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Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality Paperback – 22 Mar 2004

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Product details

  • Paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (22 Mar 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061844663X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618446636
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,098,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Offers an investigation of the latest research of the mechanics and meaning of mystical experience, looking at such fields as chemistry, physics, theology, and psychology to narrow the division between reason and enlightenment. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Murasaki53 on 7 Sep 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are interested in drugs and mysticism, religious experience, neuroscience, meditation, and issues that arise in these areas this is the book for you. For a start, it's much more readable and engaging than quite a few of the writers discussed and so saves you the bother of reading them as well.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By MarkusG on 23 Sep 2008
Format: Paperback
In Rational mysticism we follow science journalist John Horgan on his pursuit of (scientific) explanations and research about spiritual experiences. First he sketches out different kind of spiritual experiences and mystical visions. Then he travels around meeting as diverse people as the theologian Huston Smith, psychologist Susan Blackmore, brain researcher James Austin, Terence McKenna, Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber, and some more. The accounts of the meetings are well written and captivating, and Horgans open mindedness and questions work very well. He presents each view point in a fair way, and then criticise. In the end, we are not presented with a new truth, rather more questions.
I find this book extremely fascinating and a good way of getting an overview and introduction to many alternative views of reality. Strongly recommended!
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3 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Aernout Zevenbergen on 31 Oct 2010
Format: Paperback
A serious disappointment. I had expected so much more from this book, especially because it was the example for Jeff Warren when he wrote his fantastic book Head Trip (a 24 hour romp through consciousness).
Horgan is a science journalist, and usually they have this fantastic way of guiding the reader deep into the cutting edge frontier of knowledge and wisdom. And, admittedly, Horgan is fantastic with his pen.

Why the book fell through the cracks for me, is the attitude of the author towards his topic: mysticism, and the experience of 'feeling one with the universe, in a moment of utter bliss' (my words). Horgan goes onto his exploration inspired by readers of one of his previous books, in which he mentioned an experience with a mind altering drug.
Hoping to get a glimpse of what lies behind the known reality of reason and science, the author goes out to find answers. Yet, this adventurer keeps holding onto the rails of his known existence and nowhere dares to really let go of the mechanisms of control of his ego and his brain.

This fear clearly comes through in his writings about 'sacred sages' who, when looked at more closely, are actually just human beings, with human faults and human shortcomings.

I don't know what Horgan expected to find, but do feel this attitude to be somewhat naive, and childish. The more so, when some of the descriptions of the failing sages are factually incorrect. It's almost as if Horgan has been desperately looking for the cracks in imagery of perfection that no reasonable person could expect from anyone. To put it plain and simple: Even Mother Theresa needed to use the bathroom while alive - please wake-up, Mr. Horgan...
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4 of 10 people found the following review helpful By calmly on 17 Oct 2007
Format: Hardcover
In "The End of Science", Horgan contacted leading scientists. In "Rational Mysticism" he has contacted leading mystics.

It seems harder to establish what a leading mystic is: the quiet old lady down the street may have more mystical wisdom than latest guru to make the cover of a New Age magazine.

This book may be intended as an introduction to many mystical paths so that you can follow up on those that intrigue you

To his credit, Horgan recognizes the dangers of authorities within Eastern relgions: Westerners running from Christiantity seem often to fail to recognize the lack of substantiation for enlightenment or for rebirth. He has, at least, taken to heart the "Anti-Guru" observations of Diana Alstad and Joel Kramer. But Horgan seems to have been misled by Huston Smith and Stephen Batchelor into overvaluing ideals: how far is one beyond belief if one measuring oneself against abstracted qualities that one can always imagine an improvement upon.

If by the end of this book a lot is still up in the air, how can it be honestly otherwise? Horgan does identify our reliance on one assumption: free will but in so doing indicates little else can be assumed. But what is the value of knowing of all these mystics if none of them seemed to have helped Horgan get through his day? At least he hasn't, that I have seen, shown how all this study of mysticism helps him cope with life in Hudson Valley (except to provide perhaps some income). Perhaps, as he has done now with science and then mysticism, he can present a book of wisdom on ordinary living (in a world tottering on unsustanability).

A rational mysticism, then, may not be noteworthy if all it amounts to is an assumption of our free will.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 63 reviews
72 of 74 people found the following review helpful
well written, but author's prejudices seep through 5 Jun 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Horgan's Rational Mysticism takes a serious look at the various approaches of mysticism. The book is roughly broken up into three broad approaches to mysticism -- philosophical, neurological/psychological, and psychotropic. Horgan has interviewed a large group of people for this book including Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Stanilav Grof, and Terrance McKenna.
Horgan asks good questions and finds contradictions between the ideas and philosophies of those he interviews, sometimes taking one person's comments from a previous interview to contradict another's answer. Sometimes he stoops to ad hominen attacks. The title about Ken Wilber, 'The Weightlifting Boddhisattva' seems like a subtle attack of Wilber's character and authenticity if he has any. In another chapter he talks about how Michael Persinger loses all credibility when he finds out that he is carrying out research into psi phenomena. I'm a skeptic when it comes to psi myself, but to throw out Persinger's neurological studies just because he wants to test psychic phenomena seems akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water. Throughout the book he uses these popular and mainstream prejudices (UFOs come up later) to cast doubts on the ideas of everyone he interviews.
I was greatly disappointed at the end of the book where he makes the following comment: "Not until I met and fell in love with Suzi (wife) almost a year after the trip did my estrangement from life and from my own self finally subside. Mysticism did not save me; it was that from which I needed to be saved."
People pursue mysticism and religion for meaning. People can pursue relationships for the same reason. I have no problem with this. But Horgan, who seems so dismissive of mysticism as being an unreliable path for so many, himself included, wants to sell this idea of true love as the answer to life. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't. It certainly is a noble concept. However, one thing is for sure; love, friendship, and meaningful relationships are full of pain as well as pleasure for most people. And just as one personality, like Horgan, may find mystical concepts such as non-duality or oneness disturbing, another personality may see romantic or companionate love as a disturbing manifestation of dependency or neediness.
Overall, I feel it is a good book for skeptics, free thinkers and maybe conservative/fundamentalist religious people who don't buy the whole contemplative approach to religion. Mystics and those interested in experiential/contemplative religion may want to steer clear of this book which seems more about creating uncertainty than answering any hard questions. Of course, no one should expect to find such answers in a book. Maybe Horgan was just trying to convey his own personal experience, but the objective interviewer seemed to be tainted by the end of the book.
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
An important, challenging, and subversive work. 26 Jan 2003
By Jim R. - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the best nonfiction reads I've encountered in a long time. It's compulsively readable. I love to have my assumptions challenged and this book did that and more. I laughed, cried, rolled my eyes, argued with Mr. Horgan. It's a great ride.
Rational Mysticism was especially meaningful to me because I long ago gave up on organized religion and put my faith in science. I occasionally try to return to religion, but quickly leave in exasperation. Now I understand that either path ends in mystery. We need to respect that mystery and appreciate the reality we have more.
You will meet some fascinating people in these pages, titantic egos, brilliant thinkers, crackpots. The introduction "Lena's Feather" was profoundly moving to me. Mr. Horgan's account of the ayahuasca ceremony is not to be missed. Finally the chapter "The Awe-Ful Truth" will leave you with much to think about.
Anyone who thinks on the "big questions" whether religious or rationalist should read this book.
75 of 84 people found the following review helpful
valuable overview filled with pointers to further sources 2 Oct 2004
By James J. Lippard - Published on
Format: Paperback
John Horgan has written a wonderfully entertaining and informative account of his attempt to find who is productively applying science to the field of mysticism. One other reviewer said that they do not like this sort of book, which is based on interviewing individuals and commenting on their personalities as well as their ideas, but I personally prefer this approach as an introduction to the lives and works of others. I found the book to be very insightful, as Horgan always seemed to ask the questions and raise the issues that I was interested in hearing about. His open-minded yet skeptical approach is one I find refreshing.

Horgan's subjects--Huston Smith, Steven Katz, Bernard McGinn, Ken Wilber, Andrew Newberg, Michael Persinger, Susan Blackmore, James Austin, Albert Hofmann, Stanislov Grof, Terence McKenna, Alexander "Sasha" and Ann Shulgin--are all quite interesting people. Horgan seemed most sympathetic to Blackmore, Austin, Wilber, McKenna (personality-wise more than idea-wise), and the Shulgins. He was--correctly, I believe--skeptical of Persinger after finding his pro-psi views. My own view of Persinger is that he attempts to fit everything into his temporal lobe epilepsy/tectonic strain theory views, but has often been unskeptical about the data he's pushing into the theory; I've never understood why skeptics like Blackmore and Michael Shermer have thought him to be plausible. (I've authored a critical review of Persinger's Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events for including bogus debunked events as items to be explained by his theory, and The Arizona Skeptic published an extensive bibliography of critiques of his TST assembled by Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba in the July 1992 issue).

In the end, Horgan is skeptical of all of his subjects, and thinks that they've missed out on the importance of a sense of awe and wonder, as well as playfulness and fun (though McKenna seems to have had that down). I'm not sure I agree with Horgan on that--I thought that what most of these people seemed to have in common was being very comfortable (most seem to be wealthy, famous, respected, and living well) and being advocates of a quietistic conservatism that advocates being content with the way the world is. That's an easy position for someone who is comfortable to take. Horgan does touch on this subject briefly a few times, such as when he writes about "the nature does-not-care principle" and the problem of natural evil (pp. 192-194) and when he raises the issue of suffering with Austin (p. 131).

Horgan seemed most at odds with Katz, a view I shared--Katz's views seem sheer unsubstantiated dogmatism, when he insists that drug experiences have absolutely nothing to do with mystical experiences, and in his insistence on a commonality between all forms of mysticism, which reminded me of the Bahai faith--a religion that disagrees with all other religions in arguing for the compatibility of all religions.

In the end, I found myself scrawling notes of other books I'd like to read as a result of the references in this book: Austin's Zen and the Brain, Georg Feuerstein's Holy Madness, V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain, Francisco Varela's Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying, Anthony Storr's Feet of Clay, and Rudolf Otto's The Idea of the Holy, as well as finding numerous references to other works that seem to me to be likely to be "on the right track" (Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism without Beliefs, Ronald Siegel's books on hallucinations and drug experiences). Reading Horgan's book was for me a valuable experience that I recommend.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Misleading Title; Lite but Interesting Book 18 Sep 2005
By Brad4d - Published on
Format: Paperback
--This is a difficult book to review, because it has notably strong and weak points. On the five-star side, the author writes well. His unusual perspective provokes thought and provides a light "kick in the mind" to conventional thinking. He provides many wonderful one-liners and brings some humor to this often-dry study. On the one-star side, the book has little to do with legitimate science, rationality, or mysticism. With a couple of exceptions, the author interviewed a small sample of people at the fringes of quasi-mystical and semi-scientific experience, and chose the most interesting, colorful, "pop star" people. That sure made for an interesting read but it's kind of like using interviews with folks like Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs as the foundation for a book on the Beauty of English Literature.
--The author admits his distaste for the self-responsible discipline of Zen Buddhism, and maybe that's why he seems so wrapped up in psychedelics as a cheap key to mystical awareness (although he admits drugs have an inescapable and very diabolical side. Well...... Garbage In, Garbage Out.).
--However, the author discusses an interesting question: are all mystical experiences alike? He seems to conclude they are not, and in my opinion he makes a reasonable case. Nearly all interviewees had substantially different interpretations of many important aspects of their experiences, and indeed, many had what seemed to be different experiences altogether (assuming, of course, their experiences were trustworthy ones). My own view of mysticism was enriched after reading this book because instead of seeming like some kind of amorphous monolithic entity, mystical experience seems richly diverse. This makes a reductionist explanation for mystical awareness far more difficult, it supports recent research suggesting drugs and "Awareness Therapy" act at very different brain locations, and it means if you are looking for a teacher you should examine how they live their life, not just what kind of experiences they report to you.
--If you want to read about mysticism and science or psychology, consider instead B. Alan Wallace (who is not Alan Watts!), Jon Kabatt-Zin, or Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama. Those interested in mysticism have a wide selection of excellent authors as diverse as Thomas Merton, Ayya Khema, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Ajahn Chah. Those interested in the science of the mind might be better off reading Gerald Edelman, Michael Gazzaniga, Antonio D'Amasio, or the delightful NY Times Book of the Brain.
--In short, read this book for the humor, thoughtfulness, and perspective it brings to the subject, but don't expect to read much about the most creditable sample of either scientists or mystics, and do expect a lot of speculative hype about how the experiences from taking drugs can supposedly duplicate the wisdom and peace of refined Awareness.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
A good primer in empirical consciousness exploration 6 Jan 2005
By Ustaath - Published on
Format: Hardcover
_Rational Mysticism_ should be one of the first books that consciousness exploration neophytes read. It was one of the first books I read upon embarking on this path.

If you are interested in an experiential, empirical approach to your own spirituality, and skeptical of the sea of New Age gurus and dogma we are currently awash in, this book will help you break free and find your own way. As other reviewers note, it also does a fine job of helping us break through one of the most troublesome dualisms of our age, resolving the supposed divide between Science and Religion. And in doing so it infers a path which also collapses the divide between laity and the priesthood. The stories in this book point the way toward a 21st century mysticism, an experiential path toward God.

Written in a journalistic style, it covers many of the leading thinkers and approaches to consciousness exploration. It deals fairly and in detail with the area of psychedelics. It is balanced, and a quick read. I usually recommend this book to entheogenic beginners, along with Daniel Pinchbeck's _Breaking Open the Head_.
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