“A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.” ~Franz Kafka
1. The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.” ~William Blake
Huxley’s journey into cleansed perception was inspired by the above Blake quote. His self-induced psychedelic experience is what produced this philosophical essay turned non-fiction book, which then set the groundwork for all the contemporary psychedelic literature (psy-lit) to follow.
Mescaline was the tool he used to guide him into a state of egoless-ness. It helped him experience the “mind-at-large,” a heightened state of psychedelic experience, an “obscure knowledge” where “all is in all,” representing the mind as cosmos and the cosmos as mind. As Huxley explains, “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.” It’s a question of limited access not inability.
Expertly written, The Doors of Perception strips the mind of its limited and limiting set of filters, to a state where everything simply “is.” Embodying Meister Eckhart’s “is-ness,” Plato’s “Being not separated from Becoming,” the Hindu concept of Satchitananda, and the Zen Buddhist “suchness,” it helps dissolve the everyday perception of time, replacing it with an infinite and perpetual present.
2. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking by Daniel Dennett
“Philosophy—in every field of inquiry—is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.” ~Daniel C. Dennett
This is an ultra-Darwinian tour de force of what it means to be a thinking human in an unthinking universe. In true Socratic style, Dennett expertly leads a group of freshmen philosophers through the minefields of philosophical errors and rhetorical ploys using 77 thought-provoking experiments called intuition pumps.
Intuition pumps, as Dennett explains, are “little stories designed to provoke a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition about whatever thesis is being defended.” Intuition pumps are thought experiments, or “persuasion machines,” that appeal to common sense and render the results of the thought experiments obvious. Put simply: intuition pumps are thought analogies that allow the thinker to use their intuition to develop an answer to a problem.
Pump #5, for example, is Occam’s Razor. #8 is Jootsing: which is an acronym for “jumping out of the system.” #23 is Trapped in the Robot Control Room: which is an allegory about trial and error. #52 is about the power of memes. #64 is about “boomcrutches:” which are intuition pumps that explode in your face. Dennett’s quick wit and cleverness make this philosophy book an intellectual treat to read.
3. Infinity and the Mind by Rudy Rucker
“There are degrees of infinity. This fact runs counter to the naive concept of infinity: there is only one infinity, and this infinity is unattainable and not quite real. Cantor keeps this naive infinity, which he calls the Absolute Infinite, but he allows for many intermediate levels between the finite and the Absolute Infinite. These intermediate stages correspond to his transfinite numbers… numbers that are infinite, but nonetheless conceivable.” ~Rudy Rucker
This book will make your brain do backflips trying to contemplate the infinite. A fascinating read that takes you down the wormhole of the infinite. Certainly not for beginners, it comes at the subject of infinity from all angles: physical infinities, temporal infinities, spatial infinities, infinities in the small, infinities in the mindscape, and absolute infinite. It tackles everything from transfinite cardinals to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem to Cantor’s infinite set theory.
This is the kind of book that transforms mathematics and philosophy into pure magic. Filled with mind-bending paradoxes and delicious puzzles at the end of each chapter, it leaves the reader capable of higher reasoning and interconnected thinking. As Rudy Rucker said in the preface of the 2005 edition, “Infinity is important and interesting, and learning about it can indeed make a difference in one’s life.”
4. Breaking Open the Head by Daniel Pinchbeck:
“In shamanic cultures, synchronicities are recognized as signs that you are on the right path.” ~Daniel Pinchbeck
This is a book that opens the door to the world of contemporary shamanism. Inspired by The Doors of Perception, it’s a coming of age tale of a New York journalist’s (Pinchbeck’s) transformation into a psychedelic acolyte.
After his own dark night of the soul, Pinchbeck travels to Africa where he is initiated into the West African Bwiti tribe using the psychedelic drug, iboga. As described by his Bwiti initiators, the properties of iboga “breaks open the head… temporarily releasing the soul from the body, allowing the initiate entry into the spiritual cosmos, where he is shown the outline of his fate.”
Obviously, this is where the book gets its title. Pinchbeck then proceeds to “break open his head” through many mind-altering entheogenic substances –ayahuasca, magic mushrooms, DMT and other drugs– while on a globe-trotting shamanic journey that takes him from Africa to Mexico, Ecuador, and into Nevada’s Burning Man festival.
Told with humorous insight that doesn’t take itself too seriously while still delivering, Breaking Open the Head gets into the personalized guts of how to leverage shamanism through the use of entheogenic tools. The descriptions of his psychonautic travels between worlds are refreshing and engaging, painting a lucid and vivid picture of what a contemporary spiritual awakening looks like.
5. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
“We are all members of the same flawed species. Putting our moral vision into practice means imposing our will on others. The human lust for power and esteem, coupled with its vulnerability to self-deception and self-righteousness, makes that an invitation to a calamity, all the worse when the power is directed at a goal as quixotic as eradicating human self-interest.” ~Steven Pinker
This book helps us get over our denial about the nature of being human. The blank slate: empiricism. The noble savage: romanticism. The ghost in the machine: dualism. Pinker challenges these three dogmatic “truths” by making a convincing case for a shared universal human nature that is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations.
Pinker argues that a blank slate is inconsistent with the opposition to social evils, since a blank slate could be manipulated and conditioned to enjoy slavery and oppression. He comes at the nature vs. nurture debate using evolutionary psychology, revealing that although we are a fallible species, we are also highly adaptable. The majority of the book discusses the fear of inequality, the fear of imperfectability, the fear of determinism, and the fear of nihilism and how they are mostly non-sequiturs that blur our reasoning.
Pinker presents substantial evidence through cognitive science, sociobiology, and genetics, to show that the human condition is far from being a blank slate and that there is a universal human nature that we must first own up to, and be honest about, before we can more effectively adapt and overcome to the many vicissitudes of life.
6. Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott:
“It is high time that I should pass from these brief and discursive notes about things in Flatland to the central event of this book, my initiation into the mysteries of Space. THAT is my subject; all that has gone before is merely preface.” ~Edwin Abbot
This book is a cross-dimensional masterpiece. Told from the perspective of a two-dimensional creature named A Square, Flatland is the kind of book that changes the way you perceive reality. Primarily a book about dimensions, it is also a critique on the hierarchy of the Victorian culture of Abbott’s time (the 1880’s).
“People” in this world have no concept of depth, only length and width. Men are polygons and women are lines. How many sides a polygon has represents his power. A social caste system is formed around this concept. A circle is considered the most ideal shape.
A Square meets a three-dimensional person named A Sphere, who appears as a circle and who visits Flatland from Sphereland to teach a new apostle the idea of the third-dimension. A Sphere takes A Square on a life-altering journey through Sphereland. Upon A Square’s return to Flatland, he tries to convince others of the existence of the third-dimension, but he gets tried for heresy and is thrown in prison. In his seventh year of prison he writes Flatland as a memoir and for the sake of posterity.
Flatland leaves the reader imagining both higher and lower dimensions, while opening the mind and keeping it sharp and flexible regarding the perception of reality. It takes “thinking outside the box” to the nth degree.
7. Illusions by Richard Bach
“Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.” ~Richard Bach
This book gives the soul wings. An unforgettable novel that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a cosmic hero, or “reluctant messiah.” It’s a teacher-student story revealing how we are all teachers just as we are all students; life is what we teach, and life is what we learn. It teaches us how to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life, and how that meaning will always take the form of personal enlightenment.
In the novel, David Bach, a burnt-out writer turned traveling barnstormer, is given a book, The Messiah’s Handbook, by a self-proclaimed Messiah who calls himself Shimoda. Among the many bits of wisdom in the book is the following passage: “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”
Illusions teaches that even the darkest night of the soul has meaning when we’re able to open ourselves up to what it has to teach. When we can strip away the brainwashed ego and the cultural conditioning, the world appears as it is –interconnected. This sense of interconnectedness gives us a direct conduit to the interdependent magic of the cosmos. And when we can tap into this magic, it transforms the way we see and interact with the world.