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Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality


Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality Cover





Lena's Feather

My wife, Suzie, is known in our hometown as a nurturer of birds. One

recent spring a neighbor brought her a crow hatchling he had found in the

woods. After failing to find its nest, Suzie decided to raise the crow, which

she named Lena. When she first arrived, Lena had blue eyes, as all fledgling

crows do, and she could barely walk, let alone fly. A cardboard box in the

corner of our living room served as her nest. When Suzie approached with

grape slices, moistened dog food pellets, and live mealworms, Lena flung

her head back and opened her beak wide. Suzie dropped the morsels into

Lena's pink gullet, and Lena gulped them down.

Lena was soon hopping and flapping around the living room like a

gangly teen, crashing into chairs and windows, poking through our bric-a-

brac. After Suzie took heroutside onto our deck, Lena launched herself

onto the roof of the house and into nearby trees. She always returned for

meals, and each night after dinner Suzie brought her inside for the night, until

one evening when Lena vanished into the woods. Suzie was distraught,

fearing that a hawk or an owl would kill the adolescent bird. But when Suzie

went outside at dawn with a plate of worms and grapes, Lena careened out of

the sky and skidded onto the deck, cawing.

That pattern persisted. Lena disappeared at night and returned

every morning for food and companionship. Because I am my family's

earliest riser, she usually greeted me first. As I sipped coffee in my attic

office, caws approached through the skylight above my desk, followed by

wingbeats and claws scratching shingles. A moment later, Lena peered down

at me through the skylight, cooing. When I went out on the deck later to read

the newspaper, she crouched at my feet and yanked on my shoelaces or

perched on my shoulder and pecked the paper. I pretended to be annoyed,

shooing her away, and to my delight she kept coming back.

Lena loved playing tag with our kids, Mac, who was five then, and

Skye, who was four. As they chased her, she bounded on the ground

before them, occasionally pirouetting behind them and scooting between their

legs, staying just beyond their reach. She was fearless. When Mac and

Skye swooped back and forth on swings, she stood near the low point of

their trajectory and pecked at their rear ends whooshing by. Lena's first love

was Suzie. When Suzie came outside, Lena would hop on her shoulder and

nestle against her neck, making noises of affection, as did Suzie.

We spent two magical months in this manner, with this wild

creature insinuating herself into our lives. One morning as I sat in my office

staring at my computer, I heard a howl of anguish from outside. I ran into

the back yard and found Suzie sitting on the ground, wailing, with Lena in her

lap. Lena's glossy black form was limp, her blue eyes dim. Blood oozed

from her beak. She had been playing tag with Mac and Skye. One of them

had collided with Lena, breaking her neck. We buried her on a hillock near

our house. Suzie planted daffodils and tulips over her grave.

At the time, I was in the midst of research for this book. The next

morning, I was to fly to California to take part in a ceremony that called for

ingestion of ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic substance made from two

Amazonian plants. Ayahuasca is an Indian word often translated as "vine of

the dead." For centuries, shamans in South America have used ayahuasca

to propel themselves into trances, during which they travel to a mystical

underworld and commune with spirits. Ayahuasca triggers violent nausea,

and its visions can be nightmarish. It has nonetheless recently become a

sacrament of sorts for spiritual adventurers around the world.

As I packed for the trip that evening, I felt a melancholy that

seemed out of proportion to Lena's death, as upsetting as it had been. This

creature's demise, I realized, reminded me how fragile all our lives are.

Everyone I love—my wife and children—is doomed, and can be taken from

me at any moment. My anticipation of the impending ayahuasca session

began mutating into dread. I feared that the vine of the dead would force me

into a more direct confrontation with death, and I wasn't sure I felt up to the

challenge. The people supervising the ayahuasca session had asked each

participant to bring a "sacred object," something of personal significance.

So in my knapsack—along with my tape recorder, pens, notebook, and

several books—I put one of Lena's feathers.

Looking for The Answer

I cannot recall exactly when I first learned about the extraordinary way of

perceiving, knowing, and being called mysticism. Certainly by the early

1970s, when I was in my late teens, the topic was impossible to avoid.

Everyone I knew seemed to be reading Siddhartha, Be Here Now, The

Doors of Perception, The Teachings of Don Juan, and other mystical texts.

Everybody was pursuing mystical epiphanies—satori, kensho, nirvana,

samadhi, the opening of the third eye—through Transcendental Meditation,

kundalini yoga, LSD, or all of the above.

And why not? Spiritual tomes ancient and modern promised that

mysticism is a route not only to ultimate truth—the secret of life, the ground

of being—but also to ultimate consolation. The supreme mystical state,

sometimes called enlightenment, was touted as a kind of loophole or

escape hatch in reality, through which we can wriggle out of our existential

plight and attain a supernatural, even divine, freedom and immortality.

Along with millions of others in my generation, I puzzled over

esoteric mystical books, and I dabbled in yoga, meditation, and

psychedelic drugs. I never dedicated myself to the mystical path, however.

Friends who had done so—typically by joining one of the countless guru-led

groups that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s—seemed to have abandoned

their rationality and autonomy. Also, the insights I gleaned from my own

experiences were too confusing, and sometimes frightening, for me to make

good use of them. At a time when I was trying to make something of

myself, they were a destabilizing influence.

By the early 1980s, I had decided that science represents our

best hope for improving our condition—and for understanding who we are,

where we came from, where we're going. Some physicists were seeking a

so-called theory of everything, an explanation of the physical universe so

encompassing that it might solve the biggest riddle of all: Why is there

something rather than nothing? Thrilled by science's ambitions, I became a

science writer, and for more than a decade I wrote articles about particle

physics, cosmology, complexity theory, and other fields that promised

great revelations.

Gradually, I came to the conclusion that science can take us only

so far in our quest for understanding. Science will not reveal "the mind of

God," as the British physicist (and atheist) Stephen Hawking once

promised. Science will never give us The Answer, a theory powerful enough

to dispel all mystery from the universe forever. After all, science itself

imposes limits on what we can learn through rational, empirical inquiry. I

spelled out these conclusions in two books: The End of Science, which

analyzed science as a whole, and The Undiscovered Mind, which focused on

fields that address the human mind.

In both books, I briefly considered whether mystical experiences

might yield insights into reality that can complement or transcend what we

learn through objective investigations. In The End of Science, I alluded to a

drug-induced episode that had been haunting me since 1981. I kept this

section short, because I feared it might repel the scientifically oriented

readers for whom my book was intended. The opposite reaction occurred.

Many readers—including scientists, philosophers, and other supposed

rationalists—wrote to tell me that they found the section on mysticism the

most compelling part of the book. Readers related their own mystical

episodes, some ecstatic, others disturbing. Like me, these readers seemed

to be struggling to reconcile their mystical intuitions with their reason.

That was when I first considered writing a book on mysticism. I

wasn't sure that the topic would warrant book-length treatment. As recently

as 1990 the psychologist Charles Tart, editor of Altered States of

Consciousness, a collection of scholarly articles on mysticism and other

exotic cognitive conditions, complained that so little research had been

done since his book's publication in 1969 that it scarcely needed updating.

Attempts to reconcile science and mysticism had apparently not

progressed much beyond crude studies of meditators' brain waves and

claims of vague correspondences between quantum mechanics and Hindu


But I soon found that investigations of mysticism are proceeding

along a broad range of scholarly and scientific fronts. During the 1990s

ordinary consciousness, once considered beneath the notice of respectable

scientists, became a legitimate and increasingly popular object of

investigation. Emboldened by this trend, some scientists have begun

focusing on exotic states of consciousness, including mystical ones.

Researchers are sharing results at conferences such as "Worlds of

Consciousness," held in 1999 in Basel, Switzerland, the birthplace of LSD;

and in books such as The Mystical Mind, Zen and the Brain, and DMT: The

Spirit Molecule.

Their approaches are eclectic. Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at

the University of Pennsylvania, is scanning the brains of meditating

Buddhists and praying nuns to pinpoint the neural correlates of mystical

experience. The Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger tries to induce

religious visions in volunteers by electromagnetically stimulating their brains

with a device called the God machine. The Swiss psychiatrist Franz

Vollenweider has mapped the neural circuitry underlying blissful and horrific

psychedelic trips with positron emission tomography. The findings of

researchers like these are invigorating long-standing debates among

theologians, philosophers, and other scholars about the meaning of

mysticism and its relationship to mainstream science and religion.

This upsurge in scientific and scholarly interest has not brought

about consensus on mystical matters. Quite the contrary. Scholars

disagree about the causes of mystical experiences, the best means of

inducing them, their relation to mental illness and morality, and their

metaphysical significance. Some experts maintain that psychology and even

physics must be completely revamped to account for mysticism's

supernatural implications. Others believe that mainstream, materialistic

science is quite adequate to explain mystical phenomena. Similarly,

scholars disagree about whether mystical visions affirm or undermine

conventional religious faith.

Eventually I decided that the time was right after all for a book on

mysticism. Most such books, whether written by philosophers of religion,

neurologists, or New Age gurus, hew to a particular theory or theology,

such as Zen Buddhism or psychedelic shamanism or evolutionary

psychology. My goal was to write a book as wide-ranging, up-to-date, and

open-minded as possible. The book would be journalistic, based primarily on

face-to-face interviews with leading theologians, philosophers, psychologists,

psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and other professional ponderers of

mysticism. I would assess their respective findings and conjectures, trying

to determine where they converge or diverge, where they make sense or go

off the deep end. To provide historical context, I would show how recent

mystical studies are both corroborating and advancing beyond inquiries

undertaken in the past by scholars such as William James and Aldous

Huxley. And I would discuss my personal experiences where relevant.

Mysticism's schisms

Mysticism, the human-potential priestess Jean Houston warned me early

on in this project, begins in mist, has an I in the middle, and ends in schism.

Debate begins with definition. Mysticism is often defined, in a derogatory

sense, as metaphysical obfuscation, or belief in ghosts and other occult

phenomena. William James mentioned these meanings in his classic 1902

work The Varieties of Religious Experience before offering a definition that is

still widely cited. Mysticism, James proposed, begins with an experience

that meets four criteria: It is ineffable—that is, difficult or impossible to

convey in ordinary language. It is noetic, meaning that it seems to reveal

deep, profound truth. It is transient, rarely lasting for more than an hour or

so. And it is a passive state, in which you feel gripped by a force much

greater than yourself. Two qualities that James did not include in his formal

list but mentioned elsewhere are blissfulness and a sense of union with all


In Cosmic Consciousness, published at around the same time as

The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Canadian psychiatrist Richard

Bucke described an experience that met all of James's criteria. A carriage

was bearing Bucke home from an evening lecture when he was overcome

by "immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an

illumination quite impossible to describe." The experience lasted only a few

moments, but during it Bucke "saw and knew" that "the Cosmos is not dead

matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the

universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things

work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the

world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long

run absolutely certain."

But in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James made it clear

that mystical experiences may not be ineffable, transient, passive, blissful,

or unitive. Some mystics describe their supposedly ineffable visions at great

length. They may claim to be gifted not just with transient flashes of insight

but with a permanent shift in vision. They may feel not passive but powerful,

and the power seems to come from inside rather than outside them. And

while some mystics feel a blissful unity with all things, others perceive

absolute reality as terrifyingly alien. James called these visions

"melancholic"or "diabolical."

Even the quality that James called noetic has been challenged.

Certain mystics describe their experience as a form of ecstatic

forgetfulness or self-dissolution rather than of knowing. To my mind, however,

a sense of absolute knowledge is the sine qua non of mystical experiences;

this noetic component transforms them into something more than transient

sensations. "The mystic vision is not a feeling," declares the religious

scholar Huston Smith. It is "a seeing, a knowing." The vision may or may not

be ineffable, transient, unitive, or blissful, but it must offer some ultimate

insight, however strange, paradoxical, and unlike ordinary knowledge. It must

grip us with the certainty that we are seeing "the Way Things Are," as the

sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley once put it.

Estimates of the frequency of mystical experiences vary—not

surprisingly, given the variability of definitions. A survey carried out in the

1970s found that 33 percent of adult Americans have had at least one

experience in which they sensed "a powerful spiritual force that seemed to

lift you outside of yourself." A British poll determined that a similar

percentage of people have been "aware of, or influenced by, a presence of

power." The experiences may be induced deliberately by drugs, meditation,

prayer, or other spiritual practices, but they may also be spontaneous

responses to natural beauty, music, childbirth, lovemaking, life-threatening

events, intense grief, and illness.

Some researchers contend that full-blown mystical experiences

are much less common than these surveys indicate. The neurologist and

Zen Buddhist James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, suspects that the

state he calls absorption—known as samadhi by Hindus and satori by

Buddhists—is quite rare. During this state, the external world and one's own

self seem to dissolve into a formless unity. Even rarer than absorption,

according to Austin, is nirvana, realization, liberation, awakening,

enlightenment, in which sporadic flashes of insight yield to a long-term shift

in vision.

However rare mystical transcendence is, multitudes are pursuing

it. Enlightenment is the telos of the great Eastern religions, Hinduism and

Buddhism. Mysticism has played a smaller but still vital role in the history

of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Countless modern sects, such as the

Transcendental Meditation and Hare Krishna movements, also hold out the

promise of nirvana to devotees. Centers of "holistic learning," including the

Omega Institute in upstate New York, Colorado's Naropa Institute, and the

California Institute for Integral Studies, offer courses in what could be called

mystical technologies, including Vipassana meditation, shamanic

drumbeating, tantric yoga, Kabala studies, and Sufi dancing.

Others seek mystical insights by ingesting psychedelic

substances such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Two hundred and fifty

thousand Indians who belong to the Native American Church consume the

fruit of the peyote cactus as a sacrament. Ayahuasca serves a similar

purpose for thousands of members of two fast-growing sects in Brazil—and

for a growing number of North Americans and Europeans. Clearly, in the so-

called age of science, many of us still look to mysticism for truth and


But can mystical spirituality be reconciled with science and, more

broadly, with reason? To paraphrase the mystical philosopher Ken Wilber,

is the East's version of enlightenment compatible with that of the West? If so,

what sort of truth would a rational mysticism give us? What sort of

consolation? These, I believe, are the most important issues confronting

mystical scholars and the millions who are following mystical paths.

While attempting to resolve these basic issues, I will touch on

many other questions that motivate today's mystical inquiries: What can

neuroscience, psychiatry, and other mind-related fields tell us about the

causes of mystical states? Are there any risks in following the mystical

path, whether by meditating or ingesting peyote? What is the link between

mysticism, madness, and morality? Does belief in mysticism always go

hand in hand with belief in parapsychology? What is the nature of the

supreme mystical state, sometimes called enlightenment? Will science

ever produce a mystical technology powerful enough to deliver enlightenment

on demand?

Seeking mystical experts

Mysticism derives from the Greek root mu, which means silent or mute. In

ancient Greece, the adjective mystikos referred to secrets revealed only to

those initiated into esoteric sects; mystical knowledge was that which

should not be revealed. Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as

that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed. An aphorism

from the ancient mystical text the Tao Te Ching can be read both

ways: "Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know." In

other words, no one who talks about mysticism—including, presumably, the

author of the Tao Te Ching—really knows anything. Niels Bohr's quip about

quantum mechanics comes to mind: Anyone who says he understands

quantum mechanics, the great physicist remarked, doesn't know the first

thing about it.

Some are nonetheless more qualified than others to talk about

quantum mechanics, and the same is true of mysticism. The bulk of this

book consists of profiles of those who might be called mystical experts

(although that phrase does have an oxymoronic ring). "No ideas but in

things," the poet William Carlos Williams once wrote. I suppose my

journalistic credo might be "No ideas but in people." In writing about

science, I have tried to show that certain theories are best understood not as

discoveries plucked whole from some Platonic ether but as embodiments of

the aspirations and anxieties of living, breathing individuals. This principle

applies at least as much to mystical doctrines such as gnosticism,

negative theology, and Zen as it does to superstring theory and

psychoanalysis. Scientists' personalities can influence their scientific

products, but when it comes to spirituality, personality is the product, at

least in principle.

Mystical enthusiasts often declare that you cannot comprehend

mystical experiences if you have never had one. This attitude smacks of

elitism—it recalls Freudians' self-serving claim that only those who have

undergone psychoanalysis are qualified to judge it—but there is some truth

to it. As the neuroscientist Francisco Varela has said, comprehending

mysticism and indeed all aspects of the mind requires both first-person and

third-person perspectives. Hence most, though certainly not all, of my

profile subjects claim to have both subjective and objective knowledge of the

mystical realm; they can discuss it from the inside and the outside. They

also share the belief that mysticism has much to offer us.

There are no clear-cut criteria for judging spiritual expertise. The

psychologist Howard Gardner, author of the multiple-intelligence theory of

human nature, has made this point. Reasonable standards exist for

evaluating scientific, mathematical, athletic, artistic, literary, and musical

achievement, Gardner noted, but there is no objective measure for "the

attainment of a state of spiritual truth." Some experts I interviewed struck

me as wise or "spiritual," but what I looked for primarily was a serious,

sustained effort to comprehend mysticism in all its complexity. I also sought

experts with diverse perspectives, hoping that illumination might emerge

through polyangulation.

Ultimately, the stakes involved in any inquiry into mysticism are

philosophical and theological in nature. Hence, this book begins by

examining an ongoing debate among philosophers and theologians over

mysticism's meaning. Perhaps the most significant issue concerns whether

mystical experiences transcend space and time or are all colored to some

extent by the mystic's personality and cultural indoctrination. In other

words, can a nineteen-year-old engineering student who has taken LSD at a

rave discover the same truth and even have the same experience as a

sixteenth-century nun in the throes of an epileptic seizure?

Chapter one broaches this issue with a profile of Huston Smith, to

whom mysticism is a kind of skylight through which all people in all eras

can see the same transcendent reality. Chapter two highlights philosophers

and theologians espousing what could be called a postmodern outlook; they

contend that it is impossible to extract universal truths from the immense

diversity of mystical experiences. Chapter three introduces the philosopher

Ken Wilber, who rebuts the postmodernists with an "integral" worldview

incorporating elements from both ancient mystical traditions and modern


These chapters lay the groundwork for the more scientifically

oriented chapters that follow. Chapters four through eight profile scientists

who have carried out empirical studies of mystical experiences, whether

induced by meditation, prayer, epilepsy, electromagnetic stimulation of the

temporal lobes, or psilocybin. These researchers include the

aforementioned Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, James Austin, and

Franz Vollenweider, as well as the British psychologist Susan Blackmore,

who has scrutinized enthusiasts.

Some readers may be surprised—and dismayed—that I pay so

much attention to psychedelics, or entheogens, as they are sometimes

called. One reason is that these compounds give scientists a handhold on

a slippery topic. "Psychedelic drugs are easier to study by the methods of

modern science than most other means of inducing altered states of

consciousness," the Harvard scholars Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar

stated in their book Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered, "since they have

known chemical structures and can be administered repeatedly under

uniform experimental conditions."

Moreover, research on psychedelics, which largely vanished

during the 1970s and 1980s, has recently undergone a renaissance, and it

is now yielding some of the most provocative findings in the field of mystical

research. My inquiries also convinced me that psychedelics—for good or

ill—have played a surprisingly large role in shaping the landscape of modern

spirituality; psychedelic epiphanies catalyzed the spiritual evolution of many

mystics who now advocate nonpsychedelic practices and even disparage

entheogens. Finally, psychedelicists such as the psychiatrist Stanislav

Grof and the postmodern shaman Terence McKenna—the subjects of

chapters nine and ten, respectively—have fashioned their hallucinatory

visions into cosmologies too provocative to ignore.

The evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has decreed that you

cannot tread the path of spirituality and the path of reason; you must

choose between them. One of my goals in writing this book was to put

Wilson's dictum to the test. Thus, interviewing those with firsthand mystical

experience, I put various questions to them to gauge how successfully they

have integrated their mystical and rational perspectives: Do they adhere to

the mystical doctrine that mind is more intrinsic to reality than matter? Do

they believe in an afterlife? Have they intuited a divine intelligence or plan

underlying the universe, a plan in which we humans play a central role? If

so, can they explain why this plan involves so much seemingly gratuitous

human suffering? In short, how do they reconcile their mystical beliefs with

the dictates of science and common sense?

Heaven, hell, and visions

If I lay bare others' prejudices, it seems only fair that I do the same for

myself. I have always been prone to eschatological obsession. As a child, I

saw death as an unmitigated evil. After a classmate died when I was in first

grade, I became preoccupied with death, and I could not understand why

everyone wasn't equally preoccupied. My parents, siblings, friends, all were

doomed, and yet they blithely went on with their lives as if they had all the

time in the world. My horror of mortality was most acute in the most

cheerful, chattering contexts—in a classroom or at a party. I wanted to

scream out to the oblivious fools around me, "You're all going to die!"

My view of death is slightly more nuanced now. In 1986, just

before my mother had an operation for brain cancer, I visited her in the

hospital. Lying on her bed, she urged me not to worry about her. She had

had a good life. She married a good man, and she got to see her five

children grow up and thrive. When she told me that she had no fear of death,

I believed her. She seemed serene, ready for whatever came. My mother

survived the operation. When she died more than two painful years later, I

saw it as a blessing. Now death per se does not trouble me so much as the

manner in which it sometimes descends. Although some die peacefully

after long, rich lives, others are wrenched away from life in such a brutal and

untimely fashion that they leave behind a terrible wound. How can this

apparent unfairness of existence be reconciled with our spiritual intuitions of

a just, loving God or of a supernatural moral order?

Ordinarily, I would prefer to treat this problem as an intellectual

puzzle, like the nature-nurture conundrum or the irreconcilability of quantum

mechanics and general relativity. As I wrote this book, however, events

seemed to conspire to remind me of fortune's terrible capriciousness. On

September 11, 2001, my wife and I climbed a hill near our home and saw

only smoke where once the World Trade Center had stood, fifty miles south

of us. But that cataclysm was almost too vast, too singular, for me to

fathom; other, more ordinary incidents had a deeper emotional impact. In the

span of a year, several friends and acquaintances were diagnosed with

cancer. One of my oldest friends died, leaving two young children behind. A

mystical expert only slightly older than me and brimming with wit and vitality

when I interviewed him was killed less than a year later by a malignant brain


Then there was the death of Lena, my family's familiar, on the day

before I flew west to ingest the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca. As hard as

it must be for outsiders to understand, that little tragedy was a grievous

reminder to me that happiness can be snatched from us at any time; the

happier we are, the greater our potential heartbreak. When I ingested

ayahuasca three days later, the hopes and fears that mysticism arouses in

me came to a head. For these reasons, I decided to tell the story of that

ayahuasca session in chapter eleven. Before the session, I hoped that it

might give me an insight or epiphany or something that would provide

consolation—not only for me but also for Suzie, who loved Lena dearly.

At the same time, memories of a nightmarish drug trip—the one

to which I alluded in The End of Science—made me fear that ayahuasca

might exacerbate my dread. The German psychologist Adolf Dittrich has

compiled evidence that altered states—whether induced by drugs,

meditation, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, or other means—fall into three

broad categories, or "dimensions." Borrowing a phrase that Sigmund Freud

used to describe mystical experiences, Dittrich calls the first

dimension "oceanic boundlessness." This is the classic blissful, unitive

experience reported by Richard Bucke and many other mystics. The mystic

has sensations of self-transcendence, timelessness, and fearlessness, and

an intuition that all the world's contradictions have been resolved.

Dittrich labels the second dimension "dread of ego dissolution."

This is the classic "bad trip" in which your sense of self-dissolution is

accompanied not by bliss but by negative emotions, from mild uneasiness

to full-blown terror and paranoia. You think you are going insane,

disintegrating, dying. Dittrich dubs the third dimension "visionary

restructuralization"; it includes hallucinations ranging from abstract,

kaleidoscopic images to elaborate dreamlike narratives. Dittrich likes to refer

to these three dimensions as "heaven, hell, and visions."

The hallucinogen I ingested in 1981 propelled me into all three

dimensions. Early on, I had fantastical, dreamlike visions teeming with

animals, humans, and mythological figures. I seemed to be both observing

these epic scenarios and playing all the parts in them. These images

became more and more abstract and ethereal, until I became convinced

that I was approaching absolute reality, the source of all things, God. Like

Richard Bucke, I saw, I knew, that there is no death, not for me, not for

anyone or anything; there is only life, forever and ever. Then the ground of

being was yanked from under me. I saw, I knew, that life is ephemeral; death

and nothingness are the only abiding certainties. We are in perpetual free fall,

and there is no ground of being, no omnipotent God to catch us.

Hindus call truth that is perceived directly shruti; the Sanskrit

term smriti refers to truth known only secondhand. Time transformed my

1981 experience from shruti into smriti, a memory of a memory of a memory.

It resembles a faded photograph from a journey I can scarcely remember. It

almost seems as though it happened to someone else. My years as a

science writer also infused me with a skepticism so corrosive that it eroded

my belief in all revelations, including my own.

I never forgot that trip, however, or stopped brooding over its

implications. Which of our mystical visions should we believe? The

heavenly, blissful ones or the hellish, diabolical ones? Are both somehow

true, or are all such visions illusions, generated by overexcited neural

circuits? Some mystically inclined philosophers—notably Huston Smith—

have proposed an answer to questions like these. They contend that mystical

experiences, in spite of their diversity and apparent contradictions, all point to

the same universal truth about the nature of reality, a truth that is not

frightening but comforting. This position is known as the perennial

philosophy, and it is where we will begin this mystical inquest.

Copyright © 2003 by John Horgan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.'

Product Details

Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality
Horgan, John
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
General science
Psychology of Religion
Religion and science
General Body, Mind and Spirit
Edition Number:
Edition Description:
Trade Cloth
Series Volume:
no. 36
Publication Date:
January 2003
Grade Level:
9 x 6 x 0.75 in 1.24 lb

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Related Subjects

Metaphysics » General
Reference » Science Reference » General
Religion » Spirituality » Science and Religion

Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$7.95 In Stock
Product details 304 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618060276 Reviews:
"Review" by , "[An] entertaining New Age travelogue....[Horgan's] willingness to share his doubts and attractions with readers gives the book a refreshingly personal feel....The result is a title with crossover appeal: believers can point to Horgan's willingness to grapple seriously with their tenets, while skeptics can find ample support for the argument that it's all in our heads."
"Review" by , "It's hard to be entertainingly irreverent and deeply earnest at the same time, but John Horgan pulls it off in Rational Mysticism as he searches for answers to the biggest questions: Why is there suffering? Is lasting fulfillment possible? What happens after death? Do we live in a benign, even purposeful universe or a cold, indifferent one? His quest brings him in touch with sages, boundary-stretching scientists, and the occasional crackpot whose psychedelic experiments may have gone on too long. All are appraised with Horgan's patented wit and pungency, and with a fine balance of skepticism and sympathy. You may disagree with some of these people, but you'll finish this engrossing book with new data to bring to old, deep questions."
"Review" by , "This book is as much a personal quest for mystical enlightenment as it is a thought-provoking pilgrimage to the growing interface of science and spirituality. Horgan's odyssey is both intellectually courageous in confronting the 'big' questions and personally adventurous....Beautifully written, it is an informative and compelling read." Lester Grinspoon, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, Harvard Medical School, co-author of Psychedelic Drugs Revisited
"Review" by , "A wonderful book. A modern Odysseus, John Horgan sails through unmapped, dangerous waters to bring back tales of personal enlightenment and the scientific understanding of what it may mean in terms of brain biology." Robert Pollack, Professor of Biological Sciences, Director, Columbia University Center for the Study of Science and Religion
"Synopsis" by ,
In Rational Mysticism, acclaimed journalist John Horgan embarks on an adventure of discovery, investigating the ways in which scientists, theologians, and philosophers are attempting to formulate an empirical explanation of spiritual enlightenment. Horgan visits and interviews a fascinating Who's Who of experts, including theologian Huston Smith; Andrew Newberg, explorer of the brain's "God module"; Ken Wilber, a transpersonal psychologist and Buddhist; psychedelic pharmacologist Alexander Shulgin; Oxford-educated psychologist and Zen practitioner Susan Blackmore; and postmodern shaman Terence McKenna. Horgan also explores the effects of reputed enlightenment-inducing techniques such as fasting, meditation, prayer, sensory deprivation, and drug trips. In his lively and thought-provoking inquiry, Horgan finds surprising connections among seemingly disparate disciplines, not the least of which is a shared awe of the nature of the universe.
"Synopsis" by , Includes bibliographical references (p. 269-272) and index.
"Synopsis" by , Both a seeker and an award-winning journalist, Horgan investigates a wide range of fields--chemistry, physics, psychology, radiology, theology, and more--to narrow the gap between reason and enlightenment.
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