In 1954, Aldous Huxley first published his classic work on psychedelics, The Doors of Perception. In it, he argues that the main function of our brain and nervous system is “eliminative, not productive.”
It is impossible to observe everything around you at all times—the myriad noises on the street outside, music coming from speakers in the apartment below, the state of dishes in your kitchen sink, the assault of thoughts relentlessly firing in your head. Therefore, we have to use what he terms the “reducing valve” to perceive reality. The conduit for attentiveness is consciousness. What you ignore is as relevant to attention as what you attend to.
The modern term for this conduit is the attentional filter: an ability to sort through the noise to pick up a signal. What we emphasize become the landmarks of cognition.
Neuroscientist Dan Levitin writes in The Organized Mind that, at best, your brain can attend to four or five things at a time. Even that is stretching it. Listening to one person requires 60 bits of information per second; we max out at 120 bits. If you want to really hear what someone else is saying, stop staring at your phone when they speak. The screen consumes your bits.
According to Huxley, some people are born with natural bypasses in their reducing valve. Their observations supersede the normal boundaries of attention. Temporary bypasses can be achieved through meditation, breathing exercises, or hypnosis. Huxley argues that psychedelics are the quickest and most effective means for achieving this state.
He is not alone in this assessment. Entheogens, a term coined by a group of ethnobotanists in 1979 to denote psychoactive plants that produce a spiritual experience, are cannonballs into an altered consciousness. Mindfulness or kriyas might get you there; mescaline, Huxley’s focus in this book, leaves no doubt that you’ll arrive.
Time For An Upgrade
Where is it that we’re going? Huxley’s ideas are prescient. Realistically, human biology (and therefore society) does not evolve as quickly as we might believe. This is not to downplay the author’s foresight. It reminds us, however, that psychedelics have affected us for tens of thousands of years, at least. We’ve been running on a similar operating system for untold generations.
Sure, we’ve made rapid technological advancements in recent decades. Not one usurps ancient themes—notably, in this regard, the urge to transcend the boundaries of self. As Huxley writes, a sentiment he knows well having studied millennia of religious philosophy,
The urge to escape from selfhood and the environment is in almost everyone almost all the time.
This need for escape comprises the bulk of our earliest literature. Our best-preserved and most widespread mythology, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is about a bored king setting out on an epic quest in search of eternal life. He finds it, loses it, and is ultimately transformed into a more gracious and empathetic ruler. Note that eternal life is granted through the consumption of a plant.
Discontent has long formed the foundation of our religious traditions. We might not seek glorious heaven in the same numbers as our ancestors, but we are certainly ready to extend life indefinitely, two aspects of the same existential crisis that form a modern retelling of Gilgamesh.
Sadly, the recent uptick in anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among younger generations, are indicative of the increasing pressure to be anywhere other than where we are, a neurosis being facilitated, at least in part, by our growing addiction to phones.
This is where the psychedelic experience collides with spiritual practices. The profound changes in human physiology that psychedelics offer provide us an opportunity to achieve contentment in the current moment regardless of what the moment brings. Huxley captures this sentiment beautifully:
Our goal is to discover we have always been where we ought to be. Unhappily we make the task exceedingly difficult for ourselves.
This is yet another way of framing Blake’s poetry from which Huxley borrowed the title of his book:
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.
Psychedelics blow open the cavern. They help us eliminate the excess anxiety that hangs like a shroud over our every waking moment. Unlike addictive substances, entheogens should be treated as medicine. Partake in the ritual, then reflect—for weeks, for months, even years. Sometimes one dose suffices. A single experience can change your perception for a lifetime.
Psychedelics offer nothing except perspective. As Huxley knew, that might just be enough. Simplicity can be quite profound.