In late June Cynthia offered an important new post with a message to students, sharing her ideas and suggestions for “a worthy project for our Wisdom circle to take on.” Cynthia also presented a riveting keynote address at the American Teilhard Association (ATA) annual meeting. Find links for both below.
In this new post Cynthia provides an orienting emphasis toward the evolving terrain of the ‘Common Good’ and the rebirth of moral leadership. She provides three explicit aims and suggestions for Wisdom students who are “up to the challenge of holding the post during this epochal consciousness shift.”
In this virtual keynote address to the ATA annual meeting, Cynthia Bourgeault offers an illuminating and instructive overview of Teilhard’s emphasis on ‘personalization’ as an inherent and intensifying quality of consciousness in the evolutionary process toward a convergent unity.
“… the more relationship, the more complexity, the stronger the flow of consciousness. For Teilhard, consciousness, relationship, and the personal are an unbreakable triad. Each implies the other and cannot be sustained apart from the other.”
Cynthia shares how Teilhard’s potent understanding of the ‘Hyper-Personal’ aligns with the emerging Integral structure, as described by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever Present Origin. The complementary perspectives of these two visionary 20th century thinkers leverage each other and point the way toward a renewed confidence in the maturity and profundity of the Western unitive vision. Teilhard set forth a characteristically Western and enstatic approach to the highest states of realized consciousness — a vision independently confirmed and concluded by Gebser.
Weaving it all together, Cynthia helps us imagine a radically unified, relational field as the ultimate destination of the evolutionary journey.
“The Person represents a higher evolutionary stage on the journey. Teilhard intuited that from his evolutionary map, Gebser confirms it chapter and verse from his phenomenological map.”
Cynthia’s talk is followed by short presentations from authors of recent publications on Teilhard’s life and work.
This video is generously shared by the American Teilhard Association, recorded at their annual general meeting on June 12, 2021. The ATA explores and builds on the life and work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and aims to make his visionary thinking more widely available. To learn more, or to become a member of the ATA, please visit their website atteilharddechardin.org
In both Cynthia’s ‘Common Good’ message, and her ATA presentation, she draws squarely upon Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary vision. Teilhard’s prophetic writings and ideas offer us essential wisdom to understand our times, and points us toward a more unitive, Integral consciousness to meet the emergent and unfolding future.
The Contemplative Society is featuring Cynthia’s audio teaching set on TEILHARD: A VISIONARY FOR OUR TIME to support your learning and understanding. For the month of JULY we are offering 25% off the MP3 digital download for this featured audio. A full description and ordering details available here:
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/Teilhard-ata.jpg4591393TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2021-07-01 17:04:532021-09-17 14:07:30UPDATES FROM CYNTHIA: Teilhardian Vision and Evolving Toward the Common Good
This post continues our series of bringing you more Wisdom from your fellow students of the contemplative path. We hope you will find these posts enriching, enlightening, and inspiring for your own journey. If you would like to submit a post for future consideration, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read on for the third part of a series from our deeply knowledgeable audio ministry editor, Peggy Zimmerman. Additional posts are listed below:
By the end of our last post, the Job story has led us to three happenings:
Yahweh has had a prick of self-awareness, reflective consciousness.
His dark side has been uncovered and now planted in human and Yahweh’s knowing or, in Job’s words, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad” (Job 1:10).
Yahweh is faced with a choice of relating with his creation in a new way or letting creation collapse back into an ineffable unity.
So far, we have approached and understood these ideas from the premise that creation is all about the Endless Unity yearning to know itself, to become human — the divine plan. This post will continue our explorations from a slightly revised take on this plan. But first some terms need defining.
A “plan” implies thought or consciousness, which raises the discussion about the state of consciousness in the Absolute. To remain true to the antinomy of the Endless Unity, it is a state of neither identifiable consciousness nor unconsciousness, but rather non-consciousness. Consciousness, as ultimately some form of communication between “somethings” (as per Ilia Delio’s insightful definition), cannot be in the no-thingness of the Absolute. Likewise, unconsciousness has nothing to be “un” about. While both may be regarded as latent or potentials, they have no meaning within the antinomy of Unity.
With this understanding, the divine plan may be more precisely called the divine trajectory. We can have some confidence in substituting this word as we boldly state our premise that the fundamental a priori essence of the ineffable Absolute is Unity. It will eternally move to reestablish its Oneness. Thus, the ontological journey may be reframed from God yearning to know itself to an inevitable irrepressible trajectory of God’s diverse features moving toward the essential state of unity. However, with the totality of antinomy split outwardly, that essence must actually be a re-unity in a different state; i.e., a space-time reality evolving toward Oikonomia — the “reunion of created and uncreated realms” (Bourgeault, HT, p. 182). The unmoving Alpha is ever-moving toward Teilhard’s Omega Point.
While this reframing may seem like semantics or reasoning in a circle, the focus on a trajectory and reunification provides a different position for viewing the incarnation and the Trinity. Otherwise, we are led too quickly to simply seeing God as love and as longing to know itself.
Given the three Job happenings listed above, Yahweh’s long-distance relationship with creation can no longer be justified— self-aware humans now know too much, as does Yahweh. His antinomy has split apart and omnipotence is ruling the roost destructively. His creation could no longer be what we might call a virtual reality operating from an obedience-based software program. The covenant relationship has been too prone to failures to assure his dispersed and opposing qualities will be united again. In short, Yahweh could longer relate as a long-distance creator of cosmic reality; he had to be that reality throughout its invisible and visible realms. More precisely, Yahweh had to be forever becoming, unfolding and enfolding the cosmos through stages of rising consciousness and finally to transformed consciousness; i.e., Teilhard’s superconsciousness accumulating in the noosphere and culminating in Oikonomia. Emanation had to transition into immanation.
Yahweh’s features (or “names”) emanate out in their own separate ways, primarily vibrating to their independent subtle energetic frequencies as psychic forces. To gather these psychic forces together, Yahweh’s essence of Oneness had to reside in a conscious being who could contain and live from a unified, non-dualistic knowing. Enter Jesus. How does the infinite become finite and restore its perfect wholeness forever? The way and the means are revealed in the life and acts of Jesus the Christ, but not as directly as first appears and has traditionally been understood. Moreover, as wisdom students we know that the Jesus events did not take the divine trajectory to its destined target point — Oikonomia.
So what was the role of Jesus? First, he embodied his “father’s” essence not in a state of unity but as a flow of unifying energy. At the same time in history, he embodied the consequences of psychic forces run rampant. In his Job encounter, Yahweh ran smack into (or, in wisdom speak, witnessed) the consequences of the conditions and endless choices imposed by separated opposites entrenched in a reality of “hard edges” — a dualistic reality (Bourgeault, WJ, pp. 97-98). The full implications of Yahweh’s exposure to the dark side of creation have to be experienced by him in some experiential (i.e., incarnated) way, not just virtually.
A second role of Jesus was to be a sacrifice (an act of making sacred). For Jung, this sacrifice served to expiate Yahweh’s immoral treatment of Job — divine mercy must finally correct a divine wrong (Jung, p. 43). We can from our reframed position go a step deeper and see the sacrifice as an atonement for the Endless Unity’s initial violation of its essence, the rupturing of its perfect wholeness and rest. On the micro level this amounts to expiating the original state of separation (sin) that humans are born into.
With his embodiment role and redemptive death, Jesus as the first anointed self-aware being was prepared for his third role — his reconciling act in the “harrowing of hell,” as Cynthia insightfully suggests (WJ, pp. 119-124). Expressed through our reframing, Christ carried the unifying vibration into the manifesting world’s center (heart) where the psychic forces enter physical reality as spiritual realities. Thus, Christ is not only the model of divine re-unification, he is the initiator of it — the Holy Reconciler. He has established a way for re-unification in the new dimension of creation.
Let’s pause here to make some associations explicit. With consciousness being any form of communication, Christ through self-aware intentional consciousness has set up a specific line of communication by embodying the flow of unifying essence. Through his unflinching steady position (as demonstrated by Job), Christ holds all dualities together and stirs the deeply buried spirit of Oneness embedded in every psychic force. Thus, with this conjunction, the exchange between opposites is grounded in a mutual give and take to restore wholeness. This is in the Christian wisdom tradition called love, relieved of any emotional fixation. It involves kenotic giving and humble taking in the unfolding of unity in diversity.
Thus, the way is established by Christ, which is integrated into the means for walking the way. In a fourth and fifth roles, Christ resurrects and leaves humanity a Paraclete, a mediator — the Holy Spirit. His resurrection is the penultimate reconciliation as death (suffering, pain, evil) becomes intrinsic to the transformation of mortality into immortality. Thus, Christ’s resurrection is not so much conquering or denying death (i.e., anti-life) as it is transforming physical life into transfigured being.
Could it be that the energy involved in the cosmic reconciling and the third force alchemizing of the life-death collision into the new arising of a transfigured risen Christ was densified by, or even created, the Holy Spirit? Perhaps this idea about the Holy Spirit brings together the paradoxical first and second laws of thermodynamics by injecting in them the spiritual law of a cosmic trajectory toward re-unification. The heat loss (entropy) from the reconciling “work” is gathered in the Holy Spirit.
At any rate, by whatever process, the Paraclete (mediator) can be viewed as a reconciling force flowing and accessible in this world’s reality. By opening our centers of being (our hearts) to this spiritual energy, we have the means of becoming complete humans working toward a new humanity, as envisioned by Teilhard. The creator’s means of communicating with its creatures is no longer restricted to visions, dreams, myths, and symbols as with all his previous spokespersons. We now have a direct and personal party line, carrying the unifying spirit between us and the Endless Unity. We can experience this direct line in such practices as Centering Prayer, during which heart/mind connections and neurological re-patterning are occurring, as being verified by a growing body of research.
The bottom line is the infinite and finite have a new relationship built on reflective consciousness entering into creator/creature exchanges (communications) with the mutually beneficial intention of re-unification. Moreover, as Christ taught, our transformed consciousnesses of non-duality are forming a body, a new (transfigured) humanity, referred to as the body of Christ or the Oikonomia manifested.
With the reframing developed so far in these posts, we can approach with renewed wonder the wisdom formula depicting the flow of the Absolute into matter where each factor is a densification of the previous factor:
Endless One > psychic forces > spirit > energy > matter
In this formula we can see Boehme’s idea of the big bang and Teilhard’s observation that “particles can now be treated as transient reservoirs of concentrated power” (Teilhard, p. 13). Also, although “for science energy currently represents the most primitive form of universal stuff” (p. 14), Teilhard posits that “all cosmic energy is fundamentally psychic [spiritual]” (p. 30 and p. 230). Thus, “some rudimentary psyche exists in every corpuscle (in the infinitely small, that is infinitely diffuse, state)” (p. 217).
With these thoughts we can extend the above formula as a starting point for reconsidering the Trinity in the final post. As a confirmed scientist, Teilhard eschews metaphysical inquiry, but he repeatedly flirts with it and challenges us to take up the task of broadening the boundaries of science.
Peggy Zimmerman has been as a technical editor, environmental and urban planner, university instructor, mental health counsellor, and human resources manager. Since retiring sixteen years ago, she has participated in environmental activist work. In that time she also rediscovered her Christian roots and set out on deepening her spiritual life, largely through a personal study of the Christian wisdom tradition. She arranged for the introduction of Centering Prayer to the Comox Valley, facilitates a weekly sit at her church, initiated and continues to facilitate a monthly Taizé service.
Alden, Robert L. Job. Vol. II in The New American Commentary series. Broadman & Holman Pub., 1993.
Anonymous. Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism. Robert Powell, trans. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 1985, 2002.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. NY: Random House, 1993.
Barr, James. “The Book of Job and Its Modern Interpreters”. Lecture delivered in the John Rylands Library, 10 February 1971. Available at www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk.
Boehme, Jacob. Genius of the Transcendent: Mystical Writings of Jakob Boehme. Michael L. Birkel and Jeff Bach, trans. and eds. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
Boehme, Jacob. The Way to Christ. Peter Erb, trans. Toronto and NY: Paulist Press, 1978.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. (HT) The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2013.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. (MMag) The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2010.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. (WJ) The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind — A New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2008.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. (WWK) The Wisdom Way of Knowing. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
Bruteau, Beatrice. God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World. NY: Crossroad, 1997.
Clement, Olivier. The Roots of Christian Mysticism. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993.
Delio, Ilia. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.
Gospel of Thomas. Lynn Bauman, trans. Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004.
Hart, David J.H. Christianity: A New Look At Ancient Wisdom. Kelowna, BC: Northstone Publishing, 1992.
Jung, C. J. Answer to Job. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. NY: Vintage Books, 1995, 1996.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Michael D. Coogan, ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Sarah Appleton-Weber, trans. Chicago, IL: Sussex Academic Press, 1999, 2003, 2015.
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York, NY: Image Books Doubleday, 1990.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Attribution_symbols_and_names_of_God._Chromolithograph_by_S_Wellcome_V0048046-scaled.jpg25602172TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2018-11-22 13:24:182018-12-03 15:56:29From Covenants to Consciousness in the Book of Job – Part 3
I arrived at the Wisdom School on Lake Cowichan both exhausted and depleted. While I am an advocate for self-care, I have found it very difficult to practice sincerely in this all-consuming stage of motherhood that I am currently immersed. I had not attended a retreat since my first child was born almost five years ago, despite the fact that retreat was the bedrock of my spiritual practice. Retreat was where I found sustenance, insight, and communion with God – quite simply it was where I longed to be. The first evening of the retreat I felt broken. I was missing my family and doubting whether I had made the right choice in attending the retreat. It felt as though I was trying to re-create a time from my past that no longer fit into my new life as a happily devoted mom. I hadn’t done any of the suggested reading on Teilhard and knew very little about the subject at hand. I was worried about not being able to sleep in the dorm-style accommodations; therefore, leaving the five-night retreat even more tired than when I had arrived. I felt I couldn’t muster the energy to connect with fellow retreaters, not because I didn’t long for that connection, but because I simply didn’t have the drive. My heart felt closed. That first night I retreated deep into my own process, grateful for the silence and slow pace that the schedule brought.
The next day Cynthia launched into Teilhard de Chardin. The combination of Cynthia’s presence, the material, and stepping into the age-old model of the Wisdom School (namely, the skillful balance between work, study, prayer, chanting, etc.), evoked something deep inside me. I was transfixed. As we delved into topics such as evolution and the cosmos, I was transported beyond my familiar day-to-day life. Orienting my mind and heart towards this grandest scale of ponderings renewed a latent sense of vision. I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s beautiful question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question evokes, with such delicate urgency, how relatively fleeting and small life is, joined with the responsibility to live out all that I am. With this, my worries and closed heart began to melt away,as I experienced a renewed sense of strength. The retreat felt like a spiritual empowerment as the group breathed in and out the wisdom of both Cynthia and Teilhard.
As a mama of two young children, my world can seem quite small at times. Reading that same picture book, singing those same songs, building that same fort, making that same taco dinner. This child’s world of simplicity, repetition, and routine is my current reality and my family’s container. From a young age I threw myself into contemplative practice, attending retreat after retreat in silence, meditation, and sometimes solitude. My life with my family looks very different now. While my present container is beautiful in many respects, it also can leave me feeling bored at times. It was at the Wisdom School that I was given a different outlook on this life-stage. The constriction I feel is actually helping me grow, becoming someone who can hold more and find the space and presence in much less. Parenthood for me encapsulates the human experience, as it wavers between being indescribably profound to painfully mundane. Delving into Teilhard’s work for five days inspired me to look at the potential that these polarities contain.
From years of studying the Buddhist concept of emptiness, I became familiar with the skill of seeing things from all different perspectives. For Teilhard, the very things in which our current liberal/progressive society so fears, are the very things that will propel us into more sophisticated levels of consciousness and evolution. To me this shows Teilhard’s mastery over emptiness, proving that things don’t have an inherent self-existence from their own side. Teilhard’s excitement over density, friction, and seemingly destructive forces can be perceived as a catalyst for change and movement on a cosmic scale. This reminded me to muster my years of training in contemplative traditions to help me move past my knee-jerk judgments and see things on a grander scale.
The most crucial aspect of retreat is my ability to integrate what I have learned/experienced into my everyday life. Without this incorporation, these periods of silence and solitude are in vain. During this Wisdom School, prior to the work period, Cynthia would lead us through a brief grounding exercise. Here we would feel our feet grounded on the earth and from this foundation our roots would sink deep into the earth’s core. This visualization resonated deeply, and I now find myself practicing this invaluable skill. In periods of anxiety or stress I ground in this way, immediately dispelling those surges of anxiety. Another tangible gift of incorporation that I gleaned from my time spent at the Wisdom School is fueled by the parallels I
drew between the concept of enroulement (‘coiling back on itself’) and walking the labyrinth. The labyrinth has always been an important facet of my spiritual practice as a tangible and embodied outlet to be with God. When Cynthia described enroulement, and its influence in the evolutionary process, I was struck with the labyrinth’s similar pattern (not unlike those referenced airport security lines!). In a labyrinth walk you meander your way to the centre (or the Omega point) through a circuitous route. I have always found it amazing that the labyrinth, as both a symbol and as a spiritual practice, has been found on different continents since time immemorial. These ancient patterns took on that much more meaning for me once reflecting on the possibility that evolution uses a similar pattern. Since the retreat I have exerted consistent effort to walk the labyrinth as an embodied reminder of all that I learned at the Teilhard Wisdom School. Both the grounding exercise and the labyrinth walk are tangible ways that I can continue to incorporate all of the fruits from these precious five days of learning, praying, working, and community.
I was a recipient of one of the generous scholarships that were allocated for this retreat. Without this scholarship it would not have been possible for me to attend. I am so grateful for the opportunity to return to my roots of retreat, and to be filled with such sustenance to bring back into my life.
Since writing this reflection in 2016, Ruth, who also serves on The Contemplative Society’s board of directors, joined the University of Victoria’s Multifaith Services department. Her role as the Anglican chaplain has allowed her to re-engage with her passion for serving young spiritual seekers, bringing balance back into her life. She is thankful for her experience at the Wisdom School which helped her to say “Yes” to this opportunity (where every semester during exams there’s even a labyrinth!).
Enroulement is an inevitable process, but the quality of the material it works with reflects what we put into the universe. Ruth is an example of how donors to TCS have made a positive impact by funding scholarships to our retreats, the kind of support Ruth needed to reconnect with and shine her own light even brighter. Please consider giving a gift to our new Margaret Haines Scholarship Fund to help others like Ruth shine. Visit our contemplative.org/haines today to invest in the contemplative future.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/UVIC-labyrinth2.jpg268358TCS Adminhttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngTCS Admin2018-04-12 12:52:222018-07-03 16:05:46The Gift of Enroulement
“Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.”
From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it); i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As The Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.
Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.
Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis – divinization – particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition; and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and, just before his death in 1995, sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis – perennial Wisdom – and, as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.
Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements – or defining characteristics – for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:
We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora”, as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing”, not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose but, rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false-self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice, or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels, The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions, Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart), Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And, of course, my own teacher, Br. Raphael Robin.
Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? video? on-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, Wisdom Way of Knowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see what we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.
For almost thirty years the standing joke has been, “What enneagram type is Cynthia?” Leading teachers in all the various schools have typed me variously (frequently categorically) as a Four, Five, or Six. While I can see certain points of congruence (after all, my mom was a Four, my dad a Six, and most of my partners Fives, so I know these types well), none of them really resonated – and more important, none of them really captured my interest. They failed to paint for me any authentic description of where I was pinned, or the road to authentic freedom – more authentic, at least, than what I already knew in my own heart of hearts. And thus, I simply lost interest in the entire psychometric. When people ask me my type nowadays, I usually just smile and say, “I’m a Ten.”
On my very first encounter with this system nearly thirty years ago – through Helen Palmer’s book, The Enneagram – I initially self-identified as a Seven. The story starts out right: perceived lack of parental nurturance, Puer Aeternus (eternal youth), planning (gottcha!). But the narrative runs off the rails when it comes to the core passion (gluttony) and the reason behind it: self-distraction from pain, the need to maintain a cheery, spontaneous, excitement- and adventure-laden dance card. This simply never resonated; it still doesn’t. (Either I am totally un-self-aware or else the person who invented the Seven story was clearly not a Seven.) And so again and again I would approach the Seven story as intrinsically energetically congruent, only to be thrown back by the mountain of narrative evidence arguing against it.
I would add that in the various tests I’ve taken online (RHETI and otherwise), the Seven doesn’t usually come up as a strong contender. That’s because the choice points presented for discernment always feature “pleasure,” “excitement,” “fun-loving,” “spontaneous.” When these are set against responsibility, goal-orientedness, concern for others, capacity to face pain, and willingness to make and keep long-term commitments, I always wind up getting parceled out among more dutiful types. (As for the celebrated enneagram panels – forget them! All players know their scripts and simply arrange the evidence, and even their voice tone to confirm their prior self-identifications…)
But what if the Seven type were to prioritize restlessness, compulsive motion, fear of constriction, underlying existential anxiety? What then? When I asked Helen Palmer if there was any possibility that the type narrative was inaccurate or incomplete, she responded that that pretty much clenched the case that I was a Four (the need to be a special case).
Anyway, thirty years later – and spurred into action by a review copy of Christopher Heuertz’ new book, The Sacred Enneagram (which I found insightful but still basically recycling the old typologies) – I am finally getting around to taking that risk. If in trying to elucidate the deeper waters of the Seven I prove myself indubitably a Four, so be it. But I think there is something here that is still not being seen by enneagram afficionados, and if these deeper waters were better understood, a lot of people like myself, who still find themselves without a home base in the enneagram, might find a way in.
This is a first gambit, but see what you think. Over the course of the summer I’ve shared it privately with several of my enneagram colleagues including Richard Rohr, Russ Hudson, Jeanine Siler-Jones, and Leslie Hershberger, and their comments have been enormously helpful as I continue to fine-tune my observations.
So now, for all of you out there: in your experience, do you know any Sevens that work the way I’m laying out here? I’m mostly interested in whether you think there’s enough merit in what I’m suggesting here to warrant a more comprehensive re-evaluation of this particular personality type…
(By the way, if my typology here is correct, I think there’s absolutely no doubt that Teilhard de Chardin was a Seven. Maybe that’s why he keeps pulling me in…)
Anyway, here’s my report, with a couple of short personal vignettes at the end to flesh things out. And yeah, after all these years, I’m finally claiming Seven as my home plate.
Enneagram Type Seven (Bourgeault Revision)
HOLY IDEA Freedom
BASIC FEAR Annihilation
BASIC DESIRE Fullness of Being
PASSION Accidie (existential restlessness, “the noonday demon”)
As children, sevens felt trapped, subject to the authority of caregivers who seemed unresponsive or even inexplicably hostile to their deepest being needs. While from the outside, the nurturing received during their childhood may have appeared stable and conventional, from the inside it registered as hollow, frequently duplicitous, and sometimes downright treacherous. An underlying sense of disconnection – between call and response, appearance and reality – became the filter through which the seven learned to view the world, leading to a chronic (and at times acute) sense of existential dread.
Resilient and inherently life-loving and optimistic, Sevens learned early on to become skilled self-nurturers – but always with that signature Seven wound: a restless addiction to forward motion and hyper-vigilance against any form of confinement that would appear to limit their options, cut off their escape routes, or impinge upon their ability to “help themselves.” Sevens need to “feel the wind whistling in their ears” to outrun a pervasive sense of existential dread and emptiness, an inability to rest comfortably in their own skins.
The Core Passion
The passion classically assigned to the Seven is gluttony, but I believe this assignation rests on a misunderstanding of the true motivation driving the Seven typology, plus a comparable misunderstanding of the true nature of the passion in question. The correct match-up is actually accidie, typically but incorrectly understood as sloth (and hence assigned to the Nine). Famously characterized by the early desert fathers as “the noonday demon,” accidie is not primarily sloth (i.e., passivity or sluggishness) but the sense of paralyzing dread called forth by the engulfing immediacy of the present where the egoic escape route of “flight into the future” is cut off and one is face to face with the inescapable reality of the NOW. It is against this noonday demon that Evagrius issued his counsel, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” But it is exactly this sitting in your cell that is so terrifying to the Seven, for it means sitting in that primal place of annihilation, where the child’s desperate cries for succor went unheard.
For many sevens, the profile of gluttony may indeed appear to fit – superficially, at least. Some do indeed wind up piling up a lifetime full of high living and endless exciting adventures. But the real driving motivation, I believe, is never the self-nurturing itself, but maintaining the freedom-of-motion which the Seven believes is required in order to perform these self-nurturing rituals. In the midst of a banquet, the Seven will already be mentally orchestrating the next banquet; what is missing is not the nurture but the NOW. The hollowness and emptiness of that primordial experience of neglect continues to replay itself endlessly as the Seven reaches for the stars – and comes up with only a hand full of stardust.
Sevens hide in time. It is in the relentless planning, orchestrating, designing, creating options and possibilities, that the Prospero’s castle that passes for their life is constructed and maintained. To deconstruct it appears to them like sure and certain death. But unfortunately, the fullness of Being that they so desperately seek can only be found in the Now. This is their great spiritual challenge.
The real pathology is not “distraction from their pain” and dissipation, as the classic Enneagram Seven story reads. Most sevens I know are actually intensely focused and have high levels of tolerance for personal pain and the painful inner scrutiny to be paid for self-knowledge. The core pathology is not distraction but flight. Cessation of motion – i.e., stillness – feels like death to them, and they are too adept, too wary, to die in an ambush, even by Infinite Love.
Transformation for the Seven: The Holy Idea and Virtue
“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” This is indeed the terrifying eye of the needle the Seven will have to thread to move from “choice freedom” (as both Thomas Merton and Beatrice Bruteau call it) – i.e., freedom experienced as “keeping my options open,” to “spontaneity freedom:” freedom experienced as the capacity to say “yes” wholeheartedly to NOW; freedom to trust the primordial nurturing to be found only in the plenitude of presence. In such a way, and only in such a way, does the Seven finally come to rest – and in the simple immediacy of the presence there find, as St. Augustine (probably himself a Seven) so profoundly summarized: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”
Two personal vignettes to illustrate the above points
At the age of seven months I suffered a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia at the hands of my Christian Science mother, who refused on religious principle to call a doctor. When the doctor was finally summoned, at the insistence of my grandmother (herself a Christian Science practitioner), he examined me gravely and concluded that I was beyond help. “But you were simply too stubborn to die,” my Father recalls, as breath by breath I fought my way back to life.
I have no direct memory of this incident, of course. But the trauma still lives on in my body in a nervous swallow and residual anxiety around breathing. And even before I could think or speak, I already knew as a core datum of my life that my mother could not be counted on as my protector; I would have to “help myself.”
Hiding in Time
When I was three years old, I was formally enrolled in Christian Science Sunday school. The preschool class was intentionally located a bit out of earshot of the other groups, and after opening exercises, our small group of toddlers was led by the teacher up a narrow stairway to a tiny, closet-like classroom at the end of the hall. I panicked. Where were they taking me? Would I ever be released? I screamed in terror for my parents, but my cries elicited no response – neither from my parents (who were actually right on the other side of the classroom wall), nor from the teacher, who simply informed me that the longer I misbehaved, the longer it would take for the class to be over.
As I tried desperately to avoid a total meltdown, my attention fell on something that looked like a big dinner plate hanging on the wall, with numbers painted around the edge and two hands that moved in what seemed like a slow but regular way. And as I began to pay attention to this strange object over the next few weeks, I began to notice that when the big hand moved around the dial to the place where it pointed directly at the ceiling, then the teacher offered a closing prayer and we were led back downstairs.
So that was it! No more panic helplessness. I’d learned that all I had to do was to wait ’til the big hand pointed straight up at the ceiling, and my release would be assured. I’d learned the secret of their game, and knew that I could count on it to protect me.
Thus began my addiction to “tempus fugit” as a surrogate form of nurturing and an escape route from the existential terror I, by this time, knew only too well.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/il_214x170.573361459_etjx.jpg170214Cynthia Bourgeaulthttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngCynthia Bourgeault2017-11-23 11:48:582017-11-28 16:51:25Which Enneagram Type is Cynthia?
A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion.
The clear, simple truth: nothing can fall out of God. Where would it go?
God is not somebody (not me) – somewhere else (not here). God is the all, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web (p. 74):
Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.
We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.
From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.
When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time”, writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130) [also see our audio set by Cynthia Bourgeault of the same name]. “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally – if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.
It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”, Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see – do not want to see – even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of – ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!) – to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies – or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…Where do our hearts draw the line?
“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear”, writes Teilhard – “and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person”. But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.
So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this freak of nature, they will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive in the north field with his mother. It is a perfect summer evening: the moon rising over the orchard, the wind in the grass. And as he stares into the sky, there are twice as many stars as usual.
I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life – in all its myriad yet particular forms – as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according to its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity – and free fall – that is divine love.
Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence – whether plant, mineral, animal, human – participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even – sometimes especially – in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form – twice as many stars as usual!
Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff – like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic fullness is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.
Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139 – and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that has slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory – a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it – of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/night_sky-9030_0.jpeg6001432Cynthia Bourgeaulthttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngCynthia Bourgeault2017-09-11 16:04:582017-11-14 15:53:21Fullness of Life
The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul – at least for traditionally reared religious folks – is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, the psalm’s text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version – that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there – seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?
The advantage is that it might – just might –knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.
You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of the comments generated by this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life”, “soul”, and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception”, some of you have passionately reiterated – but not so: according to contemporary scientific models, life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental road map is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.
What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception – and yes, it is a pivotal moment – is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.
The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold, death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expressed this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…“
Above this threshold – with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term – this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.
Teilhard and the Personal
Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194):
Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.1
Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree, that is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul – or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.
But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!
We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon –and in fact, throughout his work – that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The individual is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The person has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last post). This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.
The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization”. If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great Wisdom lineage of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.
“An immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person…”
As a biologist, Teilhard knew only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life”, tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon, he designates the three core characteristics of life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals (p. 67):
So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…
Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element.
Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences do indeed “spontaneously abort”, failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere and, insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about the “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.
But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place, assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness (p. 67):
Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person.
“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.
This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Oneness.jpg446960Cynthia Bourgeaulthttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngCynthia Bourgeault2017-09-07 18:22:572017-09-13 14:31:30Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul
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.
https://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Knot.png632669Cynthia Bourgeaulthttps://www.contemplative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/logo-new-2021.pngCynthia Bourgeault2017-08-23 15:57:562017-08-28 11:47:13When does life begin?
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.