Monday, April 22, 2013

Book: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley



In the Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experience taking the mind altering hallucinogen Peyote (mescalin) as a guinea-pig for scientific observation. Huxley writes extraordinarily well, describing how the drug impacts his experiences and also making a strong case for the direct, perceptive experience versus the conceptual, systematic reasoning that dominates our approach to understanding the world around us.

After drinking the mescalin dissolved in water, the author describes how his "interest in space is diminished and interest in time fall to almost zero", and how almost complete emphasis in perception is then given to the underlying aesthetic reality of the object of focus. The interesting thesis here is that humans naturally constrain and limit the overwhelming external stimuli we are constantly subjected to, and while this is necessary to function effectively as people it also means that we are not experiencing the greater "Mind at Large". According to Huxley, mescalin has the effect of blocking or limiting the function of the "reducing valve", thereby allowing the Mind at Large to seep into our consciousness, an experience he describes as coming as close "as a finite mind can ever come to perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe". It is this trip through the "Door in the Wall" experience that Huxley encourages as a means of transcending self-hood for all, noting that humans the world over already reach mind altering chemicals to create such an  effect (alcohol, hashish, opium, etc) and calling for a safe drug to be created or discovered to achieve the desired end.

**** 1/2

Some passages from the text:
"...By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies -all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes."

"...In the mescalin experience the implied questions to which the eye responds are of another order. Place and distance cease to be of much interest. The mind does its Perceiving in terms of intensity of existence, profundity of significance, relationships within a pattern. I saw the books, but was not at all concerned with their positions in space. What I noticed, what impressed itself upon my mind was the fact that all of them glowed with living light and that in some the glory was more manifest than in others. In this context position and the three dimensions were beside the point. Not, of course, that the category of space had been abolished. When I got up and walked about, I could do so quite normally, without misjudging the whereabouts of objects. Space was still there; but it had lost its predominance. The mind was primarily concerned, not with measures and locations, but with being and meaning."

"...Reflecting on my experience, I find myself agreeing with the eminent Cambridge philosopher, Dr. C. D. Broad, "that we should do well to consider much more seriously than we have hitherto been inclined to do the type of theory which Bergson put forward in connection with memory and sense perception. The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful." According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large."

"..."This is how one ought to see," I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more than Van-Goghian chair. "This is how one ought to see, how things really are." And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else. Just looking, just being the divine Not-self of flower, of book, of chair, of flannel. That would be enough. But in that case what about other people? What about human relations? In the recording of that morning's conversations I find the question constantly repeated, "What about human relations?" How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel? "One ought to be able," I said, "to see these trousers as infinitely important and human beings as still more infinitely important." One ought-but in practice it seemed to be impossible. This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, the necessary concerns of human existence, above all for concerns involving persons. For Persons are selves and, in one respect at least, I was now a Not-self, simultaneously perceiving and being the Not-self of the things around me."

"... How was this cleansed perception to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion? The age-old debate between the actives and the contemplatives was being renewed..."

"...to be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large -this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual." 

"... 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."

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