Aldous Huxley: The Doors Of Perception

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I enjoyed Brave New World in high school, and until recently, that was all the Aldous Huxley I’d read. A few weeks ago I found a “two books in one” volume with Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. The former chronicles a mescalin trip Huxley took in the spring of 1953. I’ve never taken mescalin, but if the right opportunity presented itself, I would consider it. I’m sure that statement may seem anathema to many Christians, but… I’m just being honest. Is it right? Is it wrong?

I mean, how many Christians rely on pharmaceutical medicines for their day-to-day existence? In God’s eyes, how does that compare to a person taking mescalin once? Is taking an anti-depressant really that much different than drinking wine or smoking weed? Which, if either, is the greater sin, and what is the biblical justification for the argument? Perhaps we can explore this in greater detail in the thread, if anybody has anything interesting to add. Instead of summarize Huxley’s book, I’d like to share selected passages that stood out for me, and expound on them.

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. [13]

I agree. I think it’s important to step outside of oneself, and to try to experience oneself as others do. Watching a playback of oneself on film can be especially useful towards this end. It works the best when one is unaware that they are being recorded. Of course, I’m speaking figuratively here, but there is a sense in which one can literally step outside themselves, and for Huxley, mescalin was a key to this door. The experiences of the mystics and visionaries of old concur with those of the modern mescalin-taker, and–coincidentally [?] enough–those who have claimed to have died and come back. The materialist would have us believe it’s all just an illusion.

One of the things I really enjoyed about getting reacquainted with Huxley was his even and open-minded approach towards reality. Versatile, flexible thinkers impress me, and Huxley strikes me as balanced. His sound grasp of science and rational thinking is tempered by a humility that precludes the descent into scientism so prevalent amongst today’s intelligentsia. Instead of denigrating his religious and spiritual counterparts, he meets them halfway. The following remarks on “Mind at Large” seem to dovetail nicely into the discussions on consciousness we’ve been having around here lately:

To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born… [23]

Huxley describes a mescalin trip as visual impressions greatly intensified, with the intellect unimpaired. Again, this dovetails nicely with the NDE. The mescalin-taker loses interest in normality, opting instead for inner exploration, or, “better things to think about,” as Huxley put it.

What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all of the time [33].

If a writer may qualify as an artist of sorts, this might explain why I seem to see the world differently than the average person. Personally, I feel a bit like this most of the time. What they call “reality” I often find wholly uninteresting: so-and-so did such-and-such on TV, such-and-such team beat team so-and-so at game X, store Y has items A, B and C on sale… sober I couldn’t care less about these sorts of things, let alone on mescalin.

Huxley notes the heightened perception of color, and writes that man’s “highly developed color sense is a biological luxury–inestimably precious to him as an intellectual and spiritual being, but unnecessary to his survival as an animal [27].” I’d never really thought of that before. Indeed the vast array of colors we see does seem to be a bit gratuitous, such that it prompts the question: why, given evolution by natural selection, do we apparently have the capacity to see much more color than we need to?

Talking about aspects of waking awareness he’d rather forget, Huxley writes of “the world of self-assertion, of cocksureness, of overvalued words and idolatrously worshiped notions [36].” These are what I see when I watch television: one big cesspool of self-absorption and vanity. Don’t get me wrong, decent shows and movies exist, but I find the bulk of what we call “entertainment” to be thoroughly boring. At times, feel like I was born a few centuries late.

From the records of religion and the surviving monuments of poetry and the plastic arts it is very plain that, at most times and in most places, men have attached more importance to the inscape than to objective existents, have felt that what they saw with their eyes shut possessed a spiritually higher significance than what they saw with their eyes open [46].

Elsewhere Huxley writes of the “retreat from the outward Datum into the personal subconscious [49].” I find myself continually amazed at how little importance many atheists and materialists attribute to the experience of consciousness itself. I suppose it’s understandable if one embraces a worldview that relegates consciousness to the mere after-effect of matter dancing to-and-fro, but still, it strikes me as odd, anti-human even. On my view, consciousness leads, and matter follows.

The urge to escape from selfhood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time [63].

To me, the ubiquitous human desire to modify consciousness can be taken as evidence of a powerful and universal longing for something other-worldly. From shaman to pharmacist to street kid, we find this desire. I can say that this true of myself, and perhaps sometime I’ll write about some of the experiences I’ve had trying to sate this desire. Of course, religion is another means people use to sate it, and of this, Huxley writes:

Countless persons desire self-transcendence and would be glad to find it in church. But, alas, “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed.” They take part in rites, they listen to sermons, they repeat prayers; but their thirst remains unassuaged [69].

One could write about the deficiencies of sterile religion. The apostles were on some entirely different stuff. When I read the Bible I feel like a joke compared to these guys. Whereas my approach is often intellectual, they took faith as something to be experienced and manifested into the world; an active force to collapse wave-functions producing real change in the real world. The blind saw. The deaf heard. The dead were raised. What am I doing? Apostolic power demands attention. I will go so far as to say we are compromised Christians so long as this is an exercise in debate.

On the final page, and perhaps my favorite passage in the book, Huxley writes:

…the man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out. He will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend [79].

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