Alternative mysticisms

What science writer John Horgan calls rational mysticism (the title of his 2003 book, Rational Mysticism) is a set of tentative alternatives to historical forms of mysticism: religious, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic, and natural. (There may be other forms.) The very effort to find alternatives shows the enduring attraction of alternative states of consciousness, even when the aspiration is not entirely legitimate.

Horgan pursues scientists’ assessments of mysticism as either brain chemistry, physiology, or self-delusion. Diehard “ultramaterialists” dominate the scientific opinions of spirituality. Expeditions to disprove or unmask claims to mysticism preoccupy the parallel thinkers — atheists — obsessively dependent upon the existence of religious fundamentalism or the simplicity of less intelligent believers easily mocked and discarded. It is a symbiosis.

But religious thinking is not easily disposed. Bypassing the content of religions, materialists and scientists propose the psychological and physiological argument that the brain is hard-wired to be gullible, wishful, and delusional. When Freud attacked religion as an “illusion” his arguments were respectably philosophical and psychological as much as cultural, but he did not imagine a device like a “meme.” The “meme” has become the code word for a kind of mental virus, easily disposed to being used against whatever one happens not to like.

Harder it is to dispose of James Austin’s famous pursuit of Zen and the brain because his notion of mysticism — if it is really mysticism — differs from the Western one, despite Austin being a scientist. To many Westerners, mysticism is still ecstasy and pleasure, the eroticism of the biblical Song of Songs, Teresa of Avila, or Rumi. Or Horgan’s seekers are just looking for fun (he even calls it “the problem of fun”), a substitute for the above-mentioned mysticism substituting a light show.

Ironically, the pursuers of rational mysticism in Horgan’s chapters are testing the stereotype of Western mysticism against the cool measurements of reason and science. They are a little frightened of Zen (and Eastern) vocabulary of formlessness, void, and emptiness. So they back-peddle to the problem of fun, falling short of any comprehension of subjective experience. They turn to drugs.

Albert Hofmann created LSD in 1943, but the use of intoxicants and mind-altering substances has been a cultural feature since the dawn of human beings, probably starting with shamans and co-opted by the average person seeking wine, created by God (as the biblical Psalm puts it) “to gladden the heart.” And that has been the postmodern difference. The shift to pharmaceuticals (whether LSD or DMT or brewed fungi and plant poisons, the highbrow choice versus abused pharmaceuticals) shows the intervention of science to essentially find devices to control the minds of others, as much as to entertain the select.

Pharmaceuticals have been used, like nuclear radiated material, to justify helping the few and destroying the many, granting enormous cultural power to elites. In this light, the scientific search for a chemical (not “rational”) mysticism has a darker side than just brain chemistry. As I write, the use of pharmaceuticals to treat populations from children to soldiers reveals the inimical nature of the mind-altering agenda, however naive the earliest takers may have been.

What the hallucinogens do is to reveal not a mystical world but an artificial world that takes the predispositions of the psyche and distorts them into either heightened fear or heightened visuals. Horgan recalls his use of ayahuasca as revealing colorful geometric shapes and a sharpened lunar presence on an etched nighttime landscape, perhaps a mental equivalent of staring at the sun or putting on a sharper pair of lenses (“Better with or without? Better now or … now?”).

What all of these seekers have sought, but usually refused to admit, is that they crave the mystical experience of the conventional religious and spiritual mystics — on their own terms. Perhaps they have craved the experiences of Teresa and Rumi more than of the sublime Eckhart or John of the Cross, and found them absent in their own lives. Of course, they would reject the premises of how such mystics enter their states, and that is entirely their perogative. Yet the parallels are suggestive. The desire for mysticism, for a leaving of nature and the mundane, for an indefinite state of ecstatic exuberance is unmistakable.

In turn, this desire is fed by a more fundamental desire to understand the nature of the universe, and here is common ground. As the subtitle of Horgan’s book hopefully frames it: “spirituality meets science in the search for enlightenment.” But enlightenment eludes science as much as it eludes spirituality, with the exception that spirituality knows where not to look. And this is where science and rational mysticism will have to find common ground in nature, to look at nature for patterns, not laws, for insights, not reasons, for glimpses not revelations.

The author and others will have to abandon “the problem of fun,” as Horgan puts it in his last effort to salvage the utility of drugs — which one suspects is the chief motive of advocates of drugs — and just abandon the concept of a problem. Useful, too, will be to look eastward for the calm and equanimity that transcends the tumult of ecstasy while never really transcending the universe of which we are a part, and which is as much ours to treasure as to transcend.