Field Notes Part I: Cynthia’s First-Ever Online Wisdom School
Between August and November 2019, The Center for Action and Contemplation sponsored an online Introductory Wisdom School course based on Cynthia Bourgeault’s Intro Wisdom School at Kanuga, originally filmed by Robbin Brent. The CAC created a 14 week Wisdom eCourse out of the 5 day Wisdom School, using additional video of Cynthia and the CAC's own Phil Rogaki; a number of Teaching Assistants (TAs) served as small group postholders, who are all senior students of Cynthia’s. The course engaged hundreds of participants from 29 countries. Together, from their lives at home and at work in the world, they entered deeply into the culture of Wisdom School, and broke into new territory through the interactive online medium.
This is the first of two Breaking Ground posts written by several of the TAs for the course, and their participants. This first post is by a long time student of Cynthia’s who also served as an intern at the original Kanuga course, Susan Cooper.
“You can’t get there from here.”
We human creatures — the whole of Life — all of it, all of us, “multitudes” — just as Walt Whitman so aptly noted and abundantly documented by way of his magnificent poetry. I have experienced something of that intricacy and infinity with every step I’ve taken into every iteration of Wisdom School I’ve had the pleasure and challenge of attending. “Multitudinous” was again on the tip of my tongue this past fall when we stepped into the first ONLINE Wisdom School. Multitudinous in so many ways: people from all over the planet, and hundreds of us, each one solitary, “invisible” yet present, participating together but ensconced in our own living rooms or kitchens or ivory towers or park benches or cabins in the woods … everyone everywhere, all walks of life. People, too, from every length and breadth of conscious Wisdom study and experience — from just-curious and “is this a cult?” to monks and post-doctorals; and from every level of commitment too. Every age, economic strata… and languages: most of us spoke/wrote passable English, but not only, and the multilingualism opened up ever-surprising richness’s. And, yes, while many of us were self-identified Christian, we were denominationally diverse; but we were other traditions and multi-traditioned also, as too from the new no-tradition tradition. People from every station in life… from housepainters to poets, activists to moms, bankers, monks, scientists and bishops… you get the point: multitudinous. You’d think it would be a recipe for anarchy but nope, it was breathtaking. Somehow, a totally level playing field emerged, and emerged naturally, as from Wisdom itself.
Just have to say it: the Heart knows what the Heart wants. The Ghost is in the machine.*
Digital vs Live.
Yet too it was a bit strange, at first. Firsts can be like that. It was a little odd not seeing each other, not feeling the arriving. At regular Wisdom School, we arrive and orient ourselves… picking up schedule and info packages, settling into dorm rooms, gathering our inner selves while anticipation itself gathers like a force all around then in the dining room, the heart’s expectancy ramping up at least another notch when Cynthia finally joins us. There is at regular Wisdom School the Great Silence, which, when practiced together, is a tremendous and sometimes tumultuous experience. In all of this, we are present, we are t/here to do our work, come into heart consciousness.
For all our well-intentioned intention-setting, most of us know that what will transpire will be unlike anything we can expect – we’ll be like well-steeped tea bags by the time we’re done—inner and outer irreversibly altered. The transformative force of being together to sit, to chant, to pray, to listen. And this: how to hug, to hold? For me, it was perhaps this last point, the absence of physical touch which — a wild and unspeakable gift we human beings should never try to transcend — it was this lack that unsettled me most in the digital format. I wasn’t sure where or even if the fullness of intuition could land in this new untouching territory.
Yet the heart learns what the Heart wants: the soul, that bit of conscious divinity we carry like a seed, knows what It wants. And we, ever students of Wisdom, the Heart’s servants… adapt.
Part of The New Monasticism.
The Introductory Wisdom School was composed of three elements: the recordings from the Introductory Wisdom School in North Carolina including teachings by Cynthia, recorded chants, and other resources; weekly spiritual tasks and notes to aid exploration and integration of the teachings. We offered an online forum where students could meet with others, and with an experienced facilitator, to discuss, wrangle, breakthrough, and share the journey… all of this spread out over 14-weeks.
Each individual component of the program offered a particular power—different learning styles, and different ways of integrating those learnings, all contributing. One of the great discoveries of this platform and this format was the power of the 14-week structure. In this structure lies implicit an invitation, and for many a realization, of a new spiritual immersion experience… a deep dive into Wisdom and Life AT THE SAME TIME, supported by exquisitely-paced teachings, time-honed and honored practices, lively written conversation. Many of us every morning woke to spiritual practice — meditation/prayer, chanting, spiritual reading — apart together. Then each of us carried the challenge of taking our study of heart consciousness out into the world — our kitchens, boardrooms, dreams and nap times, hospitals, pain, relationships of all sorts, wherever we were off to in that particular day and place in the world. (Is this not one wild way of incarnating a new monasticism?) Then, in the evening, whoever we were / wherever we were, we offered up our field notes and love letters, our written reflections and contemplation, all of these offerings beautiful beyond measure. There is something to be said for a format — writing — that allows for a considered, and reconsidered , responsive speaking.
No one needed to say it, though many did: “This is changing my life.” The daily structure, the everyday meeting place of self-and-life-and-heart, and the 14-week time frame… all these together afforded powerful support and opportunity for sustained immersion and, thereby, integration. From this perspective, the playing field was leveled. That is, hereby spiritual bypass might glitter like a false coin; while honesty and the struggle for such rose, sometimes harsh but always beautiful, like a new sun. That is, in the poignant everyday trenches, Wisdom had to show up, and did. All of us, making leaps, some quantum, some “I’m not ready!” but leaping all the same — all intimate and perfect. It’s like the denarius Jesus said the landowner paid all people, no matter what time they showed up in the vineyard to work. In the dimension of heart-opening, of the Great Commandment, there’s no hierarchy, no first/last. No one to catch up to, emulate. Just authentic self and authentic life… real is a level playing field. And change, real change, happens.
The change we’re talking about here isn’t that:
… the pain of a cancer goes away, though diminished it may well be, and a Smile may reign;
… the grief over the loss of a child, or over man’s inhumanity to man, though insight may occur, and despair and emptiness transformed to richness, depth, inscrutable compassion…
… our enemies are finally convinced of our way of thinking, but presence mysteriously dissolves veils and boundaries;
… or that the houses and tables of the world are all made fuller…
… none of that, at least not directly. We are not transcending the World or Life, but deepening it. That is, the change to be witnessed here is in a heart’s capacity to open — to stay connected, more deeply, to soul to each other and to the world… and to live, to create, from that deepening Place. From there we learn to praise and serve Mystery, carrying Mystery into the world where, by way of a certain kind of creativity, It will do Its own work on behalf of Itself and All.
It is important to mention the Eucharist, which is where this and many Wisdom schools conclude. In this case, the course facilitators wrestled with the non-physicality of a sacrament that was incarnational and unifying by design and by nature. How would-could-might it work. ONLINE?
It was 6 a.m. Sunday at my house. I had a friend with me who stayed overnight. We got up early to sit in meditation/prayer for an hour. Then we set out the bread and the wine. I knew as we did so that others in our School were doing the same. There was someone on a beach outside their home who would share the Mass with the sunrise and on this, the first anniversary of the loss of her beloved husband. There was a couple—a mother and daughter—in their kitchen together, the mother riddled with dementia. There was an old man, in England, this his first Eucharist ever. And many many many others. All of us preparing, sitting, then, at the appointed time, all together tapping the keys and onto our screens came Cynthia and her delivery of Teilhard de Chardin’s Mass On the World. We were together, invisibly, consciously, heart-to-opened-heart, for an hour.
As reported later, every kind of experience occurred, from the ridiculous (technical difficulties) to the sublime… yet everyone in some way was touched, opened, readied… readied for what? Perhaps it’s not just us that experience breakthrough, but Spirit, and Love. For Wisdom. Ghost in the machine indeed.
Ghost In The Machine.
There’s no point in arguing with technology (my fav mantra). Besides resistance being futile, there’s perhaps a smattering of every good reason NOT to. For one: so many of us joined together in this 14-week adventure, behind the scenes, in front, all around: Cynthia and her glorious heart; the visionaries who made the whole thing possible, from the original Big Bang inspiration to record the talks, to the those who created, like stained glass windows, the course itself; the teaching assistants who brought their radiance; the students and their open, intimate lives and trust — and, yes, too, some other outrageous Force we might humbly call Love knitting knitting knitting. Technology supported it ALL.
And this: as boundaries of consciousness grow more sheer, as we become more malleable in mind and spirit, more sensitive to the shining interpenetrated nature of Reality, in this way our technology isn’t a dead thing, it’s manifesting as we need it, as we grow ready — out of the substance of what is highest in us and in Life. That is, in this circumstance, the technologies provide a platform by which we had to connect differently and could practice doing so. If we are creatures in a jungle of some increasingly other kind of Eden, not ever transcending but deepening this World, then this Wisdom School made the terrain and the training of its navigators and lovers a much greater possibility—one open to everyone. It’s not just about what you know, it’s about how you know, and knowing’s source. Where are your feet? we ask in Week One… by Week Fourteen we have an inkling: everywhere. “We awaken in Love’s body” writes Saint Symeon the New Theologian, a theologian for our times. All of us One, individually tapped in.
Strange, perhaps, and perhaps not what we expected. Begs the wondering: What if we don’t need so much to solve the world’s problems, but instead learn to truly love our own square footage fiercely and radiantly… millions of us doing so? What if? What if evolution and creativity are discovered to be generative sacraments of the awakened human heart and of presence? What if … ? And what if the second coming isn’t a man, or even a woman, but apart-together the Multitudes?
Evolutionary. Ghost in the machine, indeed. Trust. Cause for radical trust. And wonder: what, pray tell, may come of it all?
* To explore the phrase “ghost in the machine,” begin with Cor 1:6, and the philosopher Gilbert Ryle…
posted by Susan Cooper, January 12, 2020
Susan has carried the spiritual torch from a very young age, shining its light into all kinds of places in all kinds of circumstances, living the path, sometimes messily, learning and integrating more and more as the heart slowly opens and unleashes. Following a conversion experience in her early 30s, Susan landed on the contemplative path and has lived and worked committedly there ever since. For a dozen years she provided leadership in a thriving Canadian church, where she created “contemplative” and “spiritual direction” ministries, both firsts… offering weekly contemplative worship space, support for those serious about the journey, and conducting workshops and retreats. She is a gifted spiritual guide and writer, anchoring both in the practice of presence and a deep respect for and love of the sacred wilderness… inner and outer. You may continue to read about Susan in Seedlings, here at Northeast Wisdom.
To learn more about the next ONLINE Introductory Wisdom School through the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) coming March – June, 2020, see: https://cac.org/introductory-wisdom-school/