Rosicrucian Writings Online


Dr. Bucke
in Perspective
 
By Beatrice E. Treat, F. R. C.
 
[From The Rosicrucian Digest November 1961]
 
 
LIFE is to be lived.  Trite words; but thoughtfully considered, they become the key to the eternal question, "Why am I here?"  When it is understood that life's manifold experiences comprise the textbook whose lessons endure within the structure of the personality, its challenges can be faced with understanding.
 
Adversity, disappointment, joy, can be accepted equally, for thus our lives acquire meaning:  We are the sum of our experiences.
 
Those leaders of men whom we revere we measure by the breadth and depth of their experiences.  Their sorrows were transmuted into compassion, their failures into tolerance; their joy overflowed into generosity, and gratitude expressed itself in service.  Such personalities illumine the pages of history.
 
By their nearness to our own century, however, some have not yet enjoyed the full hallowing of time.  Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke is one.  His steady voice, measured by the cadence of his searchings and discoveries, will continue to speak to an ever-growing audience, for sixty years after its first publication, his book Cosmic Consciousness this year is having its twentieth printing.
 
As the seed bears within itself the potentials of its maturity, so does the fruit contain the seed:  Cosmic Consciousness is the summation of Dr. Bucke's experiences, a free-giving of self.  To know the book is to know the man since in essence they are one.
 
Written over a period of nearly thirty years, this probing, analytical study of the third level of consciousness--termed Cosmic consciousness by Dr. Bucke--remains an authoritative statement, illumined by the glow of his own transcendental experience, in 1872, at the age of 35.
 
This is no rhapsodical and ineffectual utterance associated generally with a phenomenon pronounced indescribable.  Rather it is a painstaking study, analogically based and scientifically reasoned--authoritative because his own consciousness had been extended and refined.
 
Dr. Bucke describes and analyzes a level of consciousness which, to him, is inevitable in the process of human evolution.  He calls it Cosmic because of its universal nature, a consciousness extending beyond the self to include the whole.  In brief, it is the culmination of a process which saw man rise above simple animal awareness to a second level, that of self-consciousness.
 
On this level, man saw himself for the first time in relation to his environment, and slowly, painfully, began to explore a world made meaningful in terms of himself.  He discovered the law of cause and effect and investigated its possibilities for his own benefit and comfort.  In meeting the challenges of this vast new area of consciousness, he awakened within himself unsuspected faculties.
 
According to Dr. Bucke, vaguely discerned abstract and moral values first emerged.  Imagination stirred.  After countless ages of brutish self-centeredness, the mind of man reached the threshold of a new level of consciousness--the Cosmic, universal in its scope.
 
Some few in the vanguard of the evolutionary stream already have transcended the limits of the old consciousness.  They are the teachers of men, their subjective light a beacon for the lesser ones to follow.  Throughout the past forty centuries or more of the world's history, the spiritual insight of these rare individuals has advanced mankind.
 
An intense interest fired by the immediacy of his own experience enabled Dr. Bucke to deal comprehensively with a subject hitherto untouched in psychological fields.  That an experience of only a moment's duration, unsought and unheralded, could transform and illumine so as to elevate the individual above others raised questions which he determined to answer.
 
As a doctor caring for the mentally ill, he was equipped to study firsthand the instability of mental faculties, which--as his research disclosed--were the last acquired by man in his evolutionary progress.  He studied and compared the lives of those in the past whom he suspected to have been cosmically illumined, discovering a common pattern, with identical factors characterizing the advent of Cosmic consciousness--the mystical light, illumination, ecstasy, followed by an enduring sharpening of the mental faculties and heightened spiritual insight.
 
There were Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Paul, Plotinus, Francis Bacon, to mention a few.  He found the phenomenon to be more frequent in the latter centuries, substantiating his contention that this new third level of consciousness is evolutionary and natural.
 
In seeking to explain the phenomenon, Dr. Bucke turned the searchlight of his inquiry upon himself, for nothing seemed so fruitful as introspection.  He had not sought Cosmic consciousness.  Had he perhaps invoked it?
 
He recalled his childhood on a Canadian farm and the poignant loss of his mother when he was only seven.  Certainly, the hardships of pioneering had encouraged early maturity.  There were the give-and-take of a large family, the rigors of winter, the cycles of planting and harvesting.  There were simple pleasures to remember, as well as not-so-pleasant memories following his mother's death.
 
No Formal Schooling
 
He remembered being taught Latin by his father, the scholarly clergyman-turned-farmer, and the hours spent browsing at will among the thousands of books in his father's library.  He had had no formal schooling, but perhaps this very lack had engendered a capacity for independent thinking.
 
How moved he had been by the books he read.  Faust had stirred him with never-to-be-forgotten horror; Scott's novels and poems delighted.  What curiosities and questionings had assailed his childish mind, and how avidly had he sought for answers.  Yes, even as a child his thoughts had turned to God, to life, to death.  Then had begun the restless searching that led him to leave home at sixteen, determined to learn of life firsthand.
 
Yet, hardships, privation, adventure had not been enough.  Could it be the long year in bed, the agonizing months that terminated five years of desperate adventure, had yielded a harvest richer than he knew?  At that time, the loss of one foot and the partial amputation of the other had seemed more than he could bear.
 
From the perspective of later years, however, he could view with compassionate detachment a youth, scarcely more than a boy, immersed in a sea of pain, who had yet risen above wildest rebellion and bitterness, and even more dangerous apathy, to begin a new phase of experience.
 
The battle was not easily won.  Hopelessly, he had reviewed the eventful years as railroad hand, deck hand on a Mississippi steamboat, driver of a wagon in a wagon train.  He had fought Indians, goldmined, and barely survived an adventure that had left him with frozen feet, to limp through life disfigured, never again to know freedom from pain.  His companion had not survived the ordeal.  Why had he?  Why?  The question reiterated itself in his consciousness.  He had to know why, and desperately he sought the answer.
 
Feebly at first, but steadily brighter, light penetrated the black depths of his despair.  The questing spirit that had sent him adventuring in the physical world now led him to the threshold of a mental realm, whose unexplored frontiers challenged him to new adventures.  He left his bed to register in McGill Medical School.  He was only 21.
 
He was an exceptional student, and his graduation thesis in 1862 was selected as the best of the year.  Postgraduate work in England followed, with visits to France and Germany, and in 1864 his return to Canada.  He married and in Sarnia, Ontario, settled down to a professional career that was successful from the beginning.
 
A flourishing private practice was not enough, however.  Sick bodies responded to his ministering, but so, he found, did sick minds.  He could soothe the most difficult patients, and his interest in the mentally ill led to reforms that were radical in his time although accepted matter-of-factly in ours.
 
He became one of the foremost alienists in America.  His appointment as Superintendent of the Provincial Asylum for the Insane at Hamilton, Ontario, and later Professor of Mental and Nervous Diseases at Western University, London, Ontario, provided opportunity for extensive research in a field practically untouched.  He became President of the Psychological Section of the British Medical Association and served, also, as President of the American Medico-Psychological Association.  He was an original fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
 
It can scarcely be doubted that in surveying the events of his life prior to that transcendent moment in 1872 when he experienced Cosmic consciousness, Dr. Bucke recognized its inevitability.  Experience, as such, is meaningless unless it stimulates the mind in its search for understanding.  His search had been undeviating, his persistence unwavering.
 
No incident in his life but had been analyzed, weighed, and evaluated, in terms of growth and application.  Even during the busy years as medical student, and thereafter, his mind was engrossed in speculative problems--to him basic and fundamental.
 
He read Darwin, Tyndall, Buckle, and taught himself French and German that he might read books in those languages.  Poetry, particularly Shelley, enthralled him, and it is remembered with awe that he memorized entire volumes.
 
Perhaps it was Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass that opened the door wide and ushered him into a level of consciousness which before he had only dimly perceived.  In attempting to penetrate the elusive mysteries of Whitman's verses, he took the final steps in an intensive, although unconscious, preparation for the crowning experience of his life--Cosmic consciousness.
 
Dr. Bucke Meets Walt Whitman
 
It was not, however, until 1877 that he and Whitman met.  That they shared something unique among men must surely have brought them together, and a rich and satisfying friendship developed.  Bucke was Whitman's first biographer.  He dedicated Man's Moral Nature to him.  Whitman, who became Bucke's patient, declared that Bucke's genius had saved his life and described him as a lucid, decisive man, deft and sure.  He marveled at his ability to handle difficult people.  Whitman's death in 1892 must have been a sad loss to Bucke, who was an honorary pall-bearer and one of the three literary executors.
 
One aspect of superconsciousness experienced by both Bucke and Whitman was the penetration of the mysteries of birth and death:  Fears almost instinctive because of ignorance are eradicated.  Life is experienced as a state of continuity and viewed with the detachment possible only in a perspective cosmic and universal.
 
Whatever the feeling of personal loss, Bucke did not grieve.  A multiplicity of interests filled his remaining years, primarily that of investigating the phenomenon of Cosmic consciousness.  He worked persistently to complete the book that may be considered the fruit of a lifetime's effort.
 
There were periodic visits to London.  Big, broad shouldered, with a prominent nose, deep set eyes, and spreading beard, Dr. Bucke became a familiar figure in that city.  A personality both commanding and endearing, alive with the sparkle of quick intelligence combined with the warmth of sincerity, made him a welcome guest wherever he went.  He enjoyed nothing more than friendly debate, although he was a formidable opponent, able to quote pages of documentary proof verbatim to substantiate his points.
 
It is strange that we read only of Dr. Bucke's accomplishments, of his strength and vigor, the vitality and magnetism of his personality, his striking appearance.  It is as if in determining to ignore the crippling pain of his mutilated feet, he had made impossible any subsequent crippling of spirit.  He did not pity himself.  He received no pity.  His physical impairment seemed scarcely worthy of notice.
 
The evening of February 19, 1902, was a pleasant one.  The time had passed in debating the authorship of the Shakespeare plays and poems, Dr. Bucke's contention being the then unorthodox Baconian theory.  To him, friends, a cheerful fire, good talk were the height of pleasure.
 
The night was frosty clear, the stars unusually brilliant when he and his wife returned home.  Loathe to retire, he stepped outside for a last look at the night sky and fell on the icy porch.  As he struck the back of his head, he turned the last page of this life's experience.  His work and Whitman's words remained:
 
    I announce the great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully armed;
    I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,
    And I announce an end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation.
 
 
* * *
 
 
The measure of a man's life is the well spending of it, and not the length.--Plutarch
 
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Webmaster's Notes:

1.  For a portrait of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, click here.
 
2.  The following books are available online (external links): 
 

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