Is enlightenment a myth or a reality? I mean the enlightenment of the east, not west, the state of supreme mystical awareness also known as nirvana, satori, cosmic consciousnesss, awakening. Enlightenment is the telos of the great Eastern religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, and it crops up occasionally in western religions, too, although in a more marginal fashion. Enlightenment once preoccupied such prominent western intellectuals as William James, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell, and there was a surge of scientific interest in mysticism in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Then mysticism became tainted by its association with the human potential and New Age movements and the psychedelic counterculture, and for the last few decades it has for the most part been banished from serious scientific and intellectual discourse. Recently a few scholars have written excellent books that examine mysticism in the light of modern psychology and neuroscience — Zen and the Brain by the neurologist James Austin; Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness by the philosopher Robert Forman; The Mystical Mind by the late psychiatrist Eugene d'Aquili and the radiologist Andrew Newberg — but their work has received scant attention in the scientific mainstream. My impression is that many scientists are privately fascinated by mysticism but fear being branded as fuzzy-headed by disclosing their interest. If more scientists revealed their interest in mystical consciousness, perhaps it could become a legitimate subject for investigation once again.
JOHN HORGAN is a freelance writer and author of The End of Science and The Undiscovered Mind. A senior writer at Scientific American from 1986 to 1997, he has also written for the New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Slate, London Times, Times Literary Supplement and other publications.