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.
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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.
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