Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Doors of Perception

The Doors of Perception is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. Mescaline is the principal agent of the psychedelic cactus peyote, which has been used in American religious ceremonies for thousands of years. The title comes from William Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The book takes the form of Huxley’s recollection of a mescaline trip which took place over the course of an afternoon. Huxley recalls the insights he experienced, which range from the "purely aesthetic" to "sacramental vision", he also incorporates later reflections on the experience and its meaning for art and religion.

Huxley had been interested in spiritual matters for some time, in the late Thirties he had become interested in the spiritual teaching of Vedanta and in 1945 he published The Perennial Philosophy, which set out a philosophy which he believed was found amongst mystics of all religions. Huxley had first heard of peyote use in ceremonies of the Native American Church in New Mexico soon after coming to the USA in 1937. He first became aware of the cactus’s active ingredient, mescaline, after reading an academic paper written by Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist working at Saskatchewan State Mental Hospital in early 1952.

After reading Osmond’s paper, Huxley sent him a letter on 10 April, 1952 expressing interest in the research and putting himself forwards as an experimental subject. His letter explained his motivations as being rooted in an idea that the brain is a reducing valve that restricts consciousness and hoping mescaline may help access a greater degree of awareness.

After a brief overview of research into mescaline, Huxley recounts that he was given 4/10 of a gram at 11.00 am one day in May 1953. Huxley writes that he hoped to gain insight into extraordinary states of mind and expected to see brightly-colored visionary landscapes. When he only sees lights and shapes, he puts this down to being a bad visualiser, however, he experiences a great change in the external world.

By 12.30, a vase of flowers becomes the "miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence". The experience, he asserts, is neither agreeable nor disagreeable, but simply "is". He likens it to Meister Eckhart’s ‘istigheit’ or ‘is-ness’, and Plato’s ‘Being’ but not separated from ‘Becoming’. He feels he understands the Hindu concept of Satchitananda, as well as the Zen koan that ‘the dharma body of the Buddha is in the hedge’ and Buddhist suchness. In this state, Huxley explains he didn’t have an ‘I’, but instead a ‘not-I’. Meaning and existence, pattern and colour become more significant than spatial relationships and time. Duration is replaced by a perpetual present.

Huxley concludes that mescaline is not enlightenment or the Beatific Vision, but a 'gratuitous grace' (a term taken from St Thomas AquinasSumma Theologica). It is not necessary but helpful, especially so for the intellectual, who can become the victim of words and symbols. Although systematic reasoning is important, direct perception has intrinsic value too. Finally, Huxley maintains that the person who has this experience will be transformed for the better.

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