Book: Rational Mysticism

Rational Mysticism? Surely she mistyped. But no, fair readers (I’ve been into the Austen recently), Rational Mysticism it is.

I’ll give away the ending, shall I?

“Mystical awe is the inverse of knowledge; it is a kind of anti-knowledge. Instead of seeing The Answer to the riddle of existence, you just see how impenetrable the riddle is.” John Horgan, Rational Mysticism, p. 216

This is an extraordinary book, not only for the content, but for the intellectual sophistication and quality of the writing. John Horgan is a science writer who still takes the questions of religious seekers seriously, so he is able to probe without mocking, and to critically assess claims without dismissing them entirely. It was a grand read for somebody such as myself, a doubting agnostic pagan Buddhist physicist. In the end, I came away with the message that none of these great leaders “know” a lot more than the rest of us about the nature of reality*; although many of them are far more certain of their claims… which are, by the way, mutually exclusive in some cases. [If John Horgan happens past, and I have completely misrepresented your book, please let me know. I would hate to do that.]

Now, to put my own claims in context, let me tell you something that I usually don’t talk about (but now it will be Out There! for All To See!):

Mystical experiences are a fairly common occurrence in my world. They don’t strike on a weekly basis, but certainly come around more often than I go on vacation. I find myself dumbfounded, staring at a stranger on the subway and feeling that profound connection of one human being to another, feeling deep mother-love, wishing them all the good in the world… for a flash, and then it’s gone. I have a moment of perfect peace during meditation and think “Oh! It’s that easy, is it?” I sit under a tree, and I feel the presence of the Buddha, and it is clear in my mind… “Buddhism isn’t a religion. It’s just the Way Things Are.” Sometimes, the gods talk to me, and sometimes it is mediated through another person, but non-verbally, and later that person confirms that what I “heard” was what they were “saying” and let me tell you, that is freaky. (These are deeply trusted people in my world, not paid mediums or professional charlatans, in case you were inclined to pat me on the head in that particular way.) Mystical stuff. Universe dissolving, oneness. All of it.

And then I come back to myself, and the house needs cleaning, and the car breaks down, and the kids are hungry, and I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up, and I make mistakes, and I still think like a scientist. I don’t know what to make of all of this, I really don’t. The most clear claim that I can make is, “At least part of the universe wants to know why it is here at least some of the time.” As a result, I spend a lot of time in conversations about whether science and religion are necessarily incompatible, and what sort of claims can we make that are not fundamentally at odds with current scientific models of the world. Is the world fundamentally material? Is it reasonable to claim that all religious experience is purely delusional? Am I entirely fooling myself?

You can understand that all this contributes to an unsettling and demanding quest to understand the “true nature of reality.” Come to think of it, that was what I was after when I went to study quantum mechanics and general relativity, so none of this is new. But it means that I was predisposed to enjoy Horgan’s agnostic position on this; it makes a refreshing change from the dogmatic positions of most skeptics, or the sweeping (and frankly, strange) claims of many mystics.

This book explores one set of ideas at a time, primarily through interviews with individual mystics, or people who have made the study of mystical experience their life’s work. These people are experts in many aspects of mysticism, and the line connecting them is beautifully woven,  starting with the work of Huston Smith. Smith’s position of Perennial Philosophy is that all mystical experiences are incomplete glimpses of one Truth.**/*** Horgan takes us from here to the postmodern position, that there is no Truth, only endlessly deferred descriptions and texts. For the rest of the book he dances among the implications of these two nearly diametrically opposed claims, incorporating current neurological, psychological and philosophical investigations, even into psychedelic drugs as routes to transcendence. Or nirvana. Or the unico mysterium. Or whatever the particular variety of mysticism calls their peak experience/goals. Along the way he subjects himself to The God Machine (a device designed to stimulate brain waves and create artificial mystical experiences) and Ayahuasca (an Amazonian sacramental hallucinogen,) all in the service of science. And mysticism. And helping to find the nature of truth for those of us still seeking.

The chapters have such intriguing titles as “God’s Psychoanalyst” and “The Man in the Purple Sparkly Suit.”**** In the end, Horgan returns us to the mystery of it all, the wonder that there is something rather than nothing, and the possibility of joy in being alive. Because of the possibility, at least, we can have some certainty.


* Although they might know a lot more about lots of other things, like neurology, comparative religion, meditation, and/or psychedelic drugs.
** I recently read a feature article on Huston Smith in the November 2009 issue of Shambhala Sun, which I can also recommend.
*** Also, I’m reading a book by another professor of Comparative Religion, whose position is that the various religions of the world are in fact not all paths to the same truth, but are expressing fundamentally different positions on the nature of reality. But I’m not done that one, so I can’t incorporate it right now.
**** Really, don’t you want to read it just for those titles?

3 responses to “Book: Rational Mysticism”

  1. Thanks for the recommendation! What with all the illness around here, I just finished The Ancestor’s Tale and am looking for something else to dig into.

  2. Sure, if someone sinks into metanl illness, people viewing that person from the outside might think he or she is a benign, slightly out of this world, wandering mystic type. I’ve certainly encountered many, many homeless people and metanlly ill forced out onto the streets, and some of them were so sweet and coming at life from a very different internal reference point that I truly felt blessed by getting to connect with them. Also, in this day and age, with the rise of children who are on the autism spectrum and a much wider societal recognition of bipolar disorder (among other metanl illnesses,) we are seeing what will soon be one out of 100 people here in the US most likely unable to ever provide for themselves in a conventional sense of getting a job. And there has long been a kind of simplistic and quaint opinion from some outsiders that bipolar states of mania, for instance, might be that person touching the hand of God or talking to the angels or whatever.What’s truly tragic is how we’ve lost the ability to honor those who fall through the cracks or who process thoughts and emotions a little differently from other people. There is still only a very narrow bandwidth of normal, and that’s tragic. Many other cultures have long embraced the wandering mystic/hermit, including the famous wandering nuns and monks of India who would go from town to town begging for food and conferring blessings on the townsfolk with their prayers and invocations.If we honored what unique energy each person has instead of constantly trying to stuff them into a box, I think there would be no need for people who march to the beat of a different drummer to end up economically disposed and socially disenfranchised because they would have an honored place within society. In the US, we lock people up in institutions or criminalize them or we just hand out money and a minimal amount of food through social programs. But we don’t actually CONNECT with the disenfranchised. I think it’s because when you truly gaze into the eyes of someone homeless or outside the accepted norm and connect heart to heart it takes you to some scary places places of sorrow, anger, rage, shock, disbelief, and crushing empathy. And what do we do with that empathy? Change the world? The world is a pretty big, heavy place, and sometimes it doesn’t much appreciate our little attempts to shift it in any given direction.Anyway, pardon my own rambling I enjoyed your blog entry and you raise some interesting ideas. Keep at it!