What is life for?

In her poem “Just Once,” Anne Sexton begins with these lines: “Just once I knew what life was for / In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood.” The title, like the end of the poem and, indeed, the end of Sexton’s life, all make clear that this moment of understanding was fleeting. Nevertheless, she had her moment, and many of us, I believe, experience similar instances of clarity. The idea is very attractive, of course—that there is something to understand, not mere nothingness, and that we as human beings have at least the potential for figuring things out. At the same time, the notion of mystical experience has gained a not-entirely-unearned reputation for quackery, due in large part to the reams of printed nonsense stretching back all the way to Johann Gutenberg and his press. Into the mix, we now have Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality, by former Scientific American writer John Horgan. With an admirable, though not entirely successful, attempt at the objectivity of the hard sciences, Horgan provides a fascinating survey of individuals and ideas connected to the realm of mysticism. And though this will not replace your Meister Eckhart or even your Aldous Huxley or William James, it is nevertheless a memorable and worthwhile trip.

Speaking of trips, Horgan, to his credit, is not reticent about his own experimentation with the class of drugs known as psychedelics. Indeed, one entire chapter is devoted to his experience with a quasi-coached ingestion of ayahuasca, the Amazonian hallucinogen formerly known as yagé. These episodes tend to undermine the “rational” component of the book—if the researcher is as high as the subjects, we have problems—but, paradoxically, also strengthen his credibility. This is certainly a case in which understanding is not possible by direct observation alone. The danger, of course, is that reporting can devolve into fiction; black-and-white documentary can turn into garish cartoon (see William Burroughs or Carlos Castaneda). Horgan avoids this in two ways. First, he doesn’t whitewash or mold his experience to any theory; if it was bad or meaningless, he says so. Second, throughout much of the book, he functions mainly as an old-fashioned reporter—hustling for interviews, setting up the tape recorder and letting the subjects shine, or hang themselves, with their own words.

That the subjects here run the gamut from well-respected scholars to, shall we say, more colorful characters, makes for uneven but fascinating reading. We can listen to Huston Smith, for example, expound thoughtfully on the perennial philosophy and then be confronted by Ken Wilber—admittedly brilliant and “enlightened” by self-proclamation—and his goofy diagrams. My personal favorite is the late Terence McKenna, virtually the only expert in Rational Mysticism to betray a sense of humor and self-deprecation. McKenna as much as admits that his rants and riffs (sort of Carl Sagan meets Neal Cassady) are more parable and performance than science or religion. “My function is largely pedagogical,” he tells Horgan, “trying to teach people, first of all, that the world is a weird, weird place. And then, so what do you do about it? Do you become a Scientologist? Do you return to your Irish Catholic roots? What is the response to the discovery that the world really is totally weird?”

One response, clearly, is mystical experience. It is universal, egalitarian and seemingly independent of culture and history. But is it “real”? Does it have a source outside of us, or is it merely another manifestation of synapses firing and misfiring—chemicals coursing through our complex brains? A couple of years ago, Mark Salzman published a wonderful fictional meditation on the subject, Lying Awake: A Novel. Horgan, with his scientific approach, is really mining the same vein. Both writers seem almost desperate for an answer that is not forthcoming. The question itself is the star of this show. Perhaps Sexton, no longer in Boston, would tell us if she could.