I've been reading Richard Maurice Bucke's classic work Cosmic Consciousness recently, and it's reminded me of an experience I had when I was 17 years old. At that time I was rather morbidly fixated on the question of the meaning of life, which was tied in with the issue of my own mortality. I was torn in two opposite directions, Christianity and atheism. As a result, I alternated between reading books by the Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis and the atheist philosopher Ayn Rand. In many ways I gravitated more toward Rand's view of the world, but part of me wanted the assurance that seemed to come with Christian faith.
One night I was reading a book about Christianity -- not one of Lewis's books, I believe -- and I came across a suggested meditative exercise. The author said that direct personal knowledge of Christ was available to anyone who reached out and asked for it. It's been more than 30 years since this happened, so unfortunately I don't remember the book in question or exactly what the author said. But if I recall correctly, the meditation consisted of closing your eyes, imagining a closed door, and then seeing the door open and Christ waiting for you.
Though skeptical, I decided to try it. I did close my eyes, I visualized the door, I saw it open, and there was Christ. And then a most peculiar thing happened. All at once I had the subjective impression of a very bright light, reddish gold, warm and comforting, and with it came the sense that my fear of death was utterly unwarranted, that death was only an illusion, that immortality was guaranteed, and that all the world was suffused by this healing red-gold light.
I was shocked that the meditation had yielded this result and didn't know what to make of it, nor did I discuss it with anyone. For the next two or three days the afterglow of this experience stayed with me. At the time I was commuting into New York City to work a summer job, and I remember riding the train and thinking that the other commuters, all of them, were souls, immortal souls, bathed in the same surreal light I'd seen. One lunch hour I crossed a busy Manhattan street and risked being hit by a car; a traffic cop shook his head disapprovingly at me as if to say I'd cut it awfully close. My feeling, though, was that being hit by a car was of no importance at all. Life and death were illusions, and physical mishaps were unimportant.
As I say, I remained in this state of mind for two or three days, but gradually the aftereffects of my experience diminished and then disappeared entirely.
Now you might think that this revelation or moment of insight, or whatever you want to call it, would have confirmed me as a Christian or at least as a theist. Not so. Once the feeling had passed, I reverted to my usual rationalistic self. I dismissed the experience as some kind of odd psychological quirk. In fact, I was embarrassed by it. If anything, my embarrassment probably hastened my progress in the direction of atheism, and I ended up embracing Ayn Rand's philosophy for the next few years. For a long time I never thought about the experience at all.
When I look back on it now, I think I had a momentary and partial glimpse of what Bucke calls "cosmic consciousness." It was certainly not complete. I did not have a sense of the unity of all living things or of all creation; I did not feel at one with the universe. But I did experience what Bucke calls the subjective light and the assurance of immortality.
Why, then, did I reject it so quickly? I think that at such a young age, I was not able to process what had happened. In the teenage years the ego is still very much in control. To surrender the ego is almost impossible. It was easier to rationalize the experience and suppress it. In his book, Bucke claims that experiences of cosmic consciousness almost never occur before the age of 35. I think he may be partly mistaken about this. Based on my own experience, I would say that much younger people can at least have glimmers of cosmic consciousness, but because they are not ready for the encounter, it does not leave any permanent impression on them and therefore does not show up in the record.
(Incidentally, Bucke also says that experiences of cosmic consciousness generally occur in spring or summer; for whatever it may be worth, my own experience took place in the summer.)
George Bernard Shaw famously said that youth is wasted on the young. Certainly in this case, he was right. I would give a lot to have an experience like that now, when I could really appreciate it. Unfortunately I had it too soon!
Some people might ask if this experience of mine makes me more partial to Christianity as opposed to other religious traditions. It doesn't, because I think the same kind of meditative practice, in the same circumstances, could yield a similar result regardless of the particular deity invoked. People have had experiences of cosmic consciousness long before Christianity and in cultures untouched by Christianity. An interesting example of a non-Christian encounter with a deity is presented in the Roman novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Although most of the novel is a fable, the closing pages appear to be autobiographical, based on Apuleius' initiation into the Eleusynian mysteries. There is an eloquent and moving description of the narrator's vision of the goddess Isis, an experience that transforms him. (An excerpt of the scene can be read here.) So, from a personal standpoint, I don't think it makes much difference whether one is focused on Christ or Isis or Vishnu or some other deity, and therefore I don't take the experience as proving anything about Christianity in particular.
One thing is certain: if we could all have experiences like that on demand -- if we could live in that reddish gold light (which I've never forgotten) all the time, the world would be a much better place.
Happy New Year.