Mind the Gap: Cynthia Bourgeault on Moving from the Small Self to the Larger Self

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-11-22-14-amDear World Religion Students,

We have been talking all semester about moving from the small self to the Larger Self, which means bringing together your day-to-day experience living in this visible, competitive, and finite world (of the horizontal) with your Eternal Being (on the vertical). You are now doing the Spiritual Practices Project, which I consider to be the highlight of the course because it puts all these abstract ideas to the test. And the most practical question seems to be: what will happen as you do these spiritual practices? What is it really like to move from the small self to the Larger Self?


I would like you to consider an unusually insightful response to this question by someone I consider to be a Living Master, Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault, who  addressed this topic directly during a recent interview. I will provide a transcript of her reflections, and then draw some conclusions about what this means for your Spiritual Practices Project.

Cynthia’s Teaching

During an hour-long talk on Conscious TV, Cynthia was asked a series of questions by the host of the program, Renate McNay, about how the mind comes into the heart. Her answer is that this isn’t simply symbolic, but that physiologically speaking, our brain waves need to sync wscreen-shot-2016-12-04-at-11-25-55-amscreen-shot-2016-12-05-at-12-44-47-pmith the “rhythm of the heart, so that they become a single perceptual unit” (34:00). She explains that we have to learn how to surrender, which means “non-clinging, doesn’t hang on, doesn’t insist, doesn’t assert, doesn’t grab, doesn’t brace, doesn’t defend” (35:00). Rather, the mind needs to be trained to let go. “It’s the life-long practice to recognize when you’ve gotten into one of these postures” – Cynthia models clenched fists – “tightened, urgent, angry, self-important, and in that moment” – she opens her fists and arms.

Then she describes in more detail that process of moving from the gesture of clinging to that of letting go.

Cynthia (36:14): “To learn how to even notice when you are getting into these states – constriction, smaller self, urgency, automaticity – because we don’t notice that automatically. It’s like you don’t notice the moment you fall asleep at night. So, you sink into these lower, unfree, ugly states of being automatically. So you have to learn to even notice when that happens, and the second kind –

Renate: There is this point – I know this myself – there is this point where you can see you can go both ways, you could serve the ego or you can surrender. And you can decide.

Cynthia: Yeah, yeah. There is definitely that point. Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 11.51.35 AM.pngWhat makes it difficult, though, is that for a long, long time in the practice you can see that point. You can see yourself going over the waterfall, but you don’t have the power to swim away yet.

So what you have to do is live in the gap and say, “Oh my God, look at what’s happening to me,” I can see that I’m sinking, but I don’t have the force to stop. And it takes a long time until we have the force, and to be able to see you’re falling into a bad state doesn’t for a long time mean that you can do anything about it. Related imageI think that is a truism that disappoints many people. So, even the more painful penance is that you have to just sit there and watch it. Your only real choice is to see it in the horror and remorse and helplessness. Or do you just pretend, “Oh well, I’m really right, I’m going to fight for this.” Can you just go with a lower state or you can wait in the gap? So, for me, that has brought a whole new meaning to that whole British cliché, “Mind the gap.” Because we sit there in that gap for a long time, saying, “Ah!”

That’s when you learn the meaning of “Lord, have mercy.” I can’t do anything to raise my state, but what I can do is stay ahead of, in plain sight, of what is happening, acknowledging, “Here I am.” And I think it’s from that repeated acknowledgment of my own helplessness at that level, but refusing to simply hide from that helplessness that gradually, gradually, gradually the energy that had gone into your ego programs is recaptured to begin to hold this other kind of field of awareness, of attentiveness that’s not identified with that small self acting out and can begin to become a nest for that deeper and fuller and truer wiser Self to live in.

And then we begin to be. Then we begin to have being. And, it’s from that being that sometimes we can pull ourselves out of that spiral that we are holding into. And it’s from that being that we can begin to offer our force of being to the world as love, as assistance, as a shift in the energy field for someone else – “Baraka,” the Sufis call it. But it comes slowly because you can’t just click your heels together and have being. It has to accumulate slowly in your being – for a life painfully bearing the crucifixion of inner honesty, and slowly it emerges (40:00).”

Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 12.10.47 PM.png

“As you become free to follow what you might call the homing beacon of your own calling, you realize that it’s only in that complete obedience that freedom lies . . . [Obedience from the Latin] means to “listen deeply,” so as we listen deeply to that fundamental, what we might call, the tuning fork of our being. . . You find that the only freedom is to be your own cell in the mystical body of God, but you have to get free of the false self to see that” (49:00).

What Can We Learn?

Cynthia’s insightful commentary teaches us a number of specific lessons about what it really means to grow in the spiritual life. In terms of this class, what can we learn about what it means to move from the small self that always defends its own interests to the Larger Self that combines doing and being in the same moment for the sake of others?

  1. Seeing: Seeing yourself for who you really are, according to Cynthia, is the first responsibility of the spiritual life. The spiritual practices you are engaging in should provide you with some honest assessment of your desires, attachments, and reactivities.In time you will also come to see, as our guest monk Rabten explained, that your Larger Self is a “brilliant blue sky with a blazing sun.”
  2. Being Takes Practice: The reason I assign this project is that the only way for you to

    “And you never touch it with your head.”

    know if there is anything of personal value to you in World Religions is by doing the practices yourself. The good news is that you may be able to open a crack that lets in the light of Being inside yourself during this project. Many students experience a calmer sense as they get out of the “mindyness” of school and into the integrated body-mind-heart self. The challenge, on the other hand, is that to truly become anchored in Being takes years of practice, so think of this as one of those “life-long learning” goals.

  3. Practice Means Letting Go of Your Thoughts: We oftentimes think of surrender as giving up sweets for Lent, or fasting food and drink during Ramadan for Muslims. But Cynthia teaches that the hardest thing to let go of is our thoughts – and we have more than 50,000 a day! Letting go of your thoughts – changing your field of perception – transforms you at your core.Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 11.40.41 AM.png
  4. Anticipate setbacks: Moving forward in the spiritual life requires seeing your own shortcomings, so oftentimes this new awareness feels like a downer. Sitting in the gap between our old life and the hoped-for new life can be painful. The best we can oftentimes do, Cynthia explains, is to resist the temptation Image result for Lord, have mercyto go back into old, small self patterns and patiently wait.
  5. Look for Divine Assistance: So where is God in all this? Cynthia says that it’s in this gap of helplessness that we cry out, “Lord, have mercy.” Although this process of growth asks all of our attention and energy, at times things seem to fall into place, growth occurs, and change is recognized. We can accept these as gifts from God.
  6. Only Being Satisfies: The radical, underlying idea here is that ultimately achievement, high regard, and even great relationships on the horizontal plane won’t satisfy us. The Wisdom Tradition indexspeaks with one voice that the only thing that will truly fulfill our hearts is living in regular contact with Being itself. Only this will stay with us at the hour of our death. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr explains it this way, “Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred, open space, it’s going to feel like suffering, because it is letting go of what we’re used to. This is always painful at some level. But part of us has to die if we are ever to grow larger (John 12:24). If we’re not willing to let go and die to our small, false self, we won’t enter into any new or sacred space.”


I hope that this interview provides a close examination of the actual territory of transformation. So what does it really mean to grow in the spiritual life? The heart of Cynthia’s life-long study, summarized in this short interview excerpt, teaches that we can experience satisfaction in life only when we train our body-mind-heart to open up to Diving Being in our moment-by-moment existence. That training is fundamentally an exercise in surrendering, and the biggest part of ourselves that needs to be surrendered is our thoughts. To let go of these thoughts is to gradually experience that atman is Brahman, to find one’s “Buddha Nature,” or to “put on the mind of Christ.” The most common way to escape the ordinary mind of the small self and experience this Larger Self is through intentional spiritual practices. I look forward to hearing about your own reflections from your laboratory of self-exploration. Good luck on the project!


Additional Notes

  1. “There are 100,000 thoughts standing between you and your partner every day” by Bruce Davis (Huffington Post, May 23, 2013).screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-11-34-26-am
  2. The physiology of linking the brain and heart: “Like many of Fredrickson’s recent studies, this one was designed to measure “vagal tone,” the subtle variation in heart rate as we breathe in and out. When functioning most efficiently, the heart slows down slightly during exhalation. The greater the difference between your heart rate at inhalation and at exhalation, the higher your vagal tone, which predicts better immune function, cardiovascular health, glucose regulation, and — oddly enough — social skills. Fredrickson has found that practicing lovingkindness meditation seems to help people cultivate higher vagal tone. She says our hearts literally become more responsive to our breath as we experience loving feelings toward others.” See the complete article here.
  3. The following is a reflection by John G. Bennet, a student of Gurdjieff, on moving from the small self to the Larger Self.“Struggling with our weaknesses is the essence of work on oneself. It is this struggle that provides the energy that will feed our being. All that we have said about effort belongs here.The important principle is ‘agony’ between the affirmative and denying forces in us. One part says yes and another no. The outcome is uncertain, for we have no guarantee of suc­cess in any form that we might recognize. This uncertainty is fundamental, for in reality it opens the way to the deeper aspects of being, beyond the relatively superficial strength we can attain such as in control over eating and laziness. It reaches into the very centre of our selfhood where, event­ually, we have to face the need to renounce our egoism.We must not forget that the denying part of ourselves is part of reality and can rightly be called the “holy denying” as Gurdjieff phrased it. Without the element of denial, no triad can be set up and there can be no work. All action comes under the law of three and each of the three forces affirm­ative, receptive and reconciling – is required.We must also be careful to recognize that although it is in the nature of man to transmit the affirming force; he is not a source. It would not be far from the truth to say that all that a man actually is, is denial: this is the very character of actuality. The higher nature of man is in the realm of poten­tial, in eternity, and stands in the affirmative role to the lower nature which is actual, in time and space.Struggle is possible when we are separated from ourselves. We experience ourselves in a situation pulled by like or dis­like – this is lower nature – but there is an awareness of this pull and this is the door to higher nature. We are aware that there is something in us that has the potential of being free from like and dislike. Then we have an opportunity. we can pass beyond the state of simply observing what is going on to doing something about it. We say to ourselves, “I will not be slave to like and dislike, I affirm myself on a higher level to all of that. I wish to exist in a deeper way.” If it is right, we find ourselves ‘caught’ between the affirmation and the denial: each are perfectly real and part of ourselves. Sometimes this is hard to bear and we want to escape the tension involved. Sometimes it turns out surprisingly easy, because we have invoked the authority of our inner will or real ‘I’. The result in energies is much the same, a reconcil­ing result that enables as to be.

    Madame Ouspensky, when asked once to define being, de­scribed it as, “What you can bear.” This is the best descrip­tion of all. Bearing the struggle of yes and no in ourselves is also the way in which we are enabled to be.”

    John G. Bennett, The Sevenfold Work, 42,43.

  4. What Is the False Self?
    Monday, August 7, 2017

    Your egoic false self is who you think you are, but your thinking does not make it true. Your false self is a social and mental construct to get you started on your life journey. It is a set of agreements between you and your parents, your family, your school chums, your partner or spouse, your culture, and your religion. It is your “container.” It is largely defined in distinction from others, precisely as your separate and unique self. It is probably necessary to get started, but it becomes problematic when you stop there and spend the rest of your life promoting and protecting it.

    Jesus would call your false self your “wineskin,” which he points out is only helpful insofar as it can contain some good and new wine. He says that “old wineskins” cannot hold any new wine; in fact, “they burst and both the skins and the wine are lost” (Luke 5:37-38). This is a quite telling and wise metaphor, revealing Jesus’ bias toward growth and change. “The old wine is good enough” (Luke 5:39), says the man or woman set in their ways.

    The false self, which we might also call the “small self,” is merely your launching pad: your appearance, your education, your job, your money, your success, and so on. These are the trappings of ego that help you get through an ordinary day. They are what Bill Plotkin wisely calls your “survival dance,” but they are not yet your “sacred dance.” [1]

    Please understand that your false self is not bad or inherently deceitful. Your false self is actually quite good and necessary as far as it goes. It just does not go far enough, and it often poses and thus substitutes for the real thing. That is its only problem, and that is why we call it “false.” The false self is bogus more than bad; it pretends to be more than it is. Various false selves (temporary costumes) are necessary to get us all started, but they show their limitations when they stay around too long. If people keep growing, their various false selves usually die in exposure to greater light. That is, if they ever let greater light get in; many do not.

    When you are able to move beyond your false self—at the right time and in the right way—it will feel as if you have lost nothing. Of course, if all you know is the false self and you do not know that there is anything “beyond” it, the transition will probably feel like dying. Only after you have fallen into the True Self, will you be able to say with the mystic Rumi, “What have I ever lost by dying?” [2] You have discovered true freedom and liberation. When you are connected to the Whole, you no longer need to protect or defend the part. You are now connected to something inexhaustible.

    If you do not let go of your false self at the right time and in the right way, you remain stuck, trapped, and addicted. (The traditional word for that was sin.) Unfortunately, many people reach old age still entrenched in their egoic operating system. Only your True Self lives forever and is truly free in this world.

    Your True Self Is Love
    Sunday, December 18, 2016

    Those who have gone to the depths—of suffering, awe, or silence—discover an Indwelling Presence. It is a deep and loving “yes,” an “amen” or “let it be,” that is inherent within you. In Christian theology, this inner presence is described as the Holy Spirit: God as immanent, within, and even our deepest and truest self.

    Some saints and mystics have described this presence as “closer to me than I am to myself” or “more me than I am myself.” This is what Thomas Merton called the True Self. It is inherent in all of us, yet it must be awakened and chosen. The Holy Spirit is totally given—and given equally—to all; but it must be received, too. One who totally receives this Presence and draws life from it is what we mean by a saint.

    That is how “image” becomes “likeness” (Genesis 1:26). We all have the indwelling image, but we surrender to the likeness in varying degrees and stages. None of us are morally or psychologically perfect or whole, but a saint or mystic nevertheless dares to believe that he or she is ontologically (“in their very being”) whole and that this wholeness is a gift from God. It has nothing to do with “me” in my separateness!

    The Holy Spirit is never concocted by our actions or behavior. The Spirit is naturally indwelling from the moment of our conception (Jeremiah 1:5); it is our inner being with God (which, by the way, is the basis for the sacredness of life in the womb!). With that understanding, we sometimes called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.” Culture and even religion often teach us to live out of our false self of reputation, self-image, role, possessions, money, appearance, and so on. It is only as this small self fails us—and it always eventually does—that the True Self stands revealed and ready to guide us.

    The True Self—where you and God are one—does not choose to love as much as it is love itself already (see Colossians 3:3-4). The True Self does not teach us compassion as much as it is compassion. Loving from this core of your being is experienced as a river within you that flows of its own accord (see John 7:38-39). From this more spacious and grounded place, one naturally connects, empathizes, forgives, and loves everything. We were made in love, for love, and unto love. This deep inner “yes,” that is God in me, is already loving God through me. The false self does not really know how to love, in a very deep or broad way. It is too opportunistic. It is too small. It is too self-referential to be compassionate.



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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3 Responses to Mind the Gap: Cynthia Bourgeault on Moving from the Small Self to the Larger Self

  1. Pingback: Non-Reactivity: The Supreme Practice of Everyday Life | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  2. Pingback: Opening to Presence: Best Books of 2016 | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

  3. Pingback: “Holding Onto Letting Go” by Sharon Kim | Social Conscience and Inner Awakening

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