Sample text for Rational mysticism : dispatches from the border between science and spirituality / John Horgan.

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Counter Introduction
Lena"s Feather
My wife, Suzie, is known in our hometown as a nurturer of birds. One
recent spring a neighbor brought her a crow hatchling he had found in the
woods. After failing to find its nest, Suzie decided to raise the crow, which
she named Lena. When she first arrived, Lena had blue eyes, as all fledgling
crows do, and she could barely walk, let alone fly. A cardboard box in the
corner of our living room served as her nest. When Suzie approached with
grape slices, moistened dog food pellets, and live mealworms, Lena flung
her head back and opened her beak wide. Suzie dropped the morsels into
Lena"s pink gullet, and Lena gulped them down.
Lena was soon hopping and flapping around the living room like a
gangly teen, crashing into chairs and windows, poking through our bric-a-
brac. After Suzie took her outside onto our deck, Lena launched herself
onto the roof of the house and into nearby trees. She always returned for
meals, and each night after dinner Suzie brought her inside for the night, until
one evening when Lena vanished into the woods. Suzie was distraught,
fearing that a hawk or an owl would kill the adolescent bird. But when Suzie
went outside at dawn with a plate of worms and grapes, Lena careened out of
the sky and skidded onto the deck, cawing.
That pattern persisted. Lena disappeared at night and returned
every morning for food and companionship. Because I am my family"s
earliest riser, she usually greeted me first. As I sipped coffee in my attic
office, caws approached through the skylight above my desk, followed by
wingbeats and claws scratching shingles. A moment later, Lena peered down
at me through the skylight, cooing. When I went out on the deck later to read
the newspaper, she crouched at my feet and yanked on my shoelaces or
perched on my shoulder and pecked the paper. I pretended to be annoyed,
shooing her away, and to my delight she kept coming back.
Lena loved playing tag with our kids, Mac, who was five then, and
Skye, who was four. As they chased her, she bounded on the ground
before them, occasionally pirouetting behind them and scooting between their
legs, staying just beyond their reach. She was fearless. When Mac and
Skye swooped back and forth on swings, she stood near the low point of
their trajectory and pecked at their rear ends whooshing by. Lena"s first love
was Suzie. When Suzie came outside, Lena would hop on her shoulder and
nestle against her neck, making noises of affection, as did Suzie.
We spent two magical months in this manner, with this wild
creature insinuating herself into our lives. One morning as I sat in my office
staring at my computer, I heard a howl of anguish from outside. I ran into
the back yard and found Suzie sitting on the ground, wailing, with Lena in her
lap. Lena"s glossy black form was limp, her blue eyes dim. Blood oozed
from her beak. She had been playing tag with Mac and Skye. One of them
had collided with Lena, breaking her neck. We buried her on a hillock near
our house. Suzie planted daffodils and tulips over her grave.
At the time, I was in the midst of research for this book. The next
morning, I was to fly to California to take part in a ceremony that called for
ingestion of ayahuasca, a powerful psychedelic substance made from two
Amazonian plants. Ayahuasca is an Indian word often translated as "vine of
the dead." For centuries, shamans in South America have used ayahuasca
to propel themselves into trances, during which they travel to a mystical
underworld and commune with spirits. Ayahuasca triggers violent nausea,
and its visions can be nightmarish. It has nonetheless recently become a
sacrament of sorts for spiritual adventurers around the world.
As I packed for the trip that evening, I felt a melancholy that
seemed out of proportion to Lena"s death, as upsetting as it had been. This
creature"s demise, I realized, reminded me how fragile all our lives are.
Everyone I love—my wife and children—is doomed, and can be taken from
me at any moment. My anticipation of the impending ayahuasca session
began mutating into dread. I feared that the vine of the dead would force me
into a more direct confrontation with death, and I wasn"t sure I felt up to the
challenge. The people supervising the ayahuasca session had asked each
participant to bring a "sacred object," something of personal significance.
So in my knapsack—along with my tape recorder, pens, notebook, and
several books—I put one of Lena"s feathers.

Looking for The Answer

I cannot recall exactly when I first learned about the extraordinary way of
perceiving, knowing, and being called mysticism. Certainly by the early
1970s, when I was in my late teens, the topic was impossible to avoid.
Everyone I knew seemed to be reading Siddhartha, Be Here Now, The
Doors of Perception, The Teachings of Don Juan, and other mystical texts.
Everybody was pursuing mystical epiphanies—satori, kensho, nirvana,
samadhi, the opening of the third eye—through Transcendental Meditation,
kundalini yoga, LSD, or all of the above.
And why not? Spiritual tomes ancient and modern promised that
mysticism is a route not only to ultimate truth—the secret of life, the ground
of being—but also to ultimate consolation. The supreme mystical state,
sometimes called enlightenment, was touted as a kind of loophole or
escape hatch in reality, through which we can wriggle out of our existential
plight and attain a supernatural, even divine, freedom and immortality.
Along with millions of others in my generation, I puzzled over
esoteric mystical books, and I dabbled in yoga, meditation, and
psychedelic drugs. I never dedicated myself to the mystical path, however.
Friends who had done so—typically by joining one of the countless guru-led
groups that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s—seemed to have abandoned
their rationality and autonomy. Also, the insights I gleaned from my own
experiences were too confusing, and sometimes frightening, for me to make
good use of them. At a time when I was trying to make something of
myself, they were a destabilizing influence.
By the early 1980s, I had decided that science represents our
best hope for improving our condition—and for understanding who we are,
where we came from, where we"re going. Some physicists were seeking a
so-called theory of everything, an explanation of the physical universe so
encompassing that it might solve the biggest riddle of all: Why is there
something rather than nothing? Thrilled by science"s ambitions, I became a
science writer, and for more than a decade I wrote articles about particle
physics, cosmology, complexity theory, and other fields that promised
great revelations.
Gradually, I came to the conclusion that science can take us only
so far in our quest for understanding. Science will not reveal "the mind of
God," as the British physicist (and atheist) Stephen Hawking once
promised. Science will never give us The Answer, a theory powerful enough
to dispel all mystery from the universe forever. After all, science itself
imposes limits on what we can learn through rational, empirical inquiry. I
spelled out these conclusions in two books: The End of Science, which
analyzed science as a whole, and The Undiscovered Mind, which focused on
fields that address the human mind.
In both books, I briefly considered whether mystical experiences
might yield insights into reality that can complement or transcend what we
learn through objective investigations. In The End of Science, I alluded to a
drug-induced episode that had been haunting me since 1981. I kept this
section short, because I feared it might repel the scientifically oriented
readers for whom my book was intended. The opposite reaction occurred.
Many readers—including scientists, philosophers, and other supposed
rationalists—wrote to tell me that they found the section on mysticism the
most compelling part of the book. Readers related their own mystical
episodes, some ecstatic, others disturbing. Like me, these readers seemed
to be struggling to reconcile their mystical intuitions with their reason.
That was when I first considered writing a book on mysticism. I
wasn"t sure that the topic would warrant book-length treatment. As recently
as 1990 the psychologist Charles Tart, editor of Altered States of
Consciousness, a collection of scholarly articles on mysticism and other
exotic cognitive conditions, complained that so little research had been
done since his book"s publication in 1969 that it scarcely needed updating.
Attempts to reconcile science and mysticism had apparently not
progressed much beyond crude studies of meditators" brain waves and
claims of vague correspondences between quantum mechanics and Hindu
But I soon found that investigations of mysticism are proceeding
along a broad range of scholarly and scientific fronts. During the 1990s
ordinary consciousness, once considered beneath the notice of respectable
scientists, became a legitimate and increasingly popular object of
investigation. Emboldened by this trend, some scientists have begun
focusing on exotic states of consciousness, including mystical ones.
Researchers are sharing results at conferences such as "Worlds of
Consciousness," held in 1999 in Basel, Switzerland, the birthplace of LSD;
and in books such as The Mystical Mind, Zen and the Brain, and DMT: The
Spirit Molecule.
Their approaches are eclectic. Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at
the University of Pennsylvania, is scanning the brains of meditating
Buddhists and praying nuns to pinpoint the neural correlates of mystical
experience. The Canadian psychologist Michael Persinger tries to induce
religious visions in volunteers by electromagnetically stimulating their brains
with a device called the God machine. The Swiss psychiatrist Franz
Vollenweider has mapped the neural circuitry underlying blissful and horrific
psychedelic trips with positron emission tomography. The findings of
researchers like these are invigorating long-standing debates among
theologians, philosophers, and other scholars about the meaning of
mysticism and its relationship to mainstream science and religion.
This upsurge in scientific and scholarly interest has not brought
about consensus on mystical matters. Quite the contrary. 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.
Eventually I decided that the time was right after all for a book on
mysticism. Most such books, whether written by philosophers of religion,
neurologists, or New Age gurus, hew to a particular theory or theology,
such as Zen Buddhism or psychedelic shamanism or evolutionary
psychology. My goal was to write a book as wide-ranging, up-to-date, and
open-minded as possible. The book would be journalistic, based primarily on
face-to-face interviews with leading theologians, philosophers, psychologists,
psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and other professional ponderers of
mysticism. I would assess their respective findings and conjectures, trying
to determine where they converge or diverge, where they make sense or go
off the deep end. To provide historical context, I would show how recent
mystical studies are both corroborating and advancing beyond inquiries
undertaken in the past by scholars such as William James and Aldous
Huxley. And I would discuss my personal experiences where relevant.

Mysticism"s schisms

Mysticism, the human-potential priestess Jean Houston warned me early
on in this project, begins in mist, has an I in the middle, and ends in schism.
Debate begins with definition. Mysticism is often defined, in a derogatory
sense, as metaphysical obfuscation, or belief in ghosts and other occult
phenomena. William James mentioned these meanings in his classic 1902
work The Varieties of Religious Experience before offering a definition that is
still widely cited. Mysticism, James proposed, begins with an experience
that meets four criteria: It is ineffable—that is, difficult or impossible to
convey in ordinary 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. Two qualities that James did not include in his formal
list but mentioned elsewhere are blissfulness and a sense of union with all
In Cosmic Consciousness, published at around the same time as
The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Canadian psychiatrist Richard
Bucke described an experience that met all of James"s criteria. A carriage
was bearing Bucke home from an evening lecture when he was overcome
by "immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an
illumination quite impossible to describe." The experience lasted only a few
moments, but during it Bucke "saw and knew" that "the Cosmos is not dead
matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the
universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things
work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the
world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long
run absolutely certain."
But in The Varieties of Religious Experience, James made it clear
that mystical experiences may not be ineffable, transient, passive, blissful,
or unitive. Some mystics describe their supposedly ineffable visions at great
length. They may claim to be gifted not just with transient flashes of insight
but with a permanent shift in vision. They may feel not passive but powerful,
and the power seems to come from inside rather than outside them. And
while some mystics feel a blissful unity with all things, others perceive
absolute reality as terrifyingly alien. James called these visions
"melancholic"or "diabolical."
Even the quality that James called noetic has been challenged.
Certain mystics describe their experience as a form of ecstatic
forgetfulness or self-dissolution rather than of knowing. To my mind, however,
a sense of absolute knowledge is the sine qua non of mystical experiences;
this noetic component transforms them into something more than transient
sensations. "The mystic vision is not a feeling," declares the religious
scholar Huston Smith. It is "a seeing, a knowing." The vision may or may not
be ineffable, transient, unitive, or blissful, but it must offer some ultimate
insight, however strange, paradoxical, and unlike ordinary knowledge. It must
grip us with the certainty that we are seeing "the Way Things Are," as the
sociologist and Catholic priest Andrew Greeley once put it.
Estimates of the frequency of mystical experiences vary—not
surprisingly, given the variability of definitions. A survey carried out in the
1970s found that 33 percent of adult Americans have had at least one
experience in which they sensed "a powerful spiritual force that seemed to
lift you outside of yourself." A British poll determined that a similar
percentage of people have been "aware of, or influenced by, a presence of
power." The experiences may be induced deliberately by drugs, meditation,
prayer, or other spiritual practices, but they may also be spontaneous
responses to natural beauty, music, childbirth, lovemaking, life-threatening
events, intense grief, and illness.
Some researchers contend that full-blown mystical experiences
are much less common than these surveys indicate. The neurologist and
Zen Buddhist James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, suspects that the
state he calls absorption—known as samadhi by Hindus and satori by
Buddhists—is quite rare. During this state, the external world and one"s own
self seem to dissolve into a formless unity. Even rarer than absorption,
according to Austin, is nirvana, realization, liberation, awakening,
enlightenment, in which sporadic flashes of insight yield to a long-term shift
in vision.
However rare mystical transcendence is, multitudes are pursuing
it. Enlightenment is the telos of the great Eastern religions, Hinduism and
Buddhism. Mysticism has played a smaller but still vital role in the history
of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Countless modern sects, such as the
Transcendental Meditation and Hare Krishna movements, also hold out the
promise of nirvana to devotees. Centers of "holistic learning," including the
Omega Institute in upstate New York, Colorado"s Naropa Institute, and the
California Institute for Integral Studies, offer courses in what could be called
mystical technologies, including Vipassana meditation, shamanic
drumbeating, tantric yoga, Kabala studies, and Sufi dancing.
Others seek mystical insights by ingesting psychedelic
substances such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Two hundred and fifty
thousand Indians who belong to the Native American Church consume the
fruit of the peyote cactus as a sacrament. Ayahuasca serves a similar
purpose for thousands of members of two fast-growing sects in Brazil—and
for a growing number of North Americans and Europeans. Clearly, in the so-
called age of science, many of us still look to mysticism for truth and
But can mystical spirituality be reconciled with science and, more
broadly, with reason? To paraphrase the mystical philosopher Ken Wilber,
is the East"s version of enlightenment compatible with that of the West? If so,
what sort of truth would a rational mysticism give us? What sort of
consolation? These, I believe, are the most important issues confronting
mystical scholars and the millions who are following mystical paths.
While attempting to resolve these basic issues, I will touch on
many other questions that motivate today"s mystical inquiries: 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 deliver enlightenment
on demand?

Seeking mystical experts

Mysticism derives from the Greek root mu, which means silent or mute. In
ancient Greece, the adjective mystikos referred to secrets revealed only to
those initiated into esoteric sects; mystical knowledge was that which
should not be revealed. Over time, mystical knowledge came to be defined as
that which transcends language and so cannot be revealed. An aphorism
from the ancient mystical text the Tao Te Ching can be read both
ways: "Those who know, do not speak. Those who speak, do not know." In
other words, no one who talks about mysticism—including, presumably, the
author of the Tao Te Ching—really knows anything. Niels Bohr"s quip about
quantum mechanics comes to mind: Anyone who says he understands
quantum mechanics, the great physicist remarked, doesn"t know the first
thing about it.
Some are nonetheless more qualified than others to talk about
quantum mechanics, and the same is true of mysticism. The bulk of this
book consists of profiles of those who might be called mystical experts
(although that phrase does have an oxymoronic ring). "No ideas but in
things," the poet William Carlos Williams once wrote. I suppose my
journalistic credo might be "No ideas but in people." In writing about
science, I have tried to show that certain theories are best understood not as
discoveries plucked whole from some Platonic ether but as embodiments of
the aspirations and anxieties of living, breathing individuals. This principle
applies at least as much to mystical doctrines such as gnosticism,
negative theology, and Zen as it does to superstring theory and
psychoanalysis. Scientists" personalities can influence their scientific
products, but when it comes to spirituality, personality is the product, at
least in principle.
Mystical enthusiasts often declare that you cannot comprehend
mystical experiences if you have never had one. This attitude smacks of
elitism—it recalls Freudians" self-serving claim that only those who have
undergone psychoanalysis are qualified to judge it—but there is some truth
to it. As the neuroscientist Francisco Varela has said, comprehending
mysticism and indeed all aspects of the mind requires both first-person and
third-person perspectives. Hence most, though certainly not all, of my
profile subjects claim to have both subjective and objective knowledge of the
mystical realm; they can discuss it from the inside and the outside. They
also share the belief that mysticism has much to offer us.
There are no clear-cut criteria for judging spiritual expertise. The
psychologist Howard Gardner, author of the multiple-intelligence theory of
human nature, has made this point. Reasonable standards exist for
evaluating scientific, mathematical, athletic, artistic, literary, and musical
achievement, Gardner noted, but there is no objective measure for "the
attainment of a state of spiritual truth." Some experts I interviewed struck
me as wise or "spiritual," but what I looked for primarily was a serious,
sustained effort to comprehend mysticism in all its complexity. I also sought
experts with diverse perspectives, hoping that illumination might emerge
through polyangulation.
Ultimately, the stakes involved in any inquiry into mysticism are
philosophical and theological in nature. Hence, this book begins by
examining an ongoing debate among philosophers and theologians over
mysticism"s meaning. Perhaps the most significant issue concerns whether
mystical experiences transcend space and time or are all colored to some
extent by the mystic"s personality and cultural indoctrination. In other
words, can a nineteen-year-old engineering student who has taken LSD at a
rave discover the same truth and even have the same experience as a
sixteenth-century nun in the throes of an epileptic seizure?
Chapter one broaches this issue with a profile of Huston Smith, to
whom mysticism is a kind of skylight through which all people in all eras
can see the same transcendent reality. Chapter two highlights philosophers
and theologians espousing what could be called a postmodern outlook; they
contend that it is impossible to extract universal truths from the immense
diversity of mystical experiences. Chapter three introduces the philosopher
Ken Wilber, who rebuts the postmodernists with an "integral" worldview
incorporating elements from both ancient mystical traditions and modern
These chapters lay the groundwork for the more scientifically
oriented chapters that follow. Chapters four through eight profile scientists
who have carried out empirical studies of mystical experiences, whether
induced by meditation, prayer, epilepsy, electromagnetic stimulation of the
temporal lobes, or psilocybin. These researchers include the
aforementioned Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, James Austin, and
Franz Vollenweider, as well as the British psychologist Susan Blackmore,
who has scrutinized enthusiasts.
Some readers may be surprised—and dismayed—that I pay so
much attention to psychedelics, or entheogens, as they are sometimes
called. One reason is that these compounds give scientists a handhold on
a slippery topic. "Psychedelic drugs are easier to study by the methods of
modern science than most other means of inducing altered states of
consciousness," the Harvard scholars Lester Grinspoon and James Bakalar
stated in their book Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered, "since they have
known chemical structures and can be administered repeatedly under
uniform experimental conditions."
Moreover, research on psychedelics, which largely vanished
during the 1970s and 1980s, has recently undergone a renaissance, and it
is now yielding some of the most provocative findings in the field of mystical
research. My inquiries also convinced me that psychedelics—for good or
ill—have played a surprisingly large role in shaping the landscape of modern
spirituality; psychedelic epiphanies catalyzed the spiritual evolution of many
mystics who now advocate nonpsychedelic practices and even disparage
entheogens. Finally, psychedelicists such as the psychiatrist Stanislav
Grof and the postmodern shaman Terence McKenna—the subjects of
chapters nine and ten, respectively—have fashioned their hallucinatory
visions into cosmologies too provocative to ignore.
The evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has decreed that you
cannot tread the path of spirituality and the path of reason; you must
choose between them. One of my goals in writing this book was to put
Wilson"s dictum to the test. Thus, interviewing those with firsthand mystical
experience, I put various questions to them to gauge how successfully they
have integrated their mystical and rational perspectives: Do they adhere to
the mystical doctrine that mind is more intrinsic to reality than matter? Do
they believe in an afterlife? Have they intuited a divine intelligence or plan
underlying the universe, a plan in which we humans play a central role? If
so, can they explain why this plan involves so much seemingly gratuitous
human suffering? In short, how do they reconcile their mystical beliefs with
the dictates of science and common sense?

Heaven, hell, and visions

If I lay bare others" prejudices, it seems only fair that I do the same for
myself. I have always been prone to eschatological obsession. As a child, I
saw death as an unmitigated evil. After a classmate died when I was in first
grade, I became preoccupied with death, and I could not understand why
everyone wasn"t equally preoccupied. My parents, siblings, friends, all were
doomed, and yet they blithely went on with their lives as if they had all the
time in the world. My horror of mortality was most acute in the most
cheerful, chattering contexts—in a classroom or at a party. I wanted to
scream out to the oblivious fools around me, "You"re all going to die!"
My view of death is slightly more nuanced now. In 1986, just
before my mother had an operation for brain cancer, I visited her in the
hospital. Lying on her bed, she urged me not to worry about her. She had
had a good life. She married a good man, and she got to see her five
children grow up and thrive. When she told me that she had no fear of death,
I believed her. She seemed serene, ready for whatever came. My mother
survived the operation. When she died more than two painful years later, I
saw it as a blessing. Now death per se does not trouble me so much as the
manner in which it sometimes descends. Although some die peacefully
after long, rich lives, others are wrenched away from life in such a brutal and
untimely fashion that they leave behind a terrible wound. How can this
apparent unfairness of existence be reconciled with our spiritual intuitions of
a just, loving God or of a supernatural moral order?
Ordinarily, I would prefer to treat this problem as an intellectual
puzzle, like the nature-nurture conundrum or the irreconcilability of quantum
mechanics and general relativity. As I wrote this book, however, events
seemed to conspire to remind me of fortune"s terrible capriciousness. On
September 11, 2001, my wife and I climbed a hill near our home and saw
only smoke where once the World Trade Center had stood, fifty miles south
of us. But that cataclysm was almost too vast, too singular, for me to
fathom; other, more ordinary incidents had a deeper emotional impact. In the
span of a year, several friends and acquaintances were diagnosed with
cancer. One of my oldest friends died, leaving two young children behind. A
mystical expert only slightly older than me and brimming with wit and vitality
when I interviewed him was killed less than a year later by a malignant brain
Then there was the death of Lena, my family"s familiar, on the day
before I flew west to ingest the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca. As hard as
it must be for outsiders to understand, that little tragedy was a grievous
reminder to me that happiness can be snatched from us at any time; the
happier we are, the greater our potential heartbreak. When I ingested
ayahuasca three days later, the hopes and fears that mysticism arouses in
me came to a head. For these reasons, I decided to tell the story of that
ayahuasca session in chapter eleven. Before the session, I hoped that it
might give me an insight or epiphany or something that would provide
consolation—not only for me but also for Suzie, who loved Lena dearly.
At the same time, memories of a nightmarish drug trip—the one
to which I alluded in The End of Science—made me fear that ayahuasca
might exacerbate my dread. 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." Borrowing a phrase that Sigmund Freud
used to describe mystical experiences, Dittrich calls the first
dimension "oceanic boundlessness." This is the classic blissful, unitive
experience reported by Richard Bucke and many other mystics. The mystic
has sensations of self-transcendence, timelessness, and 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."
The hallucinogen I ingested in 1981 propelled me into all three
dimensions. Early on, I had fantastical, dreamlike visions teeming with
animals, humans, and mythological figures. I seemed to be both observing
these epic scenarios and playing all the parts in them. These images
became more and more abstract and ethereal, until I became convinced
that I was approaching absolute reality, the source of all things, God. Like
Richard Bucke, I saw, I knew, that there is no death, not for me, not for
anyone or 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.
Hindus call truth that is perceived directly shruti; the Sanskrit
term smriti refers to truth known only secondhand. Time transformed my
1981 experience from shruti into smriti, a memory of a memory of a memory.
It resembles a faded photograph from a journey I can scarcely remember. It
almost seems as though it happened to someone else. My years as a
science writer also infused me with a skepticism so corrosive that it eroded
my belief in all revelations, including my own.
I never forgot that trip, however, or stopped brooding over its
implications. Which of our mystical visions should we believe? The
heavenly, blissful ones or the hellish, diabolical ones? Are both somehow
true, or are all such visions illusions, generated by overexcited neural
circuits? Some mystically inclined philosophers—notably Huston Smith—
have proposed an answer to questions like these. They contend that mystical
experiences, in spite of their diversity and apparent contradictions, all point to
the same universal truth about the nature of reality, a truth that is not
frightening but comforting. This position is known as the perennial
philosophy, and it is where we will begin this mystical inquest.

Copyright © 2003 by John Horgan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Mysticism, Religion and science