Sacred Texts  Esoteric  Index  Previous  Next 

Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, [1901], at


Henry David Thoreau.

Born July 12, 1817; died May 6, 1862. There are several reasons for suspecting Thoreau to have been a case of Cosmic Consciousness, such as his addiction to solitude, his love of mysticism and the mystics, the almost preternatural acuteness of his senses, his love for and fellowship with animals, his intellectual keenness and his moral elevation. The present editor has, however, searched in vain for data which might convert this presumption into anything like a certainty, and Thoreau is so close to us that, had he experienced illumination, the evidence thereof ought to be forthcoming and decisive. But what do these eight lines mean, if not that their author had passed through some such experience as is here treated of 2

I hearing get who had but ears,*
And sight who had but eyes before,
I moments live who lived but years,
And truth discern who knew but learning's lore.

I hear beyond the range of sound,*
I see beyond the range of sight,*
New earths, and skies and seas around,
And in my day the sun doth pale his light.

* "Have you ever asked for that instruction by which we hear what cannot be heard, by which we perceive what cannot be perceived, by which we know what cannot be known?" [148: 92].

* "Hearing ye shall hear and shall in no wise understand, and seeing ye shall see and shall in no wise perceive" [14: 13: 14].

* "The eyesight has another eyesight and the hearing another hearing and the voice another voice" [193: 342].

If Thoreau experienced illumination at the usual age, evidence of the fact should be found in "Walden," which was written between 1845 and 1854, when its author was twenty-eight to thirty-seven years of age. As a matter of fact, we do find passages in that book which suggest that the writer of it, if not an actual case of Cosmic Consciousness, was yet well on the way thereto. For instance:

p. 296

Our manners have been corrupted by communication with the saints. Our hymn books resound with a melodious cursing of God and enduring him forever. One would say that even the prophets and redeemers had rather consoled the fears than confirmed the hopes of man. There is nowhere recorded a simple and irrepressible satisfaction with the gift of life, any memorable praise of God [199a: 85].*

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions for a poetic or divine life [199a:97].*

* He finds God and human life greater and better than has ever been said, as indeed they are greater and better than any one has said or can say.

* Compare Whitman: "I cannot be awake, for nothing looks to me as it did before, or else I am awake for the first time, and all before has been a mean sleep" [124a: 49].

Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men, it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they, beyond any deserts that I am conscious of; as if I had a warrant and surety at their hands which my fellows have not, and were especially guided and guarded. I do not flatter myself, but if it be possible they flatter me. I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain, while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in the scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.

Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain storms in the spring and fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening, in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves. In those driving northeast rains, which tried the village houses so, when the maids stood ready with mop and pail in front entries to keep the deluge out, I sat behind my door in my little house, which was all entry, and thoroughly enjoyed its protection. In one heavy thunder shower the lightning struck a large pitch-pine across the pond, making a very conspicuous and perfectly regular spiral groove from top to bottom, an inch or more deep and four or five inches wide, as you would groove a walking stick. I passed it again the other day and was struck with awe on looking up and

p. 297

beholding that mark, how more distinct than ever, where a terrific and resistless bolt came down out of the harmless sky eight years ago. Men frequently say to me: "I should think you would feel lonesome down there and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days, and nights especially." I am tempted to reply to such: This whole earth, which we inhabit, is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? Is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another. What do we want most to dwell near to? Not to many men, surely, the depot, the post office, the barroom, the meeting house, the schoolhouse, the grocery, Beacon Hill, or the Five Points, where men most congregate, but to the perennial source of our life, whence in all our experience we have found that to issue, as the willow stands near the water and sends out its roots in that direction. This will vary with different natures, but this is the place where a wise man will dig his cellar. . . . I one evening overtook one of my townsmen, who has accumulated what is called "a handsome property"—though I never got a fair view of it—on the Walden Road driving a pair of cattle to market, who inquired of me how I could bring my mind to give up so many of the comforts of life. I answered that I was very sure I liked it passably well; I was not joking. And so I went home to my bed and left him to pick his way through the darkness and the mud to Brighton—or Brighttown—which place he would reach some time in the morning.

Any prospect of awakening or coming to life to a dead man makes indifferent all times and places. The place where that may occur is always the same, and indescribably pleasant to all our senses. For the most part we allow only outlying and transient circumstances to make our occasions. They are, in fact, the cause of our distraction. Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is, not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are [199a: 143–5].

I only know myself as a human entity;* the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you [199a: 146].

* Cf. Whitman: "Trippers and askers surround me, people I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and city I live in, or the nation, the latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and new, my dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues, the real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love, the sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations, battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events; these come to me days and nights and go from me again, but they are not the Me myself.

p. 298

"Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle unitary, looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest, looking with side-curved head curious what will come next, both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it" [193: 31].

Next: Chapter 19. J. B.