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50 years ago today, Kennedy, Huxley and Lewis followed different paths to the grave

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21 2013 8:30 a.m. MST

But those travels apparently did not involve the intense searching that characterized Lewis and Huxley's parallel journeys. “The Letters of John F. Kennedy,” published in 2013, turns up numerous references to faith in the public square — but none at all to personal spirituality or belief.

Toward the light

In contrast to Kennedy's Irish Catholic heritage, Aldous Huxley came from a very secular world. His great uncle was Matthew Arnold, a prominent British intellectual, poet and religious skeptic. Thomas Huxley, a noted paleontologist and key defender of Charles Darwin, was his grandfather. Aldous’s brother, Julian, was a famous biologist (and eugenicist), knighted in 1958.

If anyone had a pedigree for skepticism, it was Huxley.

And yet, while his first wife was dying in 1955, Huxley chanted from the “Tibetan Book of the Dead” as she passed. Huxley’s second wife, Laura, did the same for him when he died. "You are doing this so beautifully — you are going toward the light," she described her words after he died.

Huxley is most noted for “Brave New World,” a dystopian vision of technological tyranny where human spirit is crushed less by force than by pleasure and distractions. But his body of writing as a whole often focused on a mystical connection to the divine.

“Huxley always blended his Buddhism with a scientific perspective,” said Joan Wines, a Huxley expert and professor at California Lutheran University. “What he’s trying to find out is truth that is both spiritual and scientific.”

In 1945, Huxley wrote “The Perennial Philosophy,” with excerpts of classic texts ranging from Eastern Hinduism and Buddhism to mystical elements of Islam and early Christianity — an effort to synthesize a common core of faith.

He wore Buddhism loosely, said Dana Sawyer, a professor of religion and philosophy at the Maine College of Art and author of a noted Huxley biography. Wines agrees. “He used Nirvana and Buddhism language because it was already there,” she said. “It was available in a way he could talk about it.”

Huxley’s famous drug experiments, according to Wines, were an effort to break through to higher awareness in the Buddhist or Hindu sense at the intersection of psychology, physiology and spirituality. He saw limited drug use as an aid to meditation, but he disapproved of recreational use for entertainment or escape.

In 1953, he experimented with mescaline, the active ingredient in peyote, used among Native Americans for ritual purposes. Huxley wrote a famous essay titled "The Doors of Perception" outlining that experience. The rock group The Doors took its name from Huxley’s essay.

While using mescaline, he was fascinated with color and texture. He described focusing intently on the tweed of his pants. Chair legs were "miraculous in their tubularity." And then he saw the books on the shelf, "whose color was so intense, so intrinsically meaningful …."

But Huxley also found that he lost all interest in other people while using mescaline, which seemed to disturb him. "The mescaline taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting.”

Sawyer agrees that Huxley was disturbed by how mescaline reduced his interest in other people. “Buddhism is not just about reaching enlightenment,” Sawyer said, but also about compassion and changing things for the better. Thus, the indifference experience with mescaline signaled to Huxley that something was amiss. “Huxley believed that even if the kingdom of heaven is within, we still have a responsibility to create the kingdom of heaven on Earth,” Sawyer said.

The Buddhist seeker, according to Sawyer, aims to be “less egotistical, less driven by desire, ambition, anger and fear, less self-interested, more altruistic, less willing to judge.”

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