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The Work of Contemplation

Exploring the Mystics with Cynthia Bourgeault

The Work of Contemplation
Friday, October 20, 2017

Guest writer and CAC faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault continues reflecting on the classic, anonymous text of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing.

As I mentioned yesterday, I approach The Cloud in a different way than it is typically understood. While reading a variety of translations of the Middle English is helpful, I find Ira Progoff’s version particularly eye-opening. Progoff brings a very different spiritual and intellectual perspective. More than any editor I know, he understands that The Cloud is not simply speaking about a devotional pathway or even a permanent mystical state, as this text is often assumed to be referring to. Rather the author’s “work” is the systematic restructuring of consciousness so that it is able to perceive from oneness—i.e., without dividing the perceptual field into subject/object or opposites. Progoff realizes that The Cloud is laying out a whole different pathway of knowing from the heart that eventually allows one to perceive holographically—the “whole picture” at once.

We can think about this shift in the familiar terms of computer programming. The Cloud lays out not so much a “system update” to our usual mode of perception but a whole new operating system! Rather than thinking about the spiritual path as moving deeper into an experience or feeling of union with God, The Cloud reveals an entire “restructuring” of our consciousness so that we no longer see through separation and difference.

To introduce the text, Progoff brilliantly summarizes both the overall goal and method laid out in The Cloud:

The normal tendency of consciousness is to move outward toward the environment in terms of sensory contacts, social feelings, ideological beliefs, emotional attachments, and so on. . . . The first requirement of the work described in The Cloud of Unknowing is then to call a halt to this squandering of energy by outward diffusion; and it undertakes to accomplish this by means of disciplined attention to the activities of the mind. [1]

Classical mystical theology similarly emphasizes “recollection” (not to be confused with remembering) as a state of being energetically collected into a greater sense of selfhood. The real work of contemplation is to discover that our normal way of operating—finding our sense of selfhood in differentiation and opposition to those around us (I am me because I am not you)—is full of “energy leaks”! As we learn to move away from identifying ourselves as individuals—separate from the whole—we begin to plug those leaks and instead perceive from a new operating system that sees from the whole. As contemporary mystic Beatrice Bruteau (1930-2014) wrote, “I AM / MAY YOU BE!” [2]

Gateway to Silence:
Fall fearless into Love.

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing, trans. Ira Progoff (Dell: 1983, ©1957), 27.
[2] Beatrice Bruteau, God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1997), 28.

Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, exclusive content from Unit One of the Living School for Action and Contemplation.

Image credit: Child (detail), Juarez, Mexico, 2009. CAC Archives.
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