Get Out of Your Own Light: Aldous Huxley on Who We Are, the Trap of Language, and the Necessity of Mind-Body EducationBy: Maria Popova
“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.”
Aldous Huxley endures as one of the most visionary and unusual minds of the twentieth century — a man of strong convictions about drugs, democracy, and religion and immensely prescient ideas about the role of technology in human life; a prominent fixture of Carl Sagan’s reading list; and the author of a little-known allegorical children’s book.
In one of his twenty-six altogether excellent essays in The Divine Within: Selected Writings on Enlightenment (public library), Huxley sets out to answer the question of who we are — an enormous question that, he points out, entails a number of complex relationships: between and among humans, between humanity and nature, between the cultural traditions of different societies, between the values and belief systems of the present and the past.
Writing in 1955, more than two decades after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley considers the stakes in this ultimate act of bravery:
What are we in relation to our own minds and bodies — or, seeing that there is not a single word, let us use it in a hyphenated form — our own mind-bodies? What are we in relation to this total organism in which we live?
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.
These unanswerable questions, the value of which the great Hannah Arendt would extol as the basis of our civilization two decades later, challenge the very “who” of who we are. Huxley illustrates this with a most basic example:
I wish to raise my hand. Well, I raise it. But who raises it? Who is the “I” who raises my hand? Certainly it is not exclusively the “I” who is standing here talking, the “I” who signs the checks and has a history behind him, because I do not have the faintest idea how my hand was 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 of a most elaborate nervous system, and made thirty or 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 do not have the faintest idea.
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 … these vegetative actions can be grossly interfered with by our undesirable thoughts, our fears, our greeds, our angers, and so on…
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?
At a time when Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern teachings in the West and prominent public figures like Jack Kerouac were turning to Buddhism, Huxley advances this cross-pollination of East and West. With an eye to pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James, who was among his greatest influences, he considers the notion that our consciousness is the filtering down of a larger universal consciousness, distilled in a way that benefits our survival:
Obviously, if we have to get out of the way of the traffic on Hollywood Boulevard, it is no good being aware of everything that is 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 … we can and ought to open ourselves up and become what in fact we have always been from the beginning, that is to say … much more widely knowing than we normally think we are. We should realize our identity with what James called the cosmic consciousness and what in the East is called the Atman-Brahman. The end of life in all great religious traditions is the realization that the finite manifests the Infinite in its totality. This is, of course, a complete paradox when it is stated in words; nevertheless, it is one of the facts of experience.
But this deeper and more expansive sense of self, Huxley argues, is habitually obscured by the superficial shells we mistake for our selves:
The superficial self — the self which we call ourselves, which answers to our names and which goes about its business — has a terrible habit of imagining itself to be absolute in some sense… We know in an obscure and profound way that in the depths of our being … we are identical with the divine Ground. And we wish to realize this identity. But unfortunately, owing to the ignorance in which we live — partly a cultural product, partly a biological and voluntary product — we tend to look at ourselves, at 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 goal which falls short of the highest ideal or goal, and proceed to worship that.
Huxley admonishes against “the appalling dangers of idolatry” — a misguided attempt at communion with a greater truth that, in fact, renders us all the more separate:
Idolatry is … 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.
Nearly half a century before Adrienne Rich lamented “the corruptions of language employed to manage our perceptions” in her spectacular critique of capitalism, Huxley argues that the uses and misuses of language mediate our relationship with the self and are responsible for our tendency to confuse the deeper self with the superficial self:
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 50 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. Icebergs are about four-fifths under water and one-fifth above. But, I would say, we are considerably more than that above. I should say, we are the best part of 50 percent — and, I suspect, some people are about 80 percent above in the world of language. They virtually never have a direct experience; they live entirely in terms of concepts.
It’s a sentiment triply poignant today, in an era when the so-called social media rely on language — both textual and the even more commodified visual language of photography — to convey and to manicure our conceptual perception of each other, often at the expense of the deeper truth of who we are. To be sure, Huxley recognizes that this reliance on concepts is evolutionarily necessary — another sensemaking mechanism for narrowing and organizing the uncontainable chaos of reality into comprehensible bits:
When we see a rose, we immediately say, rose. We do not say, I see a roundish mass of delicately shaded reds and pinks. We immediately pass from the actual experience to the concept.
We cannot help living to a very large extent in terms of concepts. 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 at the same time to try to understand—because 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 are up to, which we certainly would not if we did not have language. And in this way language is an immense boon, which we could not possibly do without.
But language has its limitations and its traps.
Much like Simone Weil argued that the language of algebra hijacked the scientific understanding of reality in the early twentieth century, Huxley asserts that verbal language is leading us to mistake the names we give to various aspects of reality for reality itself:
In general, we think that the pointing finger — the word — is the thing we point at… In reality, words are simply the signs of things. But 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 is absolutely fatal because this is not the case. And yet we cannot do without words. The whole of life is, after all, a process of walking on a tightrope. If you do not fall one way you fall the other, and each is equally bad. We cannot do without language, and yet if we take language too seriously we are in an extremely bad way. We somehow have to keep going on this knife-edge (every action of life is a knife-edge), being aware of the dangers and doing our best to keep out of them.
This, perhaps, is why David Whyte — as both a poet and a philosopher — is so well poised to unravel the deeper, truer meanings of common words.
The root of our over-reliance on language, Huxley argues, lies in our flawed education system, which is predominantly verbal at the expense of experiential learning. (A similar lament led young Susan Sontag to radically remix the timeline of education.) In a prescient case for today’s rise of tinkering schools and mind-body training for kids, Huxley writes:
The liberal arts … are little better than they were in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages the liberal arts were entirely verbal. The only two which were not verbal were astronomy and music… Although for hundreds of years we have been talking about mens sana in corpore sano, we really have not paid any serious attention to the problem of training the mind-body, the instrument which has to do with the learning, which has to do with the living. We give children compulsory games, a little drill, and so on, but this really does not amount in any sense to a training of the mind-body. We pour this verbal stuff into them without in any way preparing the organism for life or for understanding its position in the world — who it is, where it stands, how it is related to the universe. This is one of the oddest things.
Moreover, we do not even prepare the child to have any proper relation with its own mind-body.
Long before Buckminster Fuller admonished against the evils of excessive specialization and Leo Buscaglia penned his magnificent critique of the education system’s industrialized conformity, Huxley writes:
One of the reasons for the lack of attention to the training of the mind-body is that this particular kind of teaching does not fall into any academic pigeonhole. This is one of the great problems in education: Everything takes place in a pigeonhole… The pigeonholes must be there because we cannot avoid specialization; but what we do need in academic institutions now 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 do not happen to fit into any of the categories considered as valid by the present educational system!
The solution to this paralyzing rigidity, Huxley argues, lies in combining “relaxation and activity.” In a sentiment that calls to mind the Chinese concept of wu-wei — “trying not to try” — he writes:
Take the piano teacher, for example. He always says, Relax, relax. But how can you relax while your fingers are rushing over the keys? Yet they have to relax. The singing teacher and the golf pro say exactly the same thing. And in the realm of spiritual exercises we find that the person who teaches mental prayer does too. We have somehow to combine relaxation with activity…
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 is what, that uses language. This has to be relaxed in order that the 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.
Two decades before Julia Cameron penned her enduring psychoemotional toolkit for getting out of your own way, Huxley makes a beautiful case for the same idea:
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 continually 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 the illumination from within. And 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.
The seed for this lifelong effort, Huxley concludes, must be planted in early education:
These [are] extremely important facets of education, which have been wholly neglected. I do not 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.
The Divine Within is an illuminating read in its totality, exploring such subjects as time, religion, distraction, death, and the nature of reality. Complement it with Alan Watts on learning to live with presence in the age of anxiety and the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.