This entry shares my introduction of Cynthia on the day of her presentation, and then a spirited summary by one of the day’s participants, Sangeeta Bansal. Thanks, Sangeeta, for capturing our experience so well, and in the context of your own contemplative journey.
Introducing Our Day
I’d like to say a few words about why I think Cynthia’s visit among us is so important, and why today’s topic of the Wisdom Jesus and Centering Prayer is one that I think will not only be intriguing to you, but I suspect will be attractive to students in our classrooms as well.
But a little personal background first: When I came to HKIS from a Lutheran college in 1990, it was out of a deep sense of calling. And that calling was quite simply to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to my students. However, when I began teaching the Bible from within the framework of my Lutheran tradition, I had fairly limited success. Where was the power of the gospel, I wondered?
My frustration bubbled over into my subconscious, and in my second year I had a dramatic dream of being suffocated. And that was in fact what was happening to me – my worldview was being suffocated. Now, there was nothing inherently wrong with that worldview, but it was limited in its ability to meet the needs of my students. HKIS kids were and remain highly academic, high-achieving students. They are rational creatures. They had a lot of good questions that I was simply unprepared to answer. So, I threw myself into academic learning – mostly about the historical Jesus and other topics that could respond to my students’ questions. Zella and I also spent a summer in Israel studying the geography and history of the Holy Land. My study was thrilling in many ways, and the new vision of Jesus that emerged as deeply concerned about social justice has empowered all the service work that I have done at HKIS and with the church over the last 15 years. This view of Jesus as caring about the poor was also quite effective in generating student interest.
Yet in recent years, I have come to realize that my academic study and commitment to social justice just couldn’t answer the biggest questions not only that I have, but that our students have as well. Where to turn to answer these questions? And that’s when in 2010 Richard and Suzanne took me to a lecture by Cynthia at St. John’s Cathedral. From that first meeting, I knew that Cynthia had something to say that I hadn’t heard before. The answers to my questions were and are contained, at least for me, in the direction that Cynthia is pointing. There is something about the wisdom approach that seems to ring very true – that is both grounded in the tradition and yet able to speak to our big questions today. And best of all, it’s not just an idea, but it’s also a spiritual practice that promises to lead us into a deeper aliveness in God’s world. So today is the time to see if what Richard, Suzanne, and I experienced was particular to us, or whether her vision speaks to a larger community. Please join me in a warm welcome for Cynthia Bourgeault!
“A Day with Cynthia Bourgeault” by Sangeeta Bansal
A few decades ago, a shift in consciousness seemed to have occurred – starting in the developed countries, and slowly making its way across the globe. Tired of sedentary lifestyles, and increasingly aware of the medical benefits of daily exercise – almost everybody invested in gym memberships, or at least a new pair of sneakers. Magazines and journals spawned on which routine was best – cardiovascular training, muscle building, cycling, tai-bo, yoga, swimming or just plain old walking? It soon became obvious that “different strokes for different folks’ was the only right answer as people had varieties of skills and preferences, based on body type, personality type, work schedules and even weather patterns. ‘Just use common sense and do something that suits you best’, may be summarized as the present day mantra for most.
Along similar lines, the benefits of meditation, always known to those who practiced it, have now become scientific facts and are frequently cited by recent neuroscientific research, facilitated by the new fMRI technology which shows changing brain structures and neural wirings in people who meditate regularly – along with lowering stress levels, blood pressure levels and alleviating symptoms of mental as well as heart disease. So now many people are convinced they should meditate – but how? There is a virtual smorgasbord of choices available to the brand new and yet tentative entrant into the deep waters of meditation. A silent meditation (vipassana), or a laughing one? A sitting meditation or a labyrinth walk? Cross legged or on a chair? Should one focus on the breath or the thoughts? Should one have thoughts and let them go, or should one not have any thoughts at all, or should one have just one particular type of thought such as love or compassion? Should one have an image of something in the head, as one’s personal god or guru, or clear the head of all images and just connect with the “source of all things” or one’s “higher self”? Should one have a mantra to anchor the mind or is that superfluous? Morning or evening? Should one meditate in solitude, or derive synergy benefits of a group? Try different methods, stick to one…. the list goes on and on. Its enough material to meditate on for a few years before one even starts the actual practice. It seems there are as many meditation techniques as there are minds. While the overarching goal of mental fitness and deeper living may loom large, the nitty gritty may need to be somewhat individualistic. It also has a lot to do with the intention of meditation.
After attending Cynthia Bourgeault’s day long retreat on the Centering Prayer, it became clear that the task she has taken on is truly mammoth, a veritable war on two thousand years of entrenched belief systems – and her weapon of choice is an ancient form of Christian prayer called the Centering Prayer. Cynthia re-interprets the teachings of Jesus recorded in the scriptures, and reads them in new light – the light of non-dual consciousness. In doing so, she shakes the foundation of a monotheistic belief system and asks that it be seen from a new lens, one that sees oneness between self and God, and oneness between self and neighbor. The old paradigm is not working, she claims, and the new one must be embraced. The differentiation of object and subject must be removed and a holographic view of the cosmic reality must be experienced. “Centering Prayer will give you the skills to hold paradox, and make the perceptual shift towards a more holographic vision, where you sense wholeness and not division”. She adds, “You don’t see separation when you don’t see from separation”– in perfect resonance with the wisdom embedded in other world religions. Tat tvam asi or “Thou art that”, and “sarvam idam Brahma” (All is Brahman) declared the Upanishads many millennia ago.
Keeping her goal of trying to shift perspectives and root out old belief systems, Cynthia says “centering prayer is a practice done not with attention but with intention” – the intention clearly being to stop seeing God up there and feeling Him in here. “The Kingdom of God is within you” and this is to be understood through the practice of meditation. His infinite love and compassion can be experienced as a “creation of space” in the heart which feels His presence. Thoughts can be observed, but then must be let go of. A mantra is recommended, if only to remind us of our intention as and when the mind wanders, which it invariably does. In Centering Prayer, the breath is not something one monitors, and this “creates a hiccup” with many of the world’s meditative techniques, she readily acknowledges. The capacity of the mind and body to direct, conserve and employ the prana, or the chi (life energy), which is the breath, is a fundamental technique of most meditative techniques. The harnessing of prana is essential for meditation to occur and as such is considered one of the preliminary steps leading upto meditation – laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Cynthia also chooses to follow the middle path in not doing away with worship – group or individual. She explains that ritualistic practices have their own benefit for community building and are complementary to meditation. But she reinforces the importance of a need for interiorization of personal religion – showing up for Sunday church worship alone without any time for meditation that creates a personal connection with the Divine, just doesn’t cut it anymore.
As a path to self realization, Cynthia talks of kenosis – the “letting go” of things or any object of our attention. In Hindu Vedanta philosophy too we let go of our body consciousness i.e. we refuse to identify with the physical aspects of our existence and move to more subtle aspects. We refuse to identify with thoughts and desires, treating them as ripples in the ocean of stillness caused by karmic history. In Buddhism we learn to let go of 84,000 destructive emotions. But Cynthia’s letting go sounds less of the mentally arduous self transformative effort required by Vedanta, and more of a complete, abundant, reckless mind-heart surrender, imbued in total faith. Almost like a winner takes all kind of strategy – a winning by losing everything – a “self-emptying”. Christ made the ultimate kenotic offering by giving up his mortal body. It is a total non-clinging to anything – including a attachment to God which she likens to fundamentalism. It is total acceptance of the present state of affairs with equanimity. Cynthia draws the distinction between renunciation and letting go, the forming being more repressive and forced, and the latter more rooted in understanding of the lower nature of things we are letting go of. We let go of the lower and hence attach to the higher.
Cynthia was wrapping up for the day, and her words echoed through the room. “Blessed are the ones whose hearts are undivided, non-identified and un-coopted. They live in non attachment. Passions divide the heart…passions are stuck emotions, they belong to the lower egoic operating system”…Cynthia’s words reminded me of one of my favorite verses in the Upanishads which says “There are two selves, the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When One rises above the I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self. When all desires that surge in the heart are renounced, and all the knots that strangle the heart are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal. This sums up the teaching of the scriptures” (Katha Upanishad 13-14).
Meditation, in any form, helps loosen the knots that strangle the heart.
Selected Notes from the Day
- What we have in common is our children. HKIS as a cutting edge school in an East-meets-West city like Hong Kong needs to find ways to help students develop the personal tools to deal not only with the competition and stress of the academic sweepstakes, but we also need to help them gain a consciousness that will deal with the global challenges of the 21st century. We are running out of planet, and we need students that can act from the place of wholeness rather than egoic consciousness.
- Jesus is a universal cultural treasure that needs to be shared with all.
- Jesus was the first person in the Middle East to teach about non-dual consciousness, which means seeing from no separation.
- Just as a Mercator projection map distorts certain countries in reducing a 3-D world to a 2-D image, so too do we lose misunderstand Jesus without a Wisdom approach to his life and teaching.
- John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me” means “I am the path. Walk me.”
- Jesus is the Master Cardiologist who wants to teach us how to implement Ezekiel’s vision of replacing our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.
- Jesus saw himself as a teacher of non-dualism. He taught, “I and the Father are one.” His belief about no separation between himself and the Father resulted in people taking up stones to kill him. Jesus’ inter-being and inter-abiding with God was a break from classical monotheism.
- We, too, can experience this same degree of intimacy with God.
- John 15: Just as a branch needs a vine for survival, so too a vine without branches is an abstraction. Interdependence. Raymond Panikkar coined the term “cosmotheandric,” which means that the human is in the cosmos, the cosmos is in God, and God is in all.
- Like a director of a symphony, we need to think from the perspective of wholeness.
To see more about Cynthia’s teaching from a spiritual retreat I attended with her in Assisi in May, 2012, hit here. Richard Friedericks and I also put together a video of an interview with Cynthia in Assisi that can be found here – scroll halfway down the page to find the youtube link. Sangeeta and I also co-authored a blog about teaching mindfulness in a blog entry.