Last Sunday, I was joined by the great contemporary Christian mystic and teacher, Cynthia Bourgeault for “The Eye of the Needle and the Cave of the Heart: Cultivating a Pure and Single Heart in a World Stuffed Full of Way-Too-Muchness”.
Cynthia was, as always, spiritually dynamic and soulfully riveting. She expresses such intense clarity, and so much spiritual depth and intellectual vigor that talking with her is consistently uplifting and catalytic.
Cynthia Bourgeault embraces many paradoxes. She can rightfully be called a pandit, as she is both a scholar and practitioner, integrating actual realization with deep scholarship. And although she is a serious contemplative and hermit, she can also be called an activist who makes a powerful positive difference in the lives of thousands of people all over the world. She also advocates for the riches of the Christian tradition while being a fierce constructive critic of so much that no longer works in Christian churches and communities. And she also embraces non-Christian sources of learning and contemplative practice—in this interview she referred especially to Sufi practices, and her last book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three is based on principles she learned studying the Gurdjieff work. And Cynthia is also, with me, a creative participant in the evolution of a truly integral spirituality, informed by Ken Wilber’s important theoretical maps.
Contemplative practice, though, is the cornerstone of Cynthia’s work, so I began by asking her to give listeners a sense of what it means to be a contemplative in today’s world, a “world stuffed full of way-too-muchness.”
Cynthia distinguished two meanings of the word “contemplative”, referring to the “outer” and the “inner” forms. Most people equate the contemplative life with a lifestyle adopted by hermits and monastics, one characterized by silence and continuous prayer, unplugged from everyday society and popular culture. But for her, the essence of contemplative practice is the internal rewiring and reconfiguration of how the brain-heart actually makes connections and sees the world.
In this “inner” contemplative practice, we learn to cultivate witness presence, which ultimately transforms consciousness, allowing us to see “from the whole to the parts” instead of being caught up in a fragmented consciousness that needs to reassemble the parts in order to intuit the prior wholeness. Once this process is really underway then internal and external silence are far less important. The value of external silence is primarily as part of the process of pulling the plug on the usual “small self” evasions.
I asked Cynthia how this description related to Ken Wilber’s distinction between higher “states” and higher “stages” of consciousness. It seemed to me that inner contemplative cultivation opens up higher states of consciousness (e.g., witness consciousness) and also a growth into higher structures or stages of consciousness (how one thinks).
Cynthia agreed, using a simple, memorable “one-liner”: a state is a place you go to, and a stage is a place you come from. She then focused on what we can actually practice and experience, which is “putting the mind in the heart”. And this is not just a metaphor! We are literally entraining the brain to the vibration of the heart, which allows for the emergence of a perceptional field that apprehends from wholeness.
For both Cynthia and me, the consideration of practice itself has recently been generating the most energy and passion. I asked her to reflect on this consideration of practice and the obstacles or the landmarks along the path that she was noticing as people find their way into this kind of contemplative life.
The people most often drawn to her teaching are either what she calls “active Christians” or “heart-broken Christians”. Typically, the active Christians lack any sense of witnessing consciousness because Christianity by and large honors the egoic self, which will eventually go to heaven and continue to live its egoic life. So the practice (and challenge) with them is to begin to work with spiritual attentiveness at a deeper place, so they can actually taste what that is.
The heart-broken Christians fled Christianity years ago because they couldn’t find the “living water”. Often they have cultivated other deep spiritual practices, but there is something in them that is longing to come home to Christianity. Their challenge is that they often don’t experientially understand devotion, or 2nd-person spirituality (an “I-thou” relationship to God) and they tend to be seekers, preoccupied with becoming “enlightened.” Without an understanding that the work is in the care of your own heart, this striving becomes spiritual materialism and the collecting of experiences and teachers. And it can even bring great suffering.
I recalled that the great Mahamudra teacher, Dan Brown, speaks about the Tibetan Dzogchen instruction to recognize the inner essence of all experience, and thus to relax “out-there-ness”. This is possible when one understands that consciousness is what gives rise to what is perceived as the outside world. It is usually assumed that a period of purification (extended meditation, retreats, contemplation) is necessary in order to begin to develop a sense of this deep interiority.
Cynthia acknowledged the necessity of purification, but emphasized that it doesn’t have to start there, or to take years. She’s often seen people have powerful breakthroughs after only a single day of practicing centering prayer. And after you’ve had even a momentary taste of God consciousness, purification naturally follows. It is simply the life path that most beautifully syncs up with what already exists within you. Cynthia beautifully said, there is no human being who doesn’t come from the inside of the heart of what it’s all about. This is our natural condition, so we can’t possibly fall out of it or start from a place of separation!
I mentioned my recent exploration of Integral Soul Work (although I use the term “soul” somewhat differently, it’s more like what she calls the “heart” and the “heart of the heart”.) I’ve been opening even more fully into my primary practice, relaxing as awareness itself. But in many moments life is arising in a way that offers me the opportunity to listen with the ear of the heart to the very specific, particular call of my soul that is drawing me toward my most important personal life choices. I mentioned that frequently high non-dual meditation instructions are interpreted rather rigidly so as to suppress our healthy intuition of our next steps in the unfolding of our soul’s life.
Cynthia responded by pointing out that she sees a gap between the spiritual and developmental maps we use to describe our experience and our actual experience of life. In her experience, consciousness is an umbilical cord between the finite and the infinite and who “I” am is a range of conditions from the most compacted neurotic, to a freer spacious healthy ego, to a higher witness presence.
Cynthia then shared a beautiful practice that she uses to tune in and make wise, non-reactive choices about her life. When she is clear about the question or choice she needs to make, she draws four columns on paper representing four conditions or “voices” of her being. She’ll then listen deeply to each voice, listening with her body as well, and write down the answers she hears from each perspective.
Cynthia listed these four aspects as:
The Nafs: this voice is distinguished by frenzied, automatic grasping. In the body, it feels like contraction with tones of anger and rage.
The Soul: by which she means “the healthy ego”. Tuning in to this aspect relaxes the body. This is your most spacious personal finite identity.
The Spirit: this state becomes accessible in such quiet and ordered states as just after meditation, when there is often a clarity of knowingness.
The Heart: you can access this voice by shifting attention to the region of the physical heart and also into the heart’s holographic mode of perceiving reality. You can learn to discern this voice by just resting attention in the heart and listening to how the heart speaks. In a way, she says, the Heart is the voice between Spirit and Soul.
Cynthia recounted consulting with all these voices, each in turn, in the process of finally deciding to give up a house she had rented for years in Colorado. For her, the process can be hilarious and wonderful!
As long as I’ve known her, Cynthia has always been on the edge of what is emerging, so I asked her about what’s emerging right now. She is working with exploring the “liminal spaces”, or the spaces in between the realms of consciousness, such as the time between crucifixion and resurrection, the traditional times of fasting and contemplation in the Christian calendar.
Nonetheless, her foundational practice continues to be Centering Prayer, as taught by Father Thomas Keating. She defines Centering Prayer simply—when you catch yourself thinking, let the thought go. And “thought” is anything that draws your attention to a single point. By letting go of the objects of attention, you naturally experience objectless awareness, even if it’s only for a nanosecond. Incrementally, this non-constricted attitude brings about a capacity to rest in the Cave of the Heart and to begin to see what the heart sees, which gets at the deeper meaning of the phrase, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”
There was much more—including penetrating answers to some excellent questions from listeners.
I hope you will tune in to listen to this illuminating, powerful dialogue. You can download the recording here.