The Doors of Perception

Aldous Huxley is the author of one of my favorite novels (Brave New World), but his work as a non-fiction writer was extremely impressive. “The Doors of Perception” documents his experiences with mescaline. He was fascinated with states of consciousness and with the revelations that different states of consciousness enabled.  Mescaline was particularly interesting to him because, “administered in suitable doses, it changes the quality of consciousness more profoundly and yet is less toxic than any other substance in the pharmacologist’s repertory.”  Huxley described the effects in more detail:

What happens to the majority of the few who have taken mescaline under supervision can be summarized as follows. (1) The ability to remember and to “think straight” is little if at all reduced. (Listening to the recordings of my conversation under the influence of the drug, I cannot discover that I was then any stupider than I am at ordinary times.) (2) Visual impressions are greatly intensified and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept. Interest in space is diminished and interest in time falls almost to zero. (3) Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse. The mescalin taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting. He can’t be bothered with them, for the good reason that he has better things to think about. (4) These better things may be experienced (as I experienced them) “out there,” or “in here,” or in both worlds, the inner and the outer, simultaneously or successively. That they are better seems to be self-evident to all mescalin takers who come to the drug with a sound liver and an untroubled mind.

Right now, I am in the early stages of my effort to experience altered states of consciousness. It’ll likely take years of meditation to get there.  This is frustrating, but it will be worth it.  Reading about the experiences of adept meditators, mystics and drug users is one thing, but the experience itself is bound to be infinitely more impactful.  As Huxley said, simply reading about these experiences is similar to reading an “elegantly composed recipe in lieu of actual dinner.”

Drugs are, of course, the easy way out.  As Huxley pointed out, “we now spend a good deal more on drink and smoke than we spend on education. This, of course, is not surprising. The urge to escape from selfhood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time… the need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain.” I think that instead disciplined meditation is the way to escape the evils of selfhood.

I am not going to take mescaline (not could I, don’t know anyone with a mescaline hookup), but Huxley was one hell of a salesman in this book:

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

A Clean Month

Today marks the beginning of (at least) one month without any of the following: sugar, dairy, soy, artificial sweeteners, and most happily – alcohol.  I had enough booze in South Beach this past weekend to last several months.  College friends are bad for one’s health.

 Hopefully this month will last even longer – I’d love to make it all the way to mid-March when a good friend (and newly minted taker-of-the-pledge) gets married. 

This is a simple and useful resource for what to eat and what to avoid.

So long Maker’s Mark, and good riddance.

The Dhammapada

"Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.”  Thus opens The Dhammapada, a collection of verses gathered from Buddha himself and passed down through time.  This book is the second in a (so far) fantastic trilogy of sorts.  “The Classics of Indian Spirituality” also include the Upanishads, which I used heavily in my last post, and the Bhagavad Gita, which I am reading now.

This opening line really does summarize the entire work.  One example is the idea that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional,” where pain is a physical reaction, but suffering is a construct of the mind. It is put another way in the Upanishads: “You are what your deep, driving desire is. As your desire is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”  We can train our minds such that we truly control our thoughts, and because our thoughts create our destiny, we can then control our destiny. Many people think that they control their thoughts already, but one session of meditation trying to focus one’s attention quickly kills that illusion (I still can barely make it 25 breaths before my mind starts running away from me).  This central idea is a self-help gold mine, and the root of many modern self-help books (The Secret, for example).  Self improvement turns out to be very simple, but not easy. The practice of training the mind is arduous, “It requires the patience of someone trying to wear down the Himalayas with a piece of silk – and you feel you are making about as much progress.” But with the right effort – a strict regimen of meditation - the mind can be transformed from master to servant.

The verses in the book are really all about the law of dharma.  The author (translator) offers this explanation of dharma in the introduction to the book.  I just love the simple logic of this philosophy. Emphasis is mine.

In its broadest application, dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole. Probably no word is richer in connotations. In the sphere of human activity, dharma is behavior that is in harmony with this unity. Sometimes it is justice, righteousness, or fairness; sometimes simply duty, the obligations of religion or society. It also means being true to what is essential in the human being: nobility, honor, forgiveness, truthfulness, loyalty, compassion. An ancient saying declares that ahimsa paramo dharma: the essence of dharma, the highest law of life, is to do no harm to any living creature. Like the Buddha, the sages of the Upanishads did not find the world capricious. Nothing in it happens by chance – not because events are predestined, but because everything is connected by cause and effect. Thoughts are included in this view, for they both cause things to happen and are aroused by things that happen. What we think has consequences for the world around us, for it conditions how we act.
These are illustrations of what Hinduism and Buddhism call the law of karma. Karma means something done, whether as cause or effect. Actions in harmony with dharma bring good karma and add to health and happiness. Selfish actions, at odds with the rest of life, bring unfavorable karma and pain. In this view, no divine agency is needed to punish or reward us; we punish and reward ourselves. This was not regarded as a tenet of religion but as a law of nature, as universal as the law of gravity. No one has stated it more clearly than St. Paul: “As you sow, so shall you reap. With whatever measure you mete out to others, with the same measure it shall be meted out to you.”

Physicists venture outward in their quest for understanding, whereas the Buddha advocated travelling inward. But the ancient Buddhist tradition and modern physics have a lot in common, “What the Buddha is telling us is precisely parallel to what the quantum physicists say: when we examine the universe closely, it dissolves into discontinuity and a flux of fields of energy. But in the Buddha’s universe the mind-matter duality is gone; these are fields in consciousness.”  Meditation is the method of exploration in the Buddha’s case. 

The modern mind balks at calling meditation scientific, but in these sages’ passion for truth, in their search for reality as something which is the same under all conditions and from all points of view, in their insistence on direct observation and systematic empirical method, we find the essence of the scientific spirit. It is not improper to call brahmavidya a series of experiments – on the mind, by the mind – with predictable, replicable results.

I believe that understanding the mind is tantamount to understanding the physical laws of the universe. Einstein, quoted below, understood the dharma well.  I wonder if he every practiced meditation.

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

My key take away from the book was that meditation is one of the most important things that we can do in life. Hopefully, one of the experiments I carry out for the pledge is a retreat of sorts that focuses on meditation.

Finally, here are a few of my favorite verses  from the Dhammapada:

Do not give your attention to what others do or fail to do; give it to what you do or fail to do.
As fresh milk needs time to curdle, a selfish deed takes time to bring sorrow in its wake.
There is no fire like lust, no sickness like hatred, no sorrow like separateness, no joy like peace. No disease is worse than greed, no suffering worse than selfish passion. Know this, and seek nirvana as the highest joy.
It is easy to see the faults of others; we winnow them like chaff. It is hard to see our own; we hide them as a gambler hides a losing draw. But when one keeps dwelling on the faults of others, his own compulsions grow worse, making it harder to overcome them.
For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.


Stolen Prose

The following is an arrangement of sentences and passages that I wish I’d written, pieced together into a narrative on life, death, spirituality and connection.  They come from books that I love, written by authors that I revere. Hopefully certain passages will lead you to a new book to put on your list.  All books are listed at the end of the post. The quotes are almost entirely direct, with a few small adjustments indicated by brackets. 

Who are we—mites in a moment’s mist—that we should understand the universe? The universe is one vast, restless, ceaseless becoming[1]. Simply knowing there is something unknown beyond [our] reach makes [us] acutely restless. [We] have to see what lies outside – if only, as Mallory said of Everest, “because it’s there.” This is true of adventurers of every kind, but especially of those who seek to explore not mountains or jungles but consciousness itself: whose real drive, we might say, is not so much to know the unknown as to know the knower[2].

I’m not really having an existential crisis, if that’s what you’re worried about. No doubt you still feel pretty much in control of your brain, in charge, and calling all the shots. You will still feel that someone, you, is in there making the decisions and pulling the levers. This is the homuncular problem we can’t seem to shake: The idea that a person, a little man, a spirit, someone is in charge. Even those of us who know all the data, who know that it has got to work some other way, we still have this overwhelming sense of being at the controls[3]. For all intents and purposes, a conductor is now leading the orchestra, although the performance has created the conductor—the self—not the other way around. The conductor is cobbled together by feelings and by a narrative brain device, although this fact does not make the conductor any less real. The conductor undeniably exists in our minds, and nothing is gained by dismissing it as an illusion[4].

Nothing places the question “Who am I?” in such stark relief as the fact of death. What dies? What is left? Are we here merely to be torn away from everyone, and everyone from us? And what, if anything, can we do about death – now, while we are still alive? Most social life seems a conspiracy to discourage us from thinking of these questions. But there is a rare type for whom death is present every moment, putting his grim question mark to every aspect of life, and that person cannot rest without some answers[5].

Death: the ultimate frontier[6]. “The quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity,” as Melville called it; the last impossible phase shift from being a person to being nothing at all[7].  Even with my lifelong meditation on death, my existence had still seemed something permanent and stable on the planet Earth—something dependable, like igneous rock…Atheism seemed like a pretty cruel thing to do to myself. I begged my brain to reconsider. I thought: Won’t I survive somewhere, in some form? Can I believe it? Please? Pretty please can I believe in the everlasting soul? In heaven or angels or paradise with sixteen beautiful virgins waiting for me? Pretty please can I believe that? Look, I don’t even need the sixteen beautiful virgins. There could be just one woman, old and ugly, and she doesn’t even have to be a virgin, she could be the town bike of the ever-after. In fact, there could be no women at all, and it doesn’t have to be paradise, it could be a wasteland—hell, it could even be hell, because while suffering the torments of a lake of fire, at least I’d be around to yell “Ouch!” Could I believe in that, please[8]?  Dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say more of life?[9]

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart. It’s a very interesting concept. And in this sense of seeking the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered[10]. [But] this feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin[11].  It’s as if we live at the edge of a waterfall, with each moment rushing at us—experienced only and always now at the lip—and then zip, it’s over the edge and gone. But the brain is forever clutching at what has just surged by[12].

 [The] wider field of consciousness is our native land. We are not cabin-dwellers, born to a life cramped and confined; we are meant to explore, to seek, to push the limits of our potential as human beings. The world of the senses is just a base camp: we are meant to be as much at home in consciousness as in the world of physical reality. This is a message that thrills men and women in every age and culture[13]. I use one central metaphor for conscious experience: the “Ego Tunnel.” Conscious experience is like a tunnel. Modern neuroscience has demonstrated that the content of our conscious experience is not only an internal construct but also an extremely selective way of representing information. This is why it is a tunnel: What we see and hear, or what we feel and smell and taste, is only a small fraction of what actually exists out there. Our conscious model of reality is a low-dimensional projection of the inconceivably richer physical reality surrounding and sustaining us. Our sensory organs are limited: They evolved for reasons of survival, not for depicting the enormous wealth and richness of reality in all its unfathomable depth. Therefore, the ongoing process of conscious experience is not so much an image of reality as a tunnel through reality[14].

The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ … of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them. As we now regard death this reads like a prescription for a nightmare. But the constant awareness of death shows the world to be as flowing and diaphanous as the filmy patterns of blue smoke in the air[15].  May we light the fire of Nachiketa That burns out the ego and enables us to pass from fearful fragmentation to fearless fullness in the changeless whole[16]. Most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent[17].  Love and compassion are what we must strive to cultivate in ourselves, extending their present boundaries all the way to limitlessness[18].  Damyata datta dayadhvam, “Be self-controlled, give, be compassionate.[19].” The joy of the spirit ever abides, but not what seems pleasant to the senses. Both these, differing in their purpose, prompt us to action. All is well for those who choose the joy of the spirit, but they miss the goal of life who prefer the pleasant. Perennial joy or passing pleasure? This is the choice one is to make always. Those who are wise recognize this, but not the ignorant[20]. Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear.  Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no grief. How can the multiplicity of life delude the one who sees its unity[21]?

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will. An education which should include this faculty would be the education par excellence[22]. Ancient Pali texts liken meditation to the process of taming a wild elephant. The procedure in those days was to tie a newly captured animal to a post with a good strong rope. When you do this, the elephant is not happy. He screams and tramples and pulls against the rope for days. Finally it sinks through his skull that he can’t get away, and he settles down. At this point you can begin to feed him and to handle him with some measure of safety. Eventually you can dispense with the rope and post altogether and train your elephant for various tasks. Now you’ve got a tamed elephant that can be put to useful work. In this analogy the wild elephant is your wildly active mind, the rope is mindfulness, and the post is your object of meditation, your breathing. The tamed elephant who emerges from this process is a well-trained, concentrated mind that can then be used for the exceedingly tough job of piercing the layers of illusion that obscure reality. Meditation tames the mind[23].  

Above the senses is the mind, above the mind is the intellect, above that Is the ego, and above the ego is the unmanifested Cause.  And beyond is Brahman [the Self], omnipresent, attributeless. Beyond the reach of the senses is [the Self], but not beyond the reach of a mind stilled through the practice of deep meditation.  Beyond the reach of words and works is he, but not beyond the reach of a pure heart freed from the sway of the senses[24].  Those who realize the Self enter into the peace that brings complete self-control and perfect patience. They see themselves in everyone and everyone in themselves. Evil cannot overcome them because they overcome all evil. Sin cannot consume them because they consume all sin. Free from evil, free from sin and doubt[25]. When all desires that surge in the heart are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal. When all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal[26]. As rivers lose their private name and form when they reach the sea, so that people speak of the sea alone, so [the separate self] disappears when the Self is realized. Then there is no more name and form for us, and we attain immortality[27].

As a heavily laden cart creaks as it moves along, the body groans under its burden when a person is about to die.  When the body grows weak through old age or illness, the Self separates himself as a mango or fig or banyan fruit frees itself from the stalk, and returns the way he came to begin another life[28]. Thou hast existed as a part, thou shalt disappear in that which produced thee. . . . This, too, nature wills. . . . Pass, then, through this little space of time comfortably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew[29]. As a lump of salt thrown in water dissolves and cannot be taken out again, though wherever we taste the water it is salty, even so, beloved, the separate self dissolves in the sea of pure consciousness, infinite and immortal. Separateness arises from identifying the Self with the body, which is made up of the elements; when this physical identification dissolves, there can be no more separate self.[30]

The Self in man and in the sun are one. Those who understand this see through the world and go beyond the various sheaths of being to realize the unity of life. Those who realize that all life is one are at home everywhere and see themselves in all beings. They sing in wonder: “I am the food of life, I am, I am; I eat the food of life, I eat, I eat. I link food and water, I link, I link. I am the first-born in the universe; Older than the gods, I am immortal. Who shares food with the hungry protects me; who shares not with them is consumed by me. I am this world and I consume this world. They who understand this understand life.” This is the Upanishad, the secret teaching[31].


[1] Heroes of History by Will Durant

[2] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[3] Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael S. Gazzaniga

[4] Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio

[5] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[6] Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying by the Dalai Lama

[7] WAR by Sebastian Junger

[8] A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz)

[9] Havelock Ellis quoted in The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[10] The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan

[11] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

[12] Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson

[13] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[14] The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger

[15] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

[16] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[17] How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama

[18] How to See Yourself As You Really Are by the Dalai Lama

[19] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[20] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[21] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[22] Principles of Psychology by William James

[23] Mindfulness in Plain English: 20th Anniversary Edition by Bhante Gunaratana

[24] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[25] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[26] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[27] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[28] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[29] Heroes of History by Will Durant

[30] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran

[31] The Upanishads (Classics of Indian Antiquity) by Eknath Easwaran