On Sunday, August 5th, Christian contemplative, priest, teacher, and author Cynthia Bourgeault, joined me for an inspiring evolutionary dialog about what she calls “the Integral Christ.”
She began our conversation by sharing her understanding of what Jesus was really teaching, and how we can live in a way that responds to Jesus’ true invitation — which was to self-transcendence, or “kenosis” (usually translated as “self-emptying”). The core of the spirituality taught by Jesus was thus a transcendence of the mind of belief and a deep immersion in the potent, still and silent, conscious Nature of all experience.
When she is not living a hermit’s contemplative life, Cynthia travels the world teaching Christian meditation (Centering Prayer). She observed that among serious practitioners she does see a real awakening of courageous and subtle exploration of our innermost terrain, yielding to ego-transcending states of “Christ Consciousness”. She relates this directly to Ken Wilber’s Integral maps—in several ways. With ongoing practice, for example, she thinks this can become not just passing states but lasting stages of consciousness.
While I resonated with her way of understanding and practicing Christian spirituality, I pointed out that I personally teach and practice in an Integral context, which is a spirituality that springs from the trans-rational humanism of existentialism rather than from the Christian religious practice and discourse that’s been so deeply shaped by pre-rational religious, institutional, and scriptural influences. So I asked her what Christianity has to offer me, and others like me. Her response was to focus on the Trinity as a transformational metaphor, a “mystical mandala” of how the reality of “God is love” comes into embodiment through our heart-mind-consciousness in this world.
This opened up a nuanced conversation about how radically non-dual consciousness expresses itself equally in deep contemplative silence, profound heart-devotion, and muscular, engaged activism and service in the world. And Cynthia understands all of this in evolutionary terms, as an expression of the unending process of becoming that we see with deep-time eyes, fully appreciating that this 13.7 billion year process is not just cyclical but is truly “heading somewhere” and that this purposeful progress possesses sacredness.
However, she articulated a fierce clarity about the difference between superficial enthusiasm for new possibilities (spiritual, Christian, Integral, or otherwise) and the deep silence that actualizes them, quoting a Trappist monk’s tart comment about Thomas Merton: “what little silence he knew, he wrote about very well.” This was not so much a criticism of Thomas Merton (who she loves) but a critique of the busy mind’s tendency to celebrate, emulate, and reappropriate as “profound” the qualities and understandings arising from states of consciousness it has not deeply, authentically tasted. She spoke with a fierce yet humble authority that shows the silly arrogance of all glibness, even sophisticated glibness, about spiritual subjects.
She also suggested that in nondual states our brains are rewiring themselves, apprehending parts and perspectives from a place of wholeness rather than approaching wholeness from partial points of view.
I asked her, since she has chosen to live as a contemplative, if she recommends a contemplative, rather than an active life to others. I also wondered how contemplative practice enhances other ways of living and serving.
Her response was that contemplative practice is a basis for activism with integrity. Infinite spaciousness then makes its way into finite action. We can tend to hide out in our busyness in a self- important way, so we need to quiet ourselves and to engage in the rhythmic movement between contemplation and action. “Real silence is not so much the absence of thoughts but the complete absence of hiding”.
There were a couple of places where Cynthia ventured into some brand new territory.
In response to a question from the UK, she said that Centering Prayer, rightly practiced, takes you into a consciousness beyond form, but one that paradoxically, lands you more fully in bodily presence, not unlike Buddhist meditation practice. I recommend listening to her explanation—this nuance of meditation instruction has the potential to clarify the practice of anyone doing Centering Prayer.
And in response to a question about the nature of a higher collective consciousness and wisdom, Cynthia made it clear that this “higher we” is not just a good feeling that we can enjoy without being changed. Rather the profound reality it implies requires kenosis– the relinquishing of personal autonomy. This helped to highlight the significance and seriousness of our current exploration of collective awakening.
At the end of the call, Cynthia responded to a heartbreaking question from London, from a woman who is assisting her beloved, a longtime Buddhist practitioner, in his dying process. She related that he is taking strong medications that are clouding his awareness, and she asked for advice about how best to support him on his journey whilst he is not able to touch his usual depth. Cynthia’s compassionate response was to dispel the traditional assumption that you have to be clear and conscious at the moment of death. She counseled ease, and the simplicity of letting go, the embodied practice of trust and surrender in the simplest, humblest ways. It was a moving conclusion to a fierce, deep, wide-ranging exploration.
I invite you to hear about it directly from Cynthia by downloading it here.
To our evolution,
PS: During this dialog, I announced a new website I’ve launched, http://IntegralObama.com — I know there are some of you who’ll disagree with my political views, and I respect that. But I think we all can agree that it’s important for us all to be engaged in politics. Spirituality requires engagement, as Cynthia pointed out in this conversation.
I think it’s very important that Barack Obama be re-elected which is why I’ve helped create this website, http://IntegralObama.com. I am concerned that the better part of a billion dollars, donated by a few super wealthy individuals through Super PACs, will be spent on negative ads against him in the swing states. If he’s not re-elected, I think it will be a disaster for our country, for the world, and for our planetary environment. And it will be because we didn’t close the spending gap when we could.
So I want to contribute funds to help make sure he is re-elected. And yet I also feel entirely dissatisfied and frustrated with the level of America’s political dialog. I feel strongly that integral evolutionary perspectives should be more influential and that there’s value in us pooling our donations so that they have more influence. Also, these higher perspectives will have a better chance of getting serious attention. So I encourage you to go to http://IntegralObama.com to make your donations to help re-elect President Obama, in my opinion, a very worthy cause.