The term Christ-Consciousness distinguishes a state of mind exemplified by Jesus Christ, a state of mind unified with reality and free from the limitations of conceptual thought. This state of mind has also been called “cosmic consciousness,” “unity consciousness,” and “enlightened consciousness.” In this post, I use the term Christ-Consciousness rather than one of these other equivalent expressions because this book was written specifically for those of us who live in a predominately-Christian culture. This state of mind involves a different way of using the mind and a different way of perceiving and interacting with reality. Whereas ordinary consciousness is centered in the intellect and interacts with the universe through concepts and culturally conditioned thinking patterns, Christ-Consciousness is centered in the body and interacts with the universe directly. Whereas ordinary consciousness is focused upon selfhood and the petty desires of ego, Christ-Consciousness is focused upon the Absolute. It sees a field-of-being in which the finite and the Infinite are unified. A Christ-Conscious state of mind sees human beings as integral parts of a vast drama permeated with and animated by God. Whereas ordinary consciousness sees the universe as if it were composed of separate objects, events, forces, qualities, and principles, a Christ-Conscious state of mind does not. Such a state of mind does not perceive any part of the universe as inanimate or separate; it perceives the entire universe as alive and conscious.
The phrase, Christ-Consciousness, is sometimes used to refer to a discrete psychological experience of limited duration and at other times to a continuing and sustainable state of mind. Probably the best publicized case in western history of an ordinary individual suddenly having a single discrete experience of Christ-Consciousness occurred in an English city in 1899 to Richard M. Bucke, a Canadian physician, as he rode across town one night in a carriage. Bucke later described his experience in a book he wrote titled Cosmic Consciousness:
All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored 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 Splendor which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an after taste of heaven. Among other things he did not 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 every one is in the long run absolutely certain. He claims that he learned more within the few seconds during which the illumination lasted than in previous months or even years of study, and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught.
Bucke’s understanding of reality was so transformed by his mystical experience that he spent the rest of his life trying to explain to people what he learned during those few brief moments. In his book, he speculated that his unusual experience was evidence of a new kind of perception gradually evolving in human beings. He further speculated that many human beings had had the same kind of experience to a greater or lesser degree, and his book is primarily an historical review of such people and the record of their lives. He concluded that Jesus Christ, the Buddha, and a few other world famous religious figures had exhibited a fully developed cosmic conscious faculty whereas less well-known individuals, such as himself, had experienced it only to a limited degree. He theorized that many biblical figures, such as Paul on the road to Damascus and Moses when he was confronted by the burning bush, had had experiences similar to his own, but they had not recognized the psychologically participatory nature of those experiences. Bucke noted that various unique physical phenomena, such as bright light, were often associated with such experiences (some of which were sometimes observed by third parties).
As a matter of fact, Bucke’s speculation that many human beings throughout history have experienced Christ-Consciousness, which he called “cosmic consciousness,” was correct, but there is no evidence supporting his idea that it is a newly developing evolutionary trait. Judging from the mystical literature of the world, experiences of cosmic consciousness–Christ-Consciousness have occurred regularly throughout recorded history.
Christ-Consciousness is the phenomenon of human awareness non-conceptually unifying with reality, whether for a few brief moments, as in Bucke’s case, or as a continuing condition, and it is psychologically analogous to a drop of water falling into the ocean. The illusion of separateness disappears, as we perceive the unlimited nature of our true being. Because we usually see and interact with the world through sets of abstract images, ideas, and symbols, we ordinarily experience the world through a conditioned and highly mediated conceptual perspective. This makes it seem as if we are separate from the universe at large. However, if the brain circuitry associated with conceptual thinking is subordinated to direct sensory perception, then this mediated, highly artificial perspective may collapse, and the observer may then psychologically merge with whatever is observed. In traditional Christian terminology, attaining Christ-Consciousness is the experience of becoming one-with God. However, a human being who has such an experience does not imagine that he or she is God, but rather, realizes that he or she is a part of the totality of God. Just as a drop of water, if conscious, might conceive itself as a separate entity if for a moment flung skyward from a wave-crest, once it drops into the ocean again and the illusion of separateness disappears, it discovers that it is an integral part, though infinitesimally small, of something inconceivably vast.
Apparently, Dr. Bucke never had another experience of Christ-Consciousness, nor was he able to understand how it fit into the context of his everyday life. This is undoubtedly because he never realized what sort of conditions had precipitated his first experience or what is required to sustain such a unified state of mind. He never realized, for example, that there was something he could specifically do that might return him to that state of mind. He never realized that by practicing a different set of mental habits it might be possible to escape from his highly mediated perspective caused by excessive conceptualization.
Perhaps because there were so few English translations of the lives and experiences of various eastern spiritual masters available during his lifetime, Bucke also never discovered how extensive is the literature in other parts of the world concerning the state of mind he so serendipitously experienced. Today, this situation is quite different. There are now many translations of the biographies of Buddhist, Hindu, and Sufi masters, which contain accounts of experiences similar to Bucke’s. For example, compare Bucke’s description of his experience with the following accounts written by two men who ultimately became Zen Masters in the Japanese tradition:
At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation [from a book that he had been reading] flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains, rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” And I repeated it. Then all at once I was struck as though by lightning, and the next instant heaven and earth crumbled and disappeared. Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: ‘Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! There’s no reasoning here, no reasoning at all! Ha, ha, ha!’ The empty sky split in two, then opened its enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: ‘Ha, ha ha!’ Later, one of the members of my family told me that my laughter had sounded inhuman.
I was now lying on my back. Suddenly I sat up and struck the bed with all my might and beat the floor with my feet, as if trying to smash it, all the while laughing riotously. My wife and youngest son, sleeping near me, were now awake and frightened. Covering my mouth with her hand, my wife exclaimed: “What’s the matter with you? What's the matter with you?” But I wasn’t aware of this until told about it afterwards. My son told me later he thought I had gone mad.
I’ve come to enlightenment! Shakyamuni [the Buddha] and the patriarchs [of Zen] haven’t deceived me! They haven’t deceived me!
Sokei-An Roshi recalls his experience this way:
One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer—as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to Ztt and me...! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.
It seems clear that these two experiences were of the same sort reported by Bucke. Today there are many published records of people in the West who have also had such experiences because of purposefully or accidentally pursuing a meditative path. Ordinary people who, like Bucke, were not consciously doing anything to precipitate the experiences wrote many of these records. Flora Courtois, author of An Experience of Enlightenment, and Bernadette Roberts, author of The Path to No-Self and The Experience of No-Self, are examples of Westerners who, without realizing what they were doing, practiced a set of mental habits that ultimately resulted in major Christ-Conscious experiences.
Courtois, while in college, drove herself to the point of exhaustion with her need to understand the true nature of reality and human existence. After concluding that traditional paths of knowledge, such as philosophy and religion, offered no satisfactory answers to her questions, and feeling as if she no longer knew anything with certainty about reality, fell into the habit of looking at the physical world surrounding her with an intense curiosity, a kind of not-knowing-what-things-are-but-wanting-to-know curiosity. She looked deeply to see if she could discover what reality might actually be. This practice eventually culminated in a Christ-Consciousness experience that significantly transformed her life. Afterwards, her thinking habits, attitudes, eating patterns, breathing and even vision changed. She became psychologically unencumbered by worries, existential questions, or doubts. She remained contented and unified with the world for several years until she went back to graduate school. However, as she studied for a graduate degree, she gradually lost her transformed state of mind. Later, she met a Zen Master and learned what she had never known. She learned that for Christ-Consciousness to be sustained it must be grounded in a daily practice of non-conceptual awareness. She then began to practice looking at the world consciously in the same way that she had first done so unconsciously.
Roberts, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic who, from an early age, practiced a form of silent prayer, a prayer of attentive listening rather than internal speech. After many years of simply listening, she began to undergo an interior spiritual revolution that continued for two years. She searched for guidance within her church and, later, outside her church, but no one seemed to understand the nature of the experiences she tried to describe. Her only support came from the writings of early Christian mystics, such as St. John of the Cross-. Ultimately, she spent several months alone in the mountains during which her experiences culminated in a state of mind she called “no-self.” She described that state as one radically different than the usual ego state that had been her normal state of mind prior to her interior revolution. She wrote:
Apparently, with the falling away of self-consciousness there is also a certain loss of body consciousness. This may account for the continual melting away of physical form I experienced during the latter half of the journey. In time, I acclimated to getting around this way, without a certain awareness of form. To some extent, this means taking better care of the body than ever before because now, the body tells me nothing. Though physical pain remains, I no longer have the feeling of being tired, rested, satisfied, contented, or any of the rest; somehow these familiar feelings must have subtle connections with self-consciousness. And because of this, caring for the body becomes little different than caring for a plant: when you know it needs water, food, or sunshine, you give it what it needs. You cannot “feel” for the plant, but if you are observant and know something of its mechanism, there is no problem maintaining a bodily form that is in a constant process of change and subject to the limits of time. Though I regard the body as absolutely real, I find all forms that compose the universe extremely fragile or tenuous at best, because they can so easily dissolve into the Existent, apart from which, no form has any individual existence of its own.
Perhaps Blue Dove Press the story of Suzanne Segal as related in her book, Collision with the Infinite, publishes the most astonishing western account of someone who lost all sense of personal selfhood in 1996. Ms. Segal was standing on a street corner in Paris, France in 1980 when suddenly her sense of selfhood was wrenched from behind her eyes, its usual position, and replaced by an impersonal perspective behind and to the left of her head. It took her twelve years to understand and accept her radically altered perspective for what it was. Her account is particularly interesting because, unlike the experiences of so many mystics, her sense of selfhood, once gone, never returned. Near the end of her account, she writes:
This life is now lived in a constant, ever-present awareness of the infinite vastness that I am. In this state, there is absolutely no reference point, yet an entire range of emotions, thoughts, actions, and responses are simultaneously present. The infinite—which is at once the substance of everything and the ocean within which everything arises and passes away—is aware of itself constantly, whether the mind and body are sleeping, dreaming, or waking.
In every moment, this body-mind circuitry is consciously participating in the sense organ through which the infinite perceives itself. There is never a locatable “me.” In fact, the non-locatability of the vastness is the predominant flavor of the experience...
At the bus stop in Paris, the me was annihilated, and it has never reappeared in any form. With this annihilation, there occurred the realization that a “me” has never existed who is the doer behind what has appeared to be “my” life. In recent years, it has also become clear that not only is there no “me,” there is also no “other.” The “no-otherness” is now so dominant that nothing else is perceived. Life is being lived out of the infinite substance of which it is made, and this substance, which is what and who we all are—is constantly aware of itself out of itself.
Although Ms. Segal did not directly associate her formal practice of meditation with her subsequent loss of personal selfhood, it seems obvious that her meditation played a significant role in that loss. Because she did not distinguish between formal and informal meditation, she may have overlooked the role her everyday habits of mind played in precipitating her experience.
In any event, records of personal experiences, such as these, are part of a growing body of literature now appearing in the West concerning mystical states of mind. Furthermore, during the last fifty years various eastern meditative traditions have been established in the West whose goal is the attainment of what this book calls Christ-Consciousness. Consequently, there are also now many accounts of mystical experiences written by people whose pursuit of formal meditative practices from the East precipitated those experiences. I hope that these accounts will encourage traditional Christians to investigate the truth claims and practices of both Christian mystics and contemplatives in other religious traditions. Books, such as the ones mentioned above, are only the leading edge of a revolution in spiritual understanding that is presently underway and is sure to have profound and far-reaching effects.
During our lives, almost all of us have had small glimpses of a reality beyond our familiar everyday world, moments during which we felt the unity and mysteriousness of the universe or perhaps a deeper than usual feeling of love and compassion for our fellow human beings. However, very few of us have been able to sustain such a state of mind. This book is an attempt to explain how that can be done.
The preceding accounts may give the impression that Christ-Consciousness is always a dramatic state of mind involving a highly altered state of perception, but this is not so. While it is true that dramatic experiences—the ones most often reported in mystical literature—often occur because of practicing non-conception, the result of this spiritual practice is a simple and very down-to-earth state of mind that manifests peacefulness, friendship, and love. Christ-Consciousness, as a continuing state of mind, is highly relaxed, open-minded, and compassionate. It is patient, tolerant, spontaneous, and void of self-will. In Christian terms, it allows human beings to consciously participate in the manifestation of God’s will.