As I’ve said before, before I left Facebook, someone recommended The Doors of Perception to me. As I read it, I could see why she. It’s similar in some ways to my experiences with ketamine. But it was also different enough that I decided to write a review, which will hopefully help the reader to see the differences and similarities between Huxley’s experience and mine.
The Doors of Perception is an essay about Aldous Huxley’s experience taking mescaline and his musings that result thereof. On May 3rd, 1953, Humphry Fortescue Osmond (referred to as an “investigator”) arrived in West Hollywood at Huxley’s house to administer mescaline to him, and Huxley’s experience was recorded on a dictating machine so as to refresh his memory of what was said.
Upon mescaline taking effect, what ensues is an odyssey centering around the way mescaline shapes the way Huxley perceives both the outscape (i.e. the physical world) and the inscape (i.e. the mind). This can be broken down into two basic qualities: an additive quality and a Zen quality.
The additive quality enables Huxley to perceive more — such as “supernaturally” brilliant colors he couldn’t see earlier -- but this isn’t limited to enhancing perception that deals with “the implied questions to which [sense organs respond]”. It also enables him to see beyond the carefully selected utilitarian material our “narrow” minds can normally perceive. It opens, as it were, the doors of perception.
For instance, measurements, locations, and even time cease to be important to Huxley, resulting in his small typing table, wicker chair, and desk appearing flattened and distorted, like still life in a Cubist painting. Thus, when Osmond asks him about space and time, he replies, “There seems to be plenty of it.” His mind is no longer concerned with measures and locations per se but with being and meaning.
He even declares, “This is how one ought to see, how things really are,” while obsessively fixating on the minutiae around him: the “labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity” made by the folds in his trousers, the “Inner Light” of some flowers, or the “miraculous tubularity” of the chair’s legs. However, he realizes that if one always saw things this way, one would never want to do anything else, and that is perhaps why our brains limit our perception. Mescaline gives access to contemplation that is incompatible with action and even the will to action.
The Zen quality is what most of Huxley’s other revelations stem from: what the Dharma-Body of the Buddha is, how one’s own mind contains mere symbols for Suchness (much as writing is symbols for objects and concepts), and what the “not-self” truly is—something made possible by the experience of dissociation, which also makes him realize what it must be like to schizophrenic. These give rise to some of the essay’s most fascinating sections.
For instance, religion, poetry, and art have placed greater importance on the “inscape” than on tangible objects as the former are supposed to have greater spiritual value because familiarity breeds contempt. Taoists and Zen Buddhists, though, are an exception. Not surprisingly, it was only in the Far East that landscape painters consciously regarded their art as religious.
Or take his observation that the urge to transcend the self is universal. Healthier "doors in the wall", or escapes, are needed than alcohol and tobacco. Some will be activity- or knowledge-based, but the need for chemical vacations will still remain. What is needed is a benign drug which will do that, and that drug, Huxley claims, is mescaline in modified form (its effects last too long in its natural form). After all, the fact that there is a worldwide connection between religion and drugs points to the fact that they are for satisfying the same needs, and one of those needs is self-transcendance. In fact, for the Native American Peyotists, religious experience is something more direct, illuminating, and spontaneous and not so much the product of the superficial, self-conscious mind. They’re also generally more industrious, temperate, and peaceable than non-Peyotists.
However, what really gets to the heart of his essay is reflections on the limits of words. Words can refer to sensations, feelings, insights, and such, but they're only an indirect way of conveying them. We can infer how the speaker might feel based on our own experiences, but we may miss important information. As such, one can never really know what it feels like to be someone else or truly understand what someone else feels. Huxley says gestalt psychologists have devised ways to help overcome the limits of language and further claims there is no interest in their methods in academia, but this is where the essay starts falling flat.
According to him, rationalists, intellectuals, educators, psychologists, philosophers, and clergy won’t give gestalt psychologists’ methods a chance because “[in] a world where education is predominantly verbal, highly educated people find it all but impossible to pay serious attention to anything but words and notions.”
He also claims direct perception of the inner and outer worlds should be unsystematic. He even considers systematic reasoning to be poor at understanding the relationship of words to things! Perhaps he saw reality as a bunch of stray information and a systematic approach as something that contaminates it. However, one must have a way of sorting through that information and making sense of it in a way that doesn’t produce inconsistencies. Being systematic can help one avoid making erroneous assumption and can help one decide whether a conscious or subconscious approach is better. And it certainly isn’t at odds at understanding the limits of language.
Overall, though, I highly recommend The Doors of Perception to anyone looking to enhance his or her understanding of reality.