By Peter Bebergal
Between his 1932 vision of a sterile dystopia in Brave New World and the 1962 novel Island about a spiritual utopia, the author Aldous Huxley experienced two things; the Hindu religious philosophy known as Vedanta and psychedelic drugs. In Brave New World, people are addicted to Soma, a hallucinogenic that artificially simulates a kind of dull transcendent state, and so makes religion irrelevant. In Island, the Palanese (residents of Pala where the book takes place) ritually use the drug moksha for spiritual and mystical insights. It wasn’t that by the time he was writing Island Huxley no longer believed that civilization was potentially doomed to a homogenized over-indulgent consumer culture, but rather that there was another possibility for human destiny. Soon after writing Brave New World Huxley saw this other opportunity but believed it would take work, a disciplined and rigorous adherence to a spiritual ideal. By the time he got around to writing Island he was convinced there was a faster, less strenuous way to find the higher purpose of human consciousness: mescaline.
Huxley had long been interested in the hallucinogenic properties of certain plants but it wasn’t until 1953 that he encountered the work of Humphry Osmond, a British psychiatrist who had set up shop at a mental hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, and who was interested in the common features of hallucinogenic drug experiences and schizophrenia. Huxley began a correspondence with Osmond that resulted in one of the most pivotal (and written about) moments in the history of the counterculture and psychedelic drugs: Huxley’s ingestion of mescaline, under Osmond’s supervision. Told in The Doors of Perception, no story, other than the infamous LSD bicycle ride by the chemist Albert Hoffman in 1938, has had more influence.
Earlier writings by Huxley suggest that he was skeptical about the use of drugs to attain spiritual insights. He once referred to their use as a path to “downwards self-transcendence.” But as the date of his own planned mescaline intake got closer, Huxley was very excited. He was so concerned it would take too long to procure the drug after Osmond’s arrival at Huxley’s West Hollywood home that he mailed Osmond again. “Meanwhile,” he wrote, “do you have any of the stuff on hand?”
California and Vedanta
In 1937 Huxley moved to California and within a few years was introduced to the Vedanta Society of Southern California by his friend, the writer and scholar Gerald Heard. Huxley had been developing his perennial philosophy, the idea that religious traditions are historically and culturally relative but that they each validate, in their own way, that human beings are divine and that the purpose of our lives is to come into a relationship with the numinous behind the phenomenal world. Huxley believed the realization of our latent divinity to be a possible remedy to what he perceived as a Western material and spiritual crisis. Vedanta was the method Huxley had been looking for.
Vedanta is the philosophical underpinning of Hinduism, itself a dreamscape of multiple deities and stories of epic battles. Vedanta distills all of the multi-armed, elephant-headed, sword-wielding gods into one simple idea. The most important of the Vedic literature, The Upanishads, teaches that brahman, the supreme reality of all things, and atman, the manifestation of the divine in the human soul, are one and the same, a pure and perfect whole. Our purpose during our gross bodily manifestation is to recognize the divinity within all things. When we come to this, Vendata tells us, we will also see that every religion is merely a different way of expressing the same principle, the same overarching truth that there is no separation between the soul and God.
By the 1940s Hindu philosophy was not as exotic to the West as it had once been. During the turn of the century occultists, spiritualists, and theosophists had appropriated yoga and other Hindu spiritual teachings and turned them into a kind of Holy Grail of magical powers. The East became a symbol of spiritual perfection where those who had attained a kind of Gnostic release—an understanding of their own godhood—waited for the moment when humanity was ready to receive their gift. These “ascended masters” found a preliminary testing ground for their difficult wisdom in people like Madame Blavatsky or through coded manuscripts like the ciphers given by the “secret chiefs” to the founders of the magical fraternity the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Mysticism as such became equated with occultism by way of Tarot cards and the communication with spirits through séances. Swami Prabhavananda, a disciple of the powerful and charismatic spiritual leader Ramakrishna, wanted to clean up the mess the occultists had made of Vedanta. Ramakrishna’s teachings first made it to America through his student Vivekenanda in the late 1800s, but it was Prabhavananda that had the greatest impact with the founding of the Vedanta Society of Southern California in 1930. Prabhavananda taught that while practicing yoga and other spiritual exercises one would undoubtedly have paranormal experiences which he called distractions that get in the way of the deeper and more lasting connection to God. In one story recounted by Prabhavananda, one brother returns after a long time away developing his powers. At the bank of a river he walks across the water to show off his magical prowess. Unimpressed, the other brother gives a coin to a ferryman and says, “Brother is this all you have gained in twelve long years of struggle—to be able to do something that can be had for the price of one copper?” Through the Society, Prabhavananda made Vedanta feel not only essential to the modern spiritual dilemma, but intellectually rigorous enough to attract the likes of the writer Christopher Isherwood.
Huxley wrote for the Society’s journal and took up the cause of teaching one of Vedanta’s essential ideas; do not mistake the quick and often dramatic effects of meditation for actual spiritual truths. In one journal article, “The Magical and the Spiritual,” Huxley wrote, “At present there is a lamentable tendency to confound the psychic with the spiritual, to regard every supernormal phenomenon, every unusual mental state as coming from God.”
Nevertheless, Huxley’s research into mysticism revealed that in many classical stories, the most fanciful experiences tended to come upon the person suddenly, without any deliberate exercise or intention. From Ezekial’s visions of burning seraphim to William Blake’s encounters with angelic messengers, no matter the emphasis on the slow burn of meditation and yoga, if you really wanted to have your third eye shot through with divine radiance you might have to find another way. But this would always remain a tension. Should you wait for God to descend in the form a cloud to knock you down with a booming voice or should you rise up to meet God by whatever means necessary?
For example, Jewish Kabbalists warned against attempts at direct contact with the divine chariot (driven across the heavens by wheels covered in thousands of eyes) unless you are fully righteous and devoutly learned in the holy texts. Nevertheless the occultists and magicians of the 19th century saw this warning as one more attempt by religious hierarchies to keep the good stuff for themselves. In response, they translated Hebrew texts and offered kabbalistic ideas as a once-hidden formula for quickly climbing the Tree of Life and sneaking into God’s house, perhaps aided by some angelic messengers. The Vedanta society seemed to be on the side of the rabbis, however, and Huxley wrote “the search for Reality and Eternity imposes a discipline which the great majority of men and woman are not prepared to undergo.”
The Brain is a Valve
Huxley’s mescaline trip, described in his 1954 book The Doors of Perception, is the most polite and lucid account of an experience with a powerful hallucinogenic drug you are likely to find. It all takes place in a comfortable living room and one can easily imagine some tea and biscuits on hand. Huxley’s experience was likely deeply informed by his own cultivated philosophy–that it is the human that contains the seed of this special awareness rather than something given as a divine gift. This special sight allows us to perceive the “excessive, too obvious glory” of the mundane things around us: a chair, a vase of flowers, the curtains on the window, the strains of a violin.
More importantly, Huxley’s mescaline trip gave him an organic origin for every sort of mystical and religious experience that had been documented. Mescaline was the key to why, for some people, mystical experience could happen suddenly and why a religiously disciplined life might not be necessary after all. Huxley believed that the brain, and by extension the central nervous system, are not organs of perception and consciousness. The brain is merely a valve that turns on and off the flow of the “Mind at Large.” This supra-consciousness is our true and original state of awareness, he believed, but it would be impossible to get anything done if it were flowing freely all the time. The brain is the perfect evolutionary key, a filter that allows us to procreate, build shelters, and hunt for food. Otherwise we would be lying on our backs all day, giggling at the trails our hands make as we wave them across our eyes. Nevertheless, this is our true sight, a perfect unimpeded celestial awareness. Mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin, Huxley believed, can quickly turn on the psychedelic faucet.
Fasting, meditation, bending oneself in all manner of contorted poses, these become redundant after a mescaline experience, Huxley believed. Spiritual exercises offer only a small glimpse of what is possible and even after years and years of discipline might not open the mind’s eye in any dramatic way. Huxley’s newfound skepticism of the religiously-oriented life is startling: “Ideally, everyone should be able to find self-transcendence in some form of pure or applied religion. In practice it seems very unlikely that this hoped for consummation will ever be realized.” Huxley knew that he was essentially pointed out that the emperor has no clothes, but he remained apologetic. He was not trying to say the mescaline experience is the final visionary realization that human beings need or should have. And yet, in his later essay, “Heaven and Hell,” he decided he was too gracious after all. To fast without even the guarantee of any special insight when mescaline is available is like the man who “burned down the house in order to roast the pig.”
Swami Prabhavananda was not happy with Huxley’s new model and for much of his life afterwards the Swami had to contend with the question of the spiritual usefulness of drugs. He was convinced, despite his student’s experience, that drugs offered little more than a psychic magic trick and could never truly help one apprehend the divine. He once said, “Drugs may induce psychic visions, which, to a man ignorant of mystical visions, may appear as spiritual.” The veiled insult is hard to ignore. At one point, the disagreement between Huxley and Prabhavananda led to the Swami fearing for the state of Huxley’s own spiritual condition.
The Vedanta Society is still active in delivering the teaching of Prabhavananda. In an email exchange, I asked the resident nun Pravrajika Vrajaprana what she recalled about Prabhavananda and his thoughts on Huxley’s mescaline experience. She wrote, “Swami Prabhavananda was virulently opposed to people taking psychedelic drugs with the idea that it could provide some sort of illumination or spiritual help.”
For Huxley, his mescaline experience rationalized the mystical. It revealed what he termed the “chemical conditions of transcendental experience.” By making mysticism rational, Huxley could draw the conditions for a utopian society further and further away from any system that depended on autocracy or theocracy. All that we need to realize our true potential is built into the very organic structure of our brains, he believed. It just takes a little push, a nudge, to turn the valve off and let in the unmediated flow of absolute reality.
When looking at Huxley’s earliest thoughts on the subject one can’t help but judge his mescaline experience as something he might have given more weight than it was due. He was once firm that a person had to possess a kind of atomic moral clock synced perfectly with the divine or you simply could not experience the “greater reality.” Mescaline removes the need for any kind of special moral life as it keys directly into the chemical component that gives rise to our ability to experience transcendence. This might not seem at first like a contradiction, but rather an evolution in his thinking. Nevertheless, the privileging of the mescaline experience is wrought with its own problems.
Certainly there are many accounts of experiences that seem to exist in that nether realm between the phenomenal world of experience and the noumenal world of the spirit. Various mystics, saints, and artists have tried to convey encounters with the ineffable, balancing the “realness” of these experiences with the utter precarious inability to explain them accurately, never mind prove them. It’s hard to accept that they are much more than brief episodes of altered consciousness, dramatic for sure, but not very different from hypnosis or dreams.
The danger, of course, is that experiences like Huxley’s and others’ become the means by which grand narratives are constructed. Historically, religious communities form around a prophet who claims to have had the transformative experience, the face-to-face encounter with God. Soon thereafter the teachings become codified, people no longer seek their own immediate experience but rather continue to narrate the original story, which in turn takes on the quality of becoming literal. Or worse, individuals filter their experiences through the expectations of whatever grand narrative they have bought into in the first place.
Although it might not have been his intention, Huxley opened the door for contemporary psychedelic drug users and consciousness adventurers to return from the furthest reaches of the human mind with very clear and concrete thinking about the shape and purpose of the universe. But what happens when those from seemingly different backgrounds have remarkably similar experiences when taking psychedelics? The argument commonly goes that because people from such disparate backgrounds share these common descriptors when answering questions about their experiences, there must be a universal, objective spiritual “well” from which all these experiences arise. It’s a compelling argument, except that most classical descriptions of mystical states often use very theological language to narrate their experience; it’s easy to strip away the speciﬁcs to get to the general (a feeling of unity with Jesus could be described simply as sense of unity).
Despite his shift from the notion that authentic mystical states are rare to an insistence that they are readily available by the simple ingestion of a psychoactive substance, Huxley never changed the essential truth he was trying to convey: it is a wonder that the human mind is capable of these states at all, that the mind is so malleable that, with the ingestion of even a few milligrams of a compound like psilocybin, synthesized from a small and common mushroom, or a moment of deep mediation can produce extraordinary feelings of ego-death, timelessness, and a glimpse of what often appears to be an eternal and perfectly uniﬁed cosmos. His challenge was to see if we could build a society around such a notion, one that even he was skeptical of.
At the end of Island, the protagonist betrays the spiritual rationalists of Pala over another ideal, materialism. Mescaline might have shown Huxley what was possible, but he knew what human beings are actually capable of.
Peter Bebergal is author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, a memoir/cultural history of drugs and mysticism (Soft Skull Press, 2011) and co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury, 2007). He blogs at mysterytheater.blogspot.com.