Doors of Perception

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote ‘If the doors of perception could be cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all that is through the narrow chinks of his cavern.’
I have mentioned on this blog that I had a psychotic breakdown in my twenties. It was precipitated by working in a therapeutic community, and resulted in my staying in an inpatient psychiatric unit for four months. Though I was deluded and had a highly unstable mood during the early part of my time in hospital, psychodelic drugs were not implicated in my breakdown, although ironically anti-psychotic drugs in large doses were, I think, helpful in bringing me back. Nevertheless, looking back, I cannot wholly characterise the experiences I had as a manifestation of illness. There remains a stubborn sense of enlarged perception. There are two intense experiences I would like to describe here.
The first was a panic attack which culminated in my seeing a bright light within my head. The light was white and either circular or oval and expanded. It was accompanied by a sense of release from agony. There came a point, after a few seconds, when I said to myself, ‘ My god, it’s going to fill the room.’ At that moment the light vanished and the feeling of calm departed. Momentarily I thought someone was in my room trying to kill me with an axe, although I managed to tell myself that this was not the case. After a period of disturbance for about 48 hours I was admitted, with my consent, to a psychiatric unit in London.
The second experience was of a sense of time passing more slowly. This came and went over a number of days and was highly unpleasant. Subjectively my thoughts were of imminent catastrophes, involving everyone and everything from the intimate to the global. Every time I banished a thought it was replaced by another equally horrible. I thought later that it was the reverse of free association, compulsive dissociation. This profoundly altered my sense of the inter-relatedness of things and people, and led to delusional thinking, passivity feelings, paranoia, and physical prostration. I remember finding personal messages in newspapers, and becoming fascinated by a photograph which didn’t make spatial sense and somehow implied that dematerialisation was a possibility. I never experienced complete despair, but I could see that further down that path one might come to feel overwhelmed and wish for annihilation. ( Hopkins phrase ‘worst there is none’ haunted me). I became hypersensitive, but even now cannot dismiss the impression I was seeing some things as they truly were. I will give one example. A young nurse was sitting in the day room about four chairs away from me along the same wall. She picked up the Evening Standard which happened to have an horrific headline about several children dying in a house fire. She scanned it and a look of horror appeared on her face. It lasted a moment. She then opened the paper and read something inside. After not more than a minute she closed the paper briskly, folded it neatly and got up. She straightened her uniform and left the day room. Looking back, I feel that I witnessed an act of repression as it took place, and feel I would not have perceived it had my sense of time not been slowed by my psychosis. Certainly I have never seen anything comparable since.
Let me return to the experience of seeing the bright light. While I was still in hospital I found two references to such an experience, which is I think is different from near death experiences. The first description is in a rather poor poem by Walter de la Mare called Dreams. One stanza reads:-
And once from agony set free //I scanned within the womb of night//A hollow inwoven orb of light,//Thrilling with beauty no tongue could tell//And knew it for life’s citadel//.
Another description, by Jung, was, to me, more powerful. In his essay Psychological Approaches to the Dogma of the Trinity, he wrote ‘Despite the fact that he is potentially redeemed, the Christian is given over to moral suffering, and in his suffering he needs the comforter, the Paraclete. . . He has to rely on divine comfort and mediation, that is to say on the spontaneous revelation of the spirit, which does not obey man’s will but comes and goes as it wills. This spirit is an autonomous psychic happening, a hush that follows the storm, a reconciling light in the darkness of man’s mind, secretly bringing order into the chaos of his soul.’
While both these descriptions undoubtedly refer to an experience I myself had, there was nothing in my experience which was unmistakably Christian, nor did the agony from which I was released abate for very long. The reason for me describing the experiences from so long ago is because they are not very common, highly destabilising and mark one for ever. I do not repudiate them, but I have never wanted to revisit them. And the most important point I want to make is that consciousness is not only about the brain, but about the attunement of the brain to the external world, and the immense amount of information that exists there unperceived. Using drugs or extreme duress to heighten awareness is dangerous and unpredictable. That there is real substance to the various mystical traditions around the world seems to me indubitable. T.S. Eliot may be right that the two greatest poetical expressions of this are in Dante’s Commedia and the Bhagavad Gita.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

One thought on “Doors of Perception

  1. You probably won’t remember me but I was your girlfriend when I was 15 (Sally Griffith) and found your reference to your breakdown very moving. I’m having to deal with another person (not me I hope but you never know) who has mental problems and find it very difficult to understand what they are going through. Hope life has treated you well – I knew you would be successful whatever path you chose. Best wishes

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