Modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, Cynthia Bourgeault divides her time between solitude at her hermitage in Maine, U.S.A., and traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and wisdom path. Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault is one of the foremost international speakers on contemplative prayer, described by Richard Rohr as “one of the few spiritual teachers to give us genuinely fresh insights”. Author of many books including The Wisdom Jesus.
In this article, we share the transcripts of a talk by Cynthia titled the Power of Contemplative Prayer: Christian Non-duality and Attention of the Heart and organized by WCCM in association with Contemplative Outreach, it was recorded on November 8th 2016 at St James Priory, Bristol.
The Power of Contemplative Prayer: Christian Non-duality and Attention of the Heart
It’s a thrill to be here in bristol. I’ve always known it was a beautiful city from the outside. But I’m saying it’s a beautiful city from the inside to see so many people here, driven I’m assuming by a common yearning for those treasures of love and silence and equanimity and blessing that are opened up in the practice of meditation. So it’s a thrill to be with you on this cold rainy transition of the season night. And I would have to say, if you haven’t figured out by now that I hailed from the United States, you may know that we’re going through the eye of the needle tonight in a political election that will have an impact on the whole world. And so to have a whole group of people gathered together intentionally in silence, praying in your heart that all may be well on our planet is I think a blessing and it’s certainly a personal one to me. I don’t consider you so much an audience as compatriots on the road, colleagues of the heart as we build a different kind of a planet on the foundations that have been so beautifully handed on to us in our traditions.
So my first purpose tonight is to really give you a little bit of a trailer on my most recent book that will be out sometime in December, figuring in publishers’ slowdowns and others, but it’s called ‘the Heart of centering Prayer, non-dual Christianity in theory and practice’.
We’ve got a few little cards about it around and about you know. But since I know very, very well that we have a mixed audience of practice tonight with people about equally divided between those that do centering prayer, those that do Christian meditation and those that do other practice as a nun. I don’t want to set up the talk in a way that I’m talking only about centering prayer because what I really have to say tonight is relevant across the board.
If you’re doing a practice of kind of contemplative prayer, of meditation by any Christian path, what I have to say tonight is about that. So we’ll take that commonality and work from there. Some of the technical nuts and bolts in my book have to do with specifics of centering prayer, but that doesn’t concern what we’re going to be about tonight or what the book is going to be about tonight. As I think most of you know, in the 1970s we had a real awakening in Christianity, a real change when the contemplative awakening began in earnest with the introduction of parallel simple practices of meditation into the Christian tradition. Considering prayer and Christian meditation, offering these two parallel tracks which made it possible for the first time really in about 1500 years, for Christians, particularly lay Christians working in the world to do a serious practice of sitting meditation without having to engage in other traditions.
So this has been very, very important. It was really a sea change in how Christianity was understood and practised and I think this has had a profound impact on Christianity as we now know it today. It’s amazing to think that we now have a history about 40 years long of people who have voluntarily subjected themselves to a rigorous daily practice of meditation and have therefore opened up and initiated in themselves all the changes that come about, the changes in perception, the changes in attitude, the changes even in physiology, in neurology that happen when you really open yourself and take on meditation as the basis of your life practice. So we’ve got a 40-year track record now of people in at least the hundreds and thousands if not the millions in Christianity who have been experiencing this, taking it on and letting it do its thing inside them.
So this has of course opened up and developed a whole new kind of person who exhibits and we’ve even seen out there now that neuro meditation has become more and more common, and you can wire people up to FMRI and see what’s happening in the brain when meditation is engaged. And we see measurable data on the effects in stress reduction, equanimity, brain plasticity, rebalancing, all of these fruits of meditation plus those fruits that our own tradition has constantly pointed us to: the opening up of a different way of seeing a different, whole system of perception that grows out of seeing the world through this angle. So we have this whole databank of Christians that are really living in a sort of different Christianity. A Christianity that is not so much tied to their head, their intellectual rationals, their dogma, their theories but to the actual insight that comes to us from the cushion.
So what I’ve gotten interested in is that this also opens up to us for the first time a new window of interpretation on the ancient core texts of our Christian mystical and contemplative tradition. And because as they like to say in the inner tradition that the lower cannot perceive the higher, there are certain things that can only be perceived from the level at which they’re written. What we mainly have had in our tradition is this great mystical tradition of people who have seen who viewed, who understood, who have applied these deep powers of luminous insight that we’re always called in our tradition: Contemplation. That body of data has by and large been interpreted by scholars who use their own rational methodology but often can’t see the subtle connections that are available only in the process of practice and in the fruits of practice.
So I began to see that, chapter and verse, as I worked on my own in centering prayer. Now, as many of you know, the core text for the practice of centering prayer is the cloud of unknowing, that 14th Century anonymous British spiritual classic. And I had first met this book for years and years, years and years before I ever got interested in meditation in my earlier work, I was a graduate student and I worked on this as a piece of medieval literature. So I read all the things that people usually say about the cloud of unknowing that ‘oh, it’s a classic of Christian love, net of love mysticism and on and on’ The scholars go from the practice of centering prayer and working closely with centering prayer and kind of leveraging my experience on the prayer cushion with what was said in the book, I all of a sudden began to see something very different about the cloud of unknowing. It is not, as scholars have said, a tree ties about love mysticism, that it really is an extraordinary early study in what you would call now the phenomenology of consciousness.
In other words, the levels of consciousness and how you move from one state to the other with very specific insights and instructions about how to do this. And so I said ‘wow’. And I was realizing that in the light of my experience with centering prayer, I understood things about the cloud that I’d never seen being said by scholars who were studying it in English literature as a subset of the early English vernacular literature. A whole different ball park. So in other words, I realized that what we have when we do the practice of meditation is that we open up a lens of contemplative seeing upon the texts. And what I proposed to do in my book ‘The heart of centering prayer’ is to look through that lens and see what it can tell us about Christianity’s well-hidden practices and understanding of non-duality. So that’s the history, that’s what the book is up to in a nutshell.
And what I’m going to unpack for you this evening and an even tighter nutshell. this will be Julian of Norwich compacted nutshell upon nutshell. But, at any rate, I remember years and years and years ago, it was just my luck to be flying home from the west coast from California on an aeroplane one day just at the end of the breakup of the first conference, the ending of the first conference on science and non-duality. And at that conference, those conferences have been going on for probably a dozen years now. And at the end of that particular conference, I overheard two gents in the aeroplane sitting in front of me talking about it and listening to all the speakers as well. There was the Dalai Lama and the usual suspects of Buddhism the great Hindus, the great neurologists of our time.
And somebody said, well what about the Christians? And the other fellow says, well, there were no Christian speakers because Christianity has no tradition of non-duality. That’s what it often looks like when you read the texts from the outside. The reasons usually given for the assumption that Christianity has no tradition of non-duality is because the language in which Christian mystical and non-dual experience is couched, the language in which it’s written is usually in terms of the metaphors of love and nuptial union and personal betrothal with God. And from a Buddhist perspective, as you look at it, you say, aha, they’re stuck in a personal God they’re stuck in affection, they’re stuck in sentimentality,. Therefore they’re not non dual. So it’s on that basis that I’ve heard said many times that the Christian religious tradition has no third-tier representative text.
I think that’s completely wrong. But I think that in order to unpack the language of Christian non duality, you need to adopt the view from the meditation cushion.
So what I want to do is talk about some things that become very, very clear once meditation enters your life, not only as a tool for personal transformation but as a tool for interpretation. As an interpretive lens on the tradition that we’ve received. So that’s where we’re going to go.
What does Non-Duality mean?
I realize I need to begin a little bit with a better definition of this term non-duality. It’s one of those terms, that’s everywhere and my book publishers did what all book publishers did do and say, let’s get the word non-dual in the title somewhere because it’ll sell better, because things sell better if they have non-dual in the title now at least among the spiritual thing. So we put it in. But I think a lot of people really don’t have a clue what non-duality means. It’s one of these words like soul, which has been so kind of gerrymandered and privatized and there are a million different definitions out there that you might do better to just declare a moratorium on the use of the term until everybody could agree at least on a baseline. Non-dual is getting to be like that.
“What people agree is that it [non-duality] seems to point to a higher state that has something to do with oneness. But beyond that, interpretations go off in radically different directions. That and they range in a gamut going from on the one hand definitions that say, well non-dual simply means that your paradox to tolerant. You don’t think in black and white.”
Read the full article over at WCCM
Connect live with Cynthia
The Alchemy of Love
With Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault and A.H. Almaas
Saturday, July 15, 2023 10–11:30am PDT
A live online community conversation