We have just begun our next Wisdom Practice Book Circle this week, in which over one hundred and sixty people are gathering to engage one of Cynthia’s foundational books Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. In addition, as a way of deepening the practice of centering prayer and other wisdom practices mentioned in the book, Wisdom Waypoints (formerly known as Northeast Wisdom) will be offering a practice day on Saturday, August 28th for anyone to join (click here for details). We will gather to review and engage the wisdom practices including centering prayer, chanting, welcome practice, and lectio divina. Both of these gatherings will be opportunities to anchor us amidst the growing intensity of current conditions in the psychological, biological and spiritual atmosphere individually and collectively.
As we enter the book circle this month we will explore the first section of the book Part 1: The Method of Centering Prayer. In a world full of demands and noise of all kinds, practicing silence may be considered counter-cultural even though every spiritual tradition posits it as an essential practice. Cynthia reminds us that centering prayer is not the silence that involves a cessation of outer noise and busyness alone but the cessation of inner noise or at the very least a healthy detachment from it. This kind of silence is a crucial practice for spiritual transformation and awakening. We gradually experience an awakening from our ordinary awareness in which “we human beings are victims of a tragic case of mistaken identity” (p.10).
Being human has always involved loss, change, crisis and uncomfortable life conditions. Every period of history has come with its own unique challenges, and although our time is not completely unprecedented it would be remiss to negate the current crises we are facing. Whenever we find ourselves in the midst of ongoing trauma it is easy to fall back into ordinary awareness alone and react from this level exclusively. Our selves in time have many preferences, desires, and ways of remaining comfortable and self-soothed. This level of ordinary awareness is not inherently bad or wrong and in fact is a necessary aspect of being in this world. At the same time all spiritual paths reveal that we can awaken to a greater, more abundant reality if we can begin to find a Self beyond who we typically take ourselves to be. As Cynthia says,
“The person I normally take myself to be—that busy, anxious little ‘I’ so preoccupied with its goals, fears, desires, and issues—is never even remotely the whole of who I am, and to seek the fulfillment of my life at this level means to miss out on the bigger life. This is why, according to his teaching, the one who tries to keep his ‘life’ (i.e., the small one) will lose it, and the one who is willing to lose it will find the real thing. Beneath the surface there is a deeper and vastly more authentic Self, but its presence is usually veiled by the clamor of the smaller ‘I’ with its insatiable needs and demands.
This confusion between small self and larger Self (variously known in the traditions as ‘True Self,’ ‘Essential Self,’ or ‘Real I’) is the core illusion of the human condition, and penetrating this illusion is what awakening is all about.” (p.10)
Centering prayer allows us to see the human condition for what it is by developing a different type of awareness that is not so preoccupied with dividing the field. It is a spiritual awareness cultivated through the intention of an internal posture of letting go, of noticing where we are caught in various types of thinking coming from little ‘I’s and letting go again. Spiritual awareness allows us to perceive from the Whole, brings with it a capacity to see the nuances and factors that need to be taken into consideration in each particular situation in order to move in the world from wisdom and coherence.
Centering prayer is a way of building the muscle of letting go, of growing the capacity to unclench the fixated thought, emotional, and physical patterns that keep us stuck in the notion that “I am right and other people are wrong.” The fruits of this practice are not so much experienced in the twenty minute period we sit on our mat and do the deal (“if you catch yourself thinking, you let the thought go” p.23) but rather in our lives. We begin to notice that we grow in our ability to make space for polarity rather than polarization and thus to discern rather than judge. As we practice with the aim of being “totally open to God” (p.22) something is strengthened in us. This something becomes more and more a place we can return to in the course of our day as we go about the particular and complex circumstances of our lives.
The practice of surrendering and emptying over time also develops a spiritual non-possessiveness. We cling much less, and operate from a more spacious interior. We relax concerns focused primarily on survival, division and separateness. We gain a deeper sense of real presence and love and succumb less to the imagination with its tendencies towards unhelpful negativity or ideal fantasies. We stop contributing to the emergent properties of terror, rage, and detached disengagement that gain a life of their own and wreak havoc on the collective atmosphere.
We are invited through this practice to be “Totally available, all the way down to that innermost point of your being; deeper than your thinking, deeper than your feelings, deeper than your memories and desires, deeper than your usual psychological sense of yourself—even deeper than your presence!”(p.22).
And so I invite you to join us in the following inner task that each circle will be working with until our next gathering on September 21st. Inner tasks come from the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and have become an important part of our wisdom lineage. Inner tasks are essentially about supporting our work with waking up to our automatic patterns and becoming present in the conditions of our lives as they are. They begin with the foundational work of self-observation. Self-observation is something that only we can do for ourselves and brings with it self-knowledge that is useful for living out our wisdom path.
We return to our aim in centering prayer “to be totally open to God. Totally available, all the way down to that innermost point of your being. . .” As we sit down for our twenty minute period we practice the continual letting go of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. We let them go not because these are bad but because they pull us back to the surface, to our usual notions of our narrative selves based at the ordinary awareness level. We slowly discover through this act of surrender that we are not our thoughts, we are not our emotions, we are not our sensations, and that something in us is deeper than the many small i’s we have living within us that we regularly identify with as we go about our daily lives.
This month our inner task is to work with self-observation, recognizing that not everything arising within us – every thought, mood, feeling, impulse, desire, emotion, and so on – is “Real I.” Begin to notice throughout the day these are my thoughts this is not I. These are my emotions this is not I. These are my physical impulses this is not I. Then notice from where you are drawing your awareness deeper in and come to the still point of “I”. Rest in that stillness for a moment amidst whatever noise may be going on and say “thank you” as a recognition that you have remembered yourself.
We work from the Whole on behalf of the collective. May it be so.
Welcome to a monthly series of posts from the friends and leaders of the Northeast Wisdom/Wisdom Waypoints Book Circle Series on: Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening by Cynthia Bourgeault.
And stay tuned for the next post in the Wisdom Waypoints Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening Circle series! Won’t you join us? Please note that the Book Circle is now full. We encourage individuals and groups of all kinds to take up this study, and follow along with these monthly postings through November 2021, and would love to hear your reflections about this post and the book in the comments below. Thank you!
Our next Wisdom foundational book circle will begin in January 2022 on the book Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault.