Rational Mysticism:
Dispatches from the border between science and spirituality

John Horgan

“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.” (p. 5)

“Mysticism, [Psychologist William] James proposed, begins with an experience that meets four criteria: it is ineffable – that is, difficult or impossible to convey in normal 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.” (p. 6)

“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. …Dittrich calls the first dimension oceanic boundlessness. This is the classic blissful, unitive experience reported by Richard Burke and many other mystics. The mystic has sensations of self-transcendence, timelessness, 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. (p. 13)

Fritjof “Capra has apparently backed away from the implications of The Tao of Physics [“that modern physics has rediscovered mystical truths embodied in Hinduism and Buddhism.”]. In his essay Science and Mysticism (in Paths Beyond Ego, edited by Roger Walsh) Capra rejected the notion that modern science is “merely rediscovering ancient wisdom, known to the Eastern sages for thousands of years.” There can be no synthesis between modern science and mysticism, he declared, because the two approaches are entirely different and at best complimentary.” (p. 15)

Apollo astronaut Edgar “Mitchell went on to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which promotes science with a spiritual dimension.” (p. 15)

“The perennial philosophy holds that the world”s great spiritual traditions, in spite of their obvious differences, express the same fundamental truth about the nature of reality, a truth that can be directly apprehended during a mystical experience. Implicit in the perennial philosophy is the notion that mystical perceptions transcend time, place, culture and individual identity. Just as a farmer in first-century China and a Web site designer in twenty-first century New York see [essentially] the same moon when they look skyward, so will they glimpse the same truth in the depths of mystical vision.” (p. 17)

Huston Smith argues that “all religions agree on three fundamental tenets: first, reality is more unified than it appears; [second] reality is better than it ordinarily seems to us; and third, reality is more mysterious than it looks. These are the central insights of the perennial philosophy…” (p. 18)

“Bill Moyers… produced a five-part series of interview with Smith, broadcast in 1996 as The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.” (p. 18)

“Smith recalled that his old friend Joseph Campbell, when asked what his “yoga” was, had mentioned three things: rare roast beef, good Irish whiskey and forty-four laps I the pool everyday.” (p. 19)

“Many young people turn away from religion, Smith lamented, because it is presented to them in the worst possible way. “What came through to them were two things: dogmatism, ‘We”ve got the truth, everybody else is going to hell”; and moralism, ‘don”t do this, that and especially no the other thing”.” Smith”s missionary parents had imparted very different religious precepts to him: “first, we”re in good hands. And second, in gratitude for that, it would be well if we bore one another”s burden.” After a lifetime of studying many religions, Smith found no better formula.” (p. 19)

“Smith has no desire to take entheogens again. “I”d had the message,” he said. “and I felt no wish to go back.”” (p. 21)

“If you think you are advancing toward unity with God or the absolute,” he said, “and are not growing in love and charity toward your fellow person, you”re just deluding yourself.” (p. 22)

“… Smith sees enlightenment as an ideal that can be approached but never attained by any mortal… “Even Christ said, “Why callest thou me good?”, [Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19.] he explained to me.” “Does anyone presume to top that?” Smith shook his head. “Just in principle, I don”t think it”s possible,” he said. “The mortal coils are too tight”.” (p. 22)

“…a metaphysical theory known as emanationism, which posits that the clear light of the void fractures in to multiple forms and declines in intensity as it devolves through descending levels of reality.” [Lurianic Qabalah?] (p. 23)

“…the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.” Aldus Huxley, “The Doors of Perception.” (p. 25)

“…finally there is no belief, doctrine or dogma that can justify God”s ways. Our mutual compassion is our only real consolation.” (p. 31)

“Academic religion is the killing jar of spirit.” Ken Wilber. (p. 37)

“The more [the mystical path] climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed u and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be one with Him Who is indescribable,” Dionysius the Areopagite, 6th century C.E. monk. (p. 38)

“Seek My Face, Speak My Name,” R. Arthur Green. (p. 39)

[Ken] “Wilber”s work has been favorably reviewed by Skeptical Inquirer, which normally eviscerates writers who give off even the faintest whiff of New Ageism.” (p. 64)

Integral Psychology. (p. 66)

“Wilber thinks he has the final framework after all: a mystical periodic table” (p. 67)

Solving The Nirvana Paradox: “If Nirvana is so great, why does God create?” (p. 69)

“If you want to see a cell nucleus, look down this microscope. If you want to see the moons of Jupiter, look through a telescope. On the spiritual side, if you want to see your Buddha nature, if you want to see Christ consciousness, if you want to see the religious side of the equation, fold your legs, sit down each day for two hours, count your breath from one to ten. Do that for five years and get back to me.” (p. 71)

“The common element in all spiritual experiences is a sense of unity deeper than that conveyed by ordinary consciousness. This sensation can range from the mild communion that a congregation feels while singing a hymn to the state of absolute unitary being in which you lose all sense of self of subject-object duality.” (p.74)

[Andrew] “Newberg and [Eugene] D”Aquili divided all methods for achieving unitive experiences into two categories: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down methods, which include meditation and prayer, achieve transcendence through relaxation, by focusing and calming the mind. Bottom-up techniques, which include dancing, hyperventilation, chanting and vigorous yoga, approach the same goal through excitation. “Their brain scans prove that the accounts of mystics are based “not on delusional ides, but on experiences that are neurologically real.” (p. 75)

“In their book The Mystical Mind, Newberg and D”Aquili made an extraordinarily bold prophecy: “It is possible that with the advent of improved technologies for studying the brain, mystical experiences may finally be clearly differentiated from any type of psychopathology.” By looking at brain-scanning images, in other words, neurotheologians might distinguish genuine mystical visions from pathological gnostic delusions, crazy wisdom from mere craziness. Perhaps they will even resolve the debate between perennialists and postmodernists over which mystical visions are transcendent revelations and which are products of the mystic”s cultural indoctrination. Age-old disputes over mysticism”s meaning might finally be settled by an image showing decreased metabolic activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe.” (p. 76) [See note to page 81 below.]

Andrew Newberg”s Doubts: “…offered four reasons for believing mystical claims: Mystical experiences occur in identical forms in all cultures. They feel truer than any other experiences. They have neurological correlates. They are natural and beneficial.” (p. 79)

“He then essentially retracted his and D”Aquili”s earlier prediction that one day neuroimaging would distinguish true mystical visions from delusions. “I don”t think any brain-imaging study could do that…”.” (p. 81)

“We must judge these visions by their philosophical and moral consequences.” (p. 82)

The God Machine. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. (p. 93)

“Parapsychology has failed not because psi doesn”t exit, but because psi has “nothing to do with the real mystery.” The real mystery is not exotic phenomena that parapsychology addresses – such as extrasensory perception and astral projection – but the ordinary reality and ordinary consciousness in which we are immersed each and every moment of our lives.” (p. 112)

“Just as you become lucid in a dream, and realize that all is illusionary, so it is possible to become aware of the constructed nature of the self and of all reality even while awake. In this way you can see into the essential emptiness of it and the connectedness of everything which can be experienced. It is simultaneously total aloneness and complete oneness. This is the key insight into the mystical experience.” (p. 113)

“The self is just a flowing story constructed by memes acquired from other people, and nothing more. “It is not a thing that can have consciousness and free will.” (p. 114)

“… does believe in enlightenment, which she defines as total self-transcendence, or waking from the meme dream. You become permanently mindful, in the moment, free from the bonds of self, even as you continue with the business of living. This is her understanding of the Zen aphorism Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” (p. 116)

19 April 1943 is celebrated as Bicycle Day in honor of Albert Hoffman”s ride home from the lab after ingesting 250 micrograms of LSD.

“Enlightenment does not give you any kind of final knowledge, [German Anthropologist Christian] Ratsch said. Quite the contrary. You see that the search for truth and meaning is endless. If the search for knowledge stops, you”re basically – Ratsch paused – dead as a living, exploring being. The universe produces people like us to learn about itself. This self-exploring process goes on and on and on. And nobody knows where it goes and what happens. And I think that”s part of enlightenment, to understand that there is no aim.” (p. 150)

“We have all these observations that consciousness can operate without the body.” [Huh?] “But we still teach that consciousness somehow comes out of the brain.” Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof. (p. 166)

“We will never attain what the Tibetan scholar Robert Thurman calls the Buddhaverse, a world in which we are all enlightened. Drama is more important than resolution. Life is, and must always be, a struggle.” (p. 172)

“For some of us, mysticism represents not salvation but that from which we need to be saved.” (p. 173)

“In [Argentinean fabulist Jorge Luis Borges”] story, The Zahir, the narrator is a man who becomes increasingly obsessed with a coin that he receives from a shopkeeper. Although he attempts to rid himself of it, the coin keeps coming back into his possession. Eventually he cannot think about anything but the coin; it even haunts his dreams. As the story unfolds, he gradually realizes that the coin is what ancient Islamic texts called a Zahir, an emblem of the mystery of existence, the riddle at the heart of things. At the end of the story, the narrator is still sane enough to foresee his fate: “I shall pass from thousand of apparitions to one alone: from a very complex dream to a very simple dream. Others will dream that I am mad, and I shall dream of the Zahir. And when everyone dreams of the Zahir day and night, which will be a dream and which the reality, the earth or the Zahir?” In Borges eerie fable, gnosis – a vision of the one thing that explains all other things – represents not salvation or omnipotence or another crest of the timewave, but a black hole into which we vanish forever.” (p. 190)

“… psychedelics can draw us in opposite directions: they can make us feel blissfully connected to all things, or alienated and alone. Which experience is truer? “The place I think the Buddhists try and get you to,” Ann [Shulgin] responded, “is right on the knife edge between the two. That”s where the truth is. But don”t ever forget that the truth of the universe changes second by second. It”s not the same universe it was when we sat down at this table”.” (p. 201)

“No modern spiritual writer emphasizes awe and doubt more than the British Buddhist Stephen Batchelor. He advocates an agnostic Buddhism which seeks to cultivate perplexity before the mystery of existence. This state is not always pleasant. When we truly confront reality we “tremble on that fine line between exhilaration and dread,” Batchelor wrote in Buddhism Without Beliefs. Batchelor was inspired to follow this path by an incident that occurred in 1980, when he was at a monastery in India. Carrying a bucket of water to his hut, he suddenly stopped short, overwhelmed by a sense of the mystery of existence. The epiphany, which lasted only a few minutes, was not “an illumination in which some final, mystical truth became momentarily very clear,” he recalled in The Faith to Doubt. “For me it gave no answers. It only revealed the massiveness of the question.”” (p. 216-7)

“The astronomer Chet Raymo has offered five compelling reasons for embracing the New Story of science rather than the old stories of religion as the basis for spirituality: one, science works; two, it is universal, true for all people at all times; three, it emphasizes the connectedness of all people and all things; four it makes us, rather than some deity or transcendent force, responsible for our own destiny; and five, it reveals the universe to be more complex, vast and beautiful that we ever imagined. But what the New Story of science cannot do, Raymo said, is guarantee our survival. “We are contingent, ephemeral – animated stardust cast up on a random shore, a brief incandescence,” he wrote. The New story makes one thing clear: we are not immortal.” (p. 222)

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