Cosmic Consciousness REVISITED: The Modern Origins and Development of a Western Spiritual Psychology

Cosmic Consciousness REVISITED: The Modern Origins and Development of a Western Spiritual Psychology

by Robert M. May
Element Books, Rockport, Mass., 1993; paper.

This is a significant work on mystical experience, carefully researched and including biographies of each figure included. The author experienced cosmic consciousness himself at the age of twenty, an occurrence that launched a person al quest for answers.

May hoped in vain to find answers in his academic studies in psychology and philosophy. He then turned to study with spiritual masters, efforts that inspired his earlier book Physicians of the Soul (1982). Then he turned to Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness, published in Canada in 1902. A considerable portion of May's book is devoted to Bucke's life and this earlier work, along with that of William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.

Though an admirer of Bucke's philosophy, May has some difficulty accepting his optimistic view of the evolutionary development of humanity and of religion. May compares Bucke's stages of the development of consciousness to the theories of Jean Piaget, and asserts that Piaget, Freud, B. F. Skinner, and Noam Chomsky have all stopped short by ignoring the final step in the development of consciousness, cosmic consciousness, or the “Brahmic Splendor” of the East.

Each of the schools of psychology is included in this book, beginning with the stimulus-response psychology of John B. Watson, which May calls “soulless behaviorism.” May also finds that the determinism of Pavlov and Skinner “disposed of religion,” worshipping at the throne of scientism. On the other hand, the recovery of consciousness has come with the refutation of behaviorism. Figures familiar to most readers of The Quest and acclaimed by May are Rupert Sheldrake, whose concept of morphogenetic fields May calls “the most innovative theory in biology since Darwin,” and David Bohm, whom May describes as “an enlightened physicist” whose language resembles that of the great mystics.

May credits Carl Jung with esoteric understanding of the psyche, even though Jung disparaged cosmic consciousness.

An interesting comparison is made by May of the first meeting between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the first meeting between Whitman and Bucke. As to Gurdjieff’s theoretical “objective consciousness,” or fourth stage of consciousness, May finds it the very same as Bucke's cosmic consciousness. Either is the same as enlightenment, according to May.

As to Abraham Maslow, May finds that the “peak experience” bears little resemblance to Bucke's cosmic consciousness or to mystical experience as described by Evelyn Underhill.

Related theories referred to in May's book include those of Claudio Naranjo, Jean Houston, Teilhard de Chardin, Roberto Assagioli, and Victor Frankl -along with near-death researchers Kenneth Ring and Raymond Moody.

May rounds out his work with an evaluation of the spontaneous mystical experience. He states that humanity has come full circle with the new-old paradigm of cosmic consciousness, and offer s ten con temporary instances. His book will hold interest for readers familiar with Bucke's book as well as those wishing to delve into the background of this realm of human experience.


Spring 1994