Nonduality from a Christian Perspective
By Cynthia Bourgeault
Nonduality is not, in Christian experience, simply an extension of the cognitive mind. Its signature feature is that “the mind is in the heart,” as the masters of the Christian East hammered home again and again. And this statement is no vague or sentimental benediction; it implies, and in fact explicitly stipulates, both a physiology and a pathway of transformation.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” Jesus announced in his set of teachings traditionally known as the Beatitudes. The tradition of the heart as an organ of spiritual perception flows through the esoteric traditions of the West. It reaches little peaks of particular intensity in the desert fathers and mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries, in Eastern orthodox mysticism, and then, profoundly, in Sufism, which takes the traditions and the teachings of the heart that were the common language of this Western insight and develops them into a highly reformed art.
Throughout this tradition, there’s a strong propensity to identify the heart—and yes, I do mean the physical heart—as an organ of spiritual perception. Throughout the early centuries of Christian monasticism, this core insight is faithfully transmitted, together with an accompanying teaching that any fixation on particular thought forms—repetitive, associative, desire-ridden patterns of thinking, or logismoi, as the fourth-century desert master Evagrius called them—results in triggering the passions that, in turn, divide the heart, catapulting the unfortunate practitioner out of the realm of luminous seeing and wholeness.
The teaching was, in turn, passed on and developed even further in the Christian East and in Sufism. The heart works as a radiant mirror and a magnifier of a truth, of a knowingness of a different order. As long as it’s whole—or “pure,” as it’s sometimes called, meaning undivided—it can do this. But as soon as it gets co-opted by the so-called “passions”—those tempestuous, stuck emotions that we often perceive as the seat of our emotional selfhood—then the whole thing loses its capacity for seeing. That’s the teaching, and in the most profound renditions the goal of learning to see with the heart is always a two-pronged process.
The first is an active spiritual attitude of letting go, a surrender of all attachments—literal, psychological, and, ultimately, perceptual—to objects and thought forms. As Simeon, an eleventh-century Greek orthodox spiritual master, writes in his treatise on three methods of attention and prayer: “You should observe three things before all else. One, freedom from all cares…even about good things. Two, your conscience should be clear so that it denounces you in nothing. And three, you should have a complete absence of passionate attachment so that your thought inclines to nothing worldly.” Remember, passion here means stuck emotion; in other words, so that you don’t get reactive. That’s the practice he lays out. In such a way, and only in such a way, he claims, is it possible to develop a capacity that he calls “Attention of the Heart,” the foundational prerequisite for actually being able to follow the teachings of Christ.
Simeon implicitly recognizes that these Christic teachings emerge from a much higher level of consciousness than the ordinary mind can sustain or comprehend. As he says, if you don’t have your mind in your heart, it is impossible to do the Beatitudes, to even understand them. In our modern Levels of Consciousness, he’s saying that the Christ teaching comes from a nondual level, and you can’t run it when you’re running a dualistic program.
Lest you get the impression that attention of the heart is merely a spiritual attitude, putting the mind in the heart makes it clear that something much more embodied is being envisioned here. While this veritable mantra of the Eastern orthodox tradition might be misconstrued as advocating emotion over thinking, it’s clear from the texts themselves that putting the mind in the heart is not merely—or at all—a devotional attitude. It’s accompanied in these texts by specific instructions on concentrating and holding attention in the region of the chest, affecting what contemporary neuroscience would more typically describe as an entraining of the brain waves to the rhythms of the heart. Putting the mind in the heart was then referred to as “vigilance” or “nepsis.” Nowadays, it’s often understood to mean thinking about the heart, but the Christic texts, again and again, describe bringing warmth down, collecting sensation in the region of the chest, holding it as an embodied accompanying practice to an attitude of letting go of identifications, passions, issues, agendas.
Attention of the heart is not merely a metaphor. It denotes a whole new physiology of perception, without which nondual attainment is impossible. Simeon was saying this in so many words back in the eleventh century. I want to make very clear that this awareness is not absent in the Asian traditions. I vividly recall the story of a Buddhist master being asked how he had arrived at some insight. “My mind tells me,” he said, pointing to his heart. The Asian masters may simply never have conceived of separating mind and heart in the first place. But in the Western traditions, and in Western translations of Asian texts, this nuance does not reliably come through, resulting in many maps, such as Ken Wilber’s influential Levels of Consciousness, which support the inference that the third tier of nondual consciousness is merely an extension of the cognitive mind into higher realms of spiritual experience.
The Western maps, properly interpreted, make clear why this can never be so. They say that if you’re going to run the nondual program of perception, one of the basic physiological requirements is that the whole thing is entrained to the heart and to the specific mode of perception of the heart. I suggest that the sensate experience of the mind and heart is actually the principle explanation for Christianity’s stubborn attachment to the realm of the personal. I know this is very frustrating for many Christians. You’ll often hear it said in nondual circles that the nondual is nonpersonal, and that access to the nondual realms requires moving beyond the personal. And Christianity’s stubborn attachment to the language of love and adoration is often taken as a sign of a religion operating at a lower level of consciousness—still wedded to the personal view of God, not yet fully launched into the transpersonal. But I think something else is at stake, and it becomes clear when you experience attention of the heart phenomenologically. In other words, what actually happens when you collect attention through sensation in the region of your heart?
Be forewarned: This is not an easy spiritual exercise. It’s all too easy to fall off the razor’s edge into either visualization or emotivity. Collecting sensation in the heart depends upon a finely honed capacity to hold attention. It requires patience and it requires practice.
But when you finally arrive at the goal, a literally “mind-blowing” revelation awaits you: namely, that when your attention is gathered in the heart, the felt sense that emerges is one of pure intimacy—objectless, radiant intimacy that exudes from the core of the heart without needing an object to attract it. Try it for yourself. Intimacy is what it feels like to look at the world from the point of view of mind in heart consciousness.
Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault is a modern-day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader. She is the founding Director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School.
Reprinted with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc., Cynthia Bourgeault.
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