Cynthia Bourgeault - ‘Seeing With The Eyes Of The Heart’
Interview by Renate McNay
Renate: Hello and welcome to Conscious TV. I am Renate McNay and my guest today is Cynthia Bourgeault. Hello Cynthia!
Cynthia: Hello Renate, good to see you.
Renate: Cynthia - and I have to read it because it is too long to memorise - is a modern day mystic, episcopal priest, writer and internationally known retreat leader. Cynthia divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine and travelling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and wisdom path. That sounds lovely to have a seaside hermitage.
Cynthia: Oh, you should try it though in December.
Renate: Well, in December?
Cynthia: In December the sea is an angry mistress.
Renate: Yes, yes, I would love to have one in the mountains. I am more a mountain goat than a sea person.
Cynthia: Why, doesn’t that surprise?
Renate: So I show you some of Cynthia’s books: The Centering Prayer, and there is a follow-up coming up in the pipeline, it’s called The Heart of Centering Prayer, non-dual Christianity in Theory and Practice, and this book is coming out in December.
Cynthia: In December 2016.
Renate: Wonderful, we are looking forward to that and a book on Mary Magdalena and of course a book on Jesus, Wisdom Jesus, and Love is Stronger than Death. This is a very beautiful book, my most favourite book. I read it already twice and the Wisdom Way of Knowing and Mystical Hope. Are you writing all these books in your hermitage ?
Cynthia: Yes, actually I think they all got written there.
Renate: OK, Cynthia I like to start with the question: How did your Christian life begin, what happened that you have chosen this Christian path?
Cynthia: Well, in a way it was, what the Buddhists would call a choiceless choice, that’s - well, I found myself growing up as a child in the 1950s in the area around Philadelphia in the United States. Christianity was all there was, I mean our biggest choice was were you a Catholic or a Methodist and what really began my journey was that my parents sent me to a Quaker school, that was easy to do back in the Philadelphia area ‘cause it’s sort of one of the natural homes of Quakers. So we had this wonderful little school of about 60 children between the ages of 5 and 12 and as part of the Quaker heritage we would all go in once a week for a silent meeting for worship. So we would troupe into this beautiful old 18th century meeting house with great clerestory lights pouring in through the windows and the whole programme in Quakerism is to sit and gather your heart in silence until the Spirit might move you to speak
Renate: What does that mean: Gather your heart?
Cynthia: Your heart in silence? well, it means, to begin with: Shut up! So instead of going into a place where you start like you do in a church with people proclaiming words and singing songs or you shut down and you sit in silence in what looks like and is really meditation. And the only real difference between a Quaker meeting for worship and silent meditation is that if the Spirit moves you after a time in Quaker meeting you get up and speak the message that’s been given in your heart.
Cynthia: And then it goes back into silence and then somebody else might stand up and speak moved by that message but not debating, just so it kind of builds a teaching which is almost downloaded from the cosmos and created by the listening hearts in the room. So in that kind of environment I first touched a very simple and direct way what you might call the mystical field of love that surrounds us and binds our hearts together and is the real presence of God.
Renate: You were only 6 years old.
Cynthia: Yes, I was only 6 years old.
Renate: And how did you figure out what it was ?
Cynthia: Well, you just know it in the heart. I mean with all theories of reincarnation aside for the moment, there is an ancient knowingness in a child; there is a knowingness that seeks for familiarity and for the things in the world that are true, that are powerful, that are unobstructed, unveiled. Anything else raises fear in a heart of a child. So I was going off to Sunday school, too, with the Christian Scientists, which was my parents denomination and it did not feel like clarity, it felt noise and words and theories and manipulation. But there was just this deep, deep profound Easiness in connection that I knew in the Quaker meeting. So that was the natural world around me that was the start and then in the course of time I began to become interested in music, you know, and again music, choral music spoke to me deeply. And it was through that that the path of Christianity that I’d formerly only known as doctrine and dogma shoved down my throat began to come alive in that same way that it had as a child - as the experience of love and beauty offered to the infinite. So I always had those kinds of experiential streams already in my data Bank and I would say that the reason that I “manifested on the Christian path,” if you want to call it that, was for a couple of reasons. First of all because I really had no choice. Back in that time, back in the 50s in Philadelphia there weren’t yet Buddhists and Sufis and Hindus running around where you could find them and consider what they might have to offer. The only question was what kind of a Christian were you gonna be now, or were you gonna get out of the religion all together?
And the second was because of a real, kind of profound, you might call it, a conversion experience that happened to me when I was 20. That really kind of changed everything.
Renate: Yes. So that was when you for the first time got the communion.
Cynthia: Yes. I received communion by accident, the Holy Communion, you know, the most sacred ritual of Christianity when you come up and receive the bread and the wine that has been offered and received as the living body of Jesus. Normally a very, very protected thing you study and you work for a long time before you are initiated. Well I got initiated very, very quickly by total accident. In Christian Science communion did happen once a month but it happened in the church and we were only in Sunday school, so we did not know about it and Quakers don’t do that sort of thing because they believe that every moment ought to be a full communion with Christ, so if that’s happening who needs bread and wine? So I wasn’t presented with this ritual as a child and when I was 20, I went with my College room mate to what I thought was a - concert. The boys choir from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was doing a concert on Sunday morning at St.Paul’s Anglican Church in London, Ontario. So all I saw in the newspaper was that they were doing the William Byrd Mass in four voices, one of my favourite, beautiful Renaissance singing pieces. I said: “Lets go”. So I dragged my College roommate with me and off we went and I was so enraptured with the music that I did not even notice that there were long talk breaks between the various movements. Well, I come to find out it was just music offered as part of the service and the next thing you know, a very stern looking usher is standing in front of our row of pews and motioning us forward. So I said “uh oh,” and under my breath, “help, help!” because my mother who was a Christian Scientist and had a profound loathing and fear of Catholic tradition had warned me about terrible things that would happen when this happens to you! But at that moment my fear of the usher was greater than my fear of eternal damnation. So I followed him to the Altar rail and my roommate (who had fortunately been raised Catholic) said: “just follow me and do what I do”. So she put out her hands and I put out my hands and into my hands was placed this wafer and she looked over at me and said: “Don’t chew it!” And then comes along this beautiful silver chalice of wine and she hisses over at me: “Don’t touch it” and I was about to say “but how can you drink it when you don’t touch it?” “except with your lips, I mean” she clarified. So I survived the Altar rail and I am walking back to my pew thinking, “Well that’s that.… And I am about two thirds of the way back to the pew and all of a sudden I realised: “That’s That!!!!.” And it wasn’t like I’d met my risen Lord, there wasn’t a big Jesus image in front of me, but there was just that ancient sense of familiarity once again: that this dimension that had been missing all my life, that I hadn’t found in my 1950’s childhood in Philadelphia, it was there! This “other intensity” as the poet T.S. Elliot calls it.
Renate: And how did you feel it, where did you feel it?
Cynthia: It was right in the heart. It was very profoundly a sense that I’d met my path and I’d met my Master and this Master was a Someone, not a set of creeds to be recited. There was a deep sense of invitation to a path that was really an initiation and I think that over and over again has been the reason I have stuck with Christianity through thick and thin with my eyes open. I’ve said many, many times that, if I could have been a Sufi I would have done it in a heartbeat, but when you receive what really your own heart-of-hearts receives as an invitation from a living Master to come this way you don’t say: “Sorry, Jesus, I’d rather be a Sufi” And from working closely with many of the religious traditions in subsequent years, I have a great belief that, like colours of the rainbow they all belong together and it requires every one of them to show the full spectrum of Divine Love. But the path that I’ve been plunked down on and called to manifest and serve on is this particular ray of the rainbow.
Renate: Yes, so what does manifesting and serving mean for you?
Cynthia: Well, it really means a couple of things. One of the dimensions is to try wherever you are to be conscious and to be grateful and to be alert. And to see what needs to be done in the moment and to do it in such a way that you’re moving in a direction of greater compassion, greater love, and greater understanding. So I would say that’s the simplest version. I don’t like to obscure it with devotional talk and God talk and I don’t have any sort of special notion of my importance or being on some sort of consecrated path; that’s over - inflated terminology. I mean every human being is consecrated just by the fact of being born. And we have our life to live and we either live it consciously or we snooze through it.
Cynthia: And if we live it awake and consciously, we touch other human beings who are living that same way and we begin to shape a container of awakeness that’s different from anything else on the planet. So that’s where I work and why all traditions participate in it in their own way: in order to reveal, I think, what divine love looks like in created form.
Renate: So tell us about that
Cynthia: Oh, well, I would say that’s one of the things that we tend to forget about on this planet because for so many many many many thousands of years we’ve spent most our time thinking that there is something wrong with being here, that it’s illusion, it’s maya, it’s sin, it’s coarse, it’s contaminated
Renate: It’s still in some teachings
Cynthia: YeaH, it’s still in most the teachings. I mean that you just go from one teaching to another but they all start with the fact that there is something not trustworthy about the human condition— not good about it —and a spiritual transformation means getting out of it, leaving the whole thing behind like a dead booster rocket and boosting off into some spiritual world. But I think what we forget and what’s actually there in the heart of Christianity (although Christianity has forgotten it as well as all the others) is this affirmation that “God so loved the world”, that there is something very, very precious here in this dimension, in this form with purple sofas and glasses of water and bodies and embodiment and love and rejection and trial and death and suffering; something in the mix that brings forth a manifestation of love that’s so precious that it could be uttered in no other way. And we are here for a little while, as the poet Blake said, to learn to bear the beams of love and to manifest them forth as what the heart of God looks like
Renate: Hm... but this is quite a journey.
Cynthia: Is it?
Renate: To come to this point where you are free to love. And so my question is: How does Christianity address our deep wounds and delusions?
Cynthia: Yah.... How do all the traditions address them or not address them? On two levels. The Primordial Way of all the Traditions, that’s there from the beginning, is in the great language and offering and energy of the whole world of sacraments and devotions. That, as things get offered up— like in Christianity the Eucharist, the Holy Communion— as the image, gets lifted up, as ghoulish as it may seem at first, of the suffering Christ on the cross, there is actually a wisdom being conveyed there that does give comfort and healing. The problem is we don’t mostly get that because something else has to kick in before any of this becomes really operative in our brains and our hearts and that’s the path that begins it open up when we start to do conscious inner work.
Renate: So how did that start with you, Cynthia, how did you get it?
Cynthia: How did it start with me? Well, of course I had my first wonderful, rounded mystical rapture - you know I had the Eucharist, I had the experience I told you of, I had the beauty of singing, it catapulted me into wanting to be a priest and feeling that what I wanted to do was to serve in this community… and then all the usual mystery and drama and so I did - I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1979. The Episcopalians were among the first of the mainline churches within that greater Catholic tradition to ordain women. And I was among the first to be ordained within that tradition. So here I am a priest in my bright, shiny black suit and white clericals— and then I began to notice to my horror that no matter how much I preached the scripture to people, no matter how much you offer them the Eucharist, people remain people—gossipy, nasty, confrontational, divisive, always tending to splinter into small groups and to act out of their hidden agendas— and I realised there is nothing we’ve got here that’s actually getting people to change. So I went searching myself and it was about that time, that what fell into my lap (as things always fall into your lap when you say you are searching ) was a copy of a book called “In Search of the Miraculous” written by P.D. Ouspensky in the 1940s, his record of the teachings of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who was an underground spiritual teacher of the 20th century and was the first to bring to the West a practice very much like what we nowadays might call “Mindfulness.” They didn’t have the language yet, and the Gurdijeff Work was a very very, I would say, a cumbersome early run-up on mindfulness training. But it did open the question of “how do you wake up? How do you pay attention? Do you even know that you are spending your life mostly running on Autopilot? Something pushes your buttons and you are off and running in that direction and someone pulls your chain and you are running in this direction and yet you say you are alive? CONSCIOUS?
So I entered The Gurdijeff Work; I was a serious student of it for ten years, which really laid down in me the basis for understanding our own responsibility in waking up and actually confronting that vast maze of automatic programmed behaviours that keep us chained at a level that’s lower than real human freedom. I worked in that way for a long time, I still work at it. I have the deepest respect for this body of spiritual knowledge. But meanwhile, at about the same time I was really getting serious about conscious awakening, in Christianity there were beginnings to be developed some wonderful paths of meditation which hadn’t been part of normal Christian religious upbringing up till that point. So from my teacher Thomas Keating, a great Trappist monk, I learned a very simple form of sitting meditation called Centering Prayer. And the combination of Centering Prayer (bringing all the effects that have now been documented that meditation does for the brain and for the heart when you begin to meditate seriously), plus this wonderful grab-bag of teachings from the Gurdijeff Work on conscious awakening, I began to put pieces together.
Renate: Did you do the movements?
Cynthia: I did the movements, yes.
Renate: How was that?
Cynthia: Chilling, you know. The movements are, I would say, the great sacred liturgy of the Gurdjieff Work, though Gurdjieff might not have considered them that way. Embedded in these very simple “dances,” you can call them, are many sacred gestures that you learn to take in beautiful sequences (and to pay attention in the midst of them), some of them very complicated, some of them heart-breakingly simple. And the music is beautifully written and harmonised; it goes right into the chakras that need to be adjusted and often does — it leaves you writhing on the floor with just the wonder and the terror and the beauty of this whole journey in form.
Renate: you said, that they are like rabbit holes and sometimes you were lying on the floor and crying.
Cynthia: You get sucked down into; and of course they pick you right up again because those kinds of displays of being “slain in this spirit” are not what this work is about. So you learn to contain your ecstasy and you learn to contain your anguish and move on and take the next position, but meanwhile something is being touched at a level that’s so profound that again you can only get a felt sense that life hangs together by some deeper coherence and compassion. And I think our theologies and our doctrines and our dogmas and our principles try and take that and put it in mental form, but the mental form never touches that sense that something holds together. And I felt that in the movements so profoundly.
Renate: And you cannot name it what….
Cynthia: Well, you can name it, but you name it in code phrases, that, you “feel the suffering of God,” you feel your wish to “ relieve the sorrow of His Endlessness as Gurdijeff called it. You say the words : “Lord have mercy,” and you realise that they are not about somebody getting down and begging for pity before a stern God who is a judge— but rather, a deep sense of remorse and seeing the vastness of the whole thing and the terror of the whole thing
Renate: Yes, it is a terror
Cynthia: Yes, but not the kind of terror that they put in the tabloids of three more people dead in the street, but the kind of terror that something is so immense, that something is so beautiful, that something is so sacred and veiled in the heart of God.
Renate: And how beauty and suffering belongs together…..
Cynthia: They belong there, they’re two, two inevitable sides of the same coin, of the intimacy of God. So, you see this and you reel this as you dig the capaciousness of your soul, the capacity to hold this, this wine of yearning and suffering and beauty - without being destroyed by it.
Renate: So you must have quite an open heart to be able to do that
Cynthia: Oh, on my better days
Renate: To be able to hold the suffering and the pain and the sorrow which is really running through the Earth
Cynthia: Yah, exactly
Renate: ... or like Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Listen to the earth cry”
Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And these are all kinds of things that are absolutely real. But they make no sense on the level of the mind alone. It is when you calm down into the fullness of embodied being that you begin to hear and you begin to see and respond to these threads of coherence, rather than having to project them out. Yah, there is a huge, huge difference between explanation and meaning. And mostly the church has tried to give us explanations thinking that if we have explanations we’ll say, OK, it makes sense. But explanation is hollow, you know. What’s the explanation of the brain …its the meaning that tells us you belong, you are here.
Renate: Yesterday, at your evening in Westminster Cathedral, you’ve said that this era is about embodiment. Can you say more about that?
Cynthia: Exactly, this era is about embodiment. It’s true. As we talked about earlier in this conversation, for about 2500 years part of what’s called “first axial consciousness” really depicted the World as flawed and depicted the spiritual path as getting out of the body and the body was seen to be the seat of sinful self will, the seat of delusion, the seat of coarseness. And everything was depicted as, you know, we were in a cave and we had to leave the cave and go to the light. So most spiritual practices were built on some variation of either gaining mastery over the body or even mortifying the body, but we’re in the body for a good reason. And the body is our profound vessel of truth and spiritual exploration. And so coming more and more in the end of the last century and into this has been a renewed appreciation of the goodness and wisdom of the body.
Renate: Also in the Church?
Cynthia: It’s getting into the Church but it’s getting into the Church by the backdoor not the front door. It’s getting into the Church because I think, a lot of the people in the congregations who are now getting old are realising that they need to do yoga to keep their bodies in shape and if they’re gonna sit on the meditation cushion they now have to bend their legs so it’s getting in through the portal of wellness. I think it’s still in most Christian Churches, if you look at how are services actually conducted, you might as well check your body in in the cloakroom when you go in because the worship is always pitched in your head. You sit in a pew and you listen and you say words…period. But there are now beginning to be more formats for embodied participation in wisdom schools and even in meditation when it’s done properly. We’re beginning to see more and more that we need to embody because the body actually reads spiritual gestures, recognises wisdom and coherence way better than the mind does.
Renate: So the Gurdijeff dances helped you with the embodiment.
Renate: What else can we do ?
Cynthia: Well, you know almost anything that begins to teach us to embody. Skiing, for one and one of my powerful lessons I learned about how the spiritual journey works I learned when I was 8 years old when a beautiful life guard at the swimming pool taught me how to float. You know like most non swimmers, I was scared of sinking to the bottom of the pool so I curse up in a tight little knot like this, and she finally said to me, “ well, you’re gonna sink to the bottom right fast if you do that!”; she says, “when you want to float, just put your head back, put your arms wide open and breath and you won’t go to the bottom.” Little did I know that this is also a basic gesture of the spiritual life, it’s the gesture of trust, it’s the gesture of vulnerability, it’s the gesture that some people say will open that throat chakra. You see portraits of Theresa of Avila and all the ancient art works are exactly in that position of rapture. So from Gurdjieff I learned even more than from the movements itself. I learned the wisdom that the body understands the language of spiritual gesture and that in simple postures of life, in the simple taking your broom and bringing your attention to your hands on it as you sweep and being in the motion as you sweep the room, not just as having someone else hired to sweep the room but participating deeply in the rhythmic nature of embodied life itself you begin to learn something about your participation in life, your belonging in life that can’t be had with the head which can’t belong to anything because it’s always separating itself from things in order to see them. So the world calls us to embodiment with every breath. We just have to learn to attune to it again and to value the body as a sacred temple of perception, not just as something that has to be kept well so we live a little longer.
Renate: I want to touch a little bit on the heart. There is a lot of talk about how we should think…..
Renate: We are brain people and what does that mean: the brain needs to sink into the heart?
Cynthia: Well, it’s a beautiful statement. The statement is actually all over Eastern Christian Orthodox practice. “Put the mind in the heart. Put the mind in the heart.” “The chief thing is that the mind should be in the heart.” And they speak over and over about something called “attention of the heart” which is also known in that tradition as “vigilance” and is touched in the Western Christian tradition as “recollection.” I believe, I was saying in my talk last night in London, that one of the really powerful insights that the Christian tradition brings to the whole spiritual playing table of transformation is that these higher states of consciousness, these states that we call non-dual or unitive or contemplative, aren’t just attained by the mind alone. That they are attained by bringing the mind into the heart— which is not just a symbol, it’s not just a metaphoric way of talking about things, but is an actual physiological event so that the brain waves entrain to the rhythm of the heart and they become a single perceptual unit. R:How do you do it? Cynthia: OK, how do I do it…. How ‘bout if I sell it to you the instant secret for a few thousand dollars? ? But no, it’s a long slow process. And it has a couple of component pieces. The core attitude that the Christian tradition works with is the piece called “Surrender.” Or Kenosis (Cynthia.spells the word) is the word in Greek which Saint Paul used to depict “putting on the mind of Christ.” And it basically is pretty close to what the Buddhists mean by non-clinging: doesn’t hang on, doesn’t insist, doesn’t assert, doesn’t grab, doesn’t brace, doesn’t defend, you know. The mind need to be trained to let go. In one of those ancient early Christian writings, the Gospel of Thomas, the students asked Jesus: “What are your students like, how would you describe them?” and He said: “They are like small children, playing in a field on their own. When the landlords come and demand: ‘give us back our field’, the children return it by stripping themselves and standing naked before them”. So that’s the description from Jesus of this process. So it’s the lifelong practice, the core practice, of learning to recognise when you’ve gotten into one of these postures…. Tightened, urgent, angry, self important in that moment
Renate: Open to Him
Cynthia: Open to Him. So that’s the hang of it, that’s the heart of it combined with a couple of complimentary practices which come from the mindfulness sector. The one being the piece that I learned from the Gurdjieff Work is to learn how to notice when you’re getting into these states of constriction and smaller-self urgency in automaticity because we don’t notice that automatically. It’s like you don’t notice the moment you fall asleep at night. Say you sink into these lower unfree, ugly states of being automatically. So you have to learn to even know this when that happens. And the second.
Renate: There is this point, I notice it with myself, there is this point where you see you could go both ways…..you could serve the ego or you can surrender….. you can decide
Cynthia: Yah... There is definitely that point. What makes it difficult though is that for a long, long time in the practice you can see that point. You can see yourself going over the waterfall, but you don’t have the power to swim away yet. So what you have to do is live in the gap and say: “Oh my God, look at what’s happening to me, I can see that I am sinking but I don’t have the force to stop”. And it takes a long time until we have the force and to be able to see that you’re falling into a bad state doesn’t for a long time mean you can do anything about it. I think that’s a truism that disappoints many people, so the even more painful penance is you just have to sit there and watch it. The only real choice is, can you just see it in horror and remorse and helplessness or do you just pretend that your negativity and constriction are totally justified by whatever the external situation may be and sail right over the waterfall in glorious indignation? Do you just go with the lower state or can you wait in the gap? So for me that’s brought a whole new meaning to that celebrated British saying - “Mind the gap”
Because we sit there in the gap for a long time, you know, and that’s when you begin to learn the meaning of: Lord Have Mercy. I can’t do anything to raise my state but what I can do is stay honestly face to face with what’s happened. Acknowledging, here I am and I think it’s out of that repeated acknowledgement of my own helplessness at that level but refusing to simply sweep that helplessness under the rug that the transformation starts to occur. Gradually, gradually, gradually the energy that had originally gone into propping up your ego programs gets recaptured to begin to access this other field of awareness, of attentiveness, that’s not identified with that small self acting out and can begin to become a “nest” for that deeper and fuller and truer wiser self to live in. And then we begin to Be. Then we begin to have Being. And its from that Being that sometimes we can pull ourselves out of that spiral we are headed into and it’s from that Being that we can begin to offer ourselves to the world as love, as assistance, as a shift in the energy field for someone else. Baraka, the Sufis call it. But that comes slowly, because you can’t just klick your heels together and have Being. It has to accumulate, slowly in your being for a life of painfully bearing the Crucifixion of inner honesty and slowly it emerges.
Renate: Another thing I like to touch on is: if you look at the world it looks all very sad and you wonder where its all going and at the same time we say: God is Love. And I remember I struggled with this question already as a child.
What does it mean: God is Love ?
Cynthia: Yah…. what does it mean, God is Love?
Renate: How do we feel it, how do we learn to feel it and trust it, despite of what we are seeing?
Cynthia: Yes, what we can do with the sense in which it’s usually presented to you as a child; it won’t work. We are taught to think of God as this Big Daddy out in the sky who has this kind of dual nature, you know: that He is love but He is also wrath; He flings us fireballs or sends us bouquets. As long as you are holding that ambivalent picture, it’s impossible to fully trust that God is love. It really breaks my heart to see children have to go through what you just described because you say ‘How can God be Love if this world is suffering and cruelty and hatred and people are dying in Syria and Iraq and madmen plotting Nuclear Holocausts, what’s going on? Meanwhile, the planet is quickly warming itself into non-existence. How can God be Love? As long as you are dealing with that external God “out there” who is presumed to be the first cause and could change things he wanted to, the whole picture makes no sense. So you have to come back to that felt sense that we were talking about earlier, that very, very deep thing that happens in your heart-of-hearts when you know that somehow the whole thing hangs together in a field of compassion. The idea of a suffering God that doesn’t make sense at all from a mental concept because how can a God that’s almighty, suffer? not logical, right? But when you enter the paradox with your heart, you understand the catch-22 that the divine love finds itself enmeshed in: that in order to manifest this most precious dimension of love requires form. And when you have form, you have suffering. Because things are broken and yearning for a wholeness that can’t be attained, there is cruelty, there is automaticity, there is frustration and despair. Yet in the midst of all this suffering you find that something holds together. The felt - sense conviction that “God is Love” is true, doesn’t depend on the world being bright and twinkly and sparkly outside; as a matter of fact, it’s exercised and touched most deeply in those moments of poignant heartbreak. Somehow, yes, even this holds together and is the chalice of love poured out of God’s yearning to touch the world and to hold it. It’s like the sun yearning to hold the snowflake. You can’t do it without annihilating it. And that's the suffering of God. To let it be, to let it, to let it have to shoulder its “plank’s constant” of horror and pain and to still love it. And to still be accessible in love. So we grow, I think we as human beings in our own capaciousness—it’s the word I’ve used before—to hold this every which-way-ness of love. This love that won’t be killed in the midst of suffering, this love where you see hearts broken, lives torn apart and yet love holds. And when your own heart becomes deep enough to hold a piece of this, then you become part of the mystical heart of universal love. And it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel blissful, you know, I think one of the cliches that’s thrown about on the spiritual journey is that it’s about making you feel blissful states all the time. Now, when you open your heart to the world, what you can guarantee is that your heart is gonna to be broken and to hear the pain of the world and to hold the pain of the world, so it’s something way beyond bliss. It’s that every which-way-ness of the reality of love in the midst of brokenness. And as we begin to hold that, we sense the coherence and the cause by which everything holds together but you can never touch it with your head. You know, religion is not a philosophy, God is not a first cause; all that level is just explanation, meaning is something different.
Renate: So that brings up the question, what is then freedom?
Cynthia: What is freedom?
Renate: You go on this journey…. we start out on this journey to become free.
Cynthia: Yes, which we call enlightenment
Cynthia: Well, you know, we had so many mixed metaphors as Western and Eastern ways of contexting reality come together like tectonic plates. And they don’t often match up. At the most obvious spiritual level freedom means “freedom from the false self.” As any astute observer of human nature will confirm, most of us think that we’re free, and yet we are not free at all because we are under the absolute compulsion of agendas, addictions and aversions that have been programmed into us from early life — sometimes from the womb. We all have our values, we have our triggers, we have our flash points, we have our hidden agendas and as A. H. ALMAAS famously said: “Freedom to be your ego is not freedom”. Because that’s slavery. You are being pulled around by a nose ring. So the foundational work of freedom begins when you can stabilise in yourself this state— ah, that some of the eastern traditions helpfully call “witnessing presence,” which is something deeper than the ego self, that’s not dependant on that pain /pleasure principle, that’s not attracted by attraction or repulsed by aversion. You know that, as my teacher Rafe the hermit monk I met at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Colorado, used to say: “I want to have enough being to be nothing”. Which means he is not dependant on the world to give him his identity: because he’s learned his identity nests in something much deeper. So that’s the first level of freedom. But I think that beyond this foundational level there is an inherent paradox, well summarised in an old cliche from the Anglican tradition (talking about our relationship to Christ): “in whose service is perfect freedom”. It’s the freedom you know when you fall helplessly in love with somebody - you are not free to walk away. Because you see the coherence of your life, you see the only pattern in which your life could fit. For me back then, I was not free to choose to be a Sufi or a Buddhist, because the pattern cohered for me around that call from Christ. And as you finally become free to follow that what you might call the homing beacon of your own inner calling, you realise that it’s only in this complete obedience that freedom lies. And of course, the key here is to realise that the word “Obedience,” which we really usually think means knuckling under or capitulating really comes from the Latin ob-audire which means “to listen deeply.” So as we listen deeply to what you might like to call the “tuning fork of our being,” which is given to us not by ourselves and is never about Self-Realisation (because the self melts as the realisation comes closer), you begin to know that utter responsivity that freedom is truly all about, as Thomas Merton put it, your pass from “choice freedom” into “spontaneity freedom,” the capacity to say “yes” with all your Being. You gradually come to see that your only freedom, finally, is to be your own cell in the vast mystical body of God.
Cynthia: BUT You have to get free of false self to see that (both laughing)
Renate: So you spend a lot of time in solitude, I mean 3 months a year, I think ?
Cynthia: Well. that’s the game plan - as they say in Hamlet: more honoured in the breach than in the observance - but, yes, I have spent some time in solitude.
Renate: yes, and silence …how does that work for you? What does that give you?
Cynthia: Honesty. You know that we often equate it with, you know, we go into silence to find profound states of Beingness. This will come around but the first thing that silence does is it ruthlessly exposes the evasions, and the first evasion is simply our own —or my own—restlessness. You begin to discover how jumpy you are and then you begin to discover the evasion of time and how we set our life up with a schedule. We get up and we wake up at a certain time and we do our prayer practices and we have our meals then and in other words we parcel out our lives on this kind of linear continuum and all of a sudden, you know, it begins to hit you like a freight train: There is simply this Now and we are breaking it up into bits so that we can not be squashed by it. So you begin to see these evasions, you begin to see these smokescreens that you put up to live in the world. You begin to see that so much of what you thought you were about is only being cued to that fundamental evasion you’ve already set in place. So the first part of hermit silence is just falling through your own restlessness and beginning to develop a little bit of capacity to live in your own skin. And I think for me that this is really what incarnation, what solitude is about, it’s about becoming more restful in embodiment, about being able to confront and fall through that ever kind of restless tendency. So many of us are fundamentally autophobic, we don’t live comfortably in our own skin, we are always projecting our lives “out there”: My path, my enlightenment, my practices, you know, where I’ll be next year. Stop!, Be! - but its, you know, it’s squeeze for a while. And then you finally drop through that. My hermit teacher used to say you have to endure the tedium until something emerges in it. And then what develops is an expanded higher capacity for restful presence in a larger field of the Now. The Nows get longer and longer and I’m not broke into bits and running the program so much. So you don’t do anything particularly different, you just do it with a deeper and deeper rhythm of being grounded and something beyond our kind of completely human artificial constructions of what reality is actually structured like.
Renate: hm, beautiful, well our time is slowly running out
Cynthia: oh, well, speaking of time I thought of relaxing here for another four months.
Renate: Is there anything … one or two sentences that you still would like to say to our audience?
Cynthia: Well I think that the one thing that I would say is that that hermit work is not done alone. You really are in solidarity with the hearts of everybody and my belief is that so many of the models we have used in our spirituality in the past are individualistic models even right up to enlightenment: my “personal” self realisation, for example. But what happens is when we enter that deep, deep heart space it’s transpersonal, its personal and it’s transpersonal, it touches the heart’s space of everybody else both living and beyond, I think. And so it’s ultimately a communal form and I do believe that particularly in this next era of our spiritual unfolding, along with embodiment we’re going to understand again much more keenly an era of human solidarity and a higher collectivity, and my own work when I go and teach is always in the service of that union. Way way back when I had that communion at twenty, it’s the words “This is my body given for you” and the sense that our whole common sentient being as the body of Christ or the body of God or the body of Buddha. Name it as you wish, but the felt-sense reality is that, we are forming something that’s higher and deeper which can more worthily and deeply bear those beams of love.
Renate: Thank you, that’s a beautiful ending, Cynthia, thank you very much. I finish this programme now and you are happy to do afterwards a 10 minutes’ meditation with us?
Cynthia: Oh certainly
Renate: Or a prayer
Cynthia: I lay it in your hands.
Renate: OK. So, that was Cynthia Bourgeault and stay tuned in for the meditation afterwards and I say thank you for watching Conscious TV and I see you again a little bit later. Bye bye.
Hello, I am Cynthia Bourgeault, we are on Conscious TV, and after a wonderful interview with Renate, I’d now ask you to join me in a short time meditation. My core practice that I’ve used for 30 years now has been Centering Prayer, a wonderful and simple form of meditation in the Christian tradition, that was developed by my own teacher, Father Thomas Keating, to help bring an authentic path of meditation back into active Christian practice. So Centering Prayer is a non-clinging meditation practice. It really works for the simple idea of release, release, release. Moving our mind from a state of being attached to an object of thought to a state of letting go, letting go. And this is an imitation of Christ’s great notion of letting go, letting go, letting go, described by St. Paul as self-emptying.
So here is how it works. In Centering Prayer your intention is to let go of every thought. As soon as you even slightly notice that you’ve gotten entangled within it. In this practice a thought is anything that brings your attention to a focal point. Whether it’s an idea or an emotion or an itch on your nose, if you become aware your attention is attached to it, you simply let it go. And to let it go, to help with that, you choose a simple short word or short phrase ----- like “God” or “Peace” or “Let Go” —to help remind you to sweep it away, let it go. So whenever you begin to be aware that you are engaged with thinking, just let it go. And the idea here is not to try to make your mind empty or still but simply to practice this gesture. As someone once commented to Thomas Keating after meditation: “I’m such a failure at meditation, in twenty minutes I’ve had ten thousand thoughts”. “How lovely” said Thomas, “ten thousand opportunities to return to God”. So every time you let go of a thought, even if another comes back, you’re practicing this deep motion of non-clinging, letting go, consenting, surrendering in meditation form. So we’re going to meditate for about over a little over five minutes together, I’ll leave you into it with a chant and lead you out of it with that same chant.
Spirit of Truth, enter my mind, Soul of Wisdom, enter my heart. Spirit of Truth, enter my mind, Soul of Wisdom, enter my heart.
Five minutes meditation in silence
Spirit of Truth, enter my mind, Soul of Wisdom, enter my heart.
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