A Second Conversion

by Huston Smith

I was recently asked to write a foreword for the upcoming re-publication of Gerald Heard’s book, Pain, Sex and Time. I suspect that the book would not be brought back into print if I had not referred to it so frequently as having occasioned one of the two conversions I have undergone in my life. The first of these was my conversion from the world of practical affairs to the life of the mind. The second was when, overnight, Heard’s book converted me from the scientific worldview (which takes the visible world to be the only world there is) to the vaster world of the mystics. I am in good company in owing that conversion to Gerald Heard, for Heard also converted Aldous Huxley from the cynical nihilism of his Brave New World to the mysticism of The Perennial Philosophy.

My story is briefly told. I was a graduate student when the dissertation I was writing ran into the problem of pain. I hadn't given the subject much thought, so I went to the university library and checked out three books dealing with it. Back in my room after supper I found my hand gravitating to the one with the most interesting title, Pain, Sex and Time. It took only a few pages to realize that it had nothing to do with my dissertation, but I kept on reading. And reading. When dawn broke I was living in the new world that has housed me ever since.

I determined that the book had so radically changed by point of view, that I wouldn’t read anything else written by him until after I received my degree, but once my PhD was in hand, I would read everything. In 1947, while living in Denver and about to move to St. Louis, I decided to try to meet Gerald before moving further east. I got the address of Trabuco College from his publisher and set out hitchhiking to Southern California. Through that meeting, Gerald introduced me to Aldous Huxley, who in turn suggested that I contact Swami Satprakashananda with the Vedanta Society when I got to St. Louis.

Until very recently, nearly sixty years later, I have not returned to Heard's book for fear that I would find it disappointing; we all know that what impacts us at one time may not do so later, for one can't step into the same river twice. I suspect that I might never have reread it had the invitation to write a foreword not provided the needed excuse for interrupting other duties. I am glad it did, for the rereading has not disappointed me. It is a good book, a very good book that withstands the passage of time admirably. But before I say more about it I should say something more about its author.

Today almost no one has heard of Gerald Heard, but in the second third of the 20th century the situation was otherwise; he was a well-known British polymath. He began his career as science commentator for the BBC, and H. G. Wells was widely quoted as saying that he was the only one he bothered to listen to on the “wireless.” Heard’s remarkable early trilogy of academic books included The Ascent of Humanity (1929), The Social Substance of Religion (1931), and The Source of Civilization (1935). Pain, Sex and Time came out in 1939, and in 1941 he wrote the most successful detective story of the day, A Taste for Honey, which sold over half a million copies, an astronomical number in those days. Thirty more books poured forth after that.

In Pain, Sex and Time Heard describes how science deals with what happens and sidesteps why questions, but a complete account must include them. So with the wisdom of hindsight we can say that the object of the evolutionary process seems to have been to produce bodies with minds. When these advance to self-consciousness the mind becomes free. No longer defined by antecedent causes, it can take charge of its future.

The evolution of the human body has been completed, but it possesses two properties that suggest that its mind can continue to evolve. One of these is its inordinate sensitivity to pain, and the other is human sexuality, which is not contained by periodicity and is permanently available. The surplus vitality that these properties token suggests that in humanity the life force is pressing like a jack-in-the-box for the release that mental evolution could afford. Rudiments of such evolution can be spotted in historical times in the increasing acuity of human vision and its ability to distinguish more bands in the color spectrum, but the real evolution will be in the ability of consciousness to break out of individual pockets — packets I almost wrote — and phase into God's infinite consciousness. This is more than a theoretical possibility. Mystics are the advance scouts of mankind who have transcended their egos and in exceptional cases merged with God completely. One more point. Methods for effecting this breakout are solidly in place. They are the spiritual techniques of yoga, meditation and prayer.

This is the vision that took me over on that fate-filled night when I first read this book, and my pulse still quickens as I bring it to mind. But the brief account of it that I have given doesn't come close to indicating what an interesting book it is. Heard constructs his thesis from an awesome data bank, and even those who do not find the thesis convincing will find the book bristling with obscure scientific and historical facts that keep the pages turning. Some of the facts have been disproved, but enough of them remain to make the thesis still credible. If it was strong enough to persuade Huxley, I for one am still not going to dismiss it out of hand.


"Overnight, Heard’s book converted me from the scientific worldview... to the vaster world of the mystics."

 

Huston Smith is Thomas J. Watson Professor of Religion and Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, Syracuse University. For 15 years he was Professor of Philosophy at M.I.T. and for a decade before that he taught at Washington University in St. Louis. Most recently he has served as Visiting Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Berkeley. Holder of twelve honorary degrees, Smith's 14 books include The World's Religions, which has sold over 2 ó million copies, and Why Religion Matters, which won the Wilbur Award for the best book on religion published in 2001. In 1996 Bill Moyers devoted a five-part PBS Special, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith, to his life and work. His film documentaries on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won international awards, and The Journal of Ethnomusicology lauded his discovery of Tibetan multiphonic chanting as "…an important landmark in the study of music." For more on Huston Smith, visit The Huston Smith website.

Prof. Smith has written the foreword to the December 2004 reissue of Gerald Heard’s 1939 classic, Pain, Sex and Time.