Pioneering theologian Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian priest and teacher, has just published her 9th book, The Heart of Centering Prayer , which explores the history, techniques and transcendent potential of this heart-centered approach to meditation. In part because she’ll be teaching a five-day retreat at the Garrison Institute next month, but mostly because we found the book fascinating, we asked the Reverend Doctor to indulge our questions about prayer vs meditation, spiritual practices repackaged for the non-spiritual, and directions to the Kingdom of Heaven—which may not be where you thought. She spoke to us from her home in Maine.
Margot Dougherty: First off, are meditation and prayer synonymous?
Cynthia Bourgeault: It depends on what perspective you’re working from. Out on the evangelical extreme, for most Christianity, meditation and prayer would seem different: meditation is sitting in silence and quieting our thinking and talking mind.
For average Christians, prayer is talking and listening to God. It’s a transactional medium.
But as you practice, the two tend to grow closer together; you begin to understand that the communication works on way deeper bandwidths than talking and listening.
MD: Where does Centering Prayer fit in?
CB: Centering Prayer is a kind of prayer in meditation format.
MD: Instead of focusing on a mantra, like many Eastern meditation traditions, Centering Prayer calls for kenosis—can you explain what that is?
CB: Kenosis means self-emptying. It comes from the Greek ekenosen, and was used by Paul [the Apostle] in one of the most famous early hymns in the New Testament [Philippians 2:5-11). It’s what the Buddhists would call “the path of non-clinging,” and means not allowing yourself to get trapped and hooked on products of your thinking and passions and ideas and ideologies and insistences. It’s a pretty classic universal spiritual practice.
MD: What prompted you to begin meditating?
CB: I went to Quaker schools when I was a kid. On the East Coast, Quakers worship in silent meetings, so I already had the practice of sitting in expectant silence under my belt. When I hit a wall in my practice as a teacher/thinker/theologian, it seemed there was an invisible barrier implicit in my level of consciousness and I couldn’t get through it.
Then, with the synchronicity that sometimes happens when the cosmos knows you’re ripe for searching and shedding your skin, someone introduced me to [Trappist monk] Thomas Keating and his book on Centering Prayer. In another cosmic nudge, in 1989, Parabola magazine asked me to interview Thomas for a 20th-anniversary issue, and after the interview he said I should come to Snowmass, Colorado [where his monastery is].
A year later, without really knowing what I was doing, I called a halt to my obligations on the East Coast and went out to soak up Centering Prayer and the monastic ambience it came from.
MD: I’m fascinated by your description of the Kingdom of Heaven —not one I recall from parochial school.
CB: The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t a place you go when you die, it’s a band of conscious perception characterized by coherence, compassion and radical inclusivity for all sentient beings—the stuff we desperately need today to see humanity as a single organic whole.
MD: Do all styles of meditation lead to the same place?
CB: I’d say they all lead to the same level of oneness. I think the kinds of meditation you do, the concepts and intentions you engage with, all have slightly different energy fields. Some meditation practices engage compassion, others engage will and intention. Centering Prayer engages surrendering and letting go. They all get there with slightly different energetic signatures.
MD: The subtitle of your book is Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. What’s nondual Christianity?
CB: It’s basically Christianity that can see the world from radical inclusivity and oneness. It’s not the Christianity that’s promulgating edicts and sending half the world to hell.
The capacity for seeing from oneness relies physiologically on putting the mind in the heart. When that happens, you don’t have to divide the world into inside-outside, them and us, me and you, black and white, in order to make sense of it.
When you’re not having to split the world up into bits and chunks, oneness flows inevitably. It’s what’s left. When you’re actually seeing from oneness, it’s absurd to try and sustain all these dualisms that the lower levels of consciousness need to make sense of things.
MD: You talk about the secular repackaging of spiritual beliefs in your book, a phenomenon that’s common in the yoga world. Is there some good in that, because it gets people’s foot in the door?
CB: I think on the whole it’s good—as you say, you get the foot in the door. I know plenty of Gen X-age kids who come to yoga and meditation to lower their stress levels so they can continue to work an 80-hour week and make lots of money. When they do it long enough, they say, “Well, why do I have to work an 80 hour work week?”
MD: You’re described as a mystic on your site—what does that mean?
CB:“Mystic” designates someone who tries to move beyond concepts and formulations and external disciplines to live in a heart-to-heart relational encounter with divinity. Sometimes it suggests having mystical or altered states of experience, but I think that’s kind of crazy. Mysticism begins with the perception that we live in a relational universe, and out of that come the deep and enduring values of humankind, like love and peace and forbearance.
MD: Is Centering Prayer just for Christians?
CB: I’d say yes and no. It’s open to anybody and the technique it’s built around, this radical surrender and letting go of thoughts when they come, is totally secular and could show up in any tradition. But the devotional and prayerful ambience and the context of why we would be doing this resonate well with a Christian gestalt or framework. They connect up with Christ on the cross and the general teaching of letting go and surrender. You get a strong reinforcement when Centering Prayer is done in that tradition
Centering Prayer transcends the introspective and even narcissistic aspects of meditation—it’s all about me, I’m improving my mind and getting better—and immediately puts it into the ballpark of radical universal compassion.
MD: Can you imagine Donald Trump doing Centering Prayer?
CB: I don’t think he could sit still that long.
To find out more about Cynthia Bourgeault, click here.