Can mystical experience show us the path to enlightenment?

1902 saw the publication of William James’ The Varieties Of Religion Experience. The book, edited from a series of lectures James delivered at the University of Edinburgh, is unique in its examination of religious belief (and mystical experiences) from a psychological perspective.

At the turn of last century, psychology was still very much bound up with philosophy. This meant psychological analysis was often impeded by philosophical questions about the nature of mind — does consciousness exist on a plane distinct from matter? Or is it rooted in the physical brain? How do the things we conceive of mentally relate to the external world? And so on.

James’ work was instrumental in setting metaphysical debates aside in order to focus on the phenomena of the psyche. In doing so he carved spaced for thousands to begin exploring consciousness.

In his chapter on mysticism, James sifts through the testimony of saints, mystics, writers and scientists, examining their contents, identifying patterns and noting dissimilarities. He circles around a difficult philosophical question: how can we bridge the gap between a physical examination of the brain, and individual, subjective experience?

While one might seek to explain away mystical, religious, or psychedelic experiences as mere delusions created by chemical imbalances in the brain, such reductionism jars with the felt experience of these states. How can we account for the fact that mystical experiences can have a profound effect on the individual — that they can feel more real than ordinary, everyday experience?

James’ analysis leads him to conclude:

Mystical states indeed wield no authority due simply to their being mystical states. But the higher ones along them point in directions to which the religious sentiments even of non-mystical men incline. They tell of the supremacy of the ideal, of vastness, of union, of safety, and of rest. They offer us hypothesis, hypothesis which we may voluntarily ignore, but which as thinkers we cannot possibly upset.

Which is to say, James hedges his bets. He neither endorses or discounts the content of mystical states, but advocates further research and analysis. He realises that he alone cannot solve the question of how we might ground such experiences in a rational framework.

Almost a century later, John Horgan picks up the project William James began in his book Rational Mysticism. Horgan does so in a very direct sense, opening with a revision of James’ criteria for what constitutes a mystical experience, and outlining his aim: to explore whether mystical spirituality can be reconciled with science and reason.

He also sketches a series of secondary questions, which give a sense of the ground he’ll attempt to cover in the following 200 pages:

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 delivery enlightenment on demand?

While Horgan’s is firmly rooted in the scientific-rationalist camp, he admits of a powerful hallucinogenic experience in the 1980s during which he had “fantastical, dreamlike visions teeming with animals, humans, and mythological figures”.

During this trip, he had something of a mystic revelation:

… I became convinced that I was approaching the absolute reality, the source of all things… I saw, I knew, there there is no death, not for me, not for 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.

Horgan wants to know how to integrate experiences such as these within a rationalist framework. Do these experiences deserve our respect? Do they provide glimpses of universal truth? Or are they merely hall of mirrors, brilliantly reflecting the fragmented psyche of the individual back at oneself? And if these states are shown to have psychological benefit, does it matter whether they reveal Truth, or not?

The book’s structure will be familiar for readers of contemporary nonfiction. While the main body of the book is comprised of interviews with particular “mystical experts” — scientists, psychologists, philosophers, practitioners and psychonauts — the book’s framing is that of a journalistic quest. This allows the Horgan to flip between interviews, scientific research, literature, reflection and personal experience as he pleases. The result is a lucid, engaging and wide ranging examination of mysticism.

Through the series interviews we are exposed to a range of interesting ideas and perspectives (alongside a rather weighty reference list for further reading). Horgan has a respectful interviewing style, allowing his subjects to expound their views at great length before presenting his own reflections. In each case, his analysis shows great clarity. He is measured, with his views grounded in moderate skepticism, rationality, and respect for science.

We hear from Huston Smith on the Perennial Philosophy — a project which claims that the great religions of the world have a unified core of common experience, or, at the more extreme end, that they are all fragmented expressions of a singular, universal Truth. We hear of Ken Wilber’s intricate hierarchy of mystical experiences and enlightenment, (which is ultimately dismissed as flawed).

We move to the radiologist Andrew Newberg, whose pioneering work attempts to examine brain activity in meditative states. Then we encounter Michael Persinger’s (rather insane) “God Machine”, coupled with his penchant for telekinesis and psi.

It goes on; through Susan Blackmore’s attractive brand of (deeply) skeptical inquiry — which marries a love of Zen Buddhism with a fairly bleak, evolutionary realistic perspective (“The self is just a flowing story constructed by memes acquired from other people and nothing more”) — and through James Austin’s neurological research.

Nearing the end of the book, we take an enjoyable detour through the world of psychonauts via Albert Hofman (LSD), Rick Strassman (DMT) and Terence McKenna (ayahuasca and magic mushrooms). It is here the meta-structure of the book is revealed: Horgan has been arming himself with various philosophical, scientific, and religious perspectives in preparation for another psychedelic experience; his first encounter with ayahuasca — the powerful Amazonian hallucinogenic brew that is reported to trigger profound (and at times harrowing) spiritual experiences.

It’s an excellent idea. It represent an engaging attempt for the author to fuse his wealth of knowledge with individual, subjective experience — and for the readers to follow alongside him. Unfortunately, this section is also the source of the Rational Mysticism’s major flaw.

Horgan’s announcement that he has been planning to take ayahuasca is surprisingly brief. He does not open the chapter with an in-depth exploration of ayahuasca experiences, or the ritual and lore surrounding it’s usage in the Amazon. Instead, Horgan flies to California to meet a guide (shaman?) named Tony. There, on Tony’s ranch, Horgan ingests ayahuasca with a group of others.

The experience leaves much to be desired. The dosage, while provoking some inner reflection and accompanied by mild hallucinations, never breaks through into the dramatic, trans-dimensional realm that ayahuasca is known so well for. In fact, it seems that none of the individuals in the group break through to this realm. It would seem that the dosage is too low.

Worse still, Horgan seems almost completely ignorant about ayahuasca. His approach to taking the drug (or ‘medicine’ if you prefer) comes across as shockingly naive. Horgan’s guide Tony never demonstrates any deep shamanic knowledge. Though he carries out some aspects of the rituals which accompany ayahuasca, he fails to explain them in any great depth, and I am left skeptical of the entire enterprise.

In the wake of this fairly underwhelming trip — which Horgan fails to identify as such, and which he never compares alongside any other literature on ayahuasca experiences — Horgan has neither an epiphany or an experience worth recounting. The experiment is a failure, and yet he feels justified in asserting:

I was looking for consolation in the stars, in visions, in mystical gnosis, but the only consolation I found that night was human companionship… Mysticism did not save me; it was that from which I needed to be saved.

Certainly one would have to be ignorant to look for salvation to escape examining one’s psyche. This does not feel particularly profound.

The book closes with a solid examination of the dynamics between mystic truth and delusion, of science and scientism, of religious institutions and religious awe. Horgan (to my mind) rightly rejects the projection of mystical experience into elaborate philosophies and metaphysics. Hearteningly, he is also skeptical of what he calls “scientific theology” — the more extreme claims that science has or will do away with the mysteries of existence.

Then finally, we draw to the author’s conclusion:

the greatest gifts of mystical experiences are to help affirm all the good in the world.

This and no more?

It’s conclusion is odd for a number of reasons. For one, it demonstrates Horgan’s odd view on dualism. He seemingly refuses to entertain a universalist perspective that might embrace and accept both positive and negative — ‘good’ and ‘evil’ — as part of an essential whole. In fact, he actively warns against such a view, stating that the “reduction of all things to one thing is arguably a route to oblivion; one thing equals nothing.” This is not particularly coherent.

He is also particularly eager to dismiss Buddhism as a possible path. To his view, Buddhism “(exalts) self-abnegation and renunciation of the world as supreme virtues”. He goes as far to take a jab at the Buddha himself, musing “maybe the Buddha didn’t have much of a heart”.

Why is this relevant? Well, in book’s very final pages we visit an experience from Horgan’s past that he must consider particularly meaningful. Climbing on the coast of Maine on a summer’s day, he looks to the sky:

And suddenly I saw it, not the familiar old moon, as blandly symbolic as a poker chip, but the moon, a gigantic ball of pocked rock hovering miraculously in a blue abyss.

Which is to say, he experiences a moment in which he breaks through constant noise of his mind to directly perceive the world.

(If you like, we can be particular technical here: it is unlikely that humans can overcome the biological limits of our senses to ‘clearly’ see the world. Absorbed as we are, however, in constant projections into the future and reenactments of the past, it is possible to experience the present moment with a higher state of clarity and absorption than our everyday experience. This is what I believe Horgan’s experience represents.)

Following this, we find the author in the present moment, looking towards the sky alongside his wife and children. Try as he might, he finds cannot reclaim that vision — but his children still have access to that enchanted world. While Horgan ruminates, they wonder at the frost on the ground glinting like diamonds in the moonlight. Overhearing their conversation, suddenly Horgan can see it too: “diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, points of pure iridescence, sprinkled like fairy dust on the path leading back to our home.”

It’s a romantic image to conclude on — this sort of wondrous absorption in the world around us — but given the context, it seems particularly absurd. Mere pages prior, Horgan rejects Buddhism outright. If he had given it a little more consideration, he may have learnt that Buddhism has developed a series techniques designed to cultivate precisely the sort of vision he seeks: access to the enchanted and mindful present.*

There is much good in Horgan’s Rational Mysticism. He possesses a powerful mind and lively, engaging writing style. His sifting through an incredible amount of religious, philosophical, psychedelic and psychological content presents the reader with countless possible avenues for further reading — whether they be scientific, religious, philosophical, or entheogenic. For this reason, this book is worth reading. It is just a shame that his meta-analysis — hinging as it does on an amateurish, failed experiment with ayahuasca, and following a shallow dismissal of the riches of Secular Buddhism — leaves so much to be desired.

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* In the fifteen years since the publication of this book, Buddhism has undergone a secular-scientific rebirth in the West, spearheaded by figures like Stephen Batchelor, Robert Wright, and Owen Flanagan. These individuals have repeatedly collided Buddhist frameworks with rationalism and science, clearing away Buddhism’s supernatural elements to reveal secular, practical core.

The result is a meditative practice that allows us to circumvent the mind’s constant flight into the past or future; that allows us to experience the world a little more directly; that can enhance our capacity for love, compassion and empathy; and that reduces suffering. Furthermore, it seems to have the delightful side-effect of re-enchanting the universe. All these changes are far more enduring than the fleeting glimpses given to us through hallucinogens — which I state with no disrespect.

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Lachlan R. Dale

Lachlan R. Dale

A human male exploring religion, philosophy and literature in a rather amateurish fashion.