Mind at Large

Aldous Huxley’s (1894-1963) best known works are Brave New World, written in 1931, a favorite time-frame of mine since it was the same year that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein were released; The Perennial Philosophy in 1945, and the work that concerns us here, The Doors of Perception in 1954.

During early 1953, Huxley experimented with Mescaline. He experienced what his favorite Romantic Poet William Blake had penned: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Huxley was looking for mind-transcendence and this was part of what he experienced:

The change which actually took place in that world was in no sense revolutionary. Half an hour after swallowing the drug I became aware of a slow dance of golden lights. A little later there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life. At another time the closing of my eyes revealed a complex of gray structures, within which pale bluish spheres kept emerging into intense solidity and, having emerged, would slide noiselessly upwards, out of sight. But at no time were there faces or forms of men or animals. I saw no landscapes, no enormous spaces, no magical growth and metamorphosis of buildings, nothing remotely like a drama or a parable. The other world to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.

The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant. (Doors of Perception)

What primarily interests me is the emphasis that what he experienced was “neither agreeable nor disagreeable” but “just IS”:

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness”? The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss-for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to. And then I remembered a passage I had read in one of Suzuki’s essays. “What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha?” (‘”the Dharma-Body of the  Buddha” is another way of saying Mind, Suchness, the Void, the Godhead.) The question is asked in a Zen monastery by an earnest and bewildered novice. And with the prompt irrelevance of one of the Marx Brothers, the Master answers, “The hedge at the bottom of the garden.” “And the man who realizes this truth,” the novice dubiously inquires, ‘”what, may I ask, is he?” Groucho gives him a whack over the shoulders with his staff and answers, “A golden-haired lion.”

It had been, when I read it, only a vaguely pregnant piece of nonsense. Now it was all as clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I—or rather the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace—cared to look at. The really important facts were that spatial relationships had ceased to matter very much and that my mind was perceiving the world in terms of other than spatial categories. 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. (ibid)

Yes, beyond spatiality, beyond all known categories of Being or Non-Being—yea, this is the heralding cry of The Unborn Itself. This is what Huxley meant when producing the phrase, Mind at Large, or the innate ability to directly apprehend the doorway into infinite reality. He does add the caveat, though, that in order for mankind to survive,

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 to stay alive on the surface of this Particular planet. (ibid)

This is when there is a need to sober up from the psychedelic episodes. Huxley states that at one point, he looked at the sink full of dirty dishes and felt they were too beautiful to wash. If this were to be sustained then we know the awful consequences. While there might be no more inclination to go to war under the influence, there would no longer be any civilization either—everyone would be just blissed-out that no one would care to engage in creating it. Colin Wilson, my favorite writer and existential philosopher offers the following observations concerning that Huxleain experience. Especially what the effects would mean for folks of a different stroke, in this case Sartre:

He knew that Sartre had tried mescaline nearly two decades earlier than Huxley, in 1936, and that he had had no such beatific visions. Sartre in fact had had a “bad trip.” According to Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote about it in her autobiography, The Prime of Life, Sartre’s visions were much more hellish. Umbrellas became vultures; shoes turned into skeletons; crabs, polyps, lobsters, an orangutan, and other strange, grimacing things followed him through Paris and for sometime Sartre feared for his sanity. Huxley had said that if the wrong step was taken, the mescaline experience could quickly become a grand tour of hell, with everything offering proof of some demonic conspiracy against oneself, a cosmic paranoia. It seemed that Sartre had taken that wrong step.

Wilson points out that the reason Huxley and Sartre had such different experiences on mescaline is that while Huxley spent a lifetime developing a sense of trust toward existence, Sartre had a fundamentally suspicious attitude toward it—again, a product of the Cartesian passive ego confronting an ambiguous world.

Under the influence of mescaline, the world became threatening for Sartre because he already felt threatened by it. He despised the shallow people—salauds, “bastards” in English—who believed that their existence was somehow necessary and who reduced the world to their own petty occupations; this was his general argument against the bourgeoisie. The kind of “intending” Sartre recognized was a falsification of the world, a distortion of it in order to avoid recognizing the fundamental fact of existence’s sheer arbitrariness. What the world was really like for Sartre is in Nausea: meaningless, disconnected, and threatening, much as it appeared during his mescaline trip. This, Sartre argued, is the truth of the world, and those who cannot face it cover it up with falsifications (bad faith) in order to live.

But, Wilson says, here Sartre made a fundamental mistake. The kind of world (Nausea) presents is one in which consciousness has given up its task of intending. Consciousness then feels threatened because it has abandoned its responsibility of directing its attention at reality and has become completely passive before it. Sartre believed that nausea is a more true experience of the world….

The sheer is-ness of things overwhelms him. Huxley, whose attitude toward the world was one of trust, was delighted by the same is-ness that frightened Sartre. Wilson may not have enjoyed his mescaline experience, but his attitude toward the world is more along Huxley’s lines than Sartre’s.

Indeed, very much in line with the Lankavatarian adage, “What the mind focuses on determines its reality.” For one it was sheer bliss, for the other horrible nausea. Wilson’s own experience with mescaline is well-worth the share:

Wilson himself did not like the mescaline experience. He did not have a bad trip—the effects were nothing like what Sartre had experienced—but he also did not experience the visual effects that had delighted Huxley. In fact he had a premonition that he would not see “the morning of creation” and on the whole, the mescaline experiment turned out to be an irrelevancy. After some unpleasant physical effects, which made Wilson think, “I’ll never touch this filthy stuff again,” the drug came on. Wilson found himself awash in a kind of universal love, a childlike sense of innocence and trust that he associated with Marilyn Monroe and with his daughter, Sally, three years old at the time. This feeling was pleasant enough, but Wilson felt it was too innocent, and that it eroded his sense of self. Huxley had celebrated the release from the self that he experienced under mescaline, but Wilson did not share his appreciation. “Selfhood,” he wrote, “is a precise instrument for a certain purpose,” and the sense of universal love and trust he was floating in blunted this.  

In order to fulfill this responsibility, one needed to “insulate oneself” against this universal love; this, Wilson believed, was the first step in adulthood. What he felt happening to him then was in fact the reverse process, as if he was being sent back into childhood, and was seeing the world through “great mists of one’s own feelings.” As he lay there in bed, he felt as if a large and over affectionate dog had knocked him down and was licking his face. All this love was fine, but Wilson found it a bore. “Let me alone,” he wanted to say. “I want to think.”

Another aspect of the mescaline experience that Wilson didn’t care for was that it felt as if all the filters or blinders installed in his consciousness were suddenly removed, and reality was coming in at him from all directions. He described it as being like a radio without the VHF attachment: instead of being able to tune in to a particular station, it was as if he was receiving all of them at once. This was confusing and, more important, it inhibited his capacity to will, a conclusion at which Huxley and William James, another early psychedelic explorer, had also arrived. Wilson had over the years developed a powerful capacity to focus his attention on what interested him. Now this ability to ignore irrelevancies was weakened. It did, he believed, make him psychic to a degree; many of the feelings he was experiencing, he said, seemed to be floating loose in the atmosphere. But whatever psychic abilities were released, they did not make up for what the drug had taken away.

In the end, Wilson concluded that mescaline—and by extension other drugs—seem to “inhibit evolutionary consciousness.” What he meant by evolutionary consciousness is “all pleasure associated with the intellect or intellectual sensibility.” It is “an intensity in which consciousness is aware of itself as activity.” It includes a “sense of responsibility” rather than “passive enjoyment.”

In the broadest sense it means a delight in the process of education, of Bildung, of growth and development, of using the mind and finding a sense of power and control in that use. Mescaline could be pleasurable and beneficial if one wanted a rest from evolutionary consciousness—that is, if one wanted a holiday from using the mind. Wilson, a confirmed workaholic, did not. He also believed that the kind of visual effects that Huxley perceived under mescaline could be obtained through the use of the phenomenological method, through “bracketing” and stepping out of the “natural standpoint.” But these required using the will, not turning it off. These perceptual changes, Wilson admits, are not as profound as those experienced under mescaline or other drugs, but they have the advantage of being amenable to analysis and description, something that the psychedelic experience often eludes. They are also permanent, and something we can learn how to do, not passively experience through the effect of a stimulus.

All references concerning Wilson were taken from an excellent and all-encompassing biography entitled, Beyond the Robot: The Life and Work of Colin Wilson, by Gary Lachman. I highly recommend this Wilsonian overview:

Concluding this blog on Huxley, the following summation is also offered:

Huxley’s introduction to mescaline “psychedelicized” the author to the extent that it began a fascination with these drugs that would last until his deathbed injection of LSD in 1963 [he died on November 22, ’63—the same as JKK] As an outspoken advocate of psychedelic spirituality and a shameless borrower of Buddhist and other Asian religious terminology in relation to drug experience, Huxley exerted a powerful intellectual influence on the psychedelic revolution in the following decade. Moreover, as a highly intellectual and articulate proponent of the positive value of psychedelics, he was one of the first members of an American psychedelic intelligentsia. He has been rightly labeled by James Fadiman as one of the “first wave of psychedelic pioneers,”and his The Doors of Perception “has justly been called ‘the founding text of psychedelia.” (Douglas Osto, Altered States : Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality in America.)

While I tend to be in league with Wilson concerning this, Aldous Huxley is certainly a prominent personage in his own right, offering much insight into our subject matter. Beyond that, he is also of a prophetic vintage. The following video is offered; while the quality of the print leaves much to be desired, try to substitute in your mind’s eye today’s technology in what he is presenting during the interview from 1958:

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