Enlightenment Now: Aldous Huxley on Symbols, Consciousness and the British Education System’s Hidden Flaws

There are two dystopian novels that continue to architect our imaginations about societies in the past, present and future. These are the worlds of totalitarian surveillance through 1984 and the scientific dopamine fuelled dictatorship in Brave New World. Following World War Two, Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, came to a series of conclusions about the meaning of human existence. Island tells the story of Will Farnaby’s visit to the forbidden island of Pala. Farnaby, a journalist whose manor and temperament is similar to a Louis Theroux documentary, is sent to persuade the Palanese people to provide access to oil assets on the island. Despite learning and celebrating the philosophy of the Palanese people, eventually this philosophical garden of Eden is destroyed by oil, a narrative all too familiar for those aware of pending climate disaster. For the weight of ideas, developed in a Socratic dialogue, Island deserves to have influenced our society with the same significance as 1984 and Brave New World.

Huxley criticises the British education system for failing to equip students with the ability to experience consciousness beyond symbolic learning. Farnaby complains that ‘in the school that I went to we never got to know things, we only ever got to know words’. Huxley, one of the British education systems greatest symbol manipulators, writes that humans cannot prevent their brains from creating symbols suggesting that the function of the symbolic mind is to ‘turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols’. While some of these symbols ‘correspond fairly closely to some of the aspects of external reality… sometimes, on the contrary, the symbols have almost no connection with external reality’. In Through the Doors of Perception, Huxley accuses the mind, evolved for biological survival, as being a ‘measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on this particular planet’, an argument vindicated every day as we accelerate towards the ecological tipping point of 2 degrees of global warming.

In light of Palanese exercises in Yoga and Meditation, Farnaby realises he has not been equipped with the tools for contemplating consciousness. The most notable memory of contemplation comes through self-association with symbols, in his case the ‘other world sensuality’ of the changing light of the Porter’s Gin advert seen from the window of his mistresses Charing Cross apartment. In antidote to Farnaby’s desperate and confused attempts of deconstructing symbolic orders and experiencing consciousness, Pala offers mindfulness meditation, along with specific lessons on symbol manipulation. ‘What we give the children is simultaneously a training in perceiving and imagining a training in applied physiology and psychology, a training in practical ethics and practical religion, a training in the proper use of language, a training in self knowledge’.

The benefits of awareness are described as providing a way of understanding consciousness through physiology and thus beyond symbolic thought. Meditation is said to enhance the individual’s ability to read their physiology: ‘the not you on the further side of consciousness will find it easier to make itself known to you on the side of physiology’. Awareness of consciousness is professed to enhance the experience of carrying out the most mundane and difficult activities: ‘if you’d been shown how to do things with the minimum of strain and maximum of awareness, you’d even enjoy honest toil’. Meditation and awareness of consciousness is claimed to provide function and meaning for those that aren’t very good at anything: ‘I’m not good at pointing or poetry or acting. No talents and no cleverness. So I ought to feel horribly inferior and depressed. But in fact I don’t – thanks entirely to the Moksha medicine and meditation’.

Huxley, after a lifetime of being one of the British Empire’s most prodigal minds provides a philosophy and argument for the nature of existence. Talking from the experience of graduating through a British education system virtually the same since Huxley’s day, I will go out and bat for all the above assertions on symbolism, meditation, consciousness and the meaning of life. How is it that despite being trained at London’s best schools, the first and most significant expression of contemplation and thought came from the opening line of the K Koke song My Deepest Thoughts where the UK Hip Hop artist asserts ‘I think I think too much’. Huxley’s analysis of the failings of the British Education system are almost 60 years old, and yet have failed to be effectively translated and implemented.

It is time to stop the betrayal of our students. The most important lessons I have learned on symbols and consciousness are hidden from the British Education system. The British Education system and society must go through a 21st century enlightenment and attempt to provide millions with a sense of clarity and direction for the meaning of existence. If we fail to be taught about symbols, thought and consciousness we are limiting individuals from enjoying the complexity and strength of consciousness, enfeebling our brightest minds and inviting all citizens towards the unnecessary suffering caused by the highest degree of ignorance.