Brian Lancaster is Principal Lecturer in Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University in England and is the Chair of the Transpersonal Section of the British Psychological Society. In this fascinating book he tries to weave together an empirical, scientific approach to consciousness with the personal accounts found in spiritual and mystical traditions. He tries to bring together some of the data that has emerged from neuroscience and psychology with teachings from Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.
The book is well organized and most engagingly written.
I very much enjoyed reading this book, but I was left with two questions that have worried me since the first attempts were made to marry mysticism and quantum mechanics and secondly the attempts that have been made to reduce mystical experiences to neural activity. First, can we be sure that we are understanding the mystical texts accurately, and second, can we reduce transpersonal experiences to neural activity?
Many writers have cherry picked the experiences that fit their model. Mystical experiences have many common characteristics, but they are by no means all the same. When authors say that they have found a correspondence between one mystical report and one interpretation of physics, it is almost like trying to fit one mystery with another. There are so many ancient teachings and many of them are quite inscrutable or ambiguous to the untrained. Experts in the various traditions frequently disagree with each other. So it is quite possible to take pretty much any current scientific theory and find mystical teachings to fit. So unless we can be sure about what the teachings are saying we cannot use them to provide evidence for or against the theories. In addition the book includes a lot of psychodynamic theory which is notoriously open to multiple interpretations.
There will likely be correspondences between neural activity and mystical states, but that is quite different from reducing a profound and meaningful experience to the firing of neurons.
Brian Lancaster subscribes to a supernatural or dualist theory, proposing that a "transcendent reality" is needed to account for subjective experience. I think that he may well be right, but we also cannot ignore several writers, like Francis Crick and Daniel Dennett, who think that we already know enough about the brain to explain conscious experiences, and presumably therefore mystical experiences.
Despite my two questions remaining unanswered, this book provides one of the best summaries of current thinking on consciousness and I recommend it highly.