Merton and Huxley (Part One)

I’m reading an anthology of spiritual writing called God In All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing by Lucinda Vardey. The previous tale of Kuan-yin was taken from there.

Today, I came across an interesting piece. It’s a collection of letters between famous Trappist monk/author/mystic/peace activist, Thomas Merton and psychedelic writer Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception, Brave New World). They’re talking about Huxley’s writings on psychedelics and how it pertains to mysticism.

As I’m a fan of both writers as well as the subject matter, I found this very intriguing.

This post will be Merton’s letter to Huxley. I’ll give Huxley’s reply next. (Maybe tomorrow.)

“November 27, 1958

    Twenty years, or nearly that many, have gone by since a very pleasant exchange of letters took place between us. The other day, in correcting the proofs of a journal I kept then, and which is being published now, I was reminded of the fact. I shall send you the book when it appears. The final entries, in which you are mentioned, will testify to the gratitude and friendship with which I have continued to remember you since then.
    Meanwhile, I am happy to open another discussion with you, and I intend to do so in a spirit which will, I hope, lead to something quite constructive. For I assure you that I have no wish whatever to enter into a silly argument, and that I approach you with none of the crudities or prejudices which I am sure annoy you in other clerics. I do not of course claim to be above the ordinary human failings of religious people, but I think I am at least relatively free of partisanship and fanaticism.
    Your article in The Saturday Evening Post on drugs that help man to achieve an experience of self-transcendence has, you know, created quite a stir. We do not read The Saturday Evening Post here at the monastery, but a good lady sent me a copy of the article, togehter with a copy of a letter she sent to you advising you to read Fr. Garrigon Lagrange on contemplation. May God preserve you from such a fate.
    I am in no position to dispute what you say about the effect of drugs. Though occasionally fortified by aspirin, and exhilarated by coffee, and even sometimes using a barbiturate to get to sleep (alas), I have no experience of the things you speak of. Perhaps I shall make a trial of them one of these days, so that I will know what I am talking about. But since I feel, as you do, that this is a matter which merits discussion and study, I would like to put forward the things that occur to me after my first encounter with the subject. I hope by this to learn rather than to teach and I can see that this is your attitude also. Therefore, if you will permit me, I would like to take up the implicit invitation you expressed in the article, and invite you still further, if you are interested, to go into this with us. If you are ever in this neighborhood perhaps you could come here and we could talk at leisure. Our mutual friends, Victor Hammer and his wife at Lexington, would gladly bring you over.
    After this preamble, here are the questions I would like to raise:
    1. Are you not endangering the whole concept of genuine mystical experience in saying that it is something that can be “produced” by a drug? I know, you qualify the statement, you say that a drug can induse a state in which mystical experience can be occasioned: a drug can remove obstacles in our ordinary everyday state of mind, and make a kind of latent mysticism come to the surface. But I wonder if this accords with the real nature of mystical experience?
    I think this point must be studied carefully, and I suggest the following:
    2. Ought we not to distinguish between an experience which is essentially aesthetic and natural from an experience which is mystical and supernatural? I would call aesthetic and natural an experience which would be an intuitive “tasting” of the inner spirituality of our being-of an intuition of being as such, arrived at through an intuitive awareness of our own inmost reality. This would be an experience of “oneness” within oneself and with all beings, a flash of awareness of the transcendent reality that is within all that is real. This sort of thing “happens” to one in all sorts of ways and I see no reason why it should not be occasioned to the use of a drug. This intuition is very like the aesthetic intuition that precedes the creation of a work of art. It is like the intuition of a philosopher who rises above his concepts and their synthesis to see everything at one glance, in all its length, height, breadth, and depth. It is like the intuition of a person who has participated deeply in a liturgical act. (I think you take too cavalier an attitude toward liturgy, although I confess that I am irked by liturgical enthusiasts when they want to regiment others into their way of thinking.)
    By the way, though I call this experience “natural”, that does not preclude its being produced by the action of God’s grace (a term that must be used with care). But I mean that it is not in its mode or in its content beyond the capacities of human nature itself. Please forgive me for glibly using this distinction between natural and supernatural as if I were quite sure where the dividing line came. Of course I am not.
    What would I call a supernatural and mystical experience, then? I speak very hesitantly, and do not claim to be an authority. What I say may be very misleading. It may be the product of subjective and sentimental illusion or it may be the product of a rationalization superimposed on the experience described above. Anyway, here goes.
    It seems to me that a fully mystical experience has in its very essence some note of a direct spiritual contact of two liberties, a kind of flash or spark which ignites an intuition of all that has been said above, plus something much more which I can only describe as “personal,” in which God is known not as an “object” or as “Him up there” or “Him in everything” nor as “the All” but as-the biblical expression-I AM, or simply AM. But what I mean is that this is not the kind of intuition that smacks of anything procurable because it is a presence of a Person and depends on the liberty of that Person. And lacking the element of a free gift, a free act of love on the part of Him Who comes, the experience would lose its specifically mystical quality.
    3. But now, from the moment that such an experience can be conceived of as dependent on and inevitably following from the casual use of a material instrument, it loses the quality of spontaneity and freedom and transcendence which makes it truly mystical.
    This then is my main question. It seems to me that for this reason, expressed lamely perhaps and without full understanding, real mystical experience would be more or less incompatible with the consistent use of a drug.
    Here are some further thoughts: Supposing a person with a genuine vocation to mystical union. And supposing that person starts to use a drug. And supposing further that I am correct in the above estimate of what real mystical experience consists in: then the one using the drug can produce what I have called a “natural and aesthetic” experience. But at the same time his higher “conscience” (here I mean not merely a moral censor but his inmost spirit in its function of “judge” between what is real and what isn’t) will inevitably reproach him for self-delusion. He will enjoy the experience for a moment, but it will be followed, not by the inner permanent strengthening of a real spiritual experience, but by lassitude, discouragement, confusion, and an increased need for the drug. This will produce a vicious circle of repeated use of the drug, renewed lassitude and guilt, greater need for the drug, and final complete addiction with the complete ruin of a mystical vocation, if not worse.
    What I say here is based on suppositions, of course. I do not attempt to impose the analysis on you, but I would be very interested in your judgment of what I have said and your opinion in the matter.
    I will not weary you by prolonging this letter, but will close here in the hope that we can go further into the matter later on.
    May I add that I am interested in yoga and above all in Zen, which I find to be the finest example of a technique leading to the highest natural perfection of man’s contemplative liberty. You may argue that the use of a koan to dispose one for satori is not different from the use of a drug. I would like to submit that there is all the difference in the world, and perhaps we can speak more of this later. My dear Mr. Huxley, it is a joy to write to you of these things. I hope you can reply. God bless you.”

Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love

~ by R.M. McGrath on 07/24/2012.

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