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“Visionary Experience” by Aldous Huxley

There are other psychological methods for getting into the other world, and one of the best known in the Orient of course is the method of one-pointed concentration, the traditional Yoga method of excluding everything except one particular point on which the attention is concentrated. This in many cases does seem to result in breaking through the barrier surrounding our ordinary, day-to-day, biologically utilitarian world of consciousness, and breaking through into another mode of consciousness, the visionary mode. There is yet another method which has been practiced of course within all the great religious traditions, the method of what is now called sensory deprivation, or the limited environment. Here again it is most interesting to find professional psychologists repeating, in the laboratory, work which was done for metaphysical and religious reasons by hermits and saints living in caves in the mountains or in the desert. It is a very extraordinary fact that when we do limit the number of external stimuli or cut them out altogether, as can be done with some difficulty, then in a relatively short time the mind starts producing tremendous visionary experiences.

Aldous Huxley

Historically we see such figures as St. Anthony and the monks of the Thebaid in the fourth century in the Egyptian desert, and we see again the hermits of the Himalayas, the Tibetan and the Hindu hermits who lived in complete isolation in the caves. For example, if you read the life of Milarepa, the great Tibetan hermit, or if you read the lives of St. Anthony and St. Paul, the hermit in the Christian tradition, you will see that this isolation did in fact produce visionary experiences. And it is interesting, as I say, to see these facts confirmed by such contemporary workers as D. O. Hebb at McGill in Canada, [and] Dr. John Lilly . . . Lilly has probably gone further than anyone else in creating a limited environment. He immerses himself in a bath at the temperature of 96, has himself fastened into a harness so that he can hardly move, breathes only through a snorkel so that even his face is covered with water and there is no differentiation of sensation on any part of his body, and within three or four hours he is having tremendous visionary experiences. Now the interesting thing is that like St. Anthony’s, most of these visionary experiences are extraordinarily unpleasant. I have asked Dr. Lilly to describe these experiences, but he would never tell me exactly what they were, except that they were very, very unpleasant indeed. St. Anthony, as anybody who has ever visited any picture gallery knows, was also subjected to extremely unpleasant experiences, but he occasionally evidently had genuine mystical and divine experiences. It is interesting too that, in all the religious traditions, deserts and places where there is a minimum of sensory stimulation have always been regarded in an ambivalent way, first of all as the places where God is nearest and secondly as the places where devils abound.

We find in the New Testament, for example, that the devils who are cast out by Jesus go into the desert because this is the natural place, the habitat, of devils. But again, hermits who lived in the deserts in the fourth century say they went there because this is the place where one can get nearer to God than anywhere else. As I say, it is extremely interesting to find that these ancient religious practices can be and have been confirmed in the laboratory by modern psychological workers.

Another method of getting into the other world is the method of systematic breathing. Breathing exercises were of course developed most systematically in India, and we find traces of them in the Western tradition, particularly in the Greek Orthodox Church tradition where people did evidently employ some breathing methods, and even in individual Western mystics. I am thinking of Father Surin, the French seventeenth-century Jesuit, who speaks about the different modes of breathing, though he doesn’t exactly describe what they were. The significant fact about breathing is that I think one can say that all these elaborate breathing exercises tend to end up in prolonged suspensions of breath. A prolonged suspension of breath necessarily means a growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood. Again, it is well known that high concentrations of carbon dioxide do produce very remarkable and startling visionary experiences in the mind, so that we see here, in an empirical way, that people in all the religious traditions of the past made use of methods for changing the body chemistry, in such a way that visionary experiences would become facilitated. This again is the physiological reason, not the metaphysical or the ethical reason, for such practices as fasting.

Fasting has been employed in virtually all the cultural traditions, among other things for the purpose of inducing visions. For example, in a primitive Indian society in America this was a regular part of the initiation of the adolescent young men. They went out into the forest or into the prairie and fasted until they got a vision of the god they were looking for, and in due course they always did get a vision. The methods of fasting of course have been used in every religious tradition. These psychological effects of fasting have been confirmed in the large study by Keys called The Biology of Human Starvation. There is a most elaborate description of what happens after a long period of abstention from food, and among the things that happen are these visionary experiences. We know too that the inadequate amounts of vitamins as well as merely inadequate amounts of calories also produce profound psychological changes. There are profound psychological changes in pellagra, for example, and in beriberi. Here again it is interesting, with the knowledge that we now have, to look back over history and to see why a period like the Middle Ages was probably far more fruitful in vision than a period of the present time. The reason very simply is that we are simply stuffed with vitamins and they were not.

“Visionary Experience” by Aldous Huxley is an extract from The Highest State of Consciousness edited by John W. White, published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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