Wednesday, April 15, 2009

BOOK TALK: Cosmic Consciousness


Here is one more "book talk" that didn't get published when phenomeNEWS closed its doors. Once again “Book Talk” is going to re-examine a discussion of a truly classic work, one previously published in phenomeNEWS (Feb. 2004). Since then our article has been included in “an online magazine for an intuitive community” called Intuitive-Connections. (See: This website is associated with The Edgar Cayce Institute for Intuitive Studies. You will also find our article (to be discussed below) in the “Book” section with many other book summaries and discussions. Henry Reed, Ph.D., is the editor and web designer of that website. Reed also has included our article in a newly published compendium of book discussions and summaries called Future Consciousness: A 2012 Omni Reader [with 84] Original summaries of writings on the Coming “Shift.” (Published Sept. 2008). If you enjoy our discussion below, you might also enjoy Reed’s book.

Now we turn to our discussion of a truly classic work, one related to New Thought and esoteric teachings. The work is a pioneering study of the evolution of the human mind: Cosmic Consciousness by Richard M. Bucke, M.D., (E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.1969). First published in 1901, the original printing run of Cosmic Consciousness was for only 500 copies. That the book is still in print over 100 years later confirms its significance to readers. Currently, over one million books are published annually in the United States alone. Few make it to a second edition. To last a century, a book must make a unique contribution to its readers and the culture in general. In truth, this one does.

The author, Richard M. Bucke, M.D., (1837-1902) was not only a medical doctor, but was also an “alienist,” the former term for what today we call a psychiatrist. He was, for a number of years, the Medical Superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane in London, Ontario, Canada. In that capacity he had much opportunity to study the quirks of the human mind. He became well known for his advanced reforms in treating mental and nervous diseases. At the same time he was a devoted student of great literature, one who read all the great works, especially poetry. From the age of thirty, Bucke especially admired the work of Walt Whitman and devoted the rest of his life to studying Whitman’s work. “It is even said that he could repeat from memory the entire volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass--no mean feat.”

In the spring of 1872, at age 35, Bucke experienced what he called “Illumination.” He described it as: “All at once . . . he found himself wrapped around, as it were, by a flame-colored cloud. . . . The next (instant) he knew that the light was within himself. Directly after there came upon him a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor which ever since lightened his life.” As Bucke describes in his book, this Illumination led him, over the next 20 years, to “ponder more deeply the relation between man’s mind and his moral nature.” In 1894 he developed the idea of [Cosmic] Consciousness as a mental evolution of mankind, which as it became increasingly common, and eventually general, would lift the whole of human life to a higher plane.”

Hence, what we have in this work is a seminal discussion of mental and
spiritual evolution of human beings that goes far beyond the physical evolution theory of Darwin. Indeed, such an idea that humanity is evolving mentally and spiritually may not seem radical to contemporary readers. Many books today by spiritual teachers of all kinds carry that as an implied or underlying theory. For example, the books about Indigo and Crystal Children, discussed here in “Book Talk” (phenomeNEWS Nov. 2003), clearly suggest such an evolution.

Bucke’s work is unique. He was neither a mystic nor an esoteric teacher. He was a scientist, “a student of the human mind, a psychologist, and he treated Illumination from the standpoint of psychology.” Given the limitations of research at the time, Bucke poured through volumes of history and literature and concluded that there had been “at least 14 undeniable cases of complete and permanent Illumination” and many other cases of partial or temporary Illumination. He deduced, finally, that “very gradually . . . the human race is in the process of developing a new kind of consciousness.”

The book presents a clearly developed investigation into the topics of human consciousness and man’s mystic relation to the Infinite. An introduction by George M. Acklom, written for the 1946 edition, gives a comprehensive overview of the author and the book. Then in three highly readable parts totaling 82 pages, the author develops his theory of Cosmic Consciousness. In his “First Words” he explains and defines three levels or forms of consciousness experienced by humans: Simple Consciousness, a consciousness shared with the upper half of the animal kingdom, in which the being is conscious of the things about him; Self Consciousness, unique to humans, in which the being is “conscious of himself as a distinct entity apart from all the rest of the universe; and Cosmic Consciousness which involves “a consciousness of the cosmos . . . the life and order of the universe. With this last the person experiences “a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life.”

The author’s thesis is that humanity’s consciousness has evolved over the ages. “The view he takes is that our descendants will sooner or later reach, as a race, the condition of cosmic consciousness, just as, long ago, our ancestors passed from simple to self consciousness.” Without knowing it, Bucke’s theory matches many esoteric teachings.

In this early chapter Bucke also describes his own personal experiences with illumination and also explains the psychological origin of Cosmic Consciousness, arguing step by step how the mind and understanding develop. His second chapter takes the discussion to the second step of mental evolution: self-consciousness, noting that “self consciousness would doubtless prove to be the primary and fundamental human attribute.” His arguments and data are often fascinating and range from the development of sensitivity to sound to the perception of colors.

I have always thought that his discussion of color perception is extraordinarily interesting. He points out, citing various classic sources, that “not more than 15 or 20,000 years ago, man was only conscious of, only perceived, one color.” Evidence for this prevails in studies of the Indo-European language history. Studies found “no names of colors in primitive Indo-European speech” and “no Sanskrit root . . . has any reference to color.” Gradually, color perception evolved. Early literature, such as the Rig Veda only refers to red, yellow, and black. Later, white and green joined the list. Even in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and the Bible, the sky is not identified as “blue.”

Physics students or esoteric students who have studied the vibrational measurements of color may note that the colors came to be perceived by humans in the order of the spectrum beginning with red, which has the slowest vibration. As a physician, Dr. Bucke notes that the existence of color-blindness in persons of all countries--what he calls an “atavism,” or a “relapse to a condition which was normal in the ancestry of the individual”--”shows that the color sense is a modern faculty.” Bucke also discusses the sense of fragrance and the evolution of the human moral nature.

In Part III, Dr. Bucke takes his argument from self to cosmic consciousness. Here he begins to discuss the difficulty of expressing the experience of this kind of consciousness into words. He identifies some of the individuals who he believes exemplify this Illumination and shows how they tried to explain it.

This entire first section of Bucke’s work has always been my favorite part of the book, the section from which I have always learned the most. I do, however, think I need to state a brief “caveat” or warning here for this book, or any book from the 19th century or before--in fact, any creative work from a period different from our current times, be it the Jerome Kern musical Showboat or a Mark Twain novel. We live a much different time, one in which certain words or attitudes are seen as insensitive or labeled as “politically incorrect.” Authors, even professional physicians like Dr. Bucke, used different terms for mentally handicapped persons, for example, than we do now. Readers might even assume some racial or gender insensitivities on rare occasions in the book, instances that I would attribute instead to the lack of adequate statistics and data in the 19th century, or just common customs. I would always urge readers to use common sense and tolerance when experiencing literature from earlier times.

The second edition of Richard Bucke’s work includes chapters on each of the fourteen historical personages he believes to have experienced “Illumination. or “Cosmic Consciousness.” These chapters are highly interesting, providing readers with excellent biographical information that supports Bucke’s theory, and often, numerous quotations, even somewhat lengthy citing from that individual's work. This section forms the longest segment of the book. Among the fourteen, Bucke includes, in chronological order, Gautama the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, Paul, Plotinus, Mohammed, Dante, St. John of the Cross, Francis Bacon, William Blake, Balzac, and Walt Whitman.

The chapters on Bacon, Blake, Balzac, and Whitman are, of course, especially insightful and interesting for anyone who loves great literature. Bucke was a proponent of the theory that Francis Bacon was the author of the sonnets and plays attributed to Shakespeare. Most students of Shakespeare’s works are probably familiar with the theory and Bucke’s discussion provides further enlightenment. Also, since Bucke was personally acquainted with Walt Whitman and was a great admirer of that great American poet, the chapter on Whitman is especially rich with insights.

The final major section of the book treats several dozen examples of people whom Bucke considers to be “lesser, imperfect, or doubtful instances” of their having Cosmic Consciousness experiences. Sometimes his doubt is simply the result of lack of data. Many of these examples are anonymous and identified only by initials. Some of the more well-known and thereby more interesting examples, again in chronological order, are: Moses, Isaiah, Lao-Tze, Socrates, Pascal, Spinoza, William Wordsworth, Pushkin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson, and Henry David Thoreau. The preponderance of poets tends to reflect the author’s interest in literature, no doubt, more than anything else. This is not to criticize Bucke’s scholarship, which was immense. He lists 208 sources at the beginning of his book from which he quotes or refers to in this volume.

Bucke’s final chapter, called “Last Words,” provides him the opportunity both to recapitulate his points, but also to diverge just a bit to points he didn’t explore in the main chapters. He draws conclusions from his studies, which reiterate his point of the mental and spiritual evolution of the human species. He notes, moreover, that as each development of consciousness happens, it happens to more and more people as the years pass. He concludes that just as self consciousness has become “almost universal and appears at the average of about three years [of age]--so will Cosmic Consciousness become more and more universal . . . until the race at large will possess this faculty.”

[Note: this quotation explains why people who study current works about consciousness and the coming “shift of consciousness” that many believe to be tied to the Mayan Calendar find this classic book to be of great interest. Bucke’s prediction that the entire human race will evolve in consciousness is an idea that supports and relates to many current theories.]

Ultimately, Dr. Richard M. Bucke’s classic work, Cosmic Consciousness, is a highly valuable work, well worth any effort on the part of the reader. It is truly a work of great insight and hope for the human race.

Readers who want to explore the topic of consciousness further may enjoy the following books, briefly described.
1. Annie Besant. A Study in Consciousness. 1938. An esoteric discussion from a Theosophical perspective.
2. Rudolf Steiner. The Evolution of Consciousness. 1979. An esoteric discussion from Steiner’s lectures.
3. Julian Jaynes. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976. A controversial, but fascinating psychological theory by a Princeton University professor.
4. Ken Wilbur. The Spectrum of Consciousness, 1977. Challenging, scholarly text by a contemporary philosopher.
5. Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Spiral Dynamics, 1996. A theory that demonstrates the evolution of human psychologies, beliefs, and values.


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