Cover image for Rational mysticism : dispatches from the border between science and spirituality
Rational mysticism : dispatches from the border between science and spirituality
Horgan, John, 1953-
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Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
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292 pages ; 24 cm
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BL625 .H67 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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John Horgan, author of the best-selling The End of Science, chronicles the most advanced research into the mechanics--and meaning--of mystical experiences. How do trances, visions, prayer, satori, and other mystical experiences "work"? What induces and defines them? Is there a scientific explanation for religious mysteries and transcendent meditation? John Horgan investigates a wide range of fields -- chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, theology, and more -- to narrow the gap between reason and mystical phenomena. As both a seeker and an award-winning journalist, Horgan consulted a wide range of experts, including theologian Huston Smith, spiritual heir to Joseph Campbell; Andrew Newberg, the scientist whose quest for the "God module" was the focus of a Newsweek cover story; Ken Wilber, prominent transpersonal psychologist; Alexander Shulgin, legendary psychedelic drug chemist; and Susan Blackmore, Oxford-educated psychologist,parapsychology debunker, and Zen practitioner. Horgan explores the striking similarities between "mystical technologies" like sensory deprivation, prayer, fasting, trance, dancing, meditation, and drug trips. He participates in experiments that seek the neurological underpinnings of mystical experiences. And, finally, he recounts his own search for enlightenment -- adventurous, poignant, and sometimes surprisingly comic. Horgan's conclusions resonate with the controversial climax of The End of Science, because, as he argues, the most enlightened mystics and the most enlightened scientists end up in the same place -- confronting the imponderable depth of the universe.

Author Notes

John Horgan, a former senior writer for Scientific American, is the author of The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. His articles have been published in the New York Times, Time, the Washington Post, and other publications. His work has won awards from the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Science Writers, among others. With an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University, Horgan has lectured widely in the United States and Europe. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his wife and two children

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Science author Horgan (The End of Science) tackles modern metaphysics from a critical perspective in this entertaining New Age travelogue, combining interviews with leading spiritual scholars like Huston Smith and Ken Wilber with visits to research centers where scientists study people's brainwaves while they meditate. Instead of accepting or rejecting the experts outright, Horgan assumes they might have something useful to tell us about spirituality, then respectfully challenges them to determine what that message might be. In some cases, Horgan has to put in extra effort to find something he can criticize, but his willingness to share his doubts and attractions with readers gives the book a refreshingly personal feel. Extending the candor, he applies the same rigorous interrogation to himself, sharing how his own spiritual views have been shaped by, among other things, experiences with psychedelic drugs as a young adult and a recent group experimentation with the South American hallucinogenic plant ayahuasca. (You'd be hard pressed to find many other science books with a sentence like "As Stan murmured reassuringly, his eyeballs exploded from their sockets, trailed by crimson streamers.") Here and there, the book drops tantalizing hints of a gnostic universe created by a neurotic God terrified of being alone, but it never fully loses the rationalist framework Horgan uses to avoid succumbing to spirituality's alluring excesses. 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. (Jan. 22) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Through the ages, people have reported what have been termed "mystical" experiences. Using a series of interviews and thoughtful analyses, Horgan explores the full spectrum of contemporary thinking about these phenomena. The stage is set with Huston Smith's account of the perennial philosophy about these events, the postmodern approaches of Bernard McGinn and Steven Katz, and the cosmic systematizing of Ken Wilbur. This is followed by the more scientifically oriented approaches of Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, and Susan Blackmore. James Austin, Stanislav Grof, Alexander Shulgin, and Terence McKenna represent a miscellany that includes such different approaches as Zen, psychiatry, and psychedelic shamanism. Along the way readers are introduced to cultural solipsism, crazy wisdom, holy fools, entheogenic (mind-altering) experiences, the Ayahuasca plant, and a "God Machine." The author seems ideally suited to his task. His firsthand experience with many of the phenomena discussed qualifies him as a true seeker. But, being a former senior writer for Scientific American, he is at the same time hard-nosed, skeptical, and quick to point out the shortcomings of wishful thinking, self-delusion, and sloppy science. A refreshingly rational and informative examination of mysticism and a strong addition to any library collection. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates through professionals. R. M. Davis Albion College

Library Journal Review

Horgan (The End of Science) has written an informative, critical, and by turns fascinating and disturbing examination of the relationship between drug use and mystical experience. The relationship between the quest for truth and enlightenment, on the one hand, and the ingestion of psychedelic drugs like LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, marijuana, and ayahuasca, on the other, is an ancient and seemingly endless one. Horgan focuses on the diverse beliefs, controversial experiments, and personal experiences of several major advocates of research into mysticism: Steven Katz, Andrew Newberg, Huston Smith, and Ken Wilber. Of particular interest are the science-oriented ideas of James Austin, Susan Blackmore, Michael Persinger, and Franz Vollenweider. Religious themes range from the influence of science on spirituality to the dangerous steps that an individual will take to experience God or cosmic unity. For many informed readers, this book will neither discredit scientific materialism nor verify the objective value of mystical experience; instead, it clearly demonstrates the direct relationship between chemical influence on the human brain and having a mystical experience. Recommended for all large academic and public science collections.-H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Introduction 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 her outside 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 lovemy wife and childrenis 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 knapsackalong with my tape recorder, pens, notebook, and several booksI put one of Lena's feathers.Looking for The AnswerI 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 epiphaniessatori, kensho, nirvana, samadhi, the opening of the third eyethrough 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 truththe secret of life, the ground of beingbut 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 sotypically by joining one of the countless guru-led groups that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970sseemed 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 conditionand 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 readersincluding scientists, philosophers, and other supposed rationalistswrote 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 doctrine. 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 schismsMysticism, 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 ineffablethat 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 things. 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 varynot 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 absorptionknown as samadhi by Hindus and satori by Buddhistsis 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 Braziland 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 consolation. 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 expertsMysticism 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 mysticismincluding, presumably, the author of the Tao Te Chingreally 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 elitismit recalls Freudians" self-serving claim that only those who have undergone psychoanalysis are qualified to judge itbut 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 psychology. 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 surprisedand dismayedthat 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 psychedelicsfor good or illhave 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 McKennathe subjects of chapters nine and ten, respectivelyhave 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 visionsIf 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 contextsin 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 tumor. 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 consolationnot only for me but also for Suzie, who loved Lena dearly. At the same time, memories of a nightmarish drug tripthe one to which I alluded in The End of Sciencemade me fear that ayahuasca might exacerbate my dread. The German psychologist Adolf Dittrich has compiled evidence that altered stateswhether induced by drugs, meditation, hypnosis, sensory deprivation, or other meansfall 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 philosophersnotably 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. Excerpted from Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality by John Horgan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Lena's Featherp. 1
1 Huston Smith's Perennial Philosophyp. 15
2 Attack of the Postmodernistsp. 36
3 The Weightlifting Bodhisattvap. 55
4 Can Neurotheology Save Us?p. 73
5 The God Machinep. 91
6 The Sheep Who Became a Goatp. 106
7 Zen and James Austin's Brainp. 124
8 In the Birthplace of Lsdp. 141
9 God's Psychoanalystp. 160
10 The Man in the Purple Sparkly Suitp. 177
11 Ayahuascap. 195
12 The Awe-Ful Truthp. 214
Epilogue: Winter Solsticep. 234
Acknowledgmentsp. 239
Notesp. 241
Selected Bibliographyp. 269
Indexp. 273