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The Doors of Perception

July 16, 2013
image of snake Blake MHH

Illustration by William Blake

One possible explanation of what substances – commonly called hallucinogenics, psychedelics, entheogens or psychoactives do is to remove the filters from our normal way of experiencing the world.

By the way, none of those four terms above strike me as satisfactory. I particularly dislike hallucinogens as it automatically implies that the worlds encountered with La Madre Ayahuasca are illusory, whereas many people say that: “they are more real than reality.”

Trippy_colours_by_psychedelicsPsychedelics, I think, as a term comes with too much baggage from the sixties, and also suggests a specific set of visual images that people may or may not experience.

I, for example, see very few of the visual geometric images that people often experience with la Madre Ayahuasca.

Entheogens, with the meaning of “generating the divine within” is much closer to the mark but still has a somewhat clumsy ring about it.

I like the name psychoactives, but on reflection, there is a problem here too in that our psyche is always active. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol and, in fact, anything we ingest (or even experience) is also psychoactive. We are what we eat.

Whatever we call these various substances, whether man-made like LSD, or natural like La Madre Ayahuasca and Grandfather Peyote, what they all have in common is that they can show us that what we normally experience as a given, taken-for-granted reality, is, in fact, constructed. This can be both wonderfully liberating and/or profoundly destabilizing.

What first brought me to La Madre Ayahuasca in my fifties was still trying to figure out an experience I had as a callow youth with LSD when I was catapulted into so many different worlds, and worlds within worlds, and worlds within worlds within worlds etc., that I was never sure that I had returned to the world I first started in. In one way, of course, that was true. My life was forever altered by that experience and the world I thought I knew no longer existed.


R D Laing

I came across a term that R.D. Laing, the Scottish anti-psychiatrist, coined, which I thought best described the experience that LSD gave me – ‘ontological insecurity’ – the sense that there is no firm psychic ground to stand on.

Post-modern philosophy has been making much the same point throughout the twentieth century. (Mind you, it’s one thing to know this intellectually and another to fully experience it.)

Others, such as Dennis McKenna,  whether they are consciously following Nietzsche or not, refer to this groundlessness as the abyss. Nietszche also warns us that:

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

It took me thirty years, which encompassed two marriages and having two children, to have the courage to return to these experiences of groundlessness.

Thankfully, the experiences I have had with La Madre Ayahuasca have not been so profoundly terrifying as that initial LSD experience and, if anything, have shown me the opposite – that there is indeed psychic ground that we can stand on. This ground, though, is constantly shifting. As my friend and teacher Papamiki once said to me (and I don’t know if this is original or not):

“The bad news is that we are falling through the air without a parachute. The good news is that there is no ground.”

madre ayahuascaOne major difference that I have found with La Madre Ayahuasca compared to LSD is that, even in the worst moments, I have sensed a presence accompanying me, that is ultimately benign – though  very exacting. The experience with LSD was one in which I was ultimately completely existentially alone and lost in a meaningless, random world.

This difference is partly due, I think, to the fact that LSD is a man-made compound and that we are graced with La Madre Ayahuasca’s presence through her physical existence as a plant in nature.

The difference is also due to the fact that I have always encountered La Madre Ayahuasca in a ceremonial context with capable guides helping me navigate by means of the icaros they have sung.

So, to return to the idea at the beginning of this entry, and which is actually a theme present throughout this blog, how do we understand the kinds of experiences we have with – to use another inadequate descriptive term –  mind-altering substances?

One common idea is to think in terms of filters – that these substances remove the filters that normally mediate our experiences of so-called reality. As the comedian Robin Williams once said: “Reality – what a concept!”

Huxley quote

The most eloquent exponent of this view of filters was the author and philosopher Aldous Huxley, who recounted his experiences of taking mescaline in Los Angeles in May 1953 in “The Doors of Perception” – a title which is believed to be behind Jim Morrison’s choice of the name of his band, ‘The Doors’.

The mescaline was administered by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond who Huxley had written to after he had read about his research on schizophrenia using mescaline. Humphrey Osmond’s story is also noteworthy. He invented the term “psychedelic” which he said meant “mind manifesting” and called it “clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.” Unfortunately that is no longer true, especially since Timothy Leary got hold of the term.

Osmond is also known for a study in the late 1950s in which he attempted to cure alcoholics with high doses of LSD. He claimed to achieve a fifty percent success rate. One of his patients, Bill W., was a man who would later co-found ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’.

Incidentally, Huxley had previously written in 1952 that drugs were “toxic short cuts to self-transcendence”. Not a man to mince his words, Aldous. Also, not a man incapable of changing his mind.

Marriage of heaven and hell

Illustration from the ‘Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ by William Blake

The title of Huxley’s book was taken from William Blake’s beautifully illustrated poem ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’:

“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 through narrow chinks of his cavern.”

Blake, too, has long been a hero of the romantic poets and the counter-culture. His poem, ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which is worth reading in full, and the first four lines of which are often used to describe psychedelic experience, begins:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 

And Eternity in an hour”

   To conclude this entry, I’m going to use a quote I found in the excellent Wikipedia article entitled ‘The Doors of Perception’:

blake angel hands  “In October 1955, Huxley had an experience while on LSD that he considered more profound than those detailed in The Doors of Perception. Huxley was overwhelmed to the point where he decided his previous experiments, the ones detailed in Doors and Heaven and Hell, had been nothing but entertaining sideshows. He wrote in a letter to Humphrey Osmond, that he experienced “the direct, total awareness, from the inside, so to say, of Love as the primary and fundamental cosmic fact. … I was this fact; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that this fact occupied the place where I had been. … And the things which had entirely filled my attention on that first occasion, I now perceived to be temptations – temptations to escape from the central reality into a false, or at least imperfect and partial Nirvanas of beauty and mere knowledge.”

   This quote takes this entry full circle in contrast to my own LSD experience, which, in reverse to Huxley’s experience of LSD, was a vivid and terrifying shadow of what I was later to find with La Madre Ayahuasca.

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