Zen Master Alan Watts Discovers the Secrets of Aldous Huxley and His Art of Dying

Few fig­ures were as influ­en­tial as Alan Watts and Aldous Hux­ley in pop­u­lar­iz­ing exper­i­ments with psy­che­del­ic drugs and East­ern reli­gion in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Watts did more to intro­duce West­ern­ers to Zen Bud­dhism than almost any­one before or since; Huxley’s exper­i­ments with mesca­line and LSD—as well as his lit­er­ary cri­tiques of West­ern tech­no­crat­ic rationalism—are well-known. But in a coun­ter­cul­tur­al move­ment large­ly dom­i­nat­ed by men—Watts and Hux­ley, Ken Kesey, Tim­o­thy Leary, Allen Gins­berg, etc—Huxley’s wid­ow Lau­ra came to play a sig­nif­i­cant role after her husband’s death.

In fact, as we’ve dis­cussed before, she played a sig­nif­i­cant role dur­ing his death, inject­ing him with LSD and read­ing to him from The Tibetan Book of the Dead as he passed away. In the inter­view above, Lau­ra speaks with Watts about that expe­ri­ence, one she learned from Aldous, who per­formed a sim­i­lar ser­vice for his first wife as she died in 1955. The occa­sion of the interview—conducted at Watts’ Sausal­i­to home in 1968—is the pub­li­ca­tion of Lau­ra Huxley’s mem­oir of life with her hus­band, This Time­less Moment. But talk of the book soon prompts dis­cus­sion of Huxley’s grace­ful exit, which Watts calls “a high­ly intel­li­gent form of dying.”

Watts relates an anec­dote about Goethe’s last hours, dur­ing which a vis­i­tor was told that he was “busy dying.” “Dying is an art,” says Watts, “and it’s also an adven­ture,” Lau­ra adds. Their dis­cus­sion then turns to Huxley’s final nov­el, Island (which you can read in PDF here). Island has rarely been favor­ably reviewed as a lit­er­ary endeav­or. And yet, as Watts points out, it wasn’t intend­ed as lit­er­a­ture, but as a “soci­o­log­i­cal blue­print in the form of a nov­el.” Lau­ra Hux­ley, upset at the book’s chilly recep­tion, wish­es her hus­band had “writ­ten it straight.” Nonethe­less, she points out that Island was much more than a Utopi­an fan­ta­sy or philo­soph­i­cal thought exper­i­ment. It was a doc­u­ment in which “every method, every recipe… is some­thing he exper­i­ment­ed with him­self in his own life.” As Lau­ra wrote in This Time­less Moment:

Every sin­gle thing that is writ­ten in Island has hap­pened and it’s pos­si­ble and actu­al … Island is real­ly vision­ary com­mon sense. Things that Aldous and many oth­er peo­ple said, that were seen as so auda­cious — they are com­mon sense, but they were vision­ary because they had not yet hap­pened.

Those things includ­ed not only rad­i­cal forms of liv­ing, but also, as Hux­ley him­self demon­strat­ed, rad­i­cal ways of dying.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

Aldous Hux­ley Reads Dra­ma­tized Ver­sion of Brave New World

Leonard Cohen Nar­rates Film on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Fea­tur­ing the Dalai Lama (1994)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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