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John Horgan

RATIONAL MYSTICISM

Spirituality meets science in the search for enlightenment


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

In his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, written 100 years ago but still influential today, the psychologist and philosopher William James identifed four criteria as characteristic of mystical experience: it is ineffable, meaning it is difficult or impossible to describe in ordinary language; it is noetic, meaning it appears to provide knowledge, often of a profound kind; it is transient, lasting for about an hour or less; and it gives its recipient a feeling of being in the presence of a greater power, which may be identified with God. Others have noted that the experiences may produce feelings of oneness and bliss.

As was pointed out by Marghanita Laski in her remarkable study of the subject, Ecstasy, experiences of this kind are not confined to a religious context but may occur even to atheists. Laski was writing half a century ago, just before the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD and psilocybin became widespread, and also before Eastern forms of meditation and other spiritual practices became popular in the second half of the twentieth century. In the opinion of many, these developments made mysticism available to scientific investigation and removed it from the deadening grip of conventional (Christian) religion. Hence to speak of "secular mysticism" or even "rational mysticism" no longer seemed oxymoronic.

Horgan has himself had experience of drug-induced states and it was one of these that originally sparked his interest in mysticism. And his book concludes with an account of his sampling of ayahuasca, a currently fashionable drug (or drug cocktail) for the production of altered states of consciousness. Some researchers have enthusiastically hailed it as the supreme gateway to enlightenment, but no real illumination resulted in Horgan's case.

Most of the book, however, is not about Horgan's experiences of altered states but is based on his interviews with acknowledged "experts" in the field: theologians, philosophers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists. The first three chapters are intended to provide an overview of the territory. First we meet Huston Smith, an advocate of what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy. This proposes that all mystics at all times have glimpsed the same Reality and that their pronouncements can mostly be reconciled with one another in spite of any surface differences there may be.

The second chapter explores the opposite view. Some philosophers and theologians think that differences among mystics reflect their backgrounds and that the diversity is so great that no universal truths can be extracted from what they say. Horgan talks to several of those who take this position, and points out, astutely, that if you reject the view that mysticism tells us anything of universal importance you come pretty close to saying that all mystical visions are illusions, since universal significance is often what the mystics themselves claim for their insights.

Chapter 3 is devoted to Ken Wilber, another proponent of the Perennial Philosophy who has constructed a vast, complex (and to me impenetrable) explanatory scheme for it. Moreover, Wilber practises what he preaches, for he claims to have attained a considerable level of "enlightenment" on a more or less permanent basis. Horgan found Wilber impressive but was disturbed by his apparent pride in his own spiritual attainment. Not even the Dalai Lama, Wilber said, could maintain self-awareness during sleep as he, Wilber, could. (The development of this state of consciousness is one of the aims of Transcendental Meditation, though it is not the final goal but merely a waystation on the path to final Enlightenment.)

The subsequent chapters are more concerned with science and with what might be called practical mysticism. Horgan interviewed eight scientists who have carried out empirical studies of mystical experience of various kinds. The interviewees include Andrew Newberg, the co-author of The Mystical Mind, which advocates "neurotheology"; James Austin, an exponent of Zen; Stanislav Grof, another transpersonal psychologist with a strong interest in the paranormal, including reincarnation and astrology; Terence McKenna, a kind of anti-guru who appeared to be subtly making fun of the whole enlightenment scene while also participating in it; and Susan Blackmore, a skeptic who nevertheless practises Zen meditation.

Another of those visited was Michael Persinger, a neuropsychologist who has built an apparatus for the electromagnetic induction of altered states of consciousness in volunteers. Horgan participated as a subject but nothing much happened. Persinger emerges from Horgan's account as the archetypal detached scientist and an ultra-skeptic, although, paradoxically, he is willing to entertain the possibility that mystical states may induce paranormal abilities in those who experience them. This surprised Susan Blackmore when Horgan told her about it.

As well as Wilber, some of those interviewed claimed to have attained, temporarily or permanently, states that would be described as "enlightened". One of these, John Wren-Lewis, achieved permanent self-awareness even in sleep (like Wilber) after he recovered from a coma caused by poisoning. Horgan suggests, probably correctly, that his "enlightened" state is the result of brain damage. If so, this raises interesting questions. Can "spiritual awakening", if that is what it is, sometimes arise from the loss of normal functioning? There is a parallel here to some reported cases in which people suffering from early dementia have acquired artistic abilities they had not previously displayed. (Other mystics or near-mystics who may have come into this category are John Lilly and Bede Griffiths, both now dead.)

The question that lies at the heart of all this talk about mysticism is: do these altered states of consciousness tell us anything about ourselves, the universe, or the Meaning of Life? There is no doubt that people often feel themselves to have been vouchsafed knowledge of this kind, and mystical or ecstatic experiences may affect the whole subsequent course of people's lives. But does this guarantee that the knowledge so gained is authentic? If it is, should we, as some Eastern religions advocate, devote our lives to seeking "enlightenment", or would this be simply to mire ourselves ever more deeply in a bog of self-deception?

The answer that Horgan reaches at the end of his exploration is, essentially, a negative one. Mystical experience, no matter how compelling it feels at the time, does not provide us with assurance of immortality or rebirth or of our cosmic significance. It also—and this seems to me to be important—does not endow those who attain it with superior moral wisdom: some apparently enlightened individuals have behaved as badly as anyone else. You may find this either liberating or depressing, depending on how you look at it.

This book will undoubtedly displease those who have already made up their minds firmly and have committed themselves irrevocably to the "search". Such people will find it unsettling if they read it at all. Others who are still hesitating, or who have begun to doubt whether what they are seeking may be a chimera, will find it illuminating.

It does, of course, have its limitations—how could it not, when it tackles such a vast subject? For one thing, as Horgan acknowledges at the outset, it is biased towards drug-induced states, partly because these have been extensively studied scientifically. He also thinks that psychedelics have played a large part in the modern understanding of mysticism, which is probably true.

Another limitation arises from the fact that it is based on interviews, which makes it contemporary and up-to-date but prevents much reference to earlier ideas which might have been worth citing. For example, there is no mention of the late W.T. Stace, whose philosophy was founded on the conviction that the mystical intuition of Oneness is valid. And I think that the aforementioned Marghanita Laski's approach to mysticism, which links it with creativity, offers a useful way forward for the non-religious who try to understand these experiences, but it is not discussed here.

In its own terms, however, Horgan's book seems to me to be one of the most important contributions to the subject to have appeared in recent years.

8 March 2005


%T Rational Mysticism
%S Spirituality meets science in the search for enlightenment
%A John Horgan
%Houghton Mifflin Company
%C Boston and New York
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-618-06027-8
%P 292 pp
%K religion
%O paperback


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