Upgrade Your Egoic Operating System: A Conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault

Well-known priest and author Cynthia Bourgeault visited our 9th grade Humanities I in Action in late November, a week after we had returned from our trip to the Foshan orphanage in China.  Students found her message of upgrading one’s operating system to be valuable in the context of this service-learning course. 

My students and I had returned recently from a powerful 4-day trip to an orphanage in Foshan, China.  Every year this trip awakens students to the world outside, as they say, their “bubble” of security, progress, and affluence.  Many students struggle to resume their energetic pursuit of academic achievement in light of their new awareness of the reality faced by children in a Chinese orphanage.  The disjuncture between their reality and being at the orphanage is what theoretician Jack Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma.”  Last year after the trip, I asked my students to give a one-word description of their feelings at that moment.  When it came to DJ, he said, “Pointless.”  Studying seemed pointless, given his new awareness of suffering of children only four hours away from our campus.  How do we deal with students who see something greater in their service trips than they experience in their daily school routine?

Following the trip this year we were fortunate to have Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian priest and leader of the Centering Prayer movement, come and speak to our students about the Foshan trip. Her solution for disorientation: upgrade your egoic operating system!

The following is a hypothetical conversation between myself and Cynthia, based on her class presentation, student responses before and after her visit, my conversations with her, and her writings.  The night before her visit, students read an excerpt from her Wisdom Jesus book in a chapter entitled, “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” pages 30-37.  They wrote blog responses both before and after her visit.

Marty: Cynthia, we couldn’t have picked a better time for you to visit.  Thanks for coming in.  I apologize for sending you the student responses so late last night. 

Cynthia: Not a problem – I was able to open them up this morning.  You know, I don’t often speak to student groups, but I was very impressed with what they had to say.  Here, let’s take one of the examples, from Arnesh. I assume he’s of Indian descent?

M: That’s right.  He grew up mostly in the US and moved to Hong Kong last year.

C: This is what Arnesh had to say:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Having grown up in a Western environment, I have repeatedly heard this quote. I heard it many times, but I never really understood it. I thought this quote said that we should love our close family and friends, and our neighbors. I never really thought any deeper than that. After reading the excerpt from Cynthia Bourgeault, I realized something else. This quote isn’t saying that we should only love the ones close to us, but we should love everybody, regardless of whether we know them or not. This especially relates to my experience in the Foshan orphanage. I only met these orphans for three days, and yet, I feel a connection to them. Love (and compassion) is necessary to make a difference in these orphanages. I now recognize that the quote is saying we should love everybody, no matter what.

M: Arnesh is a good example of what a lot of other kids said last night – the Foshan experience extended their sense of care to people they didn’t know previously.

C: What an experience for a 14-year old to have!

But I think this seems to get at the heart of this “disorienting dilemma” that you’re talking about.  In other words, how do these privileged students reconcile a vision of a life of compassion that they experienced at the orphanage with the competitive, self-focused nature of their school lives? They went to the orphanage and saw, experienced first-hand that the world is indeed in need of compassion.  But then they come back to HKIS, which – no critique of the school here – but you come to school and you are inside a system in which you must achieve, excel, compete.  How do we reconcile these two?  This is the question for this generation of privileged students.  This is the question they will need to live, and their answer could change the world.

M: You’ve also named the struggle of teaching at HKIS, too!  What can we do? 

C: Well, first, don’t be too hard on yourselves.  What a first-class education allows you to do is to get the “big picture.”  I know you have taught students about Spiral Dynamics – they knew the color levels today in class – and HKIS helps them see that’s it’s one world they are living in.

M: I do think that’s true, certainly for some students.  In the research I did, students’ self-diagnosis was that they lived in a “bubble” and that our classes burst that bubble and helped to connect them to something larger. It may sound odd, but sometimes students come back and say, “After going to Foshan, now I understand Darfur.”  Suffering exists everywhere, so an experience in a Chinese orphanage can connect them to suffering halfway around the globe.

C: It was interesting that in the excerpt you gave them for today that many students, like Arnesh, quoted Jesus’ words, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That is, love that child at the Foshan orphanage as a continuation of your own being.  There aren’t two individuals, a privileged student on a school trip and an unfortunate child in an orphanage that for some reason lost in the lottery of life.  Your students experienced what the verse says – loving others as yourself.

M: Yes, the 9th graders seem to get this – that service from a “superior” to an “inferior” is somehow not really service.

C: I think this experience also challenges our definition of “love,” which lies at the heart of Jesus’ message, to love God and love your neighbor.  The love of Jesus is self-emptying, and the nature of such love is to flow.  To flow out.  And when loves flows out, what flows in?  I think your students would say that a child flowed in.  And when we say a child flowed in, we don’t primarily mean the child’s touch or intellect or emotions, although we talk about those things as tangible aspects of the experience, but it’s something about a child’s “being.”

M: This brings to mind the passage from the Gospel of John where Jesus the night before he died prayed for his disciples: “I pray that they may all be one, Father.  May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they be one” (17:21).  Unity, interconnectedness, a flowing of one into another, as you say.

C: I think this is precisely what John had in mind: no separation between God and the whole human family.  We are talking about a complete, mutual indwelling: I am in God, God is in you, you are in God, we are in each other.  John says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  Abide in me as I in you.”  A few verses later Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.  Abide in my love.”

M: Sounds like the mystery of the trinity.  Pretty profound stuff.

C: (smiles) The trinity – yes, we’ll have to pick that one up in a future conversation!

M: Next trip to Hong Kong, we’ll talk Trinity.

But transitioning from the Trinity, from the sublime . . . back to the classroom.  As a teacher, Monday is approaching, and what do I do next!

C: Yes, the orphanage experience and “mutual indwelling of love” – quite an opening act!  What comes next?

M: Well, I’m not sure.  It is kind of jarring to go back to school, ask them to write an essay about their experience, and say, “Well, thanks for pouring your heart out on Foshan narrative piece and I’m sure it has changed your life, but it didn’t have a consistent narrative arc, so I’ll give you a B-!”

C: There’s the clash of systems.  But they need these skills for later, right?

M: That’s what we keep saying, and I think it’s true, but . . . well, you see the struggle. 

But as a teacher I really resonated today with your message of “upgrading the egoic operating system.”  I keep trying to move the curriculum towards this goal . . . and still balance all the skills we need to give them. 

C: Can’t help you on the skills part, but let’s talk about helping them change their way of thinking.

M: Before you get to that, Cynthia, if I can explain why this resonates for me.  For some time now I’ve felt that some of our kids are really “spiritually gifted.” Not that lots of them are always in formal religious organizations, although some are, but if I look at the kids in my classes with their ability to empathize, their passion for service projects, their apprehension of things of depth.  Drawing on Spiral Dynamics, they have the potential to go way up the spiral.  The challenge for me as a teacher is to figure out how to serve the deep needs of my students.  So, when you talk about this kind of “upgrade,” it fits what I sense, but how do we do it!?  That’s the question.

C: I think your orphanage visit was extraordinary in that they stepped into the shoes of an underprivileged child in a Chinese institution.  Rather than just seeing life from one perspective – inside the bubble, as you say – students have connected their “small life” with the big world out there.  Yet, somehow this apparent disorientation was perceived by most as enlivening and deeply rewarding, despite the complex emotions that accompanied the experience.  They see that it’s possible to see the world from a more complete, more satisfying viewpoint.

M: You’re right that kids always want to go back – a good number of students do see the trip as a personal turning point of their high school career. 

C: So, the question is: how can we make a more satisfying, but temporary way of seeing the world into a more permanent state of mind?

M: Yes, that’s the big question.

C: The Foshan trip touches their emotions, while school mostly focuses on the mind.  But in a biblical sense, the heart is that spiritual organ that links mind and the emotions.  What that means in practice is for students to develop a “heart,” they need to re-wire the brain to integrate their thoughts and feelings into one.

M: Right, that’s the bigger question inside the big question.  How do we re-wire our brains?

C: I had three suggestions for your students today.  First, students can do meditation.  We have developed ‘four brains,’ as it were, throughout human history, and when we develop a state of relaxed alertness, we include all four brains in our thinking.  But when we are stressed, when it’s fight or flight, we hunker down into our reptilian brain, cutting off other ways of knowing.  That old brain isn’t very creative.  Through meditation the brain can be trained to have access to all four brains, even under stress.  What you want to do is change the default setting of the brain – literally change the neural pathways – so that the brain and the heart are in sync all the time.

M: When we’ve experimented with meditation, students are very interested, although it seems that this kind of discipline only works over time.

C: Meditation, or what I teach about Centering Prayer – these do seem to be the “royal road” to grow the heart, but it’s hard to develop that habit for a lot of kids at this age.

M: Not just for kids!

C: Right, all of us.  So, that’s why I tried to give the students some other suggestions.  So, my 2nd suggestion was simply developing the practice of looking at similarities rather than differences.  I know you’ve studied about the Rwandan genocide.  Hutus and Tutsis had so many similarities: language, culture, and religion.  But their leaders trained them to see differences rather than similarities.  The simple practice of looking for similarities rather than the default setting of focusing on differences can helps kids develop a more “undifferentiated” outlook.

M: This fairly simple suggestion was picked up by a number of kids in their blog entries about your talk.  Here’s a comment from Nick [in the middle below]:

Something that I would hold onto after hearing Mrs. Bourgeault speak is that we should look at the similarities instead of the differences in humans. When we look at differences, it would bring up disagreements in what we believe and think. Normally, we always look at how we are different from others and rarely the similarities because of the way society is built. If people just though about the similarities instead of differences, it would drastically cut down on conflicts. Connections between people or groups would be much stronger as well.

A number of students commented on this idea of re-training the brain to look for what brings us together rather than what separates us. 

And your third point today about respect – I thought that was also quite powerful.

C: The only way people who we are trying to serve will grow is if we respect them.  And developing genuine respect is an internal process.  I think it’s helpful to break down the word “respect” into two parts.  What you get is “re-spect”, to “spect again” – or, we would say to “see again.”  That happened in the orphanage.  Once your students got to know the children and grew attached to them, they began to see not simply a stereotype of “orphans” or “special needs children,” but in time came to see their individual personalities, their desire to learn, their longing to connect, and even the orphans’ care for each other. And that respect from within is then projected from students’ eyes back to the children.  We all have this power within our eyes to help other people grow. When you look out of your eyes with a heart of compassion and respect, that energy, say in the case of the orphans, draws out love from within the children for themselves.

M: An intriguing idea.  If the eyes are the window of the soul, then directing a gaze that has cultivated compassion towards another could be a powerful form of service.  I’ll have to think about that some more.

 I’d like to close our conversation with a quote from one of the kids in the class, Teresa [in the middle below].  This is what she had to say about your talk and the excerpt from the Wisdom Jesus:

“Cynthia mentioned that at a very young age we’ve been trained to differentiate, using our ‘Egoic Operating System.’ It’s not that I’m a bad person just because I saw the differences between others and me, it’s because we’ve been trained to do so.  ‘A system based in duality can’t possibly perceive oneness; it can’t create anything beyond itself—only more duality and more trouble. So the drama goes on and on’ (p. 34). I finally understood that the reason why I—and many people—have prejudice, it’s because I’ve been noticing the differences between me and other people and not the similarities. After Cynthia’s talk I felt like I was being released from the thought that I was a bad person. Not only did I stop thinking that I was a bad person, I began to ask how I can stop looking at the world through lens of the egoic operating system. ‘Unlike the egoic operating system, the heart does not perceive through differentiation’ (p. 36). The key to stop having prejudice is to look at the world through the lens of the non-dual system. Once I begin to see everyone as “one” then I won’t focus on our differences, hence there will be no prejudice.”

This is what I mean about spiritually-gifted students.  Teresa is 14!  How can we teach kids more about non-duality?  There are kids out there ready to grow!

C: That’s why I enjoyed meeting them today. Great kids, perceptive kids.

M: Cynthia, we appreciate your great work of helping all of us better see with the eyes of compassion. In fact, I think the number one response in the blogs was not what you said, but about you – your energy, your humor, your mentioning of Kermit the frog, kids could sense you really cared to get your important message across. Blessings on your future ministry, and I hope you can visit again with our students.

C: I’d love to come back.

M: Thanks again, Cynthia.

Note: To see my blog entry written about Cynthia’s teaching in a retreat I attended in May, 2012 in Assisi, Italy, please click here.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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2 Responses to Upgrade Your Egoic Operating System: A Conversation with Cynthia Bourgeault

  1. Pingback: St. Francis, Pentecost, and Assisi 2012: A Christian Vision of Contemplative Action | Social Conscience Education

  2. Pingback: Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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