Jean Gebser’s cultural home base was the world of art. He was a personal friend of Pablo Picasso’s, and examples culled from art history dot the landscape of his The Ever-Present Origin, illustrating almost every significant point he makes. It’s not surprising that his master interpretive lens, perspective, should itself derive from the domain of art.

Yes, perspective. Just like you learned in elementary school art. When you first began drawing pictures, probably as a preschooler, Mommy and Daddy and your big sister were always bigger, no matter where they appeared in your picture, because that’s what they were! Then someone taught you about foreground and background, and you learned how to make things at the back of the picture smaller to show that they were farther away. You learned to turn your house at a slight angle on the page so that you could show two sides of it at once. You may or may not have consciously realized that you were learning how to proportion the various bits and pieces in relation to a hypothetical point on the horizon. But your drawings got more orderly, and they began to convey a sense of depth.

That’s exactly what we’re talking about here. Perspective. But now applied as an organizing principle for the field of consciousness.

According to Gebser, the five structures of consciousness we met up with in my November 18, 2020 post Stages Versus Structures: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson I (you will find the link is at the bottom of this post)—archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral—can be grouped into three larger categories, or three worlds, as he calls them: unperspectival, perspectival, and aperspectival. While the nomenclature may at first feel intimidating, it’s actually quite easy to master if you keep your elementary school art days in mind. Unperspectival is how you drew before you learned about foreground and background, when everything was all just jumbled onto the drawing sheet. Perspectival is the drawing sheet once you’ve learned to arrange it in relationship to that hypothetical point on the horizon. And aperspectival is what ensues once you’ve learned to convey several perspectives simultaneously, as in some of Picasso’s surrealistic artwork where he simultaneously shows you the front side and back side of a person. A heads up: in Gebser the prefix “a” always conveys the meaning of “free from.” Thus an aperspectival view is one that is free from captivity to a single central point of reference.

The Unperspectival World embraces the archaic, magic, and mythic structures.

The Perspectival World hosts the mental structure.

The Aperspectival World is the still-emerging integral structure.

Each of these three perspectives is properly called a world because it comprises an entire gestalt, an entire womb of meaning in which we live and move and make our connections. Each has its own distinctive fragrance, ambience, tincture. Each is an authentic pathway of participation, an authentic mode of encountering the cosmos, God, and our own selfhood. Each has its brilliant strengths and its glaring weaknesses. Compositely, they evoke “the width and length and height and depth” of our collective human journey into consciousness.

I am aware that I am walking the razor’s edge as I choose my words here, trying to escape the gravitational field of perspectival consciousness that would lock this all back into the evolutionary timeline. It is true, of course, that these three worlds broadly demarcate the three major epochs of Western human cultural history: ancient, medieval, and modern. But it’s always been a bit dicey to try to hold these timelines too tightly or to limit structures of consciousness to specific historical eras. We have stunning exemplars of the mental structure breaking through in ancient Greece and Israel, and the mythic still lives among us today in much of the American heartlands. Gebser’s model deftly sidesteps these all-too familiar cul de sacs by reminding us that the “worlds”—and the structures they encompass—are phenomenological, not developmental. While they appear to join the flow of linear time at specific entry points, they have in fact always been present and must continue to be present, for they are part of the ontology of the Whole.

Gebser’s visually oriented presentation allows him to make one additional very important point. From a visual standpoint, perspective is really a matter of dimensionality, and dimensionality is in turn a function of degree of separation. Gebser builds on this insight to draw powerful correlations between the emergence of perspective within the structures of consciousness and the emergence of the egoic—i.e., individual—selfhood so foundational to our modern self-understanding.

In the unperspectival world everything exists in guileless immediacy (remember preschooler art?). There is relatively little separation between viewer and viewed, the external world mirroring a self-structure that is still fluid and permeable. This is the world of “original participation” (as philosopher Owen Barfield once famously described it) where the cosmos is at its most numinous and communicative, and the sense of belonging is as oceanic as the sea itself.

As we enter the perspectival world, the double-edged sword begins to fall. The same growing capacity for abstraction that makes possible the perception of proportion and depth also—by the same measure—increases our sense of separation. We stand more on the outside, our attention fixed on that hypothetical point on the horizon which organizes our canvas and maintains the illusion of depth within a flat plane. Order is maintained, but at the cost of a necessary distancing and a strict adherence to the artifice that makes the illusion possible in the first place. Deception enters riding on the back of that abstractive power, as “original participation” gives way to a growing sense of dislocation and exile. That is essentially our modern world: “oscillating,” writes Jeremy Johnson in Seeing Through the World (pg. 58) “between a powerlessness to control the forces unleashed by the perspectival world on the one hand, and a total self-intoxicating power on the other”—in a word, “between anxiety and delight.”

It is my own observation here (rather than either Jeremy’s or Gebser’s) that the perspectival contains an inherently deceptive aspect since it is intentionally creating a sleight of hand—the illusion of three-dimensionality within a two-dimensional plane. But if I have not wandered too far off the mark, the observation gives me some strong additional leverage for emphasizing why resolutions to the perspectival crisis can never emerge from within the perspectival structure itself, and why the much-hyped “integral emergence” cannot simply be a new, improved version of our old mental habits—not even a vastly increased “paradox tolerance.” We need to get out of Flatland altogether.

For me, that is what aperspectival is essentially all about. It is an authentic transposition of consciousness from a two-dimensional plane to a sphere. Within that sphere, inner and outer world come back together again, and a sense of authentic belongingness returns. Numinosity returns as well: the felt-sense of a cosmos directly infused with the vivifying presence of Origin. Selfhood once again becomes fluid and interpenetrating even as presence becomes more centered and intensified.

The perspectival is at best a foreshadowing and at worst a mental simulacrum of authentic aperspectival three-dimensionality. The real deal can indeed be attained; in fact, it is now breaking in upon us whether we like it or not! But the cost of admission is not cheap: it entails the overhaul not only of our fundamental attitudes, but of our entire neurophysiology of perception.

I hope to circle back to this point in due course. For now, the most important thing to keep in mind is that in the Gebserian system perspective is not simply a point of view; it is a completely different world of seeing, unfolding according to its own protocols: its own core values and ways of making connections. To truly take in another’s perspective is not simply to take in another’s “position” and arrange the pieces dialectically on a mental chessboard. Rather, it is profoundly to take in another world and allow that world to touch our hearts and wash over us deeply until it, too, becomes our own. It is to listen in a whole new dimension. And I believe Gebser would argue that this dimension only truly opens up with the inbreaking of the aperspectival structure.

A Note from Northeast Wisdom/Wisdom Waypoints:

We appreciate your comments, please share your reflections in the Comments section below.

Jeremy Johnson’s book: Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, is available from the publisher, here at Revelore Press.

This is the third posting in the Exploring Jean Gebser series by Cynthia Bourgeault. You will first the first and second posts here on this website:

An Invitation to Begin the Healing Work: Exploring Jean Gebser, Introduction;
Stages Versus Structures: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson I.

Stay tuned for “The View from the Periscope: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson III” coming soon!

The introduction to this series, entitled An Invitation to Begin the Healing Work, was posted November 10, 2020, and is an invitation to dive in together with the work of Jean Gebser, seen first through the eyes of Jeremy Johnson in his book Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness. Lesson II will follow closely on the heels of Lesson I, so stay tuned!

If you’ve cut your teeth on the Ken Wilber roadmaps, the Gebser terrain will at first look reassuringly familiar. The familiar levels of consciousness are all right there, even designated by their familiar names: the archaic, magic, mythic, mental, and integral. Nor is this surprising, since Wilber explicitly acknowledges Gebser as the primary source of his model.

There is one crucial difference, however. In Wilber, these are stages of consciousness. In Gebser, they are STRUCTURES of consciousness.

Perhaps the significance of this nuance escapes you (it certainly escaped me initially). But on this nuance, actually, all else turns.

Stages EVOLVE. They are like steps on a ladder, building sequentially one upon the other in a journey that leads onward and upward.

Structures UNFOLD. They are like sections of a jigsaw puzzle or rooms in an art museum, gradually filling in to reveal the big picture (which already implicitly exists).

This means that stages are essentially developmental. The earlier stage is folded into the next, in the process losing much of its distinctive character. The earlier stage lays the groundwork for what emerges next.

The inverse way of stating this is that the earlier stage represents a more immature expression of what is to follow.

It is not so in the world of unfolding. As you wander through an art museum, each room retains its essential character and wholeness; it weaves its own magic and adds its own distinctive fragrance to the mix. There are the medieval iconographers, the ornate baroque sculptures, surrealists, impressionists, cubists, each one of them retaining their own identity—“unconfused, immutable, undivided” (in the words of the Council of Chalcedon, describing the two natures of Christ). While these artistic eras did emerge at specific points in historical time, they do not replace one another or cancel out each other’s unique identity. Rather, they complement and deepen one another, like interwoven threads in an unfolding tapestry. And at certain times a certain room will speak to you more than the others. The cubists may be further along on the evolutionary timeline, but today it is the medieval icons that are calling to you.

Even at best it’s not easy to grasp the difference between developing and unfolding. The difficulty is further compounded, however, by the pronounced psychological bent of the models we’re more used to (Wilber’s, and following in his footsteps, Thomas Keating), which draw an explicit correlation between structures of consciousness and stages of childhood development. Thus, the “magic” structure corresponds to the consciousness of a toddler, “mythic” to a child, and “mental” to an emerging young adult. Viewed through this lens, the implication becomes well-nigh inescapable that these earlier stages are also “lower”—i.e., immature, more primitive—expressions of full adult consciousness. They are developmental phases to be passed through— “transcended and included,” perhaps— but certainly not lingered in. As Jeremy Johnson comments, Wilber’s roadmap, brilliant though it may be:

…still retains a perspectival linearity that reduces the previous structures (the magic and mythic especially) to a state of mere infantilism…[His] developmental solution necessitates a strictly linear view of consciousness emergence, saving the transpersonal for the higher stages while still reducing the so-called “lower” stages to a childlike fantasy rather than a true and now lost mode of participation.” (pg. 79)

“As it stands,” Johnson adds, “this perspectival synthesis is incompatible with Gebser’s thinking.”

And you can imagine where things might be headed when this undetected linear bias starts to get projected out on whole groups of people deemed to be at a “lower” evolutionary level.

To enter the world of Gebser, the first and most important shift required is to recognize that we are indeed talking about structures of consciousness, not stages. Forget “onward and upward.” Each of these five structures is indeed an authentic mode of participation in the world,” and if they are not, perhaps, fully equal partners, they are at least fully entitled partners. Each is as qualitatively real as the other, and each adds its particular strengths and giftednesses to the whole. They are not so much steps on a ladder as planets in orbit around the sun, which is their central point of reference, the seat of their original and continuously in-breaking arising. Gebser calls this sun “The Ever-Present Origin.” I will have much more to say about it in subsequent posts.

The muting or repression of any of these structures leads to an impoverishment of the whole; this is true both individually and across the broad sweep of cultural history. While these structures may emerge into manifestation at certain points along a historical timeline, they are not created by that timeline nor determined by events preceding them in the sequence. Their point of reference is the Origin, which is outside of linear time altogether and intersects with the linear timeline by a completely different set of ordering principles. They are, one might say, timeless fractals of the whole, each bearing the living water of that original fontal outpouring in their own unique pail. They are ever-present and ever-available “at the depths,” even those that have not yet emerged into full conscious articulation on the linear timeline.

The “final” structure, then— the true Integral in Gebser’s worldmap—may in fact be not so much a new structure itself as a capacity to hold all the other structures simultaneously, in what Teilhard de Chardin once famously called “a paroxysm of harmonized complexity.” It is not so much a new window on the world as the capacity to see from a deeper dimension which transcends both linear and dialectical thinking and can deeply, feelingfully encompass both jagged particularity and the unitive oneness flowing through it, holding all things in relationship to their source.

This new dimension will be the subject of my next posting. But for the moment, take a deep breath. Can you feel a little more spaciousness opening up in the picture, a little more forgiveness?

A Note from Northeast Wisdom/Wisdom Waypoints:

The first blog in this series was posted on November 10, 2020 and may be found here a: An Invitation to Begin the Healing Work: Exploring Jean Gebser, Introduction. The next post in the series will be posted on November 24th and you will find it here at: Unperspectival, Perspectival, Aperspectival: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson II.

We appreciate your reflections, please share in Comments, below. Thank you!


Image credits from the top: Rainbow walkway, image courtesy of Rene Baker, Unsplash; Pablo Picasso, 1914, Pipe, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc, courtesy of Coldcreation, wikimedia commons; Rainbow eye image courtesy of Chiara F, Unsplash.

Well, the oasis of grace miraculously opened, and now it’s time to roll up our collective sleeves and get on with the healing work! I know that my own first assignment has something to do with helping to expose—and hopefully defuse—some of the reactivity and sanctimoniousness that boils just below the surface in my immediate peer group, the spiritual liberal intelligentsia.

Sometimes a book simply falls off the bookshelf when the time is right. In this case, it wasn’t the bookshelf, but my nightstand, where for the past year this modest, aqua-covered text had been slowly inching its way down in my pile of unread books. To whomever the now-unremembered giver may have been, THANK YOU! It has definitely proved to be the right book for the task now at hand.

The book is called Seeing Through the World by Jeremy Johnson and is a brilliant introduction to the teaching of Jean Gebser, a name you may not even have heard of. As I devoured the book in a single weekend (fortunately, it’s short), I could feel my world once again gently rocking on its foundations, always a good sign that a book has really hit home. I knew instantly I had a tiger by the tail.

I shared my enthusiasm during our small Wisdom gathering at Claymont in late October, and about half that group are now also up to their eyeballs in Johnson, with similar shifting of their mental tectonic plates. I could see that Gebser—through the brilliant eyes of Jeremy Johnson—was handing me exactly the tools to see where I’d been pinned for so long now, both personally and culturally.

Jean Gebser (1905-1973) was a German-Swiss philosopher, mystic, and early scholar of the origin of consciousness. If his name rings a bell, it is probably because of his seminal influence on Ken Wilber, whose highly popular evolutionary models of consciousness have set the cognitive baseline for so much of our contemporary spiritual understanding. What I had not realized until reading Johnson, is that what Wilber has given us is actually a MERCATOR PROJECTION of Gebser: a two-dimensional version of a three-dimensional teaching. In this flattening, significant distortion has entered, and this undetected distortion has itself contributed significantly to some of the anguish and polarization we now find ourselves caught in.

I bit the bullet this past weekend and ordered Gebser’s original text, The Ever-Present Origin. (In English, not the original German; at least that much I let myself off the hook.) Still, I know the ways of these twentieth century European cultural philosophers, and I quake at the task before me when the book finally arrives; I hope my mind is still up for this! But Jeremy Johnson’s overview has given me some solid handholds, and from what I can deduce so far through my recent explorations of imaginal causality I have already been traversing some of the same ground as Gebser. I’ll report back on that in due course. Meanwhile, what I intend to work with in this next series of blogs will follow something of this trajectory. I think:

  1. First of all, I want to make a pass through three foundational pieces of the Gebser model:

1) Structures of consciousness (as opposed to STAGES of consciousness); 2) the intrinsically divisive/splintering proclivities of the late (deteriorating) mental structures of consciousness; 3) Integral understood not as non-dual but as APERSPECTIVAL seeing: the capacity to draw on and simultaneously integrate all former structures of consciousness (not just points of view).

  1. Then I will attempt to sidle back and explore what light each of these tenets have to shed upon the place we’re now culturally pinned and how these subtle Gordian knots might be disentangled.

If you’re up for joining this exploration, I encourage you to buy Jeremy Johnson’s book and explore it firsthand. It’s easily available online. We’ll see where this initial pass goes. I may later try to develop this as a more formal online course. But for now, I think we need some of these tools on deck, even in a preliminary stage of development, to begin to really tackle that portion of the national healing that falls on our own particular shoulders.

Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness,
by Jeremy Johnson, is available from the publisher, here at Revelore Press.

Image credits from the top: Japanese waterfall at Powerscourt Gardens, courtesy of Terryballard, Wikimedia Commons; Rendez-vous, by Piza Arthur-Luis; image credit Reunion des Musees Nationaux-Grand Palais / Gérard Blot; photo image of
Seeing Through the World book cover, courtesy of Jonathan Steele and Cynthia Bourgeualt, cropped.

Dear Wisdom Friends,

Once again it’s that time of the year when I have the privilege of inviting you to renew your financial support for Northeast Wisdom.

Despite or because of the pandemic licking at our heels, your Wisdom Council has had a highly productive year, one of our best ever. As online teaching became “the new normal,” Council members Matthew Wright, Marcella Kraybill-Greggo, and Bill Redfield stepped up to the plate with a rich offering a of Zoom study groups and retreats. And of course, out there in the field, many of you were doing likewise in this time of planetary “pause and reset.” Hearty thanks to every one of you who have been holding down the post. It has made a difference.

This year we went back to the drawing boards, literally. In recognition of the growingly international character of our network (which now stretches from New Zealand to the Yukon) and the need to share resources more effectively and with an enhanced online outreach, Bob Sabath and Laura Ruth headed up a task force (also including myself and designer Andrew Breitenberg) to lay the groundwork for a major overhaul of our Northeast Wisdom website, improving its functionality as well as reflecting its increasingly international mission field.

You will see these changes rolled out in 2021, including a new logo and even a new name as Northeast Wisdom will shortly become “Wisdom Waypoints.” In GPS navigation, a waypoint is a specific location en route to your final destination. Once programmed into your computer, it allows you to check your position, mark your progress, and stay on course as you journey forward. Aside from the synchronicity of being available as a domain name, it also seemed like a lovely way to picture the work we are collectively about. Imagine our globe encircled by a network of wisdom waypoints, each providing bearing checks and collectively keeping the ship on course as our planet journeys along its imaginal trajectory. Here is a sneak peek at the new logo:We are hopeful that these changes will be implemented in early 2021—and that these changes will result not only in a new look but a determined commitment to increased collaboration and resource sharing among the various waypoints. Efforts in that direction are already solidly underway, as we explore an even closer partnership with The Contemplative Society in British Columbia, the original flagship in our Wisdom flotilla. This is certainly among the most rewarding accomplishments of this 2020 calendar year.

My own year has been quiet, but similarly productive as I used the planetary “time out” to complete several writing projects. My new book, Eye of The Heart, made its appearance just this past September. And in the upcoming year Monkfish Publications will be publishing (under the title Mystical Courage) the blog series I shared with the Wisdom community on the Northeast Wisdom website during the height of the pandemic lockdown.

Meanwhile, I have been venturing back into on-the-ground teaching, which I still find to be my appointed post as we step slowly out of lockdown mode and prepare both inwardly and outwardly for a longer term journey with COVID in our midst. Check the NEW calendar for remaining offerings in 2020 and the 2021 docket as the pieces gradually fall into place. It would be a blessing beyond blessing to see you all again face to face.

Amid all this solid activity, the year also brought a bittersweet transition as Bill Redfield announced his retirement from our Wisdom Council to carve out more time for his own rapidly growing online teaching presence. His work is clearly meeting a huge need, and I rejoice for his servant’s heart even as I will miss his gracious and generous presence close at hand. Godspeed, Bill! Your spirit and soul are indelibly stamped into the very marrow of this little organization, which you midwifed so beautifully. And welcome aboard, Marcella and Matthew, who will share leadership of the Council as we move forward, collectively, into whatever the future holds in store.

Thank you, all of you, for your generosity. Collectively, we are making a difference in our planet. 

With love and gratitude,



Matthew and I (Marcella) want to add a note to say how excited and honored we both feel to be elected to serve as a Co-chairs of Northeast Wisdom/Wisdom Waypoints during this deepening/focusing/birthing year. This past year Northeast Wisdom has sought to support the spiritual nourishment that people have been craving through this extraordinary time, gathering to practice and study together, with often increased vulnerability and trust, reckonings and openings. It feels, as Laura Ruth aptly stated in a recent Council gathering, that we are on a threshold, a precipice of NEW things.

We have been amazed and grateful for the community response to our two Wisdom Book Practice Circles, which together engaged almost 200 participants. Additionally, being present together six times a week throughout this pandemic via our virtual Wisdom Centering Prayer sits has brought new ways of steadying and offering heart connecting with each other and with our beloved world. Those of you ‘stepping into post holding’ for these Wisdom sits expand our Wisdom presence and interconnection. Having Jeanine Siler Jones join our Wisdom Council this past year has also added new breadth and steadiness to this vision.

Serving our Wisdom Collective is our mission and passion, and if you have been touched by these offerings and have benefited from the sense of connection and formation offered through this Wisdom work we invite you to partner with us in helping to continue ‘manifesting Wisdom in our world.’ For those who can make a donation of $150 or more, a copy of Cynthia’s latest book, Eye of the Heart, will be sent as our gift to you. We invite each of you to join with us in midwifing Wisdom—in your own community, through prayer and our shared intention, and through a financial gift of any size. We are deeply grateful for your financial support that helps us continue Wisdom’s manifestation in new and exciting ways.

We have so much love and gratitude for all of you in our Wisdom community, and we look forward to our collective synergy in the year to come!

Marcella & Matthew

Northeast Wisdom is committed to supporting the Wisdom Community across the country and around the world, and its fount of ‘new arisings’ in the Wisdom lineage of Cynthia Bourgeault. With your generosity and support, Northeast Wisdom hopes to “bear the good new wine of Wisdom to a parched and bewildered world.”

In appreciation for your gift of $150 or more, we would like to send you a copy of Cynthia’s latest book: Eye of The Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm.



 Join us, with your contribution, in the amount that is sustainable to you.
Every gift is received as a gift from the heart, growing the community and furthering the work of Wisdom in the world.

Thank you!

 The October 2020 Northeast Wisdom—soon to be Wisdom Waypoints—Council

Clockwise from top left: Marcella Kraybill-Greggo (Co-Chairperson); Cynthia Bourgeault; Matthew Wright (Co-Chairperson), Laura Ruth; Bob Sabath; Jeanine Siler Jones; and Mary Ellen Jernigan (Treasurer)

My heart is filled with gratitude and reverence for the sixteen plucky souls who accepted the invitation to join me for a tiny, on the ground Wisdom School in Stonington this past September 6-10. Officially we broke ground on my new book, Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm. On a deeper level we engaged together in the soul-searching work of exploring the pandemic from the standpoint of imaginal causality and attempting to generate some of those missing “spiritual nutrients” in whose absence the heart of our collective humanity has been slowly withering. At the head of the list was an element I call “paschal courage:” not the reckless courage that states “God is on my side; I’m invincible!” but the quietly gathered equanimity of the cross that affirms “Whether I live or die, I am the Lord’s.”

We studied, prayed, chanted, conversed till long into the night, did Gurdjieff movements, practiced Centering Prayer and tonglen, drank in the healing air of Stonington, and released the web of our hearts back into our planet. It was a wonder to be in each other’s presence again.

In this journey into what lies beyond the domain of death, our spiritual epicenter naturally constellated around our beloved Bob Sabath, who despite a still-compromised immune system in the wake of eight months of rugged chemotherapy, risked three days on the road and a week in a semi-secured environment to entrust his heart to the finer energies available in the physical presence of his fellow seekers. From his surrendered, invincible presence he gave us a teaching of astonishing clarity on Gurdjieff’s “Make Strong” exercise. Others in the group found themselves similarly walking on water, steadied by his extended hand, rising to renewed depths of inner resilience and courage as the week drew to a close and we prepared to return home and take on whatever lay on our plates.

Rebecca Parker encouraged us not to lose touch with—and to share as we could—the deep nourishment we had collectively received. In the wake of her invitation, the conversation has been flowing, and so far as I know, everyone is still alive and well and still substantially under the sway of that remarkable beauty coiled within the human soul when Christic love again becomes the master of the dance. Dear Bob, of course, called us all to the task at hand in his remarkable teaching, with a little help from his buddy Rumi:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep.

Here is a bit of the ensuing conversation. First, a thoughtful reflection by Bill Espinosa:

Two mornings this last week I woke up to a familiar voice intoning the last line of the Heart Sutra:

“Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi savha”
Go further, go further and further and then further to the distant shore.

Or as the Dalai Lama explains it: Look deeper, look deeper and even deeper and deeper to understand the relational nature of reality where form becomes emptiness and emptiness form. I think Cynthia brilliantly took us deeper and deeper into the realities of the less dense worlds. I am grateful to Cynthia and to all of you for making this remarkable journey possible.

I think that on returning (and aided by the journey), it is also our three-brained-being duty to uncompromisingly penetrate deeper and deeper and deeper –a different kind of “gate, gate, paragate”—into the realities of our contemporary earthly Worlds 48 and 96. I know that I shield myself from the harshness of some widespread conditions and most of us envelope ourselves in comforting identities. I think we have a duty not only to do this work ourselves but to ask it of others around us even though it will not make us popular.

I continue to believe that as painful as COVID is, it is a harbinger of more profound challenges. It illuminates the deep-seated inequities in our society and it flashes orange, orange, red—like the California skies—to warn of the perils that ignoring nature could shortly bring. I think we all need to dig deeper here. Help may come from other worlds but I think that in important evolutionary ways, Earth is in human—our—hands. Thanks to all of you again for your presence, stories and love.

And a remarkable, “Emmaus” encounter recorded by Tim Shriver:

Let me add my thanks. And a quick story.

So, I’m riding my bike toward a beach path I’ve never visited on Saturday after my return. I get off the bike to cross a narrow wooden bridge that stretches over a small marshy inlet to an open beach. Ahead of me are two women—moving very very slowly. So, I slow down and notice they are mother and daughter—about 50 and 70 or so, a bit hunched, with baggy t-shirts and loose pants. The daughter is struggling with movements and wanting to turn around. They turn and face me and I could see the weathered faces of love and compassion. The two of them have travelled many roads together, I knew right away. The daughter with matted and unkempt hair was living with a difference—limited language, limited analytic intelligence, halting movements. The mother was living with the child of her creation. Somehow, I knew they’d been together for all their lives. 

So they started toward me and the mother cautioned her daughter: “Stop honey. Let the man go by.” But I was in no mind to go by. “No,” I said, “you come first. I’ll wait here and you take your time.”

A small smile inched across the daughter’s face and the mother said something nice like, “Thank you.” I stood my post waiting for them to traverse the 15 or so feet on the bridge to go by me. And as they approached, the daughter, wearing a bright red and blue hat looked up at me and her hat blew off into the marsh. She didn’t even notice and kept walking. But her mother turned to her and said, “Honey! What happened to your hat?”

“Wait,” I said, “I bet we can get the hat. It’s just down below us in the tall marsh grass.” I looked over and there it was, resting on the grass above the water level. Enter an old salt fisherman, worn out looking with a rod and stepping onto the bridge to cross over to the beach. The fisherman says, “Wait. I have a rod and a hook. Let me see if I can catch the hat.”

We all watched the old salt dangle his hook above the hat and with one easy motion, he hooked it and reeled it in. “Here you go honey,” he said. “I got your hat and you don’t have to worry about a thing.” The daughter, from under her uncombed and wild hair smiled broadly. The mother, helped her place her hat back on her head. “Say thank you to the man darling.” “Thaaaaannnnnnnk yooooouuuuuuu,” she said. And the old man couldn’t quite take it all in. He just looked at her with more love than a human knows what to do with. “O, don’t worry. I’m so happy I got your hat. You look so beautiful in that hat.”

Then the mother and daughter continued across the bridge, back to the land side, apparently foregoing their intended trip to the beach. And the old salt turned to me and said. “Sometimes, you know why you’re alive. That was the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. My heart is bursting.”

And I just looked at him and thanked him. “Yes,” I said, “Sometimes we know why we’re alive. My heart is bursting too.”

Then he walked, ever so slowly, to the beach to fish as the mother and daughter walked onto land, down the road to who knows where. 

I don’t know more than that except that I felt all of you on that little bridge as a mother of great love and daughter of great struggle taught an old fisherman and me the path of receptivity and courage—maybe even paschal courage. Somehow, I know they’ve lived their whole lives making their minds and bodies and hearts into agents of the Imaginal, World 24—and maybe even the Christic, World 12. And they passed through the shock points slowly, graciously, with many years of practice in the art of love—and fearless love at that—the kind that just holds the post when everyone and everything else has left you.

And when it came time to be their students, I know it was each of you who helped me slow down and stay awake so I could see the master teachers as they passed. Love to you all.

Witnessing these words, Rebecca shared: “Wow, what a dialogue between what you offer as analysis Bill and Tim’s response with a living story. Feels like Tim gave witness to the complexity and call and love that you write about Bill. A conversation on courage – thank you to each of you for listening deeply with an enlivened heart – three centered knowing. I’m holding this one.”

This moment is both difficult and precious,
so it is protected fiercely.

Don’t go back to sleep!



Image credits from the top: Cynthia’s newly published Eye of the Heart: A Spiritual Journey into the Imaginal Realm, courtesy Shambala Press; Sea Kayak Stonington blogspot, image courtesy of Michael Daugherty blog; Sunset Bridge image by Martyna Lucja, courtesy of Unsplash; Watercolor Earth image courtesy of Elena Mozhvilo via Unsplash.

Sharing from my notes on Tuesday morning during the Imaginal Wisdom School at Valle Crucis in North Carolina, Cynthia offered an inner task for the day:


In a place outdoors and completely alone, take off your mask and draw ten precious conscious breaths of air. Taking in that clear fresh air, standing in our fractured biosphere where we have over sanitized and over protected, engage through your breath—homeopathically—the immune system of our collective body and earth, and on the outbreath offer your own precious gift of breath back to the world.

This morning, Cynthia offered a live transmission of the first part of the “Four Ideals” exercise in morning prayer; and you will find a taste of what she shared there in these pages of the “Four Ideals” commentaries.

This is the third post on the “Four Ideals”—the last of six exercises Cynthia offered as “Pandemic Homework” to strengthen and stabilize our being in service to these times—and part a series of posts which began in March 2020. We suggest you begin the “Four Ideals” with the first and second of these Part VI posts, which you will find directly below this blog here on the home page. More information and links to both the entire Pandemic Homework series and to the book of exercises may be found at the bottom of this post. And please, post your comments below!

Cynthia continues:

The next important thing to consider as we approach the “Four Ideals” exercise is what it means to “represent something to yourself,” as you will shortly be asked to do, sequentially, in this exercise: for Mecca, India, Jerusalem, and Tibet. What, specifically, does this entail?

In my first pass through this topic—which you will find in my post “Atmosphere:” Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises, Part IV—I mention that representing something to yourself is not quite the same as visualizing it. In practical terms, however, it does take a bit of time to get the hang of the difference between them. Visualization is more mental, imagistic, sharp-edged, and—inasmuch as it remains oriented toward the surface of things—superficial. Representing dives below the surface, is less concerned with the appearance and more with the overall energetic impression, and is in fact carried more by sensation than by cognition. A student in the Bennett line of the Work helpfully clarifies: “The images (Kaaba in Mecca, etc.) are seen in one’s eye at first, but during contact no mental picture is present… We don’t contact the mental image but the reservoir of energy.”

You may find it helpful to begin by establishing a strong sensation in the limb itself before introducing any image, or even the place name. As you do introduce your image, do so in the spirit of Thomas Keating’s celebrated mantra:

Ever-so-gently, like a feather placed on a ball of cotton.

Straining or forcing toward a desired effect is not the best way to concentrate. Remember that the real trick is to concentrate your attention not at the objective pole but at the subjective one—i.e., at the core of yourself. Then it can flow out effortlessly and brush the object lightly without getting stuck there, as we practiced in “Clear Impressions:” Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises, Part I.

So instead of frantically trying to conjure up mental images of Mecca or the Taj Mahal, instead, get settled and stable inside yourself, establish sensation in the appointed arm or leg, and when you’re ready, gently bring the intended location to mind. Invite it to come “online.” You will be surprised how the pieces start to fill in of their own accord. Mecca, Jerusalem, India, Tibet: each come gently to you, even if you have never physically been there or studied a tourist brochure; even if you don’t know exactly who Lama is or how Mohammed got to Mecca in the first place. Remember, this is an energy exchange, not an information exchange. Something deeper than your mind is at work here.

Those of you who have spent time praying with icons may have well some inkling of what this “something deeper” might be—or at least, of the direction in which it lies. The subtle dance that goes on in this practice as you fall into entrainment with an icon is a fairly good analogue to the entrainment that actually undergirds the process of “representing.” At first, you think you’re the one gazing at the icon. But as you allow yourself to be drawn in through its eyes, you begin to get the distinct feeling that the icon is also gazing back at you! Then as the entrainment grows still deeper, both “you” and “icon” gradually disappear, and you step through the portal it has now become, directly into the cave of your heart.

The key that really unlocked this exercise for me, however, came totally out of left field about twenty years ago, with no direct connection to the exercise at all. It was less than a year after Rafe’s death, toward the end of a late fall teaching gig at the Vancouver School of Theology. Still raw in my grief and clinging for dear life to the soul-bond I still sensed between us, I was doing my best to keep his image continually before my mind, fearing that to lose concentration would be to lose the connection. One afternoon as I was walking along the shoreline lost in my usual doleful efforting, a sudden catspaw came hurtling across the water, and a voice distinctly Rafe’s whispered in my inner ear, “Shhhhhh!!! You do not have to come all the way to me because I am also coming toward you…”

Talk about having your head instantly rearranged.

Fundamentally, it’s so simple, so very, very simple. Why, after all, should we imagine that it is only from our side that the work is being done, that the water we are endeavoring to draw from those reservoirs is impersonal and mechanical, obedient only to the Newtonian laws that govern the physics of this earth realm? No, we are talking here about a meeting ground, where the highest aspirations of human hearts throughout the ages have met and been graciously received by these higher cosmic servants on the other side who are also coming toward us because they love us and are invested in our ultimate flourishing.

Mecca does not appear because we conjure it up through our own powers of concentration; it arrives because the megalocosmos is imbued with intelligence, compassion, and a deep responsivity to our sincere desire for connection. It is the tenderness that evokes it, not the skillfulness.

Even if you don’t have a clue how to take this first step into “representing Mecca,” take it anyway. Trust. Somehow Mecca will appear.

A Note from Northeast Wisdom

This is the third of seven commentaries on the “Four Ideals” exercise: you will find the first posted here:  Preliminary to the “Four Ideals” Exercise, Part VI, A.

In this current commentary Cynthia refers to two of the earlier posts in this series:
“Atmosphere:” Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises, Part IV
“Clear Impressions:” Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises, Part I

All of these posts are part of a series Cynthia initiated in March 2020, which begins here: Pandemic Homework.

Look for the fourth post on the “Four Ideals” exercise early next week on the home page blog. Enjoy!

 Joseph Azize’s book: Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in the Azize book, with extensive supporting research and commentary. It is a great resource, and highly recommended.

This week, Cynthia is introducing these exercises in person to a small group gathered in person in North Carolina at Valle Crucis, while over one hundred are participating in the six-day retreat online.


Images from the top: Prayer flags, image courtesy of Tibet Travel; Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Mount Mercy, image courtesy of REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa; Catspaw water image courtesy of Tim Mossholder, Unsplash; Heart Sutra DNA, painting by Iwasaki Tsuneo found in the book Painting Enlightment: Healing Visions of the Heart Sutra by Paula Arai, photo courtesy of Laura Ruth; Cynthia at the Imaginal Wisdom School, August 2020, Valle Crucis, North Carolina, screenshot courtesy of Marcella Kraybill-Greggo with special thanks to Robbin Brent, retreat organizer and film producer extraordinaire!

We recommend beginning your reading about the Four Ideals with Cynthia’s post “Preliminary Remarks: The ‘Four Ideals’ Exercise, Part VI, A” found just before this one on the home page. In it she introduces elements of the exercise, and offers guidance for us to find our own way into the actual practice of them. It is not necessary for you to be familiar with the Pandemic Homework, this series of blog posts and the Gurdjieff exercises, in order to receive the taste and fragrance of them through these commentaries. There is much to ponder here and you will find more practical information at the bottom of this post.

Yesterday, at a retreat happening in North Carolina and online, Cynthia spoke about the Imaginal World and how these exercises help us to grow and stabilize our ‘beings’ in order to gather and hold the grounded presence required to experience, and then offer to this world, a glimpse of connection with a new way of being. Beautiful work, that is challenging and so needed for our world. The Four Ideals is the last exercise in a set of six, and the most complex. Check out the entire series (links, and an inner task from the retreat, at the end of this post) and please, share your comments with us. May the fruits of our collective “conscious labor and intentional suffering” teach us to be active participants in the divine exchange and sow small seeds of healing love for the planet and all beings. In Cynthia’s words:

The Four Ideals exercise consists of two parts linked together by a short, crucial bridge. Each of these three segments poses its own challenges, but the first section is literally “the biggest stretch.”

In this section you will be doing the familiar limb rotation—though in a slightly unfamiliar order. But now, in addition to the direct sensing of the limb itself, you will also be attempting to establish a contact between that limb and one of “the four ideals,” as Gurdjieff calls them—four sacred individuals who stand at the headwaters of their respective religious lineages and have served this planet with the highest degree of purity and devotion. These are Muhammed (right arm), Buddha (right leg), Christ (left arm), and Lama (left leg.)

To be more accurate, you will be trying to establish the contact between your limb and the prayer-rich atmosphere hovering just above the place where each prophet lived: for Muhammed, above Mecca and Medina; for Buddha, above India; for Christ, above Jerusalem; for Lama, above Tibet. In the Adie version of the exercise, which here as usual forms the basis for Joseph Azize’s commentary in Gurdjieff : Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises, this atmosphere is depicted as a “foyer of substances” where the cumulative energy of the prayers, aspiration, and devotion of the faithful are concentrated. The invitation here is to establish a connection—a “thread”—between each of these “foyers” and the corresponding body part, and through that thread begin to “assimilate these substances and accumulate them in yourself” (p. 231)—presumably for the building up of your own higher being-bodies.

If you feel your head starting to spin here, it’s understandable. There is enough audaciousness, challenge, and plain old “Huh?” packed into just those two sentences to keep me going on these commentaries if I wanted to until well into the fall. But if we take it in small bites and limit ourselves only to the most important points, I hope you will be able to stay onboard with this exercise long enough to at least get a glimpse of where it’s heading.


Starting at the top….

First of all, these “four ideals” are not ideals in the sense that we now typically understand this word. They are not values, virtues, or noble ideas you want to emulate in your life. They are actual embodied individuals, who physically walked on this planet and carried us all on their backs. In the Bennett version of this exercise, they are known as “The Four Prophets,” but to my (Christian) theologically trained ears, “prophets” sets the bar a little too low. Prophets come from below; sacred individuals come from above. Whether you call them avatars, “Messengers from Above,” or “the Highest and Most Saintly Common Cosmic Sacred Individuals” (Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 317, in reference to the Very Saintly Ashiata Shiemash), the point is that these “Four Ideals” are human beings of the highest order of spiritual magnitude. They emanate from realms far higher than our own along the Ray of Creation, and bear the luminous substantiality of those realms even as they walk about in human flesh.

So I had to chuckle when Azize listed as one of the “secondary theoretical elements” on his list: “The ‘ideal’ himself actually exists” (p. 233). Of course he exists! First-order beings are immortal within the cosmos. They never go away. They make themselves eternally, graciously available to our beleaguered planet. And that is in fact, in my estimation, precisely the reason this exercise actually works. But let me hold my further comments on this point until somewhat later in this series.


“Where prayer has proven valid…”

Remember, however, that you are not trying to directly connect with the ideal himself, but rather to “represent” to yourself the “reservoir”—“foyer”—“atmosphere” of energy generated around the place where that prophet had his chief sphere of operations. While this apparent reluctance to aim higher may or may not finally prove to be a failure of mystical nerve (that’s an issue I want to circle back to a bit later), there are nonetheless two excellent practical reasons for placing our attention here. First of all, the experience of a highly-energized atmosphere around a holy place is something that I daresay most of us have actually tasted. Whether it’s an ancient church or monastery, the tomb of a saint, The Upper Room in Jerusalem, the sacred river Ganges, or the Kaaba in Mecca, where millions of Muslim faithful make Hajj, you know that something gathers in these places, and this “something” remains available there in an unusually concentrated dose. It hangs in the air as thick as incense in those places “where prayer has been proven valid,” as T. S. Eliot put it, and through it you find your own prayer mysteriously intensified.

You will probably recognize exactly what Azize is talking about in his first two bullet points on this exercise: “Higher substances” form certain “reservoirs” above the earth…[formed] from emanations and vibrations that arise when people pray to the “Ideal” who lived on the spot of earth immediately below” (pg. 233). And at least this gives us a concrete starting point as the other, more “out there” premises on which this exercise is based still go swirling around in our heads.

The other thing that’s useful about this focus is that it is so geographically expansive. As you allow right arm, right leg, left arm, left leg to connect with Mecca, India, Jerusalem, and Tibet, you are essentially inviting your body, as it comes into sensation, to become co-extensive, symbolically with the entire world—“the four corners of the round earth,” in that marvelous image from the poet Christopher Smart. And in our broken and aching world, that is a powerful self-extension, itself a mysterious form of embrace in a world where embracing has suddenly become too scary to even imagine. As you do the familiar body rotation, but now sensing each of your limbs as somehow connected to a geographical place on the earth and, through the atmosphere just above it, to its corresponding Ideal in worlds beyond, you may well feel yourself expanded both horizontally and vertically, becoming momentarily co-extensive not only with the whole world, but with the whole Ray of Creation. Do not think you have done nothing here. It is a sensation from which you never emerge unchanged.

A Note from Northeast Wisdom

This is the second of seven commentaries on the Four Ideals exercise, the first posted here at Preliminary Remarks: The “Four Ideals” Exercise, Part A, all of which are part of the Pandemic Homework series that Cynthia initiated in March 2020. Look for the third post on the Four Ideals later this week on the home page blog. 

Cynthia refers in the commentary above to the five other exercises in the series; you will find the first post for each exercise here: Clear Impressions; Lord Have Mercy; Make Strong! Not Easy Thing; Atmosphere; and the Web practice. Happy travels!

Joseph Azize’s book: Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press.

All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in the Azize book, with extensive supporting research and commentary. It is a great resource, and highly recommended. 

This week, Cynthia is introducing these exercises in person to a small group gathered in North Carolina at Valle Crucis, while over one hundred are participating in the six-day retreat online.

In the first couple of days, Cynthia led the gathering in the Atmosphere exercise and on the second morning gave the group an inner task for the day:

Try as much as possible to stay within your quieted atmosphere—your collected state—and return to your atmosphere when you notice you have been pulled out of it. Return to your atmosphere as the woman of Samaria returns to Jacob’s Well, to the abundance of the living water.  

Responsible stewardship of your own atmosphere allows you your first taste of the Imaginal World, filling you with quiet life; it is the beginning of second body. This is strong, it is no small stuff.

Do this for the world; it is helpful to everything around us. We are always emanating; let us emanate quiet life.


Images from the top are “holy places…the air as thick as incense…where prayer has proven valid”: Entry to the Upper Room, Jerusalem, image courtesy of Suzette Tawzer, Trover; Golden Door of Kaaba, Mecca, image courtesy of Faisal Al-Abdullah, Wikimedia Commons; Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India, image courtesy of Cacahuate, Wikimedia Commons; Church of the Holy Sepulchre: Station Nine: Jesus falls for the third time, Via Dolorosa, Jerusalem, award winning image courtesy of Berthold Werner, Wikimedia Commons; On the Tibet China border, courtesy of a happy Wikimedia Commons user giving back, Wikimedia Commons; Cynthia on the mountain image courtesy of Cynthia Bourgeault.

Cynthia’s opening remarks at her first on the ground retreat in the United States since the issuance of the pandemic stay at home guidelines, took place last Sunday, August 17 2020, in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. She referred to the work of individuals and small groups, across the country and world-wide, who are taking up these Gurdjieff exercises, emphasizing that she felt the embodied heft of their contribution, and the gift of these practices to bear the fruits of the spirit. Cynthia encourages each of us to take our own steps into these exercises gently—and seriously—listening within for the preparation and timing that serves us. More specifics follow below!

The Four Ideals is the last exercise in the Pandemic Homework series; links to Cynthia’s commentaries on the other exercises and to the book can be found at the end of this post. We welcome your voice in the comments section below. Now, let’s hear what she has to say as she introduces the Four Ideals exercise:

The Four Ideals Exercise is complex and demanding. It will draw on all the practices you’ve been working with in the exercises to date, then up the ante still another notch. Of all the Gurdjieff exercises, it is the most cosmic in scope and the most unabashedly mystical in tone. In the Bennett line of the Work students were not even allowed to embark on it before spending a year in specifically designed preparatory practices. While the Bennett version of this exercise is somewhat more technical than the original Gurdjieffversion we’ll be considering here, one is nonetheless well advised to approach this exercise in a state of inner preparedness and with all due respect. The terrain we will be traversing here is numinous and powerful.

My purpose through previous posts, in what may have seemed to you all like a lengthy digression on the Web atmosphere and practice, was really to open up some sense of the vastness of this terrain, both in the enormity of its scale and in the profundity of its demand. The Four Ideals exercise really unfolds against the backdrop of the entire Megalocosmos, as Gurdjieff calls it —i.e., embracing the full wingspan of The Ray of Creation in the dance of reciprocal giving and receiving that maintains the entire created order in a dynamic equilibrium. Both horizontal and vertical exchange are fully in play here, and if your heart is strong enough to take it, and your presence deep enough to hold it, you can indeed begin to sense yourself as a living particle of this infinite cosmic dance. You begin to taste the true scale of things—and to grasp, in those immortal words of St Paul, “how wide and long and deep and high” is the Mercy flowing through these ancient cosmic ley lines.

The Four Ideals exercise will call specifically on four skills you’ve learned in our earlier exercises:

  1. The four-limb body rotation (“Clear Impressions,” “Lord have Mercy”), together with spinal extension (“Clear Impressions”)
  2. The “I AM,” placed on the breath (“Make Strong”)
  3. The retention during the outbreath of some finer particulate of “being food” carried in the air (“Make Strong”)
  4. The capacity to “represent” a notion to yourself (“Make Strong,” “Atmosphere,” “Web”)

In addition, you will find it helpful to call upon the following more general capacities, all of them hopefully will be well imprinted through your work with the previous five exercises:

  1. The sensation of full, three-centered participation—“With all three centers, do!”
  2. Some feeling for the complementarity (i.e., symbiotic unity) of “I AM” and “Lord have Mercy”
  3. A visceral sense of what it means to remain within your atmosphere
  4. Some feeling for how individual atmospheres can be joined “at the apex,” to form a web, through which energy and assistance flows.
  5. A direct sensation of what it means to “…free my head. Free it from words;” to make it remain in the body.

Before plunging into the Four Ideals exercise, my recommendation would be that you take some time revisiting each of the earlier exercises, reviewing these individual components with the awareness that they are about to be synthesized in a whole new way. Practice the skills that come hard; luxuriate in the ones that come easily. Prepare yourself both inwardly and outwardly for the task you are about to take on.

And remember, TAKE YOUR TIME! There is no rush to get through these exercises; any impression that this is some sort of an e-course with a curriculum and timeline is simply a trick of the presentational format. In the original circumstances—still the normative circumstances within properly constituted Fourth Way groups—students would regularly work for months on a single exercise, each pass-through taking them deeper and deeper into the hidden treasures to be revealed there. A new exercise would be introduced only as the students were ready, and according to no pre-determined order or timeline other than the readiness itself. Many of these exercises were not even originally intended for group use at all; they were “subjective,” in Gurdjieff’s words—individually created or customized for a specific recipient to meet a specific developmental need. Just as in lectio divina, if you rush through it, you’ve missed the whole point.

This is my first post in the series of essays on the Four Ideals exercise— intended, as always, only to get you launched. The rest is up to you, your fellow travelers on this journey, and hopefully some assistance flowing to us from those “Four Ideals” themselves. In any case, the commentaries will be here for you when you are ready, and there is no race course or time clock.

Like the Mad Hatter, “how you get there is where you’ll arrive.”

A Note from Northeast Wisdom

This is the first of seven commentaries on the Four Ideals exercise, part of the Pandemic Homework series that Cynthia initiated in March 2020. Look for the second post on the Four Ideals later this week on the home page blog.

This week in late August 2020, Cynthia is introducing these exercises to a small group gathered in North Carolina at Valle Crucis, while over one hundred participate in the week-long retreat online. Cynthia refers in the commentary above to the five other exercises in the series; you will find the first post for each exercise here: Clear Impressions; Lord Have Mercy; Make Strong! Not Easy Thing; Atmosphere; and the Web practice. Happy travels!

These practices may all be found in Joseph Azize’s book: Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises which is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in this book, with extensive supporting research and commentary. It is a great resource, and highly recommended.


Image credits from the top: “Christ in Silence” painting by Odilon Redon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; Image of sculpted hands in lap courtesy of pikist; and “Boat” painting by Adriano de Sousa Lopes, image courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simoes.

In response to the growing awareness around the globe that we are in the midst of a time of profound planetary readjustment, Cynthia began to teach in what we are calling the Pandemic Homework Series. She says: This is a permanent and collective reset of our collective human conscience and will resolve itself only as a few more of us become willing and able to step up to the plate to live a different reality. On Pentecost, Cynthia invited us to the “Web” saying, “I wonder if our casually joined atmospheres could indeed “warm the earth” on this day of cosmic arising.” May it be so, as we move into our days with the tender ardor of this Pentecost’s fire burning in our hearts.

You will find links to the whole of the series and to the book from which the exercises are drawn, as well as an opportunity to share your comments and questions, at the end of this post. Coming soon is Cynthia’s windows on the “Four Ideals” exercises, and her Pentecostal message.

We welcome you now to the last of the “Web” exercise commentaries.

One final point to keep in mind before we tackle the Four Ideals Exercise. The “Web” extends not merely horizontally, but vertically as well. It also serves as a conduit for exchange between the realms.

The world’s sacred traditions unanimously teach that there are other realms beyond our own—several higher, a few lower—each one furnishing a different set of conditions for the manifestation of divine creativity. Our own Christian notion of heaven and hell is an attenuated version of what has more broadly unfolded on the great cosmological roadmaps as “the Great Chain of Being.” These maps depict an elaborate procession of worlds within worlds, stretching from the unfathomable abyss of the Divine Unmanifest through progressively more variegated densities—angelic, causal, imaginal, material—until it finally meets its endpoint in total density, in what ancient cosmologists called “outer darkness” and contemporary cosmologists call a black hole.

To this elaborate roadmap Gurdjieff adds an all-important new twist. In his “Ray of Creation”—which is his equivalent for the Great Chain of Being—the energy does not simply stream out from the divine center in a continuous cosmic redshift. Something is returned as well. Each realm has a contribution to make to the well-being of its neighbors, so that along the entire ray, energy is not only lost but also gained. Entropy does not have the final word. Instead, the whole manifest universe becomes a single, gigantic self-specifying system, maintaining its dynamic equilibrium through the continuous exchange among its parts. Gurdjieff gives this process the jaw-busting name Trogoautoegocrat—“I keep myself alive by eating”—but you can also just call it reciprocal feeding.

This is of course the crucial piece of information that dropped off our post-enlightenment roadmaps both sacred and secular. Its disappearance largely accounts for the blind arrogance that led the human species into ecological catastrophe, unable to pull ourselves out. We’re working with a map that’s far too small, that leaves us still unable to fathom our solemn accountability within the vast scheme of things. As Gurdjieff forcefully reiterates, it is only within the full breadth of this great cosmological exchange that human beings can ever come to discover their true purpose and dignity.


The bottom line here is that we do indeed receive help “from above” —and we are expected to give help, not only to our own realm but to higher realms as well. The miracle is that we can actually do this.

The realm just “above” ours, widely known as the “imaginal” has long been seen as the nexus for this exchange between the realms. It has traditionally been understood as the realm of prophecy, dreams, visions, and subtle inner guidance. The closest Christian rendition of this idea lies in the Communion of Saints, with its underlying conviction that these attained beings are somehow still “out there” and willing to give help. This is no magical illusion. It is a vestigial remembrance of the true state of things, a remembrance which thankfully refuses to die in the human heart.

Gurdjieff’s own version of this teaching is found in his notion of a conscious circle of humanity. Bridging the so-called “abyss” of death, there extends a chain of conscious human beings—some still in bodily form, some on the other side, but united by the common denominator of their conscious work. They are the imaginal continuation of the human web, and their chain extends all the way across the imaginal realm to the threshold of realms still higher, from which the greatest of the cosmic servants descend. Along this entire chain of hearts—truly, organically, a great chain of beings—the uploading and downloading goes on intensely. Here on the human side we indeed receive wisdom, help, guidance, as well as sudden surprising infusions of clarity and force. And we offer back the fruits of our conscious work in the form of forbearance, gentleness, joy, peace, generosity, compassion—those perennial “fruits of the spirit,” through which not only our own planetary atmosphere but the entire ray of creation is warmed. It is our consummate human alchemy.

My own teacher, Rafe, was mesmerized by this vision of a conscious circle of humanity. He yearned more than anything to be a part of it, and he saw his own final life task as preparing me to take my place in that chain as well and hold up my end on this side once he had physically left the planet. I am quite certain he made it across and that his conscious service goes on in higher realms. As for myself, I have often felt in these twenty-four years since his death like the cabin boy left to steer the schooner, but I have done the best I could to stay the course and to stay true to what he taught me.

I do know the vital importance of keeping this line of inter-realmic exchange open, particularly at this crucial juncture in our planetary history. There is simply not enough spaciousness, breadth, hope, love, empowerment, or real juice left in the visions of either our secular or traditionally religious roadmaps. We cannot think our way out of this mess, and we can no longer even imagine our way out since establishment religion has long ago sold its mystical birthright for a mess of pseudo-psychological pottage. Only in that deeper listening will the way be found again.

Passion and compassion are still there to rekindle us. Our planet is infinitely precious and lovingly tended by those “higher being bodies” in worlds above. We humans are a crucial link in the great Trogoautoegocrat, and we will find our footing once again. But this will come to pass only as there are those who have learned to listen deeply into that great cosmic web, and are able both to receive and offer back the food that comes to us from above.

A Note from Northeast Wisdom 

Cynthia has been sharing her response to the pandemic sweeping the world with an on-going series of posts on the Northeast Wisdom website that began on March 23, 2020. That initial post, Pandemic Homework, outlined recommended practices that people could take themselves in response, and was followed by: 
From the Eagle’s Nest (the background to the instructions);
Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises;
Raised Cyber Eye-Brows: More on Internet Technology and the Pandemic Homework; and
Going Forward: Time, Tides, Benedict & Zoom.

The Pandemic Homework posts include a series of “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises,” which refer to the six (originally four) Gurdjieff exercises that are the first item on Cynthia’s to-do list.

The Commentaries are posted as follows: 
“Clear Impressions”: Commentaries Part I;
“Lord Have Mercy”: Commentaries Part II, A & B;
Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy” in Commentaries Part II, C;
“Make Strong! Not Easy Thing: Commentaries Part III, A & B;
Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, A;
Afterword to “Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, B;
Preliminary Remark, the “Web” Exercise: Commentaries Part V, A;
The Group Atmosphere: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, B;
Yin and Yang: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries, Part V, C;
Global Warming Revisited: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, D
Poverty, Chastity, Obedience: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, E.

Coming soon, Cynthia’s collection of essays on the sixth and final exercise, “Four Ideals,” following her “Pandemic at Pentecost,” next on the Northeast Wisdom home page blog.

Joseph Azize’s newly published Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in this book, with extensive supporting research and commentary, and all quoted references in this post are from it as well. It is a great resource and we recommend it.

Image credits from the top: photo courtesy of Erika Fletcher, Unsplash; photo courtesy of Kian Jafari, Unsplash; Rafe, photo courtesy of Cynthia Bourgeault; cover of Joseph Azize’s book, photo courtesy of Laura Ruth.

The initial commentaries on the “Web” exercise speak to the relationship between a personal “atmosphere” and the “web” that comes into being through group work together, and remains, undispersed, when the group is apart. As a potential exchange between the group atmosphere and the planetary atmosphere grows, Cynthia invites us here to consider how the monastic vows support, with “due humility and awe,” the group work possible at this level.

Welcome to Cynthia’s latest post in her Pandemic Homework series, the fifth of her Commentaries on the “Web” exercise, from Joseph Azize’s new book on the work of G. I. Gurdjieff. See the links to all the posts in the series at the end of this post, where you can also learn more about the book. We encourage you to share your comments below. Now, to Cynthia:

You might picture Gurdjieff’s “web” as a two-directional amplifier. Directed inwardly, it enables individual group members to draw continuing replenishment from the collective strength of the whole. Directed outwardly, it boosts the magnitude of the group’s common aim to a point where “you can have a reciprocal action on a whole city.” Through the amplifying effect of its web, the group becomes a real player in the planetary atmosphere.

This is an awesome invitation, of course. Were our hearts not burning to hear it? But it is also “awesome” in the traditional sense of the word, meaning needing to be approached with due humility and awe. For it carries a solemn responsibility and comes with all-too-real risks of running off the rails. Particularly for us “newbies” who have not been fully prepared to work at this level, and surrounded as we are by a culture that has largely forgotten this level even exists, the dangers are all too real of getting shanghaied by lesser agendas. Powerful work can indeed be done here—and I think is in fact crying out to be done here—but some fairly rigorous protocols need to be observed in order to ensure that our work remains sober, lucid, and safe.

As I mentioned in the last Web commentary, Global Warming Revisited, most of the rubrics are already embedded in those classic monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, once you learn to hear these not as ascetic renunciations but as practical safeguards for all esoteric work.

CHASTITY, in this case, means: Keep your atmosphere within its atmosphere.

In the “Atmosphere” exercise you practiced on an individual basis keeping your atmosphere within a certain finite limit of a meter to a meter-and-a-half: not letting it escape beyond that limit, not letting it get distended by thought or emotional waves. You practiced sitting within it, allowing its waves to quiet, and learning to maintain conscious stewardship of it as you brought it with you into your daily rounds.

The same is true, on a larger scale, of your group atmosphere. It needs to stay coherent and clear, able to stretch across whatever distance it circumscribes, without being unduly ruffled by waves of passion or grandiosity. It wants to be a still pond in which the full moon is reflected. All urgency or self-importance will immediately kill this reflective capacity—and alas, those impulses can ignite like brushfire in an atmosphere gathered around a common aim. Considerable restraint is needed here—chastity—to keep from being taken over by what Gurdjieff rightly calls “a misuse of the sex center”—i.e., intoxication, over-excitement, demagoguery, and all too often, violence.

POVERTY means: Give up all attachment to outcome. Even all curiosity about outcome.

It’s a natural human inclination to want to hold our aim a little too tightly and then wait eagerly for the results. We light a candle and visualize a specific outcome: the healing of our planet; the disappearance of the corona virus; a restoration of the broken links of our human community. But it never works this linearly and in fact can’t work this linearly, for imaginal causality is not linear but synchronous. It produces its effects nonlocally, instantaneously, in places you’d never expect or with partners you don’t even know you’re playing with. Perhaps the atmosphere of your group melds with a compatible atmosphere of—say—some Sufi dervishes in Central Asia you don’t even know are out there. And in a manger in Bethlehem, a Messiah is quietly born. It’s like that: way more indirect, way more playful. You simply carry your little pebble of conscious striving to the edge of the cliff and toss it into the ocean. The rest is in the hands of God.

And yes, there are certain initiated elders who do in fact have the authority to bend intention to a desired end. Fortunately, this power lies beyond most of us—for good reason—and one does well to tread with utmost humility here. Creative imagination fettered to a still untamed ego will always result in some variation of magic—at best, merely overwrought and foolish, at worst, deadly dangerous.

OBEDIENCE means: Listen, Listen, Listen!!

In fact, that’s literally true. Obedience comes from the Latin ob-audire, which means “listen to the depths,” or “listen from the depths.” Ninety percent of the work you will be doing inside your group web is listening: listening to one another, listening to the subtle directives that emerge out of the depths as you gain more proficiency in attuning to them, listening to the needs that the rapidly changing conditions in the outer world are laying before you.

The operative model here is actually best captured in that relatively new physics buzzword, a self-specifying system, of which the cell is our baseline example. The cell demonstrates diversity of function within an overall unity, maintained by an instantaneous capacity for self-regulation governed by its DNA and RNA. Inside the cell there is always a dance going on, a continuous process of listening, of making micro-adjustments. Through that dance the cell remains in dynamic equilibrium, i.e, alive.

The wonderful implication here—fully glimpsed though not fully articulated by Gurdjieff—is that the group web is in fact a self-specifying system. It has “emergent properties”—capabilities not present in its individual components but vested collectively in the whole—that is again that mysterious “fineness” we’ve spoken about several times before. Individual members sacrifice a degree of personal autonomy in order to partake of the far greater capacities of the whole. Through listening—that continuous dance of adjusting, deferring—those capacities become available to each member, insofar as he or she remains in coherence with the whole. The web remains alive.

In the end, one either surrenders to this higher level of wholeness or one does not. What doesn’t work is to sit on the fence.

Modern buzzword or not, the idea of a self-specifying system has been around for a long, time. St. Paul was already onto it in the first century with his celebrated teaching “We are all members of the one body of Christ.” And so it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that these ancient vows should again demonstrate their timeless timeliness as we now scramble to self-organize at a new evolutionary level, in order to meet the evolutionary challenge that has just been thrown down on our human plate.


A Note from Northeast Wisdom 

Cynthia has been sharing her response to the pandemic sweeping the world with an on-going series of posts on the Northeast Wisdom website that began on March 23, 2020. That initial post, Pandemic Homework, outlined recommended practices that people could take themselves in response, and was followed by: 
From the Eagle’s Nest (the background to the instructions);
Foundational Points for the Five Pandemic Homework Exercises;
Raised Cyber Eye-Brows: More on Internet Technology and the Pandemic Homework; and
Going Forward: Time, Tides, Benedict & Zoom.

The Pandemic Homework posts include a series of “Commentaries on Elements of the Exercises,” which refer to the six (originally four) Gurdjieff exercises that are the first item on Cynthia’s to-do list. We do these exercises she says, “…in direct cognizance of the needs of our present global crisis—we receive something for ourselves, we offer something back.”

The Commentaries are posted as follows: 
“Clear Impressions”: Commentaries Part I;
“Lord Have Mercy”: Commentaries Part II, A & B;
Connecting the Dots: The “Lord Have Mercy” in Commentaries Part II, C;
“Make Strong! Not Easy Thing: Commentaries Part III, A & B;
Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, A;
Afterword to “Atmosphere”: Commentaries Part IV, B;
Preliminary Remark, the “Web” Exercise: Commentaries Part V, A;
The Group Atmosphere: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, B;
Yin and Yang: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries, Part V, C;
Global Warming Revisited: “Web” Exercise, Commentaries Part V, D.

Coming next, Cynthia’s final Commentary on the “Web,” followed by her collection of essays on the sixth and final exercise, “Four Ideals.”  

Joseph Azize’s newly published Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises is available now through his website at Under the Sun for a 30% discount from Oxford University Press. All of the Gurdjieff exercises recommended in Cynthia’s Pandemic Homework are in this book, with extensive supporting research and commentary, and all quoted references in this post are from it as well. It is a great resource and we recommend it. 

Image credits from the top: Neural rosettes from stem cells assemble into spheres, credit Gist Croft and Ali Brivanlou, and courtesy of Rockefeller University; HeLa cells, courtesy National Institutes of Health, credit Tom Deerinck and National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research; Fibroblast cells, colorized Micrograph, credit Jan Schmoranzer, courtesy of Leibniz-Institut für Molekulare Pharmakologie; cover of Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation & Exercises by Joseph Azize, photo courtesy of Laura Ruth.