Cosmic Consciousness, William James and Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen’s spiritual life began at the age of 16 when he experienced a spiritual experience spontaneously during a conversation with his mother. He later described that during this experience he was “completely overwhelmed and intoxicated by Love and struck by a sense of awe and wonder that was impossible to describe.”  From that revelation he “suddenly knew without any doubt that there was no such thing as death and that life itself had no beginning and no end… life was intimately connected and inseparable. It became clear that there was no such thing as individuality separate from that one Self that was all of life. The glory and majesty in the cosmic unity that was revealing itself  to me was completely overwhelming”

After this experience the young Andrew Cohen asked everyone he could about the experience that had occurred to him and no one he found seemed to be able to help him. In his autobiography Cohen states that at the time of his spontaneous spiritual awakening as a teenager he was reading his first spiritual book, William James’ classic of comparative religious study “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” and it was only this book that gave him “some understanding” of his experience.

As I stated in my last post I don’t believe that James was the most directly influential force on the development of Andrew Cohen’s evolutionary philosophy, although I do think James might have had some influence on Cohen’s evolutionary perspective.  Evolutionary philosophy is the explicit and implicit context of James’ work and the American character has certainly been predisposed to the idea of evolution for many reasons that we have explored here. Still, James’ Varieties of Religious Experience has minimal direct reference to evolution, so how might that book have influenced Andrew Cohen?

My desire to understand how the ideas of William James might have had shaped the development of Andrew Cohen’s Evolutionary Enlightenment has been partially fueling my own interest in American Philosophy for the past few years.  I have come to believe that there are several critical influences that Cohen could have received directly from James at a vulnerable moment in his spiritual life. One of these was certainly an exposure to the idea that spiritual awakening is part of a cosmic process of evolution. In particular Andrew Cohen may have been exposed to the idea of “cosmic consciousness” through James’ book.

Cosmic Consciousness is a term that was coined by the Canadian Doctor Richard Maurice Bucke in his 1901 book entitled Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. In that book Bucke proposes that experiences of this type represent the next stage in human consciousness. He contends that the occurrence of them is increasing with time showing that this new possibility is becoming closer at hand.

In his book, Bucke describes this state of consciousness as follows.

“The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is… a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe…Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination… To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense… With these come, what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.”

Bucke was an adventurous soul in more ways than one. As a young man he left the backwoods of Canada and spent 5 years living in and traveling through the wilderness of the American northwest. It became a death defying ordeal on several occasions and in the end resulted in the amputation of one of his feet completely and the other one partially due to frostbite.  

Later after having finished his education to become a doctor Bucke claimed to have been brought to an experience of Cosmic Consciousness himself after reading poetry by the English Romantics and the American poet Walt Whitman. After that Bucke became what you could call a spiritual devotee of Whitman (although Whitman was reluctant about the role of spiritual teacher). He eventually met Whitman in person, spent a summer with the great poet and wrote Whitman’s biography.  

Cohen’s description of his own experience certainly matches the description that Bucke provides and Cohen’s exposure to Bucke would have come through the reading of James at the time of his awakening. I wonder if reading James’ powerful book, full of rich and detailed descriptions of experiences of deep spiritual awakening, catalyzed Cohen’s experience as well as helped him to interpret it afterward.