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,



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




42 replies
  1. Administrator
    Administrator says:

    Beautiful piece, Catherine. Loved the “mango sun”. Thank you for linking back to our work – that’s all we ask 🙂

  2. Barb Miller
    Barb Miller says:

    I’m amazed by the depth of many of the responses including your comments here. And thanks Cynthia for really opening up these perceptions in the way you do.
    In my own experience, transformation, transition and paradigm shifts are not occurring somewhere out there. While opening us to perceiving a different realm, the new realm is “here and now” as much as anything is “here and now”. There isn’t a this or that, there is simply what is. To me a paradigm shift is being able to see much more clearly and that fresh sight transforms my feelings and thoughts. Ultimately behavior is changed to be in alignment with the new seeing. It doesn’t feel like an escape, just a deeper clearer this. Of course, I may have misunderstood your comment entirely and Cynthia’s writing as well. In any case, the above has been my experience.

  3. Paul
    Paul says:

    I’m wondering whether there is a danger of following a spiritual path based on a motivation to escape? Do we create ideas of a supernatural realm separate from this reality? I used to feel despair, asking myself “what if this is all there is?”

    • Craig
      Craig says:

      Good point. Creating ideas of supernatural realms is big business and can absolutely get in the way of the simple truth that this is all there is. I reckon it would be far more beneficial, genuine and cheaper for spiritual teachers to just tell people to go learn from those who actually live without security, esteem and power. It’s hard, smelly and unpleasant, at least at first. But that’s the whole point really. Can we live happily without those things? The answer being of course, we can only ever be happy without those things. But its pretty damn difficult to convince people of that when you’re still in possession of them (The irony of western spiritual teachers is thick). The absence of security, esteem and power is what creates the space within us that frees us of identification with the ego, that necessary illusion that form is the flesh of not only who we are but of what everything is rather than just the skin. The very things we’re taught to chase after from childhood are the very things that make life seem like something to escape from. Hell, if we could all just see the ego for what it is, earth would become heaven… because it is. If we could all just accept that this is all there really is then we would see that “this” is exceedingly enough.

      I think you’re right on the money. The problem seems to arise from our belief that we know what “this” is. The more we see the utter mystery of material reality, the sheer miracle of the simplest forms, the unfathomable depth and width and height contained within (not out there somewhere), the more space within us is created and the more space that is created within us, the more we see. The more we see the more content we become with life, with what is, the less we need, the freer we become. Low and behold, without the need for “supernatural” realms or rather because we’ve come to see that the whole thing is “supernatural” in the first place. Everything else ends up looking like a cheap knock off because there’s no longer a need for escape. We learn not to identify ourselves with form through form thereby becoming more able to enjoy it for what it is. Form is the skin of reality. Nothing more and nothing less. Anything supernatural to be found is within it.

      • Paul
        Paul says:

        “we’ve come to see that the whole thing is “supernatural” in the first place” – I couldn’t have put it better. However, we need to be careful perhaps not to dismiss things that we might not understand, that are presently beyond our “seeing”. It’s a big “don’t know” for me.

        • Craig
          Craig says:

          Yeah very true. The more you know the less you know, so to speak. I think wonder and “don’t know”go hand in hand. I remember when I started playing squash as a child and I got some advise from a guy at much higher level than me. “You always want to play someone better than you. It’s how you grow.” Sorry if my comments seem like the ramblings of a know it all. Writing stuff out is one of the ways I learn and putting it on a blog like this allows for the possibility of it being challenged. So… win/win 🙂 I’m learning either way

    • PETER
      PETER says:

      I would feel despair too if “what if this is all there is?”, not to mention that I would be super-pissed for not coming into this natural form as one of Bill Gates’ kids. (Luckily), I am lucky to have the capacity to think and choose the thought of what if this is CANNOT be OR be all there is. And as long as we are thinking about what ifs, why not what if all there is IS an illusion/dream/unreal or what if there never was an exile (hence, no escape) or what if we are at HOME and NEVER left or what if what is REAL cannot change (hence, what changes cannot be real)? For me, these are the kindest thoughts I can think of and I am temporarily (as long as time exists) grateful to be able to think them while in this so-called natural realm.

  4. Craig
    Craig says:

    It looks to me as if there is a celebration taking place of a kind of return to the “Golden Age” of evolution before the ego came to be and the human species lived in a unitive unconsciousness (the Garden of Eden mythology, healthy early childhood, etc.). At that time the identity of the human species was no doubt rooted not in the mind (free of conceptualization and constructs for they didn’t have the capacity for it) but in the body. So according to you they were somehow freer than we are for they didn’t even have mental constructs to get in the way of their bare seeing. There was no sense of separation to be overcome and therefore no consciousness of the union they enjoyed directly… But that ship has so obviously sailed. There is no going back.

    The ego developed through form, right? It arose out of the universe and is therefore the next stage of evolution after the “Golden Age”. The human species developed a sense of separation from each other and the universe itself because the universe evolved that way irrespective of the insanity it produces. The evolution of ego consciousness, the separate self, happened. It seems as if this is being described by implication as some kind of a mistake and that the goal is to return to a unitive unconsciousness mislabelled as unitive consciousness hence the celebration of a return to formless pure consciousness (for form and separation go hand in hand. Without it there is no differentiation). Yet here we are.

    As “one” with the universe (or God) as you may be, it is I who am writing this particular comment and you who are reading it. As much as it is true that this very discussion is the universe conversing with itself, in, through and as us, it is equally true that there is a separation required in order for that to occur. In other words, the development of the separate self is required for a higher, more complex form of unity to evolve. When two or more separate selves achieve unitive consciousness (not unitive unconsciousness, as if that’s possible after the development of the ego) there is a higher oneness, a higher expression of Teilhard’s love energy both driving and directing the evolution of the universe. There could be no crueller nor thoughtless act (no matter how blissful its dressed up to be) than to create separated beings who know it (For we all do, no matter how much we spiritualize it and claim that unitive consciousness has freed us from that illusion) only to swallow them back up into the ocean of consciousness once their “job” is done. It makes far more sense that unitive separation (not unitive unconsciousness) is part of what’s coming. At least then we can all be a little more honest.

    Not only is form required for the development of the ego but also required for the higher expression of love in the next stage of evolution, hence Jesus’ physical (though different physicality) resurrection. If more spiritual teachers came back down to earth maybe material reality would once again regain its utter mystery. Nobody can even define what the hell a simple leaf is let alone consciousness itself. To say that the leaf IS consciousness as if you actually know what that means is tantamount to saying with a straight face “that orange is an orange.” Very helpful. You can have unitive unconsciousness in the absence of form but certainly not unitive consciousness. In order to be conscious (egoic or unitive) the self is required and in order to be a self, form is required. There are no heavens that exist in some “conceptualized” place apart from the universe (or multiverse) of material reality. That’s a form of dualism. I can only know that I am the universe become conscious of itself once I have a self to be conscious of it, which requires the initial development of the ego, which requires form. I think a recognition of this would cut through a whole lot of spiritualized mumbo-jumbo because there’s really no need for it once you see that the material universe of form IS all the evidence you need for it IS the only true realm in, through and as which we experience the spiritual. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Miracles are the retelling in small letters of the very same story written across the entire universe in letters too big for most of us to see.” When you see that truth the idea of physical resurrection is a walk in the park and you don’t have to through it out because being separate is actually ok, in fact, really, really good. It’s only a leap because we’ve been convinced by people who should know better that a leaf has actually been explained! The leaf, the grass, dog’s, brains… everything is utter mystery. We’re literally living in THE Fairy Tale of which all fairy tales tickle a deep distant recognition.

    The very reason I can know that my true self and God are one and the same is because I am a separate self that can know it and the reason I am a separate self is because I have form. In other words, I can only be one with the formless God because I have form. Unitive separation IS the higher unity. The Formless came to tell us that.

  5. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    For whatever unexplainable reason, in 73 years, I have never questioned the irrestible magnetic pull of incomprehensible Love. Recently after listening to and absorbing as best I could James Finley’s extensive and riveting discussion of Thomas Merton’s The Palace Of Nowhere, I experienced an almost complete sense of anhiliation with barely a flicker of consciousness. I had no fear because there was not enough self to be afraid, no thought, no knowing, nothing to do … just a faint thereness. Eventually I started to reconstitute, but not completely. It happened a second time but this time vanishing must have been more complete because I have no memory or a sense of anything except a brief moment of all manifestation disappearing. When I started to become aware again it was of a deep peace that was fathomless and seemed to be beneath manifestation. Later I wondered if this is what is meant by The Peace of God that surpasses understanding”. I do not know because strange as it may seem, I don’t have any questions …. my mind can’t go there, and the deep part of me that “knows that it knows” does not have a voice or need one, and doubt is nonexistent

    Thank you, Cynthia

    • Mary Pat Jones
      Mary Pat Jones says:

      I just wanted to thank both Cynthia and Laurie for their blog. I too identify with the almost magnetic pull of an incomprehensible Love. Perhaps this is because I was surrounded by symbols, music, nature, safety and a sense of belonging for as long as I have been in form and each stage has reinforced this, however, through difficult times lower stages have hijacked me, I’ve been able to come through and reflect back on it. I was wired for the life I’ve lived. I was called to recognize the hunger both in myself and others. I was called to healing, by age 19 I was physically taking care of the dying during their last weeks and days of dying, suctioning secretions to ease their labored breathing, thank God we have come far enough to have meds to help now. I held them in prayers that were familiar to them through many long vigils, while providing comfort measures just as the beautiful, faithful, and strong women before me had shown me to do. I remember even then sensing a connection with all those who had lived this before. It was sacred. I witnessed people surrender and was in awe of the sacred mystery of their passing, leaving behind their earthly body. We tenderly washed their sacred vessel that had delivered its precious cargo home. At age 72 I am so grateful for having those opportunities. Remain in me and I in you. There are endless ways to do this regardless of our place in life. Love is endless.

  6. Lisa Whitlow
    Lisa Whitlow says:

    Cynthia – thank you for tackling a question that so many of us have. (Looking forward to the book!). As always, I need time to ponder your words – but they resonate with an insight that I recently had about the false self. The false self doesn’t see reality – it only “sees” its mental constructs. And yes, what would it be like to experience “bare seeing” – to see through all those mental machinations and experience essence? Wow! And even though my mind goes through agonies of doubt about the existence of the spiritual world, my heart deeply knows. …

  7. Dana Bush
    Dana Bush says:

    I grew up with a mother who actively explored spiritual paths and was convinced that she remembered previous lives, and a father who was a confirmed atheist and believed that when you died, it was all over. I finally decided that I couldn’t know and that I didn’t care. The truth was in the experience of meditating, of minding the Light. My experience tells me that there is more to reality than the physical world. But I also feel like this is one precious life and I shouldn’t squander it, for death may be the end. I guess I have become comfortable with holding both ideas in my head, and my lived experience in my heart.

  8. Janice Dupuis
    Janice Dupuis says:

    The person who asked this question expressed my exact thoughts and questions about the existence of anything beyond here. I’ve gone through a long process of the unwanted disintegration of my belief system which left me bereft and feeling very alone and scared. I have landed in a calmer place now of accepting that I don’t have the answers and continue to spend time in the inner quiet and letting go process for whatever it is worth. I have not had any experiences of the assurance of the divine that you have Cynthia so just continue with what I do which is the best I can do right now. I appreciate your response Cynthia, it helps me as I go along in my life and the silence therein.

  9. Treese
    Treese says:

    What I’m sensing is that the mind that asks this question and the mind that replies are genuinely and simply attempting to find the most effective way to use language to express a certain recognition shared on or from particular milestones along the way. I’m sensing a trust built up between teacher and student that permits the words of the one to enter where needed into the heart of the other. A connection intuited. It’s not that the “question” gets “answered”. It’s …more… it’s more! And the “more” is what’s needed. Not so much the “answer”.

  10. Bill Youmans
    Bill Youmans says:

    Excellent! Here’s what I still don’t get about non-dualism. How can pure awareness- sat chit ananda- existence, consciousness, bliss- how can this possibly have created anything? If this pure awareness is the ultimate, which underlies everything, and is without attributes, has no needs, is complete and self sufficient, because it is pure awareness with no object, how could it have willed the universe into being? How can pure awareness include the need or desire to create? Where does that “will” come from if there is complete wholeness? Why should it require any illusion of duality?

  11. Craig
    Craig says:

    My best friend earlier in life was the adopted son of world-renowned and respected Christian teacher and I saw firsthand that being well-known, articulate, profound, intelligent and published means nothing as far as having a real grasp on truth, goodness and beauty. In fact, I’ve not learned more about truth, goodness and beauty from the many people with disabilities and drug addiction with whom I’ve worked. Simply put, I’ve read your stuff, heard your talks and enjoyed it and learned from it… but I don’t know you. I have recently had surgery that has provided me ample time to cast a wide net for wisdom from various sources around the noosphere before “getting back into it” (with no expectations of reply. I’ll just see what I get. Gone are the days of having one, two or even three teachers).

    My first real mystical experience came via reading G.K. Chesterton’s chapter “Ethics of Elfland” in his book “Orthodoxy” about 20 years ago. I walked around in a daze for months afterwards. “When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn we must answer exactly as the fairy Godmother would answer Cinderella if she were to ask why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic.” When I looked at birds or trees I experienced the same wonder as if I were looking at flying tigers or burning bushes for I realized that they were just as mysterious when seen truthfully. The whole world came to life. This sight also brought much pain and suffering for I was still immersed in a mythic/rational Christian milieu, surrounded by respectable people (which I was not ;)) who I thought knew something I didn’t. Any attempt to express my sight only made me feel more alone than I already did, even pushing me to the brink of mental illness. It’s taken me that twenty years to grow to a consciousness fitting of that sight and to realize that respectable people are quite often respectable because they’re unconscious.

    That being said, my fundamental issue is similar to your student though it makes perfect sense to me that there is a reality (or realities) beyond what can be perceived via the normal human experience of reality. Though again it seems as if you are providing the very same answer as many Hindus and Buddhists, a kind of Alan Watt-ish explanation that we came from the ocean of unity, separated into drops of water to participate in “God’s” self-expression, only to return and be dispersed back when we die. I think having form is freaking awesome. Why would I want to go back to not having form, except perhaps for visits? It makes far more sense to me that the never before existing consciousness brought into being in this life (just as the never existing forms that came from the birth, life and death of stars came to be) is reincarnated in some other form in the universe to participate and express an even higher, more complex oneness via and an even higher and more complex expression through form of unitive consciousness. I’m curious as to your belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus (a different physicality obviously, but with form nonetheless)?

    We are the evolving universe become conscious of itself. This very dialogue IS, so to speak, the universe conversing with itself, in, through and as us. It seems to me that the primary difference between Christianity and other religions is the creation of new separate beings to participate in an evolved oneness, which is to say that the separate self, having achieved unitive consciousness, IS oneness at a higher level of expression. The idea of going back, being “enfolded” or dissolved back into the ocean from which we came doesn’t really fit with evolution…. That being said, I may also have completely missed your point or perhaps I’m just not at the level of consciousness to understand what you’re saying yet…

    • Bill Youmans
      Bill Youmans says:

      Thanks! Excellent comment. According to Advaita Vedanta, it is not that we dissolve back into consciousness, but that we realize we always have been oneness and that the sense of distinction of form is illusory. We already are oneness, without form, we just don’t know it. This is the testimony of many enlightened people, but it is still reasonable to doubt that it is just some illusion produced by the brain. People on LSD have reported similar sensations. The fact is, until we know, we just don’t.

      • don salmon
        don salmon says:

        Bill, Advaita is only one – and a very small one – of dozens of Buddhist and Hindu philosophic schools. Almost all of them, apart from Advaita, accept the reality of multiplicity. The distinction of form is not one not illusory, it is seen as the purpose of the Universe, an ecstatic, ever new play of infinite, endless creativity.

        Except for Julian of Norwich, Hildegarde of Bingen and some of Meister Eckhart (well, there is Thomas a Kempis, in the Imitation of Christ, having Christ speak in part 3 of seeing “all things flowing forth from my Being” – that that hardly strikes an ecstatic much less playful note) I am not aware of this kind of ecstatic, heartful, improvisatory playfulness in much Christian literature. And there is much much that is “beyond” simply unitive consciousness; at least, if you’re referring to Wilber’s third tier.

      • Craig
        Craig says:

        Thanks Bill, though I think you might have missed my point. What you’re saying, in other words, is that this is an interpretation of Christianity from the Hindu perspective. I have no problem with that. I like a lot about Hinduism and other religions. I think its important to view reality through as many different lens as possible. But to suggest that the Christian message is communicating that form is illusory is to miss out on viewing Hinduism through the Christian lens.

    • don salmon
      don salmon says:

      Craig, you’ve presented a view of Hinduism and Buddhism (which has little if anything to do with the “neo-vedantic non dualism” that misrepresents the Vedantic tradition) which is radically different from the actuality.

      As for the physical resurrection, that was told of in countless Pre-Christian traditions, and not just symbolically.

      The idea that there is some primary difference between Christianity and other religions based on the creation of new separate beings is, I have to assume, based on a lack of any familiarity with other traditions.

      If you just take the qualified non dualism of India, the devotional tradition (which is not, according to some Christian apologists, solely existent past the first century AD), there is a stunningly rich literature on the many ways to understand the uniqueness of each individual (as the Divine Lord in the Gita says, the individual soul is “an eternal portion of my being.”

      It is unfortunate this kind of misrepresentation of non Western traditions continues. In one of her comments, Cynthia lumped together Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo, something that I would not be surprised to hear from Ken Wilber, who has not written even one paragraph on Sri Aurobindo that is correct – not that his writings on Maharshi are much better – but having heard that Cynthia had been rethinking what she had read of Ken Wilber, this quite surprised me.

      • Craig
        Craig says:

        You’re probably right about lack of familiarity with other traditions. We’re all in the process of learning. Perhaps it would have been best to simply leave names of religions out of what I was saying all together. Perhaps then we could discuss something other than misinterpretation of whatever this or that religion is saying or who said it first.

        • don salmon
          don salmon says:

          Thanks Craig. I was confused by your response to Bill – “viewing Hinduism through the Christian lens” – but unfortunately, Cynthia is misrepresenting several traditions here, and mixing up cognitive science with contemplation.

          Many religious scholars believe that all experiences are “constructed” – she seems to get almost past this with her distinction between explanation and heart-felt meaning but then seems confused again later.

          Again, I think it may be Wilber’s influence that causes the problem as he seems to have made a particularly big thing in his most confused phase, Wilber-V.

          I’m not aware of any major contemplative from any tradition in the world who does not accept that “knowing the Divine” and “knowing the world as Divine” (respectively, Jnana and Vijnana in the Vedantic tradition) is unmediated. They wouldn’t even split it up into “mind’ and “heart” – it is Being knowing Being, where there is individuality, universality and transcendence (the Vedantic trinity, which, by the way, is the ultimately source, if you trace back the lineage through Central Asia, of Gurdjieff’s “law of three”)

          • Craig
            Craig says:

            At the end of the day I’m just looking for the truth. I couldn’t care less about which religion says what or when or how, as long as it can communicate the truth. Neither my nor others’, position, reputation, intelligence, social standing, etc. etc. means much either in regards to who has a good grasp on it. Like I said, I’ve learned far more deep truth from people with intellectual disability and others living on the fringes of society than spiritual teachers living comfortable lives (not that that’s necessarily an accurate gauge. Take, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton in the Christian arena for example).
            I wouldn’t call most of western Christianity very Christian at all and while I do have a comparatively limited understanding of other religions I’m guessing that’s true for them as well. For me, it comes down far more to how much a spiritual teacher’s life looks like their teacher as well as how balanced they are between the cryptic and the concise. Its been my experience however that getting the truth from many modern spiritual leaders can be somewhat like talking to The Sphinx from movie Mystery Men. In fact, expressing things esoterically and indistinctly, while definitely a good way to leave room for students’ own journeys, can also be camouflage for faking a higher understanding than actually exists, especially once “guru” status is achieved.
            I’ve learned quite a bit of truth from Cynthia Bourgeault but I suspect I’ve reached the limits. Whether that is more to do with my level of consciousness or not, I don’t know. I continue to be open to teaching of things beyond me (you don’t grow in anything once that’s lost) but I also carry a healthy scepticism (there are just too many frauds these days). The beauty of the Internet is that we have access to many teachers now.

          • Craig
            Craig says:

            Just as an example of what I’m talking about (I could give thousands and I may have mentioned this particular one before in another post because it’s one of my first truly profound encounters with Divine Reality and so stands out for me). I don’t know how many books, articles and talks on humility, ranging from high school level to highly academic, over-my-head (which I suspect is at least partially to do with the kind of convoluted intellectual masturbation style in which they’re written) I’ve read or heard. Then there’s what I’ve learned from people with disabilities.

            Working as a disability support worker, I once took a small group of young women with intellectual disabilities to a crowded Subway for morning tea. One of the girls, while opening her water bottle, dropped the lid under the table we were sitting at, with an “Oh no!” loud enough to get the attention of everyone in the store. One of the girls sitting next to me was a very physically attractive young woman (which, like all the girls, was nothing on the actual beauty of their God-created souls). She always received second glances from young men her age when we were out and about (this time being no different) and experienced much rejection once people started talking to her (I’d witnessed the pain in her eyes many times). Before I could blink, she was up out of her seat. At the top of her voice she cried, “I’ll get it for you!” and with that, she was reaching under the table, bum in the air, legs flailing about, muttering loudly, “I’ve nearly got it!” then back up with the lid in her hand, beaming from ear to ear and with a look in her eyes as if she’d just won the gold medal at the Olympics, offering it to the other young woman who’d dropped it. It utterly undid me. It was as if God had reached into my body and filled my heart with pure “uncut” wonder at the humility I’d just witnessed that tears boiled up instantly. I spent the rest of the morning with them walking around the community assisting them to do what they needed to do, trying to hide the tears (mainly, I admit, because at the time I considered such a thing not acceptable for a six foot two Aussie male). I also had my eyes opened in a waking vision of all the girls clothed in the most royal gowns and crowns (another issue I have with esoteric and dramatized recounts of “visions” and “experiences” that make the real, everyday stuff available to all, seem unreal). This is but one example of thousands I’ve had in encountering the real Divine Reality streaming through the transparent, utterly down to earth selves of people with disabilities. The Hilary Clinton’s of this world have nothing on them ;), truly.

            These days, I almost feel sorry for those regarded as spiritually enlightened teachers because I know a lot of them will experience deep embarrassment over being regarded as experts once the penny actually drops, the actual illusions dissolve and the real deals are revealed in all their truth, goodness and beauty. I’m forever ready to be embarrassed myself. The guys I’ve worked with have gotten me used to it 😉 (it’s very freeing ) Though I, personally, wouldn’t dream of being a spiritual expert. I embarrass myself enough (I’m probably doing it right now lol) I’ve been consistently put in my place just by being around people living on the fringe and certainly have nothing on them either. Relatively speaking, I live a very comfortable life too. It really is a hidden kingdom and yet apart from people like Jean Vanier, I’ve rarely heard them talked about except in a kind of cliché, almost “they’re-the-example,” “oh yes, it’s those who suffer, those on the fringe who truly get it” kind of way, while at the same time having nothing to do with them. That always provokes my scepticism in regards to anyone claiming deep insight enough that I need to pay for it. I don’t think Jesus hung out with the people he did because he was extraordinary (though he was) but because he sincerely saw that they were.

      • Craig
        Craig says:

        For instance, can you recommend a good resource to learn more about the devotional tradition of India in regards to the uniqueness of each individual and the multiplicity of reality? By all means have a go at my understanding (I’m not easily offended ;)) By all means shoot me down but please provide links or resources with that. I’m not here to argue for arguments sake. I’m here to learn 🙂

        • don salmon
          don salmon says:

          online for free! Google “The Synthesis of Yoga” and read the section “The Yoga of Love.” Best summary Ive ever seen of devotional traditions, Western and Eastern. It’s all there.

          If that appeals to you at all, go back and read “the Yoga of works.” Goes beyond anything else you’ve ever heard of (in olden times – like most of the last 50 years – i’ve avoided writing such things as they smack of “cultism.” But i’m old enough not to care about such things any more:>)) To give you another cultist dose, two of my favorite sayings of Sri Aurobindo:

          “The age of religions is over.'”

          “All life is yoga.”

          (if you start out, as Cynthia apparently has, assuming that Sri Aurobindo is presenting an “eastern” religion, or is in any remote way similar to Ramana Maharshi – nothing he says will make any sense. I did that myself from 1976 to 1996. I spent a week in Northern England studying Nagarjuna, and then for the first time, really “got” why the integral yoga was different from any traditional religion)

          apologies for apparent cultishness!:>)

          oh, and I guess I should add – if you’ve read anything by Ken Wilber about Sri Aurobindo, assume the opposite to be the case and you won’t be too far off!!

        • don salmon
          don salmon says:

          Hey Craig – write me at the contact page at A depth of sincerity comes through in your comments that, for me at least, is rare on the net.

          Something extraordinary has been happening in the world in the last few years. You may have seen Nicholas Kristof’ article in the NY Times, saying that 2017 was humanity’s best yet – ever! Tononi’s panpsychism (the theory that consciousness pervades the universe) may be one of the top scientific theories in the world – this is bigger than Galileo and should be front page news. I do believe the age of religions is over – people in the contemplative world are still clinging to outmoded structures. Something beyond religion and science as we have known it is coming, and the difference between the end of the current age and what is to come is MUCH greater than the tradition of the Axial age (700-500 BC – Lao Tzu/Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, the Buddha, Plato…)

          here consciousness was a close and single weft;
          The far and near were one in spirit-space,
          The moments there were pregnant with all time.
          The superconscient’s screen was ripped by thought,
          Idea rotated symphonies of sight,
          Sight was a flame-throw from identity;
          Life was a marvellous journey of the spirit,
          Feeling a wave from the universal Bliss.
          In the kingdom of the Spirit’s power and light,
          As if one who arrived out of infinity’s womb
          He came new-born, infant and limitless
          And grew in the wisdom of the timeless Child;
          He was a vast that soon became a Sun.


          When darkness deepens strangling the earth’s breast
          And man’s corporeal mind is the only lamp,
          As a thief’s in the night shall be the covert tread
          Of one who steps unseen into his house.
          A Voice ill-heard shall speak, the soul obey,
          A Power into mind’s inner chamber steal,
          A charm and sweetness open life’s closed doors
          And beauty conquer the resisting world,
          The Truth-Light capture Nature by surprise,
          A stealth of God compel the heart to bliss
          And earth grow unexpectedly divine.
          In Matter shall be lit the spirit’s glow,
          In body and body kindled the sacred birth;
          Night shall awake to the anthem of the stars,
          The days become a happy pilgrim march,
          Our will a force of the Eternal’s power,
          And thought the rays of a spiritual sun.
          A few shall see what none yet understands;
          God shall grow up while the wise men talk and sleep;
          For man shall not know the coming till its hour
          And belief shall be not till the work is done.

  12. Therese DesCamp
    Therese DesCamp says:

    Amen to your “meaning and explanation are not the same thing.” When I cling to my need for an explanation, it always obscures the experience of meaning.

  13. don salmon
    don salmon says:

    And yet conceptualization comes back here: 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 consciousnes

  14. Barb Miller
    Barb Miller says:

    Thank you Cynthia for your wise words. But they’re beyond wise. They carried this reader beyond the intellect to an unencumbered place of wonder.
    I just celebrated my 72nd birthday. My Spiritual journey began around age 12 when I intuited that the first verses of the Gospel of John had much more profound implications that what I was being taught. Concrete studies and practices began in my early thirties but much of who I am today began when my husband died in 2009. It was only then I was able to take that leap into the unknown and surrender to what was clearly calling me. I live alone and my body frequently needs repairs but I’ve never before felt so joyful and grateful for everything. Leaving my mind to perform its practical functions and trusting my heart in everything else has brought me to this place. Prayer for me (silent or spoken) has been powerful, not so much for making requests (though I do from time to time) but as teachers leading me to discover within myself new understandings. Prayers are like a Eucharist, not so much going somewhere but gathering everything into my perception as a unifying force.
    Blessings everyone.

  15. Jean Eichberg
    Jean Eichberg says:

    As a traveler myself, my becoming comfortable with “not knowing” fills my heart with a spacious, open, and generous feeling which also bares the creativity of love. Less constrictive than the maze of thinking that can, and too often, occurs in my mind’s kingdom of a thinking state. I once heard, “It is mind over matter – and if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”. Lately, minding the light – a Quaker term – has bared witness to contemplative practice, stillness, and a generousity of spirit. Thus, seeing the Divine Light within oneself reveals the Divine Light within and seeing the Divine Light outside of oneself reveals the Divine Light throughout both darkness and light. Whenever or wherever there is doubt, it seems one arrives at being neither here nor there – limbo, if you will. Or is doubt more than either/or? Perhaps it is and/both . . . . and acceptance of “not knowing”. . . and the exact space of neither right nor wrong . . . here or there . . . the seen and unseen . . . the mystery is the spark that lights my fire.

    Thank you for sharing the question and your response, Cynthia! Happy Trails and Fair Winds! Jean Eichberg

  16. William Ryan
    William Ryan says:

    With respect, Cynthia, the “Hindu” chant you referenced is actually from the foundational Buddhist text, the Heart Sutra, chanted daily in Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world. It was once part of my daily practice when I was a devotee of Soto Zen. Still appropriate in the context of your statement.

    • Br. Thomas Andrew, CoS
      Br. Thomas Andrew, CoS says:

      Thanks for making this point. My familiarity with this chant is as the ending of the Heart Sutra.

  17. Ron Starbuck
    Ron Starbuck says:

    I wonder if we get caught here in the limitations of vocabulary and words and what is or is not real – reality – perception – prayer – provocation.

    Perhaps we need a combined word for . . .

    Mystery – consciousness – self – spirit – soul – not–self – something more than self – unseen & invisible – but KNOWN

    Beyond the Beyond –– Beyond the infinite potential of all things arising out of each each moment – as are we

    and then there is this word – Remembrance

    perhaps the Eucharist of Remembrance

    On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our
    Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks
    to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take,
    eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the
    remembrance of me.”

    After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given
    thanks, he gave it to them, and said, “Drink this, all of you:
    This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you
    and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink
    it, do this for the remembrance of me.”

    This act of remembrance surely leads us into an experience of non-duality and unity and lovingkindness.

    “God is love, and those who abide in love, abide in God.”

    I wish I could comment more. But – Love is a verb and God too as love.

  18. Bill Tonnis
    Bill Tonnis says:

    This is beautiful, Cynthia…and oddly enough…pretty much answers the question my own heart was contemplating today. I needed this. Can’t wait for the book 🙂
    Bill Tonnis

  19. Peter
    Peter says:

    I love your final line, the ‘other option’, to ‘deepen the wonder’….yes, indeed!
    Meaning is home. Explanations are blueprints of the place, but never the place itself…

    Thanks for your sense of things, Cynthia….

  20. Mary-Clare Carder
    Mary-Clare Carder says:

    Wow Cynthia. If this is a foretaste of your next book, I’m looking forward to it!

    Yours in essence and formlessness,

  21. Kay Bochert
    Kay Bochert says:

    Wow! Cynthia, I have been living within this question for awhile. In reading your blog on the Developmental Soul I am taken by the realm of Fifth Body and all that entails but I was saddened to think that most of us would never get even close to an understanding of that let alone an experience. I am also thinking of Finley’s suggestion that we all “get there after death” and his invitation to approach Divine Union in this lifetime. Therein lies my confusion. Now I see that once again I am trying to visualize and go forward from my mind center rather than my heart center. I usually live in my heart center and need all three centers to live my life on the Contemplative Path. How quickly we can be seduced into misunderstanding.
    Please continue to clarify and clarify.
    In gratitude, Kay Bochert

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