on June 5, 2003
Horgan's Rational Mysticism takes a serious look at the various approaches of mysticism. The book is roughly broken up into three broad approaches to mysticism -- philosophical, neurological/psychological, and psychotropic. Horgan has interviewed a large group of people for this book including Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Stanilav Grof, and Terrance McKenna.
Horgan asks good questions and finds contradictions between the ideas and philosophies of those he interviews, sometimes taking one person's comments from a previous interview to contradict another's answer. Sometimes he stoops to ad hominen attacks. The title about Ken Wilber, 'The Weightlifting Boddhisattva' seems like a subtle attack of Wilber's character and authenticity if he has any. In another chapter he talks about how Michael Persinger loses all credibility when he finds out that he is carrying out research into psi phenomena. I'm a skeptic when it comes to psi myself, but to throw out Persinger's neurological studies just because he wants to test psychic phenomena seems akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Throughout the book he uses these popular and mainstream prejudices (UFOs come up later) to cast doubts on the ideas of everyone he interviews.
I was greatly disappointed at the end of the book where he makes the following comment: "Not until I met and fell in love with Suzi (wife) almost a year after the trip did my estrangement from life and from my own self finally subside. Mysticism did not save me; it was that from which I needed to be saved."
People pursue mysticism and religion for meaning. People can pursue relationships for the same reason. I have no problem with this. But Horgan, who seems so dismissive of mysticism as being an unreliable path for so many, himself included, wants to sell this idea of true love as the answer to life. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. It certainly is a noble concept. However, one thing is for sure; love, friendship, and meaningful relationships are full of pain as well as pleasure for most people. And just as one personality, like Horgan, may find mystical concepts such as non-duality or oneness disturbing, another personality may see romantic or companionate love as a disturbing manifestation of dependency or neediness.
Overall, I feel it is a good book for skeptics, free thinkers and maybe conservative/fundamentalist religious people who don't buy the whole contemplative approach to religion. Mystics and those interested in experiential/contemplative religion may want to steer clear of this book which seems more about creating uncertainty than answering any hard questions. Of course, no one should expect to find such answers in a book. Maybe Horgan was just trying to convey his own personal experience, but the objective interviewer seemed to be tainted by the end of the book.
on January 26, 2003
This is one of the best nonfiction reads I've encountered in a long time. It's compulsively readable. I love to have my assumptions challenged and this book did that and more. I laughed, cried, rolled my eyes, argued with Mr. Horgan. It's a great ride.
Rational Mysticism was especially meaningful to me because I long ago gave up on organized religion and put my faith in science. I occasionally try to return to religion, but quickly leave in exasperation. Now I understand that either path ends in mystery. We need to respect that mystery and appreciate the reality we have more.
You will meet some fascinating people in these pages, titantic egos, brilliant thinkers, crackpots. The introduction "Lena's Feather" was profoundly moving to me. Mr. Horgan's account of the ayahuasca ceremony is not to be missed. Finally the chapter "The Awe-Ful Truth" will leave you with much to think about.
Anyone who thinks on the "big questions" whether religious or rationalist should read this book.
on October 2, 2004
John Horgan has written a wonderfully entertaining and informative account of his attempt to find who is productively applying science to the field of mysticism. One other Amazon.com reviewer said that they do not like this sort of book, which is based on interviewing individuals and commenting on their personalities as well as their ideas, but I personally prefer this approach as an introduction to the lives and works of others. I found the book to be very insightful, as Horgan always seemed to ask the questions and raise the issues that I was interested in hearing about. His open-minded yet skeptical approach is one I find refreshing.
Horgan's subjects--Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Albert Hofmann, Stanislov Grof, Terence McKenna, Alexander "Sasha" and Ann Shulgin--are all quite interesting people. Horgan seemed most sympathetic to Blackmore, Austin, Wilber, McKenna (personality-wise more than idea-wise), and the Shulgins. He was--correctly, I believe--skeptical of Persinger after finding his pro-psi views. My own view of Persinger is that he attempts to fit everything into his temporal lobe epilepsy/tectonic strain theory views, but has often been unskeptical about the data he's pushing into the theory; I've never understood why skeptics like Blackmore and Michael Shermer have thought him to be plausible. (I've authored a critical review of Persinger's Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events for including bogus debunked events as items to be explained by his theory, and The Arizona Skeptic published an extensive bibliography of critiques of his TST assembled by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba in the July 1992 issue).
In the end, Horgan is skeptical of all of his subjects, and thinks that they've missed out on the importance of a sense of awe and wonder, as well as playfulness and fun (though McKenna seems to have had that down). I'm not sure I agree with Horgan on that--I thought that what most of these people seemed to have in common was being very comfortable (most seem to be wealthy, famous, respected, and living well) and being advocates of a quietistic conservatism that advocates being content with the way the world is. That's an easy position for someone who is comfortable to take. Horgan does touch on this subject briefly a few times, such as when he writes about "the nature does-not-care principle" and the problem of natural evil (pp. 192-194) and when he raises the issue of suffering with Austin (p. 131).
Horgan seemed most at odds with Katz, a view I shared--Katz's views seem sheer unsubstantiated dogmatism, when he insists that drug experiences have absolutely nothing to do with mystical experiences, and in his insistence on a commonality between all forms of mysticism, which reminded me of the Bahai faith--a religion that disagrees with all other religions in arguing for the compatibility of all religions.
In the end, I found myself scrawling notes of other books I'd like to read as a result of the references in this book: Austin's Zen and the Brain, Georg Feuerstein's Holy Madness, V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain, Francisco Varela's Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying, Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay, and Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, as well as finding numerous references to other works that seem to me to be likely to be "on the right track" (Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs, Ronald Siegel's books on hallucinations and drug experiences). Reading Horgan's book was for me a valuable experience that I recommend.
--This is a difficult book to review, because it has notably strong and weak points. On the five-star side, the author writes well. His unusual perspective provokes thought and provides a light "kick in the mind" to conventional thinking. He provides many wonderful one-liners and brings some humor to this often-dry study. On the one-star side, the book has little to do with legitimate science, rationality, or mysticism. With a couple of exceptions, the author interviewed a small sample of people at the fringes of quasi-mystical and semi-scientific experience, and chose the most interesting, colorful, "pop star" people. That sure made for an interesting read but it's kind of like using interviews with folks like Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs as the foundation for a book on the Beauty of English Literature.
--The author admits his distaste for the self-responsible discipline of Zen Buddhism, and maybe that's why he seems so wrapped up in psychedelics as a cheap key to mystical awareness (although he admits drugs have an inescapable and very diabolical side. Well...... Garbage In, Garbage Out.).
--However, the author discusses an interesting question: are all mystical experiences alike? He seems to conclude they are not, and in my opinion he makes a reasonable case. Nearly all interviewees had substantially different interpretations of many important aspects of their experiences, and indeed, many had what seemed to be different experiences altogether (assuming, of course, their experiences were trustworthy ones). My own view of mysticism was enriched after reading this book because instead of seeming like some kind of amorphous monolithic entity, mystical experience seems richly diverse. This makes a reductionist explanation for mystical awareness far more difficult, it supports recent research suggesting drugs and "Awareness Therapy" act at very different brain locations, and it means if you are looking for a teacher you should examine how they live their life, not just what kind of experiences they report to you.
--If you want to read about mysticism and science or psychology, consider instead B. Alan Wallace (who is not Alan Watts!), Jon Kabatt-Zin, or Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama. Those interested in mysticism have a wide selection of excellent authors as diverse as Thomas Merton, Ayya Khema, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ajahn Chah. Those interested in the science of the mind might be better off reading Gerald Edelman, Michael Gazzaniga, Antonio D'Amasio, or the delightful NY Times Book of the Brain.
--In short, read this book for the humor, thoughtfulness, and perspective it brings to the subject, but don't expect to read much about the most creditable sample of either scientists or mystics, and do expect a lot of speculative hype about how the experiences from taking drugs can supposedly duplicate the wisdom and peace of refined Awareness.
on January 6, 2005
_Rational Mysticism_ should be one of the first books that consciousness exploration neophytes read. It was one of the first books I read upon embarking on this path.
If you are interested in an experiential, empirical approach to your own spirituality, and skeptical of the sea of New Age gurus and dogma we are currently awash in, this book will help you break free and find your own way. As other reviewers note, it also does a fine job of helping us break through one of the most troublesome dualisms of our age, resolving the supposed divide between Science and Religion. And in doing so it infers a path which also collapses the divide between laity and the priesthood. The stories in this book point the way toward a 21st century mysticism, an experiential path toward God.
Written in a journalistic style, it covers many of the leading thinkers and approaches to consciousness exploration. It deals fairly and in detail with the area of psychedelics. It is balanced, and a quick read. I usually recommend this book to entheogenic beginners, along with Daniel Pinchbeck's _Breaking Open the Head_.
on January 27, 2003
The always skeptical, occasionally cranky and generally brilliant Horgan tackles a timely subject and wrestles it away from the dippy New Agers and hard-nosed scientific materialists who have, until now, dominated the literature of mystical states. This survey of a wide range of current 'mystical technologies' -- from meditation to psychedelic drugs to Buddhism -- benefits from Horgan's trademark incredulousness while displaying the author's own yearning for something more satisfying than superstring theory or an Esalen workshop can provide. A natural progression from his previous two books, "Rational Mysticism" is an entertaining, intellectually rigorous and thought-provoking read.
on October 7, 2004
John Horgan is a scientifically-trained writer, with the unemphatic skepticism that usually goes along with that. He expects things to be plausable even when they are not amenable to controlled testing. From the way he even-handedly discusses religions and their gods, as well as the very idea of God, I would make him an agnostic. "Can mystical spirituality be reconciled with science and, more broadly, with reason?" he asks, in his introduction. He is a journalist, and so his seeking takes the form of interviews with people prominent in various of the areas -- the "perennial philosophy", psychedelic drugs, meditation, and so on -- that are associated with the rather imprecise term "mysticism". In preparation he studies with some care the writings and reputations of those he will talk to as well as the "classical" works on mysticism and altered mental states. Moreover, he brings with him the memory of an extreme psychedelic episode of his own.
Then, basically, he subjects the claims, wild and mild, of the seekers, sages, and scholars with whom he talks to the test of a skeptical rationality. Sometimes they fail on Horgan's terms; sometimes they even fail on their own terms. But fail they do. To his credit it never seems a foregone conclusion that he will not embrace one or another approach. He is, after all, himself a seeker -- though of course also an author with an eye to the market -- but one for whom the need for the consolations or exhaltations of an altered perception seems to be qualified by his firm grounding in this world.
This book is easy to read and entertaining. The writing is clear and accomplished without being grandiose, and Horgan seems a civilized and warm-hearted guy. But he is not really into psychedelics or other drugs (although he did participate in an ahuasca ceremony for research purposes), and in the end he rather mildly concludes that perhaps the Zen exhortation to just pay attention to your life is the best we can usually do. I suspect that, for those of us that share his rational humanist outlook, our spiritual yearnings will have to be satisfied in the low-key way he finally arrives at.
on May 15, 2004
A previous, and until now, only reviewer (you can see below!) has referred to this book as small minded and foolish. I disagree wholeheartedly. The book takes a very open minded look at what science might discover about the mystical experience. Rather than reading this book as though it were written by a reductionist (which I am certain that John Horgan is ultimately not, judging from his discussions on the importance of Love towards the end of the book), read it through the eyes of a man who is seeking to reconcile mysticism with science. Not to resolve reductively, by ignoring the emergent while focusing on the "fundamental," but to engage in discussion about the mechanisms of the mystical experience. Please don't believe that he wants to deny that mystical experiences happen, or that they are real. That is certainly not the way that I have read this book.
Horgan writes with a rare wit and charm that is at once entertaining and disarming. His candor in his retelling of interviews with researchers in the field of so-called "neurotheology" is a delightful read, and the interviews have a very honest and earnest feel to them. I thoroughly enjoyed his writing style and have even found myself reading other, omitted, excerpts from the book, as well as additional articles. They are also revealing as to the more personal beliefs of the author. Search for his name online, you'll find his website, excellent stuff there. [...]
This book is for those who are open-minded and willing to have their beliefs challenged. Horgan has a heart that finds its way into his writing, but he is a skeptic no less. Come to it with your mind made up and your heart heardened and you will not hear what the author has to say; but if you are willing to allow yourself to ask at least a question or two, then he has accomplished his goal of opening up a dialogue about a question which has its roots deep in the history of humankind: "What is Mysticism, and Where Can I Get Some?" :)
All in all an excellent book by an excellent science journalist! The reader would do well to remember that it is not Horgan's job to give you what you want to hear, or to soothe your ego. He asks questions and looks for answers, and does the best he can while he's at it.
Read the book. Ask questions. Open your mind.
on October 3, 2003
As a former journalist myself, I was really looking forward to this attempt to reconcile science and religion, since I myself have been trying to "figure it all out" for as long as I can remember. So perhaps my high expectations contributed to my deep disappointment in his work.
While it does have the "objective" feel of a journalist, and the author does indeed seek out and interview some of the world's leading thinkers, it's not an especially exicting or engaging read: I put the book down frequently during the weeks it took to get through it. After a detailed review of competing philosophies, ultimately John Horgan's efforts culminate in a simplistic "lesson" learned from a drug trip (part of his research) more than 20 years ago:
"I was looking for consolation in the stars, in visions, in mysical gnosis, but the only consolation I found that night was human companionship."
His ultimate answer -- his salvation? Love.
"Not until I met and fell in love with Suzie almost a year after the trip did my estrangement from life and from my own self finally subside."
Well, I've got nothing against human companionship. Love is a worthwhile goal. And John Horgan approaches his subject matter with such sincerity that one is almost tempted to be satisfied with this most basic of conclusions. But the Self-Help aisles are full of material about human companionship and love; I felt the reader had a right to expect more from a book that promises insight into "the imponderable depth of the universe."
Instead, I felt betrayed by an author who concludes that finding meaning in life comes down to hooking-up.
on January 4, 2003
This is a worthwhile read for anyone with an intellectual interest not only in mysticism, but in general metaphysical questions like "Why are we here?", "Why did God create the universe?", "Why is there a manifest universe at all?", etc. I'd also recommend it to anyone who is pursuing a path of mysticism because its perspective is refreshingly skeptical (although not dogmatically skeptical), unlike most books dealing with this subject.
The format is very much like his earlier book, "The End of Science." The writing is excellent. Horgan interviews many famous personages in the field, including Stan Grof, Huston Smith, and Ken Wilber, and offers some commentary and thought about each conversation. He also subjects himself to a few experiments, including putting himself in the "God Machine" and drinking DMT-rich ayahausca. The interviews are incisive for the most part. There is definitely no brown-nosing here. At times, however, one gets the sense that Horgan cannot leave an interview without trying finding some flaws in the person. But I think that's a good thing because it presents the interviewees as human beings (compare to some of the interviews of Ken Wilber in New Age magazines which treat him as a demi-god). To his credit, Horgan seems to be honest and revealing about his own biases when he spots them.
The people that Horgan interviews are mostly intellectuals. This makes sense since Horgan is interested in theories of enlightenment- he wants verbal explanations for his deep metaphysical questions and what mystical states mean (why else write a book about it, I suppose). Even when he takes the ayahausca, it seems that he wants to be able to explain his experience in words. But one of the claims of mysticism, which is brought out even by many of the people he interviews, is that the answers that he's looking for simply cannot be given in words- they have to be experienced. This tension pervades the book, and I'm not sure by the end of it that Horgan has reconciled it for himself and seen its implications for his project.