Tricks of Perception

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. —William Blake, a seer of visions

     I have had many experiences in my life that struck me with an awareness of the artificial nature of human perceptions. Some of them have occurred when I was in a quite normal state of consciousness, like the following: I was living at Mahagandhayone, a large school monastery near Mandalay in Burma. I had gone outside a little after dusk to take a pee. I was completely sober of course, and not particularly sleepy. On my way back towards my cabin I saw before me, lying on the ground in the near-darkness, one of the mangy monastery dogs. As I approached I recognized the dog as Puppy Lu, a particularly mangy little dog that hung out around my cabin and volunteered to eat the leftovers from my daily meal. I could see the position in which she was lying, with her head this way and her tail that way, I could see the brown spots on her dirty white coat…until I approached a little nearer and finally realized that it wasn’t a dog at all, but rather a pile of leaves that the novices hadn’t cleaned up earlier in the day. I got the idea of “dog,” then “Puppy Lu,” and my mind filled in all the blanks to create a dog that wasn’t there. This was a relatively mild, relatively healthy sort of hallucination, though I have had much less mild and less healthy ones.

     For example, when I was around twenty years old I came down with double pneumonia. Before I was taken to the hospital I was lying on my bed on my back, coughing and coughing. I began hallucinating little structures like radio towers sprouting out of my chest, growing until they reached full size, at which point the top would burst and I would erupt in another cough. There were three or four of these little towers growing out of my chest at any given time, all at different stages of development. This aberration of perception was caused by a relatively severe sickness, but I perceived those towers as clearly as I was perceiving pretty much everything else at the time.

     Illness and even moods can result in variations in the way we perceive things. Even a cold can cause food to taste differently, and I have had fevers that caused pretty much everything, even water, to taste positively bad. I suppose this sort of thing could qualify as a very minor form of hallucination, or proto-hallucination.

     By far the most dramatic hallucinations that I have experienced, though, have been caused by mind-altering chemicals. Once when I was in my late teens I went to a party on LSD. At the party a friend of mine suggested we go to my house for a few minutes to take a different mind-altering chemical; and though I told him it would be wasted on me because the acid drowns out the effects of any other intoxicant, I was willing to go with him to my place. As we were pulling into the driveway I was hoping that my father wouldn’t be there (I was living with my father at the time). I looked up and didn’t see his van parked there, causing me to breathe a sigh of relief…until I looked up again and there it was. There was no way that he could have passed us in the driveway and parked there in between my two glances, so I was unsure if it was really there. I got out of my friend’s car, still seeing the van parked maybe thirty feet away. Though I was on drugs, I was still capable of a semblance of rational thought, so I came up with a plan: I began walking slowly towards my father’s van, waving my hands in front of me. I figured if it was really there I’d bump into it. I came closer and closer until I walked right into it and it disappeared immediately. This made me happy, because it meant my father wasn’t at home, possibly to interfere with my good time. But I saw that van as a solid object up until the moment that I walked through it.

     I experienced an even more dramatic bout of hallucinations when I was around seventeen years old, still in high school. One fine day a particularly rascally friend of mine called me up and said, essentially, “Hey man, do you want to try some cannabinol? This isn’t REAL cannabinol but it’s LIKE cannabinol.” I was willing to try just about anything in those days, so I said I’d be right over. When I got there I found about eight or ten people, including my rascally friend and the daughter of my family doctor. The naughty daughter had evidently pilfered some drug from her doctor father’s supply and was distributing it to the people there. If I recall correctly it was a kind of asthma medicine that was supposed to be burnt, and the fumes inhaled; but the doctor’s daughter was mixing it with water and we were all drinking it. (Afterwards I made some investigations, and determined that the drug was some kind of derivative of belladonna.) Anyway, after an hour or so I was feeling nothing, and was thinking that maybe nothing was going to happen. Somebody gave me a few of those frosted animal crackers, pink or white, with candy sprinkles all over them, and with the frosting obscuring the shapes of the animals so that only the camel was readily discernible by its hump—but I digress. After a few minutes I realized that I had a mouthful of completely dry cookie crumbs in my mouth. My mouth was completely dry, and I had to get a drink of water to wash the crumbs down my throat. Then I started feeling nauseous. I told my rascally friend that I wasn’t feeling good and was going home, and he replied that he wasn’t feeling so good either. As I was driving home things started getting weird.

     My first clue that something very strange was happening was when I saw a hitchhiker standing on a street corner in town. When I looked again it was a stop sign, not a person. When I looked a third time it was a hitchhiker again. At this point I was fervently hoping I’d make it home in one piece, since I couldn’t trust what I saw: I might see a red light as green for example, and plow into traffic. I lived on a country road at the time, and after leaving town I saw several brown rabbits run across the road in front of me, always from right to left. I was feeling increasingly nauseous as I drove home, and I was starting to think that maybe I had taken strychnine. I just wanted to go home and go to bed, and either die or sleep till I was feeling better—I didn’t much care which.

     Finally I pulled into our driveway and parked in front of the garage door. I got out of my pickup and saw, to my amazement, two or three huge caterpillars climbing up the door. They looked like a kind of caterpillar called a woolly bear, but their bristles were in tufts, unlike a woolly bear—and of course a real woolly bear wasn’t a foot and a half long. I could see the individual tufts of hair as clearly as I could see anything else at the time, including the garage door on which they were crawling, though my eyes wouldn’t focus very well at the time. I was too sick to marvel much though, and went straight to bed.

     I lay in bed for a few hours maybe, until I started feeling well enough to get up and walk around. I went into the kitchen and decided to make a peanut butter sandwich. I got two slices of bread out and lay them on the kitchen counter, and then, because I was on drugs I guess, I spread peanut butter on both slices of bread. And then, poof! I was lying on my back in bed again. I lay there wondering if I had really gotten up and started making a sandwich, and just didn’t remember coming back to bed, or if I had simply hallucinated the whole scene. Again, I was still capable of rational thought, more or less, so I decided to get up and see if the bread was still on the kitchen counter. I got up, went into the kitchen, and the bread was there, but without any peanut butter on it. Then I began slowly walking around the inside of the house, carefully inspecting everything, trying to decide if I was really seeing it or not…and poof! I was lying on my back in bed again. At this point I was thinking fuck it, I’ll just stay in bed till tomorrow morning, if I survive. (I did survive, it turns out.) To this day I am still unsure if I ever got out of bed that evening. I know I wasn’t asleep and dreaming—I was, as they say, tripping balls.

     I have mentioned elsewhere that I, and possibly most Buddhist monks of my generation, started with psychedelics and then moved on to meditation. It wasn’t the hallucinations however, it was mainly chemical-induced mystical states and states of expanded consciousness causing me (and others) to realize that there is more than one way of perceiving reality, and that our normal waking state isn’t even necessarily the best way of perceiving it. Generally one starts with drug-induced religious experiences and then one moves on to cultivating similar expanded states without the chemicals.

     But even so, the hallucinations I have experienced in my life, drug-induced, illness-induced, and also totally healthy ones, have reinforced the idea that our perceived version of reality is artificial and fragile, and is not the highest reality, not by a long shot. There are an infinite number of “realities” out there…but only one true REALITY, which is simply not perceived, because perception is not the way to know ultimate truth.

Carel Willink, "Placating Old Spirits"


  1. I was always honest and helpful yet as a child and youth often got into trouble. When, aged 19, I first came across cannabis users, I thought “These stupid people, destroying their minds!”, because that was society’s view. When I first smoked cannabis, in Istanbul in 1967 aged 25, I realised that there were many ways of looking at the world, that the way I had been shown was wrong. Either the elders of society were ignorant or they were lying. Either way, I had to find the truth for myself. This was the start of a journey which led me to S N Goenka and Vipassana in 1972.

  2. Medicine is a requisite even for monks. A hardcore renunciate may have to slurp warm fermented cow or bull urine from a puddle, to escape society. I bet he'd feel quite a high at that moment of thirst quenching. Elsewhere in Vinaya you have monks trying many things for various illnesses. Eventually monks could carry a pipe and a pipe carry case, they would try smoking various herbs when ill or ease, many times the attempts didn't work and they'd try something else. They didn't have, bigpharma. In another story, Buddha bans monks from performing enemas. What exactly makes one thing a drug and another a medicine? Monks were allowed to use tinctures of medicine dissolved in alcohol, as long as they could not taste the alcohol. These stories and rules are all in the Vinaya, about when monks got sick. The facinating, and sadly less known story, of Jivaka the physician is found in the Vinaya, in one case he dissolves herbs in warm ghee for snorting, that is one way they used herbal medicines. He had to trick the King into snorting it because he hated ghee, but was only way to cure him, so Jivaka made sure he was already escaped on an elephant, but the King sent his best runner after him, who was "begotten from a non-human." You'll have to read it yourself.

    1. Yeah, I've read all that stuff, and am surprised that you know it, considering that even most monks are unaware of most of it. Although I don't think most monks would feel high after drinking stale urine. (And the urine in all likelihood wasn't from cattle, it was probably from the monk himself.)

    2. It seems as though anything one consumes is potentially medicine or poison, even food and drink. Not sure how it is possible to differentiate.

    3. Vinaya Ettiquite: asking at your meal: " what kind of meat is this?"
      ---- misc. notes:
      Everything you eat is either nutritious or poisonous, or both. All medicines are poison?? A good nurse knows dosage and timing.

  3. It all seems to go back to the brain. Chemical reactions to chemicals consumed or impressions and triggers caused by external stimulii, the chain of interdependent origination. Man is a machine, thinking and feeling are part of the machine's operation.


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