Is sacred reality really real?

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamagate…” (“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond…”)

We used to chant this ancient Hindu chant in our small contemplative circle in Snowmass, Colorado back in the early 1990s, during the “Advaita” phase of our work. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but it suddenly popped back into my mind this morning as the following exchange with a student suddenly flowed out of me, from where I do not know. I think I may actually have just encapsulated in about 800 words everything I really wanted to say in my next book, currently (and a little too Sisyphus-fully) on the drawing boards. Anyway, for what it’s worth…

Happy formlessness,

 

Cynthia


The question… 

Dear Cynthia,

I have very much appreciated your teachings and approach to the spiritual life. I’m writing because I’ve been increasingly bothered for the last several months with the doubt that there is an actual spiritual, supernatural realm beyond our human experience. I truly believe we human beings have deep spiritual 

experience, even a mystical sense of union with God. But how can we know that this experience is connected to anything real beyond the perceptions of our brains? I just have this nagging doubt that once our brains die, everything goes dark. It makes less and less sense to me how we could retain, or regain, consciousness and personhood after death as the doctrine of the resurrection promises.

These questions have become an obstacle to my prayer. I feel like I need to know (or have better-understood intellectual reasons for wagering) that there is an objectively real spiritual realm beyond earth and the human brain, in order to pray with motivation and hope.

Could you let me know how you know? Or the reasons you come back to for trusting in the reality of a spiritual realm that transcends the experiences (however profound) of our bodies and minds?

And my response…

Thank you for sharing with me this profound and delicate transition point in your own journey. Both the clarity and the honesty with which you reveal your struggle suggest you’re really standing at the edge of a major paradigm shift. I’d almost be inclined to say the one that ushers you through the gate into the authentic nondual.

It’s clear that your old cosmology of God — and the prayers emerging from it — is crumbling before your eyes, and that’s good. But what replaces it?

One way to go, certainly, is to simply replace your previous theological/metaphysical castle with a new one, generated by the same mechanisms of the brain, only this time more spacious. The whole metaphysical postulation of a supernatural or “imaginal” realm speaks directly to that strategy.

Throughout the spiritual ages, across all the sacred traditions, there has been a cloud of witnesses who can validate that personhood beyond the physical realm does indeed exist. I have had the perhaps questionable privilege of being able to travel in this realm a bit over these past twenty years on the eagle’s wings of my spiritual teacher Rafe. So I know that there is indeed water in this well, and that the well does indeed water the earth and materially help it through the recurring drought times and deserts of the human spirit. Yet I know also that even this well ultimately proves to be a construction. Just as everything in this all-too-perishable realm ultimately reveals itself to be.

But this doesn’t mean it’s false — only impermanent, as the Buddhists would say. In his recent book Waking, Dreaming, Being, philosopher Evan Thompson has a brilliant one-liner: “All illusions are constructions, but not all constructions are illusions.” The impermanent, intermediate, and ultimately mirage-like nature of the surrounding imaginal/supernatural world is indeed a construction. But so is the cosmos itself (and the word “cosmos” in Greek means “ornament”): a beautiful construction through which the otherwise inaccessible white light of the divine heart becomes manifest. We all participate in that illusion, each to our own degree, to our own level of clarity and toughmindedness. And good is done here — as well as some degree of harm. In the words of the old Koranic maxim, God speaks and says, “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds, visible and invisible”. All of us, in our temporarily separated individual conscious viewing platforms are pixels participating in that grand construction, the revelation of the divine heart. It is all fiction. And it is all real.

But another way of moving through this impasse — and the way I think you’re actually intuiting here — is not to build another cosmic Prospero’s castle using the same old mental methodology, but to question the nature of the mind itself in its seemingly unbreakable addiction to mentally constructed meaning. What would it mean to live “bare”, without that whole mental castle?

A scary threshold, to be sure. Few reach it, and the few who do generally get scared shitless and go running back as quickly as possible to the world of constructed meaning. But it is possible to stand there and to stand well. Beyond the cloud of constructed meaning, there is such a thing as direct perception. And you can get there if you wish — if you can stand it.

As Thomas Merton observed shortly before the close of his life in his own devastating moment of final clairvoyance (which I can almost but not quite quote from memory): “I was jerked out of my habitual, half-tied way of looking at things…having seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything — without refutation, without establishing some other argument.” The constructive principle drops out, and what remains is simply bare seeing.

And it’s just here that one discovers the remarkable, elusive secret: that meaning and explanation are not the same thing. Explanation is of the mind. Meaning is of the heart, a felt-sense of belongingness that needs neither justification nor further action. It is simply its own fullness. Prayer does not reach it, for it is the source of prayer, the source of everything.

Rest assured that consciousness does not go dark when your individual pixel of it departs from its individual body container. The only thing that goes dark — that is to say, if you decide to forego a side trip through the imaginal or boddhisattva bardos and proceed direct to the heart of the infinite — is your individual relationship to consciousness. Consciousness is the stuff of the universe, undivided and whole. It will never go dark. It will simply enfold “you”, and the exile will be over…

I’m not sure this helps, but hopefully it at least affirms that you’re standing on sacred ground, and that cynicism is not the only option. The other is to deepen the wonder.

“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” ~ Exodus 3:5

Blessings,

 

Cynthia

A Tribute to Beatrice Bruteau by Cynthia Bourgeault

Beatrice Bruteau Beatrice Bruteau—scholar, teacher, interspiritual pioneer, and intrepid explorer of the evolutionary edge of consciousness—quietly departed this earth plane on November 16, 2014, at the age of 84. Her passing exemplified her signature brand of clarity, freedom, and intentionality: traits which for more than five decades have been the hallmarks of her teaching presence among us and which she now bequeaths to us as both a legacy and a continuing invitation.

Mention the name Beatrice Bruteau, and I daresay that most Christian contemplatives will never have heard of her. She never aspired to or attained the “superstar” status of a Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Bede Griffiths, or David Steindl-Rast. By her own choice she preferred to remain slightly below the radar screen, where she exerted her quiet presence as one of the most powerful shaping influences on contemporary mystical theology, interspirituality, and contemplative practice. In her lifetime she was a friend, colleague, and mentor to all the people mentioned above (and dozens more of comparable stature), and a teacher to thousands of appreciative students, myself included. Those who had the privilege of working with her directly speak of the clarity and precision of her mind, the luminosity of her vision, and the down-to-earth practicality of her contemplative practice.

Rigorously trained, she held two degrees in mathematics and a doctorate in philosophy from Fordham University (the first woman to be admitted to the graduate program there.) In addition to her highly articulate Christianity, she was also a longtime student of Vedanta and one of the early pioneers of East-West dialogue. She wrote books on Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin, and was one of the founders of the American Teilhard Association in 1967. Her most important works include Radical Optimism (1993), The Easter Mysteries (1995), What We Can Learn from the East (1995), and God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World (1997). In all of these works she brought her deep understanding of non-dual states of consciousness (as well as her scientific training and rigor) to the mysticism of the West. Her passion was the study of evolutionary consciousness, and over the course of her long teaching career she lived to see this passion come into its own as one of the most significant spiritual movements of our times. In particular, her influence on two fellow Fordham graduates, Ewart Cousins and Ilia Delio, has revolutionized the playing field upon which the venerable intellectual tradition of Christian Humanism is now unfolding.

beatrice-bruteau-252x296 Despite these stellar academic credentials, Beatrice chose to “think globally, act locally.” For most of her long career she lived in and around Winston Salem, North Carolina, where she and her husband, Fordham professor James Somerville, founded the Schola Contemplationis, a center for the study and practice of the contemplative lifestyle according to the classical traditions of both East and West. For more than thirty years, their “mind-bending” monthly newsletter, The Roll, was painstakingly composed in their home office, run off on an old mimeograph machine, and hand-mailed to their small but devoted mailing list. A Southern lady “to the nines,” she dressed impeccably for every occasion, refused to travel by air, and insisted that coffee and tea be served in proper china cups—not, heaven forbid, mugs!

My own relationship with Beatrice Bruteau began in the late 1980s when I discovered her three-part article “Prayer and Identity” in the now-defunct Contemplative Review and had my spiritual universe quietly but completely overturned. Correspondence soon led to a personal visit and a mentoring relationship that would span the next three decades. I am honored to report that the very first public spiritual teaching I ever gave was at her behest, to her Schola Contemplationis group, in the early 1990s. In 2007 I was able in a small way to repay that tremendous debt of gratitude when the Sewanee Theological Review invited me to republish her original “Prayer and Identity” article, together with a short commentary, in an issue dedicated to “Spirituality, Contemplation, and Transformation.”

On a very personal note, the most powerful debt of gratitude I owe her was her unflagging support during the writing and publication of my first book, Love is Stronger than Death. Still in a very tender place following the death of my hermit teacher Raphael Robin, not fully trusting whether my spiritual intuitions of an ongoing journey between us were on target or simply a concocted fantasy, I shared the manuscript with her, and in a powerful way she offered validation and the encouragement to continue. Her luminous support at this critical threshold of my life is one of the main reasons that I am where I am today.

During this past decade our connection grew a bit more tenuous as my life got busier and hers gradually became more concentrated around that final stage of the journey, “growing into age.” In about the fall of 2013 I began to hear rumors that Alzheimer’s was starting to affect her magnificent brain, and in spring 2014, following a conference in Greensboro, I was able to pay her what turned out to be a final visit. While it was indeed obvious that the disease was making some inroads on the habitual operations along the horizontal axis of life, as soon as we leaped into spiritual issues, her vast mind still took over like the lioness it was. Her teaching continued luminous and more and more vast.

beatrice-bruteau-and-joshua-tysinger-the-contemplative-society-540x540 Little did any of us at the time—maybe even Beatrice—suspect the final surprising denouement with which she would make her exit from this life. As it so happened, one of my younger students, Joshua Tysinger, had begun his seminary studies at Wake Forest, right there in Winston Salem, just about the time that Beatrice’s life was rounding toward its end. I suggested—and Josh was alert enough to follow up on the suggestion—that having a world class spiritual master right in town was an opportunity not to be missed. He began to pay her regular visits, and it soon became clear that a lineage transmission was in process. As Josh willingly and sensitively helped Beatrice and Jim navigate the horizontal axis, her brilliant final imparting of a lifetime of spiritual wisdom and spiritual fire (mostly over lunch at the A & W cafeteria, with, yes, proper coffee cups!) is an exchange that I suspect will not leave the planet unchanged.

I will leave this part of the story for Josh to tell when the right moment arises. For now I would simply like to comment, from my own perspective, on what played out during the last three months of Beatrice’s life. In late July, she suffered a fall and was hospitalized and then in nursing care for several weeks thereafter. During this time, it seemed that she was very much on the decline and “in transition.” She ceased eating, and her already slight frame shrank to 50 pounds. By October a hospice worker had been called in, and Beatrice was seemingly hanging between the worlds.

Nine days before her death, she sat up, got up, resumed eating enough to sustain the physical body a bit longer, and began to teach and transmit in a luminous burst of continuing insight. It was as if the Alzheimer’s had been left behind—or perhaps, if truth be told, she had already “died” to this world and was returning, her own risen and Christed self in her imaginal body to complete what was needed vis à vis this earth plane. While others were astonished at her sudden” improvement,” she had already been extremely clear with Josh that this wasn’t what it was about; it would be an entirely different dimension manifest and operating in her. Teacher to the end, she left us with a luminous, stunningly hopeful demonstration of how a conscious death is already a Risen Life; the two are joined at the hip. With her final magnificent fusion of clarity, will, and freedom—all those qualities her spiritual practice had been about for more than half a century—she went out like a candle going out, filling the whole room with the perfume of her realized being.

That being accomplished, she slipped away quietly into the night, at just after midnight. Her final gifts to us: a brilliant, living testimony to the utter reality of her two deepest convictions: radical optimism and God’s ecstasy, carved in the final sacrament of her life.

Cynthia Bourgeault