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?


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.

22 replies
  1. Angela Maves
    Angela Maves says:

    I also wonder about suicide – where essence (and this can be caused by many different things) overwhelms the potential for soul development. As a chaplain I often say to people who have attempted suicide that a) I don’t believe that attempting or completing suicide a sin and yet b) there are no shortcuts, and that our life’s work is best done here during life…that it will continue in some shape or form after death, and it will be more difficult afterwards (akin to Cynthia’s concept of the final graded sieve between life and life after life).
    I also see this discussion about soul development and awakening as similar to what Jung called “individuation”: “the path to full humanness – the archetype of physical, mental and spiritual power that goes beyond the personal (man/woman) into a lifelong process of maturation.”
    For me what attracts me to all of these discussions is they take place at the intersection of the individual psyche (mind and body) and Spirit or God who is also, through the incarnation, deeply invested in our daily activities.

  2. David Bridges
    David Bridges says:

    Quite a lot to think about. Now in my later years, I have discovered that suffering is real–not so much physical but the spiritual/psychic suffering of “knowing” and not being able to help. I was raised in an evangelical Christian environment and still carry some of the “spread the good news” idea that was drilled into me; thus, at whatever infant stage I now am in as a seeker/lover/awakened person, I definitely feel the spiritual/soul pain of others. One thing that does come up and Cynthia made this clear to me, is that soul work is just that, soul work–not the Protestant work ethic, but the careful daily listening and emptying of your small self. In fact, I have learned not to recommend this journey to anyone. I try to offer what “presence” I am to other seekers. Thanks, Cynthia, for expressing what I can imagine many of us have experienced but did not have words for.

  3. Emma Harley
    Emma Harley says:

    I found myself delighted and excited to read you boldly putting all of this forth Cynthia. I am still just very much coming into any understanding of The Fourth Way work but have found Gurdjieff’s (and associated teachers like Maurice Nicoll) expositions on esoteric Christian teachings to be the richest path I have found – amplifying, clarifying and melding with much of all wisdom and mystical traditions. I had not yet encountered the idea of essence equating ‘second-force’ yet, and had though of it as ‘Spirit’ (as soul ‘in potential’), but now that you have articulated it, it gives me lots to ponder on. I appreciate so much that you’ve attempted to re-locate the discussion in this way and look forward to more posts in this vein.

  4. kathy
    kathy says:

    I am captivated by the cocepts being
    illustrated here and look forward to the next blog.
    I feel lit is couageous to closely inspect and descibe the elephant–everyone sharing their perspective angle helps immensely.
    Thank you.

  5. john davies
    john davies says:

    i find sometimes christians are like alcoholics “you can tell em but you cant tell em much” .. but not all are like that look at us and there are quite a few who are open and know there is a change in operating system needed.. x

  6. Barb Miller
    Barb Miller says:

    I felt these ideas in the 4th entry neither jarring nor harsh. It struck me as a refreshing fragrance of truth. It feels true when held up to some of my own experience and my intuitive attitude toward abortion. I can see these ideas in the context of teaching wisdom school students. I’m hoping for a 5th entry. I think this would be a hard sell to Christians who have never been exposed to these ideas, however, maybe your original proposal putting certain things on the government and the rest on individual traditions with sensible limits, doesn’t really need to be explained in other than rational terms. I do think it’s extremely important for awake individuals desiring healthy guidance.
    I, personally, need a lot more training and practice with the law of three. Once someone points it out. It makes perfect sense to me. I just don’t seem to understand how to find third force myself and it’s frustrating because I can see it’s usefulness. Thank you. I’m beginning to see that just because we’re talking about abortion, the principles and ideas, and above all the work all your students are doing will be applicable far beyond the one subject. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

  7. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    I feel that “We ascend by descending” is an eternal spiral that unfolds lifetime after lifetime as God comes to know himself in us. “The wedding garment” continually refines itself until it knows itself as ” the soul of God’s Soul ” (Eckhardt), offering its Love back to creation with every breath. For me this makes Psalm 139 (Before I formed you in the womb I knew you) a living Truth and goes even beyond Christian training to Sufism’s call for us to remember to bring the Real into life. I find this to be no easy task.

  8. Dorota Porada Gaukstad
    Dorota Porada Gaukstad says:

    Theology is not my strong side. What I’m saying here is just my personal believes. Our spiritual work never ends throughout our lives so I agree with the thought concerning our soul’s journey through work to shine as bright as possible or letting through as much as possible of Divine Light . When it concerns abortion the point for me is believe in the sanctity of life which comes from the unconditional love of the Divine. The moment of conception ignites life ( in the material world) – scientists have shown the bursts of light in the moment of conception ( sperm entering the egg cell – not only specific for humans ) it looks like a small sun that bursts – it’s like ” let there be light ” – the light has been ignited… life has started in the material world … and no matter in what manifestation , there is the Divine presence and presence of Divine unconditional love in the tangible/ material life …. and for me personally this is what is essential in discussion about abortion… it’s the sanctity of life that comes with the Divine unconditional love and that is why it doesn’t matter if it’s on 2 cells level or 2000 or 5 millions… life has started- the candle has been lit …. so if it’s on the level of 2 cells or 50 millions if you choose abortion you’re still ending a life ( no matter if the soul is fully evolved or not) … I’m not discussing the freedom of choice here – but in my opinion it is clearly ending the life of your child that is evolving …. and as mentioned above in every life there is a presence of Divine and unconditional love so there’s where the dilemma lies – crossing the line of love and respect for the Divine gift of life and Divine love. I believe that no one should take/end a life…. of course during our life time we are taking many lives in different forms, as all life is sacred, but the point is the true motivation behind, which is known for the Divine. I don’t mean to judge anyone’s choices here, it’s not my place, just expressing what I believe in. To live in as compassionate way as possible with respect for all life is what I try to follow.

  9. Elaina Hyde
    Elaina Hyde says:

    Cynthia, in my view this magnificent blog provides the inner illumination needed to help people like me, who feel ambivalent about the whole subject of abortion. I particularly like the word that abortion can happen at all stages, but can you say what you believe the contributing factors are ? And is it simply some peoples destiny to live a life asleep ?

    • Georgiana Cameron
      Georgiana Cameron says:

      Elaine, I feel the same way. Just a week or two ago I started reading “The Gospel of Thomas – a guidebook for Spiritual Practice” by Ron Miller. He contributed several great practices for the reading from “Thomas – 70” p93-99.

  10. Peter Jacques
    Peter Jacques says:

    Thank you for showing us the gifts that have been given us by our God (of whatever religion) as well as reminding us that many of our lives include periods of ‘ sheep’s that we inflict on ourselves. But we do it to ourselves whereas in abortions (and probably many deaths) it is done by the decision of someone else! Whether it’s the death of the forming foetus and the forming spiritual person by an external decision that is, in my ‘book’ the question of murder.

  11. Marty Schmidt
    Marty Schmidt says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, for this comment. Something very true that I haven’t seen in your previous writings seems spelled out here in your relatively simple and yet deeply alluring description. It rings true, yet comes across as new and fresh. It’s both sobering and enticing because it connects my daily actions with the mythical vertical dimension. It’s a cosmology that accounts for full divine freedom (spirit), natural processes of genetic inheritance (essence), and total human responsibility and effort (heart). I am quickened by reading it to consider all aspects of this coming together, realizing that my choices today play a role in the “ultimate desideratum” of entering the imaginal realm’s wedding banquet with the requisite attire; therefore, my life can been seen to extend to the infinite. I’m grateful to have this Wisdom understanding shared with such clarity.

  12. Carol Tolonen
    Carol Tolonen says:

    As a developmental psychologist, I can attest to the idea that the soul is indeed developmental…in more ways than one. A humorous anecdote:

    I was introducing my six year old grandson to the concept of soul in response to his questions about death. I told him he has something deep inside him given him by God that will never die. He will get to know it as he grows up and it will grow with him. This was apparently meaningful to him as he spoke about it several times in the following days. But the meaning he took was also framed by his six year old cognition. A few days later he had his yearly medical checkup in anticipation of school. After checking his heart, his lungs, and various other organs, the doctor asked him, “And do you have any questions for me?” “Yes,” he replied, “Where is my soul?”

  13. Paul Julian
    Paul Julian says:

    Wow, Cynthia Bourgeault must surely be one of the most effective carriers of the Perennial tradition in the Western World. I have attended one of her “Cloud of Unknowing” Retreats in NZ and felt both exhilarated at the possibility of an evolution of consciousness, and quite sure I could never attain it to her level. But perhaps I am not meant to? Perhaps my walk is my walk and it will be what it will be and that’s OK. Well I hope so anyway. I certainly believed in her desire to help anyone find their way toward greater experience of True Self and God.

    Anyway I want to respond to the invitation to participate in this discussion however in light of such a nuanced and sophisticated exposition I am feeling unsure if my contribution is of any value. In any case I will try to share a couple of things that come to mind and please forgive me if it turns out to be ignorantly and ignobly egoic!

    1. I don’t want my soul work to be inherently hard (versus ‘soft’) and, although there must inevitably be some times of desperate struggle and pain, I suspect it isn’t meant to be consistently difficult i.e. “My yoke is easy and my burden is light…” etc. Is this laziness or naivety on my part? (I’m not really asking for a response by the way)

    2. The idea that if a person doesn’t intentionally engage in the work of becoming conscious they fall back into the great Oneness without a sense of particularity or uniqueness seems a little totalising (either / or). I imagine it as more of a continuum whereby to the degree I appropriate or engage with, and call forth, my True Self to that degree I become unique and soulful within the Great Oneing.

    Oh well at least I put something out there eh 🙂
    And boy does Cynthia provoke an engagement with liminal language! (which must be a portal to liminal awareness?)

    Paul Julian. NZ

    I may have

  14. john davies
    john davies says:

    Thoughts after first reading..
    this certainly seems to fit the law of grow or wither which nature observably abides by… “far more merciful and cosmically nobling” strikes a cord with me.. That life/consciousness is a proposition that can by default be aborted at any point.. Nothing is wasted but begins again at the bottom of the ray of creation in sustaining the moon.. brings up for me whole new need for rethink on not only abortion but other big questions like what is grief in this equation? .. Really enjoying the grounding stability that looking through the lens of the law of three opens up… It also confirms for me my own notion of the law of three “that the law of three is the principle of all movement and growth anywhere” .. thank you cynthia, your doing yet agin for me the seemingly impossible and opening up new frontiers.. x

  15. William Ryan
    William Ryan says:

    Cynthia, there is much to ponder here. What may be problematic is that your sources for this moral theology proposition may not receive broad acceptance in the Christian community. Whereas, there are some foundational sources for the soul/spirit theology that comes from the patristic tradition. The doctrine of ensoulment at the moment of conception proclaimed by Pope Pius IXth is not sustainable, and does not have deep foundations. In addition to this concern, I have a strong objection to the RCC position based on reproductive science. We know from reproductive science that about 75% of fertilized ova are rejected by the body, either before, or sometime after implantation in the womb. It’s a hard sell that 75% of fully ensouled human are brought into existence by our Creator, only to be flushed down the toilet. Even St. Thomas Aquinas saw beyond the present RCC position. Is there any theological proposition or method of explaining reproductive theology that can rely on sources that can be the basis of a broadly accepted moral theology in this important manner? We are talking about a new ecumenism after all.

    • Cynthia Bourgeault
      Cynthia Bourgeault says:

      Thank you, Bill. This does indeed add some VERY important and effective nuances. I agree 100% that ensoulment (what a term!) does not begin at conception, and your data about the 75% spontaneous ejection rate adds considerable heft to this. But nor, strictly speaking, does “life” begin at conception if what I’m arguing (and modern biophysics increasingly confirms) is true; life is already well underway in the motility of sperm and puposiveness of egg. What comes into being at conception is an individualized essence path of indeterminate duration. The biosphere is full of these, and they are all suffused with divine identity, even if for but a nanosecond, since nothing can fall out of consciousness.

      • Dorota Porada Gaukstad
        Dorota Porada Gaukstad says:

        In my comment I wrote that ” life ” begins at the conception being more concrete since the topic was abortion. Life and everything else begins with or from the Divine and everything else is a consequence of that in non material and material world. Sperm and egg er life per se too and have a purpose . But from the moment of conception there is a life of a unity between those to that results in the begining of the life of a child ( as I choose to call it – lets say is the one of the 25 % ) what you call “an individualized essence path of indeterminate duration” which is I assume a theological term.
        The point is that when you choose abortion you determine the duration of this individualized essence that is not you and yours. Question is for me as I said before : do we have right to do it ? Isn’t it something that only Divine can determine ? …… I’m not judging women choosing abortion – that’s their choice and responsibility and I understand that sometimes it feels like there’s no other way but that doesn’t change the question – is it right to do it, do we have right to violate this individualized essence path that is suffused with Divine identity, as you expressed it so well, and for me comes from the unconditional love of Divine, no matter if the soul is evolved or not. Personally I feel that for society, no matter choices, abortion should be addressed as an ending a life of evolving child. Then you choose to end it or not but you know what you choose and there’s no argument, f.ex. that this is only a “lump of cells” as it is used in the country where I live or if we start to discuss if it depends on the presence of soul…..and I believe that this will in more true way give women more authentic ground for choice and later living with consequences . I live in a country where abortion is legal until 12 weeks and more in some cases. When a woman take abortion at 10-11 weeks it’s said it’s only a lump of cells….. when a women has a miscarriage at 10-11 weeks and is in grief there’s talk that she has lost a child….. nobody comes and says it was a lump of cells…..would we then talk if the soul was evolved or not… Being of medical profession , seeing at 6-7 weeks the beating heart on the ultrasound I don’t think of individualized essence path but of a living child….. I’m not being mean or malicious Cynthia, far from this please believe me, but this is the experience from practical, material life and as I said before theology is not my strong side but the feeling of Divine presence and marvel is what drives me…..and talking about the heart and its importance, heart is the first functional organ in human embryos and beats spontaneously by week 4 …. If by chance I missed something or misunderstood some points in discussion and therefor what I wrote is not adequate to the discussion , then please forgive me….

      • William Ryan
        William Ryan says:

        Thanks for the response. I’m wondering how the Pius IX error can be rectified by the official church and all those other denominations that hitched on to this theory. Seems to me that Thomas Aquinas actually with his plant, animal, and human ensoulment theory was closer to the truth, despite the awkward terminology. I await your further thinking on this.

  16. dave.macq
    dave.macq says:

    Nice description. In my own mystical experiences, without theological guidance, I somehow knew two things: 1) I am God’s teacher (i.e., God learns from my life journey), and 2) my life is about honing the vessel that I am. I have long lived the maxim “Not my will, but Thine Oh Lord,” and more and more, I appreciate this cup. As a (retired) therapist, I have also long encouraged my clients to step away from “aborting” their psycho-spiritual lives.


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