Tuesday, February 28, 2006
The New Doors of Perception
With the above quote Aldous Huxley began his book The Doors of Perception. The book was nominally about his experiences taking mescaline in the early 1950’s, but it was more a critical examination of the processes by which we apprehend reality and an examination of the nature of spiritual experience.
A month ago I was installing a new set of doors for two men in their eighties, a gay couple. One of the men had read my book and enjoyed it very much. The room where we installed the doors was a small back bedroom that had cinderblock walls, plastered on the inside and stuccoed on the outside, and two small windows with no direct access to the outdoors. We had to have a concrete cutting service come in to saw a hole in the wall so that I could install a small set of double French doors. As I finished the job, the partner of the man who read my book came up to me and said, “Tom and I both agree that you remind us of Aldous Huxley.”
I looked up, a bit baffled and amazed by the comment. “Do I look like him?”
“A bit,” my client replied, “but it’s more in the way you carry yourself and express yourself, your mind.”
“Did you know him?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied with a slight smile. “We used to take LSD together.”
I immediately thought of The Doors of Perception, of how it had been a must read during the sixties. I also thought of the doors I was installing. I’ve installed a lot of doors in my time, even designed and made some of them. The time I’ve spent teaching is also, in a great sense, about the finding of doors or the creation of new doors. It’s all about providing a well-crafted passageway between the inside and outside worlds.
During the sixties I had picked up the book, but never really read it. Reading the book seemed secondary to the experience of the times. It’s pretty faddish now to diss the sixties as self-indulgent and irrelevant, but between tokes we managed to end a presidency, end a war, and help bring about a bit more racial justice. What can be said of the present?
The salient feature of the time seemed to be that many of the people I knew were trying to figure out a better way to do things and were actively trying to cleanse their doors of perception, either through drugs or nascent spiritual practice. It was a time of felt community. We were trying to gain a vision, but never figured out how to bring that vision into this world. We foundered on the rocks of drugs or the necessity of making a living. Deep within us though is the memory that we had a dream, a vision, and it’s still incomplete. It’s time for completion.
As I read through The Doors of Perception, I was amazed with the parallels in Huxley’s thinking and expression and my own. I was also aware of the differences. He was a European classicist with a noble pedigree. His grandfather Thomas had been the great proponent of the theory of evolution and was known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” I came from a family where my father was a third grade dropout who didn’t want me to go to college. Rather than the classics, my tastes run to roots music and jazz. I can’t reference the classics very well, but I can reference our roots in this American landscape. My father’s family came to what is now the southern United States about 1650. My mother’s family came to California from Germany in the early 1850s at the end of the Gold Rush. Some family members came across the prairie in covered wagons and some came around stormy Cape Horn.
Despite our differences, Huxley and I could meet on the other side of the door. As I read the book I knew I could extend the vision and the thought even further, so I decided to create this ongoing journal, a chronicle of the mundane life butted up against the Mystery.
Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) and Timothy Leary once took LSD for thirty straight days in an attempt to stay perpetually high, perpetually on the other side of the door, perpetually separate from the mundane world. It’s analogous too trying to stay perpetually in the throes of sexual ecstasy. You may conceive your children in the ecstasy, but you can’t successfully raise your children while trying to perpetually live in the same ecstasy. LSD blows the rigid, frozen door of culture and habit off its hinges, but the task is to craft a door that opens and closes, as needed, a fine handcrafted door that bears the marks of your being, your own needs, your history, your joy and your sorrow. This series is an attempt to understand the nature of that door: what materials might possibly be used, how to get a feel for the design, what it means to be a craftsman, and the necessity of sharpening your tools.
Huxley died in Los Angeles the same day President Kennedy was assassinated, his death overshadowed by the national tragedy. Interestingly C.S. Lewis also died the same day. As Huxley lie dying from throat cancer, unable to speak, he scribbled a final request to his wife for a last dose of LSD--100 micrograms, injected. He shed the mortal coil in the company of Dr. Hofmann’s “problem child.”