This is an important book about how experientially to research spiritual and "subtle" (psychic) experience, but as with so many trail-blazing approaches there are arguably deep problems in what the writer attempts. My main thrust here will be on the negative, but that is not a reflection on my overall sense of the importance of this book. Rather, these notes started off as a guide for students to whom I teach a master's level module in "spiritual activism". It was with their interests in mind, in recommending this as a course book, that I took the following stance.
Heron's work tends to be criticised for being over-complicated and engaging in psychobabble (eg. "transcendental intersubjectivity", p. 90). I agree with both those points, and in addition, I find him to be a highly conflicted writer. Let me itemise some of my criticisms.
1) He repeatedly attacks "perennialism" - the "perennial philosophy" idea that all religions ultimately have the same source. He sees this as a false notion that came in to the West with authoritarian guru-dominated versions of Hindu-Buddhism. Personally I think that's a half truth. It overlooks, for example, socially engaged versions of the Bodhisattva tradition where "nirvana is samsara" (i.e. Heaven is being in this world). Not all versions of Buddhism that have come to the West are about meditating all day with you nose up your own behind.
2) His critique of Ken Wilber (who he sees as the arch-perennialist) is, in my view, spot on and very necessary. But I think Heron allows Wilber's white-privileged-American-male-hierarchial summa theologia of "spiritual development" to contaminate his take on what a wider perennialism is or can be. As this digging-at-Wilber thrust runs through the whole book it is not something one can ignore, and notwithstanding Heron's deeply anti-authoritarian intentions it becomes hectoring. (That said, I must confess that it is easy to get agitated about Wilber if you're not a Wilberite and yet, keep on encountering people who expect you'll love him and are disappointed with you when you don't. Indeed, I even know somebody who calls the magpie that stalks his garden "Wilber" in consequence of that very agitation, but you'd better not ask my wife who that person is!).
3) Whilst able to talk about "goddess" and "the divine", Heron seems very uncomfortable talking about "God". The word does not even appear in his index, though it does crop up occasionally in the text, for example, on p. 245, where the discussion about "god" (lower case) is very much in-the-head. I get the sense that Heron has experienced or seen too much of wounding aspects of religion from an unnamed "spiritual school" of his youth (p. 78) and that that has distorted the nature of his subsequent engagement with what could be a very human form of cosmic love (cf. Walter Wink's take on the humanity of the divine).
Interestingly, Heron does understand what many would use the word "God" for. He has a fine passage about it on p. 89 (in discussing what he calls Transcendent 4). And he seems happy to draw on many Hindu-Buddhist terms, for example, sat-chit-ananda - while at the same time attacking the constructs of Hindu-Buddhism as being hide-bound by tradition. All this adds to my sense of Heron being conflicted and complicated. But maybe that's because I'm a perennialist and thereby embody what Heron's criticising.
4) Heron's big thing is about participative/co-operative enquiry. However, I have reservations about researcher claims that predicate this approach as an article of faith and talk little about alternative ways of doing research. I think we too often confuse aspirations towards the participative ideal with the limited realities of what can actually be achieved in many real-life situations. For example, I've often seen student work that claims to be or attempts to be "participative" but is really only about the neophyte researcher persuading participants - usually friendly ones - to participate. I suspect it sometimes has more to do with the need to be accepted oneself as a participant by others than to do with good choice of research technique for a given situation. It's like the olde hippie thing in general ... we all want to be so cool, but trying to be so gets beset so easily by "rebels without a clue". In my view, truly participative work can only emerge within a cohesive community (including well-balanced interdisciplinary research teams), and such things don't form overnight. Even within varying forms of community, the "tyranny of structurelessness" gives me doubts as to how non-hierarchical our inquiries can ever be when we're honest about it. Heron himself writes powerfully (elsewhere) about charisma. I think there needs to be care not to hide behind a subtle form of power in criticising less subtle ones. After all, power denied is power abused.
5) Lastly, one of the most distinguishing features of Heron's work is the ease with which he navigates the psychic or "subtle" as he calls it. However, as a one time peer-review published psychic researcher or parapsychologist myself, I was troubled by the uncritical way in which he works with this material. For example, I question the epistemological soundness of coming up, without any warm-up preliminaries, with a statement like, "I find this to be so because of my encounters with people in the post-death realms in my out-of-the-body experiences...." Heron seems to disparage the distinction often made by "perennialists" between the spiritual and the merely psychic - their argument being that it can pull one off the path to become distracted by the psychic phenomena that may appear along the way. My view is that Heron's take on this could be enriched greatly by a study of the late English geologist Robert Crookall's work - especially "The Interpretation of Cosmic and Mystical Experiences" (1969) and the insight this suggests into what Heron very usefully discusses as "refraction" (i.e. the tendency of ostensible psychic perception to be unreliable). Also, rather than seeming to take a vast plethora of psychic phenomena at face value as he appears to do (p. 93), one would express considerable critical evaluation to assess validity, especially from somebody whose general approach is very academic. A fine if dry (but not dismissive) example of such critical evaluation is "The Varieties of Anomalous Experience" from the American Psychological Association (2000).
That's a heavy lot of provisos I've listed here, but with those reservations, this is an important book. It puts spirituality and subtle-state investigation firmly on the research cartography. It affirms the experiential and what people can gain from comparing and sharing experience. The book sails a fearlessness tack that suggests that Heron is afraid of nobody watching critically over his shoulder - a quality that while not necessarily a virtue, is certainly a joy in a research world that needs some dust blowing off. I have focussed here on the flaws in this book, but that is to be expected in appraising a pioneering approach. I look forward, also, to checking out Heron's more recent book, Participative Spirituality (2006). And thank you, John Heron, for your work in general. You are an old man now, and one of the elders in this field. I hope that I have not misunderstood you too seriously in what is written here. If you read this and think that I am in error of fact as distinct from judgement, please email me and I will make correction if the system allows it.