Nondual Christianity – Seriously?

By Cynthia Bourgeault

In fall 2009, I was on a homebound flight from San Francisco that happened also to be carrying several returning attendees from the original Science and Nonduality Conference (SAND). As I listened in on the fascinating conversation unfolding in the row ahead of me, one person was enumerating the conference’s major presenters, a distinguished list of top scientists and mostly Buddhist spiritual teachers. “No Christian speakers represented?” his seatmate observed. “Right,” the first confirmed. “That’s because there are no Christian nondual thinkers.”

To be fair, that was nearly a decade ago. More recent SAND conferences have indeed featured an increasingly significant presence of Christian spiritual teachers, together with Sufis, Kabbalists, and other representatives of the Western tradition—hats off to the conference’s generous and visionary organizing team! But the impression still lingers, on a playing field still dominated by Eastern-derived conceptual road-maps, that the Western tradition has no authentic, homegrown nondual masters—aside, perhaps, from the iconic and much overworked Meister Eckhart and the vigorously protesting Bernadette Roberts—who are routinely trotted out to demonstrate that the Christian landscape is not entirely devoid of nondual attainment.

Little did I know at the time that an overheard plane conversation would turn out to furnish the agenda for my own next decade of research and practice. But the fruit of this work is that I can indeed confirm that an authentic Christian nonduality really does exist; you simply have to be able to read between the lines and to meet it on its own terms. My latest book, The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice, is an initial groundbreaking in that direction. In this article, I’d like to share with you my three biggest takeaways from the book. I hope it will encourage you to take a closer look—and maybe even a deep dive—into Christianity’s best kept secret.

First Takeaway: The Christian experience of the nondual is best conveyed in the term ‘contemplation.’

Part of the problem facing contemporary interspiritual practitioners trying to access Christianity’s nondual tradition is that the whole thing is a bit of an apples-and-oranges proposition from the get-go because the nomenclature does not quite line up. The term itself entered the Christian lexicon only relatively recently, in the wake of that first great wave of interreligious dialogue in the mid 1960s. The first time I ever recall hearing the word was in the early 1990s, as part of the circle of interspiritual seekers forming around Fr. Thomas Keating in Snowmass, Colorado.

Prior to that time, as a traditionally trained Christian priest and theologian, my horizons had been entirely framed within the ‘purgative/illuminative/unitive’ roadmap that has guided Christian spiritual progress for nearly fifteen hundred years. Roughly speaking, purgative describes a preliminary phase of purification, illuminative describes a soul functioning in high attunement with the divine but still retaining a separate sense of selfhood; unitive points toward a mysterious further melding of wills and spirits into a single tapestry of divine love.

The challenge here is that the metrics used to mark spiritual progress are fundamentally different (the Eastern maps featuring levels of consciousness, the Western degrees of affective union), and it has taken quite a bit of scrambling on all sides to discover what the closest point of equivalency might be. Is ‘nondual’ simply the Eastern term for extended mystical experience? The functional equivalent of ‘unitive’ on the old roadmap? The suspension of polarized thinking? The suspension of all thinking? All of the above? None of the above? Answers still tend to be all over the map.

To further complicate the issue, the term ‘contemplation’ has itself undergone some transformation in the hands of contemporary Christian masters such as Thomas Keating and Dom John Main, whose simple, no-frills meditation methods (Centering Prayer and Christian Meditation, respectively) reintroduced daily meditation as a core Christian practice and opened up the formerly exclusively monastic discipline of ‘contemplative prayer’ to a popular audience. As in all popularizations, however, something is lost in translation—in this case, the original scope and depth of the term itself. With the immediate goal of getting Christians en masse back onto the meditation mats, modern reconstructions have tended to spin contemplation as the emptying of all content in favor of a pure resting in Godsomewhat akin to Eastern states of sunnyata. But this is a significant oversimplification. In the original tradition (i.e., the patristic fathers of the early Christian centuries, contemplation was far from content-free; it was simply that the content was not generated or processed through the normal channels of the ‘faculties’ (reason, emotion, memory, will). Instead, they reflect some higher bandwidth of perceptivity entirely beyond the reaches of the usual functioning of the mind. Contemplation as originally understood invoked a higher, luminous knowledge, a “knowledge impregnated by love,” in the famous 6th-century description of St. Gregory the Great.

In my own efforts to recover this original, broader understanding of contemplation—and at the same time argue for its pride of place as the closest Christian equivalent to nonduality—I lean heavily on a Christian mystical masterpiece, The Cloud of Unknowing, composed by an anonymous 14th century British monk. While this work is typically classified as a vintage specimen of monastic love mysticism (largely on the basis of its celebrated dictum “God can be grasped and held fast by love, but by means of thought, never”), it is actually, in my opinion, the earliest known Western treatise on the phenomenology of consciousness. Hidden right there in plain sight (in Chapter 8) is a clear schematic of levels of consciousness, depicted along a spectrum of pre-reflective, reflective, and trans-reflective.This map dovetails remarkably closely with what Ken Wilber would now call ‘first tier,’ ‘second tier,’ and ‘third tier’ (i.e., nondual) consciousness, with the term ‘contemplation’ explicitly reserved to designate this top tier.

Moreover, our author insists that the ‘work’ of contemplation (as opposed to the ‘gift’ of contemplation that later theological centuries would see it to be) consists principally in reconfiguring the attention so that it does not run outward and attach itself to external objects or thought forms, but can hold its shape as a highly energized tensile field of objectless awareness—which he picturesquely describes as “the cloud of unknowing.” What you see is primarily a function of how you see, this author intuits, and stable contemplation is attained only as the subject/object polarity that drives dualistic consciousness has been progressively disarmed and redirected.

This brilliant phenomenological analysis is right there in Chapter 8, but it is missed over and over because of the unexamined assumption (affecting both Christian and non-Christian commentators) that our medieval Christian author is merely recycling the sentimental advice that God can only be known through the emotions—even though he explicitly states at least twice in his work that this is not the case. The operative catch-22 here is no doubt the old hermetic formula of “like recognizes like.” The Cloud of Unknowing is essentially describing a configuration of consciousness well beyond the level at which most scholarly and theological discourse has been conducted for at least eight hundred years (since the rise of scholasticism and the secular university in the 13th century). Hence, even very reputable Christian scholars miss what he is saying and sometimes even deliberately mistranslate so as to bring his pellucid pointers toward the nondual back to the known theological universe. This situation will hopefully shift as a growing number of scholars informed by actual sitting practice begin to pick up nuances in this text that are inaccessible to the mind alone. I can gratefully say that almost everything I know about The Cloud of Unknowing I learned on my meditation cushion.

Second Takeaway: In Christian experience the nondual is not merely an extension of the cognitive line—i.e., ‘the mind.’ Its signature feature is that the mind is in the heart.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This well-loved quote from The Little Prince is not only a Wisdom teaching in its own right; it encapsulates the very essence of the Christian experience of the nondual.

Throughout the entire Western tradition is a strong propensity to identify the heart—and yes, I do mean the physical heart—as “an organ of spiritual perception.” This insight is probably ultimately traceable to Jesus himself, who set the ball in motion in the famous sixth beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Throughout the early centuries of Christian monasticism (widely known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers), this core insight that the heart has something to do with higher seeing is faithfully transmitted, together with an accompanying teaching that any fixation on particular thought-forms (logismoi, as the 4th-century desert master Evagrius calls them—repetitive patterns of associative thinking) results in triggering the passion—disordered, self-referential emotions—which, in turn, divide the heart and catapult the unfortunate practitioner out of the realm of luminous seeing and wholeness. This teaching was, in turn, passed on and further developed in both the Christian East and in Sufism.

In its most profound renditions, the goal of learning to see with the heart is always a two-prong process. The first is an active spiritual attitude of letting go, a surrender of all attachments both literal and psychological. As Simeon the New Theologian, an 11th- century Greek Orthodox spiritual master, writes in his treatise on Three Methods of Attention and Prayer:
“You should observe three things before all else: freedom from all cares, not only cares about bad and vain but even about good things… Your conscience should be clear so that it denounces you in nothing, and you should have a complete absence of passionate attachment, so that your thought inclines to nothing worldly.”

Into the Void

Only in such a way, Simeon asserts, is it possible to develop a capacity that he calls attention of the heart, the foundational prerequisite for being able to actually follow the teachings of Christ. In The Heart of Centering Prayer, I show how he implicitly recognizes that these teachings emerge from a much higher level of consciousness than that ordinarily attained by our fretful, polarized minds.

But lest you get the impression that attention of the heart is merely a spiritual attitude, its companion teaching, putting the mind in the heart, makes clear that something much more embodied is being envisioned here. While this veritable mantra of the Eastern Orthodox tradition might be misconstrued as merely advocating emotion over thinking, it is very clear from the texts themselves that putting the mind in the heart is not merely a devotional attitude; it is accompanied by specific instructions on concentrating and holding attention in the region of the chest, effecting what contemporary neuroscience would more typically describe as an entraining of the brainwaves to the rhythms of the heart. Attention of the heart is not merely a metaphor; it denotes a whole new physiology of perception without which permanent nondual attainment is impossible.

This is not to say that this awareness is absent in the Asian traditions. I vividly recall the story of a Buddhist master being asked how he arrived at some spiritual insight. “My mind tells me,” he says, gesturing to his heart. It may very well be that the Asian masters would simply never have conceived of separating mind and heart in the first place. But in Western translations of Asian texts, that nuance does not reliably come through, resulting in many maps—such as Ken Wilber’s influential levels of consciousness, which support the inference that Third Tier consciousness rests squarely on Second Tier and is hence merely an extension of the cognitive mind into new and higher realms of experience. The Western maps, properly interpreted, would make clear why this is not so and can never be so.

Third Takeaway: This sensate experience of “mind in the heart” is the principal explanation for Christianity’s stubborn attachment to the language of the personal.

Viewed from the outside, Christianity’s habitual preference for “spirit in second person” (as Ken Wilber would call it) would seem to betray it as an inherently dualistic spiritual terrain. From the philosophical perspective, it is all too easy to spot the signature configuration of a God ‘out there’ and a theological and devotional superstructure whose images are drawn heavily from the realm of affective—even blatantly erotic—love. The divine is simultaneously ‘first cause’ and ‘holy beloved’ but never my own deepest selfhood. The assertion that “I and the Father are one” was shocking even when emerging from the lips of Jesus himself! That jagged cleavage between Creator and created, God and self, seems congruent with a level of consciousness that is still splitting the world into inside and outside, running the classic dualistic program of identity through differentiation.

From the phenomenological perspective, however, the picture shifts substantially.

Let me ask you a question: What actually happens when you bring your attention into the heart? I don’t mean by emotional suggestibility, visualization, or even devotion in the usual sense but, rather, by exactly the practice those ancient orthodox masters have prescribed: by collecting attention via sensation in the region of the chest so that the heart does begin to light up and come online as an instrument of perception. Try it. What is the felt-sense taste of that experience?

“Pure intimacy… Objectless intimacy… Intimacy without something or someone attached to that intimacy…”

I’m quoting here from my dear colleague Robert Sardello, who describes this process meticulously in his remarkable book Silence. I myself have replicated the process many times now. I’ve tasted the hem of it frequently during periods of centering prayer, which, through its steady practice of releasing the attention from its captivity to specific focal points and returning it to a state of more spacious, undifferentiated awareness eventually arrives at the same destination by a slightly different access point. With a sudden lurch, the mind drops into the heart, and there the stillness is indeed frequently suffused with what those ancient Christian masters called “a warm tenderness of heart.”

It stands to reason, really: since the heart perceives through vibrational resonance, the emotional signature of this resonance is intimacy: a sense of kinship or belongingness with everything in a single coherent and compassionate whole. Intimacy is the heart’s innate vibrational field, its own signature way of knowing and being in the world.

As I draw this essay to a close, I would ask you to consider here that the real reason for Christianity’s stubborn attachment to the realm of the personal has very little to do with either a presumed ‘big Daddy God’ in the sky or the projection of egoic pain and pleasure onto a metaphysical roadmap. Rather, it has to do with the fact that every genuine insight and teaching that has ever been generated in Christianity has been generated in the heart—that is to say, under the species of intimacy. This is where and how mystical perception actually occurs (at least according to the unanimous testimony of the West), and the language simply bears witness to its place of origin. The great master metaphors of Christian spirituality (and indeed, of the entire Western tradition—‘mystical marriage, ‘nuptial union,’ ‘bride of Christ,’ the unitive way, the Heart of God, the Christic epicenter) are not to be construed as a literal assertion that on and on into the cosmic realms the divine reality is overrun with human beings and human issues and human drama. It is rather a way of authenticating that divine revelation transpires within the domain of heart, under its aegis and agency, making connections not through the cooler logic of metaphysics but in the warmer language of vulnerability, surrender, intimacy, and engendering.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” So true, so true. And when God is seen in the heart, God can only be seen as ‘thou.’ Because ‘thou’ is what the heart sees. ‘Thou’ is how the heart sees.

It takes some digging to get there, admittedly. But for me, this is above all else Christianity’s supreme contribution to the universal experience of the nondual.

This article originally appeared in Kosmos:

Cynthia Bourgeault, Modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine, and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path.


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