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Psychedelic Childrearing in Literature
An Excerpt from Island
by Aldous Huxley
Jul 2000
island cover
In his 1962 utopian novel, Island, Aldous Huxley paints a picture of Pala, a place where young adults use a psychedelic "moksha medicine" as part of their rite-of-passage to adulthood. The island of Pala is a kind of paradise, created with the inherited wisdom of its two founders, a Buddhist Raja and a commonsensical Scottish physician. Huxley's ideas about childrearing, psychedelic visions, and tending to the dying were far ahead of his time.

Dr. Robert MacPhail describes the coming-of-age ceremony in which Pala's youth first undergo a mountain-climbing expedition together, then take the psychedelic moksha-medicine in a temple service:
"An ordeal," Dr. Robert explained, "which is the first stage of their initiation out of childhood into adolescence. An ordeal that helps them to realize the omnipresence of death, the essential precariousness of all existence. But after the ordeal comes the revelation. In a few minutes these boys and girls will be given their first experience of the moksha-medicine. They'll all take it together, and there'll be a religious ceremony in the temple."

"Something like the Confirmation Service?"

"Except that this is more than just a piece of theological rigmarole. Thanks to the moksha-medicine, it includes an actual experience of the real thing."

"The real thing?" Will shook his head. "Is there such a thing? I wish I could believe it."

"You're not being asked to believe it," said Dr. Robert. "The real thing isn't a proposition; it's a state of being. We don't teach our children creeds or get them worked up over emotionally charged symbols. When it's time for them to learn the deepest truths of religion, we set them to climb a precipice and then give them four hundred milligrams of revelation. Two firsthand experiences of reality, from which any reasonably intelligent boy or girl can derive a very good idea of what's what" (162-3).
During the service, Vijaya addresses the young people, describing their mountain-climbing rite as a shared risk to increase the awareness of the fullness of life. He encourages them to explore their enhanced perceptions and feelings:
    Then Vijaya rose to his feet and began to speak.

    "Danger," he said, and again, "danger. Danger deliberately and yet lightly accepted. Danger shared with a friend, a group of friends. Sharing consciously, shared to the limits of awareness so that the sharing and the danger become a yoga. Two friends roped together on a rock face. Sometimes three friends, or four. Each totally aware of his own straining muscles, his own skill, his own fear, and his own spirit transcending the fear. And each, of course, aware at the same time of all the others, concerned for them, doing the right things to make sure they'll be safe. Life at its highest pitch of bodily and mental tension, life more abundant, more inestimably precious, because of the ever-present threat of death. But after the yoga of danger there's the yoga of the summit, the yoga of rest and letting go, the yoga of complete and total receptiveness, the yoga that consists in consciously accepting what is given as it is given, without censorship by your busy moralistic mind, without any additions from your stock of secondhand ideals, you even larger stock of wishful phantasies. You just sit there with muscles relaxed and a mind open to the sunlight and the clouds, open to distance and the horizon, open in the end to that formless, wordless Not-Though which the stillness of the summit permits you to divine, profound and enduring, within the twittering flux of your everyday thinking.

    "And now it's time for the descent, time for a second bout of the yoga of danger, time for a renewal of tension and the awareness of life in its glowing plentitude as you hang precariously on the brink of destruction. Then at the foot of the precipice you unrope, you go striding down the rocky path toward the first trees. And suddenly you're in the forest, and another kind of yoga is called for-the yoga of the jungle, the yoga of being totally aware of life at the near-point, jungle life in all its exuberance and its rotting, crawling squalor, all its melodramatic ambivalence of orchids and centipedes, of leeches and sunbirds, of the drinkers of nectar and the drinkers of blood. Life bringing order out of chaos and ugliness, life performing its miracles of birth and growth, but performing them, it seems, for no other purpose than to destroy itself. Beauty and horror, beauty," he repeated, "and horror. And then suddenly, as you come down from one of your expeditions in the mountains, suddenly you know that there's a reconciliation. And not merely a reconciliation. A fusion, an identity. Beauty made one with horror in the yoga of the jungle. Life reconciled with the perpetual imminence of death in the yoga of danger. Emptiness identified with selfhood in the Sabbath yoga of the summit."

    There was silence. Muragan yawned ostentatiously. The old priest lighted another stick of incense and, muttering, waved it before the dancer, waved it again around the cosmic love-making of Shiva and the Goddess.

    "Breathe deeply," said Vijaya, "and as you breathe pay attention to this smell of incense. Pay your whole attention to it; know it for what it is-an ineffable fact beyond words, beyond reason and explanation. Know it in the raw. Know it as a mystery. Perfume, women, and prayer-those were the three things that Mohammed loved above all others. The inexplicable data of breathed incense, touched skin, felt love and beyond them, the mystery of mysteries, the One in plurality, the Emptiness that is all, the Suchness totally present in every appearance, at every point and instant. So breath," he repeated, "breathe," and in a final whisper, as he sat down, "breathe."

    "Shivayanama," murmured the old priest ecstatically.

    Dr. Robert rose and started towards the altar, then halted, caught up with him. "I'd like you to see their faces."

    "Shan't I be in the way?"

    Dr. Robert shook his head, and together they moved forward, climbed, and three quarters of the way up the altar stair, sat down side by side in the penumbra between darkness and the light of the lamps. Very quietly Dr. Robert began to talk about Shiva-Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance.

    "Look at his image," he said. "Look at it with these new eyes that the moksha-medicine has given you. See how it breathes and pulses, how it grows out of brightness into brightness every more intense. Dancing through time and out of time, dancing everlastingly and in the eternal now. Dancing and dancing in all the worlds at once. Look at him."

    Scanning those upturned faces, Will noted, now in one, now in another, the dawning illuminations of delight, recognition, understanding, the signs of worshiping wonder that quivered on the brinks of ecstasy or terror (168-70).
Dr. Robert again addresses the young people, asking them to use the experience they have had with the moksha-medicine in the rest of their lives.
    "Liberation," Dr. Robert began again, "the ending of sorrow, ceasing to be what you ignorantly think you are and becoming what you are in fact. For a little while, thanks to the moksha-medicine, you will know what it's like to be what in fact you are, what in fact you always have been. What a timeless bliss! But, like everything else, this timelessness is transient. Like everything else, it will pass. And when it has passed, what will you do with this experience? What will you do with all the other similar experiences that the moksha-medicine will bring you in the years to come? Will you merely enjoy them as you would enjoy an evening at the puppet show, and then go back to business as usual, back to behaving like the silly delinquents you imagine yourselves to be? Or, having glimpsed, will you devote your lives to the business, not at all as usual, of being what you are in fact? All that we older people can do with our teachings, all that Pala can do for you with its social arrangements, is to provide you with techniques and opportunities. And all that the moksha-medicine can do is give you a succession of beautific glimpses, an hour or two, every now and then, of enlightening and liberating grace. It remains for you to decide whether you'll co-operate with the grace and take those opportunities. But that's for the future. Here and now, all you have to do is to follow the mynah bird's advice: Attention! Pay attention and you'll find yourselves, gradually or suddenly, becoming aware of the great primordial facts behind those symbols on the altar" (173).