On the one hand, John Horgan’s Rational Mysticism fascinated me. On the other hand, it made a little annoyed and frustrated. This is truly an engrossing and interesting book that delves into mysticism as seen from the eyes of scientists, theologians and philosophers. But I wanted answers, and I still don’t think I got them. Maybe that is the greatest part of mysticism… it is and will always be a mystery.
Award-winning journalist Horgan not only gives us a personal glimpse into his own unique spiritual path of discovery, which involves a tragic animal death and a journey to try a hallucinogenic drug favored by shamans, but he also takes us into the lives and minds of some of the greatest spiritual thinkers, past and present. The result is a comprehensive look at how the mystical is perceived by a variety of thinkers, some of which left me outright angry at their arrogance and self-righteousness.
Horgan starts his trek into the mystic with a story from his own life involving the death of a pet crow, which serves as a sort of spiritual catalyst as he travels to interview the likes of theologian Huston Smith, postmodern shaman Terrence McKenna, psychedelic “pharmacologist” Alexander Shulgin, “God Machine” creator Michael Persinger, brain researcher Andrew Newberg, religious philosopher Steve Katz and Ken Wilbur, the noted transpersonal psychologist. These interviews, along with Horgan’s explorations of enlightenment techniques such as fasting, sensory deprivation, intense meditation and wild and crazy drug trips, make for some very mind-bending reading, but what really stands out like a sore thumb is Horgan’s humility and modesty amidst the utter arrogance and snobbishness of many of the “experts” he interviews; several of which have never had a mystical experience, yet feel completely certain they can not only explain, but sometimes even debunk. In fact, I was far more interested in hearing Horgan’s “take” on these people than I was hearing their own ideas and concepts, which says a lot for the author’s ability to present ideas in a way those of us who do not have twenty Ph.D.'s can really relate to.
The most fun, of course, occurs when we get to read about the drug experiments involving hallucinogens, both natural and man-made, and their uses in searching for the ultimate mystical experience. The fact that the author can speak from experience about using these drugs adds to the realism and impact – he was there, did that. Unfortunately, for all the interviewing, experimenting and searching he did, the answers to the books most important questions still elude us even as we learn, in the end, that love is really all there is. Horgan’s own experience taking ayahuasca with a group of like-minded seekers is sheer thrills and provided me with a vicarious understanding of a mind-altering trip I myself would never care to take.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in mystical experiences, religion, spirituality and reconciling science with the world of the spirit. You will not be disappointed. One of the book’s highlights is the consistent commonalities Horgan finds in all of his experiences and understandings, that there is indeed a unifying element of truth behind all mystical experience. What that truth is – there is still plenty of ongoing debate. If you are looking for the above-all, end-all answer to your spiritual questions, be prepared to accept what the author hints at throughout his journey. Nobody really knows anything for sure, except that which they alone experience for themselves.