Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Doors of Perception

"Thus it came about that, one bright May morning, I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin dissolved in half a glass of water and sat down to wait for the results." And so Adolus Huxley, the classic novelist, begins his essay about a memorable mescaline trip. Though the writing style might be considered dry, it's a really short (and interesting) read-- I have a copy in PDF format, and it's only 24 pages. I recommend picking it up, especially if you are interested in the philosophical.

The title of the pamphlet is derived from a quote by the visionary poet William Blake, because throughout his trip, Huxley feels as though his senses have been stripped clean of their biological imperative of survival, and are allowing him to perceive the world as it really is. "This is how one should always see," he repeats.

Huxley reports that despite physical lethargy because of the dissociation, he was able to think perfectly straight, and his new lenses made everything around him mind-blowingly beautiful. Though the things that he observes (including flowers, a chair, his pant-leg, and a Cezanne painting) aren't extraordinary, he describes beautifully what was on his mind during his trip, and the philosophy connected with his thoughts. What interested me more than the description of his experience was some of the interesting conclusions that he drew, and observations that he made.

One of the joys of hallucinogens, according to Huxley, is being able to celebrate the "biologically useless." So much of our everyday experience has no survival value whatsoever: the music playing from your iPod, the stories brought to you by TV and books, the various adornments of furniture and fashion, and more-- and yet our senses are still set to only perceive the world in a practical way. We only notice what's likely to kill us, or what we can put to use, or where we're walking to. Hallucinogens can help us modify our senses so that everything we see becomes artwork, and a philosophical adventure. Huxley supports the purely aesthetic element of how psychedelics change our viewpoint, and thinks it's a valuable addition to our everyday lives. I definitely agree with him on this count-- we are allowed to do so many other things purely for the sake of pleasure (like art) and hallucinogens are less dangerous than junk food. If we all thought about it that way, we'd drop acid like we go to the theatre. And wouldn't the world be so much better?

He advocates psychedelics as the drug of the future, and discourages the use of tobacco and alcohol. Because science can do so much nowadays, he says (and I paraphrase), he was waiting for the day that someone would synthesize a chemical that lasts for a more manageable amount of time, and that wouldn't produce bad trips. In terms of time, we do have a few lesser-known options like DMT or salvia, or very very high quantities or marijuana, but everything has the risk of a bad trip. It interests me that he thinks of bad trips as a function of the chemical, and not as a normal part of the experience. In my opinion, bad trips must be as natural as dreams-- every human experience, whether it's a drug or a dream or a person or a really cute puppy, can cause different emotional reactions in different users. Also, I think that part of the value of any experience, including a drug experience, lies in the tension and discomfort it creates. That's how you learn from anything, is overcoming the negativity. Now, I've never had a truly nightmarish bad trip, but hanging out in a park definitely becomes less relaxing when the dead leaves leftover after the snow melts transform into tiny shrunken skulls. Even so, I continue to do drugs because, like work and love, the setbacks are made up for my the advantages. And how creepy would it be if hallucinogens only made you happy? They would be extremely addicting. Psychedelics would cease to have a "Vision Quest" element, and merely be trippy sedatives.

Finally, he leaves us with a question: once psychedelics have led us to these sorts of marvelous insights, what do we do? How do we integrate these experiences into our everyday lives? Very good question, Aldous. Hang tight for when I address it in a later post!