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The Developmental Soul

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the fourth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal and the third is “When Does Life Begin?


Essence

According to Gurdjieff, the mysterious “X-factor” that enters in the moment of conception is not yet soul but essence. Think of it as the hand of cards you’re dealt at the start of a card game. It comprises a set of unique characteristics including race, gender (and most likely gender orientation), basic body type and other genetic factors, influences emerging from more distant ancestry and bloodline – and yes, that unquantifiable legacy “from the stars” – all combined primarily according to what Teilhard would call “tatonnement” (“trial and error”): evolution’s predilection for trying out any and all possibilities. Cumulatively, all of the above will combine to confer on you what is commonly known as your “nature”.

Notice how there is no need to stipulate an “artist” God here, specifically designing a unique human being; what’s being pictured here is simply a lawful playing out of a freedom already inherent within Creation itself. Essence is not customized, not micro-managed – at least according to most schools of inner work I’m familiar with. (That may take some getting used to, and for those of you finding yourself already in resistance mode, I encourage you simply to let this new perspective settle in a bit. Rest assured that I do intend to talk about the origin of the personal in due course.)

Once formed, essence will take its place as one of the three constituent terms in an ongoing dynamism of becoming which, not surprisingly, will play out according to the Law of Three. The other two terms, according to modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski (who reflects this same Wisdom lineage that I myself was trained in) are spirit and heart.

Spirit is that ever-roving, unboundaried, invisible divine dancing partner, participating in every movement of our life according to its own deepest teleology, namely, self-disclosure (remember “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known”?). It generally plays the role of first force, Holy Affirming: ever prodding, nudging, unfolding.

Essence will typically play the role of Holy Denying, the bloc résistant in which Spirit will reveal its face. Through its very embodied finitude, essence provides both the necessary raw material and the necessary friction to allow the pure movement of spirit to reveal itself in time and form.

Heart – or conscience – is the alchemical  “third term” that is catalyzed in us through a life lived in growing consciousness, authenticity, obedience (as in ob-audire: “listen from the depths”), and that active cultivation of the self-reflective potential miraculously gifted to human consciousness. Heart is the unique fruit of a life wisely and fully engaged. More important, from the perspective of the road map I’m laying out here, it contributes the crucial third force, or “holy reconciling”, which makes possible that ultimate desideratum, namely, the fully arisen soul. Soul (or as Helminski calls it,  “the essential self”) is precisely that “fourth in a new dimension” which arises out of conscious weaving of those other three – spirit, essence, and heart —within the great womb of life.

While this statement may sound jarring, note how it is already well embedded in early Christian tradition. The Gospel of Thomas puts it as starkly as possible in logion 70: “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” “That which is within you” is your embryonic soul.

Jesus seems to be reinforcing this teaching in his celebrated parable of he talents – once you recognize, of course, that the “talents” are not our aptitudes and gifts (which belong to essence) but, rather, these soul potentialities transformed and quickened in the light of conscience/heart. This message comes through powerfully as well in the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme; it is in fact the driveshaft of his entire metaphysics. But it peers out as well from any number of other Christian mystics, even those of much more theoretically “traditional” metaphysical training and temperaments. One of the most powerful statements of this principle I know comes in contemporary Jesuit Ladislaus Boros’ spiritual classic, The Mystery of Death (p. 60-61):

By Alden Cole

From the facts of existence and the surrounding world an inner sphere of being a human is built up. This inner man is brought about by a never-ending [conscious] daily application, on the treadmill of duties, annoyances, joys, and difficulties. From these insignificant actions freely performed, the decisive freedom is built up – freedom from oneself, freedom to view one’s own existence from outside…From the crowded days and years of joy and sorrow something has crystallized out, the rudimentary forms of which were already present in all his experiences, his struggle, his creative work, his patience and love – namely, the inner self, the individual, supremely individual creation of a man. He has given his own shape to the determinisms of life by a daily conquest of them; he has become master of the multiple relationships that go to make him up by accepting them as the raw material [italics mine] of his self. Now he begins to “be”.

As far as I know, Boros never directly encountered the Christian inner tradition, let alone the teachings of the Asian spiritual traditions. Yet he has eloquently described here what would be easily recognizable in any of these other streams as “Witnessing Self”. He has captured precisely the same nuance articulated by The Gospel of Thomas, Boehme, Gurdjieff, and Jacob Needleman – namely, that our “soul” is not our raw essence per se, but something of an entirely different nature which is alchemized through the active engagement of essence with heart/consciousness. It is not so much a substance (at least in terms of corporeality as we understand it in this life) but more a process – or as Jacob Boeheme had it, a tincture, a quality of our essential aliveness which shines through the lineaments of this life like a shaft of imperishable light. Above all, it is not conferred at the start, but brought into being in this life through the quality of our conscious work. 

“Food for the moon”

Within the western Wisdom tradition this imperishable “other” is sometimes known as second body or “the wedding garment”. Actualizing it is seen – with some urgency – as the real business of our earthly sojourn.

Admittedly, there is a hard edge to this teaching, jolting us into responsible stewardship of our own time in human consciousness. We can choose, if we like, to drift downstream on the currents of pain or pleasure. We can invest our whole life’s energy worshiping the golden calf of ego. Or we can get with the cosmic program and come to grips with the real purpose of our time here as we humbly acknowledge that soul is not an automatic birthright but, rather, the final alchemy of a life lived here in conscious alignment with higher cosmic purposes.

Furthermore, the tradition states – essentially unequivocally – that this second body, or wedding garment, must be formed in this life. That is why it is called a wedding garment: because it is the appropriate and necessary regalia for the “wedding banquet” of eternal life – which, incidentally, does not begin after we leave this body, but here and now as this new substantiality we bear within us increasingly allows us to perceive, that the gates of heaven are, truly, everywhere.

This is soulwork in the true sense of the term: not the “soft” version that passes for soulwork today, preoccupied with unraveling dreams and deciphering messages from our “inner guides”, but the adamantine work of bringing something into existence here that will have coherence and substantiality beyond just this realm. Gurdjieff called it our “Real I”. [And, as Sandra brilliantly pointed out in the comments of my seventh post, Margery Williams Bianco’s character the Skin Horse reiterates this same concept in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit.]

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco

“You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now”,  my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words. To defer this project till after we die is too late; for, as Jacob Boehme bluntly puts it, “everything lies where it has fallen”. This is not, by the way, a question of “final judgment”, of some higher being deciding you are “unworthy”. It’s simply that the conditions in the next realm out, sometimes known as the Imaginal, are finer and drawn to far closer tolerances than in this life. Only something of a similar fineness will pass through the sieve.

I am theologian enough to know that the immediate argument conventionally trained Christians will raise against this is that it seems to defy the promise of Psalm 139 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” – and replace the intimate and personal nature of our lifelong human relationship with God with an impersonal and even harsh algorithm. I do not believe this is actually so. I will have more to say about the personal in my next blog, with the intuition that this alternative vision, certainly strongly intimated by Jesus, is actually far more merciful and cosmically nobling.

The second objection, of course, is that this sounds like a classic recipe for spiritual materialism – I can already picture the internet ads for second-body-building nutritional supplements and “wedding garment” consultants! But the checks-and-balances factor, built right into this equation, lies in the fact that the requisite food for building second body is, in Gurdjieff’s famous formula, “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. Second body cannot be attained through self-maximization, but only through the classic route variously known in the sacred traditions as kenosis and humilty. “We ascend by descending,” as the Rule of St. Benedict succinctly observes. There is no other way.

For those who opt out, preferring to live out their days in their egoic comfort zone (a condition known in the inner tradition as “sleep”), the potentiality offered at birth to become a soul is simply returned, stillborn. Nothing has germinated here of permanent substantiality; nothing has become viable beyond the womb of this life. Such existences, in Gurdjieff’s words, become “food for the moon”. At death their temporary selfhood dissolves back into its original physical components and takes its small part in the vast network of reciprocal feeding, by which the cosmos bootstraps itself. Nothing is finally wasted.

From the Work perspective, then, abortion is not something that befalls merely a fetus. It happens at all stages, and is in fact the tragic outcome of most human lives. Lulled into complacency by the illusion that we already “have” souls, we fail to engage the real task of spiritual germination and wind up dreaming our lives away.

Only when this inconvenient truth is finally, fully faced will the real question of what it means to be “pro-life” find its authentic balance.

When does life begin?

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the third in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“.


In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul; for it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.

Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather than “the Wisdom perspective”, for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding; specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.

The beginnings of life

The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception – “life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest: a myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens – volitionally – rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.

There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.

Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs: “The egg opens to a single sperm”, she explained, “then closes”. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. “‘Ignition!’ we all call it”. Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”

However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars”, Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.

Life not Soul

So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of life do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.

But hang onto your hats – this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that Life – which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before – is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.

In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “X-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul”, the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice – in acknowledgement of which it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.

In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical road map (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology”, long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the pro-life rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul, and they need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways; hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.

The Wisdom tradition – at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in – would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul but, rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning, it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.

The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here: it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next post. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees all stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.

Stay tuned for the next installment – to follow promptly.

“Conscious Circle” Ingathering

I watched them disappear this morning into the snowstorm, making their way home through the Maine winter after an extraordinary weekend of prayer, tears and laughter, teaching, stories, and conversation. My tiny, plucky “conscious circle”…how it tugged at my heart to see them go.

I had called them together, impromptu, about a month ago: a baker’s dozen of the most experienced and steady folks in the Wisdom network, to join me for a weekend here in Stonington (in February, utter madness!) to see if we could collectively begin to discern what the cosmos seems to be up to in the wake of this traumatic election upheaval and what Wisdom might expect of us in response.

The conversation around this topic has of course been flowing nonstop on the social media since well before November 8th, but so much of it has been at the horizontal level, driven by historical and political analysis – and, of course, from the perspective of the now duly-chastened secular intelligentsia. Shock, trauma, disorientation, and/or denial have been the dominant modes in the circles I mostly travel in, a still-dumbfounded inability to fathom what happened and why.

In times such as these, it is a traditional Wisdom practice to convene a small gathering of Wisdom “elders” to assess the situation from a deeper spiritual perspective, and to re-establish contact – through prayer, spiritual practice, sohbet (spiritual conversation), and sincerity of heart – with what Gurdjieff calls “the conscious circle of humanity”: that broader bandwidth of guiding presence always encircling our globe in its compassionate embrace and helping keep the course steady even in the midst of these periodic cavitations. The invitation – in fact, the imperative – to connect with this source of assistance is strongly underscored in Wisdom teaching, and it seemed to me that it was the one stream of input not being heard in our present anguished state of national soul-searching. 

And so our small cohort of “conscious circle” postulants convened at the Stonington Town Hall on February 3rd, having arrived from all over the country. We deliberately chose to meet there, both because of the obvious civic tie-in (yep, the red, white, and blue voting booths still line the east wall), and because the light there happens to be beautiful, streaming in right off the ocean through glorious, ten-foot-high windows. Thanks to the generous underwriting of Northeast Wisdom, we were able to partially subsidize the costs of everyone’s lodging and meals, but the response to my invitation offered by our thirteen participants was an instantaneous “Yes”, long before any funding was secured. It was that pure spirit of “Hineni” – “Here I am, Lord” – that really launched us into orbit and was both the modus operandi of our being together and ultimately the marching orders received.

The first two days were devoted mostly to teaching, as we collectively explored some of the major resources at our disposal for reframing and enlarging perspective. We reviewed the resources in Teilhard’s evolutionary vision, particularly the reassurance that deep hope flows over deep time. We affirmed that the evolutionary imperative toward the higher collectivity (the next level of “complexity consciousness” manifest as the one body of humanity) was still flowing serenely and strong beneath the surface setbacks. 

We then explored Gurdjieff’s Five “Obligolnian Strivings” (an exploration I’ll be offering more widely in a Spirituality & Practice e-course coming right up this Lent), and in particular, his conviction that there is a certain cosmic expectation laid upon the human species as part and parcel of our participation in a dynamic cosmic web of “reciprocal feeding”. Our human contribution is made in the form of those higher energies of compassion and clarity generated as we submit ourselves to the practices of “conscious labor and intentional suffering”. The fruits of this transformed Being-energy are qualities such as peace, love, joy, forbearance, patience, compassion – traditionally known in Christian language as “the fruits of the spirit”. What makes Gurdjieff’s take so interesting is that these qualities are not only moral virtues but actual energetic substances needed for the feeding and building up of our common planetary (and interplanetary) life. When we fail to produce these qualities – or worse, produce the opposite, the “false fruits” of entitlement, greed, deceit, violence, and fear – then the whole cosmic equilibrium is thrown out of whack.

We then took an extended pass through the Ken Wilber “Trump and a Post-Truth Era” article and found both the scale (from the perspective of the evolution of consciousness) and the general analysis helpful. Ken’s ability to zero in on the progressive dysfunction of the “green” or pluralistic level of consciousness, the leading edge of social conscience and evolutionary change, hit home for many of us and offered valuable cues as to how to begin to work with the circumstances now on our plate.

On Monday afternoon the conversation started to flow as we broke into triads and then reunited for deep, searing, imaginative, and energy-filled exchanges. While it would be premature to say that any “charter of action” emerged from our deliberations, a remarkable consensus emerged that whatever the long-term political outcome may be, the instructions remain the same: to hold the post, stand with courage and equanimity, and be able to maintain a resilient space for third force, staying close to that “light within” that is already shining brightly in the midst of this tunnel, not just waiting at the end of it.

Part of the empowerment of the whole gathering was to be able to hold those “unimaginable” conversations, standing lucidly as we stared right into the face of that nameless, paralyzing dread that has so much of our nation in its grip. We discussed with strength and lucidity such mind-bending scenarios as the collapse of democracy, global conflagration, and spiritual resources for self-protection when operating in the presence of unleashed forces of evil.

The greatest reassurance – and I admit, frankly, surprise – came for me in our times of spiritual practice and in a Sunday morning Eucharist which palpably exploded with the presence of the risen Christ. (In fact, it detonated so powerfully that the explosion was picked up all the way in British Columbia by one of our Wisdom intuitives there, who emailed me, “What just happened?”) It was an unmistakable confirmation and teaching from that very conscious circle to which we had humbly presented ourselves for guidance.

While the courses of action that emerge from each one of us may differ, what was eminently clear to each of us was that this protective field of tenderness and responsive concern to our planetary anguish is alive and well, and that we can and MUST turn to it…daily, hourly, with every best. In best of Wisdom fashion, our hope shifted away from outcome and back to source. 

Others in the circle will no doubt offer their own takes, on the Wisdom [School] Community Facebook page, and in blogs of their own. And of course, the real reverberations of the work we did this past weekend will reveal themselves only gradually, as they percolate out through the “circles within circles” in our Wisdom network both by direct transmission and through quantum entanglement. But for me, the heart of what we were about this weekend and where we got to spiritually hovered closely within the words of the haunting melody that Laura Ruth sang for us on our final night:

Though my soul may set in darkness,
It will rise in perfect light.
For I’ve loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night.

Thank you, one and all, who made this gathering possible. I am more than ever convinced that wherever our times have landed us and whatever may be in store, this is indeed Wisdom’s finest hour.  

Meanwhile, I invite you all to collectively ponder these powerful words from Connie Fitzgerald, from her paper From Impasse to Prophetic Hope, delivered in 2009 before the Catholic Theological Society of America. I believe it frames the window of opportunity for all of us, while not mincing words on the challenge:

Any hope for a new consciousness and a self-forfeiture drawn by love stands opposed by a harsh reality. We humans serve our own interests, we hoard resources, we ravage the earth and other species, we scapegoat, we make war, we kill, we torture, we turn a blind eye to the desperation and needs of others, and we allow others to die. Our ability to embody our communion with every human person on the earth and our unassailable connectedness with everything living is limited because we have not yet become these symbiotic “selves”. We continue to privilege our personal autonomy and are unable to make the transition from radical individualism to a genuine synergistic community even though we know intellectually we are inseparably and physically connected to every living being in the universe. Yet the future of the entire earth community is riding on whether we can find a way beyond the limits of our present evolutionary trajectory.

On Beelzebub’s Tales

Dear Wisdom friends,

Wow! What an amazing heart-outpouring from all of you! I feel the energy, the strength and, most important, the clarity. I believe that in the space of merely a week we have already become a “morphogenetic field” out there in the cosmos. And the space which the “conscious circle of humanity” needed to have occupied is now activated and beginning to make its presence felt.

I see that many of you are already gearing up for the deep dive into Beelzebub’s Tales, so I did want to briefly share with you these few clarifications and tips. Teaching and reading groups are already starting to self-organize, both formally and informally, on the ground and in cyber space. I hope that by shortly into the New Year we will be able to put together a resource directory helping our keen band of wisdom seekers find their way to the most appropriate venue. But meanwhile…

First, you should all know that I will, myself, be offering a Lenten e-course with Spirituality and Practice on “The Obligolnian Strivings”, the heart of Gurdjieff’s brilliant vision of human purpose and accountability, and the ethical climax of the first book of Beelzebub’s Tales. So stay tuned! The course begins with an orientation on February 27, then kicks off on Ash Wednesday, March 1. Shortly after the New Year it should be available for sign-up on the S & P website.

Now, if you’re determined to forge ahead on your own, know that what you’re dealing with here is Gurdjieff’s sprawling cosmological masterpiece: brilliant and outrageous in equal measures – and definitely not an easy read. Beelzebub’s Tales is also the reason Gurdjieff is sometimes hailed as one of the founding fathers of modern-day science fiction! Set in a vast, intergalactic universe and narrated by the now-nearly-redeemed fallen angel Beelzebub, this cosmological epic unfolds the “tragical history of the unfortunate planet earth”, gradually revealing how human conscious development went so badly off course here. It lays out an alternative history which may at first appear totally mad – but it’s curious how many cosmological facts first “spun” by G in this epic yarn have subsequently been scientifically confirmed…So, caveat emptor here!

It’s largely Book I we’ll be concerned with in this study, which basically lays out the mythic narrative. I am interested in it chiefly because it furnishes some important alternative concepts and images as we engage the work I envisioned in my former post: i.e., exploring the ley line (or is it a fault line?) of causality that runs through 800 years of Western intellectual history. The serious questions I want to explore this spring will be easier to grasp if you already have under your belts: 

  1. some idea of what a real Wisdom School is (i.e., the ancient Society Akhaldan of Atlantis versus the later Babylonian “talking heads”);
  2. the roadmap of human purpose laid out through “the saintly labors of the holy and Essence-loving” Ashiata Shiemash; and,
  3. the destruction of those saintly labors by the “democratic” reforms of the “Eternal Hasnamuss” Lentrohamsanin (chapters 25-28). That in and of itself will furnish more than we need to get ourselves to 2020, the year of perfect vision.

That’s what you’ll find in Book I.  Meanwhile, a few more tips:

  1. Unless you’re already a diehard Gurdjieff fan, I’d recommend skipping the Introduction, “The Arousing of Thought”. Begin with Chapter 2. 
  2. Forget “analytical mode”. This is middle-eastern story-telling in flavor, extended to epic scope. Gurdjieff’s father was an ashok, a local bardic poet who could recite the oral history of the world back 1000 years. Think in this mode: playful, mythologic, humorous; not “buttoned down” mental/esoteric.
  3. Take it little at a time. Reading out loud with a partner, at least in certain sections, can extend and awaken the range of meaning.
  4. There is a very good introductory summary in Part II of James Moore’s Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth that will help get you oriented.

Remember that there is some method in my madness here. If this big unwieldy tome doesn’t speak to you, don’t feel obligated to wade through it just to get to some concepts that I’ll be unpacking in my own teaching in due course. But since many of you are itching to get underway, I thought I’d at least throw you these few leads.

With Christmas blessing and love,

Cynthia

Deep practice, deep listening, deep hope

Dear Wisdom friends,

I want to make very clear to all of you that the “keep calm and carry on” tone of my earlier (immediately post-election) post does not imply that I’m feeling sanguine about the course of events now facing our country and our world. Quite to the contrary, I believe over the next several months we’re in for some hard reversals, probably harder than most Americans born post-World War II have ever seen in their lifetime.

I’ve been out here on Eagle Island for a few days of Advent deep listening, trying to second-guess myself. But the premonition remains.

And it’s still Wisdom’s hour. Because I believe that those of us seriously committed to walking the Wisdom path have something to bring to the mix which most of our culture – either secular or spiritual – is simply not going to be able to get at. And it’s the missing piece, I believe, where clarity and resolve are to be found, if at all.

As you know, the two main influences on my overall metaphysical bearings are Teilhard and Gurdjieff. From Teilhard I get the reassurance that deep hope takes place over deep time. So much of our human terror and horror comes from trying to compress the timescale too tightly, insisting that coherence must be found over the course of only a few generations, or at best a few centuries. That’s like a pressure cooker without a steam valve; it will inevitably blow up.

From Gurdjieff, I’ve come to understand that all planetary evolution operates under the sway of the Law of Three – and that, once again, we must look beyond immediate “good and bad” / ”winners and losers” modes of thinking in order to see the deeper lines of causality actually directing the unfolding from within a still-coherent field. What looks in the short-range to be unmitigated catastrophe can prove in the longer range to be addressing serious systemic malformations that need to be confronted and corrected before the evolutionary mandate can truly move forward.

It’s exactly this kind of long-scale and impartial visioning that we need to bring to these up-ended times.

My stubborn foreboding is that in the upcoming months we will witness the substantial dismantling not only of the past eight years of Obama progressive liberalism, or even the past eighty years of New Deal social welfare, but something far more resembling eight hundred years of the Western intellectual tradition – all the way back to the 13th century when the rise of scholasticism and the secular university began to displace the hegemony of the faith-based dogmatism in favor of free inquiry based on rational empiricism.

And the centerpiece in this domino chain of destruction is of course democracy itself, whose whole foundation lies in the sanctity of the above-mentioned principles.

Faced with threats – already underway – to what most of us still take for granted as the unshakable foundation of our national life – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, civility of discourse, and a commonly agreed-on factual data base – I believe that the great American liberal progressive establishment will almost inevitably lose heart. I am seeing it happening already: people simply too numb and disoriented to even know what’s hit them. The possibility that democracy itself might fall victim to the collective insanity now massing on its horizon is too devastating even to ponder; we either dig in our heels, give up in despair, or distract ourselves in a dwindling oasis of “business as usual”.

Let there be no mistake about this: what has just come to pass is a serious blow to the foundations of Western Civilization. To name it at a lesser degree of magnitude is to set ourselves up for mere reactivity rather than understanding. We need to name it for what it is and be able to hold our footings as the edifices of post-Enlightenment culture reel-and-tumble in this seismic shift.

And yet, I think it is precisely at this scale – i.e., eight hundred years – that we can discover the real ley lines of the Law of Three at work, in the situation, and we can understand more powerfully, impartially, and strategically what needs to be done as we hold the space for the course corrections which have necessarily arisen. This is not the destruction of consciousness, but a legitimate and ultimately propitious reconfiguration. We must not lose sight of that hope. If nothing else, we need to keep saying it so that it does not vanish from the face of the earth.

I invite all who feel so moved to join me in the work awaiting at this other scale of magnitude. It will involve a combination of deep practice and wider reading and thinking.

The deep practice is about collecting our hearts so as to be more directly and acutely in alignment with “the conscious circle of humanity” – those of all ages and faiths who help hold the bandwidth of compassionate and wise presence around this fragile earth. It is in this imaginal bandwidth that wisdom comes magnificently into her own, but only as our own hearts grow wide and gentle and calm enough to receive her.

The deep reading: for starters, we need a small group or groups who are seriously willing and able to take on Gurdjieff’s sprawling cosmological masterpiece, Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson. If you doubt that our own times are already brilliantly encapsulated there (including an eerily accurate portrait of our POTUS-elect), have a close look at chapters 25-28. (Read Cynthia’s follow-up post to find out more about engaging with this book.)

The other three which are part of my nightly bedtime reading for this retreat and these times: And There was Light by Jacques Lusseyran; Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s iconic 1980 post-apocalyptic novel; and of course, The Passion of the Western Mind by Richard Tarnus. 

Over the next few months, I will be listening further into how our work wants to take shape “on the ground”: independent small groups? A new round of Wisdom retreats? Online learning formats? Officially rebooting the Omega Order? Road not clear at this point. But I do know that the real Wisdom step is not to pre-design the format, but simply to put the heart out there and see how it seeds itself.

So that’s what I’m doing here, dark and cold time of the year, commemorating this weekend Advent III and the 21st anniversary of the crossing over, into that conscious circle, of Rafe [see Love is Stronger Than Death], in all things my teacher and lightholder.

Let me hear from you if you’re in.

Blessings and love,

Cynthia

Unified in Hope

This letter comes from Cynthia Bourgeault in a time when many are celebrating new hope, while others are struggling to barely hold on. Her words of wisdom, drawing on Gurdjieff’s Law of Three and the Teilhardian Synthesis help us to remember that we are all united in the universe’s unfolding of consciousness, that this time is for all of us.


Dear Wisdom friends,

I want to thank you all for the beauty of the work you are collectively doing around this election. There have been torrents of words already, and I am loathe to contribute to the stream, particularly so many of you have spoken so eloquently and succinctly about it. Honestly, I think Bob Sabath pretty much nails it in his short reflection: that combination of courage, openness, forgiveness, renewed commitment, and compassion that will be required of each of us as we pick up the pieces and move ahead.

img_0682-3I am so grateful to be working with you all in this bandwidth, with the tools and perspectives we have been gradually developing in our wisdom work over the past years. From Teilhard, we have the reassurance that evolutionary change flows over deep time. Events which, viewed at the wrong scale (i.e., too close up), look like devastating upheavals, actually turn out to be relatively minor systemic adjustments. Beneath the surface ripples and rapids, the river itself is still flowing smoothly in its channel. Hope does not divert course.

From Gurdjieff we have the Law of Three and a powerful set of tools for processing and applying (a.k.a., invoking, channeling, mediating, etc.) third force. Many of you are already doing this. It seems clear (to me anyway) that by election night, the Trump candidacy carried the affirming force (i.e., pushing, initiating); the liberal progressive establishment carried the denying (i.e., resisting, holding back, status quo). From a Work perspective (i.e., through identifying lines of action), my initial take is that Donald Trump carried third force, breaking up the political logjam and achieving forward movement again. It seems that he also did this in a classic way: by reversing the lines of action. What had heretofore been the “conservative” or “denying” force was suddenly catalyzed as the affirming in a paradigmatic Law of Three upset – and remember, these forces are lines of action in and of themselves morally neutral. That’s where we come in.

As of November 9th, we are all in a new ball field. Now that the shake-up has occurred, it is our Wisdom calling to use our heads and hearts in a broader, Teilhardian sort of way, to look at what is needed now and how we might collaborate with it.

The vision of a single, unified humanity burns as strongly as ever as these tectonic plates of consciousness and culture grind up against each other. I sense very clearly that my own work calls me strongly to continue to work in this task of strengthening and deepening the international and interspiritual aspects of my teaching work. It was very meaningful to be in the UK on election night, to meditate with a group of nearly 300 seekers in Bristol, and to reaffirm palpably the power and presence that quietly unstoppable Christ-Omega, drawing us along to that fullness of love that has been the trajectory, the sole trajectory throughout these 14 billion years. That is the corner of this vineyard in which I feel personally the most impelled to work.

Back in our home turf, am I totally off-base in my intuition that the missing, underlying third force has something to do withThe_Holy_Trinity SAFETY? Remember the example I give in The Holy Trinity and The Law of Three of my friend Jane before the grant adjudication board, recognizing clearly that the scarcity base had to be transformed into an abundance base before anything could shift? Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left-field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. For more than fifteen years now – the whole lifetime of three of my four grandchildren – the country has struggled under a pervasive sense of vulnerability, impotence, and helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the “gout de vivre” as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, in the addictive power of realityTV, and, in the more privileged classes, with the neurotic hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s “Make America great again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to fear. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper…

At least a basis on which to begin…If we could quit calling each other idiots and “deplorables” and begin to deal with the deep terror, the desperation and helplessness which is felt across the board, we might begin to sense the ways to draw together….

What will be required of us all working in this particular wisdom bandwidth, I believe, is that old quality metis, which Peter Kingsley described so well in his book Reality. It really means an alert, supple shrewdness – like Jesus, when cornered by the question, “Must we pay taxes to Caesar?” It’s an ability to be present in our bodies and in our hearts, to live beyond fear and judgment, and because of this non-identification, to be able to use the materials immediately at hand in the moment to see what must be done – again, immediately in the moment.

If anything has been the victim of this election, it’s pluralistic consciousness: the “mean green” sense of sanctimony, moral rectitude, urgency, and judgmentalism that has infected so much of the liberal progressive culture where so many of us have tried, with the very best of intentions, to do our work. Weighed in the balance, alas, and found wanting. We have to learn to work from a more skillful place, reading the signs of the times, trusting love, finding our voices once again to “speak truth to power”.

Yes, a lot of precious sacred cows are about to be slaughtered, I fear. We will see social and environmental benchmarks we have worked for for decades summarily undone. (I don’t need to enumerate; WAY too depressing.) We must understand this in advance and not let every defeat become an Armageddon, a reason for falling on our swords. The earth herself has a will, and the one body of humanity has coalesced too far to be deconstructed. They will be our partners. They have intelligence and resilience we can draw on, if we can only not lose the way in fear and despair.

And so, Wisdom crew, “Allons!” Let us go forward. There is work to be done; prayer, joy, courage, and strength are deeply needed. And we DO know the way there. This is Wisdom’s hour.

Love, Cynthiathe-time-is-now

Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work: Online Course with Cynthia Bourgeault – Now Available On-Demand

cynthia-gurdjieff

Originally offered Nov 3rd-28th 2014, this highly popular course is now available in an “On-Demand” basis from Spirituality and Practice. 

Course Overview:

G. I Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was an enigmatic, Armenian-born spiritual teacher whose one-of-a-kind spiritual teaching has been a quiet force in Western spiritual history for nearly 100 years. Spirituality & Practice is pleased to offer you a rare opportunity: a practical, hands-on exploration of Gurdjieff’s powerful spiritual practices minus the intellectual speculation and secrecy! This 12-part email course created by renowned teacher Cynthia Bourgeault plunges you right into the heart of these transformative practices.

“The Work,” as it’s familiarly known, was Gurdjieff’s colossal attempt to recover ancient spiritual wisdom in danger of total eclipse in the West and to pass it on in forms accessible to contemporary men and women without the intermediaries of religion, dogma, or fanaticism. Since Gurdjieff’s first arrival in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the eve of World War I, the Work was displaced westward and organized itself in “below the radar screen” study groups in Europe and North and South America. Its influence has been largely felt through the stature and influence of some of its major proponents, including philosopher Jacob Needleman, playwright/director Peter Brook, and P. L. Travers of “Mary Poppins” fame.

In overall format you could describe the Work as an early type of mindfulness training, but with distinctly Western heart and soul and a flavor all its own! Its core program is designed to bring out of the distracted, self-important, self-preoccupied contemporary personality a conscious human being, capable of presence, freedom, and compassionate action.

While many of the practices are familiar along the path of spiritual transformation, Gurdjieff brings them a flavor all his own. And some of the specialities, such as the Work’s teaching on attention, identification, and self-remembering, are unparalleled in any other spiritual lineage.

In this e-course, Cynthia Bourgeault will lead you through the practices themselves in a cumulative, sequential way that remains concrete and focused on a practical task. She explores what Gurdjieff means by “conscious labor and intentional suffering” and hints at the huge cosmic vision underlying and tying together all these individual practices. She explains looks at where his ideas come from, but much more closely at where they’re going, and how these simple but powerful practices can put teeth on the bones of your present spiritual commitment, whether it’s officially “religious” or not.

Cynthia Bourgeault is one of the foremost contemporary bridgebuilders between the Gurdjieff Work and the contemporary spiritual sensibility. An Episcopal priest and retreat leader, she participated actively in the Gurdjieff Work for ten years and still remains deeply involved in its teaching and articulation. Like Gurdjieff himself, she discovered that these practices opened the door to deepening and grounding her own Christian practice, and she has been committed to extending the interfaces through workshops, writing, and now this e-course.

Join us for this unprecedented online course. You will receive:

• 12 emails from Cynthia Bourgeault
• access to the recording of a one-hour teleconference with Cynthia held when this course was first offered.

Full details to subscribe to this very popular on-demand program from Spirituality and Practice available HERE.

For a full list of Cynthia Bourgeault’s online courses with Spirituality and Practice please see HERE.