Photo by Mark C. Harvey
by Nick Shindo Street
At first glance, Laura Huxley looked frail. She was wiry (but stood very erect), a cottony nimbus of white hair framed her head, and her gaze was inexact—a consequence of macular degeneration. When I visited her a couple of years before her death, Laura was 94.
But during the course of my interview with her in the home she shared with her husband, Aldous—author of the novels Brave New World and Island and the spiritual classics The Doors of Perception and The Perennial Philosophy—I was impressed by her vitality and her visionary perspective on the world around her.
Our conversation began with the question, Why is there so much unhappiness in the world?
LH: I think the greatest difficulty in life is for people to realize that we already have everything we need to be happy. And the only thing that makes us unhappy is our ignorance of the fact that we have everything we need to be happy. By acting as if the world is something other than the source of our happiness, people ruin this happiness. That is social ignorance, collective ignorance. Fundamentally it’s ignorance of self.
NS: What is it not to be ignorant of one’s self?
LH: It’s the wish to answer the first impulse: What do I want? What do I want?
NS: Americans seem pretty attuned to their wants. How do you mean?
LH: We desire more things than we need, more food than we need, because we replace the things we really want—relationship, connection, and satisfying work—with unwholesome substitutes when our deep human needs go unmet.
NS: What do you see as the consequences of these unmet needs?
LH: Fear and rage. They are there all the time. The fear that is now in this country is incredible. It’s really like a contagious germ.
NS: That’s a marvelous metaphor: Fear as a contagious disease. How do you inoculate yourself against that contagion?
LH: Well the answer is always vivid awareness. This is the core of healthy psychology—learning to trace the source of experience. Is this my fear, or is it Mr. Bush’s fear? I don’t drive anymore, but in driving you can learn some tremendous lessons about how people respond to what they think they need. Sometimes before they even respond to you they attack you. If you don’t want to perpetuate that rage, you have to respond in a different way. It’s very easy of course to speak of these things, but they are very difficult to apply. Yet even if we apply them just a little bit, the world becomes a very different place.
NS: You mentioned vivid awareness. What do you mean by that?
LH: You begin by doing the first thing: Look around you. Just look around. I train myself to look for objects that I miss even when they are right in front of my eyes--that happens so often! Anyway, you make it a practice to pay attention to what’s right in front of you, then you extend that awareness to what’s actually happening in your immediate environment, then in the larger global environment.
NS: That’s tricky, though. When you move from paying attention to the table or chair in front of you to paying attention to homelessness or war, how do you keep from clouding basic psychological issues with ideological debate?
LH: It’s quite easy, really. The thing we’re missing when we look at homelessness or war is the fact that children are suffering and dying. How can we accept that? We can only accept it if we ignore it, if we habituate ourselves to being unaware of it. You can see this kind of habituation in the specious distinction between war and terrorism. They’re both horrendous forms of evil—they’re both forms of child abuse on a massive scale.
NS: So this is the connection between your work with children’s experience and psychology and the problems we see in the news?
LH: Exactly. The problems we see in the news have to do with the fact that we don’t honestly see the children we claim to cherish. If we did, war would be unthinkable because we would not ignore the bodies of children in the rubble we leave behind. Tolerating poverty would be unthinkable because we would not ignore the children living on the street in the same cities where we live.
NS: Where’s the disconnection? How have we become habituated to the practice of not seeing the children who suffer because of how we live and what we do?
LH: That’s just part of the constitution of the person. It’s learned behavior. We ignore others because we ourselves were ignored. If in the beginning children are left alone—if they are not aware of the love of a parent or some other adult—there remains this constant fear. We learn to accept the world shaped by that fear as reality. That false view of reality is embedded deep in the heart. Even if the mother experiences isolation or loneliness during pregnancy, the child will have that fear in himself. Unless the child eventually learns to get at the root of that fear—unless he can let go of the ghosts of the past through therapy or religious practice—he will create a world based on fear. Other children will suffer because he ignores them, just as he was ignored.
NS: How do we stop this cycle?
LH: We establish what I call “love before the beginning.” Why would we not want to do everything we can to ensure that children are born into good relationships where there is lots of human contact? It’s obvious that the good qualities in one relationship transfer to other relationships. If we want to change the world we live in now, children must be respected before they are conceived. That’s the essence of love before the beginning. For many people the preparation for buying a car is bigger than the preparation for having a child!
NS: It sounds good. But how do you translate what sounds like a fuzzy “domestic agenda” political issue into something relevant to a time of simmering global war?
LH: If a politician of true courage made this his primary conviction, and if he were given the power to carry it out, in two or three generations, the world would be a very different place. In “Don Juan in Hell,” Bernard Shaw’s demon tells us the truth we don’t want to hear: that we are a race that is not quite complete. Otherwise we would not keep making war after war after war in the name of religion or whatever excuse we make for ourselves. It’s fantastic! We try and we try to make peace—which is what we say we really want—and still the war goes on. It doesn’t stop, even when there is not a real reason. We could do very well with much less oil. Truthfully, we could even do without oil altogether. But we choose not to, so we wage a war for oil. There are dead children in Iraq because we will not choose to examine our lives, let go of our fear, and try to make a world based on love. This is what we say we really want, but we act in a way that makes our deepest wish impossible to fulfill!
NS: What you’ve just described is a situation of profound collective psychosis. What’s at the bottom of that? Is it just a matter of attention or waking up? Or is there actually some sort of evolutionary thing involved?
LH: I don’t know. We have to hope that it’s just an echo of the cycle of violence that culminated in the 20th century. I have to hope we learned something from that history, that we are truly better than that. But in the end we just have to accept that this is the way it is—we have to start at this point. This goes back to the idea of vivid awareness: At the very least we have to recognize what’s going on.
NS: What are you grateful for? I expect the first thing you’d want to say is the people around you. What after that?
LH: Nature, flowers, my surroundings. Of course you have to be grateful to see the thing and not kill the thing that you see! But I also think about the fact that I have the privilege to be in this place. I’m not in a dungeon with no air to breathe. It’s important to remember everything is really quite beautiful. This place where we find ourselves—it’s miraculous if you really stop to pay attention to it and see it as it really is.
[This interview was commissioned by Fluxion magazine. The preceding excerpt from the interview is reprinted courtesy of Fluxion.]