Books I have finished recently:
On The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russel: The message is simple, clear, and eminently sensible. Focusing outwards on things, causes, family, others leads to happiness; focusing inwards on yourself leads to unhappiness.
How can meditation lead to happiness, given that it seems to be a focus inwards? The answer is that it is an inward focus using the same type of perception with which one focuses outwards. I’ll change my wording now, because I realize that “focus” does not capture what should be going on. Instead of “focus” we can use “concern for.” In meditation we are not concerned with the self as self, as in, “I have a concern for myself,” but rather there is looking-inwards while specifically cultivating an attitude of unconcern, of detached yet alert observation. So this is something else entirely, and I would not say that meditation is really concerned directly with happiness but rather something else; as a consequence it is a practice which facilitates one’s becoming more free from concern for the self so that concern can be directed outwards towards the causes and things in the world which one has the power to influence.
The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley: I anticipate a hard time expressing what this is about because it centers around something which I imagine to be foreign to most people, which are the experiential truths behind the world’s religions, in our time almost completely covered up by rituals, politics, symbols and social drama. What is “faith”? What is “spirituality”? Who was Jesus and what did he experience, what did he really teach? I use Jesus to pick on one particular avatar, but in reality, there are many; this one created a particularly powerful ripple in the pond, even though Christianity as practiced in recent times seems mere lip service to the actual experience and the actual teachings as I am understanding them in bits and pieces; also, great harm and suffering has been caused in its name. Some spiritual teachers get the real meaning behind the words and try to translate them so as to be relevant to our own times and our own experiences, because they are universally relevant.
Central to all religions is the so-called “mystical experience” whereby an ordinary human being becomes transfigured, changed; God or greater reality as it exists beyond words and concepts is perceived directly. Huxley describes faith as being a vehicle towards forms of this experience and not an endpoint; it is on this foundation of direct communion with God that religions were built up, becoming containers and step-down transformers for the knowledge which was obtained such as to make it understandable, applicable and beneficial to the majority.
This book is a collection of quotations from great mystics of the past interspersed with Huxley’s insightful analysis and commentary. He ties together Christianity, Sufism (a mystical branch of Islam), Hinduism and Buddhism, showing that these are merely culturally-derived sets of clothing for the same thing. Notably absent is any mention of Judaism besides Christian biblical reference to “pharisees;” I understand this to be a derisive term for a form of Judaism practiced at the time which was looked upon to be full of ritual and practice concerned with the letter of the law to a degree such that its spirit was completely eclipsed and was therefore empty; this was in contrast to a competing branch of Judaism at the time whose adherents were called “sadducees” and who were either more friendly to or ancestors of early Christians. [ My only knowledge here comes from a vaguely remembered elementary school lesson in a religious class where I was taught that sadducees had been an enemy of sorts and that pharisees were the ancestors of the practices of modern Judaism; this was taught with overtones of being as a kind of inoculation against “secular” culture with its emptiness and lack of discipline and the allure of not having to conform to potentially burdensome-seeming (particularly for kids) rules and rituals. ] I wish Huxley had directed his discerning mind and awareness of mystical experience towards this “ancient” religion, perhaps via quotes from scholars of the mystical bent themselves such as Maimonides; what I am left with is a slight feeling that Judaism is “different” somehow from the other religions as communicated via this treatment, perhaps in that it has no avatars or spokesmen as “likable” or iconic in our imaginations as Jesus and Buddha. There is a certain humbleness where any particular character we might pick is merely human, perhaps noble for some reason but in merely human terms, and where God gets all the credit; neither Abraham nor Moses are adored for having had much charisma or flawlessness of character and there are no saints or process of beatification and little centralized organization in this respect. Rather everyone is human and equal; there are biblical prophets and modern-day geniuses but no concept of sainthood which comes to mind. This distinction is interesting to me. Judaism seems to be concerned with protecting itself somewhat from what it believes to be a possible trap, based on a conviction that the worship or sanctification of a person, no matter how much of a channel for God he may have been, or how much mystical awareness she may have possessed, distracts from attention towards God. At the same time, with respect to the nonexistent role of Judaism in The Perennial Philosophy, I think there are other possible explanations or factors active at the time the book was written: (a) it was perceived as a minority religion; (b) the contrails of anti-semitism persisted more strongly then; (c) Christianity is perceived as an evolution of Judaism with respect to such treatment and is thus the same thing; (d) there just aren’t many powerful quotes by well-known Jewish mystics. And finally, it is possible that (e) Jewish mysticism was of a different kind for some reason and didn’t fit in with the kind of analysis and exposition which was the author’s intent.
I also read Huxley’s 60’s classic The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. I confess that I have never read Brave New World, yet I have put Island on my reading list ahead of it.