The Use of Psychedelics to Expand Perception in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception

English 11 Honors

Mrs. Siegfried

Perception of reality seems crystal clear, although observing the unexplainable phenomena of this world, one must wonder what the cause of these things are.  There is more to life than meets the eye.  Drugs alter the user’s perception of reality, yet few have documented their exploration of what sort of value this altered state of perception might hold from a scientific, philosophical, and spiritual viewpoint.  In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences using the drug mescaline as a key to deepen his perception of reality.

Aldous Huxley belongs to a family of geniuses; his great grandfather was a biology professor who helped develop the theory of evolution, his aunt a novelist, etc.  He himself was an extraordinarily unique and paradoxical intellectual who had a heavy taste for mysticism:

While repudiating the Gods and Goods, Huxley implicitly continued to search for them, applying to the task an integrity that bit like acid through illusion, sentimentality and convention. All his work is a quest for values in the face of skepticism.’ Jocelyn Brooke (1954) found Huxley, ‘despite the homogeneity of his writings …, a strangely paradoxical figure: an intellectual who profoundly distrusts the intellect, a sensualist with an innate loathing for the body, a naturally religious man who remains an impenitent rationalist. (“Aldous Leonard Huxley” 74)

Huxley often quested through religious things for value, looking at them from an intellectual standpoint.  Part of this quest was to try the ritualistic, religious cactus peyote, containing the psychedelic chemical mescaline.  Originally, Native Americans took the mescaline containing peyote-cactus for their spiritual rituals.  A man named Dr. Slotkin lived with the Peyotist Indians to learn more of their reason for use and notes that, “It is amazing to hear the fantastic stories about the effects of Peyote and the nature of the ritual, which are told by the white and Catholic Indian officials in the Menomini Reservation” (Huxley 66).  This piqued Huxley’s interest in mescaline’s ability to portray a spiritual experience.  Huxley tried mescaline because he saw that the Peyotist Indians used it to travel on spiritual journeys, and he wanted to deepen his view of reality by traveling into psychedelia as the Indians do using mescaline.

Indians used mescaline spiritually.  Huxley took a fond interest in trying mescaline because of its widespread use by shamans. His reason for trying this psychedelic was largely influenced by his positive disposition towards mysticism, “always fascinated by the ideas of consciousness and sanity, in the last ten years of his life Huxley experimented with mysticism, parapsychology, and, under the supervision of a physician friend, the hallucinogenic drugs mescaline and LSD. He wrote of his drug experiences in the book The Doors of Perception (1954)” ("Brave New World" 53).  He saw that many of the Indians were able to use this as a spiritually beneficial experience, and so he wanted to try this out on his own and then document his findings in a book; all of which he did.  He tried mescaline under the supervision of a friend, and then wrote The Doors of Perception.  He saw mysticism to have potential for teaching him things that others cannot tell him, but rather things that only the experience can teach, and giving him core realizations about reality from what he believed mescaline to put him in a deep state of.  Mysticism is “consciousness of transcendent reality or of God through deep meditation or contemplation” (Mysticism” 552).  Huxley was interested in transcendental understanding, and in his pursuit of truth through transcendence, he dabbled in mysticism, “gradually, Huxley came to see value in an inward, mystical state of mind, however produced, and regardless of what caused it.  His novels record the progress of his conversion” (Daiches 1137).  Mysticism was something Huxley didn’t fully understand, but he recorded his experiment with mescaline after going into that drug with a mystical state of mind by writing The Doors of Perception.  Huxley constantly speaks of spiritual, mystical things throughout The Doors of Perception, and feels that mescaline has the ability to put one in a very mystical state, allowing him to see more of reality.

The American government, and majority of the public’s moral codes, say no to nearly every sort of drug use except “for unrestricted use the West has permitted only alcohol and tobacco” (Huxley 63), “Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh were setting aside traditional moral codes” (Neill 309) and Huxley was not a man who would be easily swayed away from any sort of substance use due to traditional moral codes.  He believes mescaline to give the user people powerful revelations about the nature of the world, and thinks that the public would benefit, however, they are often simply closed to the idea, “I’ve started with this brief philosophic preamble because here is a curious and somewhat depressing thing: a cultural history of magic mushrooms with the rigidly anti-psychedelic (not to say anti-philosophic) bias of current reductionist thought” (Denny 64).  Despite the public’s rejection of psychedelics, the chance for Huxley to deepen his perception of reality as the Peyotist Indians had was too great for him to pass up simply because of a dreary public opinion.  Huxley showed interest in this foreign ritual and “all along, of course, Huxley had shown interest in any means of liberation from the bondage of the ego, and his The Doors of Perception (1954), dealing with the drug mescaline, can be seen as an interesting anticipation of the interest more than a decade later in the psychedelic experience” (“Aldous Leonard Huxley” 74).  About 10 years after Huxley’s experiment with psychedelics in this “rigidly anti-psychedelic” (Denny 64) society many more people decided to start trying psychedelics as the hippie movement was blooming.  They were starting to realize the altered sense of reality and believed it to be a deepened reality they enjoyed experiencing— just like Huxley.

Aldous Huxley used mescaline to embark on a religious, scientific, mystic, and philosophical quest to find truths that may lie in the altered state of reality mescaline places one in.  The heightened state of awareness being under the influence of a psychedelic drug places one into forces upon them realization of the grandeur beauty in every aspect of nature’s beauty, Mescaline places the user into a state where his awareness is heightened and where “all things are perceived as infinite and holy” (Huxley 43).  This altered state of consciousness is an expanded perception of reality which Huxley appreciates and feels creates a benevolence in people: “what motive can we have for covetousness or self-assertion, for the pursuit of power or the drearier forms of pleasure” (Huxley 43).  This is an expanded state of perception which is good-hearted that Huxley says psychedelics impose upon the user. 

Huxley talks about what he believes America’s perfect substance should be and notes that “on the positive side, it should produce changes in consciousness more interesting, more intrinsically valuable than mere sedation or dreaminess, delusions of omnipotence or release from inhibition" (Huxley 65).  Huxley is implying that alcohol and other drugs commonly used by Americans have no deeper value than to simply inebriate and allow one to escape, but that psychedelics impose a higher, more valuable state of consciousness, because they expand one’s perception of reality.  The mescaline user’s appetite for entertainment is altered in that it may be satisfied by simply observing nature, “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” (Huxley 25) the taker is satisfied and fascinated greatly but the subtle details of things around him, because he is in a state of deeper perception of reality.  In searching for a drug that allows one to beneficially step away from reality “the contemplative whose perception has been cleansed does not have to stay in his room.  He can go about his business, so completely satisfied, to see and be a part of the divine Order of Things” (Huxley 43).  This is one aspect that differs between alcohol and psychedelics.  With alcohol one becomes quite impaired physically and verbally, however with psychedelics, the user can still go about his business functioning unimpaired.  Although, he may be distracted more easily, because it is incredibly easy for the psychedelic user to find grandeur in the smallest details, but this is miniscule compared to the inhibited decision making skills alcohol causes.  Huxley is saying that psychedelics are better for America to use than alcohol because psychedelics place the user into an expanded state of perception rather than a state without good judgement or inhibitions.  Huxley is like a scientist, having such an analytical mind, “the novels, short stories, and essays of the English author Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963) explore crucial questions of science, religion, and philosophy” (“Aldous Leonard Huxley” 74).  Huxley speaks like a philosopher with his contingent questions and intentions to deeper understand this world, scientifically.  His reasoning for using mescaline was much deeper than to have a good time or being able to relate to people, but it was instead deeply introspective and meaningful.

Huxley does not believe mescaline to be a substance that should “equate what happens under the influence of mescaline or of any other drug… with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life” (Huxley 73).  But he does believe it to be something that can invigorate a person’s desire to strive in life and carbonate one’s life energy, because:

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 (Huxley 73). 

This is a deepened sense for reality mescaline puts one into, “the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved” (Huxley 25) he says that psychedelics improve one’s perception of reality and Huxley sees much value in that.

            Huxley speaks of his quest with mescaline as a doorway into new perceptions of our reality, his mysticism piques him to search for deeper purpose in life, and with his newfound knowledge he desires for others to have seen what he has seen, and for psychedelics even to replace alcohol, because it allow people to escape more beneficially.  Psychedelics change what our brain senses, which allows us to see reality quite differently, with a less of a utilitarian instinct, and more of an open appreciation for nature and simplicity type mindset.  Using his experiences with mescaline, Huxley writes about how psychedelic drugs expand one’s perception and awareness of reality.

Works Cited

“Aldous Leonard Huxley.” Encyclopedia of World Biography.  2nd ed. Vol. 8.  2004.  74-75.  Gale Group Databases. Web. 22 Oct. 2010.

"Brave New World." Novels for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski and Deborah A. Stanley. Vol. 6.  1999. 53. Print.

Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature. New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1960. Print.

Denny, Ned. "Life’s weird majesty.” New Statesman.  1996. 28 Oct. 2010. Print.

“Mysticism.” The American Heritage Dictionary.  New York: Dell Publishing. 734. 1994. Print.

 Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1954. Print.

Neill, S. Diana. A Short History of the English Novel. New York: Collier Books, 1951. Print.