“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.
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 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.
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. 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.”  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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
The solution to our human condition begins with repentance, which for Keating means to “change the direction you are looking for happiness.” 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.”
Cynthia calls this larger mind “three-centered awareness,” 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. 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 http://www.sacredweb.com/online_articles/sw4_bourgeault.html
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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2SRVr89GFU
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.
 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.
 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality.
 Cynthia Bourgeault, “Experiencing Presence” (talk #10 at 5 minutes) in Walking with Mary Magdalene Through Holy Week, 2011.
 Keating, Invitation to Love, 11-12
 Keating, Invitation to Love, 11-12
 Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus, 41.
 Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, 27-40
 Bourgeault, “Centering Prayer and the Foundations of Non-Dual Awareness,” 18:00-19:28.