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The Doors of Perception is a 1954 book by Aldous Huxley detailing his experiences when taking mescaline. Mescaline is the principle agent of the psychedelic cactus peyote, which has been used in American religious ceremonies for thousands of years.

The title comes from William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."


Quotations from "Doors"

  • To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and 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.


  • "Is it agreeable?" somebody asked.
"Neither agreeable nor disagreeable," I answered. "it just is." Istigkeit - wasn't that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? "Is-ness." The Being of Platonic philosophy - except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were - a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence. (page 4-5)


  • I strongly suspect that most of the great knowers of Suchness paid very little attention to art.... (To a person whose transfigured and transfiguring mind can see the All in every this, the first-rateness or tenth-rateness of even a religious painting will be a matter of the most sovereign indifference.) Art, I suppose, is only for beginners, or else for those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with what they signify, with the elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner.


  • 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.


Criticisms by RC Zaehner

One of the earliest criticisms of The Doors of Perception was by RC Zaehner, a professor at Oxford Universitymarker. Zaehner acknowledged the importance of the book’s challenge to people interested in religious experience, while pointing out what he saw as inconsistencies and self-contradictions.

Zaehner’s criticisms of The Doors of Perception were set out in his book Mysticism Sacred and Profane, which also acts as a theistic riposte to what he sees as the monism of Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy. Zaehner concludes that Huxley’s apprehensions under mescaline are affected by his deep familiarity with Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. So, the experience may not be the same for others who take the drug and don’t have this background, although they will undoubtedly experience a transformation of sensation. Zaehner himself was a convert to Catholicism and a former British intelligence officer.

That the longing to transcend oneself is ‘one of the principal appetites of the soul’ is questioned by Zaehner. There are still people who do not feel this desire to escape themselves , and religion itself need not mean escaping from the ego.

Zaehner criticises what he sees as Huxley’s apparent call for all religion to use drugs (including alcohol) as part of their practices. Quoting St Paul’s proscriptions against drunkenness in church, in 1 Corinthians xi, he makes the point that artificial ecstatic states and spiritual union with God are not the same.

Holding that there are similarities between the experience on mescaline, the mania in a manic-depressive psychosis and the visions of God of a mystical saint suggests, for Zaehner, that the saint’s visions must be the same as those of a lunatic. The personality is dissipated into the world, for Huxley on mescaline and people in a manic state, which is similar to the experience of nature mystics . However this experience is different from the theistic mystic who is absorbed into a God, who is quite different from the objective world.

The appendices to Mysticism Sacred and Profane include three accounts of mescaline experiences, including those of Zaehner himself. He writes that he was transported into a world of farcical meaninglessness and notes that the experience was interesting and funny, but not religious.

Professor of religion and philosophy, Huston Smith took issue with the belief that Mysticism Sacred and Profane had fully examined and refuted Huxley’s claims made in The Doors of Perception. Smith claims that consciousness-changing substances have been linked with religion both throughout history and across the world, and further it is possible that many religious perspectives had their origins in them, which were later forgotten.

Acknowledging that personality, preparation and environment all play a role in the effects of the drugs, Huston Smith draws attention to evidence that suggests that a religious outcome of the experience may not be restricted to one of Huxley’s temperament. Further, because Zaehner’s experience was not religious, does not prove that none will be. Contrary to Zaehner, Huston Smith draws attention to evidence suggesting that these drugs can facilitate theistic mystical experience.

As phenomenologically, the descriptions of naturally occurring and drug-stimulated mystical experiences cannot be distinguished, Huston Smith regards Zaehner’s position in Mysticism Sacred and Profane, as a product of the conflict between science and religion – that religion tends to ignore the findings of science. Nonetheless, although these drugs may produce a religious experience, they need not produce a religious life, unless set within a context of faith and discipline. Finally, he concludes that psychedelic drugs should not be forgotten in relation to religion because the phenomenon of religious awe, or the encounter with the holy, is declining and religion cannot survive long in its absence.

Later experiences and developments in Huxley's thought

In October 1955, Huxley had an experience while on LSD that he considered more profound than those detailed in The Doors of Perception. ‘Huxley was overwhelmed to the point where he decided his previous experiments, the ones detailed in Doors and Heaven and Hell, had been nothing but entertaining sideshows.’ He wrote in a letter to Humphry Osmond, that he experienced "the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact. ... I was this fact; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this fact occupied the place where I had been. ... And the things which had entirely filled my attention on that first occasion, I now perceived to be temptations - temptations to escape from the central reality into a false, or at least imperfect and partial Nirvanas of beauty and mere knowledge." The experience made its way into the final chapter of Island. This raised a troublesome point. Was it better to pursue a course of careful psychological experimentation.... or was the real value of these drugs to 'stimulate the most basic kind of religious ecstasy?'

Cultural references

  • Huxley's book inspired the young Jim Morrison to name his rock band The Doors. Morrison himself would quote Huxley at length.
  • In Beware the Sliverman, the learning game based on developing reason imagination and knowledge skills, The Doors of Perception title is used as a gateway into the beginner level.
  • Greek composer Kyriakos Sfetsas based his "Four pieces for two pianos" (1986) on "The doors", with appropriate titles for each movement.
  • Ambient band Shpongle named a song in their second album Tales of the Inexpressible "Dorset Perception" as a reference to the book.


See also



References

  1. Lower Pecos and Coahuila peyote: new radiocarbon dates. Terry M, Steelman KL, Guilderson T, Dering P, Rowe MW. J Archaelogical Science. 2006;33:1017-1021.
  2. Zaehner, RC (1957) Mysticism Sacred and Profane, Clarendon Press, p.3
  3. Zaehner p.25
  4. Zaehner p.3
  5. Huxley, Aldous (1955), The Doors of Perception p.49
  6. Zaehner p.18
  7. Zaehner, p.26
  8. Zaehner p.19
  9. Zaehner, Introduction p.xi
  10. Zaehner p.28
  11. Huston Smith (1964) Do Drugs Have Religious Import? The Journal of Philosophy, 61, 18
  12. Stevens, Jay (1998) Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream, pps. 56-57, Grove Press, ISBN 0802135870
  13. Letter to Humphry Osmond, Oct 24, 1955. in Achera Huxley, Laura (1969) This Timeless Moment. P. 139, Chatto & Windus
  14. ibid p. 146
  15. http://www.rockhall.com/hof/inductee.asp?id=93


External links

  • [5141] - The complete text of "The Doors of Perception."


Publication data

The Doors of Perception is usually published in a combined volume with Huxley's essay Heaven and Hell (1956).
  • The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, 1954, 1956, Harper & Brothers
    • 1977 Harpercollins (UK), mass market paperback: ISBN 0-586-04437-X
    • 1990 Harper Perennial edition: ISBN 0-06-090007-5
    • 2004 Harper Modern Classics edition: ISBN 0-06-059518-3
    • 2004 Sagebrush library binding: ISBN 1-4176-2859-6
  • The Doors of Perception, unabridged audio cassette, Audio Partners 1998, ISBN 1-57270-065-3



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