The Doors of Perception

Here's the Question, as posed:

Have you had what you consider was a mystical experience? What is a mystical experience? If you had one (or more), what brought it on; a practice, a substance, or gratuitous grace? Do you think there is any value in mystical experiences? And a big underlying question: Do mystical experiences give us access to other levels of reality than the purely physical level (as William James and others say), or are mystical experiences simply epiphenomena of the gray matter in our heads (as many scientists claim) ?

Since the Question arrived late morning on Tuesday, I haven't had time to worry it into submission... so the best I can manage on Wednesday morning is to lay out a bunch of things I've encountered as I chased those pesky rabbits in their home territory, with the idea that I might get back to the Question in the possible future. So here goes with that catalog of links and temptations.

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The short answer to "Have you had what you consider was a mystical experience?" is: no. But... (and there's always a but, making space for alternate readings, and stuff that arises as I explore). But: my connection to the mystical is mostly indirect and vicarious: Swedenborg and William Blake being formative influences in my life surely counts as exposure to the mystical; and I am of the generation that has sought those "other levels of reality than the purely physical", so I can draw upon the experiences of friends who were more adventurous than I was.

And I can claim a sort of connection to Huston Smith, via his niece Jane Wieman (one of Betsy's friends from her first Harvard year), with whom we shared an apartment in summer 1963, and to whom we left our Cambridge apartment when we went off to Peace Corps in 1965. We went to Huston Smith's house in 1965, along with our photography teacher, and pressed the flesh, and used a canoe... which doesn't count for much.

These clay sculptures are Jane's:
clay heads, perhaps by Jane Wieman

...and Jane lived in Japan for many years. Here she is in 2023, living in Madison WI:

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So: what makes something Mystical, except that you don't know WHERE it comes from, and how the sensory perceptions are involved? I certainly think that the Mystical happens in the Mind, and that a good part of Mind is in the brain... but that such superorganic somethings as Consciousness and Imagination are not limited to or wholly constrained by the goo of neurons and chemical signals. As for the God part of the literature of the Mystical, that's simply not available to me, except as metaphor and mystery. A whole other Question...

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The first rabbit hole that presented itself was Perennial Philosophy, which contains this pointer:

...Huston Smith notes that the Traditionalist School's vision of a perennial philosophy is not based on mystical experiences but on metaphysical intuitions...
...and have I experienced metaphysical intuitions? Yes, I think so: in photography and music most clearly

It seems to me that "to grok" epitomises intuition: You simply GET it. Something significant passes back and forth. You apprehend the complexities of meaning; the why, for example, a photographer framed the image just-so. You see Minor White's "what else it is...", perhaps the same one the photographer did, or maybe something else... The same frisson sometimes happens for me musically: the shock of recognition of Immensity, of the Essence. 'Epiphany' covers some of the same semantic territory.

... which led to Nondualism, where it is noted that Taoism
...emphasiz(es) the harmony and interconnectedness of all phenomena...
...which reminded me that I'm surely Taoistically inclined, which is pretty damned mystical, innit?


...What sets nondualism apart is its inclination towards direct experience as a path to understanding. While intellectual comprehension has its place, nondualism emphasizes the transformative power of firsthand encounters with the underlying unity of existence. Through practices like meditation and self-inquiry, practitioners aim to bypass the limitations of conceptual understanding and directly apprehend the interconnectedness that transcends superficial distinctions

The other fellow travelers in this territory include Transcendentalists, Unitarians, the Theosophical Society, Vedanta and neo-Vedanta... The 1836 Transcendental Club in Cambridge included many of the Usual Suspects, and evinced inherent skepticism of capitalism, westward expansion, and industrialization...
Unitarian support of the Hindu reform movement of Brahmo Samaj led indirectly to the visit of Swami Vivekananda in the 1890s (for the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions), and thus to the founding of the Vedanta Society ...closely connected to the introduction of the practise of yoga in North America (see Harvard's Pluralism Project)

Here's another interesting summary statement:

Mysticism... comes to be seen as a personal matter of cultivating inner states of tranquility and equanimity which, rather than serving to transform the world, reconcile the individual to the status quo by alleviating anxiety and stress ...(which) favors the atomic individual, instead of the community... (Richard King Orientalism and Religion 2002)

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Huxley belongs in this company especially because of The Doors of Perception (1954), but the phrase comes from William Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell", of which Wikipedia reminds us:

The work was composed between 1790 and 1793, in the period of radical ferment and political conflict during the French Revolution. The title is an ironic reference to Emanuel Swedenborg's theological work Heaven and Hell, published in Latin 33 years earlier. Swedenborg is directly cited and criticised by Blake in several places in the Marriage. Though Blake was influenced by his grand and mystical cosmic conception, Swedenborg's conventional moral strictures and his Manichaean view of good and evil led Blake to express a deliberately depolarised and unified vision of the cosmos in which the material world and physical desire are equally part of the divine order; hence, a marriage of heaven and hell....

and here's the text itself:

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 and the Doors of Perception Young Poets Network

[thinks:] Blake's poetry sticks in the mind, like a burr. What does he mean? Why "doors" of perception (and not windows?). Can everything really be infinite? If everything is infinite, why can't I see it? How come my rationality dislikes or doesn't understand this, but another part of me really does? What's happening here?

...[Blake's] belief in the human imagination, which he considered to be the basic 'operating system' of humanity. "The Imagination is not a State," he once observed, "it is the Human Existence itself" (from Blake's Milton). This belief allowed him to penetrate deeply into the human mind, and to bring back remarkable, and remarkably prophetic, visions of man's internal world. He saw, for example, that the contemporary 'Age of Reason' was actually the Age of Hyper-Rationality, with the calculating, measuring and literalizing side of the brain constantly running wildly out of control.

"The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" by William Blake: Opening the Doors of Perception Stuff Jeff Reads

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.

...In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one's consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.

...The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.

For every thing that lives is Holy.

I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg's great poem "Howl." And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake's text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.

Other links that need to be factored in:

When Aldous Huxley Opened the Doors of Perception Ido Hartogsohn, The MIT Press Reader
...Huxley's "Doors of Perception" evoked a gamut of responses: some hostile, some sympathetic, some clearly bewildered. Several magazine writers noted that Huxley's radical ideas could easily be rejected as the fantasies of a "misguided crackpot" had they been presented by anyone other than the respected English author. Some magazines celebrated Huxley's proposition for a superior drug that could replace alcohol; others worried that the author's ruminations might inadvertently encourage undisciplined hordes of youths to experiment with drugs. Authors were notably disturbed by Huxley's association of the mescaline experience with Christian theology and mysticism...

...In an April 1954 letter to Dominican priest Victor Francis White, Jung opined that "there is no point in wishing to know more of the collective unconscious than one gets through dreams and intuitions." The renowned psychiatrist acknowledged the interest of mescaline, yet he was suspicious of experiencing it himself for fear of doing so out of "idle curiosity."

first 23 pages of The Doors of Perception (pdf)

. ..And at least one Professional philosopher has taken mescalin for the light it may throw on such ancient, unsolved riddles as the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and consciousness.

...each one of us may be capable of manufacturing a chemical, minute doses of which are known to cause Profound changes in consciousness.

...By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies - all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves.

...short of being born again as a visionary, a medium, or a musical genius, how can we ever visit the worlds which, to Blake, to Swedenborg, to Johann Sebastian Bach, were home?

...It always seemed to me possible that, through hypnosis, for example, or autohypnosis, by means of systematic meditation, or else by taking the appropriate drug, I might so change my ordinary mode of consciousness as to be able to know, from the inside, what the visionary, the medium, even the mystic were talking about.

...From what I had read of the mescalin experience I was convinced in advance that the drug would admit me, at least for a few hours, into the kind of inner world described by Blake and AE. But what I had expected did not happen. I had expected to lie with my eyes shut, looking at visions of many-colored geometries, of animated architectures, rich with gems and fabulously lovely, of landscapes with heroic figures, of symbolic dramas trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation. But I had not reckoned, it was evident, with the idiosyncrasies of my mental make-up, the facts of my temperament, training and habits.

I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object.

Opening the Doors: William Blake, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the Beat Generation

Alan Ginsburg: I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest 'spiritual' experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That's the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That's why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.

...Huxley cited his fascination with Blake as a primary factor in his decision to take mescaline, which he hoped would help him transcend the self and see the world without the usual filters on reality: "the drug would admit me at least for a few hours, into the kind of inner world described by Blake." His book of the experience, The Doors of Perception, is itself eye-opening: one of the most careful and precise deconstructions of "normal" perception ever written: "The function of the brain and nervous system is in the main eliminative", he observed, "leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful". The drug allowed him to see that what we normally call "reality" is in fact the product of a massive filtering out of reality, a systematic closing of the doors, leaving only the programs of measurement ("ratio-ing") and utility — reality as it would necessarily appear "to an animal obsessed with survival."

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...and then YouTube gets innings:

Aldous Huxley - The Doors of Perception | Animated Film

The Doors of Perception Pt. 1 by Aldous Huxley read by A Poetry Channel

Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4

George Carlin - Opening The Doors of Perception (especially 2:56 ==>)

Collecting the words of Jim Morrison (especially after 4:00)

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And in steps Maria Popova with this timely text:

Poetry may seem an improbable portal into the fundamental nature of reality — into dark matter and the singularity, evolution and entropy, Hubble's law and pi — but it has a lovely way of sneaking ideas into our consciousness through the back door of feeling, bypassing our ordinary ways of seeing and relating to the world, our biases and preconceptions, and swinging open another gateway of receptivity. Through it, other scales of time, space, and significance — scales that are the raw material of science — can enter more fully and more faithfully into our worldview, depositing us back into our ordinary lives broadened and magnified so that we can return to our daily tasks and our existential longings with renewed resilience and a passion for possibility.