The Doors of Perception
“The book that launched a thousand trips.” That’s how London’s Daily Telegraph described Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, an account of the author’s initial use of mescaline. Best remembered for his prophetic dystopian novel Brave New World, Huxley was also a religious philosopher and a pacifist. In The Doors of Perception—a brief, soberly written book from which 1960s rock band the Doors took their name—Huxley hands us the key to our own minds.
Aldous Huxley first took mescaline on May 4, 1953, but his interest in the mental effects of psychoactive drugs—and their similarity to certain religious experiences—goes back at least to Brave New World (1932) and its fictional hallucinogen, “soma.” When British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond offered to bring mescaline to Huxley’s Los Angeles home and guide the writer through the experience, Huxley was, in his own words, “willing, indeed eager, to be a guinea pig.” (In a letter to Huxley, Osmond coined the word psychedelic to describe such substances.)
Huxley’s first mescaline session was both revelatory and disappointing: He did not have the internal mystical visions—“of many-colored geometries, of animated architectures…of symbolic dramas”—he had anticipated. But the drug transfigured his perception of the external world, putting him in touch with the ineffable isness of his surroundings and transporting him to a timeless realm removed from everyday concerns. In the final pages of The Doors of Perception, Huxley proposes the use of mescaline-like drugs as curatives for ordinary psychological ills and as means for spiritual exploration. He took his own advice, continuing to use mescaline and the more powerful hallucinogen LSD—which he took while he was dying.
Brash American poet Allen Ginsberg and Aldous Huxley, a study in bespoke British reserve, were surprisingly akin in their worldviews and passions. Both railed against the regimentation of modern life, looked eastward to Hindu and Buddhist thought for spiritual guidance, sought personal transcendence through psychedelic drugs and viewed themselves as spiritual heirs of the English Romantic poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827).
Huxley took the title The Doors of Perception from a line in Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790): “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Blake’s visionary experience is cited several times throughout Doors and its companion volume, Heaven and Hell (1956). Ginsberg claimed he decided to become a poet when, in the late 1940s, he heard Blake speaking to him, reciting his 1793 poem “Ah! Sunflower.” Stylistically, Ginsberg’s poems—rambling, bawdy, sublime and often self-referential—owe more to 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), but Blake’s name totemically appears in such Ginsberg poems as “Howl” (1955), “Sunflower Sutra” (1955), “Wales Visitation” (1967) and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (1966), in which Ginsberg calls Blake “the invisible father of English visions.”
During the 1960–1961 academic year, Harvard University psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert established the Psilocybin Project, whose participants were later dubbed the Harvard Psychedelic Club. The group’s core members—including historian of religion Huston Smith, then on the MIT faculty—were all inspired by The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s report of his spiritually rewarding experience with the hallucinogenic drug mescaline. Huxley crossed paths with the group when Smith invited him to lecture at MIT in the fall of 1960.
The Psilocybin Project enlisted graduate students and others—including Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs—to ingest a synthesized form of psilocybin, the psychoactive chemical found in Psilocybe mushrooms, and record their experiences. Leary and Alpert’s exploration of altered states of consciousness wildly diverged from the behavior-based experimentation of their departmental colleagues, and the group that gathered around them soon developed a cultlike air. In the spring of 1963, Leary and Alpert were dismissed from their posts for violating university rules. Their ouster made them heroes of the nascent counterculture. They promoted LSD as a means of self-discovery, and Leary’s maxim “Turn on, tune in, drop out” became a mantra for the hippie movement.
In late 1960 Allen Ginsberg enlisted in the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a drug study overseen by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert that journalist Don Lattin later called the Harvard Psychedelic Club. An originator of the Beat movement—the youthful rebellion against 1950s conformity—Ginsberg would likewise star in the next wave of revolt, transforming himself into the flower children’s blissed-out big brother, sporting long hair and love beads, dinging finger cymbals and chanting Buddhist sutras. Ginsberg “never seemed far from the ’60s action,” Lattin noted. He tagged along on Bob Dylan’s tours and was in the middle of things—chanting, of course—as protesters disrupted 1968’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Ginsberg often crossed paths with Leary, who transformed from Harvard psychologist to self-styled “high priest of LSD.” Leary said later that his first meeting with Ginsberg “changed my life right then. I knew I was never going to be part of the system after being exposed to the…power of the liberated, avant-garde, Bohemian, artistic mind.” Ginsberg and Leary appeared together at the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967—the landmark “happening” that set the scene for that city’s so-called Summer of Love.
Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Huston Smith—the founding fathers of the Harvard Psychedelic Club— took very different paths to enlightenment after leaving the university in 1963. While Leary pursued a life of drug use, media high jinks and occasional run-ins with the law, his former cohort Alpert began a serious spiritual quest. On a trip to India in 1967, Alpert stayed with the holy man Neem Karoli Baba for eight months, studying meditation and Hindu devotional practice. Alpert emerged a changed man, with a new name, Ram Dass (“servant of God”), his guru had conferred on him. In the U.S. Ram Dass preached an Eastern-inflected gospel of mindful attention, love and service to others. His Be Here Now—continuously in print since its publication in 1971—remains a foundational text of New Age movements.
The son of Methodist missionaries to China, religious historian Huston Smith encountered the Vedantic school of Hindu thought and practice in the 1940s—through Gerald Heard, also a friend of Aldous Huxley’s—and made his first pilgrimage to India in 1957. His knowledge of, and sympathy for, the Hindu tradition are apparent in his influential book The World’s Religions (1958).
As described by Huston Smith in The World’s Religions (1958), Hinduism may be the most tolerant of religious traditions. He quotes the 19th-century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna: “God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times and countries.… One can reach God if one follows any of the paths with wholehearted devotion.”
Aldous Huxley would have concurred with that ecumenical sentiment. His 1945 book The Perennial Philosophy is an exhaustive cross-cultural examination of the spiritual insights and ethical values that, he contends, various religious traditions hold in common. Huxley’s later experimentation with psychedelic drugs, as related in The Doors of Perception, was his attempt to connect with the nonrational sensory universe that mystics from many different traditions have spoken about.
That “nondualist” philosophy—which holds that the atman (Sanskrit for the individual soul) and Brahman (the world soul) are, at root, indissolubly the same—is a central tenet of the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, to which Ramakrishna adhered. Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda in turn taught Aldous Huxley’s swami, Prabhavananda. But Huxley and the swami didn’t always see eye to eye: Prabhavananda disapproved of Huxley’s psychedelic drug use and considered it an ineffectual shortcut to true samadhi (enlightenment).