Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Maurice Bucke 1901 &
Cosmic Consciousness Revisited by Robert M. May, 1991
Consciousness is a term that is used to describe the level (or levels) of mind, or cognition that is characterised by self-awareness. As humans we are not only aware of our environment, we are also aware of ourselves and our inner world. In other words, we are aware that are aware. Consciousness is sometimes termed enlightenment or awareness. Enlightenment is usually associated with Eastern traditions and especially with Buddhism. In my research I was amazed that I could find no literature on consciousness within the academic world of orthodox psychology. However, as early as the nineteenth century there were individuals writing about consciousness.
One of the earliest researchers of consciousness was Richard Maurice Bucke. Born in Ontario, Canada, in the 1830s ‘of good middle class English stock’, he lived on a farm with his parents. Having an extensive library Bucke was self-educated in his early life and learned Latin from his father, the Reverend Horatio Walpole Bucke. As a young man Bucke had an experience which he termed ‘cosmic consciousness’.
In 1901, in his book of the same title, he used the term ‘cosmic consciousness’ to describe this experience of expanding consciousness. Bucke spent several years exploring the vast expanse of territory from Canada through the Rocky Mountains, trying to reach the Pacific Ocean, working in gold mining along the way. He and his friend were trapped in snow in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe for over a week. The ‘Last Chance’ miners took care of him. However, he lost one foot and part of the other. Bucke went on to become a medical doctor, specialising in psychiatry or medico-psychology as it was then called. He was appointed superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane in London, Ontario, in 1887. He was friend and biographer of the poet Walt Whitman, who had a profound effect on his life.
Known as the Father of Western spiritual psychology, Bucke’s evolutionary theory of consciousness includes three levels of consciousness: simple consciousness, self-consciousness and cosmic consciousness. He claimed that while nearly everyone can experience level one and two that level three was a higher state of consciousness than that possessed by ordinary men and women and that it was only present occasionally, lasting from a few seconds to a few hours.
A century later, psychologist Robert M. May, who had a consciousness awakening experience at the age of twenty in 1962, revisited Bucke’s work. In his book, Cosmic Consciousness Revisited, The Modern Origins and Development of a Western Spiritual Psychology, May traces developments in psychology and religious experience over the past hundred years. He considers Bucke to be among the foremost in his profession. Bucke wrote many papers and gave many addresses to medical and psychological societies of his time. He was the first psychiatrist to discontinue the use of restraints and seclusion in the treatment of the insane. He abandoned the strait-jacket and locked padded cell, and treated his patients as the human beings they were. He was president of both the Canadian and the American Medico-Psychological Association of his day.
Yet, today Bucke is almost unknown in psychiatry or psychology. May is of the opinion that ‘so extreme is the prejudice against mystical and religious experience, that its great expositors were totally excised from history. One will search in vain in modern psychology textbooks for any references to mystical, religious or cosmic consciousness’.