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Is sacred reality really real?

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

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

Happy formlessness,

 

Cynthia


The question… 

Dear Cynthia,

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

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

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

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

And my response…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

 

Cynthia

Beatrice Bruteau Archive to Reside at Emory University

Big news, all you Wisdom Seekers. Thanks to the incredible persistence and deft touch of Wisdom student Joshua Tysinger, the priceless collection of unpublished writings by Beatrice Bruteau has come to live at Emery University – alongside comparably priceless collections by such luminaries as Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is an amazing coup, and a blessing for us all.

cynthiabeatricejoshuaBeatrice Bruteau – scholar, nondual Christian teacher, and interspiritual pioneer par excellence – died in November 2014 at the age of 84. Many of you already know of the extraordinary spiritual friendship that developed between Josh, at the time a first-year student at Wake Forest Seminary, and Beatrice, living out her final days behind a thickening veil of dementia. Partly caregiver, partly spiritual son, Josh sensitively helped her navigate the horizontal axis while in return she conferred on him the full luminosity of her spiritual being and wisdom. Josh recounts this remarkable journey in his essay on Beatrice in Personal Transformation and a New Creation (Orbis, 2016). If you haven’t read it yet, don’t miss it!

And yes, I put Josh onto the assignment of keeping an eye on the voluminous archive that Beatrice had left behind her (she and Jim had no children), seeing if he could get it into safekeeping in an archive worthy of her brilliance and influence.

And that mission has now been brilliantly accomplished…but not without the inevitable touching human element, thanks. Thanks, Josh, for all you have done for Wisdom. And over to you for the backstory…

~ Cynthia


Through a series of fortunate and serendipitous events, the Special Collection of Beatrice Bruteau came into my possession earlier this year. This acquisition would never have occurred if it were not for the incredible insistence of my mentor Cynthia Bourgeault who guided my formative steps and movements. First noticing the collection while visiting the Bruteau residence in May 2014, Cynthia charged me with the task of collaborating with friends and family to have it archived in a major academic setting. The burden of responsibility fell upon my shoulders to preserve thirteen binders filled with fifty pages each of uncirculated articles, documents, and manuscripts. This was not without its fair share of obstacles and resistance, for Beatrice and Jim had become quite attached to her collection over numerous years and who was I to pawn off their belongings to an impersonal institution?

joshuabeatrice-2-e1466702429143Although I realized the utter importance of preserving Beatrice’s works for public consumption, I also had to tread a very fine line in securing them. It never crossed my mind that these were ever fully in my possession. As a matter of fact, I attempted to collaborate with Beatrice and her husband Jim to get them housed at an array of potential settings. The universities on my list ranged from Wake Forest University (where they would inevitably have gotten lost in the Baptist Heritage section) to Fordham University (which currently harbors part of her collection), to Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. After discussing the situation with Beatrice’s goddaughter Carla and hearing Cynthia’s input, we collectively determined that Emory was the right fit. At the time, Emory University had just acquired the Thomas Keating collection. Highlighting Beatrice’s works alongside other interspiritual luminaries such as Thomas Merton, the Dalai Llama, and Thomas Keating seemed like an ideal situation. For as legendary as Beatrice is in the realm of contemplative studies, her literature only attracted a modest following; therefore, having them placed aside such literary giants would only increase her exposure. Excited as I was to present this option to Beatrice and Jim, what I did not account for was the amount of resistance to my proposal that Beatrice would demonstrate.

Day after day I corresponded with representatives from Emory University, seeking to make sure that we had chosen the right selection. I collected information, heard their offers, and showed the transfer of documents paperwork to Beatrice and Jim. They wanted to ensure that Beatrice’s works were well looked after, managed and used for the advancement of her body of prestigious works. Ever the man of reason, Jim acknowledged the immediate importance of having Beatrice’s works catalogued and archived. He was my best representative in making the case to Beatrice, even when she could not digest its merit. On one occasion while sitting with them in the living room of their apartment, Beatrice, who was at the time in the throes of dementia, became confused by the practicalities of our dialogue. It became increasingly apparent that the logistics of the transfer were too much for her to bear. Engaging in a round dance of circular conversation for over an hour, Beatrice suddenly turned to me and asked if I were a representative from Fordham – in this situation, she had forgotten who I was. From her perspective, someone had sent me into her house as a Trojan horse to confiscate her belongings on behalf of a library. I instantly regretted the mess that I found myself in and questioned whether or not it was better to let the proposal drop. Increasingly agitated, Beatrice pressed on about the issue of my “true identity” and badgered me until I could no longer stomach lingering around. Because Beatrice and Jim had ties to Fordham University, where Jim had taught philosophy, I immediately quipped back, “The only representatives from Fordham that I see are sitting in this living room!” It was the only time I ever challenged Beatrice over an interpersonal dispute and she sat for an instant staring into space, looking as miffed as ever. That day, I walked out of their apartment wondering if I would ever return, yet I felt resolve in my heart not to let the matter of her collection serve as a wedge between the wonderful relationship we had cultivated.

From there on out, I never brought Emory University back into the equation. It was only when I met with Jim and Beatrice’s power of attorney one year later – after Beatrice had passed – that I was informed that Jim was willing her documents to me. To my surprise, Jim had remembered our exchanges approximately one year prior and felt comfortable enough to entrust them to my care. Vaughn John, the power of attorney, instructed me to wait until after Jim’s passing before retrieving the collection. At that time, the binders were one final reminder of his beloved and a source of consolation during his bouts with loneliness.

Jim died earlier this year two days shy of his 101st birthday, and I have since reflected deeply on the immensity of the gift that they have given me. It has been in large part a stroke of fate being involved with this transfer of documents and preserving them for new generations of Beatrice Bruteau enthusiasts. Her life and legacy will now be displayed at Emory University for any pilgrim with enough time and energy to mine through her impressive collection. And after two years of working on this project, I now close a marvelous chapter that has given so much to me. I hope it will with you, too.

Beatrice Bruteau

 

Beyond No Hope

If we miss the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, we miss a crucial part of the Holy Week story.

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