“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 thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
― William Blake
If you think you’re living in the real world, you’re mostly mistaken.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by, amongst other things, the nature of reality. It’s fairly uncontroversial to say that our perception of the world is shaped by our experiences, the survival imperative, and by the capabilities and limitations of human sensory organs (see my notes on Deviate, by Beau Lotto, and Liminal Thinking, by Dave Gray). You might even be willing to believe that what we think is reality, is in fact just a very handy user interface for interacting with the world around us (see The Case Against Reality, by Don Hoffman).
But if “reality” is indeed just a user interface, then what is the truth that lies behind it? If we don’t have the sensory organs to perceive it, how can we ever know it?
The good news, it seems, is that we do have ways to perceive it, to open the doors of perception – it’s just that culturally we have decided to keep the doors shut… because who knows what might happen if the truth were to get out? The fragile edifice of our exploitative, dominator-style culture would crumble, that’s what.
Okay, that was quite a leap. Let me rewind and build my case more slowly.
I recently finished reading How To Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan, also well known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I suppose that, in all honesty, I suppose I should also disclose the subtitle of How To Change Your Mind, in case you don’t already know it: it’s “The New Science of Psychedelics”. I realise that the word “psychedelics” may provoke an emotional response in many readers – images of the 60s, loud swirly patterns, drug addicts, bad trips, Timothy Leary, turning on, tuning in, and dropping out. But for a moment, I’d like to invite you to set aside preconceptions, and maintain an open mind… with the opening of minds being exactly the point of this blog post. (I should maybe also say that I have not had any psychedelic experiences myself, although I am intensely psychedelicurious.)
Since time immemorial, humans have used plants (and occasionally toads) to experience altered states of consciousness. Such states can also be achieved through meditation, certain breathing exercises (like Holotropic Breathwork), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, and near-death experiences (I recommend you don’t try this last one at home.) Michael Pollan set out, from a position of slight nervousness and definite scepticism, to find out why.
He was surprised by some of the advocates he encountered. At a dinner party in Berkeley, he encounters a prominent psychologist who:
“felt that LSD gave her insight into how young children perceive the world. Kids’ perceptions are not mediated by expectations and conventions in the been-there, done-that way that adult perception is; as adults, she explained, our minds don’t simply take in the world as it is so much as they make educated guesses about it. Relying on these guesses, which are based on past experience, saves the mind time and energy… LSD appears to disable such conventionalized, shorthand modes of perception and, by doing so, restores a childlike immediacy, and sense of wonder, to our experience of reality, as if we were seeing everything for the first time.“
Bob Jesse, a monk living in a remote mountaintop cabin, related:
“What stands out most for me is the quality of the awareness I experienced, something entirely distinct from what I’ve come to regard as Bob. How does this expanded awareness fit into the scope of things? To the extent I regard the experience as veridical—and about that I’m still not sure—it tells me that consciousness is primary to the physical universe. In fact, it precedes it.”
What Don Hoffman is concluding mathematically, Jesse arrived at via the psilocybin mushroom. He is the founder of the Council on Spiritual Practices, “a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making direct experience of the sacred more available to more people.”
A recurring theme throughout the book is the question whether experiences while under the influence of psychedelics are indeed a glimpse through the doors of perception, or merely a delusion created entirely by a drugged brain.
Bill Richards, a Baltimore psychologist, doesn’t believe that they are delusions. He:
“emerged from those first psychedelic explorations in possession of three unshakable convictions. The first is that the experience of the sacred reported both by the great mystics and by people on high-dose psychedelic journeys is the same experience and is “real”—that is, not just a figment of the imagination. “You go deep enough or far out enough in consciousness and you will bump into the sacred. It’s not something we generate; it’s something out there waiting to be discovered. And this reliably happens to nonbelievers as well as believers.” Second, that, whether occasioned by drugs or other means, these experiences of mystical consciousness are in all likelihood the primal basis of religion. And third, that consciousness is a property of the universe, not brains.”
Mycologist Paul Stamets believes that the promise of such insights is in fact a way that the plant kingdom reaches out to humans to invite us to be better stewards:
“Plants and mushrooms have intelligence, and they want us to take care of the environment, and so they communicate that to us in a way we can understand.” Why us? “We humans are the most populous bipedal organisms walking around, so some plants and fungi are especially interested in enlisting our support. I think they have a consciousness and are constantly trying to direct our evolution by speaking out to us biochemically. We just need to be better listeners.”
Stamets is, in a sense, echoing the words of the 18th/19th century polymath and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who according to Pollan:
“believed it is only with our feelings, our senses, and our imaginations—that is, with the faculties of human subjectivity—that we can ever penetrate nature’s secrets. “Nature everywhere speaks to man in a voice” that is “familiar to his soul.” There is an order and beauty organizing the system of nature… but it would never have revealed itself to us if not for the human imagination, which is itself of course a product of nature, of the very system it allows us to comprehend.””
The author and spiritual seeker Aldous Huxley had already written The Doors of Perception, based on his experience with mezcaline in 1953, when Al Hubbard introduced him to LSD in 1955. The experience put the author’s earlier trip in the shade.
“As Huxley wrote to Osmond in its aftermath, “What came through the closed door was the realization … the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact.””
After his own, initially tentative, experiences with psychedelics, Pollan concludes that:
“When Huxley speaks of the mind’s “reducing valve”—the faculty that eliminates as much of the world from our conscious awareness as it lets in—he is talking about the ego. That stingy, vigilant security guard admits only the narrowest bandwidth of reality, “a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive.” It’s really good at performing all those activities that natural selection values: getting ahead, getting liked and loved, getting fed, getting laid. Keeping us on task, it is a ferocious editor of anything that might distract us from the work at hand, whether that means regulating our access to memories and strong emotions from within or news of the world without.”
In other words, with the ego out of the picture, the mind is able to explore the expansive realms of truth, beauty, and love. This might remind you of the experience of the neuroanatomist, Jill Bolte Taylor, while she was suffering a catastrophic stroke that shut down her narrowly-focused left hemisphere, leaving her right hemisphere to experience with awe the interconnectedness of everything (I write about it here).
“In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquillity, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.”
Pollan reflects on his three psychedelic experiences, in words reminiscent of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo’s description of our ignorance of our own true nature:
“The journeys have shown me what the Buddhists try to tell us but I have never really understood: that there is much more to consciousness than the ego, as we would see if it would just shut up. And that its dissolution (or transcendence) is nothing to fear; in fact, it is a prerequisite for making any spiritual progress. But the ego, that inner neurotic who insists on running the mental show, is wily and doesn’t relinquish its power without a struggle. Deeming itself indispensable, it will battle against its diminishment, whether in advance or in the middle of the journey. I suspect that’s exactly what mine was up to all through the sleepless nights that preceded each of my trips, striving to convince me that I was risking everything, when really all I was putting at risk was its sovereignty.”
This may also explain why psychedelics have been tremendously helpful for many people who have received a terminal diagnosis, and are suffering depression at the prospect of their own demise. Pollan suggests that these feelings are the product of the ego, desperate to prevent its extinction. When the dying person attains a glimpse of the bigger picture, the existential dread drops right away.
“This sense of merging into some larger totality is of course one of the hallmarks of the mystical experience; our sense of individuality and separateness hinges on a bounded self and a clear demarcation between subject and object. But all that may be a mental construction, a kind of illusion—just as the Buddhists have been trying to tell us. The psychedelic experience of “non-duality” suggests that consciousness survives the disappearance of the self, that it is not so indispensable as we—and it—like to think.”
So, back to the overthrowing of the established order (and could this be the primary reason why, in the US at least, psychedelics were demonised and outlawed around at the end of the 60s?), Pollan suggests that the slang name for LSD may be particularly apt:
“LSD truly was an acid, dissolving almost everything with which it came into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material. If all such lines are manifestations of the Apollonian strain in Western civilization, the impulse that erects distinctions, dualities, and hierarchies and defends them, then psychedelics represented the ungovernable Dionysian force that blithely washes all those lines away.”
In other words, could humans pollute nature, or go to war, or exploit the Global South, or rape, murder, or dominate any other being if to do so felt like we were doing it to ourselves?
I’ve just started to read Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, which dovetails very nicely with How To Change Your Mind. Echoing what Pollan writes, he suggests:
“For if we should recapture the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses, go below the surface of sensory inputs to what is held inside them, touch again the “metaphysical background” that expresses them, we would begin to experience, once more, the world as it really is: alive, aware, interactive, communicative, filled with soul, and very, very intelligent—and we, only one tiny part of that vast scenario. And that would endanger the foundations upon which Western culture, our technology—and all reductionist science—is based; for as James Hillman so eloquently put it, “It was only when science convinced us that nature was dead that it could begin its autopsy in earnest.” A living, aware, and soul-filled world does not respond well to autopsy.”
But how are we to get ourselves out of our enculturated hall of mirrors? How do we think thoughts, and feel feelings, that have been deeply trained out of us?
“What is really true is that we must abandon the normal channels of thought we, as a species, have used the past century or more, step outside of our habituation of perspective, and enter new territory. Not just put our toe in the water, but immerse our whole being, our whole mind and spirit in a very different paradigm and perceptual experience. This means that You must abandon your preconceptions and travel into the world itself, as it really is, and find out for yourself what is true, and find, as well, just what you, yourself, are meant to do in this lifetime. And to do that, to really see deeply into the world, means using perceptual capacities that our culture habitually denies.”
As to how to do that… I’m only up to page 40, so I will have to get back to you on that. Consider this a cliffhanger – so stay tuned!
We conducted our first live TEDxStroudWomen webinar last night, when I interviewed our special guests Liu Batchelor of TEDxFolkestone, and Thibau Grumett of TEDxPCL about how to organise and curate a TEDx event. If you missed it, we will be posting the video shortly. Please sign up for our mailing list and/or our social media channels at https://www.tedxstroudwomen.co.uk/ for this and other updates as we prepare for our event, postponed from last month due to the coronavirus, but coming back bigger and better in Spring 2021!