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The Mystical Expatriates

The invention of Californian spirituality

Back in October I went on a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in the Peruvian jungle. While there, I picked up a little novel by Christopher Isherwood called A Single Man. I don’t know why I picked up that particular book. Perhaps because it was slim, so I could finish it while at the retreat. Also, all the other books in the retreat’s soggy jungle bookshelf looked dreadfully New Age. So I took Isherwood back to my jungle hut, and read his book in a day or so, swinging in my hammock.

A Single Man follows a day in the life of George, an aging English lecturer at a Californian university, who is coping with the death of his lover, Jim. It’s like a queer Mrs Dalloway. I particularly enjoyed its exploration of the self, or rather, the multiple selves we are throughout the day, and the multiple levels of consciousness we shift through – hence the irony of the title.

When George awakes there is no George, just an awareness – ‘that which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I’ – and then the central cortex, ‘that grim disciplinarian’, kicks in and tells the body to get up. It gets dressed and becomes a He, with a name. George drives down the freeway to the campus and goes into a sort of highway hypnosis, and then arrives:

In ten minutes, George will have to be George, the George they have named and will recognize…He is all actor now…hastening through the backstage world of props and lamps and stagehands.

And so on, through the banal and funny encounters of the day – lecturing George, George on too much coffee, George at the gym, drunk George, horny George trying to pick up a boy. It’s all deftly observed, and it fitted strangely with what I was experiencing on ayahuasca – the many levels of self, right down to the deep consciousness where there is no ‘George’, and we are all perhaps connected. There is a quiet mysticism implicit in A Single Man, a searching for that which remains when all our costumes have been removed.

A month or so after the ayahuasca retreat, I felt the urge to read more Isherwood. I knew he’d written the stories which the musical Cabaret was based on, so I read Goodbye to Berlin, and enjoyed that too. After that, I started to find out about his extraordinary life, and his vast, glittering network of friends and lovers.

What interests me most about Isherwood is his relationship to Indian spirituality, and to Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. These three were nicknamed the ‘mystical expatriates’ by another mystical expat, Alan Watts.

All four were key figures in the development of the Californian counter-culture – to them (among others) we owe its embrace of eastern spirituality, its championing of the ‘perennial philosophy’ (everything except Christianity), its veneration for psychedelic drugs as spiritual technologies, its combination of science and religion into an empirical spirituality and evolutionary mysticism, its rejection of Christian notions of sin, and its unabashed celebration of the body and sex to create an ‘embodied spirituality’ that is by now familiar to us. They also began to sketch out a new politics of spirituality and map for society – it’s still nascent, but may become more important in coming decades.

The tabernacle of Californian spirituality was erected by the British ‘mystical expatriates’. Which is quite unlikely, considering that all four were public school-educated English gents, emerging from the stiff remains of the British Empire. Perhaps that’s the point – they, like me, were interested in ecstasy as a means of escaping from the uptight inhibitions of polite English culture. Ecstasy was a flight from Englishness.

And if they could find that ecstasy at the feet of former subjects of the British Empire – all the better. Alan Watts, recalling his conversion to Buddhism while at boarding school, writes:

We were being trained as officers for the troops of the British Empire. So I went the Wrong Way, and espoused one of the major religions of the people ruled by that Empire.

In 1938, Heard and Huxley introduced Isherwood to a Hindu guru named Swami Prabhavananda, who set up the Vedanta Society of Southern California (Vedanta is a form of Hindu mysticism developed by Ramakrishna and Vivekananda). Huxley and Heard were too individualistic to remain his disciples – Heard set up his own commune for a few years, while both Huxley and Heard would later become mentors for Esalen, the hub of Sixties Californian spirituality.

But Isherwood stayed loyal to his guru his whole life, in his own way. He even tried, briefly, to be a novitiate, and moved into the Vedanta Centre full-time during World War Two, meditating and doing puja for several hours a day, much to the horror of the British literary establishment – it was one thing to become an Anglican like TS Eliot or a Catholic like Graham Greene, but to follow an Oriental guru? It was far less normal then than now.

He published an account of his spiritual journey at the end of his life, called My Guru and His Disciple. It got puzzled reviews and is not a big seller compared to his novels, but I think it’s a fascinating book. It’s interesting because it’s so frank and unromantic about the spiritual life. Where Alan Watts basically bullshitted his way to guru status while secretly being an alcoholic and treating his wives like crap, Isherwood is totally upfront about his boredom, his frustration, his vanity, his sexual escapades, recounted in the entries of his diary:

Why am I joining these obsolete Hindus? What possible relevance can their beliefs have to the world of 1943?

What were all these agonies and struggles for?

Have I really got to spend the rest of my life with these people?

This place smells of renunciation, fog, and salad.

There’s nothing like a puja for stirring up lust.

We see the tension between his worldly ambition and his spiritual yearning – he wants self-transcendence, yet he also can’t bear the idea of losing his personality or changing his name to take on a Hindu name. ‘Christopher Isherwood’ is, after all, his greatest work of art.

There’s also an abiding tension between his desire for renunciation and his love of the body and sex. He’s constantly running off to shag Tennessee Williams, say, or to pick up a stranger on the beaches of Santa Monica. His guru always accepts him back – perhaps because his celebrity status made him so useful to the Vedanta movement (his translation of the Bhagavad Gita sold over a million copies, while his life of Ramakrishna was one of Steve Jobs’ favourite books).

His love of the world, sex and his self eventually won out. He left the Centre after the war ended, returning to his Hollywood life of writing, networking, boozing and shagging (his biographer estimates he shagged over 1000 men in his long life). He eventually settled down with a man thirty years his junior, and they lived in marital bliss for three decades. But he never lost contact with his guru, visited him for the rest of his life, and found solace in the thought of him in his final weeks.

Reviewers wondered what the point of the book was – he didn’t seem to have made much progress on the journey. Literary types can’t stand religious conversions, while New Agers want their spiritual tracts to be simplistic maxims from cartoon gurus like Alan Watts or Eckhart Tolle. Isherwood is far more conflicted than that. There is indeed something ridiculous about him practicing meditation in the hills of Hollywood as the Blitz rages – his diary reads:

August 13. Huge German air attacks on England. Invasion is expected hourly. I feel terribly depressed, but not frantic. It’s amazing how much my ‘sits’ help, however badly and unwillingly I do them.

In their collective escape from the Blitz, their shrugging off of the weight of the European Past, their denial of sin, and their joyful embrace of the Eternal Now, were the mystical expatriates abandoning their tribe at a time of crisis, and failing to face up to the suffering caused by the British Empire? Were they even continuing that Empire’s traditions of appropriation?

Maybe. On the other hand, Isherwood et al were doing important work. They were building a bridge between the West and Eastern spirituality: ‘To live this synthesis of East and West is the most valuable kind of pioneer work I can imagine – never mind who approves or disapproves.’

The mystical expats opened up new horizons for Western spirituality, which we all enjoy today. As Philip Goldberg writes in American Veda:

Their firepower, like the arsenal of a revolutionary vanguard, would radically transform the way large numbers of people understand and practice religion.

They helped to create the modern spiritual landscape, in which most Americans embrace a form of perennialism (ie the belief that Christianity is not the only path to God), in which contemplation has enjoyed its biggest revival since the Reformation, in which science and spirituality are seen as allies, and Indian religion has become so mainstream that Newsweek declared ‘we’re all Hindus now’. They helped to democratize mysticism for the masses, so that half of Americans now claim to have had a mystical experience.

They gave people a new vocabulary for altered states and mystical experiences, and a new set of practices for getting there. Isherwood writes: ‘I needed a brand-new vocabulary and here it was…untainted by disgusting old associations with clergymen’s sermons, schoolmasters’ pep talks, politicians’ patriotic speeches’.

While Heard and Huxley were scientifically-literate and developed the empirical mysticism or ‘neurotheology’ (Huxley’s phrase) which we see today in the science of mindfulness and psychedelics, Isherwood took himself as his own scientific experiment, a ‘specimen to be examined and classified’ using ‘the detailed skill and truthful approach of a scientific investigator’.

And, in My Guru and His Disciple, he gave us a wonderfully unvarnished account of spiritual mediocrity. As Pema Chodron says, we spend most of our spiritual lives in the middle – not completely lost, yet not completely saved. Just muddling through.

Jules is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of The Art of Losing Control. This article was originally published by The History of Emotions Blog.

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