We are constantly bombarded with messages from the media about the negative effects of drug use. But with most things in life, there is another side to the issue and another way to view it. In the late 19th century, Dr. Sigmund Freud introduced the world of psychology to the existence and exploration of the subconscious. For the first time psychologists were studying the full potential of the human mind and his theories spread like wild fire. In 1953, Aldous Huxley wrote The Doors of Perception, in which he documents his experiences on the psychedelic drug mescaline. He also discusses the theory of the “mind at large” which is an expansion of Freud’s theory on the subconscious. Dr. Andrew Weil of Harvard, wrote a book called The Natural Mind in 1972, which discusses his theory that people have an innate desire to alter consciousness and thoroughly discusses drug use on a universal scale. This paper will examine how chemical substances have been used to expand the mind and possibly produce the world’s greatest artistic pieces of work.
Huxley writes about his agreement with the philosopher Dr. C. D. Broad’s theory of the “mind at large,” and relates this to drug use. Dr. Broad believes that the human brain uses a filtration system in order to weed out certain memories in an attempt to keep the mind from being overwhelmed (23). Huxley writes that if we did not have this protection we would, “[remember] all that has ever happened to [him] and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe” (23). He believes though that when people are using chemical substances, and particularly mescaline, they prevent their minds from filtering their experiences. They are able to penetrate their subconscious thoughts and “discover a world of visionary beauty” (Huxley 26). Hu Huxley is a believer that the only true knowledge is that which is found while using the entirety of the mind. He writes extensively, naming specific artists whom he believes are able to see the world with open eyes while the rest of us can only view it while using mescaline. Van Gogh, Eckhart, Botticelli, Watteau, and Bernini are some of the artists who see things “how one ought to see, how things really are,” which he admits are also a part of the world of a schizophrenic’s world (Huxley 34).
One must ask then, why would the mind create this filter? What could possibly be useful here? He acknowledges that there are social and biological reasons, but he really sums it up with his writings regarding schizophrenia; “And suddenly I had an inkling of what it must feel like to be mad. Schizophrenia has its heavens as well as its hells and purgatories” (Huxley 54). How frightening it must be to completely lose control of reality! While we all have urges to escape from reality from time to time, and especially when our present state forces us to endure pain, to not be able to return to our filtered world at some point is the downfall of schizophrenia. As unsatisfactory as reality may be, it is reassuring. He is not applauding the disease as one may think. In fact, he states that it is dangerous and fears the thought of being in a constant state of chaos. He is acknowledging that sometimes we need to escape and appreciate the full potential of our minds. Mescaline brings out the good parts of a schizophrenics world. A good comparison may be traveling. While it is good to explore the world beyond our own backyards, it is always good to come home.
Albert Einstein once said, “The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” (Erowid). Rumored to have smoke marijuana and openly against Prohibition in the United States, he recognized that reality is not what it appears. The few that have explored something similar to what Huxley speaks of are those who view life in a spiritual manner, and describe the “mystical experience.” This teaches that consciousness is infinite and is eternal in space and time (Erowid). Scholar Sandra Stahlman describes it as the, “experience of unity, intense affective experience, time/space distortion, noetic quality, ineffability, and a sense of holiness or sacredness” (Merovence: Sandy Stahlman). What Huxley describes while on mescaline is eerily similar to that of the mystical experience. When famous artists took their drugs, whether they acknowledged it or not, they were involved the mystical experience.
Dr. Weil takes a look at drug use that is inclusive of history and innate desires of humankind. He reasons that children discover at an early age that they enjoy being in a state of altered consciousness and that this is an innate desire of all humans. He does mention mescaline, however, he recognizes various other ways to achieve this state and advocates for means that do not involve chemical substances. He writes about yogic practices and meditation that the Eastern cultures have been using for centuries. He believes that this is safer than and just as effective as drugs. Recognizing that there is this innate desire is important because it is a justification for the universality for drug addiction and use. How can we blame people for something that are a part of being human? Like the desire to procreate? People cannot deny their desires so easily.
Dr. Weil brings up some interesting points in the beginning of his book that help to explain something that society is constantly asking; why do people use drugs? American culture demands answers for social problems so that they are able to name something and blame it. There is not one simple answer, in fact, there are many contributing factors. Because drugs can provide an easy escape from reality, like Huxley centers on heavily, for people who want to forget themselves… this is ideal. There is a common theme amongst drug users that they want to leave their reality and live in a state which is far removed from their world. It is a popular theory that drug use is a means for dealing with one’s emotional drama. This is exactly where Dr. Weil interjects and believes that drugs should not be used for this purpose. Rather, drugs should only be taken for purposes of expanding one’s mind and for self exploration. Not as a numbing technique! When a person uses drugs to dull pain, once the drug’s effects have worn off the pain is still present and they are likely to use again. Thus, they are susceptible to beginning a cycle of addiction.
Huxley agrees with Dr. Weil about people’s motivations for intoxication. He writes that people desire to escape from themselves and their surroundings nearly all the time. He had a dark opinion of life as being painful, monotonous, and poor. He reasons that these conditions would make anyone want to use drugs and be in fantasy, and so this desire is natural and has been known to humanity for centuries. One thing is certain, nearly every culture uses drugs and throughout every time period, however, what he points out is that the cultural attitude and the way they use drugs is what varies.
He has studied cultures that use drugs for a positive purpose and have found that those cultures seem to have fewer social problems and addicts. One group of people who use drugs in a ritualistic and group manner is those communities who live in the Amazon. What Dr. Weil concluded about the Amazons can be helpful for other groups that seem to be plagued by drug use. The native’s approach towards drugs may give some ideas and insight on how to deal with the issue. For one, these people do not search for the purest and most potent form of drugs. They use plants in their natural form and not with the intention of becoming as high as possible. Western cultures are constantly trying to manipulate chemicals and create drugs in laboratories with dangerous outcomes. Dr. Weil is a firm believer in holistic living and so his bias should be recognized here, however, he does bring up a worthwhile point. The Western world needs to stop manipulating their environment and let Mother Nature do what she does best. Humans do not control the universe.
Aside from the form the Amazonians use, they also differ in their use in that they openly acknowledge the presence of drugs and do not try to fight nature’s hallucinogens (Weil 101). They have learned to incorporate drugs into their society in useful ways and have rituals for the use of drugs. Children are exposed to this at an early age so that when they are older they are experienced, and therefore less tempted to abuse the drug throughout adolescence. As Poe once said, “Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?” Adolescents are especially prone to perverse acts as they are in a rebellious stage, and attempting to assert their independence and establish their identity.
Similar to Huxley’s theories on schizophrenia and the ability to see the world in its true form, Dr. Weil talks about something similar and calls it stoned thinking (119). In his theory though he says its, “like daydreaming, is a natural component of consciousness that all of us have available to us all the time…predominates naturally in states of consciousness other than the ordinary, ego-centered waking state…correlates with drug use only to the extent that drugs are used intelligently as tools to enter altered states of consciousness” (Weil 119). In this quotes Dr. Weil recognizes that there is another side to the mind that goes beyond the ego and our waking consciousness. He is describing the state that the “mind at large” would be in when people are at their greater potential.
Dr. Weil considers psychotics to be people who utilize the unconscious parts of their mind along with the conscious (179). He is opposed to the use of antipsychotic medications and believes that instead doctors should be focused on teaching them how to use the positive features of their neurosis to their benefit. He reasons that once patients have mastered this technique, “there are no limits to what they can accomplish” (Weil 181). Dr. Weil and Huxley are able to recognize the strength of conditions like schizophrenia, but they differ on their attitude towards how to deal with it. Huxley has more of a depressing response that simply has a message of “what a pity!” Whereas Dr. Weil says that it is not the tragedy that Huxley makes it out to be, in fact, he makes them sound fortunate as long as they can channel their difference into a positive experience.
Huxley and Dr. Weil’s theories on neurotic persons revolutionary; these conditions have never been viewed by scholars and society to be something other than an extremely negative illness without any positive attributes. There are few people who have acknowledged and written about the fact that some drugs affect people in a way that makes them similar to people who are naturally neurotic; and then to applaud the use of these drugs. This theory has not been accepted by the general population or psychiatrists, however, it is worthwhile for people to stop and consider it.
Edgar Allan Poe is in a category of people whom many consider to be geniuses. For literature, he definitely is someone who “thinks outside of the box” and who had character. He may have even been neurotic and is rumored to have mood swings which may have been from his bipolar disorder. From his simple poems like “To My Mother” to his short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” his mind had the ability to create stories and thoughts that were almost dream like. He also recognized what Huxley discovered with mescaline and once wrote a poem that asks, “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?” A known alcoholic and opiate user, it is possible that he was able to use more parts of his brain than most people. He lived in that world either naturally, or opiate induced, which Huxley writes so fondly about. With his eyes truly open to the universe, he was able to conceive some of the most genuine and innovative pieces of literature the world has ever seen.
Grunge musician Kurt Cobain (1967-1994), produced music geared towards a generation of angry and depressed adolescents known as Generation X. Actually diagnosed with both Attention Deficit Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, Cobain was mostly uncooperative with treatment and resorted to drugs to self-medicate. Mainly abusing alcohol, LSD, and heroin, these drugs only worsened the symptoms of his Bipolar Disorder. Manic highs are commonly cited as producing euphoria and extreme creativity which often results in high productivity during this period. However, we all know that what goes up, must come down. Cobain’s crashes were hard and were intensified by drugs. At the young age of 27, Cobain had grown tired of his battles with depression and drug addiction, and took his own life.
In the few years that he was able to produce music, he wrote songs such as “Dumb” in which he sings, “My heart is broke, But I have some glue, Help me inhale, And mend it with you, We’ll float around, And hang out on clouds, Then we’ll come down, And have a hangover” (A-Z Lyrics Universe). This is one of many songs that he sings about using drugs to alter his consciousness, since his conscious state contains unbearable pain. He attempts to make society understand that drugs are his happiness and not the enemy that people believe it appears to be. Referring to drugs as “glue” and saying that it will “mend” his broken heart, is a statement of Cobain’s belief that drugs could be helpful. While one cannot deny of addiction aspect of drugs, they certainly must have some sort of positive outcome for users for them to desire it so strongly.
Musician Jim Morrison (1943-1971) of The Doors, is another example of a talented artist who used drugs. His drugs of choice were mainly alcohol and heroin, and despite the controversy over his death, most believe that he died of a heroin overdose. He has been accurately described by one writer as “young, brilliant, and very disturbed” (Ellis). In his time Morrison wrote many controversial songs such as “Stoned Immaculate” and “Alabama Song (whiskey bar),” in which he expressed his attitude towards drug use. He felt that drugs were something vital to his existence and expresses it in “Alabama Song” with the lyric, “For if we don’t find the next whisky bar I tell you we must die” (A-Z Lyrics Universe).
The writer William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) helped people to understand drug addiction through the eyes of an addict. His work inspired many writers and musicians, which includes Kurt Cobain. Known best for his novels Naked Lunch and Junkie which both chronicle his heroin addiction, he let readers into the mind of the user and intelligently conveyed a glimpse of a life that most people did not understand. Interestingly, Burroughs took a trip to the Amazon rainforest searching for a drug called yagé which is a hallucinogenic plant that is said to be the greatest tool for mind expansion. He had attempted to kick his heroin addiction many times and was hopeful that this plant would be the answer.
South American shamans prepare yagé (more commonly known as hoasca or ayahuasca), which has a long history of use by the natives. This medicine is a mixture of psychoactive plants that grow in Brazil’s Amazon region. Its potency has earned its ethnic name which literally means, “vine of the dead.” What is notable about this plant is the fact that the indigenous people have historically used it to, “[free] the soul from corporeal confinement and facilitating access to realms of alternate reality” (Grobs 86). It appears as though the Amazonians have long recognized what Huxley discovered through his experience on mescaline. They are aware of the psychoactive plant’s ability to expand their mind and that there is more to the mind than what appears during our waking consciousness.
Burroughs once said, “If God made anything better, he kept it for himself” (119). There are indeed some people out there who think that drugs are heavenly, while others are heavily involved in the “War on Drugs.” It is undeniable though that those opposed to drugs do not have valid reasons for their belief that drugs are harmful. However, they must also not completely condemn its use based on some of the positive uses of natural drugs. There have been many great contributions made to the arts due to mind expansion. As a society, people could benefit from applying the theory of the “mind at large” if they learned how to do so in a safe manner.