Cynthia Bourgeault - ‘Seeing With The Eyes Of The Heart’
Interview by Renate McNay
Renate: Cynthia is a modern day mystic, episcopal priest, writer, and internationally-known retreat leader. Cynthia divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine and travelling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and wisdom path.
That sounds lovely to have a seaside hermitage!
Cynthia: Oh yes, you should try it though in December!
Renate: In December?
Cynthia: The sea is an angry mistress!
Renate: I would love to have one in the mountains, a hermitage. I’m more a mountain goat than a sea person.
Cynthia: Why doesn’t that surprise me?
Renate: So I show you some of Cynthia’s books. So there’s Centering Prayer, and there is a follow-up upcoming in the pipeline, it’s called The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, and this book is coming out in December.
Cynthia: December 2016.
Renate: Wonderful, we are looking forward to that. A book on Mary Magdalene [The Meaning of Mary Magdalene], and, of course, a book on Jesus, The Wisdom Jesus. And Love is Stronger than Death – this is a very beautiful book, my most favourite book, I read it already twice. And The Wisdom Way of Knowing, and Mystical Hope. Are you writing all these books in your hermitage?
Cynthia: Yes, actually I think they all got written there.
Renate: OK, Cynthia, I like to start with the question: How did your Christian life begin? What happened that you have chosen the Christian path?
Cynthia: Well, in a way it was what the Buddhists would call ‘a choiceless choice’. I found myself growing up as a child in the 1950s in the area around Philadelphia, in the United States. Christianity was all there was, I mean our biggest choice was were you a Catholic or a Methodist? And what really began my journey was that my parents sent me to a Quaker school. That was easy to do back in the Philadelphia area because it’s one of the natural homes of Quakers. So we had this wonderful little school – about 60 children between the ages of 5 and 12 – and, as part of the Quaker heritage, we would all go in once a week for a silent meeting for worship. So we would troupe into this beautiful old 18th Century meeting house with great clear lights pouring in from upper windows. And the whole programme in Quakerism is to sit and gather your heart in silence until the spirit might move you to speak.
Renate: What does that mean: Gather your heart…?
Cynthia: Your heart in silence? Well, it means, to begin with: Shut up! So instead of going into a place where you start, like you do in a church, with people proclaiming words at you or singing songs, you come in and you sit in silence in what looks like, and really is, meditation. And the only real difference between a Quaker meeting for worship and silent meditation is that if the spirit moves you after a time, in Quaker meeting, you get up and speak the message that’s been given in your heart.
And then it goes back into silence and then somebody else might stand and speak, moved by that message but not debating. So it kind of builds a teaching, which is almost downloaded from the cosmos and created by the listening hearts in the room. So in that kind of environment I first touched, in a very simple and direct way, what you might call the mystical field of love that surrounds us and binds our hearts together, and is the real presence of God.
Renate: You were only 6 years old.
Cynthia: I was only 6 years old.
Renate: And how did you figure out what it was?
Cynthia: Well, you just know it in the heart. I mean, with all theories of reincarnation aside for the moment, there is an ancient knowingness in the child. There is a knowingness that seeks for familiarity. And the things in the world that are true, that are powerful, that are unobstructed, unveiled, ring so clear in the heart of a child.
So I was going off to Sunday school, too, at the Christian Scientists’, which was my parents’ denomination, and I didn’t feel that clarity. I felt noise and words and theories and manipulation. And there was just this deep, deep profound yes-ness and connection that I knew in the meeting. So that, plus the natural world around me, was the start. Then, in the course of time, I began to become interested in music, and choral music spoke to me deeply. And it was through that that the path of Christianity, that I’d formerly only known as doctrine and dogma shoved down my throat, began to come alive in that same way it had as a child – as the experience of love and beauty offered to the infinite.
So I always had those kinds of streaks already in my belt and I would say that the reason that I ‘manifested on the Christian path’, if you want to call it that, was a couple of reasons. First of all because I really had no choice. Back in that time, back in the 50s in Philadelphia, there weren’t at that point Buddhists and Sufis and Hindus running around where you could find them and consider [those paths]… The only question was what kind of a Christian were you going to be? Not were you going to get out of the religion altogether? And the second was because of a real, kind of profound, you might call it conversion experience that happened to me when I was 20. That really changed everything.
Renate: Yes. So that was when you for the first time got the Communion?
Cynthia: Yes. I received Communion by accident. The Holy Communion, you know, the most sacred ritual of Christianity when you come up and receive the bread and the wine that has been offered and received as the living body of Jesus. Normally a very, very protected thing, you study and you work for a long time before you are initiated. Well I got initiated very, very quickly by total accident. In Christian Science, Communion did happen once a month but it happened in the church and we were only in Sunday school, so we didn’t know about it – and Quakers don’t do that sort of thing because they believe that every moment ought to be a full communion with Christ, so if that’s happening who needs bread and wine?
So I wasn’t presented with this and, when I was 20, I went with my college roommate to what I thought was a concert. [both laugh] The boy choir from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was doing a concert on Sunday morning at St.Paul’s Anglican Church in London, Ontario. So all I saw in the newspaper was that they were doing the William Byrd Mass in Four Voices, one of my favourite, beautiful Renaissance singing pieces. I said, “Lets go!” So I dragged my college roommate with me and off we went and I was so enraptured with the music that I didn’t even notice that there were long, kind of, talk breaks between the various movements.
Well, I come to find out it that was just music offered as part of the service and, the next thing you know, a very stern looking usher is standing in front of our row of pews and motioning us forward. So I said, “Oh! Oh! I’m in a Communion line! Help, help!” My mother, who was Christian Science and had a profound loathing and fear of Catholic tradition, had warned me about terrible things that happen when this happens to you! [both laugh] But at that moment my fear of the usher was greater than my fear of eternal damnation! So up I went. And my roommate, who had fortunately been raised Catholic, said, “Just follow me and do what I do.” So she put out her hands and I put out my hands and into my hands was placed this wafer and she looked over at me and said, “Don’t chew it!” [Renate laughs] And then comes along this beautiful silver chalice of wine and she hisses over at me, “Don’t touch it!” and I was about to say, “But how can you drink it without touching it?!” when it’s put to my lips and I [mimes taking a sip].
So it happens, and I’m walking back to my pew thinking ‘well, that’s that’. And I’m about two thirds of the way back to the pew and all of a sudden I realise ‘that’s that!!!’ And it wasn’t like I’d met my risen Lord, there wasn’t a big Jesus image in front of me, but there was just that ancient sense of familiarity once again. That this dimension that had been missing all my life, that I hadn’t found in my 1950’s childhood in Philadelphia, was there! This ‘other intensity’ as the poet T.S. Elliot calls it.
Renate: And how did you feel it? Where did you feel it?
Cynthia: It was right in the heart. It was very profoundly a sense that I’d met my path and I’d met my master. And that this master was a someone, not a theory to be mastered, not a set of creeds to be recited. So there was a deep sense of invitation to a path that was really an initiation. And I think that, over and over again, has been the reason I’ve stuck with Christianity through thick and thin with my eyes open. I’ve said many, many times that if I could have been a Sufi I would have done it in a heartbeat. But, when you receive what really your own heart-of-hearts receives as an invitation from a living master to come this way, you don’t say, “Sorry, Jesus, I’d rather be a Sufi!” And I’ve worked closely with many of the religious traditions, I have a great belief that, like colours of the rainbow, they all belong together. And it requires every one of them to show the full spectrum of divine love. But the path that I’ve been plunked down on and called to manifest in and serve in is this particular ray of the rainbow.
Renate: Yes. So what does manifesting and serving mean for you?
Cynthia: Well, it really means a couple of things. One of the dimensions is to try, wherever you are, to be conscious, and to be grateful, and to be alert. And to see what needs to be done in the moment and to do it in such a way that you’re moving in a direction of greater compassion, greater love, and greater understanding on the planet. So I would say that’s the simplest version. I don’t like to obscure it with devotion talk and God talk, and I don’t have any sort of special notion of my importance or being in some sort of consecrated path. That’s, sort of, too-inflated terminology. I mean every human being is consecrated just by the fact of being born. And we have our life to live and we either live it awake and consciously or we snooze through it. And if we live it awake and consciously, we touch other human beings who are trying that same way and we begin to touch a container and a shape of awakeness that’s different from anything else on the planet. So that’s where I work and, while I hold down the corner in Christianity, it really is a universal work. Each of the traditions participate in it in their own way. To reveal, I think, what divine love looks like in created form.
Renate: So tell us about that. [both laugh]
Cynthia: Well… I would say that’s one of the things that we tend to forget in the planet because so many, many, many, many thousands of years we’ve spent thinking that there’s something wrong with being here, that it’s illusion, it’s maya, it’s sin, it’s coarse, it’s contaminated.
Renate: It’s still in some teachings.
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s still in most of the teachings. I mean that you just go from one teaching to another but they all start with the fact that there is something not trustworthy about the human condition, not good about it, and that spiritual transformation means getting out of it, leaving the whole thing behind like a dead booster rocket and boosting off into some spiritual world. But I think what we forget, and what’s actually there in the heart of Christianity – although Christianity has forgotten it as well as all the others! – is this affirmation that ‘God so loved the world’. That there is something very, very precious here in this dimension, in this form with purple sofas, and glasses of water, and bodies, and embodiment, and love, and rejection, and trial, and death, and suffering. Something in the mix of that that brings forth a manifestation of love that’s so precious that it can be uttered in no other way. And we are here for a little while, as the poet Blake said, “To learn to bear the beams of love and to manifest them forth as what the heart of God looks like.”
Renate: Mm... but this is quite a journey!
Cynthia: It is.
Renate: To come to this point where you are free to love. And so my question is: How does Christianity address our deep wounds and delusions?
Cynthia: Well, I think all the traditions address them or don’t address them on two levels. The one level that’s there from the beginning is in the great language and offering and energy of the whole world of sacraments and devotions. That, as things get offered up – like, in Christianity, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion – as the image gets lifted up, as ghoulish as it may seem at first, of the suffering Christ on the cross, there’s actually a wisdom being conveyed there that does give comfort and healing. The problem is we don’t mostly get that because something else has to kick in before any of this becomes really operative in our brains and our hearts and that’s the path that begins to get opened up when we start to do conscious inner work.
Renate: So how did that start with you, Cynthia? How did you get it?
Cynthia: How did it start with me? Well, of course I had my first wonderful, rounded mystical rapture, you know, I had the Eucharist, I’d had this experience I told you of, I had the beauty of singing… It catapulted me into wanting to be a priest and feeling that what I wanted to do was to serve up this Communion, and all the usual mystery and drama! So I did. I was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1979. The Episcopalians were among the first of the mainline, the greater family, of Christian Churches, in that greater Catholic tradition, to ordain women. And I was among the first that was ordained in that tradition.
So here I am: a priest in my bright, shiny black suit and white clericals – and then I began to notice, to my horror, that no matter how much I preached the scripture to people, no matter how much you offered up the Eucharist, people remained people! Gossipy, nasty, confrontational, divisive, always tending to splinter into small groups and to act out of their hidden agendas. And I realised ‘Dear God! There’s nothing we’ve got here that’s actually getting people to change!’
So I went searching myself and it was about that time, that what fell into my lap – as things always fall into your lap when you say you are searching – was a copy of a book called In Search of the Miraculous written by P.D. Ouspensky in the 1940s, which was his record of the teachings of the spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, who was an underground spiritual teacher of the 20th Century and was the first to bring to the West a practice, which nowadays we call ‘mindfulness.’ They didn’t have the language yet, and the Gurdjieff Work was a very, very, I would say, cumbersome early run-up on mindfulness training. But it did open the question of: How do you wake up? How do you pay attention? Do you even know that you are spending your life snoozing through on autopilot? Something pushes your button and you are off and running in that direction and something pulls your chain and you are running in this direction and yet you say you are alive?
So the Gurdjieff Work – I entered and was a serious student of it for 10 years, which really laid down in me the basis for understanding our own responsibility in waking up and making actual, confronting that vast maze of automatic, programmed behaviours that keep us chained at a level that’s lower than real human freedom. So I worked in that for a long time. I still work in it, I have the deepest respect for this body of knowledge. But it led me and then, by the time I was really getting serious in that Work, in Christianity there were beginning to be developed these wonderful paths of meditation, which hadn’t been a part of normal Christian religious upbringing till that point.
So from my teacher Thomas Keating, the great Trappist monk, I learned a very simple form of sitting meditation called ‘Centering Prayer’. And the combination of Centering Prayer, bringing all the effects that have now been documented that meditation does for the brain and for the heart when you begin to meditate seriously, plus this wonderful grab-bag of teachings from the Gurdjieff Work on conscious awakening.
Renate: Did you do the movements?
Cynthia: I did the movements, yes.
Renate: How was that?
Cynthia: Chilling, you know. The movements are, I would say, the great sacred liturgy of the Gurdjieff Work – the Gurdjieff Work wouldn’t consider it that way. But, in these very, very simple ‘dances’, you can call them, although they’re not that, they’re more sacred gestures [demonstrates some of the gestures] that you learn to take in beautiful sequences, and pay attention in the middle of them; some of them very complicated, some of them heartbreakingly simple. And to music that is beautifully written to go right into the chakras that need to be adjusted and off it goes… It leaves you writhing on the floor with just the wonder and the terror and the beauty of this whole journey in form.
Renate: You said that they are like rabbit holes and sometimes you were lying on the floor and crying.
Cynthia: You get sucked down into… and, of course, they pick you right up because those kinds of displays of being ‘slain in the spirit’ are not on. So you learn to contain your ecstasy and you learn to contain your anguish and move on and take the next position, but meanwhile something is being touched at a level that’s so profound that… Again you can only get a felt sense that life hangs together by some deeper coherence and compassion. And I think our theologies and our doctrines and our dogmas and our principles try and take that and put it in mental form, but the mental form never touches that sense that something holds together. And I felt that in the movements so profoundly.
Renate: And you cannot name it…
Cynthia: Well, you can name it, but you name it in code phrases. That you ‘feel the suffering of God’, you feel your wish to ‘relieve the sorrow of His endlessness’, as Gurdjieff called it. You say the words: “Lord have mercy,” and you realise that they are not about somebody getting down and begging for pity before a great God who’s a judge. But a deep sense of remorse and seeing the vastness of the whole thing and the terror of the whole thing.
Renate: Ja, it is a terror.
Cynthia: Yes. But not the kind of terror that they put in the tabloids of three more people dead in the street, but the kind of terror that something so immense, that something so beautiful, that something so sacred and veiled in the heart of God.
Renate: And how beauty and suffering belongs together.
Cynthia: They belong. They are the two inevitable sides of the same coin, of the intimacy of God. So, you see this and you feel this as you dig the capaciousness of your soul, the capacity to hold this, this wine of yearning and suffering and beauty, without being destroyed by it.
Renate: So you must have quite an open heart to be able to do that.
Cynthia: Oh, on my better days! [both laugh]
Renate: To be able to hold the suffering and the pain and the sorrow, which is really running through the Earth.
Cynthia: Yeah, exactly.
Renate: Or, like Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Listen to the Earth cry.”
Cynthia: Exactly, exactly. And these are all kinds of things that are absolutely real. But they make no sense on the level of the mind alone: ‘What about the Earth crying? The Earth is rocks, they’re not sentient!’ It’s when you calm down into the full embodied being that you begin to hear and you begin to see, and respond to these threads of coherence. Rather than having to project them out. You know, there’s a huge, huge difference between explanation and meaning. And mostly the Church has tried to give us explanation, thinking that if we have explanations we’ll say, “OK, it makes sense.” But explanation is hollow, you know. What’s the explanation for making love?
Renate: It’s the left side of the brain.
Cynthia: Yes, the brain. It’s the meaning that tells us, ‘you belong, you are here.’
Renate: Beautiful. You said yesterday, at your evening in Westminster Cathedral, you said that this era is about embodiment. Can you say more about that?
Cynthia: Exactly, this era is about embodiment. It’s so true. As we talked about earlier in this conversation, for about 2,500 years part of what’s called ‘first axial consciousness’ really depicted the world as flawed and depicted the spiritual path as getting out of the body and the body was seen to be the seat of sinful self-will, the seat of delusion, the seat of coarseness. And everything was depicted as, you know, we were in a cave and we had to leave the cave and go to the light. So most spiritual practices were built on some variation of either gaining mastery over the body or even mortifying the body. But we’re in the body for a good reason. And the body is our profound vessel of truth and spiritual exploration. And so coming more and more in the end of the last century and into this has been a renewed appreciation of the goodness and wisdom of the body.
Renate: Also within the Church?
Cynthia: It’s getting into the Church but it’s getting into the Church by the back door, not the front door. It’s getting into the Church because, I think, a lot of the people in the congregations who are now getting old are realising that they need to do yoga to keep their bodies in shape and, if they’re going to sit on a meditation cushion, they have to know how to bend their legs. So it’s getting in through the portal of wellness. I think that still, in most Christian Churches, if you look at how a service is actually conducted, you might as well check your body in in the cloakroom when you go in because it’s all just pitched at your head. You sit in a pew and you listen and you say words. But, I think, in other formats that are coming – our wisdom schools, and even in meditation when it’s done properly – we’re beginning to see more and more that we need to embody because the body actually reads spiritual gestures, spiritual wisdom and coherence way better than the mind does.
Renate: So the Gurdjieff dances helped you with the embodiment.
Renate: What else can we do?
Cynthia: Well, you know almost anything that begins to teach us to embody. Skiing! One of my most powerful lessons I learned about how the spiritual journey works I learned when I was 8 years old when a beautiful life guard at a swimming pool taught me how to float. Like all children, I was scared of sinking to the bottom of the pool so I went like this [curls up tight], and she finally says, “Well, you’re gonna sink to the bottom right fast if you do that!” She says, “fill your chest with air, put your head back, put your hands out and breath and you won’t go to the bottom.” This, little did I know, is a basic gesture of the spiritual life. It’s the gesture of trust, it’s the gesture of vulnerability, it’s the gesture that some people say will open the throat chakra. You see Theresa of Avila in all the ancient art works, exactly that position: the rapture.
So from Gurdjieff I learned, even more from the movements itself, I learned the wisdom that the body understands the language of spiritual gesture. And that in the simple postures of life, in the simple taking your broom and bringing your attention to your hands on it as you sweep and being in the motion as you sweep the room – not just having someone else hired to sweep the room but participating deeply in the rhythmic nature of embodied life itself – you begin to learn something about your participation in life, your belonging in life that can’t be had with the head, which can’t belong to anything because it’s always separating itself from things in order to ‘see it’. So the world calls us to embodiment with every breath. We just have to learn to attune to it again and to value the body as a sacred temple of perception, not just as something that has to be kept well so we live a little longer.
Renate: I want to touch a little bit on the heart. There is a lot of talk about [how] the brain needs to sink into the heart. How do we do that? What does that mean?
Cynthia: Well, it’s a beautiful statement. The statement is actually all over Eastern Christian Orthodox practice, ‘Put the mind in the heart. Put the mind in the heart. The chief thing is that the mind should be in the heart.’ And they speak over and over about something called ‘attention of the heart’, which is also known in that tradition as ‘vigilance’ and is touched in the Western Christian tradition as ‘recollection’. I believe that I was saying, in the talk we did last night in London, that one of the really powerful insights that the Christian tradition brings to the whole spiritual playing table of transformation is that these higher states of consciousness, these states that we call non-dual or unitive or contemplative, aren’t just attained by the mind alone. That they are attained by bringing the mind into the heart, which is not just a symbol, it’s not just a metaphoric way of talking about things, but is an actual physiological event so that the brain waves entrain to the rhythm of the heart and they become a single perceptual unit. So how do you do it?
Renate: Yes, Cynthia, how do you do it?
Cynthia: OK, how do I do it? Well, you know, just buy my books and give me $50,000 and I’ll let you do it on the weekend! [both laugh]
It’s a long, slow process. And it has a couple of component pieces. The core attitude that the Christian tradition works with is the piece called ‘surrender’ or ‘kenosis’. Kenosis is the word in Greek which Saint Paul used to depict ‘putting on the mind of Christ’. And it, basically, is pretty close to what the Buddhists mean by non-clinging. Doesn’t hang on, doesn’t insist, doesn’t assert, doesn’t grab, doesn’t brace, doesn’t defend, you know. It’s the mind that [she sighs and relaxes outwards]. We try to put that mind on. In one of those ancient early Christian writings, the Gospel of Thomas, the students asked Jesus, “What are your students like, how would you describe them?” and He said, “They are like small children, playing in a field not their own. When the landlords come and demand, “Give us back our field!” the children return it by stripping themselves and standing naked before them.” So that’s the description from Jesus of this process. So it’s the lifelong practice, the core practice, of learning to recognise when you’ve gotten into one of these postures: tightened, urgent, angry, self-important, and in that moment…
Renate: Open to Him.
Cynthia: Open to Him. So that’s the hang of it, that’s the heart of it combined with a couple of complementary practices which come from the mindfulness sector. The one being – the piece that I learned from the Gurdjieff Work – is to learn how to even notice when you’re getting into these states of constriction, and smaller-self urgency, and automaticity, because we don’t notice that automatically. It’s like you don’t notice the moment you fall asleep at night. So you sink into these lower, unfree, ugly states of being automatically. So you have to learn to even notice when that happens. And the second –
Renate: There is this point, I know this with myself, there is this point where you see you could go both ways, you could serve the ego or you can surrender. And you can decide.
Cynthia: Yeah. There is definitely that point. What makes it difficult though is that for a long, long time in the practice you can see that point. You can see yourself going over the waterfall, but you don’t have the power to swim away yet. So what you have to do is live in the gap and say, “Oh my God, look at what’s happening to me, I can see that I’m sinking but I don’t have the force to stop.” And it takes a long time until we have the force. And to be able to see that you’re falling into a bad state doesn’t, for a long time, mean you can do anything about it. I think that’s a truism that disappoints many people, so the even more painful penance is you just have to sit there and watch it. Your only real choice is can you just see it, and the horror and remorse and helplessness, or do you just pretend, “Oh well, I’m really right! I’m going to fight for this for all…” Can you just go with the lower state or can you wait in the gap? So for me that’s brought a whole new meaning to that whole British cliché ‘mind the gap’! [Renate laughs]
Because we sit there in the gap for a long time saying [gasps]. And that’s when you begin to learn the meaning of ‘Lord Have Mercy’. I can’t do anything to raise my state but what I can do is stay honestly ahead of, in plain sight, what’s happened, acknowledging. Here I am. And I think it’s from that repeated acknowledgement of my own helplessness at that level, but refusing to simply hide from that helplessness, that gradually, gradually, gradually the energy that had originally gone into your, sort of, ego programmes gets recaptured to begin to hold this other kind of field of awareness, of attentiveness, that’s not identified with that small self acting out and can begin to become a nest for that deeper and fuller and truer wiser self to live in. And then we begin to Be. Then we begin to have Being. And it’s from that Being that sometimes we can pull ourselves out of that spiral we were heading into, and it’s from that Being that we can begin to offer our force of Being to the world as love, as assistance, as a shift in the energy field for someone else. ‘Baraka’ the Sufis call it. But it comes slowly, because you can’t just, kind of, click your heels together and have Being. It has to accumulate slowly in your being for a life of painfully bearing the crucifixion of inner honesty, and slowly it emerges.
Renate: One thing I like to also touch on is: If you look at the world it looks all very sad and you wonder where it’s all going, and at the same time we say, “God is Love.” And I remember I struggled with this question already as a child. What does it mean: God’s Love? How do we feel it, how do we learn to feel it and trust it, despite of what we are seeing?
Cynthia: Well, to begin with, the sense that it’s usually presented to you as a child won’t work. Because we think of God as this big daddy out in the sky who has this kind of nature that He is love or He is wrath. He’ll fling his fireballs or send his love. As long as you are holding that picture, it’s impossible to understand that. It really breaks my heart to see children have to go through what you just described because you say, “How can God be love if this world is suffering, and cruelty and hatred, and people are dying in Syria and Iraq, and madmen are running planets and countries, and what’s going on?! The planet is quickly warming itself into non-existence. How can God be love?” As long as you are dealing with that external God out there, who’s presumed to be a first cause and could change things if he wanted to, then it’s not going to make sense.
So you have to come back to that felt sense that we were talking about earlier, that very, very deep thing that happens in your heart-of-hearts when you know that somehow the whole thing hangs together in a field of compassion. The idea of a suffering God that doesn’t make sense at all from a mental concept because how can a God that’s almighty suffer? Not logical, right? But when you enter that with your heart, you understand the catch-22 that divine love is in. That, in order to manifest this most precious dimension of love, it takes form. And when you have form, there’s suffering. Because things are broken, they’re yearning for wholeness, they can’t have it. There’s cruelty, there’s automatic-ness. And in the midst of this you yearn. And in the midst of it, you find that something holds together. And the fact that ‘God is love’… it’s true it doesn’t depend on the world being bright and twinkly and sparkly outside; as a matter of fact, it’s exercised and touched most deeply in those moments of poignant heartbreak. That somehow, yes, even this holds together and is the chalice of love poured out of God’s yearning to touch the world and to hold it. It’s like the sun yearning to hold a snowflake. He can’t do it without melting it. And that's the suffering of God. To let it be, to let it… to let it have to shoulder its Planck’s constant of horror and pain and to still love it, and to still be accessible in love.
So we grow, I think, as human beings in our own capaciousness – it’s a word I’ve used before – to hold this every which way-ness of love. This love that won’t be killed in the midst of suffering, and yet won’t make suffering go away. This love where you see hearts broken, lives touched apart and yet love holds. And when your own heart becomes deep enough to hold a piece of this, then you become part of the mystical heart of universal love. And it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t feel blissful. You know, I think one of the clichés that’s thrown about on the spiritual journey is that it’s about making you feel blissful states all the time. No! When you open your heart to the world, what you can guarantee is that your heart is going to be broken. And to hear the pain of the world and to hold the pain of the world. So it’s something way beyond bliss. It’s that every which way-ness of the reality of love in the midst of brokenness. And as we begin to hold that, we sense the coherence and the cost by which everything holds together. But you never touch it with your head. You know, religion is not a philosophy, God is not a first cause. All that level is just explanation, meaning is something different.
Renate: So that brings up the question in me, what is then freedom?
Cynthia: What is freedom?
Renate: Because you go on this journey. We start out on this journey to become free, which we call enlightenment.
Cynthia: Well, you know, we have so many mixed metaphors as Western and Eastern ways of contexting reality come together like tectonic plates. And they don’t often match up. I think, in a very obvious way, freedom is easy. At the obvious level, what it means is what you’d call ‘freedom from the false self’. Most of us think we’re free, and yet we are not free at all because we are under the absolute compulsion of agendas, addictions and aversions that have been programmed into us from early life, and sometimes from the womb. We have our values, we have our triggers, we have our flash points, we have our agendas. And, as A.H. Almaas said so famously, “Freedom to be your ego is not freedom.” Because that’s slavery. You’re being pulled around by a bull ring in the nose.
So part of the work of freedom begins when you can stabilise in yourself this thing that some of the Eastern traditions helpfully call ‘witnessing presence’, which is something deeper that’s not dependent on the pain-pleasure principle, that’s not attracted by attraction, or repulsed by aversion. You know, as my teacher Rafe, the hermit monk of Snowmass, Colorado, used to say, “I want to have enough Being to be nothing.” Which means he is not dependant on the world to give him his identity, because he’s learned his identity nests in something much deeper.
So that’s the first level of freedom. But I think beyond that what makes it difficult is that old cliché that comes out of the Anglican tradition talking about our relationship to Christ ‘whose freedom is perfect service’. It’s the freedom you know when you fall helplessly in love with somebody – you’re not free to walk away. Because you see the coherence of your life, you see the only pattern in which your life could fit. Like for me back then, I wasn’t free to choose to be a Sufi or a Buddhist, because the path of coherence is this way.
And as you finally become free to follow what you might call the ‘homing beacon of your own inner calling’, you realise that it’s only in that complete obedience that freedom lies. And, of course, the trick to that is the word ‘obedience’, which we usually thinks means knuckling under, or capitulating, really comes from the Latin ‘ob audire’, which means ‘to listen deeply’. So, as we listen deeply to the fundamental, what you might call the ‘tuning fork’ of our being – which is given to us not by ourself and is never about self-realisation because the self melts as that realisation comes closer – you find the only freedom is to be your own cell in the vast mystical body of God.
Cynthia: But you have to get free of the false self to see that. [both laugh]
Renate: So, you spend a lot of time in solitude. Three months a year, I think?
Cynthia: Well, that’s the game plan – as they say in Hamlet ‘more honoured in the breach than the observance’! Yes, I have spent some time in solitude.
Renate: And silence.
Cynthia: Mm hm.
Renate: And how does that work for you? What does that give you?
Cynthia: Honesty. You know that we often equate it with… You know, we go into silence to find profound states of Being – this will come around, but the first thing that silence does is it ruthlessly exposes the evasions, and the first evasion is simply our own – or my own – restlessness. You begin to discover how jumpy you are and then you begin to discover the evasion of time and how we set our life up with a schedule. We get up and we wake up at a certain time and we do our prayer practices and we have our meals then and we have a… In other words, we parceled our day out on this kind of linear continuum and all of a sudden, you know, it begins to hit you like a freight train: there’s simply this now and we’re breaking it up into bits so that we can not be squashed by it. So you begin to see these evasions, you begin to see these screens that you put up to live in the world. You begin to see that so much of what you thought you were about is only being cued to that evasion you’ve already set in place. So the first is just falling through your own restlessness and beginning to develop a little bit of capacity to live in your own skin. And I think, for me, that this is really what incarnation, what solitude is about. It’s about becoming more restful in embodiment, about being able to confront and fall through that ever, kind of, restless tendency. So many of us are fundamentally autophobic, we don’t live comfortably in our own skin, we are always projecting it out there: my path, my enlightenment, my practices, you know, where I’ll be next year. Stop! Be! But it’s, you know, it’s squizzly for a while. And then you finally drop through that. My hermit teacher used to say, “You have to endure the tedium until something emerges in it.” And then what develops is an expanded capacity for restful presence in a larger field of the now. The nows get longer and longer and are not broken up into time things so much. So you don’t do anything particularly different, you just do it with a deeper and deeper rhythm of being grounded in something beyond our, kind of, completely human artificial constructions of what reality actually is structured like.
Renate: Beautiful. Well our time is slowly running out.
Cynthia: Oh well, speaking of time…! So, if we were good hermits we’d just, sort of, relax and be here for another four months!
Renate: We can just be in the now and let it all unfold! Is there anything else, like one or two sentences, you still would like to say to our audience?
Cynthia: Well, I think that the one thing that I would say is that hermit work is not done alone. It looks like the ultimate ‘well, she goes off by herself and nobody sees her…’ But you really are in solidarity with the hearts of everybody. And my belief is that so many of the models we’ve used, in our spirituality of the past, are individualistic models even right up to enlightenment, my personal self-realisation. But what happens is, when we enter that deep, deep heart space, it’s transpersonal. It’s personal and it’s transpersonal, it touches the heart space of everybody else, both living and beyond, I think. So it’s ultimately a communal form and I do believe that, particularly in this next era of our spiritual unfolding, along with embodiment we’re going to understand again much more keenly an era of human solidarity and a higher collectivity, and my own work when I go and teach is always in the service of that union. Way, way back when I had that Communion at twenty, the words are ‘this is my body given for you’, and the sense that our whole common sentient being is the body of Christ, or the body of God, or the body of Buddha – pick your Bodhisattva! But we’re forming something that’s higher and deeper, which can more worthily and deeply bear those beams of love.
Renate: Thank you. That’s a beautiful ending, Cynthia, thank you very much.
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