In his classic work, Cosmic Consciousness (1901), Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) did not presume to place himself in the company of the illumined individuals whose lives he examined in his book, but he did relate—in the third person—the account of his own experience. It was in the early spring at the beginning of Bucke's 36th year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading selections from such poets as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Robert Browning, with a special emphasis on Walt Whitman. The young men had become so enraptured by their readings that they didn't part until midnight, and Bucke faced a long ride home in a horse-drawn hansom cab. He recalled that his mind was still deeply under the influence of the many inspirational ideas, images, and emotions that had been provoked by the reading and discussions of the evening. He was feeling calm and peaceful when, without any warning of any kind, "he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud." For an instant, he thought of a great fire somewhere in the city, then "he knew that the light was within himself."
Upon this realization, Bucke experienced a great sense of exultation, of joyousness, "immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe." It seemed as if there streamed into his brain "one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor" which would henceforth forever lighten his life. 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 built and ordered that without peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of this world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain. Bucke would ever after insist that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination experience lasted than in previous years of study— and "he learned much that no study could ever have taught."
Among those historic individuals whom he saw as definitely having attained cosmic consciousness, Bucke included Gautama the Buddha (c. 563–c. 483 B.C.E.), Jesus Christ (c. 6 B.C.E.–c. 30 C.E.), Paul (d. 62–68 C.E.), Plotinus (205–270 C.E.), Muhammed (c. 570–632 C.E.), Dante (1265–1321), Francis Bacon (1561–1626), Jakob Behmen (1575–1624), William Blake (1757–1827), and his own idol, Walt Whitman (1819–1892). It is apparent from the above listing that Bucke saw such illumination occurring more often to men than to women. In added chapters, he named a number of other individuals whom he considered lesser, imperfect, or doubtful recipients of cosmic consciousness—men such as Moses (fourteenth–thirteenth century B.C.E.), Gideon, Isaiah (eighth century B.C.E.), Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.E.), Spinoza (1632–1677), Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Ramakrishna Paramahansa (1836–1886).
In order for one to achieve cosmic consciousness, Bucke maintains that he or she must first belong to the "top-layer of the world of Self-Consciousness." One must have a good intellect, a good physique, good health, but above all "…he must have an exalted moral nature, strong sympathies, a warm heart, courage, strong and earnest religious feelings." Bucke's extensive study of those whom he considered possessed of cosmic consciousness led him to consider the approximate age of 36 as the most propitious time in one's life to achieve this elevated state of consciousness. In summation, he found the marks of the "Cosmic Sense" to be the following:
Bucke's primary thesis is that during the centuries of humankind's evolutionary development as a species there have been three forms of consciousness. First, there was simple consciousness, our instinctual awareness. Next came a self-consciousness, a self-awareness that allowed human beings to realize themselves as distinct individuals. And now, developing among the human species, are those individuals possessed of cosmic consciousness, a new faculty of consciousness, that will lead humankind to the pinnacle of human evolution.
Such spiritual prophets as Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) also foretold that humankind is entering a "fullness" of time in which a new consciousness shall emerge. Steiner termed the new awareness "Christ consciousness," a transformative energy that would transcend orthodox Christianity. In his view, "the rest of humanity must now, in imitation of Christ, gradually develop what was present for 33 years on the Earth in one single personality."
Steiner acknowledged that spiritual history is replete with many sincere and insightful prophets and teachers who lived before the Master Jesus, but, in his opinion, they could only speak to their fellow humans by using the faculties transmitted through their earthly natures. They used the energy and the wisdom of Earth. Jesus, however, tapped into an awareness of that higher energy that comes from the realm of the Divine. He knew that a speck of this energy no larger than a mustard seed could exalt the human psyche. He knew that even the slightest infusion of this energy into a man or a woman would transform the individual into a citizen of a higher dimension of reality, the "Kingdom of God." And, at the same time, he taught that the doorway to enter such a wondrous kingdom lay within the heart of each sincere pilgrim who sought to join him there.
Author/philosopher John W. White (1939– ) also sees Jesus as an evolutionary forerunner of the higher race that will inherit the Earth, a "race of people that will embody Cosmic Consciousness, the Christ Consciousness on a species-wide basis, rather than the sporadic individual basis seen earlier in history when an occasional avatar, such as Buddha or Jesus, appeared." White gives the name of Homo Noeticus (pertaining to higher consciousness) to this evolving form of humanity. "Because of their deepened awareness and self-understanding, the traditionally imposed forms, controls, and institutions of society are barriers to their full development," White says. "Their changed psychology is based on expression, not suppression, of feeling. Their motivation is cooperative and loving, not competitive and aggressive. Their sense of logic is multilevel, integrated, simultaneous.… Their identity is sharing-collective, not isolated-individual.… The conventional ways of society do not satisfy them. The search for new ways of living concerns them."
In the 1950s, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) strongly advised people that humankind had to develop a new way of thinking if they were to survive as a species. Since that time, the great genius physicist has not been alone in suggesting that humanity must develop an inner road to salvation involving a synthesis of rational understanding with the mystical experience of oneness, of unity.
In his Mystics as a Force for Change (1981), Dr. Sisirkumar Ghose argues that throughout the evolution of humankind, the mystics have always been among people as evidence of transitional forms within the species. Instead of accusing mystics of being dropouts and escapists, Ghose insists that "it might be fairer to say that in breaking the illusions of the cave dwellers they have been more responsible to reality and to the race.… They have been the true scientists of catharsis and conversion.… The only radical thinkers, they alone go to the root of the matter, beyond the various shaky schemes of mundane perfection, swaying between the worship of the Fatted Calf and the horror of the Organization Man."
Since many saints, prophets, and mystics have seemingly achieved a state of cosmic consciousness and/or illumination, William James (1842—1910), writing in his classic work Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), lists the features that he believes form a composite picture of "universal saintliness, the same in all religions:"
Many contemporary researchers use the term "peak experience" when referring to cosmic consciousness. In her Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics (1986), Marsha Sinetar writes that the peak experience is "critical to any discussion of the mystic's journey, since through it and because of it the individual gains an overarching and penetrating view into what he is at his best, into what he is when he simply 'is.' The peak experience means that the person experiences himself 'being,' rather than becoming." Sinetar goes on to state that the person undergoing such an expansion of consciousness is able to have a direct experience with "the transcendent nature of reality." The person then "enters into the Absolute, becoming one with it, if only for an instant…a life-altering instant." The peak experience expands "the individual's field of consciousness to include everything in the universe…he feels he has everything because he experiences everything within."
In his Watcher on the Hills (1959), Dr. Raynor C. Johnson sets forth the following three criteria to test the validity of mystical experience, those moments when one feels that he or she has touched "the transcendent nature of reality":
Johnson contends that it is obvious that "…all psychotic products resulting in obsessional feeling-states cannot pass the first criterion." It is also clear, he writes, that "all allegedly religious people who…have only intolerance in common and are sure that if people only believed as they do, all would be well, are ruled out by the third criterion."
James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience. Garden City, N.Y.: Masterworks Program, 1963.
Johnson, Raynor C. Watcher on the Hills. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 1959.
Otto, Rudolf. Mysticism East and West. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Tilby, Angela. Soul: God, Self and the New Cosmology. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Dutton, 1961.