote about it in “The Lonely Crowd”.

“Many people suffer, during their working hours, from the chronic boredom and frustration imposed by the sort of jobs that have to be done in order to satisfy the artificially stimulated demand for the fruits of fully mechanized mass production.”

If we don’t know, then that is because we find it more convenient not to know. We find it more comfortable to live in the world of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” than we do to strike out on our own and make ourselves happier.

Knowledge of Ultimate Reality is available to all of us and at all times. We just have to smash that photocopier (fans of the movie “Office Space” will understand), and endeavor to live the life that we have imagined.

“Injuries to our self and our opinions of our worth and unworthiness are reflections of the fact that we have not undergone the effort of self-naughting which is the pre-condition to knowledge of ultimate reality.”

As stultifying as this modern world can be, it’s still part of Ultimate Reality. Ugliness can be beautiful, and you don’t have to accept the outrageous demands that market capitalism makes on your soul.

People like to rail against the capitalist system, though all the while they’ve been brought up in it and have grown within it. It’s become popular to say how devastating and harmful the system is, but there is good in it. Stop. Look.

OUR DAILY LIVES

So what can we do as individuals? Does Huxley provide any sustainable answers?

Absolute, final answers don’t exist in nature. There’s always another “why?” that you can ask and that will bring you to a deeper level. So we need to constantly ask the question.

We need to constantly remind ourselves of the fundamental nature of Reality, or we will conveniently forget. I know that my own memory is precarious, and productive states of mind doesn’t always naturally follow me day to day. I need to constantly re-affirm my place in the universe, my commitment to myself and to others.

“The man who has learnt to regard things as symbols, persons as temples of the Holy Spirit and actions as sacraments, is a man who has learned constantly to remind himself who he is, where he stands in relation to the universe and its Ground, how he should behave towards his fellows and what he must do to come to his final end.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu states that the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao. Likewise, the God that can named, and pointed to, and appeased or angered, is not the eternal God. There’s is nothing “out there” that is going to judge you or punish you. What there IS, is YOU!

“He who seeks god under settle form lays hold of the form while missing the god concealed in it.”

When you wake up to this, you will be able to live productively as a modern human being, satisfied in all your relationships, desirous of helping others in need, and able to be where you are. You will be able to trust yourself, and know that you are someone who CAN be trusted.

“What need of so much news from abroad, when all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within us?”

All sentient beings, Huxley says, if only they were able to realize it, are already in Nirvana. This is it. We’re here! There’s nothing to strive for, nothing to attain, no one to hate.

As Alan Watts said: “The purpose of life is simply to be alive. It is so plain, and so simple, and so obvious. Yet people rush around in a great panic, as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.” What’s the rush?

CONCLUSION

I hesitate to draw conclusions, because life must be lived forward. There is no point at which you can stand firm, look back, and say: “This is what life is about.”

But one lesson from Aldous Huxley that stays with me every time I revisit my notes on his prophetic book is that we must be patient with everyone, but above all with ourselves.

Everyone is confused about the fundamental nature of Reality, and the people who say they aren’t confused are the most confused of them all.

There are no right answers, but there are also no wrong answers. When you realize that the universe stands for everything that exists, and that you are an intimate part of it, you realize that it’s literally impossible to make a mistake. Nature doesn’t MAKE mistakes.

Have you ever seen a cloud that was misshapen? Have you ever seen a badly designed wave?

Of course not! So relax! Cheer up! You are part of the eternal ‘such-ness’, that comes and goes, and you are part of the same nature that moves the sun and all the other stars.

So I ask again, What’s the rush?

All the best,

Matt Karamazov


“The Perennial Philosophy”: Complement it with Erich Fromm on the Alienation of Modern Man, Morrie Schwartz on Meaning, Happiness, and a Life Well Lived, Ernest Becker on Our Social Fictions and Death Anxiety, Jon Kabat-Zinn and the idea that “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, as well as “The Greatest Books of All Time”


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AUTHOR BIO:

Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, boxer, and writer who reads at least 100 books every year and throws 300 punches per minute. His website, Godlike Discipline, is dedicated to raising money for causes like Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, among others. It’s also dedicated to helping people tackle their biggest willpower challenges. He also like death metal, and so, consequently doesn’t get many second dates. Here he is on a horse.

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