Most mysticism is, in scientific terms, mush. Yet the mystic's experience of wonder may in fact be the same animating spirit that lies behind scienceby Anthony Gottlieb / April 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: Rational Mysticism Author: John Horgan Price: (Houghton Mifflin, $25)
A British Zen Buddhist once observed that Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ cannot be about Zen, because “Zen isn’t about anything.” The Buddhist did have a point. If mystical experience is, by definition, ineffable, how much can you say about it?
The term “mysticism” has been applied to a broad family of both religious and secular oddities that are to be found in most known cultures-although at some times more than others. In the history of philosophy, the third to fifth centuries AD stand out as uncharacteristically dominated by occult attempts at spiritual transcendence. Closer to our own times, a small renaissance of mysticism took hold some 30 years ago. John Horgan, a distinguished American science journalist, who has now turned his attention to the topic, notes that in the 1970s “everybody 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.” High times for mysticism indeed-of which the new age movements of the 1990s may be seen as a faint but commercialised echo.
A good stab at defining the essence of mysticism, or what these diverse pursuits aim at, is to be found in the 1967 ‘Encyclopedia of Philosophy’ “Mystical experience… is sensed as revealing something about the totality of things, something of immense human importance… upon which one’s ultimate well-being or salvation wholly depends… It is often taken to be a confrontation… with the divine source of the world’s being and man’s salvation… There must be a unifying vision, a sense that somehow all things are one and share a holy, divine, and single life, or that one’s individual being merges into a ‘Universal Self’… A mystic may have no belief whatever in a divine being and still experience a sense of overwhelming beatitude, of salvation, or of lost or transcended individuality.”
The main gap in this account is the dark side of mysticism, most familiar in the form of the “bad trips” that can be induced by mind-altering drugs. A few squares are inclined to rule any state produced by a drug as ipso facto not a genuine example of mysticism, or at least a…