Wednesday, March 17, 2004

from Aldous Huxley

Why are precious stones precious? The moment one starts to thing about this question, it seems unutterably queer that human beings in the course of history should have spent such an enormous amount of time, energy, and money on collecting transparent or variously colored pepples and hording them and cutting them and setting them in the most elaborate forms and fighting battles over them.

One of the reasons for our interest in precious stones is given, curiously enough, in the Phaedo, where Socrates is speaking about the ideal world, a basic metaphysical idea of Plato. Socrates says that there is an ideal world, of which our world is in a sense a rather bad copy, beyond and above the material world.

'In this other earth the colors are much purer and more brilliant than they are down here. The mountains and stones have a richer gloss, a livelier transparency and intensity of hue. The precious stones of the lower world, our highly prized topazes, emeralds, and all the rest of them are but tiny fragments of these stones above. '

Plato adds that the view of this earth is 'a sight to gladden the beholder's eye'. This is a very curious remark because it makes quite clear that when Plato speaks about the ideal world, he isn't speaking merely of a metaphysical idea. More than a mere philosophic abstraction, it is something that exists in the human mind, which is part of our inner world of thought and feeling and insight, and which, in a certain sense, we can actually see.

We carry about inside our skulls a large and very variegated universe, with regions in it exceedingly strange, regions which most of us at most times don't penetrate at all, but which are always there. There is the world of memory, of fantasy and imagination, and of dreams closely connected to what Jung calls the personal unconscious. There is the world of what Jung calls the collective unconscious, with archtypal forms and symbols which seem to be common to all human beings. And there is, finally, the most remote of all our inner worlds, which I call the world of visions. It is literally another world, very different from the personal worlds of our experience.

Before we go into a description of what goes on in this most remote area of the mind, let me say a little about the degree to which this distant region is accessible to the conscious human being.

In the past the capacity to have visions was regarded as extremely creditable, and anybody who had them was apt to boast about them. Those who have visions now are apt to keep their mouths shut for fear of being sent to the asylum, but there is nothing intrinsically unhealthy about having visions. It is perfectly true that many insane people do have visions, but many sane people also have visions and know perfectly well that they are having them. A person who has visions reaches the point of insanity only when he doesn't know he is having visions and mixes them up with everyday life-- or is so obsessed by his visions that the can't get back to everyday life. Those people who do have the power to enter the world of visions and to go back enjoy both worlds to the utmost degree.

How do people get into the visionary world? Some are so constituted that they can go and come between the ordinary world and the visionary world. They don't know how; it just happens to them. But there are methods of transportation into this visionary world for people who normally can't get into it. Some of these methods are psychological; others involve making changes in body chemistry which, for some reason that we don't understand, permit these distant areas of the mind to come through into consciousness. We find that under hypnosis certain people can go through not merely into the fantasy-imagination world, but far beyond, into the world of visions. This is rather uncommon but it quite definitely happens in some cases.

One method of inducing visions by psychological means is the method of complete isolation, which was discovered empirically in many of the religious traditions of the world. The Christian monks of the Thebaide in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries discovered that by going into complete isolation in the desert they were able to induce visions, some of which were of a celestial nature, but very many of which were infernal in quality.

The technique of complete isolation has been followed from time immemorial in India. In the old Hindu traditions and in the Tibetan tradition we get accounts of forest dwellers who lived in caves high up in the Himalayas and who, by dint of completeley isolating themselves, lay themselves open to this visionary world. The interesting thing is that within recent years these procedures have been exactly imitated and in a sense perfected in various psychological labs, especially in the "sensory deprivation" studies of John Lilly at the National Institute of Health. People are put where they can neither see nor hear anything, and in extreme cases they are immersed in a tepid bath so there is virtually no change in any of the feelings on the skin. In a few hours extraordinary visionary experiences will begin.

Evidently the thing which prevents all of us from having continuous visionary experiences is the fact that we are having continuous experiences of the external world. When the stimuli from the outside are cut off, the brain and the mind, however these two are associated, come up with remarkable visions, some of which are evidently extremely terrifying- many of the experimenters have simply cut short their experiments because the visions were so very unpleasant- but some of which are of a very positive and beautiful character.

These are the two main psycological methods of gaining access to the realm of visions. Then there are the methods which consist of causing changes in body chemistry. Indirect changes have been produced in every culture from time immemorial by means of fasting, which, if prolonged for some time, causes profound changes in body chemistry. Another method of changing body chemistry, which is extensively practiced in India, is breathing exercises, all of which are intended to lead in the long run to prolonged suspensions of breath.

Then there are the direct methods of changing body chemistry which, as the historians of religion have shown, have been used at one time or another in almost all the religious traditions of the world. A great many drugs have been used, alcohol, hashish, opium, and what not, some of them extremely harmful but some of them naturally occurring drugs which open up the consciousness to the visionary experience and which appear to be relatively harmless to the physiology and not to be addictive in any way. The best known of the relatively harmless vision-inducers is the sacred mushroom of Mexico. The other naturally occurring vision-inducer which has been used from time immemorial in the Southwest of America, and whose use has now spread right up into Canada, is the peyote cactus, whose active principle, mescaline, was synthesized eighty years ago.

These are the main methods of getting at the visionary world. Now let us examine the nature of that world and see in what way it has relevance to our original question, Why are precious stones precious? When we examine the visionary world, we discover some interesting facts. For example, visions are extremely strange, but they are not random; they obey certain laws. Every person's vision is unique, as every person is unique, but all these unique visions seem to belong roughly to one family; they are, so to speak, members of a single species.

The highest common factor in the visionary experience is the experience of subjective light. This occurs in the most transcendent form of vision, the form of vision which seems to modulate, so to speak, in the full-blown mystical experience. In these highest forms of vision, the light is undifferentiated; it is what in Buddhist literature is called the 'pure light of the void'. It is an immense white light of extraordinary power. Another well-known case of the experience of over-powering light is that of Mohammed. The revelation which came to him and which made him a prophet was accompanied by a light so tremendous- he was awakened out of his sleep by it- that he fell down in a faint.

This experience of the pure light of the void is a visionary experience of what might be called the highest, the most mystical, kind. On a rather lower level the lights seem to be broken up and become, so to speak, incorporated in different objects and persons and figures. In this lower form of vision we have the intensification of light in some way associated with the fantasy-imagination faculty, so that there are visions of great complexity in which light plays a tremendous part, but it is not the pure white light of the great visions.

As an example, let me cite Weir Mitchell, a psychologist who described his experiences with peyote. What he described was first of all a vision of colored, three-dimensional geometric forms, which became concretized in carvings and mosaics and carpets; then a great Gothic tower encrusted with what appeared to be gems of such enormous size that they looked like transparent fruits; then there were immense and magnificent landscapes, also with self-luminous objects in them; and the experience ended with a vision of the ocean with the waves marvellously colored and sparkling like jewels rolling in.

Many other people have had similar visions- the spontaneous visions of Blake, for example, were essentially of the same nature. Thomas Traherne speaks of the kingdom of God as being the external world seen in this visionary way:

"The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God... It is the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven."

This is the world transfigured by the visionary experience, a world which many poets, and many people who are not poets, have seen. It is an experience which people have after convalescence, when they are, as it were, reborn into the world and suddenly, with this kind of visionary sight, they perceive its miraculous beauty.

Now, finally, we can begin to see why precious stones are precious. I think they are precious because they are the objects in the external world which most nearly resemble the things which people see in the visionary world. The ruby or the emerald is like the transparent fruit which the Mystic sees encrusting the rocks and the architecture of the visionary world. Not only are gems valuable to us because they remind us of what goes on in the visionary world, they also, by themselves induce a kind of vision. Most of us rather seldom have visionary experiences, but we all potentially have them, and I think that objects such as gems somehow remind us of what is going on in the back of our head and take us a certain way towards this other world.

There are many aspects of art which are really understandable only when we take into account this strange aspect of our mind which is capable of visionary experience. There are various ways of producing visionary works of art, the most obvious of which is to make the work of art out of materials which are themselves intrinsically vision-inducing, such as gems and precious metals. We find that the furniture of the altar in virtually every religion concentrates on these vision-inducing materials.

On a humbler scale, we can see this with Christmas decorations-- which are essentially a kind of popular visionary art. These little twinkling lights do remind us of this other world; they seem in some way magical. So we see that there has been always in the popular mind a curious awareness of the visionary world and a response to even the crudest visionary art. There is something I find extremely touching about these Christmas decorations. They are commercialized, unfortunately, and slightly absurd, but nonetheless they are a symptom of the strange fact that all of us carry around at the back of our head this mysterious other world which I have called the world of visions.

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