Part 3 of a three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the word imaginal does not mean “imaginary.” That unfortunate but all too understandable confusion was created by Henry Corbin, the noted Islamic scholar, when he introduced the term Mundus Imaginalis to name that intermediate, invisible realm of causality that figures so prominently in mystical Islamic cosmology. But Corbin was drawing here on a highly technical and quintessentially Islamic notion of Imagination as itself one of those higher and more subtle energies, possessing being, will, objectivity, and creative function. To our modern Western ears, the word “imaginal” may indeed seem to suggest some private, interior, or subjective inner landscape, “make-believe” or fanciful by nature. But while it is typically associated with the world of dreams, visions, and prophecy—i.e., more subtle form—the imaginal is always understood within traditional metaphysics to be objectively real and in fact comprising “an ontological reality entirely superior to that of mere possibility.” (Gospel of Mary Magdalene, p. 153.) It designates a sphere that is not less real but more real than our so-called “objective reality” and whose generative energy can (and does) change the course of events in this world. Small though it may appear to be, it is mighty, as those who try to swim against it will readily attest.
Walter Wink, one of the few Western theologians as yet to deal appreciatively with the imaginal realm, describes how this “generative” causality played out in the events following the resurrection. His comments below offer a clear window into both of these key points: that imaginal reality is “objective” and that it carries real force:
It is a prejudice of modern thought that events happen only in the outer world. What Christians regard as the most significant event in human history happened, according to the gospels, in the psychic realm, and it altered external history irrevocably. Ascension was an “objective” event, if you will, but it took place in the imaginal realm, at the substratum of human existence where the most fundamental changes in consciousness take place. The ascension was a “fact” on the imaginal plane, not just an assertion of faith. It irreversibly altered the nature of the disciples’ consciousness. (quoted from The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, 166-7)
One need only to read the Book of Acts to sense the breadth and power of this change in the disciples’ consciousness and to grasp the implications of what Wink is saying here. Not all constructions are illusions, for sure! However and wherever these disciples came to it, they emerged from the post-resurrection events infused with a clear and high sense of purpose, resolve, empowerment, and above all, the unshakable confidence that their Lord was still present with them—which at the imaginal level is indisputedly true. With their oars planted firmly in that kingdom, they moved forward to change the world. This is exactly what Corbin was trying convey by the word “imagination,” understood in the traditional sense. Imaginal reality is a valid construction which, by changing consciousness in its inner ground, changes the nature of reality in the outer world. For this world as we know it is simply the outer form—Isaak Dinesen’s snake skin— within which runs that fiery, innermost aliveness. At least when things are working well, that is.
Because of this demonstrated capacity to affect outcome in this world, the imaginal realm has long been associated with the world of dreams, prophecy, and oracles. To attuned hearts, it does indeed seem to send “messages.” That is why it often is equated with the “subtle” level of consciousness in Asian-influenced typologies such as those promulgated by contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber. There is truth here, to be sure, but remember that these “levels of consciousness” maps are all essentially “upper left quadrant” metaphysics, to use Wilberspeak—or in other words, geared to the individual interior journey and individual transformation. Properly understood through its own Western filter, the imaginal realm is collective and evolutionary; its ultimate purpose is to guide, shape, nourish, and where necessary offer course-corrections to our entire planetary and interplanetary unfolding. As an objectively verifiable realm, interpenetrating our earth plane and operating at a twice-higher frequency of spiritual intensity and coherence (more on that to follow shortly), it is a life within a life, and its laws, interpenetrating our own, provide the inner template by which the outer unfolding can proceed rightly.
Therefore, it is also and primarily supremely the realm of cosmic assistance. It is the “place” from which saints, teachers, masters, and all manner of abler souls reach out across the apparent divide between the worlds to support or where necessary modify earthly outcomes in tandem with willing and attuned hearts here below.
Part 2 of a three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault
Traditional metaphysical maps based on “the great chain of being” will tend to situate the imaginal as the station “above” ours, the next more subtle realm in a great hierarchical procession extending from the pure, ineffable will of God through the logoic (causal), angelic, imaginal, and sensible (us). Sometimes—more helpfully, in my opinion—this procession is depicted not as a chain but as embedded cosmoses, like those old Russian nesting dolls.
The nesting can be depicted in either direction. Sometimes the experience is that our world nests within the imaginal realm like a fetus in a womb; sometimes the impression is the opposite: that the imaginal nests within our world as a more subtle and interior reality.
But of course the question is wrongly framed in the first place, still bearing the vestiges of those antiquated “flat earth” cosmologies (heaven above, hell below, earth in the center) that have proved so hard to eradicate from our minds. The language of modern physics encourages us to think in a different way: that these realms are “dimensions” of an unbroken and seamless whole, not occupying an actual geophysical locus, but embedded holographically within the great abyss of consciousness itself. Even this, I admit, strains the imagination, but at least it sets us off on a better footing.
Perhaps the most helpful way to picture the “where” of it is neither in terms of space or time, but in terms of an energetic continuum. Valentin Tomberg, writing in Meditations on the Tarot, re-imagines the classic “great chain of being” in exactly this fashion: in terms of a continuum of energy: “Modern science has come to understand that matter is only condensed energy…Sooner or later science will also discover that what it calls ‘energy’ is only condensed psychic force—which discovery will lead in the end to the establishment of the fact that all psychic force is the ‘condensation,’ pure and simple, of consciousness, i.e., spirit.” (MT, 574). “Psychic force” refers to the subtler energies which science does not yet know how to measure, but which have demonstrable effect in the physical world—for example, the energies of attention, will, prayer, and love; it is the transmission of these energies that furnishes the supreme business of the imaginal realm. The contemporary Jesuit mystic Pierre Teilhard de Cardin describes essentially this same bandwidth by the designation “radial energy”; in contrast to coarser “tangential energy” which moves the physical world, radial energy is that more conscious and purposeful energy drawing the world along its evolutionary trajectory toward its ultimate convergence at the Omega Point, the causal mainspring of our earth realm.
Stay tuned for Part 3
A three-part blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault
As many of you know, I have been breaking ground on a new book on the Imaginal Realm. While “breaking ground” may be a bit of an overstatement, I at least have a few rough sketches on the drawing board, which in the spirit of the season (thanksgiving and anticipation), I thought I’d throw out to you as trailers. These preliminary sketches have been shaped into three blogs; what final shape they will assume remains to be seen, but you can at least get a glimpse of what’s capturing my creative imagination these days. Enjoy!
What Is the Imaginal Realm?
It’s all too easy when exploring topics as inherently elusive as the imaginal realm to stray into abstraction. Many of the world’s sacred traditions (though not all) acknowledge something roughly analogous to what I am here calling imaginal reality; the temptation is to launch into a scholarly or technical comparison of these various systems. Is the imaginal “the same” as the Platonic “intelligible universe?” The Hindu “subtle” level of consciousness? The bardo realms of Buddhism? Maybe yes, maybe no. That work of scholarly refinement I leave to others. What I want to do here is simply to share what I’ve come to know about the imaginal realm from the perspective of “local knowledge”—i.e., from the personal experience of one who has, like Ruth in the Old Testament story, suddenly found herself catapulted by love into whole new country, whose people are now her people and whose God is now her God. I am not about to tangle with the question of whether the imaginal is true or not; it is like asking whether a hurricane is “true” when the storm is already lashing the shores of one’s heart. Rather, I am writing for those fellow travelers who have also personally tasted the validity of this realm and wish to know more about its mysterious ways and its painful but fruitful exigencies. Consider it a kind of “Musical Offering,” in the spirit of J. S. Bach, as he drew together the musical bits and pieces of a lifetime in one last—i.e., ultimate—offering of the heart.
The term “imaginal realm” has its immediate provenance in Islamic mysticism, but the idea itself—if truth be told, an archetype more than an idea—is common to all the great sacred traditions. It is traditionally understood to be a boundary realm between two worlds, each structured according to its own governing conventions and unfolding according to its own causality. In traditional metaphysical language, it is the realm separating the denser corporeality of our earth plane from the progressively finer causalities which lie “above” us in the noetic and logoic realms. Put more simply, it separates the visible world from realms invisible but still perceivable through the eye of the heart. In fact, this is what the word “imagination” specifically implies to in its original Islamic context: direct perception through this inner eye, not mental reflection or fantasy.
I say “boundary,” but the imaginal world is actually more of a confluence, for the word “boundary” suggests a separation while what is really at stake in this realm is an active flowing together. “Where the two seas meet” is a beautiful Sufi metaphor to convey the essence of what actually happens here. The imaginal realm is a meeting ground, a place of active exchange between two bandwidths of reality. That is how its cosmic purpose is fulfilled and—I will attempt to demonstrate shortly—the way in which it can be most fruitfully understood
The imaginal penetrates this denser world in much the same way as the fragrance of perfume penetrates an entire room, subtly enlivening and harmonizing. My favorite image to begin to access this admittedly mind-bending notion still comes by way of a striking vignette in Isaak Dineson’s Out of Africa, in which she recounts coming upon a beautiful snake moving through the grass, its skin glistening with subtle, variegated colors. So taken with that snake was she that her servant killed it, skinned it, and made it up into a belt for her. But to her dismay, the once glistening skin is now merely dull and grey, because all along the beauty had lain not in the physical skin, but in the quality of the aliveness. The imaginal is that quality of aliveness moving through this realm, interpenetrating, cohering, filling things with the fragrance of implicit meaning whose lines do not converge in this world alone, but at a point beyond. As the Gospel of Thomas describes it:
I am the light shining upon all things,
I am the sum of everything, for from me
Everything has come, and toward me
Everything returns. Pick up a stone and there I am,
Split a piece of wood and you will find me there.
Experientially, received within one’s own quiet subjectivity, it appears as an allusive aliveness, a meaning presenting itself in “glimpses and visions,” a foretaste or reminder of a higher order of being to which the human heart actually belongs and to and from which it responds, with infinite tug. The imaginal nudges us, beacons us, corrects us as we stray from our authentic unfolding, rewards us with dazzling glimpses and reassurances of that “other intensity” to which we truly belong, and in whose light the meaning of our earthly journey will ultimately be revealed, like the treasure buried in the field.
Stay tuned for part two…
“Teachers of contemplative Christianity, who acknowledged the limitations of human knowledge and the inconstant nature of human sentiment, instead encouraged a commitment to practice. A scripturally grounded commitment to practice and service – rather than a reliance on unsteady belief and feeling – is the fulcrum of contemplative Christianity.”
From time to time in the unfolding life of a lineage, it becomes important to stop and ponder together “whur we come from” (as my teacher Rafe used to call it): i.e., the fundamental understandings that called us into being as a particular expression of the wider tradition of Christian contemplative Wisdom. As the Contemplative Society, our flagsghip Wisdom vessel, now celebrates its twentieth anniversary and a new generation of seekers and board members assume their turn at the helm, it seems like an appropriate occasion for just such a moment of reflection.
Wisdom, like water, is itself clear and formless, but it necessarily assumes the shape and coloration of the container in which it is captured. Between formless essence and manifesting particularity there is a reciprocal dynamism; you can’t have one without the other.
Our own particular branch of the great underground river of Wisdom came to the surface about twenty years ago, flowing within two major riverbanks: a) the Christian mystical tradition of theosis—divinization—particularly as lived into being in the Benedictine monastic tradition, and b) the practical training in mindfulness and non-identification as set forth in the Gurdjieff Work. The fusion of these two elements was the original accomplishment of my spiritual teacher Br. Raphael Robin, who formed me in this path and just before his death in 1995 sent me off to Canada to teach it. It is a distinct lineage within the wider phylum of sophia perennis—perennial Wisdom— and as with all particular containers, it has its own integrity and its own heart.
Here, then, is my own quick shortlist of the eight main elements–or defining characteristics–for our particular branch of this Wisdom verticil:
1. We are founded on a daily practice of sitting meditation, predominantly but not exclusively Centering Prayer, anchored within the overall daily rhythm of “ora et labora,” as set forth in the Rule of St. Benedict.
2. We are rooted in the Christian mystical and visionary tradition, understanding contemplation in its original sense as “luminous seeing,” not merely a meditation practice or a lifestyle. In service to this luminous seeing, we affirm the primacy of the language of silence and its life-giving connection with the subtle realms, without which spiritual inquiry tends to become overly cognitive and contentious.
3. We incorporate a major emphasis (much more so than in more conventional contemplative circles) on mindfulness and conscious awakening, informed here particularly by the inner teachings of G.I Gurdjieff and by their parallels and antecedents in the great sacred traditions, particularly in Sufism.
4. We are an esoteric or “gnostic” school to the extent that these terms have come to be understood as designating that stream of Christian transmission through which the radically consciousness-transforming teachings of Jesus have been most powerfully transmitted and engaged. But we eschew esotericism as simply mental or metaphysical speculation, and we affirm the primacy of the scripture and tradition as the cornerstones of Christian life.
5. Also in contrast to many branches of the Wisdom tradition based on Perennial or Traditionalist metaphysics (with its inherently binary and anti-material slant), we are emphatically a Teilhardian, Trinitarian lineage, embracing asymmetry (threeness), evolution, and incarnation in all their material fullness and messiness.
6. We are moving steadily in the direction of revisioning contemplation no longer in terms of monastic, otherworldly models prioritizing silence and repose, but rather, as a way of honing consciousness and compassion so as to be able to fully engage the world and become active participants in its transition to the higher collectivity, the next evolutionary unfolding.
7. We are an integral school, not a pluralistic one, (to draw on Ken Wilber’s levels of consciousness); our primary mission field is teal, not green. Our work concentrates not at the level of healing the false self, woundedness and recovery, substance abuse, equal rights, restorative justice or political correctness (although we acknowledge the importance of all of these initiatives), but rather at the level of guiding the transition from identity based primarily in the narrative or egoic self to identity stabilized at the level of witnessing presence, or “permeably boundaried” selfhood.
8. Our most important teachers and teachings are Jesus, St. Benedict, the canonical and Wisdom gospels; The Cloud of Unknowing, the greater Christian mystical and visionary tradition (including Eckhart, Boehme, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Ladislaus Boros, Bernadette Roberts), the Desert and Hesychastic traditions; Bede Griffiths and the Christian Advaitic traditions (including Raimon Panikkar, Henri LeSaux/Abishiktananda and Bruno Barnhart); Rumi, Sufism, G.I. Gurdjieff, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And of course my own teacher. Br. Raphael Robin.
Please know that this list is intended to start a conversation, not end it. In the upcoming months I hope to unpack each of these points more fully in a format yet to be determined (blog posts? Video? On-the-ground teaching retreat?). I invite others in our Wisdom network to do likewise, both in your larger organizations (The Contemplative Society, Northeast Wisdom, Wisdom Southwest, WisdomWayofKnowing, etc.) and in your smaller practice circles. Collectively, let’s see if we can discover about our lineage, as we midwifed it through a first generation and now transmit through a second.
“Gate, Gate, Paragate…”
“Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond…”
We used to chant this ancient Hindu Chant in our small contemplative circle in Snowmass, Colorado, back in the early 1990s, during the “Advaita” phase of our work. I hadn’t thought of it for years, but it suddenly popped back into my mind this morning as the following exchange with a student suddenly flowed out of me, from where I do not know. I think I may actually have just encapsulated in about 800 words everything I really wanted to say in my next book, currently (and a little too Sisyphusfully) on the drawing boards. Anyway, for what it’s worth….
Happy formlessness, Cynthia
I have very much appreciated your teachings and approach to the spiritual life. I’m writing because I’ve been increasingly bothered for the last several months with the doubt that there is an actual spiritual, supernatural realm beyond our human experience. I truly believe we human beings have deep spiritual experience, even a mystical sense of union with God. But how can we know that this experience is connected to anything real beyond the perceptions of our brains? I just have this nagging doubt that once our brains die, everything goes dark. It makes less and less sense to me how we could retain, or regain, consciousness and personhood after death as the doctrine of the resurrection promises.
These questions have become an obstacle to my prayer. I feel like I need to know (or have better-understood intellectual reasons for wagering) that there is an objectively real spiritual realm beyond earth and the human brain, in order to pray with motivation and hope.
Could you let me know how you know? Or the reasons you come back to for trusting in the reality of a spiritual realm that transcends the experiences (however profound) of our bodies and minds?
And my response…
Thank you for sharing with me this profound and delicate transition point in your own journey. Both the clarity and the honesty with which you reveal your struggle suggest you’re really standing at the edge of a major paradigm shift. I’d almost be inclined to say the one that ushers you through the gate into the authentic nondual.
It’s clear that your old cosmology of God— and the prayers emerging from it—is crumbling before your eyes, And that’s good. But what replaces it?
One way to go, certainly, is to simply replace your previous theological/metaphysical castle with a new one, generated by the same mechanisms of the brain, only this time more spacious. The whole metaphysical postulation of a supernatural or “imaginal” realm speaks directly to that strategy.
Throughout the spiritual ages, across all the sacred traditions, there has been a cloud of witnesses who can validate that personhood beyond the physical realm does indeed exist. I have had the perhaps questionable privilege of being able to travel in this realm a bit over these past twenty years on the eagle’s wings of my spiritual teacher Rafe. So I know that there is indeed water in this well, and that the well does indeed water the earth and materially help it through the recurring drought times and deserts of the human spirit. Yet I know also that even this well ultimately proves to be a construction. Just as everything in this all-too-perishable realm ultimately reveals itself to be.
But this doesn’t mean it’s false–only impermanent, as the Buddhists would say. In his recent book Waking, Dreaming, Being philosopher Evan Thompson has a brilliant one-liner: “All illusions are constructions, but not all constructions are illusions.” The impermanent, intermediate, and ultimately mirage-like nature of the surrounding imaginal/supernatural world is indeed a construction. But so is the cosmos itself (and the word “cosmos” in Greek means “ornament”): a beautiful, construction through which the otherwise inaccessible white light of the divine heart becomes manifest. We all participate in that illusion, each to our own degree, to our own level of clarity and toughmindedness. And good is done here– as well as some degree of harm. In the words of the old koranic maxim, God speaks and says, “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds, visible and invisible.” All of us, in our temporarily separated individual conscious viewing platforms are pixels participating in that grand construction, the revelation of the divine heart. It is all fiction. And it is all real.
But another way of moving through this impasse—and the way I think you’re actually intuiting here—is not to build another cosmic Prospero’s castle using the same old mental methodology, but to question the nature of the mind itself in its seemingly unbreakable addiction to mentally constructed meaning. What would it mean to live “bare,” without that whole mental castle?
A scary threshold, to be sure. Few reach it, and the few who do generally get scared shitless and go running back as quickly as possible to the world of constructed meaning. But it IS possible to stand there and to stand well. Beyond the cloud of constructed meaning, there IS such a thing as direct perception. And you can get there if you wish. If you can stand it.
As Thomas Merton observed, shortly before the close of his life, in his own devastating moment of final clairvoyance (which I can almost but not quite quote from memory): “I was jerked out of my habitual, half-tied way of looking at things …having seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything–without refutation, without establishing some other argument.” The constructive principle drops out, and what remains is simply bare seeing.
And it’s just here that one discovers the remarkable, elusive secret: that meaning and explanation are not the same thing. Explanation is of the mind. Meaning is of the heart, a felt-sense of belongingness that needs neither justification nor further action. It is simply its own fullness. Prayer does not reach it, for it is the SOURCE of prayer, the source of everything.
Rest assured that consciousness does not go dark when your individual pixel of it departs from its individual body container. The only thing that goes dark—that is to say, if you decide to forego a side trip through the imaginal or boddhisattva bardos and proceed direct to the heart of the infinite—is your individual RELATIONSHIP to consciousness. Consciousness is the stuff of the universe, undivided and whole. It will never go dark. It will simply enfold “you,” and the exile will be over…
I’m not sure this helps. But hopefully it at least affirms that you’re standing on sacred ground, and that cynicism is not the only option. The other is to deepen the wonder.
For almost thirty years the standing joke has been “What enneagram type is Cynthia?” Leading teachers in all the various schools have typed me variously (frequently categorically) as a Four, Five, or Six. While I can see certain points of congruence (after all, my Mom was a Four, my Dad a Six, and most of my partners Fives, so I know these types well), none of them really resonated – and more important, none of them really captured my interest. They failed to paint for me any authentic description of where I was pinned, or the road to authentic freedom – more authentic, at least, than what I already knew in my own heart of hearts. And thus, I simply lost interest in the entire psychometric. When people ask me my type nowadays, I usually just smile and say, “I’m a ten.”On my very first encounter with this system nearly thirty years ago – through Helen Palmer’s book, The Enneagram – I initially self-identified as a Seven. The story starts out right: perceived lack of parental nurturance, Puer Aeternus (eternal youth), planning (gottcha!) But the narrative runs off the rails when it comes to the core passion (gluttony) and the reason behind it: self-distraction from pain, the need to maintain a cheery, spontaneous, excitement and adventure-laden dance card. This simply never resonated; it still doesn’t. (Either I am totally un-self-aware or else the person who invented the Seven story was clearly not a Seven.) And so again and again I would approach the Seven story as intrinsically energetically congruent, only to be thrown back by the mountain of narrative evidence arguing against it.
I would add that in the various tests I’ve taken online (RHETI and otherwise), the Seven doesn’t usually come up as a strong contender. That’s because the choice points presented for discernment always feature “pleasure,” “excitement,” “fun-loving,” “spontaneous.” When these are set against responsibility, goal-orientedness, concern for others, capacity to face pain, and willingness to make and keep long term commitments, I always wind up getting parceled out among more dutiful types. (As for the celebrated enneagram panels – forget them! All players know their scripts and simply arrange the evidence, and even their voice tone) to confirm their prior self-identifications…
But what if the Seven type were to prioritize restlessness, compulsive motion, fear of constriction, underlying existential anxiety? What then? When I asked Helen Palmer if there was any possibility that the type narrative was inaccurate or incomplete, she responded that that pretty much clenched the case that I was a Four (need to be a special case).
Anyway, thirty years later — and spurred into action by a review copy of Christopher Heuerts’s new book, The Sacred Enneagram, which I found insightful but still basically recycling the old typologies) — I am finally getting around to taking that risk. If in trying to elucidate the deeper waters of the Seven I prove myself indubitably a Four, so be it. But I think there is something here that is still not being seen by enneagram aficionados, and if these deeper waters were better understood, a lot of people like myself who still find themselves without a home base in the enneagram might find a way in.
This is a first gambit, but see what you think. Over the course of the summer I’ve shared it privately with several of my enneagram colleagues including Richard Rohr, Russ Hudson, Jeanine Siler-Jones, and Leslie Hershberger, and their comments have been enormously helpful as I continue to fine-tune my observations.
So now, for all of you out there: In your experience, do you know any Sevens that work the way I’m laying out here? I’m mostly interested in whether you think there’s enough merit in what I’m suggesting here to warrant a more comprehensive re-evaluation if this particular personality type…
By the way, if my typology here is correct, I think there’s absolutely no doubt that Teilhard de Chardin was a Seven. Maybe that’s why he keeps pulling me in….
Enneagram Type Seven (Bourgeault Revision)
HOLY IDEA Freedom
BASIC FEAR Annihilation
BASIC DESIRE Fullness of Being
PASSION Accidie (existential restlessness, “the noonday demon”)
As children, Sevens felt trapped, subject to the authority of caregivers who seemed unresponsive or even inexplicably hostile to their deepest being needs. While from the outside the nurturance received during their childhood may have appeared stable and conventional, from the inside it registered as hollow, frequently duplicitous, and sometimes downright treacherous. An underlying sense of disconnection — between call and response, appearance and reality — became the filter through which the Seven learned to view the world, leading to a chronic (and at times acute) sense of existential dread.
Resilient and inherently life-loving and optimistic, Sevens learned early on to become skilled self-nurturers — but always with that signature Seven wound: a restless addiction to forward motion and hyper-vigilance against any form of confinement that would appear to limit their options, cut off their escape routes, or impinge upon their ability to “help themselves.” Sevens need to “feel the wind whistling in their ears” to outrun a pervasive sense of existential dread and emptiness, an inability to rest comfortably in their own skins.
THE CORE PASSION
The passion classically assigned to the Seven is gluttony, but I believe this assignation rests on a misunderstanding of the true motivation driving the Seven typology, plus a comparable misunderstanding of the true nature of the passion in question. The correct match-up is actually accidie, typically but incorrectly understood as sloth (and hence assigned to the Nine). Famously characterized by the early desert fathers as “the noonday demon,” accidie is not primarily sloth (i.e., passivity or sluggishness), but the sense of paralyzing dread called forth by the engulfing immediacy of the present, where the egoic escape route of “flight into the future” is cut off and one is face to face with the inescapable reality of the Now. It is against this noonday demon that Evagrius issued his counsel, “Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” But it is exactly this sitting in your cell that is so terrifying to the Seven, for it means sitting in that primal place of annihilation, where the child’s desperate cries for succor went unheard.
For many Sevens, the profile of gluttony may indeed appear to fit — superficially, at least. Some do indeed wind up piling up a lifetime full of high living and endless exciting adventures. But the real driving motivation, I believe, is never the self-nurturing itself, but maintaining the freedom-of-motion which the Seven believes is required in order to perform these self-nurturing rituals. In the midst of a banquet, the Seven will already be mentally orchestrating the next banquet; what is missing is not the nurturance but the NOW. The hollowness and emptiness of that primordial experience of non-nurturance continues to replay itself endlessly as the Seven reaches for the stars — and comes up with only a hand full of stardust.
Sevens hide in time. It is in the relentless planning, orchestrating, designing, creating options and possibilities, that the Prospero’s castle that passes for their life is constructed and maintained. To deconstruct it appears to them like sure and certain death. But unfortunately, the fullness of Being that they so desperately seek can only be found in the Now. This is their great spiritual challenge.
The real pathology is not “distraction from their pain” and dissipation, as the classic Enneagram Seven story reads. Most Sevens I know are actually intensely focused and have high levels of tolerance for personal pain and the painful inner scrutiny to be paid for self-knowledge. The core pathology is not distraction but flight. Cessation of motion—i.e., stillness—feels like death to them, and they are too adept, too wary, to die in an ambush, even by Infinite Love.
Transformation for the Seven: The Holy Idea and Virtue
“Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything.” This is indeed the terrifying eye of the needle the Seven will have to thread to move from “choice freedom” (as both Thomas Merton and Beatrice Bruteau call it )— i.e., freedom experienced as “keeping my options open,” to “spontaneity freedom:” freedom experienced as the capacity to say “yes” wholeheartedly to NOW; freedom to trust the primordial nurturance to be found only in the plenitude of presence. In such a way, and only in such a way, does the Seven finally come to rest — and in the simple immediacy of the presence there find, as St. Augustine (probably himself a seven) so profoundly summarized: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.”
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Two personal vignettes to illustrate the above points:
Trapped!!: At the age of seven months I suffered a nearly fatal bout with pneumonia at the hands of my Christian Science mother, who refused on religious principle to call a doctor. When the doctor was finally summoned, at the insistence of my grandmother (herself a Christian Science practitioner), he examined me gravely and concluded that I was beyond help. “But you were simply too stubborn to die,” my Father recalls, as breath by breath I fought my way back to life.
I have no direct memory of this incident, of course. But the trauma still lives on in my body in a nervous swallow and residual anxiety around breathing. And even before I could think or speak, I already knew as a core datum of my life that my mother could not be counted on as my protector; I would have to “help myself.”
Hiding in Time: When I was three years old, I was formally enrolled in Christian Science Sunday school. The preschool class was intentionally located a bit out of earshot of the other groups, and after opening exercises, our small group of toddlers was led by the teacher up a narrow stairway to a tiny, closet-like classroom at the end of the hall. I panicked. Where were they taking me? Would I ever be released? I screamed in terror for my parents, but my cries elicited no response — neither from my parents (who were actually right on the other side of the classroom wall), nor from the teacher, who simply informed me that the longer I misbehaved, the longer it would take for the class to be over.
As I tried desperately to avoid a total meltdown, my attention fell on something that looked like a big dinner plate hanging in the wall, with numbers painted around the edge and two hands that moved in what seemed like a slow but regular way. And as I began to pay attention to this strange object over the next few weeks, I began to notice that when the big hand moved around the dial to the place where it pointed directly at the ceiling, then the teacher offered a closing prayer and we were led back downstairs.
So that was it! No more panic helplessness. I’d learned that all I had to do was to wait till the big hand pointed straight up at the ceiling, and my release would be assured. I’d learned the secret of their game, and knew that I could on it to protect me.
Thus began my addiction to “tempus fugit” as a surrogate form of nurturance and an escape route from the existential terror I by this time knew only too well.
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As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised.) Here we go:
The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps—confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology—the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.
This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation —and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life— are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-life— not merely “pro-birth”—implies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.
As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary—“soul,” life, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos—language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking,
Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation—not merely denotation—is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime. 1 (see footnote) To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions—which also terminate a life—always presume malevolent intent?
At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide.” My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing—not simply anger and blame.
Acknowledging the shadow
That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure,” let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.
Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.
Safeguarding legal access
While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” system stipulating that included among the fundamental ‘first tier” rights is:
the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.
Beyond that baseline—at what I’ve called “second tier”—adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding.
Creating a wider ethical forum
Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange—“Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground.”
It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum—beyond an internet blog series—where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?
Traditionally issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality, and given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress—“Who am I?” “What am I here for?” “Who is my neighbor?” “Is there anything beyond self-interest?” “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?”—are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.
The vacuum is lethal—filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.
This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale—against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole, will the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions—let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them— what hope to we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?
Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering—that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.
footnote: 1 Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.
The clear, simple truth: Nothing can fall out of God.
Where would it go?
God is not “somebody” (not me)—“somewhere else” (not here.) God is the ALL, the now, the whole; the undivided, dynamic totality of form and formlessness. As Barbara Brown Taylor pictures it so vibrantly in The Luminous Web:
Where is God is this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is. (p. 74)
We are pouring from fullness to fullness here.
From the perspective of the cove, the tide rises and falls in great contrasting cycles. A wharf riding gently at sea level on the high tide may be perched fifteen feet above a mudflat when the tide has emptied out. The sea ebbs and flows; the cove appears as “full” or “empty.” But from the perspective of the ocean, the volume of water is always the same; like a great watery amoeba it simply extends and retracts its arms into the nooks and crannies of coastline from its own serenely undiminished magnitude.
When we think about life in terms of rising-and-falling, beginning-and-ending, we are betraying our finite perspective. “The individual drop that we are disappears in time,” writes Raimon Panikkar in Christophany (p. 130). “But the personal water that we are (the drop’s water) lives eternally—if, that is, we have succeeded in realizing the (divine) water that we are.” If, in other words, if we have succeeded in shifting our perspective from cove to ocean.
It’s not easy, for sure. Down here in earth-time, the fleetingness of duration weighs heavily on us. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” Thomas Grey famously lamented. So brief the duration of a human life; so quickly over and gone. And when that life is but embryonic, cut off before it is even born, the pathos seems doubly brutal. We feel it as an exception, a violation. We do not see—do not want to see—even the slightest continuity with the universal, impartial agency of those “Ways of Life” Teilhard speaks of—ingenuity, profusion, indifference (!!)—to which all lower orders in the chain of life are bound. Duration seems so precious to us when it comes to human beings; less so, perhaps when we try to extend it to virtual particles or stars exploding in-and-out of existence in distant galaxies—or for that matter, to the millions of un-germinated seeds for every fetus engendered; to the ants, viruses, butterflies, starfish washed up on a beach in a freak flood tide, abandoned pets, livestock en route to the slaughterhouse…. Where do our hearts draw the line?
“Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear,” writes Teilhard—“and the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude—in the sphere of the person.” But perhaps not quite in the way we are expecting. Personhood does not change the laws to which the entire created order is bound, but perhaps it gives us some perspective by rescuing consciousness from its captivity to duration.
So what about all those “souls” who don’t get a chance to live this life, spread their wings, even draw their first breath? Is something unbearably precious lost forever? As I ponder, from my own human perspective, the pathos of a life seemingly cut short in time, I find myself drawn back time and again to one of this haunting poem by Laura Gilpin (entitled “The Two-headed Calf”), which I first came across in Belden Lane’s spiritual classic, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes.
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass. And
as he stares into the sky, there are
twice as many stars as usual.
I offer this poem as a kind of dark solace in the face of that sickening, “punched-in-the gut” feeling that arises whenever we try to fathom a life that will never know the grace of duration in time. All life is one life, ultimately, and this one life is in the hands of God and is the hands of God. As humans, we properly feel grief and immense pathos when a potential life trajectory is suddenly cut off, either intentionally or by accident, and it is right that we should; that is the nature of our human sentiency. But to the extent that we can open our hearts and learn to feel all of life—in all its myriad yet particular forms— as the seamless sentiency of God, then perhaps we can loosen our grip on individual duration and let the unbroken wholeness of life flow according its own mysterious deeper rhythm. The antidote to hardness of heart (from which our culture certainly suffers) may not lie so much in exaggerating the rights of the unborn as in opening our hearts more deeply to the unity—and freefall—that is divine love.
Nothing can fall out of God. Each and every created essence—whether plant, mineral, animal, human—participates in the symphony of divine self-disclosure in its own way and knows the fullness of divine mercy according to its own mode of perceptivity. Even a stone. Even a blade of grass. Most certainly a fetus. Most certainly at the hour of our death. Duration does not affect that holographic fullness, presumably even in a virtual particle. Even—sometimes especially—in brevity, the intensity of the whole is conveyed in a heightened form—twice as many stars as usual!
Granted, the gift of time gives us the window of opportunity to do some pretty amazing stuff—like developing a soul, for one! But the soul is for cosmic service. Cosmic FULLNESS is something else again. It is the free and gratuitous birthright bestowed by God on every quark and particle of the created order. And we get to participate in it freely, fully, here and now, simply because each one of us is a tiny shareholder in the divine aliveness.
Nor does even an “interrupted life” ever pass out of the knowingness of God. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” says Psalm 139— and if we turn that promise just slightly sideways, we can see in it a deeper assurance that may have slipped by us on the first pass. Each individualized life is a trajectory—a probability wave, quantum physicists would call it—of divine self-manifestation that already exists in the heart of God. The heart of God is the infinite abyss of all possibilities. Its time will come round again.
But what about Psalm 139?
The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul — at least for traditionally reared religious folks — is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being. “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” the psalm text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version — that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there — seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?
The advantage is that it might — just might — knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.
You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of comments generated in this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life,” “soul,” and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception,” some of you have passionately reiterated — but not so; according to contemporary scientific models; life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental roadmap is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.
What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception — and yes, it is a pivotal moment — is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.
The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold and death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed, (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expresses this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene,
All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…
Above this threshold — with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term, this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.
TEILHARD AND THE PERSONAL
Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194:)
Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.” 1
Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree. That is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul — or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.
But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!
We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon — and in fact, throughout his work — that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The INDIVIDUAL is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The PERSON has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last email.) This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.
The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization.” If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great wisdom lineage, of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.
“AN IMMENSE SOLICITUDE—IN THE SPHERE OF THE PERSON….”
As a biologist, Teilhard knows only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life,” tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon he designates the three core characteristic life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals:
So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…
Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element (p. 67)
Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences, do indeed “spontaneously abort,” failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere, and insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.
But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place; assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness:
Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude — in the sphere of the person. (p. 67)
“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.
1 This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.
According to Gurdjieff, the mysterious “x-factor” that enters in the moment of conception is not yet soul but essence. Think of it as the hand of cards you’re dealt at the start of a card game. It comprises a set of unique characteristics, including race, gender (and most likely gender orientation), basic body type and other genetic factors, influences emerging from more distant ancestry and bloodline—and yes, that unquantifiable legacy “from the stars” —all combined primarily according to what Teilhard would call “tatonnement” (“trial and error”): evolution’s predilection for trying out any and all possibilities. Cumulatively, all of the above will combine to will confer on you what is commonly known as your “nature.”
Notice how there is no need to stipulate an “artist” God here, specifically designing a unique human being; what’s being pictured here is simply a lawful playing out of a freedom already inherent within Creation itself. Essence is not customized, not micro-managed—at least according to most schools of inner work I’m familiar with. That may take some getting used to, and for those of you finding yourself already in resistance mode, I encourage you simply to let this new perspective settle in a bit. Rest assured that I will that I do intend to talk about the origin of the personal in due course.
Once formed, essence will take its place as one of the three constituent terms in an ongoing dynamism of becoming which, not surprisingly, will play out according to the Law of Three. The other two terms, according to modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski (who reflects this same Wisdom lineage that I myself was trained in) are spirit and heart.
Spirit is that ever-roving, unboundaried, invisible divine dancing partner, participating in every movement of our life according to its own deepest teleology, namely, self-disclosure (Remember “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known”?). It generally plays the role of first force, Holy Affirming: ever prodding, nudging, unfolding.
Essence will typically play the role of Holy Denying, the “bloc résistant” in which Spirit will reveal its face. Through its very embodied finitude essence provides both the necessary raw material and the necessary friction to allow the pure movement of spirit to reveal itself in time and form.
Heart—or conscience—is the alchemical “third term” that is catalyzed in us through a life lived in growing consciousness, authenticity, obedience (as in ob-audire, “listen from the depths”), and that active cultivation of the self-reflective potential miraculously gifted to human consciousness. Heart is the unique fruit of a life wisely and fully engaged. More important, from the perspective of the roadmap I’m laying out here, it contributes the crucial third force, or “holy reconciling,” which makes possible that ultimate desideratum, namely, the fully arisen SOUL. Soul (or as Helminski calls it, “the essential self”) is precisely that “fourth in a new dimension” which arises out of conscious weaving of those other three—spirit, essence, and heart —within the great womb of life.
While this statement may sound jarring, note how it is already well embedded in early Christian tradition. The Gospel of Thomas puts it as starkly as possible in logion 70: “If you bring forth what is within you, that which you bring forth will save you. If you fail to bring forth that which is within you, that which you fail to bring forth will destroy you.” “That which is within you” is your embryonic soul.
Jesus seems to be reinforcing this teaching in his celebrated parable of he talents—once you recognize, of course, that the “talents” are not our aptitudes and gifts (which belong to essence), but rather, these soul potentialities transformed and quickened in the light of conscience/heart. This message comes through powerfully as well in the medieval mystic Jacob Boehme; it is in fact the driveshaft of his entire metaphysics. But it peers out as well from any number of other Christian mystics, even those of much more theoretically “traditional” metaphysical training and temperaments. One of the most powerful statements of this principle I know comes in contemporary Jesuit Ladislaus Boros’ spiritual classic, The Mystery of Death:
From the facts of existence and the surrounding world an inner sphere of being a human is built up. This inner man is brought about by a never-ending [conscious] daily application, on the treadmill of duties, annoyances, joys, and difficulties. From these insignificant actions freely performed, the decisive freedom is built up—freedom from oneself, freedom to view one’s own existence from outside…From the crowded days and years of joy and sorrow something has crystallized out, the rudimentary forms of which were already present in all his experiences, his struggle, his creative work, his patience and love—namely, the inner self, the individual supremely individual creation of a man. He has given his own shape to the determinisms of life by a daily conquest of them; he has become master of the multiple relationships that go to make him up by accepting them as the raw material (italics mine) of his self. Now he begins to “be.” (pp. 60-61)
As far as I know, Boros never directly encountered the Christian Inner tradition, let alone the teachings of the Asian spiritual traditions. Yet he has eloquently described here what would be easily recognizable in any of these other streams as “Witnessing Self.” He has captured precisely the same nuance articulated by The Gospel of Thomas, Boehme, Gurdjieff, and Jacob Needleman—namely, that our “soul” is not our raw essence per se, but something of an entirely different nature which is alchemized through the active engagement of essence with heart/consciousness. It is not so much a substance (at least in terms of corporeality as we understand it in this life) but more a process—or as Jacob Boeheme had it, a tincture, a quality of our essential aliveness which shines through the lineaments of this life like a shaft of imperishable light. Above all, it is not conferred at the start, but brought into being in this life through the quality of our conscious work.
“FOOD FOR THE MOON”
Within the western Wisdom tradition this imperishable “other” is sometimes known as “second body” or “the wedding garment.” Actualizing it is seen— with some urgency—as the real business of our earthly sojourn.
Admittedly, there is a hard edge to this teaching, jolting us into responsible stewardship of our own time in human consciousness. We can choose, if we like, to drift downstream on the currents of pain or pleasure. We can invest our whole life energy worshipping the golden calf of ego. Or we can get with the cosmic program and come to grips with the real purpose of our time here as we humbly acknowledge that soul is not an automatic birthright, but rather, the final alchemy of a life lived here in conscious alignment with higher cosmic purposes.
Furthermore, the tradition states—essentially unequivocally—hat this second body, or wedding garment, must be formed in this life. That is why it is called a wedding garment: because it is the appropriate and necessary regalia for the “wedding banquet” of eternal life—which, incidentally, does not begin after we leave this body, but here and now as this new substantiality we bear within us increasingly allows us to perceive, that the gates of heaven are, truly, everywhere.
This is soulwork in the true sense of the term: not the “soft” version that passes for soulwork today, preoccupied with unraveling dreams and deciphering messages from our “inner guides,” but the adamantine work of bringing something into existence here that will have coherence and substantiality beyond just this realm. Gurdjieff called it our “Real I.”
“You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now, “ my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words. To defer this project till after we die is too late; for in as Jacob Boehme bluntly puts it, “everything lies where it has fallen.” This is not, by the way, a question of “final judgment,” of some higher being deciding you are “unworthy.” It’s simply that the conditions in the next realm out, sometimes known as the Imaginal, are finer and drawn to far closer tolerances than in this life. Only something of a similar fineness will pass through the sieve.
I am theologian enough to know that the immediate argument conventionally trained Christians will raise against this is that it seems to defy the promise of Psalm 139 —“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”—and replace the intimate and personal nature of our lifelong human relationship with God with an impersonal and even harsh algorithm. I do not believe this is actually so. I will have more to say about the personal in my next blog, with the intuition that this alternative vision, certainly strongly intimated by Jesus, is actually far more merciful and cosmically enobling.
The second objection, of course, is that this sounds like a classic recipe for of spiritual materialism. (I can already picture the internet ads for second-body-building nutritional supplements and “wedding garment” consultants! But the checks-and-balances factor, built right into this equation, lies in the fact that the requisite food for building second body is, in Gurdjieff’s famous formula, “conscious labor and intentional suffering.” Second body cannot be attained through self-maximization, but only through the classic route variously known in the sacred traditions as kenosis and humility. “We ascend by descending, “as the Rule of St. Benedict succinctly observes. There is no other way.
For those who opt out, preferring to live out their days in their egoic comfort zone (a condition known in the Inner tradition in as “sleep”), the potentiality offered at birth to become a soul is simply returned, stillborn. Nothing has germinated here of permanent substantiality; nothing has become viable beyond the womb of this life. Such existences, in Gurdjieff’s words, become “food for the moon.” At death their temporary selfhood dissolves back into its original physical components and takes its small part in the vast network of reciprocal feeding, by which the cosmos bootstraps itself. Nothing is finally wasted.
From the Work perspective, then, abortion is not something that befalls merely a fetus. It happens at all stages, and is in fact the tragic outcome of most human lives. Lulled into complacency by the illusion that we already “have” souls, we fail to engage the real task of spiritual germination and wind up dreaming our lives away.
Only when this inconvenient truth is finally, fully faced will the real question of what it means to be “pro-life” find its authentic balance.