IV. In America: Vedanta Society

With Aldous Huxley at North Carolina's Black Mountain College, 1937.

 

Courtesy Laura A. Huxley.

by Jay Michael Barrie

On April 12, 1937, together with his close friends Aldous and Maria Huxley, their then 17-year-old son Matthew, and pianist/movie critic Christopher Wood, Gerald Heard arrived in New York City on the S.S. Normandie. He had been offered the post of Chairman of Historical Anthropology at Duke University but decided, after delivering a series of lectures in that capacity for one term, that university life would be too confining for his curiosity-ridden mind, to which absolute freedom from such constraints as academic party lines was as essential as is oxygen to the human brain.

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Heard Hanging Laundry at the La Verne Conference on Spiritual Life, 1941

Courtesy Ettalie Wallace.

So after exploring the East Coast, the Northern Middle West, and the West Coast, and following a brief joint-lecture tour on world peace with Huxley—his participation in which was cut short by a broken arm—he settled in Southern California by early 1938. This was to be his home base from then on. There he worked with the Society of Friends and the Pacific Coast Institute of International Affairs. In the summer of 1941 he directed the Conference on Spiritual Life at La Verne College, east of Los Angeles.

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Swami Prabhavananda.

Courtesy Vedanta Society of Southern California.

But it was in Hollywood where, in 1939, Heard met the aforementioned Swami Prabhavananda, founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and began, under his guidance, the study and practice of Vedanta, which was to give him his final philosophical frame of reference. Referring to Heard’s popularizing influence of Vedanta on Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and other Western notables, mystery writer Ellery Queen wrote, "Gerald Heard is the spiritual godfather of this Western movement."

Prepared by his conclusions regarding a self-existent consciousness that might operate outside time and space and would therefore be without beginning or end, he began accepting the Vedantic definition of Reality as being that which never changes or ceases to exist. He also accepted that the nature of this Reality is essentially a mystery. That is, it cannot be understood through or grasped by rational processes; it can only be known through an immediate experience. He accepted further that this Reality was the first cause, the source of all the diversity that we seem to apprehend through the five senses, and which, pervading the diversity and containing it in itself, could be experienced. In addition, he accepted the idea that this reality had been experienced by others, and that to experience it was the sole purpose of a human existence.

This self-perpetuating cycle of bondage to greed and the passions goes on and on, life after life according to Vedanta theory, until the ego becomes weary of it and longs to be free. Freedom is accomplished by a threefold practice: (1) discrimination between the Real (as defined above) and the unreal; (2) detachment from the unreal; and (3) devotion to the Real. Persistence in this practice of “paying attention” will at last destroy the five processes of bondage (ignorance, attachment, aversion, clinging to life, fear of death), and Reality will be experienced. This is of necessity a severely compressed rendition of Heard’s “minimum-working hypothesis,” but it has been attempted in the hope that it will interest others in reading the works of this remarkable and neglected thinker.

"The world exists for man to achieve union with God. The universe and life are the means whereby souls achieve Enlightenment and Liberation." The Code of Christ, 1941

Gerald Heard was often dismissed as a "mystic" by a press that at the same time could not but admit the originality of his thinking, implying thereby that here was a brilliant mind that had somehow gotten off on a wrong tack and ended up with a cosmology and ethic that, although commendable in their idealism, were not only deviations from the presently accepted concept and code, but were highly impractical and thus inapplicable in the world of today. However, the true mystic does in the inner world of mind and consciousness what the scientist does in the outer world of matter, energy, light, time-space, and causation.

First of all, they both gather data—leaving out none of the data even though some may prove to be an embarrassment to established theories—from which they form a hypothesis. Then they experiment in an effort to demonstrate their hypothesis. The scientist, if he or she succeeds, produces a repeatable result. The mystic, if he or she is successful, has an immediate experience that is irrefutable and repeatable. In this sense of the word, Gerald Heard was a mystic. At the same time he always maintained that science and mysticism are not in opposition but are complementary pursuits of the human mind that are indispensable for a cohesive and thus a viable society. In other words, physics and psychology must advance side by side.

This, then, was the man of "daring theory" about whom Christopher Isherwood wrote. And he was indeed a man of “devoted practice,” for when he had gathered together sufficient data to form what he called, “the most meaningful hypothesis” as to meaning, method, and training, Heard dedicated himself from then on to a life of discrimination, detachment, and devotion.