Life gets busy. Has The Doors of Perception been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
The Doors of Perception was published in 1954. It covers Aldous Huxley’s first psychedelic experience, which was under the influence of mescaline. This book recalls the insights he experienced and the aesthetic beauty he saw. This psychedelic experience helped him develop psychological and philosophical ideas around perception. Specifically, Huxley states we live in a narrow field of perception. Opening our minds to a wider variety of perceptual experiences will improve our lives. Subsequently, Huxley recommends mescaline to others.
Aldous Huxley’s Perspective
Aldous Huxley was a post-war intellectual elite. He was educated at Eton College and Oxford University. Although initially interested in science, Huxley would eventually move into literature. Huxley was deeply interested in how we perceive things and subsequently wrote Brave New World, a dystopian vision of society. The Doors of Perception offers an example of how we can break away from society-driven perception and uniquely experience the world.
“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 sure, 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” – Aldous Huxley
Exposing Himself to Mescaline
Although Huxley did not have a mystic background, he was extremely interested in the higher cognitive states that individuals like Blake, Swedenborg, and Eastern mystics had described. So, he decided to take mescaline as a way of encouraging higher awareness.
Mescaline is an extract found at the root of the Mexican peyote cactus. Indigenous Mexicans have eaten this root for thousands of years. Specifically, it is often used as part of spiritual rituals. Mescaline works by inhibiting the production of enzymes that regulate the supply of glucose to the brain cells. Mescaline heightens your awareness by removing our evolutionary filters. We see parts of the world for the first time.
In 1953, Huxley decided to try mescaline for the first time. He did this in his LA home and took it in the presence of his wife and a friend. These two companions acted as scientific observers and were there to help support him if he had a bad trip. He tried the drug out of personal interest but also because a scientist was conducting psychological research into mescaline. Huxley swallowed 4/10 of a gram of mescaline, dissolved in half a glass of water.
The first hour of Huxley’s psychedelic experience was not overwhelming. He had expected to lie with his eye shuts and see visions of multicolored geometries and heroic figures. Huxley expected a symbolic drama to emerge before his eyes. He was particularly expectant due to his temperament, training and habits related to spirituality. This openness was trumped by his poor visualization.
“I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer.
Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No
hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the
memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object. By an effort
of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday after-
noon, of how the Lungarno used to look before the bridges were destroyed, of the
Bayswater Road when the only buses were green and tiny and drawn by aged horses at three and a half miles an hour.” – Aldous Huxley
Instead of seeing dancing lights and moving shapes, Huxley saw his household items in a completely different way. Half an hour after swallowing the drug, Huxley describes becoming aware of a slow dance of golden lights. Soon he was seeing red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy. These nodes vibrated and were constantly changing in their shape and pattern. Later during his trip, Huxley closed his eyes and revealed a complex of gray structures which lay within pale blue spheres. These structures kept emerging before sliding upwards and out of his perception. The author is keen to point out that he saw no faces or forms or animals. He also saw no landscapes, expansive spaces or magical growth. So, the drama and story he was expecting never happened.
What Huxley did experience was a deep connection with a vase of flowers. An hour and a half after taking the pill, Huxley was sat in his study. His dinner table was adorned with a small vase decorated with flowers. He could not take his eyes off the three flowers painted onto the vase. He describes the color of each of these flowers with clear passion:
“Belie of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal’s base of a hotter, flamier
hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of
its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris.” – Aldous Huxley
At breakfast and before taking the pill, Huxley had noticed the lively dissonance of the vase’s colors. But he was now looking at a dramatic flower arrangement with all colors connected. He describes this experience as being like what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation: naked existence.
Seeing Beyond the Object
Our minds are built to identify relationships between things. We are continually measuring and analyzing the world around us. Huxley explains that mescaline helps you see beyond the object. Instead, the place and distance of objects are unimportant. Additionally, time becomes absolute. At this moment, Huxley’s time on his watch felt like it was from another world. He no longer had a perception of the past or future. Instead, he only knew the present. He described this feeling as being the first time in his life that he knew what it meant to simply ‘be’. This beingness is something he had read about when Eastern religions had described heightened perceptions.
The objects in his room were no longer discrete objects to him. Instead, they were all attached, like a work of modern art. Sharp shapes and diagonals jutted out to the extent that all he saw was patterns of light. He no longer viewed these objects as objects. He no longer understood the chair next to him was for sitting. Instead, he appreciated the chair for its ‘being’. Huxley appreciated the tubularity of its legs and its polished smoothness. He was focused on objects’ nature rather than the purpose he had attributed to them.
Seeing Beyond the Self
“But both belonged to the world from which, for the moment, mescaline 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.” – Aldous Huxley
Huxley was not always enjoying his trip, though. At times, the trip became too much for Huxley. He came to realize why the literature on ecstasy was filled with so much horror and fear. Huxley learned that these higher states have the potential to overwhelm you. Your brain is not used to coping with every detail of the world in front of us. Our brain’s filter is evolutionarily essential, and this means trips can quickly become overwhelming.
Huxley describes in The Doors of Perception that the sugar restriction caused by mescaline is what leads to the ego becoming weak. This was a new experience for Huxley and is something we never experience unless we take psychedelics or engage with certain meditation types. Although scary at first, this experience helped Huxley feel at one with nature and a higher power.
Huxley explains that after taking the pill, he had become a Not-Self, while also perceiving and being the Not-Self of the things around him. This Not-Self was new-born and all previous behaviors, appearances, and thoughts of the Self ceased to be. The scientist encouraged the author to analyze and report what they were feeling and doing. Still, he just wanted to be left alone. He wanted to spend eternity living in a flower. As he couldn’t be left alone, he instead avoided the eyes of those who were with him in the room. He avoided their eye contact to retain a feeling of Not-Self. Huxley respected the investigator and loved his wife. That said, this disconnection from his Self meant they belonged to a different world. Mescaline had delivered Huxley from this world of Selves, time and moral judgments.
Delivery from this world made everything within that previous world seem obscure and ridiculous. Huxley used the example of a stage during his trip when he was handed a large colored reproduction of the self-portrait by Cézanne. The self-portrait is a realist painting with him wearing a large straw hat, red-cheeked, red-lipped, with a black mustache. Huxley’s previous Self deemed this painting a masterpiece. But this Non-Self version of Huxley could not understand this painting. Instead of viewing a masterpiece, Cézanne’s head became a 3D goblin. This goblin was looking out through a window, which was the page, at him. Huxley found this hilarious and started to laugh and said, “Who on earth does he think he is?” This example shows how much Huxley detached from his former Self and the concepts of the world he lived in. He now had a completely different experience and understanding of his environment.
What Huxley Learned
Huxley’s drug experiment taught him a lot about perception. He believes our usual experiences are such a narrow field of perception. There are so many more experiences we can open our minds to if we utilize specific approaches. He accepted that drugs could only open the mind for a very temporary period. He argued that we should all try and break open the doors of perception if possible. Huxley believed that these experiences could be useful for every person, rather than just mystics and artists. Everybody can learn from different perceptions.
Finally, Huxley specifically recommended that people take mescaline. At the time of writing this book, alcohol and tobacco were exceptionally popular. Huxley argued that mescaline was a far more advantageous drug for altering our consciousness. He states that it is more compatible, more spiritual, and more advantageous than other drugs. It helps us to break through social conventions and perceive the world around us in our own unique way.
The Doors of Perception offers a detailed description of Huxley’s first experience of mescaline. Mescaline is a psychedelic drug used by many philosophers, artists and musicians. It is also an ancient psychedelic, with a strong relationship to spirituality for thousands of years. This psychedelic experience was life-changing for Huxley. Stepping outside of the world allowed him to understand how narrow everyone’s perceptions are. These types of drugs offer a temporary experience of opening the doors of perception. So, Huxley recommends others trying psychedelics themselves so that they can be motivated to widen their perceptions in the “real world.”
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