Heaven and Hell (Book Review)

Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley is another take on the psychedelic experience. It’s written by the author of Brave New World, and The Doors of Perception

It isn’t as good/interesting as The Doors of Perception, so not per se the most interesting (but also not too long) book.

I wrote a longer summary on Blossom Analysis, replicated here:

Key Quotes

“Like the earth of a hundred years ago [1856], our mind still has its darkest Africas, its unmapped Borneos and Amazonian basins.” Huxley remarks that we first need to map/explore our minds, only then form theories, classifications, etc.

He states that he knows of two ways to reach the depth of our minds (or its far-off destination), 1) mescaline (and LSD), 2) hypnosis.

Light is an important concept in the short book. Huxley states that in 2/3rds of our dreams there is no light. Whilst in the psychedelic experience there is almost always much bright light.

Another recurring subject is the absence of language. In many contemporary theories, language (or the absence of it) is often mentioned.

The third thing experienced is ‘objects’, by this he means geometrical forms, patterns, mosaics. An example of how this looks can be found on PsychonautWiki.

Every mescalin experience, every vision arising under hypnosis, is unique; but all recognizably belong to the same species,” Huxley states that we don’t know why, researchers now are trying to identify what changes in the brain (and what underlies the experiences, but still makes them unique for every person – for instance, see this paper).

The theme of light is continued with an observation that many people see – brightly colored – gems. But, nowadays many people see pastel colors, so have we become too familiar with bright colors (e.g. through advertisements)? “Familiarity breeds indifference. We have seen too much pure, bright colors at Woolworth’s to find it intrinsically transporting.” This is an interesting observation, but in the PsychonautWiki link, there is (still) an overwhelming amount of bright colors in the visuals.

Huxley then observes that the beings some people see “… are content merely to exist,” which reflects nicely on his observations in The Doors of Perception that he felt the same (and thus also not motivated to do much).

In art (paintings), Huxley observes that we like some types more than others, “… natural objects a very long way off, and, second those which represent them at close range.” You could argue that these are also the domains that are extraordinary, that these are ones we don’t deal with normally (the average range), so observing them is ‘special’.

But visionary experience is not always blissful. It is sometimes terrible. There is hell as well as heaven.” Seeing the world this way, Huxley argues, can be seen in the later Van Gogh landscapes and Kafka’s stories (e.g. The Metamorphosis).

Huxley again makes the link between negative psychedelic experience and schizophrenics. He makes a good point about schizophrenics not being able to ‘exit’ the experience, whilst most people on psychedelics do know quite well that in a few hours they will be back to ‘normal’.

He also argues that “If the liver is diseased,” then this may cause the negative psychedelic experience. There seems to be little to no proof of this hypothesis.

Huxley ends the book with the following: “My own guess is that modern spiritualism and ancient tradition are both correct. There is a posthumous state of the kind described in Sir Oliver Lodge’s book Raymond; but there is also a heaven of blissful visionary experience; there is also a hell of the same kind of appalling visionary experience as is suffered here by schizophrenics and some of those who take mescalin; and there is also an experience, beyond time, of union with the divine Ground.”

Key references/mentions

There is much reference to works of art (paintings, poems). Again he mentions the following book:

Referenced by

Heaven and Hell has been used as a reference book in the 1960s counter culture. After that, it has found less fame than The Doors of Perception (review).

About the author

(from the back of the book) “Poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, critic, philosopher, mystic, and social prophet, Aldous Huxley was one of the most accomplished and influential English literary figures of the mid-twentieth century.”

His best-known work is the dystopian novel Brave New World.

His other work on the psychedelic experience is The Doors of Perception (review).

The Grace of Kings (Book Review)

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu is an amazing book in a genre that I normally don’t read. It’s a fantasy book that is set on some islands and represents technology as in the 16th age of China (or at least so I imagine).

The story is long, intriguing and very moving. It features love, politics, warfare, honour, betrayal, and more.

It features complex characters, situations that you can see from different perspectives, and highlights the difficulty of working together in this world.

I definitely can recommend it.

Lifespan (Book Review)

Lifespan by David Sinclair is an awesome book about how we can extend lifespan and the implication. Optimism abounds with Sinclair, but his research does keep him somewhat to the ground.

For many later parts in the book (the speculative/extrapolations) it’s difficult for me to judge where we’re going. But I dearly hope that he is right and that we will be living much longer than our parents.

And yes, that is healthspan, not only lifespan. Or in other words, I want to live in a healthy body, not extend the last phase forever.

At a later date, I will write down more extensive notes (when the longevity theme – 2020 goals – comes around).

Here is another good summary.

The Doors of Perception (Book Review)

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley is a very interesting take on the psychedelic experience. It’s written by the author of Brave New World, a very interesting book too.

I’m reading it for my new venture, and it’s a fun read. Not per se necessary to understand psychedelics. Michael Pollan’s How To Change Your Mind might be a better (and longer) intro.

I wrote a longer summary on Blossom Analysis, replicated here:

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley is a vivid first-person description of the psychedelic experience. It details a trip on mescaline (peyote, similar to LSD). His superior skill in writing makes the experience come to life. Huxley wonders about many aspects of life, describes his visual experience, and his interactions with a guide and his wife. A good, and short, introduction to the psychedelic experience.

Key Quotes

Is the mental disorder due to a chemical disorder?” Throughout the book, Huxley asks if – at a level – it’s just a chemical imbalance. This matches our current understanding and hypothesis of what is going on in the brain. Nor he or scientists ignore the broader scope of interpersonal relationships (i.e. he isn’t preaching or arguing for a behaviorist interpretation of the mind).

I swallowed four-tenths of a gram of mescalin …” This is on the high-end of a normal dose (PsychonautWiki).

To see ourselves as others see us is a most salutary gift. Hardly less important is the capacity to see others as they see themselves.” This follows a part where he talks about our subjective experience/sensation (qualia) and how it’s difficult to (perfectly) understand others.

At various moments he talks about “Istigkeit” or “Is-ness“. He compares this to Being-Awareness-Bliss, and I think you can also understand it as a form of ego dissolution.

“When I got up and walked about, I could do so quite normally, without misjudging the whereabouts of objects.” The influence of psychedelics seems to be confined mostly to our ‘higher-level’ aspects of our brain, all – if not most – bodily functions and capabilities are not affected. Further on, Huxley remarks “… the body seemed perfectly well able to look after itself.”

The suggestion is that the function of the brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative and not productive. Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.” This is a quote by Dr. C.D. Broad and highlights the ‘Mind at Large’ hypothesis. This seems like a top-down model and reminiscent of Plato (and that we have to go ‘back’ to this ideal state), and opposed to other ideas like those of Popper.

But there is logic and science to the “reducing valve”, the REBUS model and our, limited, understand of consciousness does say that there might be more criticality when under the influence of psychedelics.

Huxley also observed the following:

  1. The ability to remember and to “think straight” is little if at all reduced
  2. Visual impressions are greatly intensified
  3. Though the intellect remains unimpaired and though perception is enormously improved, the will suffers a profound change for the worse
    • (later on, he mentions again no will to do anything productive/work) “And yet there were reservations. For if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else.”
  4. These better things may be experienced “out there,” or “in here,” or in both worlds, the inner and the outer, simultaneously or successively.

In the final stage of egolessness there is an “obscure knowledge” that All is in all – that All is actually each.”

“… when the cerebral sugar shortage … “ We now understand better how the brain works and that a sugar shortage is not how mescalin works. But that it binds to and activates the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor with a high affinity.

“What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescalin, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time. His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful.” A great way of describing what artists (he mentions some painters and musicians throughout) might be able to perceive over ‘the rest’ of us.

How could one reconcile this timeless bliss of seeing as one ought to see with the temporal duties of doing what one ought to do and feeling as one ought to feel?” This speaks to the ‘importance’ or euphoria that one experiences on psychedelics. The here and now feels as important is anything in the world. “This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, the necessary concerns of human existence, above all for concerns involving persons.”

Mescalin opens the way of Mary, but shuts the door on that of Martha. It gives access to contemplation – but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action, the very thought of action. In the intervals between his revelations, the mescalin taker is apt to feel that, though in one way everything is supremely as it should be, in another there is something wrong. His problem is essentially the same as that which confronts the quietist, the arhat and, on another level, the landscape painter and the painter of human still lives. Mescalin can never solve that problem; it can only pose it, apocalyptically, for those to whom it had never before presented itself.”

What a wonderful reflection of your mind under the influence of psychedelics.

The Highest Order prevails even in the disintegration. The totality is present even in the broken pieces.” This again refers to the Higher Mind.

Most takers of mescaline experience only the heavenly part of schizophrenia.” This refers to a moment of terror he experienced and which brought him more empathy for those who are suffering from mental illness.

Alas the trip has to end somewhere, “… I had returned to that reassuring but profoundly unsatisfactory state known as “being in one’s right mind.” “

Huxley laments that only alcohol and tobacco are available without restriction. He mentions that we use them to escape daily life and its drudgeries. Prohibition is not what will prevent this, “The universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducting men and women to exchange their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones.”

But, he is not advocating that we all should start using mescalin, “… there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory.” The effects of mescaline (8 hours on average) are also much too long for most situations.

In the final parts of the book, Huxley comments on the “foppish” nature of speech, on how it isn’t everything that consciousness is.

Key references/mentions

Although the book is mostly his first-person experience, some other works are mentioned:

Referenced by

The Doors of Perception are mentioned in many works and scientific papers. If particular ones spring to mind, they will be added here.

About the author

(from the back of the book) “Poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, travel writer, essayist, critic, philosopher, mystic, and social prophet, Aldous Huxley was one of the most accomplished and influential English literary figures of the mid-twentieth century.”

His best-known work is the dystopian novel Brave New World.

Eight Weeks to Optimum Health (Book Review)

Eight Weeks to Optimum Health by Andrew Weil was not my cup of green tea. I think the biggest problem was that his information is based on outdated science and many anecdotes. So although he is coming from the right place, I couldn’t agree with many of the specifics.

I can say that his advice is much better than the average American diet. It also does do a good job of seeing food as part of something larger and includes things like meditation. It’s more holistic than how we normally look at diet.

Some more notes:

  • Dietary advice includes the following: Brocolli, fish or flax, fruits and vegetables (organic – although that also loses some of it’s meaning nowadays), soy foods, whole grains, cooked greens, garlic and ginger
  • Antioxidants (but as far as I know the evidence is fleeting for them)
    • And he mentions quite a lot of supplements to take. At the same time I’m contemplating some supplements (vit D, B12), so it does make some sense
  • Walk and stretch (good advice)
  • I didn’t like his definition of spontaneous healing, it’s just our body doing it’s thing – nothing special about it or that it will be activated by X, Y, or Z. And yes we can sometimes beat cancer without a doctors interventions, but that doesn’t mean it should be the way to go.
  • The book relies on testimony – way too much
  • “… which gave me a means to access cellular memory” – WTF

Stillness Is the Key (Book Review)

Stillness Is the Key by Ryan Holiday is already the third book I’ve read by him. The others were ‘The Obstacle Is the Way‘ and ‘Perennial Seller‘.

Holiday’s influences range from the ancient Stoics to Buddhists, to presidents of past ages and coaches of today.

The chapters consist of short lessons around the mind, body, and soul. Each has some connection to stillness. Inner calm is what he argues for, and does so with success most of the time.

I couldn’t agree with everything, finding a higher purpose is something that still doesn’t sit right with me. I can understand it at some level, and he even goes as far as saying you don’t need religion for it. Yet, I also think that you don’t need/there is no overarching purpose/reason for things.

Some of the topics/chapters are:

  • Become Present
  • Limit Your Inputs
  • Start Journaling
  • Seek Wisdom
  • Choose Virtue
  • Beware Desire
  • Bathe in Beauty
  • Enter Relationships
  • Say No
  • Build a Routine
  • Seek Solitude
  • Go to Sleep
  • Find a Hobby

The Dragons of Eden (Book Review)

The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan is a book that takes a look at another topic than he normally does (Astronomy). This book is about life, intelligence, evolution, and sometimes, of course, wanders back into space.

From the Wiki

“The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence is a 1977 book by Carl Sagan, in which the author combines the fields of anthropology, evolutionary biology, psychology, and computer science to give a perspective on how human intelligence may have evolved.”

I really enjoyed this book, but it was the most ‘outdated’ one I read. This is partly because it was written in 1977, partly because I think our theories about space are more cumulative and those in other fields sometimes overwrite/change the narrative more wholly in other fields (e.g. psychology). Still, a very good book.

Furthermore, it shows his general interest in science and love for learning more. In the book, he also argues for a balance between our ‘left’ and ‘right’ side of our brain. He says that we should need both sides. With perfect rationality, you can’t be creative (make bold conjectures). Without reason, only trusting your gut, you won’t test any of your theories (experimentation).

“Sagan discusses the search for a quantitative means of measuring intelligence. He argues that the brain to body mass ratio is an extremely good correlative indicator for intelligence, with humans having the highest ratio and dolphins the second highest, though he views the trend as breaking down at smaller scales, with some small animals (ants in particular) placing disproportionately high on the list. Other topics mentioned include the evolution of the brain (with emphasis on the function of the neocortex in humans), the evolutionary purpose of sleep and dreams, demonstration of sign language abilities by chimps and the purpose of mankind’s innate fears and myths. The title “The Dragons of Eden” is borrowed from the notion that man’s early struggle for survival in the face of predators, and in particular a fear of reptiles, may have led to cultural beliefs and myths about dragons.”

Pale Blue Dot (Book Review)

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan is another look at our galaxy. This time a bit different from Cosmos. More focus on the other planets (and what we can learn from studying them).

From the wiki:

“The first part of the book examines the claims made throughout history that Earth and the human species are unique. Sagan proposes two reasons for the persistence of the idea of a geocentric, or Earth-centered universe: human pride in our existence, and the threat of torturing those who dissented from it, particularly during the time of the Roman Inquisition. However, he also admits that the scientific tools to prove the Earth orbited the Sun were (until the last few hundred years) not accurate enough to measure effects such as parallax, making it difficult for astronomers to prove that the geocentric theory was false.

I guess there is some overlap (and difference of opinion) with David Deutsch. We are not unique in place or time. But we are unique in being (as far as we know) the only species that reflects on our being here.

After saying that we have gained humility from understanding that we are not literally the center of the universe, Sagan embarks on an exploration of the entire Solar System. He begins with an account of the Voyager program, in which Sagan was a participating scientist. He describes the difficulty of working with the low light levels at distant planets, and the mechanical and computer problems which beset the twin spacecraft as they aged, and which could not always be diagnosed and fixed remotely. Sagan then examines each one of the major planets, as well as some of the moons—including Titan, Triton, and Miranda—focusing on whether life is possible at the frontiers of the Solar System.

Sagan argues that studying other planets provides context for understanding the Earth—and protecting humanity’s only home planet from environmental catastrophe. He believes that NASA’s decision to cut back exploration of the Moon after the Apollo program was a short-sighted decision, despite its expense and declining popularity among the American public. Sagan says future exploration of space should focus on ways to protect Earth and to extend human habitation beyond it. The book was published the same year comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter, an event Sagan uses to highlight the danger Earth faces from the occasional asteroid or comet large enough to cause substantial damage if it were to hit Earth. He says we need the political will to track large extraterrestrial objects, or we risk losing everything. Sagan argues that in order to save the human race, space colonization and terraforming should be utilized.

Also see End Times for more about asteroids etc.

Later in the book, Sagan’s wife, Ann Druyan, challenges readers to pick one of the other planetary dots photographed and featured in the book, and imagine that there are inhabitants on that world who believe that the universe was created solely for themselves. She shared Sagan’s belief that humans are not as important as they think they are.”