The time and place was early Spring of 1985. I will never forget the details of my discovery of a seminal book in my spiritual development, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, a 1901 work by the psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke. In it he explores the concept of “cosmic consciousness.” which he defines it as “a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary [person]”. It constitutes the apex of consciousness, which exists on several levels according to Bucke:
- Simple consciousness, possessed by both animals and mankind
- Self-consciousness, possessed by mankind, encompassing thought, reason, and imagination
- Cosmic consciousness, which is “a higher form of consciousness than that possessed by the ordinary person”
This last form of consciousness, according to Bucke, shows the cosmos to consist not of dead matter governed by unconscious, rigid, and unintending law; it shows it on the contrary as entirely immaterial, entirely spiritual and entirely alive; it shows that death is an absurdity, that everyone and everything has eternal life; it shows that the universe is God and that God is the universe…
And who did he feature as illumined with cosmic consciousness? Among others, Jesus, The Buddha, Dante, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Mohammed, Socrates, and William Wordsworth. The complete list is in the Table of a contents of the book.
All this fascinated me because it seemed to represent and open up to me a wider view of the spiritual, non-material side of life, and all of existence and the universe. It further cracked open a door that led to my first exposure to the writings of The Theosophical Society and Helena Blavatsky, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and George Gurdjieff at around the same time.
That was 37 years ago, and it’s only in the past year or so during the pandemic that I have started to return to the ideas of these thinkers, mystics and philosophers, in particular Krishnamurti. I have only scratched the surface, but every little bit I come across in the works of these individuals whets my appetite and curiosity for more. Who among us does not want to seek answers, or at least gain knowledge about the most profound and fundamental questions of human existence?
It seems to me it has never been more important than now to blend a study of history with these urgent questions of our purpose and existence as revealed by all the great wisdom traditions and religions throughout the ages. These are acutely perilous times we’re living through in the still young 21st century, as we grapple with those most existential of questions: whether we can survive as a species amidst a world where human-caused climate change has greatly exacerbated war, famine, drought, extreme weather and the rise of neo-fascist, authoritarian governments, including quite possibly our own in the U.S. The future holds terrifying possibilities, more so then ever with the potentially catastrophic effects of human-caused climate change in the coming decades, not centuries, as we were once given as a timeline. In fact, the extreme weather disasters are occurring now.
For me at this particular time in history, the pieces of the puzzle, unfinished for decades, are fitting together more rapidly. And each day seems to hint at the answers, the completion of the puzzle.
Looking back to 1985 when I first came across Cosmic Consciousness, the timing seems more and more remarkable. Some context is needed.
That Spring of 1985 was only two years after one of the great job and career failures of my life. I was uprooted in every sense of the word. I had traveled around the country and had come back to my hometown, New Orleans to try and figure out what to do next.
I ended up working in a temporary job at a law firm, arranged by my attorney father (and I’m grateful to him for that), but it turned out to be the most unbelievably tedious and agonizingly boring nothing of a job I’ve ever had, such that I could not even imagine that kind “work” even existed. This was “karma,” I suppose, for taking an arranged job via “connections.” Oh, did I pay the price! I was 34 and the established attorneys and paralegals had not much use for me, and made my life at that workplace miserable.
One of the only ways I kept my sanity for the seven, interminable months I was there, was utilizing my lunch hour to the max, eating at good sandwich shops in downtown New Orleans, which has always been a fascinating place, wandering in the fabled French Quarter, and perusing the shelves of a huge two-story B. Dalton Bookseller on Canal Street, the wide Main Street of New Orleans. It was at that enormous oasis of a bookstore that I came across the book, “Cosmic Consciousness.” Here at last was hope in truly discovering world of the mind infinitely beyond anything I was doing in that mindless job at the law firm.
I subsequently left that job with the most thrilling sense of relief, and resumed my travels and adventures/misadventures in graduate school. When I finally settled done after ten years of wandering, the New Age music and books, esoteric teachings and wisdom traditions withered away in my life and consciousness as I returned to mainstream religion, a job, and, some years later my long stint as primary caregiver for my mother who had dementia. I hardly had time to read or think about anything. But that is starting to change in the two years since Mom passed. As my retirement begins to lengthen and the years speed by, as it does at warp speed in old age, I have moved to my own place and we have just sold Mom’s house.
So it’s another time of transition, with exciting prospects for a new life, so to speak, and hope despite the grave condition of the world and the looming threat to our very existence from reckless folly of human-caused climate change.
With all this in mind, I will proceed next to some remarkable “coincidences” that popped up out of nowhere. And they further unravel the mysteries I have been alluding to. .
For instance, a week ago, I was going through some of the papers and memorabilia I’ve saved over decades. Those things I can’t seem to toss out. Now I see why.
Back in 1998, before my consuming obsession with chat rooms and instant messaging and texting when the Internet and World Wide Web were seen as mind-blowing gateways opening up a new world as the 20th century came to a close, email was really catching on with me. After I started my first online journal, I made friends with readers who read my writing, and with whom I developed some rather in-depth correspondences. And because email was so novel, and in so many ways the electronic version of writing letters, I printed out and saved all of those emails for a period of three years. I’ve never repeated that practice to this day. Only in the last couple of months have I begun discarding some of them.
One correspondent was a fellow online journaler whose name was James. He was a free-spirit type of person and an artist who worked in temporary blue-collar jobs to save up money so he could take time off for travel, painting, and deep thought and meditation. I was so intrigued, and greatly looked forward to our email correspondence because I knew I would always have much to think about. Fir about a year back in 2000 and 2001, we regularly, though not frequently, emailed each other. Usually he talked about something I had written and posted, and which led him down his own corridors of thought in response.
After 20 years I would not have remembered anything we had emailed each other about, but I had that fortuitous habit back then of printing out emails, so the one from James went into a fat Manila folder, stored in a box, and pretty much forgotten about until I began the serious and time-consuming organization and repacking of my documents and memorabilia in preparation for my move and the sale of Mom’s house. From out of James’s folder I plucked an email which dumbfounded me because he vividly describes what I can only say is exactly what Bucke wrote about in detailing moments of illumination the subjects in his book experienced with cosmic consciousness.
James wrote this, and allow me, if you will, to quote at length from his email dated May 10, 2001:
I recently saw a Japanese film about death. The action took place in a sort of holding area for the soul. People freely departed from the Earth, and their bodies were required to choose one memory from their lives, a memory which they would carry with them for all eternity, all other memories being banished from their consciousness.
A few days after the film, I broke into a laugh because I realized that my own choice of a single memory seemed completely absurd, if viewed from the outer senses. Only I could know the significance of that moment – anyone else saying it would think it madness to choose such a hideous time and place.
The memory occurs when I was about 22 or 23. I was at my place of summer employment, which was a fire sprinkler warehouse. Grease, dirt, dull gray concrete, truck exhaust, stifling, humid heat, sweating on my feet for eight hours, dealing with strange and violent characters. I was leading a life of high contrast.
After the toil the day I would wander over to a small local wooded area and hike around, and then sit by the river, meditating. The day before the ultimate memory, I was meditating beside a small man-made lake, sitting on a stone embankment. I was feeling very still, a lavish, heavy peace filling my heart and head. At dusk, just as I was about to stand up, my eyes caught the reflection of the moon on the water, just in front of me. A ripple of magic vibrated through my entire being. I have never felt such bliss, such quiet. I felt for the first time as if that part of me was indestructible, and that no matter what be befell me, that one piece of magic flowing through me could never be taken away. It was like a stone that it been traveling my innards for a long time and had finally settled down for good, right in the center of my being.
I rose, began walking away, and the magic remained, like I was glowing, like a flower in bloom, a leaf with shiny dew drops. About an hour later the magic faded, and I fell asleep from exhaustion.
The next day, back to the dark greasy warehouse. I was practicing my meditation even at work, and I was getting quite proficient at it. In the late morning, I was standing about 25 feet from the large loading dock door, opened high enough to let some hot air circulate through the cavernous place. I was shrink wrapping a skid that weighed about 1000 pounds, filled with iron elbows and oily T-joints. I was meditating on the task, and following my breath at the same time. At that moment the magic from the night before returned, but I need my higher dose. I felt as if I was a high power copper wire conduit. All of life’s energy was flowing through me in a torrent of power. The greatest feelings of ecstasy overcame me, and I thought, “Nothing can hurt me, that heavy stone inside me cannot be budged.” I thought of horrible things — mother’s death, father’s death, cancer, etc., yet I was confident none of those things could budge the magic stone that seemed to have taken residence inside me. That magic was my most valuable possession.
At that moment, Mike, a metal-head with a new tattoo, came over to me, and my response to him was so glorious and glowing that I could see that he could not escape the magic either, and he came under a spell. It was as if I had a shield of protection around me. Nothing could hurt me, nothing could disrupt the flow. The magic lasted much longer than the previous evening. The rest of the day I was feeling the glow inside. It would not leave. Only in the evening, as I walked in the world, did it start to fade. The high powered magic never returned after that day, but the stone deep inside me remained, and it’s still there, regulating my life,keeping me safe.
My memory therefore would be me standing on the dank, hot, moldy, gray loading dock, shrink wrapping a greasy wooden pallet. Nothing could be uglier or more vile, yet I never had a brighter, more magical inner state, before or sense. I guess my memory then, revolves around nothing money can procure. Those things are pale in comparison to that day when I felt a mystical power inside me.
As if this alone was not marvelous enough an example of synchronicity, it was duplicated only a few days later. There’s obviously no logical explanation.
Years ago, I don’t even remember when or where, I bought a curious, and admittedly dated book published in 1947 titled, “One Thousand Beautiful Things: A Collection of Prose and Poetry Chosen From the World’s Literature.” It is filled with numerous examples of quite famous poems, short stories and essays, but many other rather obscure titles. All in all, a perfect example of literature that was once widely read, only to be basically forgotten by today’s younger readers, who, in fact, don’t read much at all. I particularly like the fact that the first work in the book on Page 1 is a beautiful and favorite poem of mine called “God’s World” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. One hundred years ago, people read a lot of poetry, and Millay was the most widely read poet. Today, I read recently, she’s virtually unknown.
Here are the first two stanzas, and again, remarkably, they expresses in more subdued words, the sentiments and emotions of a person illuminated by “cosmic consciousness”:
Oh world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide gray skies!
Thy mists they roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, they ache and sag
And all but cry with color! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, world! I cannot get the close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all
But never knew I this,
Here such passion is
As stretcheth me apart. Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year…
Then, just the other day as I was looking through the book, very little of which I’ve actually read, I noticed a bookmarked page with an essay by a writer named M. P. Montague. I could find nothing about him in an Internet search. I feel certain that 100 years ago he was a popular writer of magazine articles and books. But who has heard of him today?
But that is what us so fascinating about these dated anthologies and other collections of writing that perhaps are to be found on some bookshelf in a home in a small town in the middle of America, or else collecting dust in some used bookstore or warehouse.
Thus it was my good fortune recently to be thumbing through this book which led to the Montague essay titled, “Twenty Minutes of Reality.” “This is going to be interesting,” I thought, pondering the title. And it most surely was quite beyond interesting, because for the second time within days I came across another classic example of “cosmic consciousness,” not from a saint, mystic or philosopher, but from an ordinary man whose work today is forgotten but who had much to tell the world.
Here are the key passages in that essay:
It was an ordinary, cloudy March day. I am glad to think that it was. I am glad to remember that there was nothing extraordinary about the weather, nor any unusualness of setting — no flush of spring or beauty of scenery — to induce what I saw. It was, on the contrary, almost a dingy day. The branches were bare and colorless, and the occasional half melted piles of snow were a forlorn gray rather than white. Colorless little city sparrows flew and chirped in the trees, while human beings, in no way remarkable, passed along the porch.
There was, however, a wind blowing, and if any outside thing intensified the experience, it was the blowing of that wind. In every other respect it was an ordinary, commonplace day. Yet here, in this everyday setting, and entirely unexpectedly (for I had never dreamed of such a thing), my eyes were opened, and for the first time in my life I caught a glimpse of the ecstatic beauty of reality.
I cannot now recall whether the revelation came suddenly or gradually; I only remember finding myself in the midst of those wonderful moments, beholding life for the first time in all its young intoxication of loveliness, and it’s unspeakable joy, beauty, and importance. I cannot say exactly what the mysterious change was. I saw no new thing. But I saw all the usual things in a miraculous new light, and what I believe is their true light. I saw for the first time how wildly beautiful and joyous, beyond any words of mine to describe, is the whole of life. Every human being moving across that porch, every sparrow that flew, every branch tossing in the wind, was caught in and was a part of the whole mad ecstasy of loveliness, of joy, of importance, of intoxication of life.
It was not that for a few keyed-up moments I imagined all existence as beautiful, but that my inner vision was cleared to the truth so that I saw the actual loveliness which is always there, but which we so rarely proceed perceive…
After these revelatory words by an unknown (to me) writer and a long since vanished-from-my-life email correspondent, I must share my own experience with this phenomena called “cosmic consciousness.”
I want to say here that 43 years ago, after recovering from the very blackest episode of depression that stretched agonizingly over five months in the fall and winter of 1978 and 1979, and during which I lost my job and everything I was working toward up to that point, I experienced a recovery and mental and spiritual healing that was, to my mind, nothing short of miraculous. By late spring and early summer of 1979, I embarked on a new life, literally, starting over from scratch, returning to South Carolina after recuperating at home in New Orleans for several months. I was nervous, but I was full of hope. I was after all only 28 and had most of my life yet to live.
What I discovered upon my return to life was an exuberance and happiness I had never felt before. I listened to music from the Sixties as if I was hearing it for the first time. I wrote short stories and reached out to people everywhere I went, enthusiastic and overjoyed to be alive, luxuriating in freedom and feelings of bliss that lasted well into the next year. I ended up in a teaching job that was, and is, the brief highlight of my working life. Everything was possible.
Until it wasn’t. The downfall came three years later when everything fell apart again. I entered a ten-year period of uncertainty and wandering, during which I discovered that unforgettable book about cosmic consciousness in a bookstore in downtown New Orleans. The seeds of illumination and hints of further progress toward self knowledge and enlightenment were planted. I remember those days, weeks and months of bliss and happiness as if they occurred only yesterday.
What I have just discussed is my “ultimate memory,” just as my long-ago friend, James, had his and shared it with me. Those intense and everlasting memories from 1979 were like that magic stone James wrote about, protecting and watching over me, though today I would think of this as the presence of a guardian angel or the spirit of God.
Recalling that time in my life helps me today to appreciate, and even understand to some extent, what others have gone through, and helps me part the veil over mysteries that remain.