Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Heaven and Hell (Aldous Huxley)

This essay deals with what Huxley calls the "antipodes" of the mind, leading potentially to the personal experience of heaven and hell. He draws the analogy of the great explorer of unknown lands of the mind:

A man consists of what I may call an Old World of personal consciousness, and beyond a dividing sea, a series of New Worlds—the not too distant Virginias and Carolinas of the personal subconscious and the vegetative soul; the Far West of the collective unconscious, with its flora of symbols, its tribes of aboriginal archetypes; and, across another vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness, the world of Visionary Experience.

Huxley draws our attention to the absorbing quality of bright colors immanent in precious stones, flowers, stained glass, light displays, and many forms of visual art. He suggests that these artifacts are all potential transporters of consciousness to the antipodes of the mind. The idea that for all those accounts of visionary experience, the most important experience is one of light. That everything is perceived to be brilliantly illuminated from within.

However, there is not only the experience of the positive, and so we have the personal experience of both heaven and hell, and descriptions of each in terms of theology and their translation into art. We have the beatific visionary experience, and the terrible visionary experience. Huxley sites various painters, poets, and other artists that have described the positive and the negative visionary experience. He gives as examples of positive visionary experience, George Russel, Wordsworth's Ode on the Intimations of Immortality in Childhood, certain lyrics by Geroge Herbert and Henry Vaughan, Traherne's Centuries of Meditation, and many others. Examples of the negative visionary experience include Kafka, Dante's Inferno, Van Gogh's later landscapes, Gericault, Goya, Charles Williams, and others.

Huxley describes two reliable means of transporting oneself to the antipodes of the mind. One is by aid of a chemical substance such as mescalin or lysergic acid, and the second method is through hypnosis. In Appendix I, he further explores the subject by describing the use of carbon dioxide and the stroboscopic lamp. He provides a lucid description of the effects of carbon dioxide on the brain, and it's parallel to yogic breathing exercises. The prolonged suspension of breath over time leads to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood, which lowers the efficiency of the brain as a reducing valve of Mind-at-Large. Sustained shouting, singing or chanting have similar effects. As for the stroboscopic lamp, brilliant colors are seen with eyes closed, depending on the frequency of the lamp. Huxley describes how a medical friend who had taken lysergic acid and was seated in front of the stroboscopic lamp with eyes closed, was seeing only colored moving patterns that were transformed into "Japanese landscapes" of surpassing beauty. He describes these small mysteries as particular cases "of a larger, more comprehensive mystery—the nature of the relationship between visionary experience and events on the cellular, chemical, and electrical levels."

Huxley speaks also of other means of inducing visionary or mystical states through fatigue, sleep deprivation, or a period of confinement in a place of darkness and complete silence (Appendix II). He describes how undernourishment, illness, and fasting can lower the effectiveness of the brain as a reducing valve through the reduction in blood sugar and vitamin deficiencies. And also through physical mortification and psycho-physical stress due to the chemical results of adrenaline and histamine released into the bloodstream. In short, all our experience is chemically conditioned. But this in no way denigrates the visionary or mystical experience, it only grounds them in physical science. The end result being to lower the efficiency of the cerebral reducing valve of Mind-at-Large in order to allow into consciousness visionary or mystical experience.

Returning to the mysterious nature of mind in it's relationship to the experience of heaven and hell, Huxley states,

The nature of the mind is such that the sinner who repents and makes an act of faith in a higher power is more likely to have a blissful visionary experience than is the self-satisfied pillar of society with his righteous indignations, his anxiety about possessions and pretensions, his ingrained habits of blaming, despising and condemning. Hence the enormous importance attached, in all the great religious traditions, to the state of mind at the moment of death.

This speaks quite candidly about not only qualities of mind attendant to visionary experience, but also religious tradition, and the importance of not confusing the map for the territory.

However, the experience of heaven (or hell) is not the goal—there is something more, something beyond the visionary experience. Huxley states,

Visionary experience is not the same as mystical experience. Mystical experience is beyond the realm of opposites. Visionary experience is still within that realm. Heaven entails hell, and "going to heaven" is no more liberation than is the descent into horror. Heaven is merely a vantage point, from which the divine Ground can be more clearly seen than on the level of ordinary individualized existence.

A truly visionary mind.

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