I found myself in a world without right angles or straight edges. The formerly rectangular coffee table in my dorm suite at Yale now bulged and sagged ludicrously. The fibers of the burnt-orange carpet on the floor seemed to be alive, and I ran my fingers through them, utterly absorbed. The morning light streaming through the gothic windows shined as if straight from heaven. I had lost my mind but didn’t mind in the least; in fact, I found the whole experience uproariously funny. I looked around at all the supposedly inanimate objects in the room that now pulsed with energy and breathed as I did. It was a cartoon world with everything painted in riotous colors. I knew that the drug I had taken, a powerful hallucinogen called STP, would eventually wear off. But I had learned something that would change forever my understanding of reality: it was all in the eye of the beholder.
Years before Timothy Leary began proselytizing for LSD, the writer Aldous Huxley experimented with mescaline, a hallucinogenic extract of the peyote cactus. He wrote about his experience in a book called The Doors of Perception, which became a cult classic among sixties-era college students like me. The title of Huxley’s book was taken from William Blake's poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Blake wrote, "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, of course, had been something of an acidhead long before LSD was ever synthesized; consequently, most of his contemporaries -- including fellow poets -- concluded that he had lost is mind. Thanks to mescaline, Huxley was no longer seeing the world exclusively though the narrow chinks of his cavern and could appreciate what Blake was talking about.
A longtime student of Vedanta, Huxley did not confuse his experience on mescaline with a beatific vision or enlightenment. He saw it as a kind of “gratuitious grace” – a term he borrowed from Thomas Aquinas. Huxley subscribed to the view that normal waking consciousness functions as a “reducing valve” to filter out the vast flood of sensory stimuli that might otherwise interfere with the unglamorous business of survival. Mescaline bypasses the mind’s sensory-inhibiting mechanisms, enabling the user to experience “the glory, the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence.” Others, he wrote, have been able to achieve temporary bypasses spontaneously or through such expedients as hypnosis and spiritual exercises.
The Doors of Perception was published during the Eisenhower years and predictably received a critical drubbing from the guardians of mainstream culture. Even Huxley’s friend Thomas Mann denounced the book as escapist and self-indulgent. And although mescaline was not then a controlled substance, the medical community accused Huxley of peddling dangerous drugs. Religious types also criticized the book as escapist and charged that Huxley’s experience more closely resembled a psychotic episode than a beatific vision.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would concur that bypassing the mind’s filtering mechanisms through unsupervised drug experimentation is ill advised, if only because it leaves you defenseless against the darker elements of your own psyche. However, having experienced numerous episodes of “gratuitous grace” over the last 40 years, most of them unrelated to drug use, I have found little essential difference between the effects of hallucinogens and a “genuine” religious experience.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam were all founded by individuals who had a direct personal experience of the divine. Moses encountered the God of his ancestors in a burning bush while tending his father-in-law’s flocks on the slopes of Mt. Horeb. The prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord on his throne while a captive in Babylon. St. Paul was blinded by a light from heaven as he traveled to Damascus. Muhammed saw the angel Gabriel in a cave at Mt. Hira. The German theologian Rudolph Otto coined the term “numinous” to characterize such events, from the Latin numen, signifying a divine power. These highly charged psychic experiences are often accompanied by sensory alterations similar to those reported by Aldous Huxley and other connoisseurs of mind-altering drugs. Here, for example, is how the 18th-century New England cleric Jonathan Edwards described a numinous episode while walking in his father’s pasture:
The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, and trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me.
Paul H. Andrews has pointed out the divine revelations that became the foundational events for the three Abrahamic faiths all began as solitary experiences rather than as group events. Moses was alone on Mt. Horeb, as was Muhammed when Gabriel spoke to him in the cave. Isaiah makes no mention of others when he had his heavenly vision. Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus heard a voice but saw nothing. All experienced these encounters as external to themselves, but were they? Andrews thinks not. “Glorification is basically an action that takes place within the human psyche, not outside it,” Andrews maintains, adding that it “is projected by the psyche on external persons and things, appearing as though it were adhering to or originating from them.”
Does this mean that the founders of the major religions were all hallucinating? Strictly speaking, all sensory experience takes place within the human psyche and is projected onto a world that we perceive as external to ourselves. What then is the essential difference between everyday experience and the numinous episodes reported by mystics and shamans? The assumption might be that visionaries see things that aren’t actually there, but then perhaps the rest of us may simply be incapable of seeing what actually is. The real significance of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord sitting on his throne is not that heaven is glorious but rather, as the angels proclaimed, that the whole earth is full of his glory. To see the kingdom of heaven, we need not look to heaven but take to heart what Jesus once said: that the kingdom of heaven is within.
Holy Quran (Alaq 96: 1-5)
Jonathan Edwards, Personal Narrative
Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Paul H. Andrews, Essays on Numinosity (www.numinosity.org)