The Role of Inner Awakening in Compassionate Action: The Worldview of Wisdom Teacher Cynthia Bourgeault


“In my own efforts to live the gospel I have found that it is virtually impossible to reach and sustain that level of ‘perfect love’ without a practice of contemplative prayer . . .. Ordinary awareness always eventually betrays itself and returns to its usual postures of self-defense and self-justification . . .. Only from the level of spiritual awareness do you see and trust that all is held in the divine Mercy . . .. You can begin to reach out to the world with the same wonderful, generous vulnerability that we see in Christ.”

– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, 17.


My teaching career has focused much of its energy on helping students to develop compassionate action in society: encouraging our school community to see beyond its primary achievement orientation and care for others. However, for all the growth of social conscience education at our school, there has always been a persistent ache within me. In the form of a question, the ache asked: what is the role of the inner life in developing compassionate action? I kept waiting for “Sojourners,” the inspiring Christian social justice magazine, to write as in-depth about the interior journey as they did about social issues, but they never did. This was the ache.

Screen Shot 2016-02-14 at 3.12.56 PM

Then about six months after finishing my doctorate on social conscience education in 2010, I met Christian wisdom teacher Cynthia Bourgeault. Her writings spoke of a mapping of the interior world that I had never heard of, and the yearning grew to bring together her understanding of inner awakening with what I had learned about teaching for compassionate action. This is the journey that brought me to hear her speak in Assisi in 2012, Auckland in 2015, and now the first New Zealand Wisdom School in Te Moata in February, 2016.

What was the deeper insight I needed to see? Most simply, Cynthia’s philosophy assumes that all action springs out of a self that lies beneath our thoughts and emotions. The only truly efficacious act, then, emerges from a purified self, the source of all subconscious motivations as well as conscious thoughts and emotions. However, if students act primarily out of self-centered thinking or a divided heart, the ordinary human condition, they are likely to perpetuate rather than resolve social injustice.

Having now studied Cynthia’s work in the context of the Wisdom Tradition[1] in some depth, this blog entry attempts to summarize in big-picture terms her response to the question how compassionate action can be purified of its inherently self-referential elements. Presented in summary form, the modest aim of this entry is to illuminate her response to this question in broad strokes, explaining her vision of the original human nature, how and why humans fail to live in accordance with this inspiring ideal, the solution to this fundamental problem, and the end result of empathic action in society.

cynthia teaching

Original Blessing

The starting point to understand Cynthia’s take on purifying action involves our original moral state. In contrast to the later development of Original Sin, the first five centuries of Christianity began with the understanding of what Matthew Fox calls Original Blessing.[2] While we often feel like outsiders on the spiritual journey, the first teaching of Original Blessing states that we have an ongoing, but unrecognized, union with God, despite our subjective feelings of distance. Our spiritual birthright is an inborn, intimate, yearning-filled relationship with God.

If the first aspect of Original Blessing involves an unacknowledged intimacy with God in the depths of our being, the second speaks to the majestic mission of our doing. The task for humans is to extend our Imago Dei into the cosmos, enlivening the material domain with spirit. Divine intimacy, kindness, and purpose can be brought into physical form in whatever sphere humans enter. Most obviously, we can bring our unique human-divine hybridity into our relationships with animals, plants, and the earth itself.

The first aspect of our Original Blessing, then, is that each of us has within the capacity to be attuned to the very essence of God. We can experience a continuous waterwheel of divine wisdom and compassion that is called heart in the Christian tradition. We are “never disconnected . . . we are in God and flowing out rightly from Source.” [3] Proceeding out of this initial wholeness is the second aspect of our Original Blessing: our extraordinary divine calling to carry this “yearning into the tissue and texture” of the material world.


The Human Condition

Every human, however, fails to maintain this Original Blessing as we enter into lived experience. Cynthia employs a computer metaphor, the ‘egoic operating system,‘ to explain why we fall short. This system rejects the gift of divine being that is our birthright and replaces it with clinging and grasping for our needs. Cynthia’s teacher, Benedictine monk Thomas Keating, suggests that as each of us conforms to family expectations and social norms, we collectively turn away from our Original Blessing of a relationship with the living God and seek to meet our perceived needs through our own machinations. Our three most fundamental motivators are the desire for (1) safety/security (2) esteem/affection (3) and power/control.[4]

These emotional programs for happiness, as Keating calls them, are collectively run by the egoic operating system, which manifests itself in four easily observable psychological traps:

  1. The first trap is that our thoughts and emotions are driven by an attraction/avoidance dynamic. We move towards our attractors (e.g., safety, esteem, power, etc.) and avoid those things that disturb or threaten our egoic needs. Cynthia explains further, “The egoically generated self seeks pleasure— experienced as the enlargement or affirmation of its selfhood; and it avoids pain—experienced as the diminishment of selfhood and depletion of its vital elan.” This tug-of-war between our desires and fears leaves our ego by turns inflated and upbeat on good days and distraught and anxiety-ridden on bad days.
  2. The second trap is that our actions are intended to establish a distinctive persona in contrast to others, bearing the imprint of self-identification. Standing out means that we are in competition with those in our community, splitting our heart’s affection between our own needs and the equally important needs of others.
  3. Third, these psychological strategies of identification and competition enter into physical form through our body language – gestures, expressions, movements, clothes – which often expresses our self-protective behaviors or self-focused intentions.
  4. The final trap, which is of a different order than the first three, is that we squander the power of attention. Rather than being able to remain in a heart-resonant relationship with God, we are habitually distracted by a multitude of stimuli that take us out of ourselves, causing us to be drawn to or repelled by external phenomena. At other times, our attention is drawn to our inner world where we mentally dwell in the past or worry about our future, taking us out of a moment-by-moment indwelling with God.*

The outcome of these traps is that rather than being bearers of the divine image secure in our sacred identity and carrying out our divinely appointed tasks, our thoughts are scrambled and our emotions divided, skewed towards our own self-focused desires. As we grapple with the social demands of family and culture, we struggle to get what we feel we need to satisfy ourselves. Rather than being inwardly directed by divine generosity, we become outwardly focused on a quest for survival.

The Wisdom Tradition explains that this egoic operating system usually runs beneath our conscious awareness. We are asleep to its reality, living on autopilot and fighting for our personal needs, which cuts us off from the whole. Given the vices of the egoic operating system, it’s not difficult to see that our well-intentioned attempts to act compassionately are compromised by the four traps of likes and dislikes, identifications, embodied gestures, and inattention.

labyrinth temoata

The Solution

The solution to our human condition begins with repentance, which for Keating means to “change the direction you are looking for happiness.”[5] Cynthia also redefines repentance in helpful ways, deconstructing the Greek word metanoia into meta meaning “beyond” or “larger” and noia being “mind.” Repentance, then, means to look in another direction for your needs, going “beyond the mind” or “into the larger mind.”[6]

Cynthia calls this larger mind “three-centered awareness,”[7] which can be understood as the intelligences of the body, the mind, and the heart. The body’s intelligence is its ability to move into the world, bearing the presence of God through purified actions, gestures, and behaviors. The body seeks to connect with others, bringing divine kindness, intimacy, and purpose into the community of life. While the body has an innate desire to reach out, the mind’s particular gift is questioning, critical thinking, and discernment. A mind that has been cleansed of its egoic tendencies can choose to act wisely on behalf of others without the traps of self-focus. The third dimension of three-centered awareness is the heart, which, when divinely-attuned, perceives from the perspective of wholeness. The heart’s contribution is its intuitive ability to arbitrate between the body’s affirmation and the mind’s caution, leading to right action. Overall, three-centered awareness enables people to step into a larger mind, changing the direction they are seeking for satisfaction from an ego-driven quest to a re-opening to God’s sufficiency.


The solution’s centerpiece, of course, is restoring body, mind, and heart to their proper skillful intelligences. It is at this point that the Wisdom Tradition offers an array of spiritual practices. The body, for example, can engage in conscious work, disciplining the mind to remain intensely focused on physical experience (e.g., sensing the feet as one walks, listening to the sound created by work, entering into bodily sensations, etc.). The mind can be trained through meditation, first, to understand its unsettled, grasping nature, and in time become cleansed of its baser motivations to become gently in tune with the mind of Christ. These body and mind practices can also purify the intentions of the heart, enabling it to carry out its divine task of coherent perception and purposeful action.

For 2000 years Jesus’ directives to “love your neighbor as yourself” or, even more radically, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute,” have been among the world’s most inspiring teachings.[8] But why have so many followers of Christ failed to live up to this ideal of love? Cynthia is in agreement with Jacob Needleman, who in his book Lost Christianity identifies Christianity’s missing component as a lack of a trained attention. The underlying ability that needs to be learned to maintain three-centered awareness is an attention that habitually drops the egoic operating system’s persistent interior monologue in favor of a body-mind-heart moment-by-moment opening to the fullness of God’s presence.

Cynthia’s preferred spiritual practice for purifying the heart and regaining this lost skill of attention is called Centering Prayer. Drawing upon Philippians 2:4-5, Cynthia explains that Jesus’ method employs the practice of kenosis, which means to “self-empty” the frenetic energies of the egoic operating system and return to an open state of dependence on God. Letting go of egoic drives opens space for a higher mode of living called non-dual awareness, which means to see from the perspective of oneness. As exemplified in Centering Prayer, Jesus is identified, then, as the first teacher of non-dualism in the Western world to instruct followers how to overcome dualisms of like vs. dislike and me vs. others. Only then can Christians successfully love God and their neighbors with their full heart, soul, mind, and strength. Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection all bear witness how to live out of this state of wholeness.

While the solution emphasizes human responsibility in becoming more God-like, it is understood at the same time that throughout the entire journey from the small self to the Larger Self, God’s grace pervades the process, from the creation and maintenance of a coherent universe, to the incarnation of Christ, to the special provisions for those on the path. The abundance and generosity of God suffuse the cosmos.


The End Result

Three-centered awareness offers a restorative path for humans to recover their original harmony with God. Developing a habit of spiritual practices removes the low clouds of egoic behavior that have obscured the deep blue sky of our original nature. As the self comes to dwell more often in God’s presence, it slowly becomes purified of ignorance, attachment, and identification. This Larger Self becomes free to truly act with compassion.

Most excitingly, joining the power of a focused attention with a purified intention enables the body-mind-heart to act not only as a unified intelligence within society, but in resonance with the cosmic mind. This “mind of Christ” has vast potential that goes beyond conventional human limits.



Through this blog I have sought over time to come to a fuller understanding of social conscience education. Working with Cynthia over the last five years has revealed to me the necessity of including inner awakening as an essential component of teaching for social conscience. More personally, I no longer have that ache to know of the role of the inner life in my efforts to inspire compassionate action. As I have come to learn of the teachings of the Wisdom Tradition, the ache has become a yearning – to balance our social conscience courses with classes that teach about spiritual practices. In the end, I’ve come to understand that social conscience education is well-represented by the yin-yang symbol: those with an activist bent need spiritual practices, while budding contemplatives should manifest their inner dynamism in service to the community.

I conclude with an observation drawn from our recent Wisdom School in New Zealand. The Benedictine order, with its famed “Ora et Labora” (“Prayer and Work”) is the great trunk of Western monasticism; prayer and work is this order’s overarching template for sanctifying the self. By analogy, in my own semi-secular environment at HKIS, this ancient prayer-work model can manifest itself in contemporary international schooling through social conscience education, in its twin magnetic poles of inner awakening and compassionate action. With gratitude to St. Benedict and its brilliant modern interpreter Cynthia, may the genius of the Wisdom Tradition live on in the 21st century!

*To hear Cynthia address these four traps, listen to her teachings at a Wisdom School in TeMoata, New Zealand, February, 2016, in lecture 3, 1:20-1:28.


Bourgeault, C. (1999). “The egoic system and nurture of the heart.” Sacred Web, 4. Accessed March 29, 2016 at

Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bourgeault, C. (2004). Centering prayer and inner awakening. Lanham, MD, USA: Cowley.

Bourgeault, C. (2008). The wisdom Jesus: Transforming heart and mind – a new perspective on Christ and his message. Boston: Shambhala.

Bourgeault, C. (2011). “Experiencing Presence” in “Walking with Mary Magdalene Through Holy Week,” recorded at Poet’s Cove, Pender Island, British Columbia, Canada, March 18-22.

Bourgeault, C. (2012). “Centering Prayer and the Foundations of Non-Dual Awareness,” Science and Non-Duality Conference, 2012 Accessed on March 27, 2016 at

Fox, M. (2000). Original blessing: A primer on creation spirituality. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Keating, T. (2011). Invitation to love: The way of Christian contemplation. London: Bloomsbury.

Needleman, J. (2003). Lost Christianity: A journey of rediscovery. New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

temoata australia group


[1] Cynthia describes Wisdom as “a precise and comprehensive science of spiritual  transformation that has existed since the headwaters of the great world religions and is in fact their common ground” (Wisdom Way of Knowing, p. xvi, italics in original). The Wisdom Tradition, then, is our global interreligious heritage which teaches how to cultivate inner awakening.

[2] Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality.

[3] Cynthia Bourgeault, “Experiencing Presence” (talk #10 at 5 minutes) in Walking with Mary Magdalene Through Holy Week, 2011.

[4] Keating, Invitation to Love, 11-12

[5] Keating, Invitation to Love, 11-12

[6] Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, 41.

[7] Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, 27-40

[8] Bourgeault, “Centering Prayer and the Foundations of Non-Dual Awareness,” 18:00-19:28.

Dear Cynthia, The world seems like it’s teetering on the verge of total destruction and I can barely watch the news anymore without spiraling into fear or paralyzing sadness. What can we do? How do we keep from being overtaken by depression and cynicism in these troubling times?

I am not so sure it’s a question of nature, but of nurture—or lack thereof. We live in a world where fear and cynicism are running sky high, where traditional institutions of faith and culture are breaking down, and where our dislocation from nature and the natural rhythms of life leave our souls a little pent up and crazy. Suspicion and pessimism are pretty good defenses against a world gone mad. But the great spiritual teachings of the ages have suggested a radically counter-intuitive response. When this same question came up in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov, the wise elder Fr. Zossima said in response, “Go help someone. Reach out to a brother or sister in need. Feed the hungry, heal the sick—or at least, take on your small share of the task—and then, only then, will you come to know that the world is trustworthy and God is real.”

His point is tough, but true: First the eye of the heart must open, and only then will one see confirmation in the external world. As long as suspicion and pessimism are being projected, suspicion and pessimism are what the cosmos will confirm.

So how to break the vicious cycle? Fr. Zossima’s advice is still as true today as it was in his time: look for where you can serve. Volunteer in a shelter, a food pantry, a nursing home: it will soften your heart. Do your inner work—not just spiritual practice—but of looking deeply at the ways systemic problems might be alive in your own inner narratives and behavior. And lastly, find beauty and be nurtured by it. Spend time in nature, in a playground with young children; sing!; read love poetry; hang out with the “good, the true and the beautiful,” however they speak to you.

The problem is that we are starving—all of us, really—for the energy of beauty and goodness so long absent from our contemporary cultural experience. But we have to start making these energies of love and change ourselves—from within ourselves. That is not only an individual task; it is our collective human task and our planet will thank us for it.

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.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Role of Inner Awakening in Compassionate Action: The Worldview of Wisdom Teacher Cynthia Bourgeault

  1. Jules Simons says:

    A terrific summary with some good references. Thanks Marty. There is indeed work to be done ORA ET LABORA
    Jules – Aotearoa, NZ

  2. Marilyn Wilkinson says:

    Hi Marty,
    I very much enjoyed your analysis of Cynthia’s teaching. For me her teaching has been life changing and I have recently been reading more of her books. I remember saying to her at the time of the Desert Fathers retreat that years ago I had come to a gathering in Auckalnd to hear Matthew Fox and that had been a big turning point for me just as her teaching has been. So I was particularly interested to see your reference to Matthew Fox!!
    May main reason for writing is to say that I have a deep yearning to encourage my grandchildren to embark on a soul journeys so I am particularly interested in how you are pursuing this with the children in your care. I have signed up with my email address to keep in touch with your blog.
    What a great time it was at Te Moata. How fortunate do we were to have the experience.
    Blessings indeed and thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.
    Marilyn Wilkinson

  3. Charlie Thermos says:

    Hi Marty
    I really enjoyed reading your blog entry.
    You have a wonderful way of bringing all the important threads together.
    I will read it again as there is so much to digest and absorb. Thank you.
    Hope you had a wonderful Easter. Christ is Risen.

  4. P says:

    Thank you Marty, for you kindness in sharing this wonderful summary of Cynthia’s teachings and our time together at Te Moata. Only eight weeks ago, and yet it seems a world away as we head into the darker seasons of the year here in NZ, and the madness of work and traffic in Auckland descends. Such a timely reminder to keep the teachings and practices close at heart and work with them every day. Loved seeing your smiling face again, along with others and the beauty of Te Moata.

    Blessings and Gratitude,

    Auckland, NZ

    • Dear Paula, Thanks for reading the blog, and getting back in contact. Such warm memories from Te Moata. One of those life highlights for me. I continue to be challenged to live out the teachings on a daily basis. Hope that you can bring your presence to the people that you serve in your work – nursing, as I recall. Hopefully, there will be another retreat in the future. Peace and hope, Marty

  5. Pingback: Teaching Consciousness of the Body: Two Practitioners in Dialogue | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  6. Pingback: Mind the Gap: Cynthia Bourgeault on Moving from the Small Self to the Larger Self | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  7. Pingback: Education’s Most Needed Reform: Relaxing into the Universe | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  8. Pingback: Introducing The Wisdom Way of Teaching: Educating for Social Conscience and Inner Awakening in the High School Classroom | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  9. Pingback: The Wisdom Way of Knowing and Teaching Spirituality: The Epistemological Foundations of the SPEX Curriculum | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  10. Pingback: The Second Gaze: The Essence of the Spiritual Life | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  11. Don Watkins says:

    Reblogged this on Country Contemplative and commented:
    I’m currently listening to Cynthia Bourgeault’s, “The Wisdom Way of Knowing,” on Scribd. I have read Matthew Fox’s “Original Blessing” five or six years ago.. I receive an email from Matthew Fox everyday so all of this is part of that journey too.

    • Very glad to see you repost my comments…I’m a big fan of Cynthia’s ever since I met her in 2010. I’m awaiting notification that my first book will be ready for order any day now, which is called “The Wisdom Way of Teaching,” explicitly linking my book to the her title. Cynthia wrote the foreword.

      All the best,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s