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The Law of Three as Spiritual Practice

In January of this year, twenty-two of us gathered in Bethlehem PA, for a Law of Three as Spiritual Practice Wisdom School. We came together from Colorado, Indiana, Florida, Toronto, Vermont, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Held in a rhythm of a traditional Wisdom school, this Wisdom School offered a very ‘practical teaching’ of the Law of Three with daily break out times for small groups to explore how to apply the Law of Three within our own lives. Working with an experienced ‘anchoring facilitator’, each group of three or four people engaged current life happenings, working together with the map of the Law of Three as the lens.

peacockIn 2013 Cynthia Bourgeault published The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three: Discovering the Radical Truth at the Heart of Christianity. The following year Marcella Kraybill- Greggo attended a Wisdom School where Cynthia unpacked her book, highlighting key teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. The “Law of Three” refers to an assertion that every phenomenon is a new arising that comes into being through three distinct lines of action. The first force is holy affirming, the second force holy denying, and third force holy reconciling. This teaching posits that the Law of Three is more ‘midwifed/mediated than taught’. Marcella came home from that Wisdom school wanting to experiment in a small group setting. As this teaching highlights:

We are often ‘third force blind’ in our own lives and need others to help midwife what is truly wanting to be born.

 

So, how do we learn what it means to help midwife this process in another…to aid in their ‘arising’…and how might others help in midwifing what is happening within our own lives? With those curiosities and a desire to listen deeply, Law of Three midwife groups were created.

Key Law of Three teachings anchor these midwife groups:

“Just as it takes three independent strands of hair to make a braid, so it takes three individual lines of force to make a new arising. Until this third force enters, the other two forces remain at impasse. These three lines of action are free of moral judgment and they are neither “good” or “bad” (Bourgeault, 2013, p. 26).

 

Cynthia also says:

“Denying (second force) is never an obstacle to be overcome but always a legitimate and essential component of the new manifestation… The “enemy” is never the enemy but a necessary part of the “givens” in any situation, and solutions will never work that have as their goal the elimination of second force” (p. 29).

 

Over the course of this three-day Wisdom school, we explored each line of action through multiple mediums: the ‘felt sensation’ of each force in the body and how each line (aka holy denying, holy affirming, holy reconciling) manifests in gesture; through the medium of music/songs that capture each line of action. Cynthia has said that the Law of Three can perhaps best be learned through music–aka Taize Veni Sancte Spiritus, or Paulette Meyer’s “Art thou in the Darkness” chant. In my four-year work with Law of Three midwife groups I have found that the best way to learn the Law of Three is to learn it in ‘sensation’…to tune into the sensation that happens in the body with each line of action, to learn to ‘recognize it’ in the body as it happens.

Over time the invitation is to begin to ‘make space for third force’ in sensation, in our body. Literally, when there is a holy-the-denying bodily sensation–that noticeable clench, or that bracing, or that felt sense of ‘push back’–in any part of the day or in any part of a conversation, to allow that felt sense of seeming constriction to ‘wake me up’ and alert me to the possibility of the Law of Three at work. To invite me to pause and get curious, to not resist, but to literally begin to trust, to welcome it and to literally relax into it knowing that this too, this seeming push back, is a necessary part of the equation of transformation. “No denying force, no growth”. In fact, Maurice Nicoll aptly says:

“If you want something, you have to calculate on the existence of 2nd force, or passive force, which is the force of resistance to what you perhaps quite simply and innocently want and expect to be given. This 2nd force meets everything that you want at every turn, at every point. So the Work teaches that if you want something—if you make an aim, say—you must calculate this 2nd force which will at once oppose what you want, what you aim at. … Now in reality, if you want something, you will inevitably have to meet the opposing force to what you want—that is, 2nd force or force of resistance to what you want—and contend with it”. (Nicoll, p. 1016, vol 3).

 

Our mornings together in the Law of Three Wisdom School engaged teachings about these embodied Law of Three ‘energies;’ our afternoons engaged these ‘lines of action’ in our bodies through the body wisdom forms of InterPlay, engaging in play and noticing, honoring and exploring the sensations of each line of action. Following this embodiment we broke into our daily two hour Law of Three midwife small groups. Each small group member engaged a personal scenario, with group members attending to the dynamic particulars through the lens of the Law of Three.

A member of one of Marcella’s original Law of Three groups notes,

“Seems to me that our third force group IS an organization at a higher level, that has the power to manifest what none of us could do individually, as Teilhard envisioned.”

 

Two participants of this January 2019 Wisdom School shared the following about their experience:

Waltzing the Law of Three

When I got back from a three-day Wisdom School on the Law of Three in January of this year and I was seeing triangles everywhere.

Law of Three, in the Wisdom tradition of Christianity, is the theory that the most basic, most pervasive dynamic of life is a triangular dance among three kinds of forces: First Force–affirming (active, forward moving); Second Force—denying (passive, push back); and Third Force—reconciling (neutralizing, transforming, catalyzing … etc.). The first two forces may end up in opposition but Third Force is present (though hidden) in the stalemate, and when it comes into play, change happens. Something new arises. Still, all three forces are necessary for that to happen.

This waltz is how things evolve on every level, from the subatomic to the universal. It is in the very nature of God (think Trinity as process more than persons). It operates at the level of the individual human psyche and in our interactions with each other.

HolyTrinityBook

 

“Law of Three” has been, for me, the most difficult-to-grasp concept in the Wisdom tradition. Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, is a tougher read than most of her other writing. But it is smooth sailing (to use a Law of Three metaphor) compared to the Gurdjieff-ian, Needleman-ish Boehme-ic expositions of this concept, which seem to invite the most abstract, exotic, intellectually elevated sort of thinking, while also claiming justifiable resonance in the ways of the heart and the workings of the body. And so the terminology can be awkward and the concept itself tends to slip—or dance—out of your grasp, just when you think you’ve gotten a handle on it.

But it seems to offer so much—not only a grand Theory of Everything but also a powerful self-help, group-help tool. After all, if you can just discern that Third Force present in any personal or social logjam you can potentially ride it down the flowing River of Life until you hit the next evolutionary snag. And then do it again. And again and again and again.

So I was looking forward to Marcella Kraybill-Greggo’s first-ever Wisdom School on the Law of Three, which, she promised, would be an embodied experience of the Law of Three. How about that? Forget theory, pretty much, and dance it out. What a concept!

It took some getting used to. At the beginning, my head wanted more theory, clearly explained. But something happened during the first Interplay session, a “Wisdom of the Body” Movement process (see interplay.org), when we left words behind altogether. I noticed that many of my movements embodied Second Force—“Holy the Denying,” as Marcella would say. I’d been having some agitated thoughts throughout the morning and, sure enough, in the afternoon play I was moving in the opposite direction from everybody else, cutting in front of people, playfully bumping against them. It cleared my head and opened my heart!

The small group session that followed demonstrated the power of this kind of pattern recognition in solving problems and finding personal life paths. The aha moments, when the one presenting a personal dilemma got a whiff of Third Force, provoked tears and laughter in equal measure. That night in my wakey-wakey hours:

I started seeing triangles everywhere. I thought back on my recent experiences with women in Congo developing, together, a program to turn out a new cadre of adult literacy teachers. We have watched the project ignite tremendous energy in its participants—leaders, new teachers, and new learners. I have experienced the thrill of allying with what I now recognize as Third Force. We have seen how Second Force obstacles were necessary, how new realities have arisen, and new First Force passions are pushing in new directions.

 

My co-leaders and I have told that story as the work of the Holy Spirit. In the middle of the night I wondered if the Holy Spirit is Third Force? Could it be that this little Wisdom School on the Law of Three was really a workshop on the methods of the Holy Spirit?

In the light of day that idea seemed both presumptuous and too limited. (Holy Spirit? God? is in all three forces, surely.) For a moment I thought I saw in the Congo story an elegant progression as the three forces and the new arisings shifted to different places on the triangle. I remembered reading something about that in Cynthia’s book. But when I checked the relevant passage I couldn’t quite fit my experience into the theory, which is still dancing just beyond my grasp. This first Law of Three school left me wanting to know more about how it all works beyond the very personal level.

Still, Law of Three is probably better learned by practice than theory. It has become a new spiritual practice for me, which I will follow both on my own and in concert—dance—with others.

The candle, tissues, and chocolate are pretty obvious but how did our small Midwife group’s altar end up including a lamp, a shell, and a bar of soap? Wouldn’t you like to know!
   ~ By Nancy Myers of Indiana

Nancy has continued meeting with her Mennonite women Law of Three
midwife group once a month via zoom, since the Law of Three Wisdom
School. See Nancy’s blog “Traychon” in The Practical Mystic, applying
the Law of Three to ‘race relations’ in her back yard.

Dancing with Law of Three

In late January of this year, I was privileged to attend the Law of Three as Spiritual Practice Wisdom School retreat in Bethlehem, PA, led by Marcella Kraybill-Greggo. A sense of community was there from the start, though I was unsure where I fit. During the first chant, I realized I did not need to define my place. The beauty of the singing made me feel part of something bigger. Those around me naturally added their musical interpretation and the depth of the harmonies beckoned me. I felt included, despite my lack of range and inability to improvise. As I sang, I dropped deeper into the vibrations and the poetry of the words. I was comfortable in the stillness and alignment of my body, a characteristic shared with my main practice of Centering Prayer.

I felt safe in this space, which allowed me to participate in practices that made me uncomfortable at first. We spent time in movement, exploring how certain words felt in our bodies. We interacted with each other nonverbally, then strengthened our understanding of the experience through verbal sharing. I sensed that we had barely scratched the surface, but the body wisdom we discovered bore incredible fruit later in the day.

During our small group midwife sessions, we got curious about how the Law of Three showed up in our lives. Each person brought a real-life scenario to apply. We engaged dynamically, listening equally to mindful curiosity, body response, and heartfelt support. For my situation, I found myself speaking about what had been weighing heavily on my heart for months. My group helped me to see that I was imposing conditions that didn’t need to be there. My either/or approach shifted to both/and.

I view the role of tension differently now, working to appreciate and welcome it as an essential ingredient for transformation. And I am internalizing the importance of showing up with my whole self, in active participation.

I am grateful to our leader, Marcella Kraybill-Greggo, and the rest of the team. “This work is not for the faint of heart.” That must be even more true with respect to leading it. The words I’ve written are not adequate and represent only a snippet of my experience. I participated in something both eternal and finite. I felt the presence of the many teachers whose foundational work has led to this process. I witnessed evolving leadership in Marcella’s guidance and energy. I caught a glimpse of the potential this process holds.

I will no longer limit my definition of prayer. Dancing with the Law of Three gives me more tools.

 

I will continue to develop within the safe space of my midwife group and take what I learn into the world. By using both/and–silence and sound; stillness and movement; solitude and relationship–I do my part in becoming receptive to Divine Ambush. I hope it makes my life a living, dancing prayer.
   ~ By Lisa Beyers from Colorado

Lisa has continued meeting with her four-person Law of Three small
group once a month via zoom, since the Law of Three Wisdom School.

 

In closing

During the final morning of our Wisdom School Mary Ellen Jernigan, treasurer of the Northeast Wisdom board who participated in this Wisdom school, offered these words:

“I am struck by the Spiritual maturity of this community; there is an Incarnated spirituality here which seems to come as part of the fruit of Law of Three as a Spiritual Practice. Having experienced this Wisdom School, I have now seen the fruit of Northeast Wisdom. We’ve been loosely holding and gathering the incarnation of Wisdom that Cynthia began. Bethlehem community is a center of exploding Wisdom, incarnated in the world.”

 

Marcella in the middle with 4 of the Law of Three small group facilitators–Maggie Wellert, Rita Purcell, Pat Herbst, Lisa Bryan…and not pictured Linda Klopp.

If interested in learning more about Law of Three midwife groups, Marcella can be reached at marcellak2@aol.com.


Marcella Kraybill-Greggo: A teacher, spiritual director, and participant in the Wisdom School community, Marcella lives in Bethlehem, PA with her family, having spent her early years in Tanzania, Africa as a child of medical missionaries. Marcella is Co-director of the Spiritual Direction Graduate Certificate Program at Moravian Theological Seminary as well as the Clinical Director for Moravian’s MA in Clinical Counseling. Marcella holds a Master’s in Social Work along with a certificate in Spiritual Direction. Marcella has led multiple Wisdom Schools and offers an annual 8 month Training in the Practices of Wisdom program.

For additional background and reading about Marcella’s work with the Law of Three, check out: northeastwisdom.org/breaking-ground/to-midwife-third-force-creating-law-of-three-midwife-groups

Comments (3)

  1. Marcella – Deep bow to your bringing the Law of Three into consciousness for so many of us!! And for helping us practice and use this amazing tool in so many ways.

  2. After the January Law of 3 retreat our small Law of 3 group, with the addition of two others, has continued to meet once a month using Zoom. It continues to amaze us how by working together we have moved through life situations and challenges by recognizing and sensing the shift of third force. What was hard to do individually is thrilling to do as a group. I no longer view “obstacles” (second force, denying force) as a problem they are part of the solution to move us into new arisings. I am very grateful to Marcella for putting these teachings together as she has.

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