Looking back at history, philosopher and spiritual seeker, Aldous Huxley observed that the motivations and conceptions which humanity has turned its faculties to have been largely a matter of choice - and that choice, in turn, has dictated the language and direction of further inquiry.
"Certain thoughts," he wrote, "are practically unthinkable except in terms of an appropriate language and within the framework of an appropriate system of classification. Where these necessary instruments do not exist, the thoughts in question are not expressed and not even conceived. Nor is this all: the incentive to develop the instruments of certain kinds of thinking is not always present."
For millennia on the India sub-continent, on the Himalayan plateaus, and in South-East Asia, China and Japan, the great thinkers turned inward studying the subtle levels of consciousness and charting paths to the attainment of enlightenment. Meanwhile, in Europe (and then in the 'New World') the direction of enquiry turned outward to the 'material' world, and so birthed the study of the natural sciences.
Thus, Huxley pointed out, "(o)ur perceptions and understandings are directed in large measure, by our will. We are aware of and we think about, the things which, for one reason or another, we want to see and understand. When there's a will there is always an intellectual way. The capacities of the human mind are almost indefinitely great. Whatever we will to do, whether it be to come ot the unitive knowledge of the Godhead, or to manufacture self-propelled flame-throwers - that we are able to do, provided always that the willing be sufficiently intense and sustained."
Huxley made these observations in his classic work, "The Perennial Philosophy," which was first published in 1945, immediately in the wake of the devastations wrought by world war. Since the passage of what now seems to be an almost historic gulf, has mankind substantially changed the language and direction of his enquiry? Certainly, the West has become more acquainted with Eastern modes of thought as our own religious and wisdom traditions have begun falling away. Yet, for all the evident interest in exploring the inner path to consciousness and enlightenment, it seems that the principal impetus in the direction of our language and thinking - East and West - is towards the further development (and many would say exploitation) of our outer world and "reality."
[Aldous Huxley, "The Perennial Philosophy," p. 17.]
"A hundred years ago," wrote Thomas Merton (one of the great contemplatives in the next generation of spiritual seekers), "America began to discover the Orient and its philosophical tradition. The discovery was valid, it reached toward the inner truth of Oriental thought. " However, he observed, "(t)he intuitions of Emerson and Thoreau were rich in promises that were not afterward fulfilled by successors. America did not have the patience to continue what was so happily begun. The door that had opened for an instant, closed again for a century."
In his 1961 book, "Mystics and Zen Masters," Merton speculated as to whether an impulse to turn once more to the teachings of the East was once again arising.
"Now," he writes, "that the door seems to be opening again (and sometimes one wonders if it is the door of the same house), we have another chance. It is imperative for us to find out what is inside this fabulous edifice. From where we stand," he observes, "we can descry the residents dressed in our kind of clothing and engaged in our kind of frantic gesturing. They are tearing the place apart and rebuilding it in the likeness of our own utilitarian dwellings, department stores, and factories."
"Not that there is anything wrong with industrial production, with its higher standard of living," he points out. "Yet," he cautions, "we know, or should know, by this time, that our material riches unfortunately imply a spiritual, cultural, and moral poverty that are perhaps far greater than we see."
[Thomas Merton, "Mystics and Zen Masters," pp. 69-70.]
But, with a somewhat jaded eye, can we say that an apparently renewed interest in spirituality and Eastern insights that may help us address some of these imposing problems we face will be any less impervious to a flickering out than it was with the great Transcendentalists, or with Huxley, Merton or the radicals and gurus of the 1960s? One can hope that it will not be so, for it seems imperative (as Huxley noted) that we develop a new language and framework that will allow us to address our problems.
With an ever more widespread awareness of the perils that we collectively face, the possibilities of such a new language and framework for seeing both ourselves, our world and our place in the grander scheme of things seems more likely and more important now than it has ever been. "Where there's a will there is always an intellectual way," as Huxley observed.