Mind at large

After experiencing the realm of psychedelics, life is never quite the same. One has glimpsed something beyond ordinary awareness. Aldous Leonard Huxley, a pioneering philosopher, articulated this phenomenon in his landmark book, “The Doors of Perception,” back in the 1950s, a time when few in the Western world had been exposed to practices that had been commonplace in indigenous cultures.

It’s a special kind of character to be able to express the experience of altered states as eloquently as Huxley did. He vividly describes his encounter with mescaline, derived from the peyote cactus, and how it radically shifted his perception of the world around him, opening him up to what he termed “Mind at Large” — a quality of consciousness always present but often obscured by our preoccupation with personal identity. Neuroscience calls it the default mode network, the preoccupation with everything self-related. When the network is overactive, it’s all about me, and that doesn’t tend to feel so good. It explains why we turn to mind-altering experiences; we’re longing for a break.

In Huxley’s view, the role of the brain and nervous system is primarily protective, filtering out the overwhelming flood of sensory input to allow us to focus on what is practical and useful for survival. However, this filtering process also limits our perception of reality, confining us to a narrow understanding of ourselves and the world. Each of us is actually a mind at large, but for the sake of survival, Mind at Large needs to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. The function is eliminative.

These are Huxley’s key points about his experience with mescaline:

1. The ability to remember and to “think straight” is little if at all reduced. (I cannot discover that I was then any stupider than I am at ordinary times.)

2. Visual impressions are greatly intensified, and the eye recovers some of the perceptual innocence of childhood, when the sensum was not immediately and automatically subordinated to the concept.

3. Interest in space is diminished, and interest in time falls almost to zero. Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse. The mescaline taker sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting. He can’t be bothered with them, for the good reason that he has better things to think about.

Interest in time falls almost to zero, and you are fundamentally changed at the level of will. The things that felt so important all of a sudden are less so. You are changed and yet still exactly the same. You still seem the same from the outside, but your attention has shifted. Carlos Castaneda also spoke about this phenomenon, that we’re caught up in what he called the “modality of the time.” And the main goal of the Nagual (shaman in the Mexican tradition) was to free his attention.

So we lost sight of Big Mind, even though it was always there. But just a taste can remind us of what we’re connected to, of who really are. Part of the psychedelic experience is to see how much we’ve closed off and what we’re shutting out that could be vital to our life. But opening is not an all-or-nothing affair. The key is what trauma pioneer Peter Levine called “titrating” experience. There is simply no way we can do all of this in one go. We open gradually, each time digesting a piece of material and stabilizing. Opening, then closing, then opening a little more, then closing. It’s the natural rhythm of life; closing is as important as opening. We need to close sometimes; the problem is when we stay closed. It starts to feel a lot like freeze, stuckness, numbness. So we take our attention to these places slowly, carefully with resource and begin to unthaw, bringing fluidity to our system.

Titration is about a little bit at a time. Opening to Huxley’s ultimate dimension is the medicine that gives us the space to heal. This Big Mind is what holds the pain with absolute acceptance. Not because it tries to, but because thats its nature: empty, open, kind.

I think what Huxley is saying challenges us more than the experiencing of an altered state. Anyone can take a psychedelic and have their sense of self diminished enough to comprehend the ultimate landscape and the nature of mind. The bigger question is what we do with it. Because on the dose of mescaline, the answer is not much at all. We’re absolutely absorbed. But afterwards, how do we take this cleansed perspective back into life?

I think part of the answer is being willing to inhabit our humanity. So when we’re back in the place we don’t want to be, can we allow ourselves to be there. To relax back into awareness and notice what experience is like without resistance. Life is messy. We are going to repeat the same old things, make mistakes, feel all kinds of emotions. But the recognizing of this open awareness in everyday life is what makes movement possible. We can learn to lean into this.

The medicine of letting up the “restrictive valve” is to see that in absolute terms there is no problem to solve, while also seeing all the work to do. It’s the ultimate paradox, and the one in which we must live. Maybe it’s the adventure we signed up for that asks us to take this step into the unknown, and discovering our untapped resources along the way.

More on integration of mind at large in part 2. Extra note to say there are many ways to enter an altered state that don’t depend on taking a substance. Breath-work, dance, meditation etc. All can facilitate the experience of Big mind.

*artwork by InkTally.