Bucke is chiefly remembered for a book title that has since become something of a buzzword in the New Age lexicon: Cosmic Consciousness. The thesis, that humanity is heading toward an evolutionary leap in awareness, made the book something of an intellectual novelty item when it was first published in 1901, in a limited edition of 500 copies. Psychologist William James and esoteric philosopher P.D. Ouspensky were among those influenced by the work. Reprinted 26 times since its reissue in 1966, Cosmic Consciousness joined the works of Hermanne Hesse and Aldous Huxley as part of the ‘60s hippie canon. Of all the prophets of the human potential movement, Bucke could be considered its Moses figure, and his florid, Victorian-style writings its 10 Commandments.
Bucke’s wealthy British parents immigrated to Canada in 1837, soon after he was born. At 17, he left home and roamed across the US, supporting himself with odd jobs. According to author Gary Lachman, he found work “… as a gardener in Ohio, a railway man in Cincinnati, and a deckhand on a Mississippi steamboat, before finally signing on as a wagon driver across the Great Plains to the edge of Mormon territory, today part of Nevada.” Much of the area at that time was still controlled by Native Americans, who resented the incursion of white settlers. After crossing the Rockies, Bucke was attacked by Shoshone Indians and nearly starved to death. Soon thereafter, he tempted fate working as a gold miner. His partner died while trying to cross a mountain chain in the winter, and Bucke was about to follow when a mining party came across him. He lost one foot entirely to frostbite and part of the other. For the rest of his life, Bucke would only momentarily be free from physical discomfort and pain. He was 21 years old.
The family’s inheritance allowed their injured son to pursue a medical degree, with postgraduate work in England, France, and Germany. By 1874, Bucke had arrived in Canada and set up a practice in Ontario. In 1876, he became superintendent of an asylum for the insane in Hamilton, where his introduction of less invasive, more organic approaches to mental illness was new to North America. The progressive-minded doctor encouraged humane contact with patients, introducing what we would now call “occupational therapy.” Titles bestowed upon him included professor of mental and nervous diseases at Western University, and president of the psychological section of the British Medical Association. According to Lachman, by the end of the nineteenth century, “Bucke was considered one of North America’s foremost ‘alienists’ – the term used for doctors of the mind before ‘psychologist’ came into use – and his standing among professionals helped him garner a hearing for his extraordinary ideas about human evolution, a hearing that otherwise may have eluded him.”
Bucke spent his childhood years on the family farm, his base for exploring the backwoods of Southern Ontario. His father, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, spoke seven languages, and the home library contained thousands of volumes from England. This mix of pastoralism and British bibliomania, which had Bucke roaming from the brook to the book, set the foundations for his curiosity about human consciousness and its relationship to the world.
One day, a visitor to the farm began reciting verse from the transcendentalist, American poet Walt Whitman. The words fired the imagination of the youthful Bucke, who had a talent for reciting entire volumes of poetry from memory. He soon included Whitman’s book-length Leaves of Grass to his repertoire, which gives some idea of his mental discipline. Ten years after he first encountered Leaves of Grass, Bucke met the author, and even began to treat him as a patient.
At the age of 35, the physician had the one great personal experience that reshaped his life, and led to his writing Cosmic Consciousness. During a trip to England, he had spent an evening conversing with friends and reading from Wordsworth, Shelley, Keith, Browning, and, of course, Whitman. At midnight, he left his friends and settled into a hansom cab for the drive back to his hotel. The literary evening with friends had left him with a calm, peaceful feeling. He felt himself in a state of “quiet, almost passive, enjoyment.”
Until something suddenly came over him. Bucke later recalled the incident in the third person: "All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-coloured cloud...he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exaltation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe... he saw and knew that the cosmos is not dead matter but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone in the long run is absolutely certain.”
The doctor claimed that he had learned more during his few seconds of illumination than “in previous months or even years of study,” including “much that no study could ever have taught. For the rest of his life, Bucke could never doubt the “truth of what was then presented to his mind.”
During the years of research for Cosmic Consciousness, Bucke combed world literature for descriptions of similar experiences. He found a parallel with the Buddhist description of satori, the meditative moment of expansive awareness and inner peace. Cosmic Consciousness contains 14 representatives of the book’s title from across the east and west, including Gautama Buddha, Jacob Boehme, Jesus, William Blake, and, of course, Walt Whitman.
Many today regard such culture-heroes as saints or savants – a higher order of humanity or even more. Bucke believed these extraordinary individuals heralded a new mentality emerging from the chrysalis of day-to-day awareness. He traced what he saw as three levels of consciousness: an undifferentiated level of primal awareness, the self-consciousness of today’s waking reality, and the third level of cosmic consciousness. According to Bucke, there are three signature signs of cosmic consciousness: 1) a sense of unity with the world; 2) its foundation in elemental love; 3) and the paradoxical sense that perfection underlies the fragmented, chaotic surface of existence. This can be accompanied by the conviction that the universe is more than just dead matter accidentally arranging itself into complex forms. Such an awakening is experienced as coming from within, from the inside out.
Bucke insisted that waking consciousness is not a fixed entity historically. As evidence, he cited the intriguing fact that only three colours are mentioned by the Ancient Greeks; there is no mention of a blue sky in Homer’s works or in the Bible, and a similar paucity of reference to colour is evident in ancient, Vedic literature from India. The cross-cultural perception of fragrance has also taken on increasing sophistication over time, he observed. Bucke believed the phenomenal world – the world we create in our minds that we project outward – has grown in depth as man’s consciousness has evolved, even within the historical era.
Being a man of his time, Bucke put his evolutionary scheme in the context of social Darwinism. His references to “the singular perfection of the intellectual and moral faculties – an exceptional physique, exceptional beauty of the building carriage, exceptionally handsome features, exceptional health, exceptional sweetness of temper, exceptional magnetism” – seem to foreshadow the spiritual narcissism of today’s New Age scene, with its conflation of health, fitness, and expanded consciousness. Writes Lachman: “Bucke often gives the impression the likely candidate for cosmic consciousness would be [a] God-fearing, golden-haired body-builder, and in the face of such tedious perfection, one often comes away hungry for a degenerate or two to liven things up.” The doctor’s reference to less evolved human minds, falling short of his Whitman samplers, echoes vaguely Aryan ideas of evolutionary superiority among humans. These ideas of higher/lower forms of human consciousness have a dark side, as in, “I’m enlightened and you’re not.” The ever-present danger of making Ego into God haunts today’s New Age movement. Needless to say, a sudden experience of cosmic consciousness has never been a guarantee of lifelong wisdom, whether it’s the wandering tribes of Israel or the modern pilgrimages to Burning Man.
Whatever the book’s limitations or outright errors, the thesis of Cosmic Consciousness has fared well over time, becoming part and parcel of transpersonal psychology. Abraham Maslow’s notions of “peak experiences” and “hierarchy of needs” are a rejection of the neo-Freudian notion that we are mechanically stuck in ruts of repression. Today’s neuroscientists, having found that experienced meditators have unique brainwave patterns, explore cerebral fissures in search of an elusive “God spot.” Geneticists, recognizing a possible survival value for transcendental episodes, speculate on a possible genetic predisposition among those so inclined (I suspect Bucke would have found such academic materialism excessively reductionistic, like trying to bell the Cheshire cat).
With the exception of the occasional powerful dream, most of us simply have no acquaintance with such strange states of mind. Anecdotes about them may even make us uncomfortable, bringing to mind the ecstasies of holy rollers, or the psychotic episodes of the clinically insane. In fact, episodes of cosmic consciousness are very likely at the root of most religious belief systems. Ironically, the bureaucratic superstructure of organized religion, seeking to draw power from illuminations safely in the past, ends up directing followers to explicitly worship the creed’s founders and surrounding iconography. As philosopher Alan Watts said, those who decide what’s holy and what’s not offer “the menu rather than the meal.”
Despite the fact that most religious organizations prefer their epiphanies and visions wrapped in the mists of time, piously cloaked in ritual and dogma, awakenings continue to occur for believers and non-believers alike. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience, described in a Sentient Times article. The Baptist preacher and civil rights activist once received a late-night phone call threatening his family in a particularly hideous manner. Anxious about the safety of his newborn daughter and his wife, King fell to his knees in prayer. “It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth.’” At that moment, King recalled, he “experienced the presence of the Divine” as never before. “Almost at once, my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” Was King’s experience classifiable as an episode of cosmic consciousness? We may be nitpicking over definitions, but in his Christmas Sermon of Peace from 1968, King affirmed one of the principle insights of this expansive form of awareness:
“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
Little wonder that polite society has such a hard time recognizing an insight such as this, even when it is wholly consistent with our understanding of ecology, information networks, and subatomic physics. Such a sense of connectedness is anathema to the established order. Regardless, experiences of cosmic consciousness aren’t just private; they are mercurial, unpredictable, and difficult to communicate. Some individuals, after such an experience, end up wandering around with beatific, wide-eyed expressions. The Sufis call people who have yet to fully integrate such episodes into their daily lives “mere ecstatics.” In the West, we call them “bliss ninnies.” There is yet another group – average people with little acquaintance or interest in altered states – who have had an ineffable, life-altering experience they rarely discuss, and find hard to describe when they do.
A friend I have known for years told me of a transformative episode that occurred while, of all things, driving along the highway toward the Deas Tunnel. He was taking in the scenery when he suddenly found himself merging with everything around him, and everything flowing into him, in an indescribable mix of mutual identity. His eyes filled with tears as he tried to put this intensely joyous experience into words. At dinner recently, another friend alluded to a personal experience that led him off on a search through library stacks trying to figure out what had happened. (He found himself partial to Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious.) The episode convinced him he had a purpose in life, and that love is the foundation of all things. As far as I know, neither of these individuals was, or is, especially religious-minded. And both their experiences seemingly came out of the blue; neither drink, nor drugs, were responsible.
As H.G. Wells once said, “The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.” Bucke’s writing was an instrument, imperfect by its very nature, for recognizing something integral to the human psyche. His radically humane approach to mentally ill patients reflected his compassionate nature. In a life touched by a sense of fundamental connection to the world and other beings, Bucke didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk.
Bucke was a socialist and believed the twentieth century would witness a flowering of man’s innate capacity for cosmic consciousness, and the emergence of a global utopia. He didn’t live to witness the horrors of the trenches, the Nazi death camps, or Stalin’s collective farms, among other horrors indicating that the race between human awareness and global catastrophe is still too close to call. In February of 1902, 54-year-old Bucke fell from his verandah while looking up at the night sky. He slipped on ice and died almost immediately from a blow to the head. Though his tragic exit occurred only a year after the publication of his book, the doctor left the world in a way wholly appropriate to him: with his gaze directed to the stars.