Cynthia Bourgeault Transcript

Cynthia Bourgeault #420

October 3, 2017

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>>Rick: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done well-over 400 of them by now and if this is new to you and you would like to watch other ones, go to the ‘Past Interviews’ menu on (B-A-T-G-A-P), where you will see all the previous ones archived in various ways.

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My guest today I’m glad to say is the Reverend Cynthia Bourgeault, Ph.D. She is an Episcopal priest, teacher, writer, and internationally acclaimed retreat leader. She is a student of Father Thomas Keating, whom I have interviewed, and several people I haven’t and am not familiar with – maybe she’ll mention them during the interview – such as Bruno Barnhart, Beatrice Bruto, and she also studied the Gurdjieff work for a number of years.

She has made her mark exploring wisdom Christianity and the often-overlooked lineage of Christian Nonduality. She is the founding director of the Contemplative Society of Victoria, British Columbia, and the Aspen Wisdom School. She now serves as one of the core faculty there, along with Richard Rohr and James Finley of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

When not teaching internationally she resides in her seaside hermitage on Eagle Island, Maine, which is where she is right now. So, welcome Cynthia.

>>Cynthia: Well thank you, Rick. I’m glad we’ve got it up and running.

>>Rick: Yeah, Cynthia and I really jumped through some hoops, on both ends, to get this thing going. We’re starting about an hour later than we intended because there were so many technical difficulties, but I think we’ve ironed them out and I hope you’ll enjoy this interview; I think you will.

So for starters, I thought it would be good to have you just tell us a bit about yourself personally … a bit of a chronology in terms of your life as a young girl and when you first got interested in spirituality, and that kind of thing.

>>Cynthia: Well, in a way I was born to it as a self-defense. I was born just west of Philadelphia and grew up in a little town called Westchester, about an hour to the west, and that’s a part of the world that has a very strong Quaker heritage. And my mother, at least, was a very, very devout practicing Christian Scientist, and I was raised in that faith without any if’s, and’s, or but’s – that was where we marched on Sunday morning.

But they sent me, at least, for elementary school to Quaker Meeting, where I had my first exposure to silence and where I basically learned … what was formed in me was the basic reference points for the contemplative life, for the wonderful, wonderful, unprogrammed meetings for silent worship, which were part of my early childhood life.

So it was wonderful, it was melancholic out there. We were on the edge of the horse country that opens into the Amish country – a good, soulful place back in the 50s when I was growing up. So it was a life in nature, a life with the Quaker ambiance, a ready accessibility of Divine presence.

And I struggled really between two competing maps of the universe: one being furnished to me by my Christian Science Sunday school upbringing and the other by the natural mysticism and intimate silence that I was knowing in Quaker Meeting. So my life was a wonderful chance to sort of test these out.

And I guess what really jumpstarted my whole spiritual growth was when I hit high school, was sent to a wonderful private high school in Wilmington, Delaware, which was about 15 miles away, and we had compulsory religion classes there. It was a nondenominational school but they thought studying religion was part of every culture’s human being duty.

So we had a marvelous course the year I was a junior in high school on religious thought – taught by a gifted man, again, a Quaker – that exposed us to everything from Sartre to Paul Tillich. And it was in that course that the real spiritual questions of life began to come right to the fore…

>>Rick: So you were a pretty serious young woman, you weren’t just indulging in everything the 60s had to offer; you were taking life pretty seriously and thoughtfully.

>>Cynthia: Well I was ahead of the curve then because the 60s hit when I was in grad school, and so I was in the last drones of that sort of dying 1950s culture and I felt like an alien for most of my childhood, so I had to solve the things on my own.

You shouldn’t get the idea that I was sober-faced and studious; I was also sneaking onto the baseball team and swimming and riding my bike all over the countryside. I was just sort of opposed to the kind of culture we grew up in, where young women were supposed to be objects waiting to be invited to the prom.

>>Rick: Yeah, okay. I interrupted you there, did I break your chain of thought or did you pretty much cover what you wanted to in terms of that phase?

>>Cynthia: No, that’s fine, it’s good.

>>Rick: Okay, and then at some point you got married and had a couple of kids – a couple of daughters.

>>Cynthia: Mm-hmm, yeah, that was early on. And that was a great thing. I did what would be nowadays completely illegal and frowned upon – I married my high school music teacher. And in those days it was quite legal, and we had a gifted, wonderful couple of … about a decade together … my daughters came out of that. He was a brilliant, gentle soul.

And the marriage fell apart by pretty much what you can expect when there’s a 22-year age difference in it, but we remained to the end of our lives; his life – mine isn’t over yet – very good friends. And I had the privilege of being with him right before his death. A gifted, gentle, brilliant soul.

>>Rick: That’s great, and it’s nice that you have such fond memories and appreciation; doesn’t always work out that way, you know? Okay – and I don’t know if this is skipping anything important, but then you got into the Gurdjieff work for quite a while.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, that was fast forward a few decades, and in the process, I had solved my Quaker-Christian Science standoff by discovering Episcopalianism, and was already ordained at that point and had been serving in parishes and gravitating towards the monastical and mystical ends of it even then.

But I got into the Gurdjieff work because I became more and more intrigued and disturbed about why it was that Christianity –a religion who clearly has one of the most loving and inclusive Gurus that’s ever walked the face of the planet at its epicenter, should tend to develop itself in formats that were so rigid and exclusive and non-generous. And why didn’t people walk the talk? And that became more and more of a heartbreak to me.

And so it was through actually reading Jacob Needleman’s Lost Christianity in 1980 that the first pieces began to be put together. He said, at one point, “Telling people to wake up and be conscious is like telling stones to pick themselves up, sprout wings, and fly to the sea.” That there’s a missing piece and until you can get that missing piece online, you can’t do the teachings of Jesus. And something in me said, “Bingo! That’s it.”

>>Rick: Yeah, I read in your book at one point that, “If one aspires to live the Beatitudes or any other Gospel teaching, it is necessary to establish the level of consciousness from which they emerged.” I think that’s the crux of it right there.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. and that was actually a direct quote, or virtually a direct quote from Symeon the New Theologian in the 11th Century, who was the first one to be onto the fact that the Jesus teachings emerged from a very high level of consciousness and that until you could basically run that program, you were going to be constantly dumbing it down to a place where it made a … basically an inversion of itself.

I could see as those ideas begin to wash over me, and again, it was Jacob Needleman who first introduced me [to the] thinking of Symeon the New Theologian – so Needleman was onto the fact in that there was something that was broken in the way we pay attention, that kept our consciousness scrambled and low and distracted and not under our free command. And it was this that would up constantly making hash out of the Gospel that Jesus was teaching.

So it was when those pieces began to come together and then just at that time, a woman kind of almost casually tossed a copy of In Search of the Miraculous into the back of my car and said, “Oh, I saw the word ‘miraculous’ and thought you’d be interested in it.” So I don’t know whether that was a setup or not but it had all the configurations of a setup. And In Search of the Miraculous is the classic access book, even today, for accessing the Gurdjieff work. So I read that and it was like light bulbs, left, right, and center.

>>Rick: Hmm. Before we get into that, I think it would be important to just establish a little main point from a thing we just covered, which is that a teacher or anyone can only speak from their level of consciousness, and a student or anyone else can only listen or hear from their level of consciousness, which brings in the whole “pearls before swine” thing and the parable of the sower – if you want to quote Biblical references.

But you know, there’s always going to be a gulf, and not only is there a gulf contemporaneously in the life of that teacher, but then as time goes on and the thing gets passed on like a party game, from one ear to the other over time, it just gets more and more distorted, and I think it’s happened in every tradition.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly, and that is so right that you’ve seen that. And you know, even our understanding of what ‘esoteric’ means, that nowadays people think that ‘esoteric’ means ‘secret information that is withheld from people,’ which is ridiculous. The esoteric dimension of every faith, which is very simple, is hidden in plain sight. And nobody is hiding anything, but until you reach a certain level of receptivity, which is a certain level of broadcasticity, you just can’t see it, you can’t pick up.

My students even ask me about when they go home, “How am I going to tell this to my friends? How am I going to tell this to my husband?” And I say, “Don’t even bother because it won’t be received; that’s a long bridge creating a way that reception can actually happen.”

>>Rick: Yeah, and sometimes it’s better to teach by example if you really want to convey something. Like in my case, after I began meditating, I wasn’t really pushing my father into it or anything, but after a few months, he said, “Whatever you’re doing, I got to do it, because you’ve changed so much,” you know?

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. And that’s why … the other thing is that in classic ways, paths made themselves a little bit hard to find – certainly the Gurdjieff work did that in my days, and it actually took me three years of pretty hard seeking to get myself hooked up with a group. But one of the dimensions going on there is that they say that until a student has enough collected will and is able to sort out on their own and discriminate between a billion different things out there and the thing that really has their name on it, that they’re not going to be able to appreciate, they’re not going to be fit for work anyway. So it’s like a chicken picking its way out of the egg; you have to do that work before you’re ready to be where the teaching is going to put you.

>>Rick: And how do you develop that discrimination to know which of them – and these days there’s even more to choose from than there was in the 60s – but how do you discriminate between all the different things and find the thing that’s right for you?

>>Cynthia: Well you know, I’d have to pull the Christian rank and say it’s a little bit of grace. Gurdjieff had a teaching about “A and B influences,” and he said that most of us are out there in the world surrounded by A-influences, which are all sort of competing things making a play for our attention, and it’s not until you can recognize something that’s a B-influence – which is a height of qualitatively different taste for you – that you can follow it.

And you gotta get there yourself. How that happens? A little luck, a little management. I certainly think that mediation is a really good starting point because it allows you to filter out a lot of the garbage that’s obviously playing at superficial parts of you and to listen from something qualitatively deeper.

>>Rick: You mentioned the word ‘grace,’ and I think that’s critical. You know, there’s that old “seek and ye shall find;” I think if you are sincere and if you really want this – whatever you define “this” to be – when you know there’s something and you gotta find out what it is, then the very seeking kind of draws God’s attention – if we want to speak in terms of God – and there’s a grace that guides you.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly, yeah. I think actually that we have the direction wrong and the journey all along: we start from the impression that we are here and God is over there, and that we have to go towards God – oh, I love the fact that we’re on video – and if you can make enough noise and jump up and down loud enough you’ll attract God’s attention.

But I think rather that it is always the opposite, that we are flowing out from the Divine at any given moment as a particular path, as a kind of instantiation of Divinity in form, and that we’re always guided and the path is totally specific to ourselves; what we have to learn is to simply stay in alignment with it. And that’s what the learning of the B-influences is all about.

But it’s easier to stay in alignment once you get the hang of it, than not to stay in alignment with it and try on a billion different paths because they seem interesting.

>>Rick: Yeah, which also suggests that God dwells in our heart of hearts and cannot … I once heard someone say, “God may be omnipotent, but the one thing He can’t do is remove Himself from your heart.” And so even the subtlest impulse to reach God or to reach higher truth or anything like that, God hears it, you don’t have to shout, He is there.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, I venture that God is your heart of hearts.

>>Rick: Exactly, right, yeah.

>>Cynthia: And so, as you begin to listen, and it’s basically just an issue of trying to pare away all the conditioned stuff, all the what Thomas calls “the false self-agendas,” all the static on the system so that you listen from the truth of your being. The old Latin word ‘obedience’ really means ‘ob-au-dooray’ – listen from the depths. And as we learn to listen from the depths, then we hear and we align and then the path becomes, if not ever obvious, it becomes comfortable.

>>Rick: Good. So, I could get you to talk more about the Gurdjieff thing at this point, but later in your book, you talk about witnessing, and that brings up the Gurdjieff thing. So, I’m wondering if we want to postpone the discussion of Gurdjieff until that or would you like to say something about it right now?

>>Cynthia: Well you are the master of this interview, you have a sense of the general flow you know … put a quarter in my mouth and I’ll respond to any question.

>>Rick: Alright, let’s talk about the Gurdjieff thing, what the heck! I already dropped the bait. So, what were you actually doing as a student of Gurdjieff?

>>Cynthia: Well, I guess for me I was spending most of my time sensing my feet.

>>Rick: Ah-ha.

>>Cynthia: I entered the group and it took a long run around, as I said, it was three years to get in. I sort of “flunked” the first hazing test that as many people in the work did at that point getting in, I showed up at an appointment like, “Oh, there must be a mistake, there’s no Lord Pentland here,” because I didn’t have the patience and the foresight to wait, I missed the chance.

>>Rick: What? Who’s lord whatchama call it?

>>Cynthia: Lord Pentland was my great missed opportunity. He was the leader of the work in America for many, many years. And I had managed to get to the point, through Jacob Needleman, of having an interview arranged for him – this was back in 1983. And the day I showed up at his office I was told that there was no Lord Pentland there.

Then I came back later and there was a different secretary and she said there was no Lord Pentland there but he wouldn’t be in till after 4 o’clock that afternoon and could I wait? And I had train tickets back home so I didn’t, and it was the stupidest mistake in my life because as it turned out, he died two weeks later. And my journey towards finding The Work was set back another two years, but by then I managed to show up at the doorstep of Dr. William Welsh, who was one of the first generation – magnificent old fellow – student of Gurdjieff and was actually his attending physician in his last illness.

And I was admitted and after due deliberation about who I would work best with, I was packed off to a group in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was actually closer to me in Maine than Boston, and there I worked. But you know, in terms of [The] Work and in terms of what are really the criteria, I was a classic example of unbalanced development.

>>Rick: How so?

>>Cynthia: Brilliant mind – you know, I had done all the philosophy, I had a Ph.D. I hadn’t published any books at that time but it was mental all the way. And I’d never been taught any of the adab, as the Sufis called it – how you behave in a group; I was used to being the smartest student and you put up your hand and you got into a debate with the teacher.

Well, they weren’t having that and they observed that when I spoke in the meetings, which I did about six months too fast anyway, that I was always taking on the teacher. And they said, “You never ask a question. You talk in parrots.” And then they took to cutting me off and saying, “Well, where were your feet when you said that?”

>>Rick: Ahh, I see.

>>Cynthia: And over and over and over, it was this slow kind of allowing me to see that I was just untying myself because my journey, my vision of everything was being lived entirely in my head. And so it took a couple of years of really coming pretty close to … I wouldn’t say it was breaking my spirit, but I think the more snowflakes among us would say that I was handled “unsensitively.”

But Dr. Welsh said that one of the responsibilities of an instructor is to absolutely, accurately gauge the student’s strength and push him right to the edge because that’s where they’re going to change. But if you push it too hard, you’re going to break their spirit and that will be counted as an eternal sin against you.

So it is a teaching I’ve never forgotten when I wound up in the teaching seat myself, that you have to – particularly a strong-spirited student – you need to go at them; you can’t let them get away with all their enablings because that’s why they’re there; they’re there to change. But you better not let your stuff get in the way so that get irritated with them and break them because that’s blood on your hands.

But little by little they taught me, little by little I woke up and I finally … a couple of people in The Work who were senior leaders, very huge hearts, came to my rescue and they stood beside me. And while not letting me off the hook with my kind of idiotic behavior, they helped me find a way to something else and to recognize something qualitatively different in me, and they never gave up on me. And really to them, I owe … they’re my spiritual “mama and daddy” and I owe them a heart that’s boundless.

>>Rick: So you mentioned being aware of your feet a lot, and I know what you were alluding to, I think. I don’t have an intimate knowledge of Gurdjieff’s teaching but as I understand it, it involves sort of a constant or intermittent remembrance of the self and attentiveness to what you’re actually doing.

And I’ve heard a criticism of it which is that it can make your speech or behavior somewhat stunted or unnatural because you’re dividing your attention between what you’re doing and trying to remember the self. And the criticism I’ve heard is – and a little elaboration of that is – that the self is not something to be lived by a conscious, intentional remembrance throughout the day, any more than cleanliness is achieved after your morning shower by remembering the shower. So how would you address those criticisms?

>>Cynthia: Well I would say that they’re quite right in that a certain misinterpretation and even misteaching of The Work – and I grew up that way – but the important thing that is often lost sight of is the Gurdjieff taught three-centered awareness; he said that there’s the mental – the intellectual center, which is actually the slowest of the three centers, but it is counterbalanced by an emotional center, which is not synonymous with the heart; it’s sort of the joint sympathetic residence of the neural system. And then there’s a moving center, which is not the gut but is really intelligence in motion, it’s the intelligence that allows you to ski down a hill or know how to put your feet when you’re walking downstairs, without watching each one of them, [and it is] faster than.

And so the whole “remembering your feet” was really about bringing your moving center online with its genius, which is sensation, and using attention to call sensation into your being, which brings you into the now. And the idea was that most of us in the West are living a mental reduction of ourselves, and The Work can be criticized in that way when you try to remember yourself with your intellectual center alone, you’re never going to get it, and you do all those things – those stilted ways of thinking.

And I’ve actually taken on some people in The Work to say that “divided attention” is the wrong word. We are not dividing our attention, I think that’s a misteaching; we are expanding our attention out of a core center which is somewhere around the solar plexus so that it can gradually hold more and more in a unified field.

But a lot of the early Work teaching was having people essentially multitask, using their minds. And when people understand that, they’ve got exactly what your friend is complaining about.

>>Rick: Yeah, that was actually Maharishi. He said that when he first began teaching in England in the early 60s, people would come and they’d get up to the microphone and they would say a word and pause, they would say another word and pause, and he said, “Why are you talking that way?” And they said, “We’ve been told to remember the self.” So he said, “No, no, no. The self isn’t lived by this kind of mental gymnastics; it’s much more …”

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, exactly, exactly. But when you can fill up the body and the being with sensation and the I am reverberates from that deepest core of your heart, it’s different. But yeah, that threw me out of The Work a lot, because it very, very easily turns into this sort of stilted mental gymnastics.

And I was actually running into that in certain corners of The Work in my first way, and it was only my Work parents who pulled me out of that. And the Gurdjieff movements, if you actually do them, are intended to help you get through that barrier of over-mentalizing The Work. And a lot of the British folks particularly didn’t have movements right before them; a lot of the British groups articulated themselves without that part in it. And if you lose that piece, the Gurdjieff Work is in my opinion defenseless against becoming simply a mental black hole.

>>Rick: Yeah, okay, and since we’re on that topic, let’s just talk a little bit about witnessing for a minute, I think it’s treated nicely in your book. A lot of times witnessing is discussed as something one should try to do in some intentional way, and I always counter that it is something you are. In other words, there’s a depth of silence that can become your 24-7 reality and when it does, naturally there is a sense that you are not the doer or engaged in action; action is going on but you reside in the silence. Would you concur with that or would you actually advocate some sort of practice or intentional witnessing?

>>Cynthia: Well I think witnessing is really a gamut, and it goes from … on the one hand it goes from just counting to three before you react, towards being able to … I think there’s some elementary witnessing that goes on in all psychotherapy, is that you can detach enough from your life to look at it and see it.

But where witnessing, and I think its companion piece – mindfulness – tend to get stuck in our culture is that it is assumed to be a mental activity. And people, when you ask them, “Where’s your witness?” They’ll point to sort of the back of their head; I think that’s totally wrong. I think that what the Eastern mystics of the Western Church (the Eastern Orthodox) discovered was that witnessing is what naturally happens when your mind is in your heart, in other words, when it is carried lower. And it has nothing to do with “I am watching myself have an angry reaction,” you know? Too slow, you know?

But it really becomes progressively imprinted in one as you move beyond using the mental system to try to generate your identity because it just can’t, it is beyond the capacities of that system.

>>Rick: Here’s a line from your book. Incidentally, when I say “your book,” I’m referring to this one which I’ve been reading, The Heart of Centering Prayer.

>>Cynthia: Yep, yep, I have it right here in case you need it.

>>Rick: Oh, here it is – dueling books.

>>Cynthia: Dueling! Yes.

>>Rick: You say – regarding witnessing – “It does not need to be paid attention to because it itself is the subject of attention.” I like that because if it were something you had to pay attention to, then it’s a thing and things come and go. But we’re talking about the very subject of all attention, which is abiding, which is a continuum; it’s not an object that you can sort of keep in your awareness as you attend to other objects.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And that’s it, it’s that overly mentalized understanding. And that’s what you were complaining about, or Maharishi was complaining about – the people in the Gurdjieff Work, they were doing this mental witnessing: “I am remembering myself!” – you can’t do it from there! It just doesn’t work. The best you can come upon is reflecting on your being, not coinciding with it.

>>Rick: Hmm, did you ever hear this line from one of the Upanishads, it says, “Two birds sit in the self-same tree, one eats of the sweet fruit of the tree and the other eats not,” it just sort of watches or observes. It’s a beautiful little poetic description of witnessing.

>>Cynthia: yeah, it’s lovely, it’s lovely. Jacob Boehme has one very much like it. He says, “There are two eyes in the soul, one is focused on the outer world and the other is always holding in God.”

>>Rick: Nice. Alright, maybe we should get onto centering prayer.

>>Cynthia: Sure.

>>Rick: How did you first stumble upon that?

>>Cynthia: I first heard about it in 1987 when I was out at New Camaldoli hermitage there, that fabled Benedictine Monastery perched above the Pacific Ocean. And one of the women who was a long-term resident in the community at that point had been reading Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart, and so I had a look at it and thought, “Hmm, this looks good” – an effort to describe and develop a pattern of meditation based on Christian reference points.

So I took a look at the book and I played with it, read it, practiced it a little, and then sort of put it away. Then got called back to it by a completely circuitous route. In 1989 Parabola Magazine contacted me that they were putting together a 25th-anniversary issue. And they basically asked me, “Do you know anybody, any Christian you know, who we could put in the issue on non-duality with the Dalai Lama who wouldn’t make a fool of himself?”

So I said, “Well, maybe Thomas Keating.” I didn’t really know Thomas Keating from Adam at that point, I just knew he’d written a book on meditation and I also knew he had a brief cameo appearance in Jacob Needleman’s Lost Christianity. So they said, “Okay, good! Thomas it is. You interview him.”

So I trooped out toward New York, where he was doing a weekend at the then Centering Prayer Center – Ashram, you can call it – the Center for Contemplative Living did the interview. And at a part of the interview he said, “Well, you should come to Snow Mass and study it.” So I signed up for a 10-day intensive and in May 1990 I met Centering Prayer for the first time.

>>Rick: Okay. What’s your understanding of how Centering Prayer originated?

>>Cynthia: Well, you know, the same information that everybody else has, that Thomas Keating who was at that time Abbott of St. Joseph’s Monastery, about an hour outside of Boston, began to become increasingly noticed and increasingly distressed by the fact that Westerners of essentially Catholic background – Christians and usually Catholic Christians – were deserting the faith en-masse towards Eastern meditational practices.

And Thomas had also been well aware and had already been working with the monks on realizing that contemplation in the Christian community had just gotten rigidified and essentially nonexistent. So he went into a chapter meeting – a meeting of his monks one day, and offered them his famous challenge: is it not possible to put the whole of the Christian contemplative tradition in an updated format that can be used by modern people in the world?

>>Rick: What year was that, do you know?

>>Cynthia: That was somewhere around 1974, ’75. And one of the monks in the community, Father William Menninger, took him up on the challenge, went back to a classic of Western Christianity, an anonymous book called The Cloud of Unknowing, and they’re found in the middle of chapter 7 what became the essence of the method of Centering Prayer that says, “If you would have – not a lot of words are needed in prayer – but if you would have the whole of your aim and your naked intent directed to God, put into a single word, pick a short word of one-syllable, clasp it to you and never let go of it, and ride with it as your shield and buckler. So that became the Scriptural basis for the beginning of Centering Prayer.

>>Rick: Okay, there’s a little bit of a backstory, if you don’t mind my telling it, fills in some interesting aspects of this story.

>>Cynthia: Mm-hm.

>>Rick: So in the summer of 1971, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for six weeks. And first, he taught a one-month course and then he taught a two-week symposium where Buckminster Fuller and Hans Selye and people like that came to speak, and I was there for the whole thing.

And several of the monks from St. Joseph’s came over, you know, “Let’s check out what’s going on here.” And they ended up learning TM and ultimately, eighty of them ended up learning TM – pretty much everybody at St. Joseph’s was doing it. And this went on for a number of years and they were happily meditating along.

And several of them became what are called “checkers,” which involves memorizing about 30 pages worth of notes on the fine mechanics of meditation, so as to be able to correct somebody’s practice if they begin to get off of it and begin to get unnatural with it or something. And Basil Pennington came out here to Iowa to visit and so on.

Then, around ’77 or ’78 Maharishi came out with what he called the “TM Siddhi Program,” which was based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which purported to be able to teach people to levitate and things like that. And Father Keating was like, “Oh my God, this is going too far. The TM Movement is going to be destroyed by this.”

And I suspect that even prior to that they were looking into like, “Is there something like this in our own tradition?” But I think that at that point he decided to sever involvement with any TM-related thing and let’s just do this in our own tradition and find the source of it. And as you say, The Cloud of Unknowing has something that sounds remarkably similar in its mechanics.

So anyway, that’s a little interesting story the way it went. And I’m not saying that this was wrong, I’m not passing a value judgment. I think so many people have benefited from Centering Prayer who would never have been interested in TM, and I’m not suggesting either that Centering Prayer is some alteration or bastardization or something of TM; I’m sure it’s totally legitimate in its own right, I’m just offering that as a little interesting aside. And perhaps you and I can compare the mechanics of these types of meditation and other types of meditations as well, in the course of this discussion.

>>Cynthia: I’d be really interested in that and of course, the early leadership in Thomas’s movement, Contemplative Outreach, came very strongly out of the TM … Gus Reininger was a big TM person, Tom Hall who is on the board even today, came out from a TM background. So TM was one of the major inputs for sure, in the practice, as well as Thomas was getting shouldered on the other side by some Buddhist Roshis that he introduced to the Monastery.

He had an intuitive sense, I mean, I’ve known Thomas now for 30 years or so, and he has an intuitive genius for the interspiritual dimension, and still now, as he is now midway through his 90s, it’s emerging as the one great love of his life – the interspiritual understanding of Nonduality. But even back when he was an abbot in the late 60s, early 70s, he had sensed so keenly that Christianity had gotten stuck, and that it had become overly doctrinal and contentious and legalistic, and that this had something to do with its failure to access what once upon a time had been accessed in Christianity, under the Rubric Contemplation, and somehow that had to get kickstarted again.

Contemplation, by the time Thomas became abbot, had become like the Eagle scout of contemplative life and it was such a high and mighty thing that nobody could do it, and if you felt you were called to it, it was a proof that you weren’t ready for it, because only pride could make you feel like you were called to it.

So it just wasn’t happening and people were stuck in their minds and there wasn’t any going deeper. So he intuitively, with his open, open spirit that he has, reached out to what was available, and he grabbed TM and he grabbed the Roshis. He was doing Koans study at St. Joseph’s for years while all this … I mean, he knew there was water in the well down there and he was going to find it.

And I’d love to talk to you more about techniques because I’ve heard different stories, but I know that one of the things that have happened to Thomas, slowly, over the course of his own teaching, is to move Centering Prayer progressively away from being a mantric based practice, away from being an awareness-space practice, to finally being what he calls a “receptive practice,” or what I call a “surrender practice.”

And I suspect there were some incremental notches in that, but where he has wound up with Centering Prayer, for me today, I think the closest equivalent as he has come to understand it, is actually Tsao Shen, but I know he didn’t start out that way and I’d be interested in seeing what your piece of the backstory is about how he has moved that way.

>>Rick: Well there are interesting and subtle distinctions here. Correct my pronunciation but at some point, you talk about cataphatic and, what was the other one?

>>Cynthia: Apophatic.

>>Rick: Apophatic! I always chuckle when I hear ‘cataphatic,’ because we used to have a cat-a-fat-ic but she died. She was kind of fat and got old. And so explain briefly what those are because this relates to what I want to say.

>>Cynthia: Okay. These are old, old distinctions that have been around since the 3rd or 4th Centuries in Christian spiritual theology. Cataphatic is essentially a prayer meditation practice that engages the faculties – faculties are, as Thomas Aquinas defined them, are the will, reason, memory, emotion, in other words, the prayer that works through the normal access routes of our mind.

Apophatic, in some sense, transcends those usual middle rational faculties and therefore is often described as the “via negativa” – the prayer of emptiness, the prayer of no-form. I think that’s a misunderstanding. I think it looks like no-form from the basis of cataphatic faculties, which are much more course, but it’s a prayer that really engages the subtle, higher, noetic, intellective capacities of consciousness.

So in that sense, Centering Prayer is apophatic prayer, but you have to be careful with them because I think that people don’t understand the terms. They often think that apophatic prayer means that you’re worshipping silence or you’re worshipping emptiness, it’s not that; you’re just switching to a more subtle operating system.

>>Rick: Yeah, now when I heard you discuss those terms, one thing I inferred, correct me if I’m wrong, is that the cataphatic is more of a willful doing, intentional, individual applying some kind of effort, whereas as apophatic is more of a surrendering, letting the Divine intelligence, letting natural tendencies run the show. Is that true?

>>Cynthia: Well I would say that’s probably a byproduct of it. I think that what happens is not so much the direction or the action, but the sense of where the self is located. In cataphatic prayer, you’re really operating out of what I would call your phenomenal usual sense of small selfhood: I am praying, I am acting, I am receiving bliss from God, I am surrendering, I am having visions … but it’s still coming back to that finite self.

In apophatic prayer, what makes it possible to step into that larger, more spacious self, is that you are simultaneously stepping into a witnessing presence, which is not doing but being, in the way that you’ve talked about before. You’re stepping into a fundamentally different system for perceiving reality and the finite self is not at the heart of it, and so it will appear that it has surrendered, it will appear that it has letting be, but I think this is because it is a selfhood that isn’t always holding on to its boundaries, and so things flow with much more graciousness and give and take.

>>Rick: So you could say that if meditation is going well, you might very well move from cataphatic to apophatic in the course of a single meditation, or pretty much every time you do it?

>>Cynthia: I think you have to. I mean if you’re not, then you’re not meditating. At least you’re using some of the cataphatic forms of meditation – visualization is cataphatic meditation, petition is cataphatic meditation, there are a lot of forms of it. And many, many forms of meditation and pathways will start in cataphatic and move towards apophatic. But at some point, when you move into … when you sink into those deeper waters of the mind, as the Buddhists like to say, you’re moving into the realm of the apophatic.

>>Rick: Okay, good. The reason I wanted to offer that little prelude is that you mentioned mantric meditation and Vipassana and that kind of thing, and there is a really subtle distinction between focusing on the breath or a mantra or something like that, as sort of something that is important that you should keep in your mind, versus doing it in such a gentle, subtle way that it’s not really the primary intention; the primary intention is a surrender into silence and the mantra or whatever just serves as a sort of catalyst or aid to that. Do you know what I mean?

>>Cynthia: Yeah, I think so, and it helps me … I’ve gotten conflicting reports about … because I never practiced TM myself, I started right from Centering Prayer, but some people say that in TM the mantra is recited consistently as a touchstone for attention. So some say that you’re given your mantra and you recite it, others say, “No, you only use it discreetly when you realize you’re being pulled to a thought,” and that that’s what Thomas Keating picked up from TM. So if you could clarify that for me, it would help my own history.

>>Rick: Sure. Well, first you start by closing your eyes and doing nothing for half a minute, just letting yourself settle down. And when we close the eyes like that, naturally you do settle down – you feel some quietness, some silence. Then, thoughts may be coming as they always do in life, and if you think about it, you don’t really make an effort to think thoughts, they just pop into the mind. You don’t try to articulate them clearly, you don’t persist in repeating them or keep on remembering; they just come up as a general impulse and they go.

So then having settled into that silence, one begins to think the mantra as effortlessly as you think any other thought, which is to say [it becomes] a faint idea, just a subtle impulse. And you don’t try to persist in repeating it or remembering it, it’s just a subtle impulse.

And immediately – well not immediately, but maybe immediately – it soon begins to become more refined, more subtle, more delicate. And what you’re actually doing is kind of tracing a thought back to its source, automatically, not intentionally, not like, “Okay, where is its source?” but each repetition takes you to sort of a subtler step, subtler step, subtler step. And then the thing will just disappear at a certain point and you’re left with pure awareness – no mantra, no thought. So that’s a brief explanation of it.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, great, thanks. That makes a lot of sense to me because Thomas had the devil of a time and I think it really plagued him for the whole 1980s to try and explain what was happening. And of course, he got nailed for it several times, because it sounds like, as he puts it out, that you start saying your sacred word and then as the way the earliest explanations used to go, when you realize you’re no longer being attracted to thoughts, it’s okay to let go of your sacred word. But of course, there’s a catch-22 built right in there, because how can you decide to let go of your sacred word without that being a thought.

So people nailed him at the start, saying that he was teaching a mantric practice that shifted to an awareness practice and then shifted back to a mantric practice. And what he was trying to do was talk about the subtler dimension of letting it fade, but there weren’t really words that he could put together that conveyed that.

>>Rick: Yeah, well there’s a nice principle here, which is that the mind has a natural tendency to seek a field of greater happiness, and these subtler dimensions are more gratifying, they’re more charming, and so if one can successfully begin to move in that direction then the mind is just drawn effortlessly toward the greater charm. So there’s no effort involved.

Also, I remember when I talked to Father Keating that he had a brilliant and clear explanation of the outward stroke of meditation, as being this natural sort of bubbling up impressions that had accumulated. And the deep inward stroke of meditation is conducive to the unwinding of those impressions and as they unwind, one begins to have thoughts and that’s what brings you “out.”

And so there’s nothing wrong with having thoughts; it’s as natural as anything else, but then once – I don’t mean to be talking so much for people … hopefully will excuse me for going on like this but – you know how it is when you have a thought and you don’t even know you’re having it for quite a while. And then maybe after 5 minutes or 2 minutes or whatever, you realize, “Hey, I’ve been thinking that thought all this time?”

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah.

>>Rick: And so the reason for that is that the thought is intense enough that it totally grips the attention, it totally consumes the attention, there’s not even room enough for a second thought which is, “Oh, I’m having a thought;” you’re just absorbed in that thought.

And until the impression that’s causing the thought has dissipated to the point where the thought itself becomes more diaphanous and then you realize, “Oh, I’m off,” and then it’s time for another inward stroke.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been working with that myself. I was trying to add my own kind of contribution to sorting out the confusion around this subtle state from a different point of view. And I started with the idea that Centering Prayer needs to be grounded theologically in the whole motion of kenosis or letting go, because people were upset about Centering Prayer – and still are – and Thomas takes a lot of flak because people say, “Oh, he’s just teaching a Christianized TM,” and that, “He’s not teaching anything that Jesus taught, he’s not teaching anything that will help you in Christian practice.”

So I realized it was going to be really important to get a theological basis under that that was indigenously Christian, and realized that what Centering Prayer is really looking at and concentrating on is the act of letting go of a thought, and that rather than trying to describe the thing in terms of subtle attractions or more subtle thoughts or more subtle states, to put it in terms of: when you let go of something, when you break that subject-object attention you are – at least temporarily, for a nanosecond – tasting an objectless awareness, and that what really stabilizes the field of consciousness in those other states is being able to hold objectless awareness, which I see as an incremental, learned skill that Centering Prayer teaches.

So I went from putting the kenosis piece in, which I did in my first book on Centering Prayer, to then taking it through The Cloud of Unknowing to the attention piece, and The Cloud of Unknowing’s clear understanding that when the attention is in the configuration or focusing on any object, no matter how holy, your mind is essentially not in the heart; it’s essentially caught in a form which is lower than contemplation.

So my two contributions in the direction of this 20-year conundrum have been kenosis and objectless awareness. And I think that Thomas is moving along a parallel track on those things as he’s gradually learning to language talking about an attraction, a receptive attraction to more and more subtle states.

I think it’s not so much a matter of attraction as it is a matter of graciously letting go of the attention to a certain configuration.

>>Rick: Yeah, well you can’t storm the gates of heaven, you know? I mean, it has to be a letting go. As a matter of fact, I had an interesting experience in reading your book. Yeah, I’ve been meditating for over 49 years yet it is like it can always be fine-tuned, you can always …

You know how when you’re driving a car you’re always making these subtle adjustments to the stirring wheel without even thinking about it? And perhaps you can drift off a little bit and you start hitting the rumble bars on the side of the road so you come back? Well even after many years of meditation it is possible for this subtle effort or subtle unnaturalness or something to either creep into the practice or to have been there all along and you didn’t realize it.

Anyway, when I started reading your book it shifted me to an even more innocent thing, this whole emphasis on just completely letting go and just resting in God. You had that nice quote from Father Keating about the nun who said she had 10,000 thoughts in her meditation and he said, “Beautiful, 10,000 opportunities to turn to God.” So I don’t know, it just had this subtle influence on me which I really appreciated and it actually made my meditation even better!

>>Cynthia: Yeah, that’s great. So many of the problems with meditation are stalledness entering anything are really only solved until that level of self-good can be seen and laughingly looked at. As long as I’m meditating to improve my meditation or to have a better appearance … it’s that kind of stuff that winds up just kind of bending you over backward, and it’s like you could be beyond that but there’s no you left anymore.

>>Rick: Yeah, back to that, people say to me that when they finally awoke to somehow of an enlightened state, or whatever state you want to call it, where God was really in the driver’s seat for the first time and then they meditated and felt like, “I’ve never done this correctly. Now I’m doing it for the first time in my life, and maybe because I’m not doing it anymore; this is the way it should be.”

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I would say that I’m still a C+ meditator after all these years, but sometimes I sit down there and I’m not meditating anymore, I simply am entering a state of total connected aliveness and I say, “Where did this come from? This ought to be the fruit of being a good meditator and I’m not!”

>>Rick: Yeah, and you know what you were saying a minute ago about … how did you phrase it…? Sort of about maintaining objectless awareness or something?

>>Cynthia: Yeah.

>>Rick: I really think – and I’d like your comments on this – that ultimately it’s not something that there would need to be any intentionality to maintain; it should become as automatic as breathing. Like a great athlete who doesn’t think, “Okay, now this is how I’m supposed to move my tennis racquet,” but it’s just so ingrained that it is just spontaneous.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, exactly, it’s like the other systems take over and it gets into the moving center and it gets into the emotional center and you settle down and you do it! One of the wonderful things that happened to me when I was working with the book is that I got to spend some time with a neuro-meditation guy at Scripps College who was a student of Thomas Keating.

And we were able to look at pictures of people meditating – doing Centering Prayer or advanced Tibetan practitioners doing Zhou Chen, we saw that in the advanced meditators in both of those paths that what you see neurologically is this drop; this drop that is simultaneously an activation of the hippocampus deep memory. But there’s this very clear … there’s not efforting, there’s no will, there’s no tuning-up [of the] parietal lobes or anything, it’s just like … whoop! You fall into the all.

And I feel that after years now, 30 years or more of Centering Prayer being my practice, I certainly feel that as a kinetic motion within me.

>>Rick: What do you mean by that “kinetic motion?”

>>Cynthia: Well, you sit down on your cushion, and boom, you’re there.

>>Rick: Oh, automatic, yeah, it becomes a habit.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, deeply embodied, deeply embodied.

>>Rick: Yeah, and you probably also find that even when you’re not on your cushion, even when you’re running through a busy airport or something, there is a deep silence that’s been established through all that meditation, and automatically it’s just there, with you.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, or the meditation is a quick device to remind you of the Is-ness that is.

>>Rick: Yeah, and since you mentioned the physiology, I would suggest that all these 30-odd years of practice have been transforming your neurophysiology – your brain. There’s plenty of research on that, that neuroplasticity. Sometimes people refer to meditation as “brain sculpting,” that yeah … it really does change.

>>Cynthia: Well that certainly has been my understanding, I think you are basically upgrading the operating system, eventually installing a whole different way of making connections. And it is only when you install that, that human beings are good for solving some of the problems that beset humanity. Because the divisive, separating, measuring, comparing brain that we normally use to figure our way around the planet has outlived its survival value, long since.

And so the capacity to gradually develop holistic perception … and in the classic days of Christianity, contemplation wasn’t sunyata, it wasn’t emptiness – that’s been a modern spin on it; it was, I quote, “knowledge impregnated with love.” It was a kind of luminous knowing, a knowing that – if you want to translate “impregnated with love” into a more modern quantum physics language, it’s knowledge within the felt sense of the relational whole that you’re a part of. It’s a deep sense of collected, holistic, impatterned knowing that has always been seen as a higher intellective capacity, a noetic capacity – not a “listening to God in silence,” not an emptiness path.

And I think we need to get that understanding back because you certainly have to turn off the brain that’s thinking according to the old operating systems, that brain is just getting in the way. But I think the idea that apophatic prayer is just content-less is a reductionism of our error; I think it’s a mistake.

I think there is a subtly imprinted coherence that all the great mystics have acknowledged and are striving for, and which is really necessary in our own times.

>>Rick: Yeah. If I understand you correctly, I think what you’re saying is that when we enter into deep states it’s not just emptiness or nothingness, but there is a … we sort of dive into the home of all knowledge, we could say.

>>Cynthia: Exactly.

>>Rick: Yeah, I mean it’s even said in the Vedas and I think this may be true of the Jewish tradition too, that they were not written or anything, they were cognized, that they actually exist in some deep, deep, fundamental level of creation, and that those who were able to do so actually discovered them there and then just spoke them out.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yep. That all makes sense to me. You enter into a foundational causal ground through which the patterns are continuously replicating themselves. And it’s not a matter of content; you can’t come out of that with sort of a thing you know that you didn’t know before, because what you need to know will be given to you in a moment, in a situation, but it is a matter of hanging out at a wellspring and just understanding that your own mind and your conscious perceptive system is part of – is not separate from or different from – a greater comprehension, a greater coherence field. And just to become aware of that is to send you back out into the world with a deeper sense of connectedness to the stream you’re flowing from.

>>Rick: Yeah, I don’t know that I would agree that you won’t come out of there with something you didn’t know, before because I think that Mozart and Einstein and many great people have felt that they didn’t “dream up” their creation, but that they cognized it and just wrote it down or expressed it in some form. I think that deep inspiration and insight and wisdom can often be mined in that interior state.

>>Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah, I mean it certainly is correct that products emerge from them, but they’re no longer your products. Because just as you said, Mozart didn’t say, “Oh, I’ve just gotten this wonderful idea from hanging out in the Akashic Records, so I think I’ll …” – it was more like it just flows through you in a moment.

>>Rick: Yeah, exactly, you become like a scribe of some deeper wisdom.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, and it isn’t even a channeling thing. There’s part of you that shuts off and there’s another part of you that it flows through – [through] your own particularity. I mean, Mozart wouldn’t have sounded like Mozart if it had been Beethoven.

But it is effortless and I would say it is always situational. The whole idea of you getting visions … I mean visions happen sometimes but I’m much more interested in the visions that happen on location as you’re suddenly at a place and you understand that … well, back to the very first conversation we had, you can’t push the student any further than this or you’re going to destroy her. You just see that and you don’t know how you see it, but you see that you see from some ways that you can’t usually see from, and that is the kind of practical visionary skill that I’m very much interested in.

>>Rick: Yeah, and something that’s been in the back of my mind that you mentioned earlier that this current conversation reminds me of, is just the idea that … you mentioned how you were kind of turned off to Christianity originally because it seemed so rigid and doctrinaire and stifling and so on, and I would say that this has been a problem with every religion, that there’s an inner core to every religion that it’s founder was likely living as a daily reality, and that over time that core was lost, that deeper dimension is lost, and so that religion becomes like a dead body without a spirit, which animates a live body.

So there is nothing necessarily wrong with the outer forms of religion, but without their foundation in inner experience they become calcified and problematic in so many ways

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And I think that Thomas Keating very, very correctly intuited that meditation or contemplation was the salve, was the flowing fluid that would restore the body of Christianity out of its calcification and back to life, and I think he is 100 percent correct in that. And that the practice really just opens up capacities to comprehend the Gospel, which is a Nondual teaching in a Nondual way, and without it you don’t have a prayer.

So his sense that somehow we had made this so high and so mighty that nobody was doing it, and was just absolutely locking Christianity at its lowest level of expression. And every religious tradition will have a lowest level of expression, that’s always going to happen, but when you have only your lowest level of expression, you don’t have a living religion anymore.

>>Rick: Yeah. You know how it is that when people get onto a spiritual practice and really begin to make some progress, they begin to realize not only the truth of their own religion if they have one – it begins to make sense to them for the first time – but they begin to look at other religions and say, “Oh yeah, they were saying the same thing just in a slightly different way and in a different culture,” and so on.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And until that happens, I think that really, you have to break through to the place where you see that every religious path, all the great sacred traditions are absolutely precious and necessary and irreplaceable, like the colors in the rainbow. If you lost one of them, the ability to understand what’s in the invisible light spectrum of God would be diminished.

And I’ve also found that for a lot of people, they will leave Christianity for example – just because it still is for many of us our religion of upbringing – leave with a lot of wounds, go to another path, embrace it and become very, very adept at that path. But you find that until they can come back and heal the wounds that they’ve had in their religion of origin, it’s going to limit their progress on the path they’ve chosen. They always hit a stuck place that’s not going to be resolved within that path, and it’s going to be resolved in going back to where the issue was in their Christianity, working through that so they’re genuinely “forgiving” of the hurt that happened. And then they’re liberated, they can be a Buddhist or a Sufi again, but the rigidity always enters at the same level.

>>Rick: Yeah, they can be a Hin-Jew. ?

>>Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, and where the Jew is still aching there will be something off in the perfect Hindu expression.

>>Rick: Yeah, it occurred to me when you were speaking that just as Father Keating and his associates discovered Centering Prayer in their own tradition as a very effective technique for unfolding the experiential dimension that the religion’s words had been referring to, there may be some such thing in every religion if it could be found. Islam and Hinduism – well Hinduism has a lot pretty active already and so does Buddhism – but Judaism and every religion must have these hidden keys if they can only be exhumed and properly understood.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, exactly, and I’m with the Gurdjieff work that another of the very great gifts that came to me in my practice of Christianity has been time spent seriously working with some Rafi Sufis, mostly in British Columbia. But to have the touch of that whole wonderful Sufi presence, which I think took the transmission of the living heart of Christ and kept it alive in almost a more pure form than any other place, without ever acknowledging it as “Christ” or any of that, it was able to open for me and really engage the emotional center in a way that had never happened before.

So again, I’ve seen many times how the great traditions bootstrap each other, and realize that they have to pull each other up because we’re all needed. Because either we’re all needed or none of us are needed; we sink or swim together.

>>Rick: Yeah, and you know what I often do when I think along these lines is I think that – according to NASA with the Kepler telescope and so on, there are probably as many Earth-like planets in the universe as there are grains of sand on the earth – that it’s rather small to just think of the religions that we know about. I think that there are probably trillions of religions throughout the universe, all of them referring basically to the same thing, whether they know it or not, and all of them potentially viable paths to that inner reality.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, I think so. That keeps you humble as you gaze at the stars.

>>Rick: It does. My screensaver on my computer is always pictures of galaxies; keeps things in perspective.

Going to take an interlude here and ask a few questions that people have sent in and then I have plenty more I want to talk to you about. And from your side, if anything comes to mind, just as I’m doing as we speak, if anything comes to mind that I’m not thinking of to ask, you just pop it out and we’ll get into it.

>>Cynthia: Okay, sure.

>>Rick: So here are a few questions. We were just talking about Hinduism and stuff, a fellow named David Laws from New Hampshire, England wants to know: “What do you make of the evidence for reincarnation and cases of people seeming to remember people in this life from past lives?”

>>Cynthia: Well, you know, I would have to say it’s never been useful to my own work and I know that some of the early Christians, Origen in particular, seem to be very attracted to this. One of the reasons it hasn’t been useful to me is because I think that in the West we tend to get it in dumbed-down versions. But the “i” that continues to be born, the “i” that remembers something, it always seems to me like a more finite “I”, like I just keep having serial lives.

And my sense is that we get this one shot in this form and that the continuation, which is clear, goes on in other forms and other dimensions, and that the idea of reincarnation is probably a necessary bookend to karma but you can cut through the whole thing.

And I’m not going to say that the teachings about coming back and finding the Tulku Karmapa are not true, but I think that we live these things into reality in the fields that we live in. And I think in a Buddhist reality, reincarnation has a very, very different flavor to it than it does in a Western reality.

But for my work, I found that it’s much more useful to think about that I’m out of this finite form when I’m out of it, and that what has retained any kind of viable solidity in another dimension will either do that or not do it. If it doesn’t, then I’m dissolved back into primitive elements again. If something sustains it sustains, but I don’t think there’s any need for continuance, certainly not my continuance.

I realized one day walking up a path, a thought popped into my head: “Oh, I could disappear and God and the cosmos would still be fine,” and I thought, “What a relief!” So I would say that I basically pass on that question. I’m certainly in no basis to judge whether I in any august way deem it true or false; it just hasn’t been one of the principles I find useful to work with.

>>Rick: Yeah, okay, sure, fair enough. I would add that whatever the reality of the universe may be, it’s not dependent on us for its existence; there isn’t “Buddhist reality” and “Hindu reality,” any more than there is “Buddhist gravity” and “Hindu gravity.” The universe probably works the way it works and if there’s reincarnation then there is, if there isn’t then there isn’t; I’m not sure we get to choose.

>>Cynthia: Well, I think we call into being, as societies – Sheldrake called them “morphogenetic fields” – but when you have a group of people really poised around and feeding energy into and drawing meaning from a practice, it does live it into existence a little bit.

>>Rick: It makes it more real for them or more vivid in their awareness.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, and I don’t think this is entirely just subjectivity, there’s a Eucharistic reality for the believing Christians in a sphere, Christ does literally become present in the body and bread, and when you’re in a sphere where nobody thinks that way and they think you’re crazy or totemistic, it doesn’t come through with that kind of clout.

So I think that there is a feedback loop between – call it “funky Heisenberg” – but where the perceiver is coming from is part of the dimension of the field.

>>Rick: Explain that last sentence.

>>Cynthia: Well, that the deep beliefs that we create, even if they are totally false and dangerous, become part of lived reality. To take it to a perhaps political and dangerous extreme now, we’ve seen such a rise in this country of racism and bigotry just in the last few months, because the thing is out there, it’s become what Valentin Tomberg called an aggregator; it begins to have psychic critical mass. And then it easily downloads its forms into peoples’ minds, and the more they’re into it the more they live it into existence.

So I think there’s a need to be responsible and responsive to the thought-form climates in which you live, realizing that there may not be such a thing as a universal objective scientific Newtonian truth that is applicable everywhere.

I think that when I was in Bhutan and spent some time with Bhutanese Buddhism, the configurations that the angry deities and all of that sort of stuff that doesn’t have much meaning in my Western world, had a felt-sense of depth and coherence because it was on location. And I think we do need to factor in the particularity of the extreme.

>>Rick: I think I see what you mean. So it’s like if enough people are believing a thing or thinking along certain lines, it sort of gives it some kind of a reality. Like in Ghostbusters towards the end when they were on top of that building and they said, “Don’t think of your worst fear, whatever it was.” And then one of them thought of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and he came marching along; he kind of gave it form.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, we’ve got to be careful about our thought forms and what we call into existence and we work with because whether or not something is true, it can be real.

>>Rick: But I would also say that … well it’s real to a point. I mean it’s relatively real, it’s a manifestation or a fabrication of collective consciousness. But I would posit that there are deeper truths that are beyond the whims of human understanding and belief and attention that … there’s an old saying, “That which is closest to truth lasts longest,” and I’m sure there’s something in Plato or whatever about this. But when you really get down to the bedrock of reality, there are certain fundamental laws of nature that are immutable and that are not subservient to our understanding or whims.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, but on the other hand it’s hard to take it because our fascism and hostility could wind up blowing up the planet.

>>Rick: Oh of course, yeah.

>>Cynthia: So there is a certain importance in being careful with the transient realities we create.

>>Rick: Yeah, absolutely, I totally agree. I don’t think the two points we’re making are contradictory.

>>Cynthia: Or different, yeah, I don’t either.

>>Rick: Okay good, well I think we’ve beat that one to death. And any of these things, if people find this thought-provoking and want to pop a question, then go to the ‘Upcoming Interviews’ page on, there’s a form at the bottom of the page.

Here’s a question from Julie Hanzi who wants to know: “Does Cynthia that breathing and practices to open the heart help prepare the body for the experience of being aware of the Divine’s indwelling?”

>>Cynthia: Yyyes and no, I mean I think that embodiment is really, really important. And I think embodiment was the neglected piece, particularly of the Christian tradition for many, many, many centuries, and so I would say that embodiment is good. But I’m a little bit reluctant about this “preparing the way for thing,” because it already sets it up on the “I am doing this, I am getting better, there is a goal; I’m going get there.” And the point is that the Divine intimacy can come screeching in out of anywhere and all of a sudden you’re coffee-logged, you’re sleep-deprived, you’re in the middle of a freeway in a traffic jam, you’re late for your appointment, and boom, all of a sudden, and for some reason, you had no idea where it came from. You’re in the heart of the Divine in a missy.

And so I think it’s really important to take our practices as fruits and gratitude of the Oneness, as avenues of expressing our joy of participation rather than a means of acquiring something or making it better.

>>Rick: Mm, but can’t we create the conditions that are more conducive to a deep practice? For instance, if you’ve been up all night partying and drinking or whatever, then in the morning you have a couple of cups of coffee to wake yourself up to do Centering Prayer, it’s not going to go as well as if you had taken better care of your body. So all these practices of yoga and this and that, aren’t they meant to just culture the physiology to give us a bit more of an advantage in terms of clarity of experience?

>>Cynthia: Well I would disagree with that and I’ve been politically incorrect for years, but I’ve often had friends who … we were sitting down to meditate one day with some dear friends of mine in Toronto, and just as we were sitting down the phone rang. And it was an angry person wanting to know where the electrical bill was and threatening to disconnect.

And he hung up the phone in a fury and I said, “I thought we’ were meditating,” and he said, “How do you expect me to meditate now?! Wait till I calm down.” But the idea of trying to start by physically inducing a calm state or a deep state or a preferred state and then meditating, is I think a backward understanding of meditation and it’s a very powerful and common one.

And it may be that TM and the yoga movements have contributed to it but we tend to think that meditation is about optimal states, and I don’t think it has anything to do with optimal states. I think it has to do with the instant, timeless, causal connection of consciousness to consciousness. And I not only believe but have experienced it many times, that it is often when you’re in the “worst states” that meditation becomes the most powerful, the most fully contrasting, because it doesn’t’ operate at the level, so it’s manipulable by outer factors. What you can increase is your subjective experience of having what you have pre-identified as an optimal experience. I think it’s a trap.

And I’m with A.H. Almas here. In his wonderful, wonderful book, Runaway Realization, he names this trap so clearly, that we use our in-body practices in order to acquire what we think are better meditation experiences, deeper states, profounder, that we think are closer to God, and he says that that’s backward and I agree with him.

I think that the realization of our indivisible oneness is instantaneous and timeless, and it is out of that that we get motivated to take care of our bodies and embody our bodies so that there can be a fullness, a fuller, more rich presence in how we carry that instantaneous oneness out, how we embody it, how we connect. So I find that the practices are the fruits of oneness and not the means to it.

>>Rick: I agree with you, and I can still play the devil’s advocate even though I’m agreeing with you? I’m reminded of Jerry Seinfeld who has been meditating for decades, and he said one time that he would have continued – he got kind of burned out and stopped the Seinfeld Show and a friend of his said, “Well you meditate, don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah, in the afternoon.” And his friend said, “Oh, you should do it in the morning too.” And he said, “Why? I just slept all night, I don’t feel like I need to do it in the morning.” And his friend said, “Do it in the morning; it will set you up for a better day.”

And he said that the thing was that in the afternoon he felt a contrast – you mentioned contrast – because he was tired from doing stuff all day. So sometimes when you’re tired or things have been crazy, the contrast can seem like it’s giving rise to a more profound experience. And also acknowledge that having any kind of experience is really not the purpose of meditation, like Father Keating says, “You’ll know the benefits of it from how it goes in activity,” right?

>>Cynthia: Yeah, it’s the fruits in life, exactly.

>>Rick: Yeah, but you do devote a whole chapter in your book to neurophysiology and we’ve talked about how this is a long-term process of restructuring the functioning of the neurophysiology, so I would say, in response to Julie’s question, that anything – even like diet and exercise and anything else which is conducive to a healthier body – [conducive to] a healthier physiology, will be conducive to the improvement of everything, whether meditation or your health, or your relationships, or anything else. This is the instrument through which we do everything.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, yeah, so try to be sane, try to be respectful, and try to be grateful of it, but don’t be afraid because meditation isn’t delicate, and these subtle states although they’re subtle, they’re no delicate.

>>Rick: Yeah.

>>Cynthia: And they’re strong, they’re lions.

>>Rick: Well I’ve definitely seen meditators, including long-term meditators, get really weird, mollycoddling themselves and just getting really fussy about everything – what they eat, how they dress, and I don’t know, just getting off balance; anything can be taken to extremes.

>>Cynthia: Exactly. When fear enters in it’s a distortion, and the fear that “if I don’t meditate right, if I don’t eat right, if I don’t … then I will have less” – whatever pushes you into a scarcity mentality is going to introduce one of the subtle distortions, I think. And sometimes I just blow it out for the fun of it, just because I think life is a forgiving partner and an exuberant partner, and that our practice really needs to be allowing us to live life more exuberantly, not with more and more guarded measuredness.

>>Rick: Yeah, yeah, so certainly meditate, but then plunge into activity. Don’t be afraid of it, enjoy life to the fullest, 200 percent.

>>Cynthia: Exactly.

>>Rick: A question came in from a Susan in New York who says: “Who/what is Jesus? Just now Cynthia mentioned “the living heart of Christ,” could you ask her to explain what that means to her?”

>>Cynthia: Yeah! Well, that’s a simple, little question. I think what I’d like to do is to give a sort of descriptive world description of it. I think Jesus is one of our great human treasures, that He is one of the great Messengers that seems to have been sent to the cosmos in all the great religious paths, to prod us along to open up new horizons of consciousness and new standards of behavior, new visions of possibility.

And Jesus is one of the great ones, but I think the particular message that He took on cosmically was to model and teach Nondual consciousness in the West for the first time; the vision of the world if it was lived out of an undivided, clear heart. And He brought that, He taught that. It was happening in other parts of the world. There’s a lot of energy, there’s a lot of conversation between Jesus and Mahayana Buddhism because these movements don’t just compete; they all flow across the planet in great waves.

But I find that that is a comprehensive and safe and comfortable way of talking about the great ones that get us out of the usual theological things that Christians wind up in which is, “Is He the only Son of God?” Well, you can hear the dualistic thinking in that. You know, the very thing that sent me screaming from Christianity, the need to control a nondual gift with all these dualistic categories. But He is a great teacher.

He is the first-order Guru, and whether you think He is the only one that was ever the Divine Son of God or not, the one thing that is true is that first-order Gurus don’t disappear from the planet.

>>Rick: What gurus? Ada gurus?

>>Cynthia: First order, first order.

>>Rick: Frist order, I see … right.

>>Cynthia: The highest order and He’s definitely [one of] those, which means that His presence is accessible here and now. And a lot of Christians have gotten very deluded about, “Well, He’s God and He’ll be back at the end of time,” but every time He enters your life, which can be constantly, is the end of time …so, gotcha! So He’s an infinite and still configured personal presence, tending, shepherding, aiding, illuminating, and drawing the planet forward.

In my understanding, in my trying to extend this, He would not be the only one because this limits the vastness of the imagination of the Divine, but He is the One that most immediately impacts on my sphere of existence. I see Him as operating in deep solidarity and unitive love with other great teachers, both on this planet and no doubt on other planets, to aid in the perfecting of consciousness towards Its Divine capacity.

>>Rick: Yeah, when somebody tries to tell me “the only Son of God” thing, I tend to start talking astronomy with them and bring out that kind of point about the number of Earth-like planets in the universe. And then I say, “Okay, if He is the only Son of God, then is He kind of on tour the way Santa Claus is on Christmas Eve, where he has to hit all these households in a short period of time? And if so, if the world … if the universe is only 6,000 years old, then we’ve really got a problem, because He’s got to cover a lot of ground and He couldn’t possibly stay on every planet for 33 years,” but they usually hang up the phone once I get to that point.

>>Cynthia: Exactly. It is the problem with doing the limitless, boundless nature of nondual love or the mind because we wind up making a fool of ourselves because the categories we’re wired to think in can’t handle the immensity of it.

>>Rick: Yeah. So we haven’t talked about … we haven’t talked a lot about a lot of things here that we could get into, but obviously, Nonduality is a hot term these days; there’s the Science & Nonduality (SAND) Conference which you and I are going to in a couple of days and everybody is writing books about Nonduality … well, let’s have your take on Nonduality and maybe you could also allude to what Father Keating and Richard Rohr and people like that understand it to mean.

>>Cynthia: Well I think the problem is when you throw this term into Christianity, you’re dealing with a term that just didn’t exist in Christian self-consciousness for more than the last 50 years; it was just never a category that Christians or that Western Christians used to compute reality, so when the term …

>>Rick: “I and My Father are one?”

>>Cynthia: Well, they wouldn’t call that Nonduality.

>>Rick: Oh, for Jesus it was Nonduality; in His experience.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, I mean, the experience exists, but it was never languaged that way.

>>Rick: Okay.

>>Cynthia: You would not have that explained in a theology class as Nonduality; you have it explained as the “homoosia” or the consubstantial nature of Father and Son. They didn’t use the categories because the West was never given to thinking about things in levels of consciousness. That map, the kind of map we’re all used to, the Ken Wilber map, the Spiral Dynamics map never really existed in the West; they thought in terms of degrees of Oneness, of affective union, of how close can you get. It was much more like a love-making model than it was a levels-of-consciousness model.

So when the term began to be popular in the great interspiritual dialogues of the great 20th Century, people started scrambling to find out what it means, and I don’t know any two Christians who have the same idea of it.

And for Richard Rohr, who I think has the simplest and most straight-up and easily accessible version of it, it’s the opposite of duality. And what duality is is polarized thinking, it is either-or thinking, this, and not-this thinking. And so for Richard, Nonduality begins in and is largely about paradox tolerance and process tolerance, that you can live with things in the messiness of becoming, that you don’t have to be pushed towards one extreme or another.

So there are definitely advanced categories of psyche, but I’m not sure it would qualify for nondual consciousness the way Ken Wilber is using the term, and I’m not sure it wouldn’t. And many people try to see Nonduality or unity or unity consciousness as somehow equivalent to the highest state in the classic Christian roadmap, which was the unitive state, the state of being one with God.

But I think that’s more of a way of extending a comparison because again, the Western tradition is not filtering or is not measuring for levels of consciousness. My way of using the term is perhaps unique to my own looking at it, but I think you have to start looking at the operating system that’s running and how it’s setting up the perceptual field. And dualistic consciousness runs the program of “identity through differentiation;” it’s a core principle of logic, it’s a core principle of “I am me because I’m different from you.”

And nondual perception doesn’t structure reality that way; it grafts a pattern, it sees the mandala in all its wholeness. And that doesn’t mean that it cancels out all the individual parts; a lot of people confuse Nonduality with monism, with “it’s all one.” But it’s a oneness that admits for great particularity, great etching in of individual bits and pieces that are objectively different, that are not the same, but it’s not losing track of the sonority of the whole texture.

It’s like being able as a symphony conductor to hear all 83 different instruments playing different parts and to know that each part is doing its own bit, and at the same time to hear and not lose track of the whole that they’re all a part of. Teilhard de Chardin once famously said, “It’s a paroxysm of harmonized complexity.”

So, we have many, many different unclarities, and I think it’s going to take a long time before the Christian niche really comes to any consensus to what we’re talking about Nonduality, and how we even recognize it, much less how we train for it.

>>Rick: Hmn, well you said earlier that in your heart of hearts you are God, and if we understand God to be omnipresent – and I think there’s actually evidence for that if you want to look at it, that anything we look at closely we see that amazing Intelligence functioning – then if God is omnipresent, then can there be anything other than God? And if there is anything other than God, then He can’t be omnipresent; there’s something separate and discreet from that ocean of Intelligence. And if that’s the way that things are, if that’s the way it is, then that allows for all the diversity and complexity and so on that, you were just mentioning while at the same time containing all that diversity within a unified wholeness.

And I think the whole notion is that that unified wholeness can become a living reality, thus kind of reconciling the paradox and ambiguity that Rickard Rohr talks about. In fact, Nisargadatta used the same two words, he said that spiritual maturity is the capacity to appreciate paradox and ambiguity.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And of course, one of the most valuable tools that have come to us from Ken Wilber in his many, many valuable tools, is his articulation of what he calls the “line level differentiation,” that we tend to mix up the level of consciousness in a religion or the level in which the truth is being articulated, with a whole kind of theology of the religion.

>>Rick: Good point.

>>Cynthia: And that Christianity has often been castigated as being a dualistic religion because most of its theology has been articulated at a dualistic level, in which God is perceived to be other, and we are taught that we are creatures and we are not God, which means that presumably there is a place where I stop and God begins, and vice versa, and we’re still taught to quake in our boots when the word ‘pantheism’ is mentioned.

And so Christianity is largely playing out and articulating itself in dualistic spheres, so people say it’s a dualistic religion. But I think this is not the case and I think that it maintains a very, very subtle teaching at the nondual level, but that to access that teaching requires you to move beyond not only the theology but the perceptual mechanisms that people are using to reinforce the level that’s the dominant level. And whenever you start to do that you just trigger the alarms of people that are working at a different level.

Thomas Keating has been so castigated by the evangelical, fundamentalist arm of Christianity. They say he’s teaching Buddhism, they say he’s teaching New Age, you know? But he’s not; he’s teaching the nondual level of Christianity but they can’t hear it.

>>Rick: Yeah, yeah, I mean, Christianity is not a monolith. The Christianity of Billy Graham or Oral Roberts is not the Christianity of Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly.

>>Rick: And I mean, referring to those latter two, wouldn’t you say that if you really understood their experience and teaching, you do find Nonduality? I haven’t studied them carefully, I just …

>>Cynthia: Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah.

>>Rick: It just hasn’t reached the mainstream of Christianity.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And in all the mystics you will find that there is a deep apprehension of what would very, very, very clearly be cleared. Jim Marion set the easy benchmark when he said that Jesus is nondual because He sees no separation between Himself and God, and He sees no separation between self and neighbor. Well, I think any of the mystics would have the same experience; that is nondual Christianity.

>>Rick: Yeah, and I think Jesus would rather have a beer or maybe a wine, as the case may be, with St. Teresa than with Oral Roberts.

>>Cynthia: I think probably, yeah; they’d have a lot more in common.

>>Rick: Yeah. A question came in from Scott in Phoenix, he says: “I keep coming back to the simple ideas of surrender and compassion. Surrender to the Isness and compassion toward myself when I’ve failed. James Finley (Jim Finley) says something about love stepping out and setting this high bar down on the ground so that I may trip over it and fall headlong into God. Can my practice be this simple?”

>>Cynthia: Yep!

>>Rick: Nice answer.

>>Cynthia: Yep! That high bar of love on the ground is about as good as it gets and it’s absolutely real.

>>Rick: Good, okay. Alright, let’s go back to Nonduality a little bit here for a bit. There are some nice little quotes that jumped out at me as I was reading your book: “You see Oneness because you see from oneness.” I’ll just read a few of these and you just jump in if you want to comment on them – that’s one.

“A mind that does not need to separate and exclude in order to perceive reality will encounter far less distance in the current of life, and inflict far less violence on others.”

>>Cynthia: Mm-hmm, yeah.

>>Rick: These are the Cynthia sutras here. “Nondual does not mean renouncing the capacity for critical thinking.”

>>Cynthia: Yeah. Yeah, that’s a big one for many people. They learned … again, back in the 90s when I first came out to be with Thomas Keating in Snowmass, there was this sort of … I would almost think it was like this marijuana drug culture simplicity, that any attempt to use the rational mind was dualism, and any attempt to drive fine intellectual arguments or to hone into any use of those was dualistic. And so what was nondualistic was just kind of holding hands and saying, “We’re all one.”

>>Rick: Kumbaya, yeah.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, kumbaya kind of. But still, we don’t realize that some of the finest Christian thinkers and some of those ones that you named, that you said, “I don’t know who they are” – Beatrice Bordeaux, Bruno Barnhart, beautiful 20th Century examples of nondual thinkers with very, very finely tuned critical minds. And we just need to realize that Nondualism is not an excuse for intellectual laziness.

>>Rick: Yeah. Same is true in the Eastern traditions, I mean, Shankara had a brilliant intellect and wrote these deep, penetrating commentaries with big, long sentences … you had to be very clear to follow the logic and so on, and he’s the founder of Vedanta.

And Abhinavagupta … how do you pronounce his name? – the founder of Kashmir Shaivism – same thing, a brilliant intellect. So there’s just no conflict, and so living Nonduality does not necessarily mean dumbing it down on the understanding level, on the intellectual level.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. My metaphor – and I use this many times but it’s still such a good metaphor that I keep coming back to it; it’s an image actually – the image of the stained glass window. And the undivided light somehow gets itself into bits and pieces, and the red and orange and yellow and little trays, and the stained glass window maker assembles them into a beautiful, beautiful window, like the rose window at Snowmass Monastery, using his craft to do so, or her craft, and creates this beautiful artifact with all these little bits and pieces of color.

But it’s only when the light rises (the sun in the morning) and hits and backlights the window that the whole thing comes together. And you see the active dance between the particularity, the created light, and all the bits and pieces, being harmonized and brought to a high and much more intense level by the light white light that comes through it. And I think it’s a perfect image, to me, of how the nondual and the dual, the infinite and the finite work together to mutually enhance each other’s capacities and domains.

So that the Nondualism doesn’t mean, “Oh, we’re not going to deal with the color tray, we’re not going to deal with the fine glass artist, we’re not going to make pictures; we’re just going to sit out here and bask in the uncreated light.” You have to get in there and struggle and create, and take on the conditions of this life and the conditions of this planet, jagged-edged as they may be, because something is being woven through them that is not simply a return to an original purity, but is a pulling along of finitude into some sort of transformed or alchemized infinitude.

So the Nondual vocation I think, to me, is really about learning to jump into life and allow the light to flow through it as a harmonizing oneness in whatever particularity you find yourself in.

>>Rick: Yeah, and if I could translate that into real simple terms, maybe: Nonduality, if it’s truly a living experience, is not going to reduce life to being simplistic. It can and needs to be lived in the midst of all the complexity of modern-day life, and will only help to enhance life and help us deal with its problems, much as nourishing the root of a tree is going to enable the whole tree to flourish.

>>Cynthia: Exactly.

>>Rick: So is that sort of along the lines of what you were saying there?

>>Cynthia: Very much so, and I think that so many of the models that we’ve used in the past – I don’t know if this is true in the East but certainly in the West – have sort of been agrarian models of contemplation and Nonduality … you get up on a beautiful mountain or a beautiful mountain valley, and you ponder the vast starriness of God and you feel the expansiveness of your soul – all real good, but it doesn’t speak much when you’re actually in the conditions of the slums when you’re in …

You know, a lot of nondual spiritual culture is anti-technology, is anti-present, and I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s not attracting young people, at least in Christianity the way it is. Because if this higher – as we’re calling it – higher consciousness is going to be worth its moxie at all, it’s got to be able to get in there and actually count for something in the ordinary currents of life. It can’t seek refuge in the places where the currents aren’t flowing, because the current is life.

It’s one of the reasons why I took it on when we ran into the challenges around getting our computers so that Skype would run on my computer and so that … you know, a couple of trips to Ellsworth, Maine and some money in technological things. And I thought, “Well I could have said I’m a nondual master, I don’t bother with this technology,” but I said no, that’s just intellectual laziness. This is the challenge and these are the terms of working in this world and in the conditions we’re working on, and you either take it on or you don’t take it on.

>>Rick: Yeah, and as it is, the computer guys told you that doing that upgrade that I “forced” you to do extended the life of your computer a couple of years.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, I know! That’s the best 100 bucks I ever spent Rick … thank you!

>>Rick: Yeah. Speaking of this whole … well on this same topic, you know the word ‘yoga’ really means nondual, it means union, and there’s the line in the Gita which says that yoga is skill in action. So it doesn’t mean that yoga is sitting on a mountaintop staring at the clouds; it means that whatever you have to do you’ll do it more skillfully, if you’re established in Nonduality – truly established.

>>Cynthia: Exactly, exactly.

>>Rick: Yeah. Here comes a question from a Cynthia in Oregon, she asks – and this is a little bit long but it’s a good one: “In awakening recognition, there is an experience of the Self (capital ‘S’) being all and therefore no separate deity, yet there is still, for me, an inclination to occasionally pray or communicate to that which is Being (capital ‘B’) through all. Without a living guru, I speak to something greater than my appearance. Does prayer or a heart’s calling to something greater, even within the Self as Self, have an effect? Is it heard and responded to by a greater awareness?”

Nice question Cynthia.

>>Cynthia: Very nice question. Very subtle question, and I think that it cuts right to the chase of one of the most dysfunctional myths that we’ve brought along when Western seekers or awakeners began to jump sort of willy-nilly into models that were just emerging from the East.

So we get the idea that the nondual is the top of the pinnacle and all these provisional, transitory senses of selfhood are simply unreal, and that once you hit nondual and recognize your oneness with the all, you never go back again. And that those other kinds of prayers like getting down on your knees and saying, “Lord help me,” are no longer valid conveyers of truth but are just seen as immature – we still have a lot of that thinking.

But I think the fact is it is all, all the time; that we human beings as long as we’re in human skin, are always mediating in a creative way, like honeybees between the finite and the infinite. And as Ken Wilber pointed out so brilliantly in other of his many helpful tools, in his [framework of the] spirit’s first, second, and third persons, he points out that that whole channel of “thouness,” that whole channel of adoring and of worshipping and being devoted, is not as it is often construed – an immature channel.

It is not something that you outgrow when you realize your oneness with the All, but it is a very, very real participation in the heart energy, in the basic intimacy of a field, that the felt-sense nature of the universe of I-ness of realness is thouness, and we never transcend it. And when we become so arrogant as to say, “I am the all,” and then there’s nothing left to bow the knee of the heart to, you’ve simply frozen.

That we have to move in these lower levels of selfhood, that these more provisional ones are not only extremely useful but sacred, as channels, for the energy of adoration, devotion, and humility, which are the life-giving, transforming substances that water the life of this planet.

>>Rick: Nice. I don’t know if people realize this but all the sort of nondual heroes that people refer to these days, such as Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta, Papaji, Shankara – all of them, they were all very great devotees. Either to different aspects of God, such as Kali or Shiva, or this or that, or to their own gurus or whatever, but they were really into devotion. And Shankara actually said, “The intellect imagines duality for the sake of devotion,” so it seems that there was a sweetness in devotion that they didn’t want to miss out on.

And here is an interesting quote from Nisargadatta, which everyone knows who he is, he said, “Forget ‘I am that;’ I realized so much more since then, it’s so much deeper.” He said that shortly before his death.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. Raymond Panicker, the great Christian nondual master said that he realized that he was “the thou of an I,” in other words, that he was not the “I” and God was the “thou,” but that God, the great I, had called him into thouness – it was the beautiful realization that both of these paths wind around each other.

>>Rick: Yeah, that’s great. Well, that pretty much covers it but just one little thing I’d like to throw in is that, you know, we have all these faculties, right … we were talking about the intellect earlier and how Nonduality does not obviate or obliterate the intellect, and we also have the heart – and I actually want to talk to you about the heart so this is a good segue – but full development or enlightenment or whatever we want to call it, is probably going to be conducive of the blossoming of all these faculties, and so when the heart blossoms, there’s naturally going to be devotion. So not only is Nonduality not incompatible with devotion, but it is actually conducive to it.

>>Cynthia: Exactly. And I come to realize more and more that one of the reasons why Christian languaging hangs on so much the language of the devotional, is because it is bearing witness to the fact that in the Christian tradition, Nonduality happens as the mind gets into the heart. And when one perceives in entrainment with the heart, what one experiences, the felt-sense equivalent of that is intimacy.

And one of the reasons why Christianity hangs on so stubbornly to its devotional and therefore theoretically dualistic language is because it’s bearing witness to the emotional signature of the universe, seen through the heart.

>>Rick: Hmm. Let’s talk more about the heart now, because you write a lot about that and there’s this “putting the mind in the heart” that you refer to, and you can explain that. Ramana talked about self-inquiry but he actually located the self in – because he had to locate it someplace – as being in the heart, slightly to one side and so one, and I heard you say a similar thing. So let’s go on it for a bit … about the heart, and you take it away. What can you tell us? What is meant by “the heart” in your teaching or the teachings of those you have been following, and what does it mean to “put the mind in the heart?”

>>Cynthia: Okay, well there’s a couple of major truths here. First of all, sharing the greater Western tradition, including particularly Sufism, Christianity, and I think in the Kabbalah as well, the heart is an organ of spiritual perception; its first and most important function is to see.

And we get this right of Jesus in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” and over and over. The Sufi tradition really takes this to a fine point, and they have a very elaborate teaching about the sheaths of the heart – the layers or the veils of the heart – but it’s clear that this is the organ of spiritual sight, that this is the noetic organ, that it doesn’t have to do with the brain; it is the brain in the heart. And the second aspect of this ..

>>Rick: Let me attach you here, are we talking about the physical heart muscle, the heart chakra, or what are we referring to?

>>Cynthia: That’s … yeah, that’s where I’m going to.

>>Rick: Okay.

>>Cynthia: We’re talking about the physical heart, to begin with. And in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which is where they developed the most subtle and consistent teaching of the mind and the heart, it is clear that they are talking about the physically enfleshed heart.

There’s actually a wonderful little quote that I quote somewhere in the book about one of the guys talking about the Holy Spirit residing in one of the upper chambers. Yeah, and it’s very clear that with the attentional practices the prayer, the Jesus Prayer of the Heart, that there is an attention actually bringing our attention and allowing it to collect in the region of the physical heart. So we’re not talking about a metaphor for the center of the person or the seat of the soul; we’re talking about a connection with the embodied heart.

The Western tradition by and large does not deal in the chakra language, so you’re not going to find anywhere in the Eastern Orthodox talking about the heart versus the heart chakra. It’s all clearly talking about the physical heart, there is no explicit recognition of a heart chakra; whether there is an implicit recognition is an open question.

Robert Sardello, who explored this very very deeply, from the contemporary phenomenological point of view, is very clear that he is talking about the physical heart and he believes the texts are as well – not the heart chakra.

One writer who I haven’t met personally but is a very interesting commentator Olga Louchakova, who studied the Jesus Prayer – the Prayer of the Heart – from Orthodox masters and also did some work with the Vedanta teaching, is much more open to talking about the chakras and also the chambers and the nerve nexuses on either side.

But I think for the point of view from where the Christians have to get over the hump, is to understand that we’re talking about a physically embodied heart – something actually in your being, in your body, that serves as the on-site transmission, receiving and transmitting station for the conscious awareness; a dipole with a brain.

And the Heart-Math folks were onto it very quickly – not too systematically – but they got the idea that the mind and the heart is about entraining the vibrational rhythms of the brain to the greater rhythms of the heart. And when that happens, you can see very clear neurological effects of coherence and a whole different way of thinking.

So the science needs a lot of calibrating yet, but I think the important thing is to say that as we learn to bring felt-sense awareness to the region of the heart and allow that to be the place where this new operating system is grounded, a lot of what the tradition is saying begins to make sense.

>>Rick: Okay. In my own experience, it’s like when I’m experiencing my heart, it’s obviously much more than the physical muscle. And whenever I think of anything, including the body, I think of its gross and subtle dimensions, so even though chakras and all that may not be a thing in Western tradition, doesn’t mean they’re not real, or that we don’t have a subtle body, or that there’s not a subtle correlate to every gross form.

>>Cynthia: Exactly. There manifestly is and the Western tradition has been slow to emphasize that because it has always been a little bit spooked about talking about energy, but I think that it’s becoming more and more clear that these … even as we understand how the heart works – it’s an electromagnetic resonator much more than [it is] a pump, it’s dealing with energy bandwidths.

>>Rick: Yeah, you also say in your book that “the heart is an organ of spiritual perception; its primary function is to look beyond the obvious,” and obviously that’s rather absurd if we’re just talking about the blood-pumping muscle. How could it be …

>>Cynthia: Exactly.

>>Rick: Here’s another thing you say which I think it will help our discussion. You say, “The heart seems to mediate between our individual self and a universal process while being representative of that universal process.” So it almost sounds like you’re describing it as a sort of lamp at the door between the universal and the individual.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And in that, I’m spinning off of a wonderful line from Joseph Chilton Pearce, who really sees the heart as the ombudsman of Divine Love in a person, whereas the mind is the ombudsman of the individual particularity. It’s not very scientific but it’s a lovely image, to think of the heart in anything as the ombudsman of Divine love.

>>Rick: Explain that word for those who might not have English as their native language, or whatever. Ombudsman.

>>Cynthia: Well ombudsman of course is the one in a university system or a corporation, it’s the one who is appointed to be your supporter or defender proactively, to champion your cause – your spokesperson, your D.A.

>>Rick: And you say, “The heart needs to be purified. It gets jammed by lower-level noise – the passions that divide it. A heart that is divided by competing inner agendas” – I love this – “A heart that is divided by competing inner agendas is like a wind-tossed sea, unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.”

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. And of course, in the classic tradition of the West, which was in effect up till at least until the 19th century, the passions didn’t mean your drama, it didn’t mean your joie de’vivre, or you vital elan like we now see it today, passion is a very specific, even technical word, essentially meaning stuck emotion. It’s a lot of emotion, a lot of energetic turbidity, and turmoil stuck around a fixed agenda or a fixed sense of self.

So, you’re classic emotions, if you look at even the AA … mad, bad, sad, glad – you notice they all have a point of view in them? They’re all with regard to “me,” and what’s bad for me makes somebody else glad. So when things get stuck and when the feeling-fullness, the flowingness of that energy gets stuck around a personal agenda, particularly an unconscious one or a very identified one, then you get stuck in the situation called “the passion.”

And what that does classically – it’s a direct quote from one of the great Desert Fathers or the Russian Fathers in the Philokalia: “The problem with the passions is they divide the heart.” In other words, they make it incapable of functioning in its primary function as an organ of sight. And when Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” He doesn’t mean, “Blessed are those who don’t have sex for they shall see God.” Purity in heart meant undividedness, it meant the field was not parceled out and entrapped and held captive to the passions.

So a lot of The Work was teaching what in the East has the wonderful name of “nonidentification” – equanimity, the capacity not to reactively grab onto things and make it all about me, all about my drama. Because when you do that, you’re sabotaging the capacity of the heart to really process cosmic feeling-fullness.

>>Rick: Nice. And in your book you say, “Attention of the heart is attained not by concentration, but by letting go of all that one is clinging to” – that would be the passions, I guess … yeah – “relinquishing the passions and relaxing the will.” So that kind of brings us full circle to what we were talking about before with Centering Prayer and meditation, which is kind of a releasing process, of surrendering the grip.

You demonstrate by dropping a pencil or something, how hard is it to do that?

>>Cynthia: Exactly … exactly, yeah. That’s what Centering Prayer is, it is releasing the grip. And so that’s one of the two joysticks, if you wish, for really trying to move toward the new program. Because when let go of that which you’re grabbing or which is more likely grabbing you, then you’re clearing the space and you’re returning the heart to its pure – if you want to call it that “virgin” state of non-attachment.

So that’s the practice, that’s the piece that Centering Prayer captures and works on so brilliantly; that classic, repeated, small, teaching people to let go when they’re trapped, to let go when they’ve grabbed on. And when you begin to learn to do that in the laboratory of meditation, just practicing releasing, releasing, releasing, it has carryover value into life. You begin to spot more carefully when you’re getting seized in the grip of an anger or entitlement or self-justification, and you do the same thing because it has come to represent prayer to you; prayer is release. And so then you’re really working that.

The other joystick is of course the concentrating of attention at the sensei level in the region of the heart, which is an advanced practice, which should most likely be done under a guide – it traditionally has. But those two together: the letting go of the attachments, which is preparatory for recognizing and letting go of passions; keeping your heart clean, keeping your heart virgin, is really supremely the work of Centering Prayer. Which sets us up to move into that “sight,” that organ of luminous sight, impregnated with love because it’s in the heart.

>>Rick: And I would surmise that if your heart isn’t clean and virgin, then somehow cleaning it and restoring its integrity and purity.

>>Cynthia: Right. And …

>>Rick: Because there could be a lot of detritus that has accumulated, you know?

>>Cynthia: Yeah, and it’s moment by moment. If you take virgin and pure and clean not to be idealistic states but as a nanosecond (Cynthia clicks her fingers) – something that’s always moving; (clicks fingers repeatedly) we’re attached or unattached, and in every instant, we’re grabbing on and letting go, we’re grabbing on and letting go.

So the use of the word ‘virgin,’ which is my word, is simply to say that it looks at the place where we’ve let go, where we’re not grabbed or grabbing or entitled or clinging or clutching, either to something really simple like a thought or a state that we prefer or anything, but we’re able to just be there with the Is; that’s the virgin state, the state of equanimity.

And the impure, which we fall into – we tumble into it almost with every breath – is the grabbing, the fixated, the clinging, the insisting, the all that. So it’s flow, it’s not one or the other; neither one can be a steady state without the other, at least in this life, I think.

But as we’re quicker to recognize when we get trapped and pulled back into the small self, and the heart goes offline – like my television camera – because its energy is being absorbed in the passions, if we recognize that a little bit more clearly, then we can move back to it much more quickly; into a state where we’re in touch with those nondual currents and moving with the skill and action of the yoga.

>>Rick: Yeah, I would suggest that even though it is a moment to moment process, at the same time it is a phenomenon that the heart and the nervous system, in general, accumulate impressions, deep impressions and that there can be … that the more burdened one is by those impressions, deeply rooted, the more inclined one will be to act reactively or impulsively or inappropriately and so on.

And so we have our work cut out for us as a long-term project, to progressively … even though there’s a moment-to-moment thing to be done, there is also a progressive purification to be accomplished.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, exactly. And you watch it in the mature people who have put in their years in the journey; I would say that I’ve noticed a couple of stages. First of all, the moments of pure, pellucid seeing and presence tend to come more often and last a little bit longer, but the other thing is that there is a greater alertness and recognizing when you’re getting caught up and shifting; a greater ability to see. And because of that, paradoxically, there’s less fear of falling. And I think this is really important because a lot of us are really afraid to fall and so we try and maintain this kind of artificial high purity of the enlightened.

I think that’s great when you’re in your 60s, but for the ones that get older and you watch them growing, they’re totally not afraid to be essentially, simply human, because they know that quickly (snaps her fingers) they can stop from the inside when it’s gotten caught. So it’s got a different quality to it.

>>Rick: Yeah, someone asked Nisargadatta about that, whether you get caught up in things like we do and he said, “Yeah, but only for a moment, and then I’m back,” whereas you might get caught up for days, or something.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, exactly.

>>Rick: I think one way of understanding that, and I’ve used this analogy before, but if you are at the source of a river, theoretically you could send the river off in any direction, whereas if you’re way down, halfway downstream or at the mouth of the river, it’s too late. The river has this momentum and it’s already gone, run its course.

So if you don’t catch the impulses of desire and thought until they’re way expressed, it’s too late to redirect them, but if you could sort of reside at that level from which they arise, then you’re at the master switchboard. And without being manipulative, you have a simple, gentle attention of will, which can send life off in a completely more appropriate direction.

>>Cynthia: Exactly. And what happens is the river of lived life will catch up with you and carry you, at some point so that … I’ve always been a little reluctant about having people cut off experience too quickly. Sometimes you’ve just got to go through a bad day and deal with all the things, and it will come out the next day – because its periodicity is the next day, it’s not going to solve itself naturally in 24 hours.

So you just realize, “Okay, I’m going to be fragile, I’m going to be vulnerable for the time,” and don’t take it seriously. Allow things to have their natural swing without always using your spiritual practice to correct back too fast, which becomes a kind of repression actually.

>>Rick: Yeah, you want to be spontaneous and natural, by all means.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, yeah.

>>Rick: Good. Well, we’ve covered a lot. I’m sure we could do another two hours, but not right now.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, right? It’s probably your lunchtime.

>>Rick: It’s getting there. So do you have any thoughts that you’d like to wrap up with?

>>Cynthia: Well, nothing in particular. I mean, I’m thrilled to know that I’m going to be seeing you at the SAND Conference in a couple of weeks now.

>>Rick: Yeah, that’ll be fun. Maybe we can come to each other’s talks if we’re not otherwise engaged.

>>Cynthia: Hopefully, that’ll be great. And I really appreciate, even though I waded through that wonderful biographies and program titles and contents that you put together in such a usable form, it’s going to be quite the conference.

>>Rick: Yeah, I do that because it’s impossible to figure it out otherwise. There are so many things going on at the same time, so I create this program that I can quickly scan.

>>Cynthia: Yeah, that’s so great, it’s like, how many Nondualists does it take to change a lightbulb?

>>Rick: Yeah, right. I may send an update to that actually. Alright, well thanks. There’s a fellow who has been watching the chat named Jeremy, who made a nice comment: “What an extraordinary teaching. Thanks, Cynthia, for a truly illuminating experience.” So that’s a good way to conclude here.

>>Cynthia: Oh, great! Great. Wonderful, well, I think I know where that Jeremy is so I’m sending greetings.

>>Rick: Good. Well go out and enjoy your sailboat and … sounds like a fun thing to do. I spent a year at a prep school in Massachusetts when I was a teenager and did a lot of sailing on Buzzard’s Bay.

>>Cynthia: Oh, okay.

>>Rick: The fellow I did it with was from Maine, actually. So …

>>Cynthia: Well! Alright, I will think of you as I get the boat off of its boring.

>>Rick: Good. So let me just make a couple of concluding remarks. You’ve been watching an interview with Cynthia Bourgeault on Buddha at the Gas Pump. This is an ongoing series. Go to and check out the menus and see if there’s anything there you’d like to do, like sign up for the email, or sign up for the Podcast, or donate, or anything else – it’s not too complicated, just check out the different menus.

See you next week. Next week I’ll be interviewing another woman with a French name, Vera de Chalambert – I’m on a roll here. I think she’ll be very interesting, she is also associated with the SAND Conference. I was reading one of their emails and I thought, “This is so beautifully written. Who wrote this?” And I checked with Maurizio and he said it was Vera, so I thought, “Gotta talk to Vera.” So I’ll be doing that next week.

>>Cynthia: Ohhhh yeah! She interviewed me for something once, she’s just lovely. Such a gentle, heartful, beautiful soul, so you should have fun. Maybe I’ll tune in, yeah.

>>Rick: Yeah, please do. Alright, well thanks to everybody, we’ll see you for the next one. Thanks, Cynthia.

>>Cynthia: Sure. Bye Rick. Thank you.

>>Rick: You’re welcome.

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