5.4 Mysticism and Psychiatry

James was not the only mental health professional living around the turn of the twentieth century who made a link between mysticism and mental illness. Richard Maurice Bucke was a late-nineteenth-century Canadian psychiatrist whose book Cosmic Consciousness (1901) outlined a theory about the evolution of consciousness which he had developed from various sources, including observations of his patients, analyses of literature, and self-examination of his own mental functioning. The theory not only linked mysticism with the psychiatric concept of 'mental illness', but also fitted them both into an evolutionary context.

Bucke’s hypothesis was that human consciousness is engaged in an evolutionary process and is slowly moving through three distinct phases of development. The first stage he called ‘simple consciousness’, which he described as being concerned with sense perceptions. This primary level of consciousness is shared with other animals and was the only kind of consciousness available to our humanoid ancestors.

According to Bucke, humans became distinguished from other animals by growing into a second level of development he called ‘self consciousness’. Most modern people live on this second level of consciousness; but, according to Bucke, a third possibility is also available. He argued that there is a higher level of understanding, above self consciousness, which he called ‘cosmic consciousness’, and that its attainment is an evolutionary step above the current human status.

Bucke believed that only a select few individuals had so far experienced cosmic consciousness. Unusually, he thought that some of these were his own mental patients. He also claimed to have had first-hand experience of it himself. Speaking disconcertingly of himself in the third person, he wrote the following description of his own mystical experience.

He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-coloured cloud. For an instant he thought of fire, some sudden conflagration in the great city; the next, he knew that the light was within himself. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendour which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thence-forward for always an aftertaste of heaven. Among other things he did come to believe, 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 any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain.[29]

At the time of writing, Bucke was at the height of a successful career. Between 1876 and 1890 he held posts as Superintendent of the Provincial Asylum for the Insane at Hamilton and Superintendent of the London (Ontario) Hospital. He was also made Professor of Mental and Nervous Diseases at Western University (London, Ontario), and elected President of the Psychological Section of the British Medical Association and President of the American Medico-Psychological Association. In his time he was considered ‘one of the foremost alienists’ on the North American continent. The description of his mystical experience, far from being an embarrassment to him, was written up separately as a scientific account of unusual psychological phenomena and appeared in the Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada.[30]

Bucke’s book is divided into six parts. The first three lay down the foundations of his theory. Part IV is concerned with demonstrating that a number of historical figures, most of whom were poets or the founders of major religions, had experienced unusual mental phenomena, which he claimed were instances of cosmic consciousness. He largely relied on interpreting their writing, or accounts of their lives and experiences, to provide the evidence. The list includes such names as Gautama the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Dante, Francis Bacon (also known as William Shakespeare, according to Bucke) and William Blake.

Part V of the book is a similar examination of a longer list of ‘Additional—some of Them Lesser, Imperfect, and Doubtful Instances’[31] of cosmically conscious individuals. This list is also largely comprised of poets and religious figures, but it also includes thirteen people who were contemporaries of Bucke and whose identities he concealed by only referring to them by their initials. Some of the accounts given of the lives and experiences of these people indicate they had sought medical advice and it is fairly certain they were Bucke’s own patients.

Bucke observed that people who had undergone mystical experience often developed difficulties relating to other people and that throughout history they have been ‘either exalted, by the average self conscious individual, to the rank of gods, or, adopting the other extreme, are adjudged insane’.[32] Bucke believed he had found a solution to this problem by defining them as ordinary people who had simply taken an evolutionary step that all humans would inevitably take, sooner or later.

[29] Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness, pp. 9–10.

[30] Richard Maurice Bucke, Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series II, Vol. 12, pp. 159–96.

[31] Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness, p. 255.

[32] Ibid., p. 3.