Tag Archives: religious experience

RATIONAL MYSTICISM by John Horgan

rational-mysticism

This is a book I thought long and hard about highlighting. I expected great things and was overall disappointed. Unfortunately John Horgan is a reductionist materialist and despite the access he had to various spokespeople on mysticism, he remains thoroughly unconvinced. He is a science writer who holds the dogmatic party line through the entirety of the book. That said, I think some valuable perspective can be gleaned from the people Horgan talks to. It’s worth the read to get an overall feel for the modern history of the topic and hear from some of the players.

Horgan begins with a definition of mysticism within the historical context. He interviews Huston Smith who discusses mysticism as a cross-cultural, cross-religious experience. Smith represents the notion of the perennial philosophy. The author’s search next takes him to a two day conference in Chicago where mysticism is treated as a literary phenomenon. These scholars know in great detail the texts left behind by Eckhart, St. Teresa of Avila, Shankara, etc. But sadly, none of them has any personal experience with anything remotely mystical. The journey continues with an interview of Ken Wilber dubbed ‘the weightlifting Bodhisattva’ by Horgan. Wilbur stands behind Smith adhering to the perennial philosophy but also embraces science as a way to explore and define mystical experience.

meditating

Photo: Thanabadhi

Important information is raised in the chapter called Can Neurotheology Save Us?. Horgan visits with Andrew Newberg, the doctor featured back in 2001 in Newsweek’s article, “God and the Brain: How We’re Wired for Spirituality.” Wouldn’t it be nice if brain scans could prove mystical states and help us to understand them? Unfortunately, a review of data collected on all sorts of meditation doesn’t support any nice clean conclusions according to Jensine Andreson, a theology professor at Boston University. And that in turn brings into question all the benefits touted for meditation. A review of the studies looking at meditation and its benefits Andreson believes, are poorly designed and won’t hold up to scrutiny. Of course, as it relates to mystical practice, mystics don’t meditate to lower their blood pressure but I would concede that a whole lot of Americans do increasingly view meditation as a health practice. Should they?

Continuing the scientific pursuit of mystical states, Horgan interviewed Michael Persinger of Laurentian University, Canada. Starting in the 1980s, Persinger began studying the brain’s response to electro-magnetic pulses to certain areas of the brain. 40% of Persinger’s test subjects experience a presence. The Canadian magazine Mclean’s called this device, “the God machine.” Persinger maintains that he has not addressed the God question with his work, rather his interest is in understanding the electrical pattern of the brain that leads to religious belief. But does the machine produce mystical experiences? No. Apparently, no one tested has reported the typical sensations of bliss, unity, or ineffability commonly reported by mystics. Scientific attempts to link temporal lobe excitation or epilepsy to mystical experience do not hold up either.

brain-scan

Horgan next turns to practitioner of Zen and neurologist, James Austin who penned the book, Zen and the Brain. Austin calls his approach perennial psychophysiology. Instead of gaining metaphysical insight, Austin thinks the mystic undergoes deep changes in personality. Someone who has had these experiences becomes more stable, more compassionate, and more selfless. As a specialist in brain disorders, Austin attempts to separate healthy mysticism from other illnesses. His approach relies on the idea that mystical experience releases excitotoxins which cause the loss of neurons. This in turn, allows us to get rid of those things that distort our view of reality. This is as scary as it is fascinating. For me, it makes mystical experience similar to brain damage. Can that really be?

No book on mysticism would be complete without a foray into drug induced mystical experience. Horgan looks at the history of LSD, DMT, and ayahuasca. He visits Stanislov Grof, who is involved in the transpersonal psychology movement. Grof believes that we must move into a new paradigm where mind has primacy over matter (the book was published in 2003, not a unique idea now). There’s an interesting discussion of Rick Strassman’s work as outlined in DMT: The Spirit Molecule. The colorful Terrence McKenna makes an appearance in a later chapter where he advocates the use of psychedelics.

chakra

Photo by: vishwagna.com

The book is a nice romp through lots of questions with little in the way of conclusions. I often had the feeling that the author was totally out of his depth. Why did this topic appeal to him? He remained a science writer who attempted to fill pages. Most of them are interesting. I wonder what the book would have looked like with another author or even what the book would look like if updated.

14 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Uncategorized

CAN MYSTICISM BE PRACTICAL?

Photoevelyn3

Evelyn Underhill asked this question of herself one hundred years ago on the eve of the outbreak of The Great War. Oddly enough reading her book titled Practical Mysticism, I’m struck with how current it is. Her arguments against materialism and self- interest are as pertinent today as they were in 1914. And how strange it is to be reading her work at a time when the US appears to be on the verge of expanding the war on terror. This is the case especially when you consider how at the end of WW I, the victorious sliced, diced, and built nations in the Middle East which are root causes of today’s issues.

book

Evelyn Underhill is considered an authority on Christian mysticism having spent a lifetime researching, exploring, experiencing, and writing about it. For her, mysticism is defined as the art of union with reality. Notice the absence of the G- word. In order to justify taking up the call of this difficult journey, both inward and outward, mysticism to Evelyn’s mind must be practical. It’s not just about reaching up, it’s also about bringing down. While the experience of ultimate reality is personally transforming, mystics must create in the material world.

In Practical Mysticism, Evelyn outlines a universal process to be used by those interested in deeply engaging with reality. The first step requires the training of attention. With meditation and recollection, you begin to experience freedom, spaciousness, and peace. Your values change as you let go of your attachments. Later, as you develop in the first contemplation stage, you bring the “eyes of love toward the world”, recognizing the Immanent Being in everyone (and everything). You go in search of connection while dismantling your own personality. During the second contemplation, you’re pulled into deeper levels of reality which are supported now by an inward push. At this stage, knowing is achieved through direct intuitive contact and not through thought or feeling. Here the depth and height of your experience transforms you. The transcendent nature of mystical experience is ineffable, but that has never stopped mystics from trying to describe it.

Photo by Bjoertvedt

Photo by Bjoertvedt

One line truly stood out from the book for me. Evelyn says (and here Christian mystics seem to depart from Eastern traditions), “Perpetual absorption in the Transcendent is a human impossibility, and the effort to achieve it is both unsocial and silly.” Of course, there are whole traditions that advocate just that.

Returning to Evelyn’s map of mystical progress, the third contemplation is characterized by a ceasing of your active efforts. You let go of striving and rest in the darkness and quietude. The self surrenders, receives, and gains a conviction in the certainty of the Transcendent. What you actually experience depends on the individual. Some may experience ecstasy, but it is always on some level, unity through personal encounter. From here, you return to the material world to take up the mystical life going deeper and wider, permanently changed. Now the work involves becoming “an active and impassioned servant of eternal wisdom.” In Evelyn’s model, contemplation is never an end in itself. The challenge of the spiritual life is to go up and down the ladder getting inspiration and creating in the world. The work to be done today is huge; much like it was back in 1914. The true mystic takes up the call to live a “better, intenser, and more significant life.”

 

29 Comments

Filed under Book Review, Books, Spiritual/Mysticism