Part of Britain's post-war intellectual elite, Aldous Huxley had been educated at Eton College and Oxford University, where because of an eye condition he had been diverted away from a scientific career towards the world of literature. The same condition would later prompt a move to the sunny dryness of California.
Ironically for a person with eyesight problems, Huxley's great interest was how our ways of seeing could either liberate or imprison us. The author is probably best known for Brave New World, the dystopian vision of a society in which technology has outstripped morality. Like Orwell's 1984, it showed that power lay in the ability to make other people accept your view of the world, and that this uniformity of perception killed the human spirit.
One path around perceptional conformity, Huxley noticed, was through mystical or religious states of mind. His book The Perennial Philosophy had picked out the common threads in the world's religions, quoting at length from the various saints and mystics that had taken human consciousness to another level. One of these was English visionary William Blake, who had written, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
Taking off the blinkers
The preceding quote appears at the beginning of Huxley's The Doors of Perception, an essay that describes his eye-opening experience with the drug mescalin. Though no mystic himself, Huxley wished at least to have a glimpse of the higher states which the likes of Blake, Swedenborg and the Eastern mystics had described, and in mescalin found a possible shortcut to open the perceptual doors.
Mescalin is an extract of the root of the Mexican peyotl cactus, which had long been eaten and venerated by the peoples of Mexico and the American Southwest because it prompted visionary experiences. The drug, which was not illegal, inhibited the production of enzymes regulating the supply of glucose to the brain cells. While normally the brain worked as a filtering mechanism, sifting out information not relevant to our survival, mescalin effectively took these blinkers off. One would therefore see the world as if for the first time.
One spring day in 1953, in the presence of his wife Maria and a friend playing the role of scientific observer, Huxley first tried mescalin in his Los Angeles home. In the first hour of the experiment, Huxley saw no wonderful worlds of the William Blake variety, only a modest dance of lights and moving structures and shapes. Instead, it was the everyday things around him that took on a new significance.
A small vase of flowers including a rose, carnation and iris stood on the table next to him, which he had admired in passing that morning at breakfast. As the drug began to really take effect, the flowers seem to shine with inner light as well as their surface beauty. Huxley writes: "I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation - the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence."
Seeing beyond the object
Our normal state of mind is continually calculating the relationships between things, measuring and analyzing. But Huxley reported that under the influence of mescalin, place, time and distance ceased to matter very much. He looks at his watch, but realizes it exists 'in another universe', because he has discovered what it means to live in a perpetual present. For the first time, he grasps directly the idea of 'Beingness' that he long read about in Eastern religion, the bliss of truly living in the moment.
He looks at a table, desk and chair also in the room, but not as discrete objects. They appear to him more like the abstract arrangement of diagonals and shapes of modern art, like a composition by Braque or Juan Gris. He now sees only patterns of light; the part of his brain which normally speaks in terms of 'that is the chair where I sit to work at my desk' has been shut off: "The legs, for example of that chair - how miraculous their tubularity, how supernatural their polished smoothness!" He sees the 'Nature of Things' as opposed to their worth as objects - the way a mystic perceives the world. Huxley marvels at the folds in his trousers, which suddenly appear as "a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity!"
Beyond the self
At times the trip got a bit much for Huxley, and he realized why the literature of religious experience talked of horror and fear as much as ecstasy. In higher states there is the fear of being overwhelmed, of your little brain not being able to cope with what you see and experience. He describes this as the 'the incompatibility between man's egotism and the divine purity.'
Huxley explains that mescalin's restriction of sugar to the brain results in the normal activity of the ego getting weak. There were two people in the room with him, he writes, ".but both belonged to the world from which, for the moment, mescalin had delivered me - the world of selves, of time, or moral judgments and utilitarian considerations, the world (and it was this aspect of human life which I wished, above all else, to forget) of self-assertion, of cocksureness, of over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped notions."
Huxley's insight is echoed by many a saint, mystic, genius and yogi, who have tried to convey what being a human is like when the ego has been transcended. Lost in the direct perception of reality, our ego disappears and we become a 'Not-self' - one with nature or God.
Huxley's drug experiment showed him that most people - including himself - lived within a very narrow band of perception, and that this narrowness made for less of a life. Yet Huxley also acknowledged that a drug-induced opening up of the mind could only ever be temporary, and he did not live to see the social and intellectual revolution of the 1960s in which people forgot this essential caveat.
The very literate Californian rock legends The Doors took their name from Huxley's essay, and the term 'human potential' arose from a series of lectures given by Huxley at the groundbreaking Esalen Institute, founded in 1962. Though it was by no great design that he ended up there, Huxley's presence in California until the early 1960s was one of the seeds that grew into a flowering of alternative ways of seeing and being.
Huxley's simple observation was that if our great artists, geniuses and saints had been able to break open the doors to perception, surely this was a path which all humanity might take. It was part of being human to try to go beyond the normal sense of self. Perhaps in the future, it would be not only the mystics who could experience the great spiritual mysteries first hand, but anyone open to them.
50 Spiritual Classics, the book:
|"What an uplifting journey I had reading 50 Spiritual Classics! If you only ever read one spiritual book, let is be this one. Tom Butler-Bowdon's insightful and inspirational commentaries cover an amazing range of ideas and writings. I predict that 50 Spiritual Classics will become a classic in itself.|
Susan Jeffers PhD, author of
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway and Embracing Uncertainty
|"A kaleidoscope of inspiration ...insightful commentaries on each classic and biographical information on the authors. A unique overview of spirituality.|
Watkins Review, Summer 2005
LITERATURE OF POSSIBILITY NEWSLETTER
Reflections on the great teachings and lessons from self-development, psychology and philosophy. Free, please join!
Your details will not be shared with anyone.
His mother died of cancer when he was only 14. While at Eton, an eye disease almost turned him blind, but he recovered enough to go on to Oxford University. While at Oxford he enjoyed the company of Bertrand Russell, Lytton Strachey and DH Lawrence.
Huxley married in 1919, to the Belgian Maria Nys. They traveled frequently through the 1920s, including trips to India and the United States, and divided their time between England and Italy. In these years the author wrote Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), Those Barren Leaves (1925) and Point Counter Point (1928). Brave New World (1932) was partly inspired by his experience of fascist Italy under Mussolini.
The Huxley's moved to California in 1937, where Aldous worked as a Hollywood screenwriter. Maria died of breast cancer the year after publication of The Doors of Perception, and Huxley married again in 1955 to Laura Archera. The essay Heaven and Hell (1956) expands on the ideas in The Doors of Perception, and the utopian novel Island (1962) provides a spiritual counterpoint to Brave New World.The author died in 1963, on the same day as CS Lewis and President Kennedy.
--- parameterHolder: symfony/default: action: show edit: false module: sfSimpleCMS slug: the-doors-of-perception attributeHolder: symfony/default: culture: en
--- app_sfAssetsLibrary_upload_dir: media app_sf_guard_plugin_remember_key_expiration_age: 259200 mod_sfsimplecms_enabled: 1 mod_sfsimplecms_is_internal: mod_sfsimplecms_view_class: sfPHP propel_behavior_actasnestedset_sfSimpleCMSPage_columns: left: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_LEFT right: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_RIGHT parent: sf_simple_cms_page.TREE_PARENT scope: sf_simple_cms_page.TOPIC_ID sf_admin_web_dir: /sf/sf_admin sf_app: frontend sf_app_config_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/config sf_app_config_dir_name: config sf_app_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend sf_app_i18n_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/i18n sf_app_i18n_dir_name: i18n sf_app_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/lib sf_app_lib_dir_name: lib sf_app_module_action_dir_name: actions sf_app_module_config_dir_name: config sf_app_module_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/modules sf_app_module_dir_name: modules sf_app_module_i18n_dir_name: i18n sf_app_module_lib_dir_name: lib sf_app_module_template_dir_name: templates sf_app_module_validate_dir_name: validate sf_app_module_view_dir_name: views sf_app_template_dir: /var/www/cms/apps/frontend/templates sf_app_template_dir_name: templates sf_apps_dir_name: apps sf_autoloading_functions: sf_available: 1 sf_base_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend sf_bin_dir: /var/www/cms/batch sf_bin_dir_name: batch sf_cache: sf_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod sf_cache_dir_name: cache sf_calendar_web_dir: /sf/calendar sf_charset: utf-8 sf_check_lock: sf_check_symfony_version: sf_compressed: sf_config_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/config sf_config_dir: /var/www/cms/config sf_config_dir_name: config sf_data_dir: /var/www/cms/data sf_data_dir_name: data sf_debug: sf_default_action: index sf_default_module: default sf_doc_dir: /var/www/cms/data/doc sf_doc_dir_name: doc sf_enabled_modules: - default - sfGuardAuth - sfSimpleCMS sf_environment: prod sf_error_404_action: error404 sf_error_404_module: default sf_error_reporting: 341 sf_escaping_method: ESC_ENTITIES sf_escaping_strategy: bc sf_etag: 1 sf_i18n: sf_i18n_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/i18n sf_in_bootstrap: 1 sf_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/lib sf_lib_dir_name: lib sf_log_dir: /var/www/cms/log sf_log_dir_name: log sf_logging_enabled: sf_logging_history: 10 sf_logging_level: err sf_logging_period: 7 sf_logging_purge: sf_logging_rotate: 1 sf_login_action: signin sf_login_module: sfGuardAuth sf_max_forwards: 5 sf_model_dir_name: model sf_model_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/lib/model sf_module_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/modules sf_module_disabled_action: disabled sf_module_disabled_module: default sf_no_script_name: 1 sf_orm: propel sf_path_info_array: SERVER sf_path_info_key: PATH_INFO sf_plugins_dir: /var/www/cms/plugins sf_plugins_dir_name: plugins sf_prototype_web_dir: /sf/prototype sf_rich_text_js_dir: js/tiny_mce sf_root_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache sf_root_dir: /var/www/cms sf_routing_defaults: sf_culture: en sf_secure_action: secure sf_secure_module: sfGuardAuth sf_standard_helpers: - Partial - Cache - Form sf_strip_comments: 1 sf_suffix: . sf_symfony_data_dir: /var/www/cms/config/../data/symfony sf_symfony_lib_dir: /var/www/cms/config/../lib/symfony sf_template_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/template sf_test: sf_test_cache_dir: /var/www/cms/cache/frontend/prod/test sf_test_dir: /var/www/cms/test sf_test_dir_name: test sf_timeout: 1800 sf_unavailable_action: unavailable sf_unavailable_module: default sf_upload_dir: /var/www/cms/web/uploads sf_upload_dir_name: uploads sf_url_format: PATH sf_use_database: 1 sf_use_flash: 1 sf_use_process_cache: 1 sf_use_security: 1 sf_validation_error_class: form_error sf_validation_error_id_prefix: error_for_ sf_validation_error_prefix: ↓ sf_validation_error_suffix: ↓ sf_web_debug: 1 sf_web_debug_web_dir: /sf/sf_web_debug sf_web_dir: /var/www/cms/web sf_web_dir_name: web
--- cookie: env: files: get: post: server: CONTEXT_DOCUMENT_ROOT: /var/www/cms/web CONTEXT_PREFIX: DOCUMENT_ROOT: /var/www/cms/web GATEWAY_INTERFACE: CGI/1.1 HTTP_ACCEPT: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8 HTTP_ACCEPT_ENCODING: x-gzip, gzip, deflate HTTP_ACCEPT_LANGUAGE: en-us,en-gb,en;q=0.7,*;q=0.3 HTTP_HOST: butler-bowdon.com HTTP_USER_AGENT: CCBot/2.0 (http://commoncrawl.org/faq/) PATH: /usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin:/sbin:/bin PHP_SELF: /index.php QUERY_STRING: REDIRECT_STATUS: 200 REDIRECT_URL: /the-doors-of-perception REMOTE_ADDR: 126.96.36.199 REMOTE_PORT: 51398 REQUEST_METHOD: GET REQUEST_SCHEME: http REQUEST_TIME: 1427625301 REQUEST_TIME_FLOAT: 1427625301.657 REQUEST_URI: /the-doors-of-perception SCRIPT_FILENAME: /var/www/cms/web/index.php SCRIPT_NAME: /index.php SERVER_ADDR: 188.8.131.52 SERVER_ADMIN: [no address given] SERVER_NAME: butler-bowdon.com SERVER_PORT: 80 SERVER_PROTOCOL: HTTP/1.0 SERVER_SIGNATURE: | <address>Apache/2.4.7 (Ubuntu) Server at butler-bowdon.com Port 80</address> SERVER_SOFTWARE: Apache/2.4.7 (Ubuntu) session: lang: home
--- php: 5.5.9-1ubuntu4.5 os: Linux butler-bowdon 3.13.0-37-generic #64-Ubuntu SMP Mon Sep 22 21:28:38 UTC 2014 x86_64 extensions: - Core - date - ereg - libxml - openssl - pcre - zlib - bcmath - bz2 - calendar - ctype - dba - dom - hash - fileinfo - filter - ftp - gettext - SPL - iconv - mbstring - session - posix - Reflection - standard - shmop - SimpleXML - soap - sockets - Phar - exif - sysvmsg - sysvsem - sysvshm - tokenizer - wddx - xml - xmlreader - xmlwriter - zip - apache2handler - PDO - json - mysql - mysqli - pdo_mysql - readline - mhash - Zend OPcache